March 30, 2005

Sick (and tired)

No one likes being sick. One might think, given all of the practice I've had, that I would at least face it with a certain amount of resignation, but I don't. It's frustrating.

Food tastes different, if you can taste it at all. Muscles are too tired or sore to drag oneself into the kitchen, and the prospect of doing anything more effort than chewing (and even that seems daunting) is unthinkable.

At least, when the culprit is simply a brutal head-cold and not something more medically serious, I know that in a few days I'll be back to splashing around in the kitchen. In the meantime, though, it's all I can manage to curl up around a cup of tea or switchel and languish next to the cat on the sofa.

March 28, 2005

Sage, ho!

The basil in the kitchen window is already a half-inch high, and while I was very excited to see it show its little green head a mere five days after I planted it, I have been completely overwhelmed with giddiness at the sight of the newly-sprouted sage in the container next to it.

The seeds, for both the basil and the sage that are planted in the window above my kitchen sink, are seeds that I harvested from the plants that were growing in my garden last year. I am particularly pleased by the idea that I can have a fresh crop of herbs this year, without even the initial paltry outlay of a few dollars for seeds. It's not about the money - although more of it would be nice - it's about the green thumb.

I like to think that I have a green thumb. It's not true, as I've had all kinds of mysterious ailments and other problems (not including the cat's predation of the chives) plague and kill various plants. I've had a Fraser Fir succumb to a mysterious blight that turned it brown in the space of a month, despite my fevered attempts to research a remedy. I've had a thriving patch of English thyme go belly up for no apparent reason. Most recently, I've had a bay tree rust itself into an early grave after years of happy, if not ecstatic, bay leaf production.

I won't even get into the plant-deaths that occurred due to my own carelessness - failing to bring delicate plants inside before the frost, etc. I like to grow plants and trees, particularly when they are useful in cooking, so every year I decide what to grow, and set off with the best of intentions.

The sage plant that I have been nursing along since 1997 died this winter. It was not before its time, although I don't know how long container-sage should live. This particular plant had struggled and survived in the face of over-enthusiastic application of insecticide in its formative stages, poor lighting, bad weather, moss growth, neglect, over-harvesting, overgrowing its pot, and probably a number of other things of which I remain blissfully ignorant. I knew that it was dying. I knew that I could possibly save it, if I tried, but that all previous attempts to save ailing plants (rosemary notwithstanding) had only prolonged their agony. I didn't even try.

I did, however, harvest some big, fat purple seeds from its lavender and white flower tubes last summer. The sage had died back to a single, valiant stalk, so heavily overcome with flowers that it bent over the side of the pot and then struggled upward in a strange s-shaped attempt to reach the sunlight. I admired its strength of character, its determination to survive, and when the seeds were ripe, I saved them in a little envelope. By Thanksgiving, the sage had given up. Almost two weeks ago, I planted four of the seeds in my window-sill container, and now two of them have sprouted.

I am ridiculously pleased about it.

March 23, 2005

Spanish Wine

I belong to a wine club that meets monthly, and has done so for (as of next month) eight years. I know that for some people the words "wine club" will cause their eyes to roll back in their heads and conjure images of delicate, mincing sips of wine followed by face-making and spitting, or words like "well-rounded" or "full-bodied" that the uninitiated suspect would better refer to the backsides of those indulging.

This is because they've only experienced uber-formal wine tastings as some sort of prestige / social climbing event where people attempt to impress each other. It can be hard to convince folks that we

a) don't spit out the wine unless it's amazingly bad; and

b) are more likely to describe a bad wine as tasting like the floorboards of a '69 Cadillac hearse than more rarified language.

Still, despite that, we occasionally get new members, and sometimes they aren't scared right off by our rambunctious behaviour and casual approach. We're certainly not a club for the faint of heart or delicate sensibilities.

Last night was a long-overdue revisit of Spanish wines, and we fared rather well. All seven of the wines were at least drinkable, and five of these got good marks from most of the participants. This time were were not only limiting our intake to Spain as a region, but specifically the red wines of Spain. The clear winner of the evening, with almost universal approbation, was the 2000 Bodegas Estefania "Tilenus" from Bierzo, Spain, at $30.99. The lowest rating was probably the 2003 Bodegas Solano "Fandango" Tempranillo from Utiel-Requena, Spain at $9.95. It wasn't a bad wine, although a little sour. I wouldn't be sad to have a glass handed to me at a party, for example, but it's not good enough to make me want to buy it. There was a good range in quality between those two, including a wine that was quite a bit pricier than the Tilenus.

Something that set the Tilenus apart and made it particularly interesting on paper was that it is made entirely from a grape called "Mencia" which is indigenous to Spain and, to my knowledge, has not been cultivated commercially anywhere else.

There has been a sudden increase in the number of Spanish wines available in British Columbia LD stores lately, and all the wines that we tasted last night are listed as new arrivals that are available on a temporary basis. Perhaps some of the better ones will be picked up by the increasing number of wine shops that have opened recently, but certainly - if you like Spanish wine, now's the time to stock your cellar.

March 18, 2005

Not that Irish

Oh, I'm pretty sure there's some Irish in there - there's certainly English and Welsh - and as they say, everyone's a little bit Irish on March 17th.

Last night we had the incredibly un-Irish dinner of chili dogs. I'm still somewhat on my simplicity-kick, and chili dogs made from leftover frozen chili is pretty darn simple. The big plan was to then go out for a pint and a dessert, but I wasn't feeling that well and went to bed early. Apparently, I missed all kinds of excitement (read: bad behaviour) at my local Guinness-dispensery, but I did hear the sirens suggestive of many drunken louts wandering into the streets irrespective of traffic.

I have nothing against the celebration of St. Patrick's day, although I'm not a big fan of parades (or any other crowds). Last year, I organized a planned-potluck where we had Beef in Guinness, colcannon, champ, soda bread and all manner of delightfully Irish goodies.

I just wish that the whole idea of St. Patrick's day hadn't been subverted into a drink-til-you're-sick festival.

March 13, 2005

Simple Things

Although my usual kitchen inclinations run to the culinary equivalent of sequins, and I can be guilty of trying to squeeze one too many items into an omelette (risking utter flavour chaos), occasionally I do remember just how much I like simple things.

The very simple spaghetti and meatballs that I made last weekend have inspired me to consider other super-simple dishes for week-night suppers. Tonight will be gyoza (far from simple, but easy and delicious - especially if you have a stash of them frozen in your freezer) with spicy bok choi, but tomorrow I think I'll take a whack at a traditional Italian dish of spaghetti with olive sauce. Perhaps I'll make simple things all week - revelling in the ease of preparation and the uncomplicated flavours.

March 07, 2005

Weekend of Firsts

I spent much of this past weekend in the kitchen, experimenting with dishes I've never tried before. I started slow, with a simple French yogurt cake laced with blueberries and ground almonds, and on Sunday dialed it up a little with fresh key lime pie and spaghetti with meatballs.

Okay, I've made spaghetti before, and no - I didn't make the pasta from scratch - and yes, I've made meatballs before. But never together, as the classic Italian / Italian-American dish. I read through a variety of articles and recipes that debated the merits of various fillers and moisteners and meat options before deciding on a simple, almost plain-jane approach of beef meatballs seasoned with fresh parsley, a smidge of garlic and good parmesan. Next time I'll add a little salt, too, but I thought the salty parmesan might suffice.

Sauce for a dish like this is best left simple, too. I made a very basic simmered tomato sauce with a little onion and garlic, a light hand with the dried oregano and a heavy, heavy hand with the chiffonade of basil. Simmered with the meatballs, after they had browned adequately in the heavy cast-iron pan, it provided the perfect backdrop.

The finished dish was almost too pretty - I chose to serve Italian-American style, rather than with the pasta and meatballs as separate dishes, as the Italians do. Black stoneware plates topped with loops of white pasta, artfully arranged meatballs and just enough sauce to slick the noodles, once mixed. A little extra basil, black pepper and a grating of parmesan, and it was completely adorable. I probably would have admired it for a bit longer, but I was hungry. I need a digital camera.

The key lime pie (recipe from Cook's Illustrated) that we had for dessert was made from actual key limes, which are tiny, walnut-sized and not-particularly-juicy little fruits. I zested ten of them for a standard 9" pie (graham cracker crust), which yielded just enough zest but only half of the juice that I required. Fortunately, I had a few regular Persian limes around to pick up the slack. I now know why there are bottles of key lime juice available for the home cook - I'd much rather have a machine extract the tiny amount of juice available.

Key lime pie is traditionally topped with masses of whipped cream, but since I had some egg whites left over from making the filling, I decided to go for a meringue topping instead. It emerged from the oven with a beautiful golden marshmallowy top - again, picture perfect - but then, as it cooled, the meringue decided to shrink a little, and wept sugary tears over its surface. It was still tasty, but substantially less attractive to look at.

March 04, 2005


One of my co-workers says that I shop for food the way most women shop for clothes. This, upon hearing me comment that, as I was early for a dinner date I popped into nearby Meinhardt's to oggle the gourmet goodies.

This is why I have cupboards full of edible oddities, yet nothing to wear.

March 02, 2005

On the Spice Trail

A couple of weeks ago I forayed into the world of fresh cheese making, with an Indian paneer. I now have another skill to add to my list o' reasons not to be eaten first after the civilization collapses. It was a raging success, and also a bit of a surprise, as I hadn't realized how closely related paneer is to ricotta - the classic Italian fresh cheese. It was also frightfully uncomplicated. I now understand my Literature teacher's contempt for Ben Gunn's helpless pining for cheese while living on goat's milk.

I have been creeping slowly into the world of Indian cookery over the last year, edging away from pre-mixed masalas and premade flavouring sauces in favour of learning the classic techniques. As I write this, there is a large bowl of kidney beans sitting in a bowl of water on the kitchen table for tonight's endeavour at making rajma rasedar, a classic vegetarian dish that I am assured by the recipe's owner is considered compulsory for celebratory menus in the Punjab.

Since I have had very good results with the other recipes that I've tried from this site I have no doubts that the results will be tasty.