Basically, lots over-sharing and "cooking for one" recipes for anyone who might be hungry and heartbroken.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Single Parent to an Inner Child. (I know.)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been especially attached to significant occasions, important dates, remarkable milestones, all that sort of thing. I was born nostalgic and (perhaps for that reason) I was the unofficial Minister for Creation and Curation of Memories in our family. I used to take books like Holiday Traditions Around The World (that’s a fake composite title, but it’s also the actual name of about 150 real books on Amazon) out of the library. I’d scour them for ideas, picking and choosing the ones that tickled my fancy, mixing and matching and interpreting them to suit myself. I came up with important! new! traditions! which I insisted on incorporating into our celebrations year after year. Every year the preparations became more complex and baroque. (This was all very well when I lived at home, taking full creative and executive responsibility. Ten years on, I’m pretty sure my mother still lovingly curses my name every year when she has to get up at 4am on a Sunday morning to wire hundreds of blossoms and chocolate to the “Easter Tree.”)

So. What does this have to do with anything? Well, I turned 30, generally considered a bit of a BFD. I expected that I'd have a lot to say about it, but I find that I don’t, really. Almost every meaningful date or happening in my life so far has been given the full melancholic/existential angst treatment in one notebook or blog or another. I generally fret and/or wonder about the same things every time, and I’ve gotten to the point where I already know what I’d say if I was going to say anything much about it. So, I won’t. It was a nice day in the end. A few people went out of their way to make it special for me, and it really was. If I was going to angst about my birthday, it would probably have a lot to do with what I’d imagined I’d have done/achieved/decided by 30 and haven't. And if I was going to do that, it would probably embarrassingly and inevitably involve something about children. So it’s a good thing I’m not going to write about that or it would make the following confession especially maudlin.

I’ll admit it. I am a single, childless, 30-year-old woman who reads mommy blogs. I don’t know if it’s escapism or masochism, but I have a reader full of professional mommy bloggers. (have you noticed that they all also seem to be professional freelance photographers as well?) Hardly a day goes by that I don’t pop in for a dose of glowing mothers and adorable children doing neat crafty things in perfectly styled surroundings. Sometimes I just like to look at the fluff, but sometimes I get a little wistful. One of the main criticisms of these blogs is that they create an unattainable, unrealistic ideal of parenthood which only serves to make mothers feel bad about themselves if they don’t measure up. I think there’s a point there. I know enough about actual parenting to realize that the reality involves a lot more poop and screaming and sleep-deprivation. I know that a lot of the time, perfect is beside the point. I know for a fact that real life is hard and complicated and full of unforeseen challenges and I know that for real parents, sometimes good enough is actually pretty damn heroic.

Wait, what’s my point? Oh yeah. So, sometimes I read these mommy blogs, and I feel a little sad that I don’t have any adorable little children or professional grade photography equipment. I think about my days as a teenager dreaming up wonderful traditions for my family and I think about what a fun and creative mommy I would have been. (I don’t even have kids and I'm already falling prey to the Mompetition, oh god.) I think about how much I’d love those little guys, what good care I’d take of them, what lovely, lavish dinners I would cook for them. (yeah. It’s really easy to win the Mompetition when your children are hypothetical.)

My point? Lord, my point! I’ve been writing this post in my head for a week and this is where I keep getting embarrassed because it starts sounding...well, you’ll see.

Home Alone was on television. I cried. I mean, I always cry, but it was more than the usual Home Alone crying. It was I-usually-save-this-kind-of-crying-for-therapy crying. I can tell you're laughing now, but in between the comedy capers, that movie actually holds some excruciating moments of loneliness.1  I had a clear image of the broken-hearted little six year old who actually lives inside me, all alone, trying her very best to take care of me the only way she knows how, with chicken nuggets and toast. I started thinking about my imaginary children and the great care I take of them in my hypothetical life. I started thinking about that lonely little part of myself, who exists in my actual life, and really deserves to be taken better care of.

Okay, so we all have an inner child, but at this point I started digging around for my inner grown up. I mean, I've just turned 30. Seriously, I’ve got to have one in there somewhere. And honestly, what is she up to? Isn't she supposed to be running things around here? So I poked around, and I found her. And she was exhausted. She was fed up. She had locked herself in her room and she was saying:

“Leave me alone! Will you just give me a f*cking break? I can’t cope! This shit is hard! Working 75 hours a week with the flu while trying to process the grief of the loss of your love, your best friend, an extended family you adored, your home, five years of your twenties, your dreams, your hypothetical children AND your precious flesh-and-blood dog (for no understandable reason beyond “You've done nothing wrong, but I just don’t want you anymore” ) is REALLY REALLY HARD. I don’t have the energy for your needs right now. Go away! Just...get yourself some toast. Whatever. You’ll be fine. Now SHUT THE DAMN DOOR.”

This is probably be the most exquisitely self-absorbed expression of self-pity ever, but I really felt sorry for myself. For the six-year-old crying herself to sleep half-hungry in a heap of toast crumbs and for the thirty-year-old who has had enough and just doesn’t want to deal anymore.

I wouldn't tell a single mother at the end of her rope that she had to cook perfect blog-worthy gourmet meals every night of the week. But I wouldn't tell a lonely little girl she that she didn’t deserve a good dinner, either.

So. My point. Finally. If the whole focus of this experiment is to learn how to love myself better, then how do I take care of the needy part of myself who has to be cared for AND the exhausted part of myself who feels she has nothing left to give?

I decided to take my self-indulgent imagination literally and brainstorm. What if I did have that hypothetical child? But what if I wasn’t a perfect blog-mommy. What if I was me? Sad, exhausted, angry me? What would I do?

I’d settle for good enough. I wouldn’t leave the poor thing home alone to scrounge chicken nuggets and stale crackers. I’d find quick easy ways to get a little quality nutrition into her before we both collapsed into bed, hoping that tomorrow would be a better day.

That was a lot of paragraphs to get to my really-not-really-recipes. But here are the three solutions I've found work well to help me feel like I’m not criminally neglecting myself.

  • Spinach. It would be nice if I would sauté up loads of fresh, seasonal veg on the 4 out of 5 days I eat pasta, but sometimes (a lot of the time) I just can’t. No problem. You don’t have to be Popeye to know that every loving parent tries to get as much spinach as possible into their offspring. I’m so proud of this discovery: I take two huge handfuls of baby spinach and put them into a strainer. Once my pasta is cooked, I pour it into the strainer. The boiling water instantly cooks the spinach perfectly, without any extra effort. Ta da! (Hypothetical) Mom of the Year! 
  • Eggs. When Ramen is all I can manage, I break two eggs into it and stir it with a fork. This turns shitty college food into Real Protein Food. If even the act of boiling water is too hard, (don’t judge. Sometimes it is. We’re being real here.) then I crack two eggs into a mug and put them into the microwave. Less than three minutes, and ta da! Real Protein Food. (which can be put on toast.) 
  • Hot Chocolate. No, wait. I buy the most fortified whole milk I can find. Then I put it in a mug, in the microwave. I make some toast. I take the milk out of the microwave and I stir in some Cadbury’s cocoa. I butter the toast. I dip the toast in the cocoa. It’s not everyday food, but I get protein, calcium, vitamins and iron. And toast. Sometimes I make a point of gently putting myself into a warm flannel nightgown before I sit down to my supper of cocoa and toast. I tell myself a story where I’m inside a Victorian children’s novel and I’m kept company by a rocking horse and a velveteen rabbit. It works.

1 In a super shallow way, I can't tell you how happy it makes me that Macaulay Culkin is older than me. But two seconds after I feel happy about that, I remember with crystal clear precision the Christmas of 1990. I was at my ugliest, most awkward stage of childhood: a bundle of buck teeth and social anxiety. We went to the mall to see Santa. I sat on his lap and, trying to impress this man that I knew was not Santa but assumed would be making some judgment of my character, I asked for a Precious Moments Bible and a word-search activity book. The-Man-Being-Paid-Eight-Dollars-an-Hour-To-Impersonate-Santa saw right through me. I could sense him rolling his eyes beneath his stick-on-eyebrows at the goody two-shoes of the year. With what I was sure was bemused pity and disgust he patted me on the shoulder: "yeah, yeah right...okay. A bible. Sure." Now, I was being a bit of a poser, but the thing is, I actually did really want that bible. For a present, Mall Santa was giving out a promotional Home Alone poster which was a map marking out the booby traps from the film. There was a large tarantula printed on the corner, so I couldn't bring myself to put it up in my room.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

An Awkward Silence

I borrowed this from the hilarious and very talented

You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better.
~Anne Lamott

I’ve missed writing here for the last little while, but I was feeling a little paralyzed. My ex sent a kindly-meant text message out of the blue which let me know in a roundabout way that he was reading the blog. It was a surprise because I’d asked for no contact, and also because I just didn’t expect him to find it, at least not so soon. It’s hardly “Dear Diary” and hardly a secret, but I hadn’t gone out of my way to put the existence of the blog out there. Obviously I could just write about all this in a private journal, but’s important for me to write for an audience. Maybe that makes me an attention whore, but that’s the way it is. Imagining a group of people listening to what I have to say not only eases my loneliness, it also keeps me from the worst depths of self-indulgence. I don’t know who I imagine this audience to be exactly, but I know for sure that I hadn’t imagined it including my ex-fiance.

As anthropologists, psychologists, and physicists agree, and as we pretty much all know
by now, observing something changes it. (I believe it’s considered brilliant to make some witty reference to Schrodinger's cat at this point, so let’s just pretend that I did.1) And the truth is, it changes things for me, knowing that he is reading.

I try really hard to write with honesty, from a real place. I try not to wallow in misery, but I also don’t shy away from talking about the really hard things I’m feeling. I don’t believe in using the internet as a slam book, and I never intended for this to be a venue where I would dissect in detail the private workings of my failed relationship. It is important to me that I write within the bounds of my own conscience and instincts around another person’s privacy, but it’s also very important to me that I can write freely within those bounds. If I start to fret that I'll cause someone pain, or if I start worrying that my words will be analyzed and taken to mean things that they don’t, or if my ego demands that I not let on to the person who left me that I am having anything but a wonderful time on my own, my writing is going to suffer. It’s a fact. Most of all, I never want to use this blog as a way to passive-aggressively communicate with my ex. I am the one who asked for no contact. If I have something to say to him, I know I can pick up the phone and say it to him in person, if I want to. The preceding paragraph may be a slight exception to this rule. 

So after getting that text, I spent some time wondering what to do
. I thought about pass-wording the blog. I thought about quitting the blog I really didn’t want to do either of those things. Even in the few weeks I’ve been doing this, the writing (and the cooking) have become important to me. And I kind of need both of them for this to do me any good. If I don’t cook, I have nothing to write about. If I don’t have to write about it, the truth is, a lot of the time I won’t bother to cook. Witness the last week, where every single day my dinner has consisted of rice with butter and cheese, or toast with butter and cheese. Ridiculous.

So. I’m going to just keep writing here. I am going to try to stay true to my experience, no matter who may or may not be reading, and what happens after that is out of my hands. I won't insert barbs where they don't belong, but I won't blunt my truth, either. The fact is that whenever you write anything and send it out into the world, you no longer have control over who will read it, what they will think about it, or how it will affect them. You just have to let it go.

1 As I am writing this there is a tv special about blimps playing in the background, and I admit that I always mix up the Hindenberg disaster and the Heisenberg principle.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Questions I Frequently Ask Myself

This blog is too new and quiet to have a frequently asked questions page, but since starting it, I’ve been having lots and lots of conversations with myself about it. These are some themes that keep recurring:

Q. Aren’t you going to gain a load of weight cooking all these meals?

A. Not really. Sure, I probably won’t lose the 15 lbs I did last time, but my usual starvation approach to heartache generally gets me as far as exactly one pair of jeans in a smaller size. I feel then, just a little bit, in a shallow way, as if perhaps every cloud does have a silver lining. And pretty soon, maybe even due in part to that small confidence boost, I quickly return to Normal Human Size and I have to get rid of the stupid little jeans. It’s dumb. Also, when I’m not cooking, I eat terribly. TERRIBLY. Not a little bit terribly. Not an “oh, it’s so naughty, tee hee” sort of terribly. I eat the way seven-year-old-me naturally assumed I would eat when I was a grown up and finally allowed to make my own food choices. Which translates to a diet roughly composed of 50% chicken nuggets and 50% processed carbohydrates+cheese. Example? One day this week I was weepy and forlorn (okay, more than one day this week, but I am talking about a specific day) and I had no food in the house. I had no plan, I had no list, I just knew I needed food or there would be falling over.

I climbed onto my bicycle and headed into the cold wind and onto the brand new bike paths to the nearest grocery store. I was feeling exceedingly sorry for myself and all I wanted was a hug and possibly a blankie. But instead, here I was, forced to go to the grocery store ALL ALONE. I am telling you, it was a sad, sad, resentful little scene. I wandered through the store in an apathetic blur, throwing things into my basket at random. And would you like to know what I bought? Here is a complete list:

1 carton milk
1 six-pack of chocolate bars
2 packages of crackers
1 tub of “cheese product”
1 package processed cheese slices
1 box of sugary cereal
1 loaf of white bread.
1 gigantic tub of hot chocolate mix
1 package of sweet little pies

1 sweet potato. (Yeah. I don’t know either.)

The only reason there are not 48 boxes of Kraft mac and cheese on that list is because they DON’T EVEN SELL IT HERE WHICH IS SO UPSETTING. Anyway...

When I got home and unpacked it all I realized everything was brown, orange, or white, with very little nutritional value. I didn’t even buy the fortified versions of the cheese products! And yeah, that’s pretty much what I eat when I don’t make the effort to cook. That and the aforementioned chicken nuggets. The dream diet of a six year old. Consumed in large adult servings, at extremely odd hours.

When I take the time to plan a meal I generally get a lovely sensible creative adult head on me and I tend to buy aspirational ingredients. The kind of ingredients that increase your self esteem just by picking them up off the shelf. Things like, I dunno, quinoa. Artisanal vegetables. (is that a thing?) Eggs. Anyway, these things tend to be way healthier. And when I sit down at a table, I eat them more thoughtfully, so I eat a nice normal portion. Instead of, you know, eight slices of bread and nutella. In bed. So no. I don’t think I’m going to get fat from this project.

Q. Isn’t this going to cost a load of money?

A. Not really. It’s possible to go overboard on the aspirational ingredients, yes. And you forget how expensive it is to restart a kitchen over from scratch. When I moved out, I didn’t divide the spice rack. I probably should have just taken the whole thing, but I didn’t. You start to realize that it takes a bit of money to completely re-stock all the basics you used to just know you always had in the cupboard. New spices. New ketchup. New olive oil. New salt grinder. New stock cubes. New flour. New vinegars. It goes on and on. It doesn’t take too long, and if you do it bit by bit, it doesn’t cost the earth. But you do feel it.

And it’s possible for your grasp to exceed your reach (or is that the other way around? Tricksy idiom!) I made this mistake this week. Feeling a bit ashamed after my grocery store trip, I headed off to the weekend market full of resolutions, good intentions, and optimism. I got a little carried away and spent quite a bit of money on fancy organic meats, fully intending to cook up fantastic, creative meals. Didn’t happen. I didn’t want to cook. I just wanted to sit in bed and eat crackers and watch endless episodes of television on the internet. I didn’t want meat. And I forgot to put it in the freezer. After half a week in the fridge, it all went a bit funny. I hate to say it but I’m  a real princess about food or milk or anything that might even be the slightest bit “off”, and I just knew I couldn’t make myself eat it. I felt like it was disgraceful, but I just boiled it all up and fed it to the neighbourhood cat. I just let it go.

But in general, I don’t think it’s going to be that expensive. Shitty processed food is expensive, and chicken nuggets aren’t as cheap as you think. Also, because I’m cooking for one, I’m buying small quantities. I keep thinking of my favourite part of what is possibly one of the most severely gendered children’s books ever written: Little Men, by Louisa May Alcott. You can read the chapter for yourself here, but basically, a little girl is given a tiny little working kitchen to learn to cook in, and she makes everything in miniature. Her steak comes in “doll’s pounds”. And it’s kind off the same in my kitchen. I can afford to buy lovely things because I only need “doll’s pounds” of anything. And even cooking in miniature, I usually make too much, and it turns into lunch tomorrow. Any leftover ingredients are usually incorporated into the next night’s dinner. So it’s pretty economical.

Q. WTF are you doing writing a food blog? You have never aspired to being a food writer!

A. I don’t know that this really is a “food blog”, or whether any of this is really “food writing”. I make up some of the recipes, but there have been and will be a lot of general adaptations and borrowings, and I will be sure to attribute them properly. I’m not so food-motivated that I lie around thinking up new recipes and feel a burning urge to rush out and share them with the world. Thank god for those people, but I’m not really one. I like to be imaginative with food, but I’ve always been more of an eat-to-live than live-to-eat kind of girl.

So the food’s a project. It’s a focus for a hard time. It’s developing a new skill, and working on the whole “loving yourself” thing. (Ah, the warm security blanket of scare quotes.) All of those are antidotes to emotional pain. And it’s a frame for talking about stuff that’s a bit raw and heavy on its own. Writing about broken hearts is a hard thing. It’s easy to whine and wallow, and I’m not interested in that. I don’t want to write it, and you don’t want to read it. But I do believe heartbreak is a universal and deeply significant thing. And so is food. I dunno, it just kind of happened.

Q. Do you still miss him?

A. Yes.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Warm Rainbow Chard and Goats Cheese Salad

I am here. I might not be very funny and I might not have a shapely narrative this time, but I am here, and I’m posting. There have been some absolute food failures this week (I will write about them too, don’t worry) and there was one night where I just ate two packages of delicious crackers and an entire tub of processed cheese. Note that I do not count this as a food failure. It was a delicious dinner.  I can give you that recipe too, if you want.

One of the things I fell in love with at the market over the weekend was beautiful beautiful rainbow chard. I am a huge fan of greens, as you’ll probably notice. This chard was young and tender, and the stalks were all beautiful shades of red and yellow and purple. I got about a small plastic grocery bag full. It looks like a lot, but it cooks down to about a plateful. I have no idea what the weight of it at all. I also got some delicious little beets and some goats cheese, and I came up with this salad. Basically, you cook chard like spinach. It’s got a slightly stronger taste, and it’s even better for you. I roughly chop the chard, because it’s a bit chewier than spinach--there’s a bit more bite to it in every way The candied nuts and the balsamic reduction sound finicky, but please don’t skip them! They literally only take a couple of minutes and the result is so special. 

I robbed this picture from This Website, which has nifty
nutritional info on the Rainbow Brite of Veg

Warm Rainbow Chard and Goats Cheese Salad

Bag of Chard
5 small slices of goats’ cheese. I cut these off a little “log” of cheese, about 1.5 inches diameter
4 small beets (about golf ball size)

¼ cup nuts (I used the last of the pine nuts, they were amazing like this)
3 tbsp sugar

⅓ cup balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp sugar
1 sprig thyme

I also added some roasted, slightly pickled onions I bought at the market. They were nice, but kind of lost in the rest of the salad. I might not bother next time.

First thing, heat the nuts and first sugar in a frying pan over medium high heat. The sugar will start to melt, and brown the nuts. Stir well until the nuts are well coated in melted sugar and start to smell toasty. If the pan smokes at all, just lift it off the burner and keep stirring. This only takes about three minutes, but you MUST stay and stir the whole time, or it WILL burn. Trust me. When they are done, put them aside to cool. You might want to give them a little stir now and then as they dry to keep them all from sticking together.

Now you can indulge in a little more stabby therapy with the beets. Pierce them a few times each, and stick them on a baking sheet lined with tinfoil. Don’t whine about getting pink fingers, it’ll be way worse when it’s time to peel them, so you should try to just get over it now. It’s important not to skip this step, because exploding beets, while they might sound exciting, are really no fun at all. Take it from someone who knows. ANYWAY. Stab them and stick them in the oven at about 190c to roast for about half an hour. You can stab them every so often to check--once the stabbing is easy, they are done. Put them to one side to cool a bit, and turn the oven down to 150c

Dump the shredded chard into a frying pan over medium heat and stir from time to time until well cooked down and bright green.

Place your goats cheese rounds on the baking sheet and grind salt and pepper all over. I also put a little thyme leaf on each one which looked really pretty and gave a nice hint of flavour. Stick them in the oven for about five minutes. They will go a little soft and melty and puff up nicely. I also put the pickled onions in with them to warm them up.

I came up with the balsamic reduction because I had bought some extremely cheap balsamic vinegar and was really disappointed that it was watery and sour. Just this little trick made it pretty much as delicious as the most expensive balsamic glaze I’ve ever had. It was all I could do not to lick the pot.

Put the balsamic, the rest of the sprig of thyme, and the second sugar into a small saucepan over high heat. Stir till sugar is dissolved. Just let it boil and steam, stirring occasionally, until it’s the thickness you like. I wanted mine a bit syrupy, and it only took about five minutes. Take it off the heat--it will continue to thicken as it cools.

Peel the beets quickly--they will still be quite hot, and your fingers will become a lovely pink violet colour and stay that way for quite a while.

To assemble, put the chard on a plate and top with the beets, goats cheese, and onions, if you’re using them. Drizzle artistically but generously with the balsamic and sprinkle with the candied nuts.

It all sounds complicated, but aside from roasting the beets, the rest of the steps only took about ten minutes, and it was one of the prettiest, nicest dinners I’ve ever eaten.

It might have been the only proper cooked dinner I managed all week, but I'm realizing that that's okay too. I am loving myself by cooking and eating beautiful dinners, but I'm also loving myself by giving myself the night off when I need it. And I'm loving myself by not guilt-tripping, yelling at, or cold-shouldering myself when I don't live up to my own expectations. It's working.

Friday, 23 November 2012

I Am Going To Buy You a Sandwich OR The Sad Turkey Song

To Myself
You are riding the bus again
burrowing into the blackness of Interstate 80,
the sole passenger

with an overhead light on.
And I am with you.
I’m the interminable fields you can’t see,

the little lights off in the distance
(in one of those rooms we are
living) and I am the rain

and the others all
around you, and the loneliness you love,
and the universe that loves you specifically, maybe,

and the catastrophic dawn,
the nicotine crawling on your skin—
and when you begin

to cough I won’t cover my face,
and if you vomit this time I will hold you:
everything’s going to be fine

I will whisper.
It won’t always be like this.
I am going to buy you a sandwich. 
Franz Wright

I am a few days behind. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and I didn't cook. I took myself to a little diner in town and ordered turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce. They were very stingy with the stuffing, but very generous with the cranberry. I asked for more gravy, and I ate it all. 

As I chewed I was trying to be grateful. The day was full of little blessings, and also lots of rain. My shoes steamed. 

A song came on over the restaurant sound system. It is not a very common song, although it is more so now that it was covered by a popular singer. But you'll almost never hear it on the radio. 

Five years ago, when it was being sung by its writer, it was a hidden track on a CD. 

It is very very sentimental, for its content and for the context in which I first heard it. I know all sorts of songs hurt all sorts of people after a recent break up, but this was the one song in the universe that could have hurt me the most. 

We had talked about using it as a wedding song, but "the ending is too sad." (no need for a parenthetical comment here.)

I've certainly never heard it before if I wasn't playing it on purpose.

So it came on in the restaurant as I ate my turkey and tried to be thankful, and I tried to close my ears, but I cried a little bit. By which I mean my eyes filled up and I swallowed the turkey harder than I needed to swallow it.  It's melodramatic but it was one of those moments where your throat is closing up and the room is closing in and it feels like the end of the world, even though you know it's not and even though you are a grown woman who has been through all this many times before and not a fifteen-year-old. 

I told myself that it was a short song, and that I would survive it.

The new singer of the song added in an interminable (and frankly self indulgent) amount of repeats of the chorus, and still I told myself that it was only a matter of minutes before it would be over and I could breathe again and finish my lunch. 

And like a miracle, midway through the last line, the place went quiet. I was grateful for even that 20 seconds of the song I didn't have to listen to. 

And then someone fixed the CD player. And restarted the song from the beginning. 

I had to laugh, so I did, and I finished my lunch, and I gave thanks.

I am full of excuses for not cooking and writing properly this week, all of them good and having to do with an insane workload and the fact that this has just been a really hard week. I don't mind writing the truth about how I am feeling, but so much of it is just the dull grinding soreness of it all, and most of the time there is not a lot to say about it. It's just the sort of thing you need to wade through. The bravado of striking out on the new life has petered out a bit and I'm just plain sad. There was one night I ate three chocolate bars in a row for dinner. (I can give you that recipe) and I have been cooking a lot of pasta. But I do try to put something special in it, like artisan feta or rocket or something. 

And failing that, I buy myself a sandwich.

More next week. It's market day tomorrow. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Selfish Scallops with Asparagus Spears

You know, I have always loved to cook. Always, always always. I remember clearly my immense pride the first time I managed to make cinnamon toast for my mother. I was three, and my dad helped. But I loved it. It didn’t stop there. I learned to cook. By eight I was making cakes. The Thanksgiving that I was twelve, my mother ended up in the hospital, giving birth to one of my precious brothers. I was dismayed at the thought that we might not have a proper Thanksgiving dinner, so I just decided to make it myself. I pulled out our tattered old Joy Of Cooking, and I looked up every dish, one by one, and made them one by one. And it was awesome. I was so proud. After that, I was the Boss of Thanksgiving (and Christmas, for that matter) until I left home. (I stole the Joy of Cooking when I left home and damnation, I’ve just realized that I left it behind in the Kitchen of Shattered illusions. Gonna have to plan a raid.)

As I grew up, I got more and more adventurous in the kitchen. I begged my parents for fancy ingredients the way some kids begged for Nintendos. I had a few disasters, and a few more triumphs. I also just made a lot of spaghetti (I come from a very big family, and exotic flights of culinary showmanship just weren’t sustainable on a daily basis.) People suggested that I should be a chef when I grew up. I considered it, but a few early waitressing gigs were enough to turn me off the idea for life. The pressures and challenges of cooking on an industrial scale just weren’t for me. What I love is cooking for the people I love.

And it makes sense. I don’t come from the huggiest/kissest family in the world. There are metric boatloads of love in my family, we just often have more subtle ways of showing it. And food is one of them. When I was small, my mother would decorate the most fantastic themed birthday cakes every year. The painstaking hours of mixing up twenty different shades of icing. The incredible little props. Those birthday cakes were thrilling, and you’d know she’d been up all night before, while you were sleeping, getting it just right, just for you. Because she loves you. For thirty years I’ve seen my father painstakingly choose the very best bites of his steak and sneak them over onto my mom’s plate when she wasn’t looking. Because he loves her.

One night, a few years ago, I was on my annual visit home. (I live abroad) My father’s head appeared around the kitchen door. His face was a picture of mystery and suppressed glee. He gestured me over to the fridge, and opened the fridge door a crack. “Look in there...” he hissed. So I did. Crabs’ legs. Piles and piles of crabs’ legs. Now, crabs legs are a nearly unheard of luxury in my family, but he’d bought them just for us. Because I was home. We cooked them up and barricaded ourselves in a room and ate them all ourselves, slathered in melted butter for what felt like hours, watching old episodes of The Office. It was one of the best evenings of my life. I felt extremely loved.

I was thinking of this when I headed out to the market. We have a great weekend market in town. There are some touristy stalls and some hippies selling incense, but mostly it’s farmers and cheesemakers and fishermen from just a few miles away, offering incredibly fresh, beautiful produce. Everyone is friendly and light-hearted, and especially on a sunny day, it’s a wonderful place to be. I got paid, and I was thinking of treating myself to some crab’s legs. But when I got to the fish stall, there were none to be had. There were some very anxious lobsters desperately waving their claws at all passersby, (they aren’t going to help you, Mr. Lobster.) but the idea of having to kill my dinner tonight was too much for me. There were some especially fine scallops for sale, though, and I got 3 big gorgeous ones for 2.50.

(By the way, if you are starved of affection, I suggest you go to the market. You are everyone’s darling, everyone’s dear, everyone’s love, everyone’s pet. It’s great.)

I treated myself to a hot chocolate and walked around in the cold clear sunshine, picking up lovely ingredients here and there. I felt moments of real joy, and I got some really lovely things that I can’t wait to cook and write about. But first, the next dinner:

Selfish Scallops with Asparagus Spears
This recipe was my main inspiration. Mostly because it has the words “Butter Fried” in the title.

3 large scallops. (Mine came with the pink “coral” attached, and I cooked them intact. I tried them because, Hey! I Am Trying New Things In My New Life! but I hated them so I fed them to the noisy cat that hangs around the backyard. She loved them.)
Big ol’ chunk of butter
Salt and Pepper
A few sprigs of fresh thyme

1 Bunch Asparagus
Another big chunk of butter
¼ cup grated parmesan

Cut the bottom inch off the asparagus. It’s woody and not that tasty and anyway it helps you fit them into the pan. Pour in a few cm of water and cover, cooking over high heat for about 5 mins, or until the asparagus is a pretty bright green and easy to pierce with a fork. Please don’t overcook it. Overcooked asparagus makes me cry, and I have enough things to make me cry this week, okay?

Pat your scallops dry with some paper towels, and grind salt and pepper over them generously.

Heat the first butter in a frying pan over medium high heat. Chuck in the thyme. Once it’s nice and hot, toss in the scallops. Don’t move them around if you can help it, this helps them get a nice crust. After 1-2 mins, flip them over and do the same on the other side. Give them a little poke with your finger. If they aren’t mushy anymore, they are done. It’s better to undercook them a little than overcook them. .

Asparagus is another of my father’s favourite luxury foods, and I prepared it the way my daddy taught me. Take the asparagus out of the water, lay it on the plate, and smother it in butter and parmesan.

Lovingly lay the scallops on top.

Eat it all. All of it. By yourself. Under no circumstances share. (Except for giving the bits you don't want to a cat.)

I absolutely loved these flavours together, and it looked and tasted really really posh, when the actual cost to me was something like a fiver. Total win.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

No Self Pity Phyllo Pie (With Spinach, Feta and Pancetta Filling)

Two posts in a day? Ah well. I couldn't resist the perfection of that video, but I have cooking to report on. So there you are.

You’ll probably notice, at least in these first few weeks, that the recipes will have a pretty pronounced vegetarianish slant. That’s because if there is anything my stomach hates more than food when I am sad, it’s meat. The only exception to this is cured fancy ham. I don’t know why. Maybe because it is wahfer thin. (Sorry.)

One of the difficulties of cooking for one is that little tiny recipes don’t use up whole things. The stuffed squash I made the other day only used half an onion, half a pepper, half a block of feta. And I still had a big bag of baby spinach starting to wilt in the fridge. I hate wasting food at the best of times, and during the worst of times, when every penny counts, it’s a straight up sin. So what to do? I don’t want to eat the same thing for days in a row. While I am sure it’s possible to love oneself through leftovers, it’s not much fun, and it kind of defeats the purpose of this blog.

So I pondered what to make with my odds and ends, and the idea of phyllo (or filo, or fillo, or  φύλλοfilo) pastry popped into my head. I love pretty much anything encased in phyllo, but I’d never used it myself before. I trundled off to the shop and picked up a packet of frozen phyllo dough and let it defrost on the counter for a few hours. With a few other odds and ends, I came up with this:
No Self Pity Phyllo Pie (With Spinach, Feta and Pancetta Filling)

small handful pine nuts
100g (half a package) feta cheese, crumbled
finely grated zest of one lemon

2 large knobs of butter.
½ an onion chopped
½ a red pepper chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed and then minced
most of a bag of baby spinach, torn
100g pancetta, chopped

4 eggs

freshly ground salt and pepper

1 package filo pastry
⅔ cup finely grated parmigiano reggiano

Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan over medium high heat, until golden and fragrant. Put them aside in a medium mixing bowl. Crumble the feta in on top of them. Grate the lemon zest into the bowl as well.

Swear a lot because you left your nice sharp grater behind in the Kitchen Of Shattered Illusions, and the crappy flimsy dull grater you found in the cupboard of the Kitchen Of New Hope and Fresh Horizons is freaking useless. It will take a long time and the lemon will suffer. So will you. Resolve to buy a new grater. When you get utterly sick of attempting to zest the lemon, just grate a tiny little bit more onto a saucer and set it aside for later.

Put one of the knobs of butter into your frying pan and add the garlic, onions and pepper. When things start to soften and the colours change, add in the pancetta and let it start to shrivel and crisp. Add the spinach and cook down until limp and dark green. Take off the heat and set aside to cool slightly.

Beat 4 eggs until mixed and frothy. Combine everything you’ve done so far into one bowl, and mix thoroughly.

Stick the second knob of butter in the microwave to melt. Once it has, brush a bit of it all the way around the inside of a large pie tin. I didn’t have a brush, so I used my fingers. It was kind of gross, but nobody died.

Open the phyllo pastry (don’t open it before you need it, or it will dry out and break and make you unhappy all over again, just after you’ve gotten over the f*cking grater.) unroll it gently, and working quickly, drape two sheets of it onto the pie pan and gently pat it down. You just want to cover the tin, so overlap them as much as you need to. Loads will hang over the sides, which is fine. Leave them be and don’t trim them.

Brush all over with butter and sprinkle with a few generous pinches of parmigiano reggiano. Grind salt and pepper all over. Repeat this sequence with the rest of the phyllo dough, angling it slightly differently each time so that the hangovers are more or less even. Keep a few pinches of parmigiano aside.

Dump the egg/veg/cheese mixture into the centre of the pan and smooth it out evenly. Start folding the hangover edges in gently, using bits of melted butter as glue to make it stick together. Eventually all of the filling will be covered. Brush the whole thing with the last of the melted butter, and sprinkle it all over with the last of the grated parmigiano, the lemon zest, and a few more twists of the pepper mill.

Stick it in the oven at 150c for about 30 mins, checking occasionally to make sure it’s not browning too quickly.


Wow. This came out so beautiful looking it would break your heart all over again. I wish I had a stupid camera and could give you a beautifully styled photo of it, but then, I wish a lot of things. You’ll just have to trust me on this. It looked like a million million dollars, all golden and crispy and speckled. Perhaps soon I will have to love myself with an expensive smartphone with a great camera. It could be a plan.

It tastes great too, and the lemon zesting really was worth all the heartache. It added an important layer to the flavour.

This pie was HUGE. It could have fed me for a couple of weeks, and the whole idea was to avoid samey leftovers. If I’d had a cookie sheet to bake them on (alas, mine still lingers in the Kitchen O. S. I. probably having group therapy with the good grater) then I would have made parcels instead. A couple would have made a nice sized meal, and uncooked, they would freeze brilliantly, ready to be popped into the oven whenever I like. Next time.

As it happens, I have 4 boys as housemates now, and they were only too happy to help me dispose of the excess. Handy.