Saturday, 31 December 2011

Bonding with Bree

It's three o'clock in the afternoon. The washing machine is whirring away the back-haul of laundry from our out-of-province holiday. Naptime has been re-established, and, with it, blogging hour. Proper eating habits, however, are still in flux, so I'm enjoying a post-brunch/pre-dinner snack of apples and fancy cheese. I'll figure out something for the children when they awake.

My choice of victuals may not appear overly festive, but in my household, nothing says "after-feast" like the presence of Bree in the cheese drawer. I'm the only one who eats it, and the good stuff is costly, both in terms of price and calorie count, so I indulge nigh but twice a year: Nativity and Pascha (i.e. Christmas and Easter). Thus, in the days following either great feast, I whittle away at my hoard of favoured dairy decadence, often accompanied by coffee and fruit, or some type of seasonal bread.

The current contents of my snack plate take me back to the season that started this culinary tradition: the few weeks that I "house-sat" for a friend of my mother-in-law-to-be prior to my wedding. Mostly it was a favour to keep my fiance and I from having to pay two rents after I moved out of residence, and an excuse to have someone to cook for between his travels.  It was a rather Edwardian arrangement (minus the scandal of a maiden staying alone with a divorced man more than twice her age), much like an extended visit at the home of an easy-going uncle. There was very little house-sitting to do - basically water the plants for a few days here and there - and while he was at work, or away, I had the house to myself.

Every morning I rose somewhat late, made myself some hot cereal and coffee, and then moved on to my most serious house-sitting task: consuming the large amount of Bree that lay abandoned in the fridge. Apparently there had been some mix-up as to who was buying his family's traditional Paschal cheese, and the excess had been left with him. And I, in turn, had been left with the pleading instruction not to let it go to waste. Fortunately, I was more than up to the task. Ending my breakfast every morning with my favourite cheese was a joy that carried me through all the phone calls and list-making that my long-distance wedding planning involved. It's probably the most poignant food-memory I have: sitting at that kitchen table, phone in on hand while the other roamed between my wedding notebook, coffee cup, and plate of green grapes with wedges of Bree, munching and sipping my way down my prenuptial to-do list.

Prior to this period, Bree and I had met cordially off and on, but my parents had similar sensibilities when it came to over-stocking the cheese drawer, so such an extensive engagement had never occurred, nor has it been repeated since. But I seasonally revisit my fromagial relationship, on a more modest scale, in memory of this time of concentrated cheese-consumption. For when one spends that much time with another, there develops either love or hate. In the case of Bree, it's always been love.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Why I love Jamie Oliver, reason #492

My husband and I recently received Jamie Oliver's second cook book, "The Naked Chef Takes Off", as an early Christmas gift. It somehow made its way to the bathroom, which means it is now slowly being read recipe by recipe, potentially from cover to cover. The porcelain throne is actually a pretty decent spot for reading recipes, once one gets over a Frasier-esque "food? in the bathroom?" moment, as they don't require a large time commitment, and you never know when you might stumble on a gem like this:

...the way I look at it is that chickpeas need a good kick up the backside to really get their flavors happening. So by smashing them up and adding a good pinch of cumin for a bit of spice, a little dried chili for a touch of heat, garlic for a bit of ooorrrggghhh, a good squeezing of lemon juice to give it a twang and seasoning to taste, you pretty much hit the nail on the head.
-Jamie Oliver, "smashed spiced chickpeas"

I do have a few posts on the backburner, in the slowcooker, and in the brine with the sauerkraut, but nothing more to bang out anytime soon. Preparations of heart & home call as the Yuletide approaches. Just thought your day might need a bit of "ooorrrggghhh". I know mine sure did.

Stayed tuned for a pickled post or two in the New Year. In the meantime, a blessed holiday season to you all, however you celebrate.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Scenes from the choir loft

As I've mentioned before, part of my busy pre-Christmas season involved singing with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra as a member of one of the choirs in their annual Pops Christmas Concert. And yes, that commitment can now thankfully be put in past tense. As anticipated, all the rushed preparation met its just reward, namely the pleasure of singing in Edmonton's fabulous Winspear Centre, (which sounds even better than it looks) and the bird-eye view of the whole spectacle from my perch in the choir loft.

It's hardly a replacement for a spot in the seats; I've now twice had the honour of hearing mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel, but I've only seen her face as she's entered or exited the stage. From the audience reception, I can only assume her facial expressions compliment the wondrous warmth of her voice during her performances. I only caught the public view of the tapdancers and handbell ringers by sneaking peaks at their solo rehersals; though the negatives of those particular photographs were still very worth watching.

There are however, little things that can be best seen from spots above and behind the orchestra. I've made myself a house-rule of not watching the same section of the orchestra in action at the same point of each performance. When there's so much to see, and you get to see it twice (three times, if you include the dress rehearsal), it's best to spread your focus around. The scramble of the percussionists in the sound-effect-happy rendering of "Nuttin' for Christmas" had me breaking that rule. So did the sight of the pianist switching between playing the grand and the celeste by rotating ninety degrees on a single bench. His head stayed facing his music on the piano the entire time.

The sight that had me reaching for my invisible camera, however - along with the skill set to do it justice - was a tableau from the dress rehearsal: the bass bassoonist slumped in his chair, instrument settled in its frame beside him, music open to a single sheet on his illumined stand. The sheet read out, in large block letters:



'Twas, I suppose, a song too sacred for the likes of a bass bassoon. Garrison Keillor would understand. 

(For those who didn't get the reference, I tried, and failed, to find a link to his "Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra". Find it. Listen to it. Love it.)

Friday, 2 December 2011

being present

 Words to apply as I dive into my "busy" season:

Time is a relentless river. It rages on, a respecter of no one. And this, this is the only way to slow time: When I fully enter time's swift current, enter into the current moment with the weight of all my attention, I slow the torrent with the weight of me all here. I can slow torrent by being all here. I only live the full life when I live fully in the moment. And when I'm always looking for the next glimpse of glory, I slow and enter. And time slows. Weigh down this moment in time with attention full, and the whole of time's river slows, slows, slows.
-Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

Often, someone else has said it best. I may not have all day, but I always have a moment, if only I stop worrying about what's to come and enter in.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

And now for something completely different: Pumpkin & Black Bean Chili

I hadn't really intended on using my blog as a medium for sharing recipes, but between the requests I got after mentioning this meal endeavor over facebook (which were plentiful if you interpret a "like" as "me too please!") and the fact that my method varies considerably from what my cookbook decrees, a blog post seemed like a better place than a facebook note to explain exactly how pumpkin puree can make a tasty vegetarian chili. And, since finding new ways to use up my copious cache of pumpkin does make me very happy, it kind of fits the theme.

I'll start with the recipe as written in my cookbook, "One-Dish Vegetarian Meals" by Robin Robertson. It may be very good this way (I haven't tried, so I wouldn't know), and the pumpkin-pot idea sounds delightful:

Pumpkin and Black Bean Chili

This vivid contrast of the black beans and bright orange pumpkin makes this chili a perfect party food at Halloween time. Make it the centerpiece of your table by serving it in a large, hollowed-out pumpkin or an old cast-iron "cauldron."

2 pounds pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and seeded
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 jalapeno chili, minced
One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
One 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
1 cup apple juice
4 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups cooked or canned black beans, rinsed and drained if canned

Cut the pumpkin into 1/2-inch chunks and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and jalapeno. Cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the reserved pumpkin, diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, water, apple juice, chili powder, salt, and cayenne, and stir well. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the pumpkin is tender, about 30 minutes.

Add the beans, and more water if chili is too thick for your taste. Cover, and continue to simmer about 15 minutes to blend flavours. Serve hot.
Serves 4 to 6

Note: one 15 oz can yields 1.5 cups of cooked beans.

As all my pumpkin is roasted and pureed, I used this handy pumpkin equivalent page to deduce that I should use 2 cups of cooked pumpkin. I assume the diced way would increase the variety of textures in the chili, but I'm not sure it would be worth the extra prep time. My kids are getting much better at amusing themselves before supper, but they do have their limits and Mommy is no master at carving up squash.

I lacked a jalapeno (and blogger lacks a tilde; shame on them), but, given that my children have both inherited my English wimphood in terms of spice-tolerance, I was happy to leave it - and the cayenne - out. I substituted a thumb-sized piece of fresh minced gingeroot, which probably changed the flavour profile considerably, but it pares so nicely with pumpkin that I couldn't just leave it sitting on the counter. I also heeded the call from the Slavic part of my palette by tripling the garlic. Thankfully the Scots insistence on deepfrying was suppressed, and I'm afraid I'm not familiar enough with stereotypical Irish or Dutch cuisine to reference the rest of my heritage in this paragraph.

The first time I attempted this recipe, I didn't have apple juice on hand either (I don't usually keep it around), so I used a green grape and peach cocktail my husband had bought on a whim. It made for a fruity aroma and went well with the ginger. The second time around, the impulse-juice was no more, so I went out on a limb and pulled 500ml of spiced crab-apple sauce out of my freezer along with 750ml of pumpkin, mostly because that much pumpkin would make far too many muffins and those containers weren't going to use up themselves. I doubled the tomatoes, added a third can of beans and another tablespoon of chili powder, and it worked out just fine. Not to mention making for copious leftovers. Unfortunately, I can't recall how much flavouring went into that applesauce back in September, but I know it involved butter, honey, and far more cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and clove than the recipe called for. Once again, an excellent partner for that serendipitously added ginger, wouldn't you say? 

The first time around, I skipped a large portion of the simmer stage, as the pumpkin was already cooked and supper was already late, but it made for rather crunchy onions and ginger. The second time I let it sit as long as was prescribed with improved results.

So there you have it: Rachel's take on Robin's pumpkin & black bean chili. Not company fare, but a comforting meal for a cold winter's evening. So far we've had it with bread, but whence I pull leftovers out of the freezer, we'll be trying it with wehani rice.

We will now return to our regularly scheduled programming.