I could write a book about the food we’ve eaten since leaving for our travels last July. For the most part, it would be a bland, grease-spattered book full of descriptions of oversalted (yet still somehow tasteless) sauces, salads made with wilting, brown-edged iceberg lettuce, way too many Milanos while we were in the States, and it would end with a 45-page rant about how I have started to absolutely loathe going to restaurants. There would be the occasional chapter about food surprises, mostly all after leaving for our overseas travels. There would definitely be a few paragraphs devoted to all of the buttery croissants and pain au chocolats I ate in Paris; the cao lau from Hoi An which I’m still dreaming about, six weeks later; the earthy, unfiltered sake we had in a tiny mountain town in Japan.
For the most part, though, the last year has not been great, food-wise. One of my favourite parts of travelling is discovering local cuisine, but I have to admit that at this point, I am so completely over eating out. We’ve been in very few places with kitchens, and when we do have one, I will basically do almost anything to avoid restaurant food. When we do have the good fortune to have access to a kitchen, I don’t want anything too fussy or overly complicated. I want flavours that are familiar and comforting to me. This often means eggs, or pasta, perhaps something as stupidly simple as a grilled cheese sandwich. I don’t get too adventurous when we’re cooking on the road, since if a dish goes awry we don’t have a pantry full of back-up ingredients.
This past week we were in Bruges (where we watched the fantastic namesake movie) and we were very, very happy to be in an apartment for the whole week. This was such a treat; you have no idea. For seven whole days we nested and had the luxury of two separate rooms (three if you count the bathroom!). Our apartment was a five-minute walk from the main square, a walk that took us down cobblestone streets and past canals with swans floating in them. It was almost like a way, way, way less awful Disneyland.
We didn’t have even one dinner out, and this made me happier than I can say. We made a lot of good meals while we were in Bruges, but the standout one for me (and one I repeated two more times since I am totally a creature of habit) was a slightly crazy egg dish inspired by my love of yogurt, İskender kebab, and this fantastic sausage we found at the local grocery store.
This is a very loose recipe, and I’m sure that there are a number of ways it could be tweaked and improved to suit your taste buds. For me, though, this was messy, unphotogenic perfection.
Faux-Turkish Eggs and Tomato Sauce with Meatballs and Brown Butter
For the tomato sauce:
In a medium-sized pot, heat up a tablespoon of olive oil. While the oil is heating, remove the casing from one or two sausages and pinch the meat into small balls (heh, heh — but seriously, they should be around 3 cm in diameter), then add them to the pot and cook until brown on all sides. Throw in a couple of finely minced garlic cloves, fry for about a minute, then add one zucchini, cut into quartered slices. Fry everything together until zucchini starts to go transparent, then add a jar of your favourite tomato sauce, and a glug of whatever wine you most assuredly have on hand if you’re a lush like me. Bring to almost a boil, then turn it down to simmer while you finish the rest, adjusting for seasonings.
For the brown butter and egg:
On medium to medium-high heat, melt a tablespoon or two of unsalted butter in a small saucepan (preferably metal so you can see the colour of the butter change). The butter will melt, then foam a bit, and eventually start to turn a light amber colour. Also, it will smell like heaven and you will want to drink it with a spoon, but DON’T DO IT. Take the pan off the heat just after the butter turns light brown; the colour will deepen even after removed from heat and then you won’t risk burning it.
If you really want to gild the lily here, you can pour the brown butter into a jar, leaving just a tiny bit in the pan, then fry your egg in the browned butter remnants. This is probably a good idea. In any case, fry an egg any way you like it and remove from heat.
Ladle a good amount of the tomato sauce into the bottom of a bowl (this must be eaten from a bowl. You are a monster if you think otherwise), followed by a few spoonfuls of plain yogurt. Slide the fried egg on top, then pour the brown butter over the egg and watch it drip down into the sauce. Serve with buttered toast, some dark Belgian beer, and a deep sense of satisfaction at cooking your 27-year-old self a meal.
So. Somehow I went nine and a half months without writing. There are many reasons for this, but since I have no one to be accountable to, I won’t delve into them. Mostly, we were travelling. Actually, that seems like a reason to write more, but we used our other blog for recounting travel details, and then every time I thought about writing here, I felt overwhelmed and empty-handed. I kept holding off, waiting until I had something important and hopefully insightful to say, letting days and months go by, almost (but not quite) forgetting about this space. The truth is that I still don’t know what to say or where to begin, but the other truth is that no one is really looking at this but me, so I have nothing to lose by writing whatever I’m currently interested in or thinking about.
The last week has been especially rough for both Mark and me. Homesickness combined with the flu combined with just a general sense of ambivalence about travelling versus settling again has made it a long, weary few days, and to be honest, I’ve been throwing a pretty impressive pity party for myself. We spent a week in Paris, and despite the fact that the weather was stunning, and the cheese plentiful and cheap, and we had the perfect (tiny) apartment in Montmartre, I spent a lot of time brooding over what I wanted to be different. I know that it’s not possible to love something all the time, even if that thing is travelling and it’s what we’ve wanted to do for years. At the same time, this is the one chance we get at this life. I’ve been thinking about this continuously for the last 48 hours, since I found out that my 19-year-old cousin in Wales died suddenly from an inflammation of a previously-unknown cyst in his brain. I didn’t know him well, though I’ve met him a few times, but from all accounts, he was funny, sweet, loved Tupac and soccer, and was happy. I wish I had gotten to know him as an adult. His mother is one of my favourite relatives, someone who has welcomed me into her home many times and still one of my main sources for book recommendations. She and my uncle have a relationship that I’ve observed and tried to emulate (though perhaps this week I haven’t been so successful). In fact, she was one of the only relatives who contacted me after my dad died. I expected emails from so many other, seemingly “closer” relatives, but never heard from many of them. She remembered me, and I’ve always remembered that.
Wait, there’s that pity party again. What I want to say, what I’m trying to say in a really roundabout way, is that this is it. This is my life. I want to remember it and appreciate it and even on the really crappy, rough days, experience it. I guess I want this space to be something of a digital notebook (ugh, what a terribly obnoxious phrase). I need to stop overanalyzing and just start writing. Here we go.
This salt and pepper set may be one of my most prized possessions:
It lives in my house, but it really belongs to my grandmother, who, at almost 86 years old, is still totally badass. This set – or more specifically, the salt pot in the middle, with the tiny spoon – has sat on my grandmother’s dark wood dining room table for as long as I can remember. During the summers my family travelled to India, I used it daily, usually to spoon just a little more salt over the plain yogurt I had at every meal. I have coveted it for years, and at a very early age made my grandmother promise to leave it to me after she kicked the bucket – hopefully not until 101, like her eldest brother. She had always promised it would be mine, and when I got married in September, she gave it to me early, polished and shining.
Aside from being an amazing cook, a former medical social worker and a lady who turned down 20+ marriage proposals, my grandmother (I call her “Mama”, pronounced “Mumma”) is an incredible seamstress. I’m talking off-the-hook amazing badass stitchery. I mean, she is not kidding around. She taught herself how to sew without help from anyone, and growing up, pretty much all of my dresses were made by her. Her embroidery is intricate and perfect; she does beautiful smocking; she taught me how to knit. I know I’m being super braggy, but let’s face it – my grandma is probably better than yours. Also, she can literally sleep standing up. I have seen it happen.
My sewing skills are not nearly as precise as Mama’s, but that’s okay. I only started sewing about two years ago, when my sweet mother-in-law gifted me her old Husqvarna machine along with some very patient and helpful lessons. I still don’t really know what I’m doing – straight lines only! – but I love sewing anyway. I like how it forces me to do just one thing at a time, unlike knitting or embroidery, where I often have a movie or some music on for background noise. I like how quickly and easily mistakes can be undone. Mostly, I like the instant gratification aspect of it, as I am not an especially patient person. Give me an hour and some fabric, and I can make coasters, placemats, a table runner. Give me three and I can make a baby quilt.
This one is for a little girl who won’t arrive until August, but I had to make it early because Mark and I will be on our road trip. I’m still a very novice quilter, but already I’m finding it addictive. I love creating something that will be used daily, perhaps for many years. What is more satisfying than curling up under a worn, often-washed quilt with a book? Add a hot water bottle to that, and you have my vision of heaven.
This is obviously a very simple patchwork quilt, but the French General fabric is so beautiful that I don’t think the design of the quilt needs to be any fancier – I really wanted to showcase the fabric and make something unfussy. Also, I am lazy and didn’t want to do any finicky cutting.
The binding and back of the quilt are a fabric from the same line, and the quilting is just straight lines up and down and across. No fancy stippling for me yet, but I like the way the quilting frames each fabric block. My biggest quilting obstacle is that I lack a walking foot, so the length of my stitches is a little all over the place. Babies don’t know about things like that, though.
I hope the little recipient of this quilt is healthy and happy and knows how excited everyone was for her arrival. Also, I hope her parents name her after me because I made her this quilt.
I have three good friends in the town at the moment, so there’s been a lot of this going on:
And some of this:
And a little bit of this:
Why, yes, that is cheese-flavoured Kit Kat! Gouda-flavoured, to be precise. I found it at T&T Supermarket in Vancouver, and am still undecided on whether I found it irresistible or appalling. Perhaps both.
Life is moving at a
frighteningly deliciously fast pace these days. The camperization of the van has been completed (by Mark), curtains have been sewn (by me), and the painful process of packing up/getting rid of junk has begun. Because I am a pack rat of epic proportions, I can often be found agonizing over even the smallest, seemingly useless pieces of crap. We sold my much-loved Nissan Altima about a week ago, and the night before it was driven away, I sat in the front seat and had a good cry. I thought about all the road trips I took in that car, and how excited my dad was whenever he got to drive it, and how he named it “Francesca”. Oddly, I did not shed even one tear when I dropped my wedding dress off to be consigned, but if you asked me to part with incredibly ugly cardigan I wore on my first date with Mark (plain black with INSANE buttons sewn all over it, as I thought this would be a good conversation piece), I would tell you to pry it from my cold, dead hands.
There is so much more to say about our trip planning and preparation, and the fact that we start our first test run in less than a week (!!!), but I’ll write more about that over at the website Mark has set up for the trip. I’ll continue to write here about things that are interesting mainly to me (FOOD). For now, I will leave you with these stunning lyrics. I was just a young’un when I wrote this, and obviously a prodigal talent, a burgeoning wunderkind. You needn’t comment on my brilliance; believe me, I already know.
Red makes everything beautiful
And you wear CK Be
I only want to touch your hair
Those golden, silky locks
But you won’t come near me
Because I scare you
T.T., you’re my obsession
Claustrophobic, closing in
There may be 1440 hours in your day
But there’s many, many more in mine
7:30 bedtime so I can think about your face
Your hair smells so sweet, it could be candy
Your house of rock can’t keep me out
Trust me — I’ll find you
I was 12, the song was about Taylor Hanson, and the answer to your burning question is no, so far I have never had a restraining order filed against me.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the kind of working life I would want to create for myself if practical and financial concerns weren’t present and failure wasn’t an option. I realize how silly that sentence is; obviously if all those obstacles were removed, it would be easy to do anything, anything at all — become a rock star, the next Oprah, a travel writer, a food critic for The New York Times. The thing is, my dreams are far less grand than those. I don’t really like being looked at, so that rules out any line of work that involves being in the public eye. I love both travelling and eating, but I think being forced to do either of them for a living would grow old fast. I don’t have any political aspirations, or any sort of desire to be involved with big businesses. I would never want the responsibility of being a doctor or a nurse. I am not competitive at all (except when playing Settlers of Catan or poker) and to be honest, I am not very ambitious. I used to want to be a librarian, and some days I still do. Mostly, though — and I know this is horribly idealistic and probably laughable because I’m only 26 and don’t know anything at all yet — I want to love what I do, and what I love is creating things for people that make them happy.
In my most fantastical daydreams, I imagine a life where I can split my time between making quilts and baking pies. I know this is terribly retro and 19th-century housewifey of me, but it’s the truth. I am not especially good at either of these things — not yet, at least — but there it is. That is what I love.
I’ll expound on my quilting ideas another day (what’s that? you’re waiting with baited breath?) but today I want to tell you about my pie café, the one I daydream about when the idea of transcribing yet another poorly-recorded medical report makes me sigh and want to go back to bed. Its name is Lattice. Ideally, it would be close to but not quite right downtown, in a cozy little neighbourhood with enough foot traffic to sustain it. It doesn’t need to be big, just large enough for a few small wooden tables and maybe an overstuffed armchair or two. Oh, and a well-loved, worn-out couch. One wall would be entirely covered by a bookshelf, and people would be allowed and encouraged to trade their old books in for ones they hadn’t yet read. There would be kids books, classic novels, trashy romances, biographies, cookbooks. There would be a basket full of tabloid magazines, with a sign proclaiming “Guilt-Free Reading”. There would be another basket full of quilts that I had made from my grandmother’s saris. There would be a shelf full of teapots and mugs, and whenever you ordered a drink, I would instruct you to choose the one you wanted to drink out of most. Maybe there would be a fireplace, so on a dreary, rainy day you could come in and eat pie and listen to the crackling of the embers. If you wanted a hot water bottle, I would fill one up for you and place it in a soft, knitted cover.
And the menu: pie. Only pie. A couple of savoury ones, but mostly sweet; the kind of thing that seems like too much effort to make for just yourself and maybe you feel guilty about all the calories and anyway, it always tastes better when someone else makes it for you. There would be mostly classic flavours — apple, strawberry-rhubarb, blackberry, peach, chocolate cream, bourbon pecan. The fruit would be frozen, not canned; picked in the height of summer and carefully stored away for the long winter months. There wouldn’t be all of these selections every day, but sometimes it’s better to have limited options. The crusts would be made of all butter, because shortening is nasty. On the side you would be able to order ice cream (only plain vanilla), lightly sweetened whipped cream, or cheddar cheese (for the apple pie, although if you ordered alongside one of the other ones I totally would not judge you). Regarding beverages, there would be hot, strong coffee, a small selection of teas, hot chocolate made only from Lindt chocolate and whole milk, and, on the weekends, freshly made masala chai. Mark insists that it would be crazy to not have a proper espresso bar, but I don’t know. Those things are a dime a dozen. I would hire someone to run things in the front while I baked in the back, and I would come out often and chat with the customers. Maybe we would have a kid lucky enough to grow up with a pie shop as his or her second home. I can see it all so clearly, but for now, in the meantime, I’ll just have to make do by dreaming about it and making apple pies.
This one may not be especially beautiful, but it tasted good. The recipe is a little unusual in that you simply cut up the apples and place them in the pie shell, then work the lattice crust over it, and then pour a caramel sauce — which will smell like pure buttery bliss and be very difficult to resist eating straight from the saucepan — over the apples and crust. I was a little worried about the apples getting evenly coated, but it all seemed to even out. The crust was spectacular, if I do say so myself. I had totally convinced myself that I’d overworked it and almost threw it out, but it was perfect. Buttery and tender, and the flakes! Oh, the flakes. We brought this over to my mother-in-law’s on Sunday, and ate the perfect comfort food dinner — meatloaf, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots. When I brought this out for dessert, she just looked so happy, which is exactly why I dream of Lattice, I think. Pie just makes people feel good. What better way to spend your days?
Here is the recipe for the pie. As you can see, it has an off-the-chart rating, and is very deserving of all of its praise. Make it and feed someone you love, even — especially! — if it’s just for you.
Fat Jesus on a bike (I stole this expression from Dexter and try to use it whenever possible as it makes me giggle uncontrollably), I love eggs. Hard boiled, soft boiled, baked, scrambled (but only when I make them, I am very particular about them being almost uncooked and made over very low heat), sunny side up, poached, over easy. Yesterday afternoon I had two soft boiled eggs for lunch with buttered rye toast on the side, and for once I didn’t read or watch a show or browse the internet while I was eating. I sat at the table (what a novel concept!) and really tried to enjoy my food. The yolk was perfectly soft but not too runny, and I sprinkled salt and pepper on every bite I took. Mark joined me, and we didn’t talk much, just sat in the sun and ate. It was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had of late.
Also very enjoyable was the coconut lentil soup we had for dinner last night. We love this recipe and make it about once a month — actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Mark makes it about once a month; I don’t think I have ever made it myself. I kind of love that. Yesterday we tag-teamed it a little. He got it started and simmering, and then left for his kenpō class. He apologized for the mess he’d left behind, but I didn’t mind at all. I put on some old-school Dixie Chicks, rolled up my
sleeves pyjamas (who am I kidding — I work from home, and therefore wear pyjamas all the time) and washed the dishes. Then I got really ambitious and decided to make some buttermilk biscuits to go with the soup. I went the old-fashioned route and used a pastry cutter instead of the food processor, mostly because I was too lazy to wash the all of the food processor’s seven different parts. I made a big mess and it seemed like there wasn’t enough liquid and that they weren’t coming together properly, but in the oven they puffed up beautifully and Mark got home just as I pulled them out of the oven, and there was a new episode of 30 Rock to watch and dinner felt like such a success. I love nights like that.
The biggest news around here has been that we took the plunge and bought a minivan! The prospect of purchasing a vehicle seemed so overwhelming to me — I’ve never done it before — and we were getting pretty stressed about the whole thing. Saturday afternoon, we decided to just “go look”. Three hours later, we were the proud owners of a Dodge Grand Caravan. Yes, despite the fact that we have no children. We named it Django, and it will be our home for five months. Everything is starting to feel real now, which is incredible if you think about the fact that this trip has been a theoretical idea for close to four years. So many times, I haven’t really believed that it would happen, and even now, despite the fact that there is no conceivable way we would own a minivan if we weren’t going to use it for this trip, I still get flashes of disbelief. Mark will spend the next few weeks camperizing it, and I’ll document the process along the way. We’re aiming for a test run to Portland in May, another one to Alaska in June, and then in July, just under four months from now, Road Trip of Awesomeness will officially commence. I do believe this deserves another one: Fat Jesus on a bike.
I was going to bake a pie for Monday — pie for Pi Day. I had it all planned out, how I would carefully look through this cookbook and finally get some use out of it, how I would try two different pie crust recipes and compare them. How I would patiently cut butter into the flour by hand and work it in until just combined; perhaps pull out some of the blackberries we picked the week before the wedding and froze for “later”. The lattice crust I would make. I even thought about venturing out for pie weights, although I have a sneaking suspicion that dried chickpeas probably do the exact same thing at a fraction of the cost. I was going to write about the pie café I dream of one day opening, with handmade quilts and milk served in mason jars and a wall full of books.
Instead, I spent the weekend unsuccessfully fighting off a cold, battling insomnia (very rare for me), and worrying endlessly about Japan. I gorged on news updates and YouTube videos. Thankfully, we don’t have a TV; I would probably have kept it on day and night. I thought about that pie, thought about writing on my silly little blog, and it all just seemed so pointless. I donated money to the Red Cross and wondered if the ridiculous coasters which are pretty much the only things I can make could possibly be helpful to anyone.
So I didn’t make a pie. I managed to make pudding, and this only because I desperately craved some comfort food. What I really wanted was to be able to crack my wand and apparate to my grandmother’s flat in India. I would put on one of her often-washed, soft, faded caftans and a pair of rubber flip-flops. I would sit with her at her worn, wooden table and eat one of the meals I dream about when I’m on the other side of the world from her — dosa, idli, upma. Afterwards I would watch her sort her pills for the evening and take her shot of insulin. She’d regale me with gossip about such-and-such cousin and I would pretend I remembered who they were and nod back. Later she would go into her bedroom and watch one of her crazy, dramatic Malayalam soap operas, and I’d sit beside her and read, perhaps listening with one ear open for the rise and fall of the dialogue, just so I didn’t miss anything really juicy.
I can’t apparate though; I can’t even use the Floo Network. I am no magician. Instead, in the face of all of the incomprehensible terror and sadness and fear, I roasted a chicken. We turned the fireplace on, so grateful for this small pleasure, and snuggled into the couch. My sweet husband let me talk him into watching Love Actually (although I did have to bribe him with boilermakers) and he “mmmm”-ed out loud when he took his first bite of the potatoes roasted in all of the chicken’s delicious drippings. We kept pausing the movie to talk about our travel plans and baby plans and future life plans. We ate chocolate pudding and though this helped exactly no one but us, it was the best I could do that day.