the wandering homebody


Messy, Unphotogenic Perfection
04/20/2012, 12:59 am
Filed under: food, recipes, travel

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.

Assembling:

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.



lattice
04/05/2011, 1:09 pm
Filed under: everyday life, food

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.



lately
03/22/2011, 5:59 pm
Filed under: everyday life, food, travel

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.



the best i could do
03/16/2011, 10:13 pm
Filed under: everyday life, food

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.



Let’s talk about cake
03/07/2011, 4:21 pm
Filed under: everyday life, food

As of today, Mark and I have been married for 177 days — not quite half a year, but close enough. Almost six months later, I still regularly wake up in the middle of the night panicking about the wedding, and then get to enjoy the feeling of pure relief washing over me when I realize that it’s behind us. This is a first world problem, I know, but I never especially wanted to be a bride. I never even thought that I would get married, especially not at the (relatively young) age of 26. Most days, I still feel 12 on the inside.

When we got engaged, we spent a good seven or eight months hemming and hawing over the wedding details. My family’s politics made things difficult. My social anxiety and total and complete fear of being the centre of attention made things difficult. My utter detestation of small, finicky details made things difficult. Are you seeing a pattern here? Mark is a patient man.

The thing is, I never really dreamed of a big white wedding. So many people I know seem to have gotten married for the wedding itself, not for a marriage. My ideal nuptials involved somewhere beautiful and stormy (I was rather partial to the idea of the Wickaninnish Inn), a green dress (not sure why I was so intent on this, as I hardly ever wear green and I don’t think the colour even flatters me that much), and — most importantly — just the two of us. Also, you know, someone to marry us.

Mark, on the other hand, cared about all the things I didn’t. He wanted his family there. He wanted us to commit to each other in front of people we cared about. He refused to look at my wedding dress until I walked down the aisle. I teased him a lot about us completely swapping gender role expectations, but sometimes I wasn’t teasing. Sometimes we were both really frustrated that we couldn’t see eye-to-eye on the first major decision we were making together. I think we argued more in the few months leading up to the wedding than we had in the almost three years we had been together before getting engaged. I just wanted it to be over.

Eventually, of course, we got our shit together. We made an initial guest list of 140 people, and then slashed it in half. We found the perfect venue, with a cocktail reception in a greenhouse, an amazing photographer, and readings that didn’t make us want to puke (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, I’m looking at you). We made wedding favours of rosemary salt using the giant rosemary bush in our backyard and pretty much based the look of the whole wedding around “silver dollar” seed pods. We decided that dried flower bouquets may be slightly morbid and reminiscent of death, but so be it. We used them anyway.

One thing that was of extreme importance for both Mark and I was that the wedding really feel like us. I haven’t been to that many weddings yet in my life, but I have been to at least one or two where I walked away feeling really puzzled at the lack of character in them. We both knew that if we were going to do this, we wanted our handprints all over it. Making the favours was part of this, as was theming the rehearsal dinner “moustaches and candy” just because we thought it was funny. We wanted humour everywhere, even on the programs.

I also made our wedding cakes. Sadly, I cannot take any of the credit for this. I was completely and utterly shameless in stealing this idea from Molly Wizenberg (aka Orangette). I know that I’m not the first to do so — just Google “winning hearts and minds cake” and marvel at the results — but, man. I totally copied her. As someone who grew up with a deeply ingrained fear of both cheating and plagiarism, this feels a little like both. I mean, I know that technically I was the human female who chopped and stirred and baked, but this recipe belongs to her and always will. I made 10 of these in less than a day; they cost a fraction of what a store-bought wedding cake would have (even with high-quality chocolate, though just regular butter), and they delivered about 100 times as much satisfaction. I love this cake. Everyone loves this cake. If you don’t love this cake, I probably don’t love you. Or perhaps I love you, but you’re allergic to chocolate and are therefore unable to try it, which doesn’t count.

I made the cakes about three weeks in advance, froze them in pizza boxes (an idea also stolen from Molly), and gave them to the caterers the day before the wedding. We brought our own cake stand from home and I somehow convinced Mark to let me top the main cake with styrofoam owls which I found at Michael’s and which I thought were utterly hilarious (brown! white! just like us!). Everything came together like it was supposed to, and though I almost puked in my best friend’s car before arriving at the venue, once I got there, I somehow snapped out of it. My uncle Alex beamed as he walked me down the aisle, and I didn’t see anyone but Mark, which was exactly what everyone said would happen. Mark’s brother Paul did such a wonderful job of conducting the ceremony and my beautiful, funny friend Michelle read from a children’s book that I love. The cap sleeve button on my dress snapped off while we were kissing, almost causing a minor wardrobe malfunction, but I didn’t care. My sweet bridesmaids shoved a glass of wine into my hand immediately after the ceremony. My friend Jesse, who I’ve known since I was three years old, came  all the way from Toronto, and I saw him for the first time since 2006. I missed my dad, but that was okay. We ate cake, danced to The Book of Love, and we were married.

(All photos taken by our incredible photographer, Heather Armstrong, who is not dooce but has the same name as her.)

Our wedding cake, also called the “Winning Hearts and Minds” cake, can be found here. You should make it right now.