Friday, September 8, 2023

Baking Less But Enjoying It More

I did not post yesterday because I was just too busy. All day Wednesday was go, go, go, and so was yesterday. I had a lot of shopping, cleaning and tidying to do in preparation for tonight’s dinner and today’s visit from Bronwyn the gardener. I seriously never stopped moving both days, so both nights I fell into bed and went immediately to sleep.

I’m really pleased with the dinner I’m serving to Nancy, Kris and Steve. The meal is how I am thanking Kris for all her help recently—especially finding CAYA and getting me onto their roster of clients.

I am serving an Italian meal. The appetizers are pesto on squares of toasted bread, sprinkles with parmesan. I give them a quick broil to melt the parmesan just before I serve them. Then, Caesar salad. I make the croutons and the dressing, and I’m generous with anchovy. I learned how to make the dressing from a fabulous Italian grand dame whom I met through my French teacher in Nice. Marie-Claude, and I often went to Ventimiglia on Saturdays to the big market, and one day we ran into Chiara, a friend of M-C who invited us for lunch. As she made the meal, I wrote down all she did.

I’d never learned to cook or bake. My father or the housekeeper would make vats of slop for me to eat for dinner, I ate sandwiches for lunch, and fruit, and I made toast or had cereal for breakfast. My friend John Moir, who remains a very close friend, was the first person I learned from. We had Friday night dinners together as fellow new teachers working at the school we’d attended together. I watched him cook and took notes.

Then it was Mary-Claude and people whom I met through her. I hit the jackpot one night when M-C took me along for a meal at a home high on a hilltop in the countryside, just outside of Nice. We ate on a patio under a grape vine for shade from the late evening sun, and we were 14 people around a massive table.

There were endless courses, each one of a single creation. Our hostess told us that the entire meal was going to be made from recipes from some time in the past. That part, I can’t remember, but I suspect she called them ‘recettes anciennes.’And after each course was served and savoured, she invited us to guess the ingredients and flavours. Also, for each course, she had many interesting things to say about the ingredients.

The evening was like something you’d pay a fortune to experience. And I didn’t partake of any of the many wines. Our hostess was intoxicating, warm, generous and clearly, wealthy. Marie-Claude said that she hosts meals once or twice every year and there is always something amazing to them. There is always lots of fabulous food, but there is also an element of infortainment. 


Then I’m serving Tuna steak with Mango salsa (another of Chiara’s recipes) as a second course. And the main is smoked salmon fettuccine with dill (yum!) and lots of spinach, some capers, caramelized onion and lots and lots of garlic. I learned this dish from Marleen, who came to visit last week with Julien. And for dessert, I made a favourite: Peach and almond tart.

I haven’t made a meal like this in months. I’m really looking forward to sharing it with my friends who’ve made life here on Gabriola so wonderful. Kris, Steve, Nancy and I get along really well. Tonight, I’m going to propose that we plan a meal together at Mahle House in Cedar (on the big island) one Wednesday when they have fabulous prix fixe tasting meals.

I have little pink flags scattered around the gardens and yard. They are numbered and I’ve written out a list of things I want done for Bronwyn, each one is numbered to correspond with the flags so that she can work without me. I think it’s an awesome way to work together, especially as I don’t like speaking too much with anyone who isn’t a trusted friend.

Last night, I asked myself: “Why do you do this?” This, being choosing to cook the way I do. I’d say I cook organically and thoughtfully. This meal is in honour of Kris because she found CAYA, and CAYA’s devices and staff have changed my life considerably for the better. Dr. Shoja helped me get used to life with seizures, tics and poor speech, and adversely affecting my power of concentration. CAYA’s tools give me courage and pride.

Therefore, this must be a meal of honour. Making the salsa took almost 4 hours because preparing to cook is a big part of my approach and I love the prep. I assemble all the ingredients I need for each dish I prepare. I put the correct about of spices in my collection of very little dishes—each spice in its own dish or mixed of the spices go in at the same time.

But the best part is dicing the onions, smoked salmon, dill, spinach, peppers and mango. I love dicing because I have modest OCD. That’s why making my dresses was so alluring for me. Each item is chopped into identically sized pieces, and they all go in a bowl. I think prepping is my favourite part of cooking. When it comes time to do the cooking, I can get anxious. There is a lot of stress in baking if you are invested, as I am, in presentation, colour and balanced flavours.

I almost stopped my car yesterday to run into a garden and steal some Sunflower petals. But when foraging, I need to know exactly what I’m taking. I need to be certain of the species name of the Sunflower to feel safe about serving it to others, and I don’t use a cell phone so I couldn’t access any references. But I would have loved to add Sunflower petals to the Caesar salad that I’m serving. They have a wonderful nutty taste.

Everything I’m serving is Italian. Everything I’ve done in this meal comes from Chiara, or Yotam Ottolenghi. I love Mr. Ottolenghi. I wrote a story about him that was published online, and Chef Ottolenghi’s people obviously have a web crawler seeking out his name on the web, because Chef’s PA wrote to me and references Mr. Ottolenghi’s feelings about my article.

I change a few things, and I add little things or leave things out and do exchanges. Every time I make a dish it’s different from past versions. When I was going to the cooking school, I’d put together a meal and I’d invite 2 – 3 people for dinner on three consecutive weekends. Each meal is better than the one before. By the third time, though, I’d have a basic recipe to keep. I’d continue to experiment on top of this standard base.

I got goosebumps when I heard from them, just as I did when Martin Walker wrote to me when I found the mistake in one of his books. Mr. Ottolenghi is appealing to me because his recipes are spectacular. Few of them are easy to make, but each one is delicious. Plus, he did a heroic thing on behalf of farmers facing ruin after an earthquake ravaged the area surrounding his home. And … he’s gay.

So … all this effort is for Kris. But I bake this way all the time. Last night though, I was really exhausted. That’s why I asked myself why I put myself through so much work. All I did yesterday, was make the salad dressing, salsa and the sauce for the pasta—and I cleaned up. But that’s the hard part. Tomorrow, cooking the tuna and pasta is nothing, and plating is simple. I separated the lettuce leaves as part of my prep, and all the sauces and the tart are made. Once sauce will come from the pan.

For me, cooking is like making one of my dresses, except one is for visual/intellectual stimulation and the other is for eating. Never ever, would I call myself an artist. It’s meaningless. If you use it, it demands, for clarity, clarification of medium. If I need a label, I’ve always said that I’m a creative person. Cooking for guests, doing crafts, drawing, dressing (until I moved to Gabriola)—all these activities are creative opportunities.

But I’ve pretty much stopped all those activities and focused on a new one: gardening. I haven’t made a meal such as the one I made last night, for probably 6 or 7 months. It’s a lot of work. I like to plan weeks ahead so that I can get exotic spices, sauces or foodstuffs from Amazon or other mail order vendors. Then there’s shopping, cleaning and doing the dishes. I do it less and enjoy it more now.

This festival next week will most assuredly be my last monologue and public act. Doing the monologue was an act of defiance, a ‘victory over stuttering’ exercise. But my voice sounds raspy. I gargled with salt water and cleared my throat as best I could, drank some water and still, the rasp remained. Raspy voice, delicate hips and back, hill hating … my body is sending me a message that’s requiring me to update my self-image.

I understand why old people would say, “In my mind, I’m still a young woman.” I’d hear that on TV. I get it now. I’ve always felt young. I was late to mature. When I started teaching, my identity card came back saying that I was a student in grade 12. Now I present older than I feel. I’m a passionate member of the Church of Science. My favourite hymn is Facts are Facts.

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