Friday, May 26, 2006

Vancouver reading

Well Wednesday's been and gone and so has the Vancouver reading. The Peter Kaye Room was a nice space to read, in a really stunning building (Battlestar Galactica set?? who knew?)... although the partition-weight walls mean you'd better hope you don't have anything too entertaining going on nearby. Unfortunately for my poetry chickens, the woman who was holding forth on her backpacking trip to a large and grateful audience next door launched into her best jokes just as my reading reached its emotional apex. (I guess on the scale of distraction this is still preferable to the drunks and lunatics who occasionally press body parts to the glass or wander mid-stanza into Mocambo readings.) And when my foot got stuck to the electrical tape holding down the microphone cable, that got audience members wondering what kind of personal dance steps I was perfecting behind the podium.

But other than that I was pleased with the evening. Friendly responsive audience and a satisfactory huddle round the book table, heroically managed by my cousin Deb. Many family members there, and my family of friends (and thanks, Tom, for photo-documenting the event). Celebrity visitors included writers Leona Gom and Heidi Greco and Brian Andre and Allan Brown.

I noticed Bob Dylan features set lists from his concerts on his website so I thought why don't poets? And here's mine in case you want to sing along:

(from Old Habits/Crosswords)
Boston School of Cooking Cookbook
(from Cartography)
Making Sense
At It Again
After the Fall
Leaf Cutter Bees
My Kitchen
(from new ms.)
Ache and Pain
London Plane
Hard Cold Realty

(from Creating the Country/Crosswords)
Another Life to Live at the Edge of the Young and Restless Days of Our Lives

On the food side of things, Ana took me round some excellent foodie places in Park Royal, including Whole Foods, a terrifyingly large and pricy American natural/organic foods supermarket chain (with branches in the UK and of course Canada). Although dazed by the lighting and swooning from all the beautiful displays, we were able to wrestle a gorgeous chunk of aged gouda into the shopping basket before we fled into the rain. Heaven on earth.

She's lent me a promising book - Italian Food Artisans: Traditions and Recipes - which helped ease the trauma of missing the ferry back to Vancouver Island by a niggling 8 cars, followed by a tedious two hour wait for the next sailing. The joys of living on an island.

Now I'm packing my bags for a trip to Lumb Bank, followed by London - where I'll hear Marilyn Hacker speak and attend a Troubadour reading - before swinging by the League of Poets meeting in darkest Ottawa. Expect intermittent but internationally flavoured posts for the next couple of weeks.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Here's a swift, simple dessert I found in a wonderful little book, A Sussex Cook's Calendar, that my dad picked up when we all stayed in a darling thatched cottage with a cat-slide roof in the village of Steyning. I have modified the recipe ever so slightly and converted it to North American measurements. I've seen similar recipes where you pan fry the bananas in the butter and rather than baking, then de-glaze the pan with remaining ingredients.

If you're putting them over the ice cream, and you don't like the long droopy look of banana slices, you could halve or chunk the slices, then garnish with a sprinkling of dark or demerara sugar.
Baked Bananas (for 4)
4 firm bananas
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 orange
1/4 c brown sugar or maple syrup
1/4 c butter
2 tbsp Cointreau or Grand Marnier
Cut bananas in half lengthwise; place cut side down in a buttered baking dish. Mix fruit juices and sugar/syrup and pour over bananas. Dot with butter. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes until just browning. Serve warm over or under ice cream.


Monday, May 22, 2006

Reindeer and rainy day ribs

This morning while dog and I waited for the rain to lift, one of those rambling chains of thought and random googling led me to the website of Cyphers, a long-running literary journal edited by a group of Irish notables who have attracted the likes of Eamon Grennan (one of my poetry heroes). My search had begun with the name Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, one of the editors, whose 2001 collectionThe Girl Who Married the Reindeer, published by the excellent Gallery Books (they publish Grennan as well) I happened upon in our very own Munro's Books. It's a wistful book, speaks well of loss and transition, and paints a good picture:

In Her Other Ireland

It's a small town. The wind blows past
The dunes, and sands the wide street.
The flagstones are wet, in places thick with glass,
Long claws of scattering light.
The names are lonely, the shutters blank --
No one's around when the wind blows...

This is the time of year when I start eyeing the barbecue and readying myself for an annual cook-out. I don't do much barbecuing, because (or consequently?) I have a smallish charcoal bbq which is a lot of bother. So I found some nice looking ribs and that got me to thinking about Texas bbq, and I found a helpful site that suggests you can parboil them in seasoned water for a speedier finish. It had started raining anyway, so I tried it: parboiled the ribs for about half an hour in water flavoured with onion, garlic, cloves and bay leaves; assembled a sauce with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, green pepper, garlic, cloves, bay leaves, fig balsamic, chipotle chiles,brown sugar, soya sauce, Worcestershire and some home made plum chutney; cooked the ribs for about 1.5 hours in a 325 oven, and they were falling apart in loads of lovely spice. Not Texas bbq of course, but good ribs.

Perhaps I'll have to have some authentic Arkansas barbecue when I'm in London, at Bubba's, in Spitalfields Market, if I can pass up the awesome lamb burgers they serve there. The choice has been made for me in the past, as they only buy small quantities of Welsh lamb for the burgers, and they tend to run out when the market is busy. Which seems to be all the time.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Local food at Sooke Harbour House

So just when my words about not knowing anyone who dines at Sooke Harbour House fall from my fingers, I get invited to dinner there. It is very good food, and they certainly go to great lengths to make it look very pretty, as you can see from photos - capturing only three of the four courses we were offered. The salad I thought was a dish that would go with any outfit. I especially liked the herbal wall that surrounded the moat of sauce (TOO many ingredients to name here) beneath the island of grilled halibut. Perfectly cooked fish: hard to beat. I did not check to see if the head dress - perching on my lavender ice cream which surmounts a couple of rosemary dumplings adrift in a wild berry sea - was edible. But most things were so I wouldn't have been surprised.

To give you a sense of the style of the menu descriptions, had we been there on Thursday we could have had as a starter a warm smoked sablefish served with asparagus, sundried tomato, chervil, bulgur and caramelized onion bundle, sauteed gooseneck barnacles, daikon miso foam and Grand fir oil. At least there is a stunning ocean view to rest your eyes upon while you try to work out what all that would taste/look like exactly. Last night a couple of eagles drifted by, a blue heron, and one harbour seal on an evening fishing trip.

After dinner we checked out the art which is hung on every public wall - an informal gallery really - and then the garden which surrounds the building; lots of borage and calendula which are popular ingredients in many of the dishes. I had read that you won't get a lemon with your fish because it's not a local product, but I was glad to see they had apparently stretched the line for a few staples such as flour and sugar.

There was an interesting experiment - the 100 Mile Diet - done recently by a pair of Vancouverians who ate only local produce (from within 100 miles of their home) for a year, and they mentioned in a radio interview that wheat was the most difficult thing to give up, although they eventually did find a wheat farmer and were able to have bread and pasta again. Their website gives Canadian and American readers a tool to find the 100 mile radius round their homes if they want to try it too.


Friday, May 19, 2006

Black beans and blind men

Nigella Lawson's How to Eat is, I discovered, the subject of a blog along the lines of the Julie/Julia project. I had received the book last year and thought it was time I cracked the cover and tried something. I happened to have a bag of black beans in the cupboard so I made South Beach Black Bean Soup. It was very good, particularly after letting it sit for a day and then adding a squeeze of fresh lime, some chopped coriander (cilantro) and a dollop of sour cream. Didn't have any red onion but might try it with that later. I did find myself yearning for heat, and the tabasco helped. But it seemed… wrong somehow to make black bean soup without chiles. Anyway, it's a good one for vegetarians and coeliacs.

I spent a little time today browsing The Poem, a spare and readable site, which describes itself as "a taster of contemporary poetry in Britain and Ireland." I enjoyed Christopher Logue's "Rat O Rat" - one of the little beggars just strolled along my fence the other day and gave me a haughty look - but the one that follows it "from New Numbers" is an amazing narrative gem.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Slowing down in Victoria

It's been a busy and beautiful week in Victoria. Little actual reading or cooking going on.. although much thinking about food, many walks, anguished glances at dehydrating garden, and even a little fence painting happening -- until the clouds gather just in time for the long weekend. Funny, I think this might be the first time I've been in Victoria for Victoria Day in four years.

In talking to various people about various things, I have been surprised at the number of those who've never heard of the Slow Food movement. Even here in Victoria we have a proponent, although it is a fact that not many of my circle dine regularly at Sooke Harbour House.

According to its website, the Slow Food movement
promotes food and wine culture, but also defends food and agricultural biodiversity worldwide. It opposes the standardisation of taste, defends the need for consumer information, protects cultural identities tied to food and gastronomic traditions, safeguards foods and cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition and defends domestic and wild animal and vegetable species.

All very topical on Vancouver Island, where small food producers are trying their best to promote local and artisan products through such vehicles as the Small Scale Food Processor Association, and where Victoria flogs culinary tourism even as our surrounding farmland is being diminished by pro-development municipal councils.

There's a Slow Food blog in Washington State which gives a helpful primer, and there's information on the Canadian arm (fork? table?) on its own website; Slow Food Vancouver also has a website.

Monday, May 15, 2006

More from the half read library, and turmeric

I was reading Adrienne Rich's collection of essays, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. I thought she gave a very cogent summary of issues around form:
"Poetic forms - meters, rhyming patterns, the shaping of poems into symmetrical blocks of lines called couplets or stanzas - have existed since poetry was an oral activity. Such forms can easily become format, of course, where the dynamics of experience and desire are forced to fit a pattern to which they have no organic relationship. People are often taught in school to confuse closed poetic forms (or formulas) with poetry itself, the lifeblood of the poem. Or, that a poem consists merely in a series of sentences broken (formatted) into short lines called "free verse." But a closed form like the sestina, the sonnet, the villanelle remains inert formula or format unless the "triggering subject," as Richard Hugo called it, acts on the imagination to make the form evolve, become responsive, or works almost in resistance to the form. It's a struggle not to let the form take over, lapse into format, assimilate the poetry; and that very struggle can produce a movement, a music, of its own."
Last night's dinner was Saffron Chicken. Very smooth, complex sauce, bright yellow from the turmeric, thickened, and slightly crunchy, with ground almonds. An excellent recipe which can be made well ahead of events and heated up when needed.

Turmeric may be the new snake oil. In recent years it has gained new currency as an anti-arthritis wonder food under the name of its active ingredient, curcumin. Long used as a food colourant and fabric dye (though it fades), it has been reported to be an anti-inflammatory and an anti-cancer agent; a cure for jaundice, indigestion, kidney stones, dysentery, sexually-transmitted diseases, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, stomach and liver ailments including Crohn's and inflammatory bowel disease; even a preventative for Alzheimer's disease and cardiovascular problems, and a treatment for poor vision. Externally it is used to heal sores and inflammations, including itching, Herpes, psoriasis, chickenpox and smallpox; as a depilatory, a cosmetic and to counteract aging processes. And as we saw in the movie Water, you can rub it on hotheads to cool them down!


Saturday, May 13, 2006

Mocambo and smoked salmon

Went to Mocambo last night where Tanis MacDonald and Elizabeth Bachinsky were on the bill. She's touring the east with a pair of poets, Michael V. Smith and Jennica Harper, who also made an appearance, as did local and seldom seen poet/novelist Steve Noyes.

Meanwhile I had been meditating on how to use up some of my smoked salmon, left over from the great smoked salmon cheesecake enterprise of '06. I settled on smoked salmon quiche, and last night's Smoked Salmon Penne with Pepper Vodka which I made with cresta di gallo instead of penne, because I think it's a pasta of much greater character. Right up there with my favourite, the aptly named radiatore. Here's a low-ish fat version of that quasi-Russian pasta dish:
3 cups penne
1-1/2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup shallots, minced
3 tbsp white wine
1 c fish stock
6 tbsp low fat sour cream
6 oz smoked salmon, flaked or chopped
1 c cooked asparagus or sugar snap peas, in 1-2" pieces
1-2 tbsp pepper vodka
Cook the penne until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and rinse and drain again.
Meanwhile, cook the shallots in olive oil until soft but not brown, about two minutes. Add the wine and bring to a boil. Add the broth, sour cream and some ground pepper; bring to the boil and then reduce, stirring constantly, until it has a thick, gravy-like consistency. Add the smoked salmon and simmer a couple of minutes. Add the vegetables and heat through. Remove from the heat, stir in pepper vodka and season to taste. Mix in the penne, heat gently and then serve.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Haiku, shrimp dumplings and weird Weight Watchers cards

Want to talk Haiku?
Petals fall on Vancouver.
Poets everywhere.

The annual Haiku Canada conference will be held in Vancouver over the Victoria Day weekend in May (19th -22nd) at UBC. Check the website for more information.

Last night I thought I'd try something that looked long and involved, but wasn't as complicated as I'd thought: Sopa de albondigas de camaron from the excellent Coyote Café Cookbook. I had embarked on the whole sordid exercise because I lost my head in Austin and came back with a bag of dried ancho chiles from the wondrous larder of Farm to Market Grocery and happened to have chipotles in adobo sauce in my cupboard for some puzzling reason.

The soup was, to my tender northern palate, very hot (spicy) indeed. Personally I would reduce both the number of chipotle chiles and the cinnamon/canela, which seemed to overwhelm the delicate little dumplings in a somewhat aggressive way. I found another recipe for this dish which has slightly simpler ingredients, no cinnamon, and a much milder chile content. Anyway, what I made was delicious once my tastebuds got over the shock: the burn became agreeable, and the broth was tart and tasty; the dumplings tender and plump with contrasting flavours and texture. I was - fortuitously rather than strategically - wearing red when I ate it; otherwise I would have needed a bib to avoid the sartorial staining I could see was coming when I pureed the deep red ancho, which added more colour and flavour than heat; it was the chipotle chiles that set the thing on fire.

And now for something rare and amusing from the darkest recesses of Weight Watchers history. Bonnie sent me this yesterday. Read all of them if you dare. Strange and frightening foods; more interesting and oddly coloured food photographs than you ever imagined possible, with many interesting and perplexing props. And great commentary.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

That old launch of mine

So.. the launch was a lovely elegant affair in a lovely elegant building, adorned with fantastic art and incredible furniture.

Note the throne they seated me on and the special little signing mat, and the height of the table which meant supplicants practically had to kneel for audience.

Here you see the back of Pam Porter, winner of this year's GG for Children's Literature, whose own poetry collection is due out any second now from Coteau and will doubtless sparkle brightly with a light all its own.

And here's a gaggle of gastronomes nibbling on that ever present smoked salmon cheesecake. More photos another time, perhaps, once I've seen more of them.

I caught the cooking section of CBC's North By Northwest this weekend; apparently Ricardo Larrivee is Quebec's answer to Jamie Oliver (and way prettier, IMHO). He was by some curious coincidence making a vegetarian lasagne with eggplant caviar -- which latter substance was one of the items I made for the launch. I wonder if I can use leftovers in a lasagne?


Sunday, May 07, 2006

One for the birders, and a bit about smoked salmon cheesecake

Neither food nor poetry, at least not poetry yet, and nothing too edible spotted... I have been taking an introductory birding class, and here's what they tell us we saw on our last field trip today, a rainy, cold morning in Beacon Hill Park:

Glaucous-winged Gull
Mallard Duck, male and female
American Wigeon, male
Northwestern Crow
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Vaux's Swift
Great Blue Heron
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Rock Pigeon
Common Bushtit
Golden-Crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Eurasian Starling
House Finch
Spotted Towhee
Wilson's Warbler
Townsend's Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Western Tanager
Orange-crowned Warbler (heard)
Downey Woodpecker, male
Spotted Towhee
Winter Wren (heard)
Plus I saw a raven when I got home; I'd seen four of them being chased all the way down the Gorge Waterway by a flock of crows just yesterday. The best part of our field trip was seeing where the heronry was: we spotted about 20 nests in a single tree, several of them with herons in situ. Apparently they counted over 90 nests in that area last year.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd point you to a terrific smoked salmon cheesecake recipe, which I employed to much critical acclaim at the launch. It's not hard to make but important I think that you not overcook it, so I reduced my oven to 300 instead of the 350 the recipe recommends. Also I substituted bottled (roasted+peeled) red peppers for the green peppers called for. Refrigerate it for a couple of hours before serving (one of those wonderful things that you can make the day before) and it will firm up nicely.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Sundae yummy sundae

I don't eat much ice cream but… every so often I get a yen. A yearning. A downright craving. Believing prefab chocolate sauce is not only a dangerously stupid substance to keep in the house, it also doesn't taste very good, now that my palate has been trained to high quality chocolate bars. So the obvious solution is to melt down a high quality chocolate bar - or as much/little of it as you need. Melt it on low heat with a dab of butter and thin with cream or milk and dribble in a bit of quality hooch like armagnac or calvados. Cool it a few minutes - while you toast some almond slivers in a frying pan - and then lavish it over the ice cream, add some whipped cream and the almonds and hey presto, we're good till the next time.

Wednesday's launch of Cartography was grand but I'll save the word on that till Brian my ace photographer is able to share some of the snaps he took. Suffice to say I am snacking on leftovers, including some of that there smoked oyster pate which I made in happy memory of my first attempt back in February at the writers colony in Saskatchewan. I recommend it paired with Hardbite Jalapeno chips...


Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sharpen those pencils

A couple of submission opportunities have crossed my inbox lately.

The "Words for Wilderness" prose and poetry contest, sponsored by the Washington Wilderness Coalition (WWC), seeks work that comes from the heart of the wilderness and the writer. It can include both personal work that revels in the experience of nature as well as writing that explores political aspects of civilization's relationship with wilderness. Winners will read their work at an event in late June. Deadline May 17, 2006

Seal Press, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Inc. is seeking articles by women for a couple of new collections of essays about travel. Greece: A Love Story (deadline June 1st) needs essays on the Greece that lies behind postcards; and Go Your Own Way (Deadline: May 15, 2006) is seeking original, personal stories by women on the experience of traveling alone in all corners of the globe.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Flax, linseed and poetry in Chicago

When did linseed become flax? I often get startled looks when I call those little beggars in the Red River Cereal linseed, but I sure wouldn't dare call the oil version by that name, because we know linseed oil as a furniture polish, traditional oil for cricket bats, and paint solvent, not as the trendy and expensive wonder-supplement we call flax seed oil.

The source of all this is a plant whose full and proper name is Linum usitatissimum, as we might have guessed by the names of other of its products, linoleum and linen for example. It is also grown as an ornamental plant in gardens, its sky blue flowers opening only in the morning. Other uses include dye, paper, medicines, poultices, fishing nets and soap, as well as a handy plug for drains (wrap it up first though eh?). If you're not keen on sardines or cold water/oily fish, ground flax seed or flax seed oil are particularly good sources of Omega-3. It's not something I've seen used as a central ingredient in cooking - its flavour is pretty nondescript - but you can add it for nutritional and/or decorative reasons to a number of baked goods, soups, grains etc.

I was leafing through my new copy of PN Review which includes a review of the University of Chicago's recent exhibition The Making of Modern Poetry. The show's over now, and on the wrong side of this continent, but I liked the reported response by John Ashbery to an acceptance by a literary magazine of his poem Europe, exclaining it was "the best news since the Treaty of Utrecht".

In my wanderings on the U of Chicago site looking for information on the exhibition, I encountered Poem Present, where you can, if you have QuickTime or an MP3 player, hear and view past readings, including a reading and lecture by Robert Creeley who visited the university the year before he died. What a wonderful world.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Sweet sleep

I recently attended a series of lectures from the Arthritis Society designed for people destined for but not already committed to a meaningful relationship with osteoarthritis. The last talk was on diet and nutrition, and someone asked about the "Arthritis Diet" books and articles you see everywhere. The nurse giving the lecture said that these are based on studies of rheumatoid arthritis, which is tied to the immune system, not the more common osteoarthritis which has more to do with wear and tear. She conceded that we do all have sensitivities, so it may be that some foods are better/worse than others for our individual situations, but that there is no one diet that will help people with OA. That having been said, calcium, and vitamin D3 and Omega-3 fish oils which help us absorb it, are particularly important to arthritis sufferers for maintaining bones and connective tissues.

Sugar is a major irritant for a lot of arthritis sufferers, which interestingly has to do with insulin levels. As the instructor told it, if you eat sweets or drink alcohol at night before bed, you end up with higher insulin levels after the insulin has done its work processing all that sugar; like a bored teenager looking for something to do, the insulin crosses the blood/brain barrier and interferes with the release of serotonin, which means you don't sleep properly, which means your body - inflamed joints and all - do not rest either, and you all feel the worse for it in the morning.

But further readings on the subject suggest to me that doesn't appear to be what really happens. It's not insulin but tryptophan that is (we hope) crossing the blood-brain barrier, as it's needed to produce serotonin. Eating sweets and refined (white) sugars and starches are said to be bad because although they cause serotonin levels to rise, they only raise the serotonin levels for 1-2 hours, which I guess is one reason you might fall heavily asleep after drinking alcohol, and then wake up a couple of hours later. Whole grain starch (whole wheat, brown rice, oatmeal):
Triggers a slow, sustained release of insulin that lowers blood levels of most large amino acids except tryptophan, which remains in the blood and can enter the brain. As a result, serotonin levels rise gradually, and blood-sugar levels remain stable, without the rise and fall experienced with sugar or refined grains.
So... you should eat a nice bowl of - sugarless - oatmeal before bed? Or even better, write yourself a soothing little sonnet.

To Sleep

O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes.
Or wait the Amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still hoards
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

--John Keats

I came across another sleep - or rather not sleep - poem which features dogs and which I could have written myself at 3 am last Friday, when old Prince next door was feeling sad. Though it turns out I didn't need to since Emiliano de Lucas got there first.