Monday, July 31, 2006

Pie night at the hacienda

A reminder that the Being At Work poetry competition closes today. They will accept emailed submissions - but if you do that don't forget to send a donation to the Movement for Canadian Literacy in lieu of an entry form (with your return address for tax receipt) to: P.O. Box 41171 Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 5K9

We had a pie double whammy last night. To start with I made my first pizza in years and years and was thrilled to find it closely resembled my favourite Pizza Express selection, the Siciliana. I do not own a pizza stone but it worked fine on one of those pizza pans with holes in the bottom for circulation. Unfortunately it didn't last long enough to photograph, but I trust you all know what a pizza looks like. Here's my recipe:
Rhona's Pizza Siciliana
3/4 c warm water
1 pkg yeast
1 tsp sugar
1-3/4 c flour
1-1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
* Dissolve the yeast and sugar in about 3 tbsp of the warm water. Let stand 5-10 minutes until foamy. Mix the flour and salt together and place in mixing bowl: add the dissolved yeast and the rest of the water, mixing together until you have a soft pliable dough, adding a little flour as needed. Knead for 8-10 minutes until smooth and elastic. As you knead, chant to yourself: this will make my arms strong for badminton. (Or throw the lot into your mixer with the dough hooks and just walk away for 10 minutes, until you get the same result less the exercise.)
* Place the dough in a large greased bowl, cover with plastic, and leave for 1-2 hours to double in bulk.
* Punch it down, knead into a ball and then roll out to fit a 12" pizza pan. Place on a plate or tray sprinkled with cornmeal. You can at this stage cover and refrigerate or freeze till needed, because you will be busy making...
1 small can tomato paste (about 1/3 cup)
1 tomato paste can water
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp good quality olive oil
1/2 tsp oregano
dash pepper
dash tabasco
* Spread half the sauce over the pizza and top with:
2-3 thin slices ham, in 1/4 inch strips
2-3 canned (not marinated) artichoke hearts, quartered
1-2 tbsp chopped black (kalamata are nice) olives
1 large garlic clove, chopped finely (not pressed, you have to be able to sprinkle it)
2-3 white mushrooms, sliced
Drizzle the other half of the sauce over the toppings and sprinkle with:
1 generous cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan
* Finish with:
2 tbsp good quality olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
* Heat the pizza pan and the oven to 425f. Slide the pizza onto the pizza pan and cook for 20-25 minutes until the base and the topping are golden.

I have a Transparent Apple tree (yes Virginia, you can see the apples) which has started to toss away its fruit, so I am in my annual scramble for apple recipes. For dessert we had fake tarte tatin, from a wonderfully devious Delia recipe. It is incredibly simple and pure. I strongly advise you dispense with the cinnamon, and don't bother making pastry: use puff pastry. As you will see my end product doesn't look quite like Delia's but the taste is reliably heavenly.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Crumbling allegiances to British food

I get raised eyebrows by the pair when I respond to the question "what do you miss about Britain?" with "the food". But it's true. Somehow, perhaps in an effort to stem the flood of immigrants, a myth has been perpetuated that the only food available in the UK is overcooked vegetables, slabs of meat and inedible puddings with strange names. In reality, the countryside is dotted with gastro-pubs offering superb menus; London has the staggering range of cuisine you'd expect of a city of 7 million; and the array of produce and ingredients in supermarkets and specialty shops is the boon of proximity to the Continent and beyond.

That having been said, the Guardian recently offered a grisly list of traditional British dishes that are falling off the nation's menus, either because they don't suit the low fat high speed preparation needs of contemporary cooks or because their ingredients - offal (such as calves' feet or pig cheeks) or game (such as rooks or hare) - are no longer popular.

I was sad to see fruit crumble among the Ten most threatened puddings:
  1. Calf's foot jelly
  2. Junket
  3. Sussex pond pudding (suet and lemon)
  4. Kentish pudding pie (rice and pastry)
  5. Dorset dumplings (apples and suet)
  6. Lardy cake
  7. Simnel cake
  8. Malvern pudding (fruit crumble)
  9. Singin hinnies (fried scone)
  10. Spotted dick
For those who don't number fruit crisps on their hit list, there's a wonderful recipe for Peach and Blackberry Crisp (I made it with apples, blackberries and blueberries and it was fabulous) that has pecans in the topping.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Raspberries and blueberries

A nice campus to visit is Virtual University. Cheap (US$20 for up to 4) classes and one useful freebie that's already underway this week: How to Prevent Identity Theft and Online Fraud. They have courses in PaintShopPro for anyone that has this cheaper-than-Photoshop application, and some writing classes (but no poetry, at least not this time).

I happened upon a leaflet promoting the Urban Farm Market and Urban Feast Stage which are being offered (free!) as part of Open Air 2006 right through till September. Upcoming on July 23 is featured chef Christopher Moore of the Union Club, July 30: Rick Choy from Hotel Grand Pacific; August 6: Mike Upward, James Bay Inn; August 13: Patrick & Christabele Simpson, The Marriott Inner Harbour. I fear I might be turning into a food demo junkie...

Fresh fruit abounds. I weakened at the sight of a flat of raspberries at the Red Barn Market last week and brought them home to my freezer. I have a couple of good recipes already. I tried the very tasty Gâteau au Yaourt à la Framboise from a wonderful blog, Chocolate & Zucchini which Bonnie sent me a while ago. At that point I was a little short on raspberries so I used half blueberries and it worked well. I'm going to try her blueberry coffee cake recipe next.

From the Lighthearted Cookbook, I have long been a fan of Raspberry-Yogurt Küchen, which has a shortbread base and berries smothered in a baked creamy yogurt topping: particularly nice I think if you make it ahead and served chilled. This time I substituted mostly loganberries, which seemed to me to lack a little zip. Here's a slightly amended version (I no longer own the cookbook so I'm not sure where I deviated):
1½ cups flour
½ cup sugar
1½ tsp baking powder
1/3 cup butter
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups fresh or frozen raspberries
2 tbsp plain flour
2 cups plain yogurt
1 egg lightly beaten
2/3 cup sugar
2 tsp grated lemon rind
1 tsp vanilla
  • Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, butter, egg and vanilla. Mix well and press into a 10" square cake pan or springform or flan dish. Sprinkle with raspberries.
  • In a mixing bowl, sprinkle flour over yogurt. Add egg, sugar, lemon rind and vanilla and mix until smooth. Pour over berries.
  • Bake in 350f/180c oven for 70 minutes or until golden.
Peace reigns, most of the time, in the foster animal kingdom:


Friday, July 21, 2006

Is nothing safe?

Appalled to see that a salmonella outbreak in the UK was traced to Cadbury's chocolate bars! But relieved to see that the source was not the chocolate but the crumb base. So purists can rest easy and carry on with that therapeutic intake.

Yesterday I found the perfect activity for the first gentle day of our heat wave: a visit to Merridale Cidery. We did the self-guided tour to see where and how the cider was made, admired the acres of apple trees and then enjoyed a small tasting of half a dozen of their products. Apple juice was thoughtfully provided for our under-age companion, who was at an age to enjoy the faerie fixtures that were strategically placed to help her endure the tour.

Scrumpy and Traditional Cider were my favourites. In West Country dialect, "scrump" meant to steal apples, and so Scrumpy was the name for pilfered apple cider. At 11% alcohol it was described as a "sit down" cider, and mercifully Merridale has departed from the traditional recipe which calls for raw pork as one of the ingredients.

Merridale puts on a mean spread in La Pommeraie Bistro, where we sat outside on the covered veranda and admired the orchard. I had some very nice pulled pork and apple crepes and the soup of the day, a cold honeydew-raspberry concoction which the waitress accurately described as "a smoothie without all the sugar". It was garnished with chopped mint and gently flavoured with dill and was just the thing for a warm summer day.

The perfect surprise for this melting heat we're facing was the arrival of my copy of Loutro Poems, an anthology of poetry by writers who attended World Spirit poetry courses 200-2005, lavishly illustrated with colour photos. As if I could forget...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Boris, Billy, Ted and a nice roast chicken

A little awkward to post while being harassed by my desk ornament (yes, folks, Boris is back... he had the sneezes and needed another round of antibiotics so, well, umm...)

Been reading a new Billy Collins (The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems, Picador 2006) and liked this bit, from Monday:
The proofreaders are playing the ping-pong
game of proofreading,
glancing back and forth from page to page,
the chefs are dicing celery and potatoes,
and the poets are at their windows
because it is their job for which
they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.

And a little more from Ted Hughes:
Much has been said about the therapeutic value of uninhibited writing, and though no doubt that can go to the point where mere confusion enters, it is one way of talking about the pleasures and the healing effects of reading and writing poetry.

All imaginative writing is to some extent the voice of what is neglected or forbidden, hence its connection with the past in a nostalgic vein and the future in a revolutionary vein.

I had a revolutionary experience with a roast chicken on the weekend. Following the guidance of Lynne Rossetto Kasper, I rubbed a whole chicken with olive oil and then slathered on a paste of 1 tbsp minced rosemary, 1 large minced garlic and 1/4 tsp salt, stuffed a couple of sprigs of whole rosemary in the cavity, covered it in plastic and refrigerated it for 24 hours, and then roasted it at 350f at 20-25 mins/pound, the first half on its breast and the second half breast side up, basting it with cooking juices at intervals until the thickest part of the thigh read 170f on the thermometer. It was gorgeous. The finish was to drizzle it with a 3-4 tbsp artisan balsamic vinegar (or slice it first and and drizzle with balsamic). It was beautifully moist and well flavoured.

While I told Jennifer about this triumph, she reminded me that only a few weeks ago I had been reading to her about the use of salt on meats. A magazine I'm extremely fond of is Cooks Illustrated, which is a food nerd's dream, featuring experiments from America's Test Kitchen (something I'd never heard of before I started reading the magazine). In the August issue they were performing merciless experiments on barbecued chicken and explained (with diagrams) the effects of salting chicken for 3 or 6 hours. At 3 hours the flesh does not absorb the salt and you end up with dry chicken (which is why popular wisdom says not to salt roasting meats). But after 6 hours, the salt is drawn into the flesh and you end up with flavour from the salt and from any other water-soluble flavouring agents (e.g. herbs and spices but not oil-solubles like capsaicin, the hot element of chili peppers). They prefer salting to brining if you are dealing with chicken because they found brining made the skin soggy, and salting leaves it crispier.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

Fry on Form and Anchovy Amnesty

A book that has, I'm told, not received the best of reviews lies open by my chair these days, and I'm enjoying it so far. The Ode Less Travelled is Stephen Fry's guide to Unlocking the Poet Within. It's a manual of metre, rhyme and form by someone who writes privately himself:
"I do not write poetry for publication, I write it for the same reason that, according to Wilde, one should write a diary, to have something sensational to read on the train."
(If only we Canadians had trains to read on we might be better poets and diarists…?) He quotes Auden on the difficulties of writing free verse:
"The poet who writes 'free' verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor - dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor."
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has certainly produced something original and impressive in The Splendid Table, her 1992 guide to the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food. Interesting and unusual recipes, including this pasta sauce (which I have only slightly tweaked) which she says comes from the cooks of Modena's and Ferrara's Jewish communities. It features a substance unfairly despised and misunderstood in North America: the amazing anchovy. Be not afraid, and you will be fed.

Lemon Anchovy Sauce (Bagnabrusca):
2 2-oz cans anchovy filets
1 cup cold water
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup water
2 large fresh tomatoes, peeled, cored and chopped
6 tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper to taste.
  • Rinse the anchovies and soak them in the cup of cold water for 10 minutes. Drain and coarsely chop.
  • In a 12-inch heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until faintly golden but not brown.
  • Add the parsley and anchovies and heat briefly, 30 seconds or so. Immediately stir in the 1/2 cup water and cook over low heat about 2 minutes, until the anchovies melt (isn't that the coolest thing??).
  • Blend in the tomatoes and lemon juice, raise the heat to medium, and cook 1 minute.
  • Generously season with black pepper and scrape the pan over hot drained pasta - tagliarini is recommended. Toss to coat. Sprinkle with a further tablespoon of chopped parsley and serve (without parmesan or other cheese).


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Democratic poetry contest

Any of you out there seething with feelings of helplessness and impotent rage against competition judging… here's your chance to set the world to rights. ChapterOnePromotions has an open poetry competition that you the voting public can judge. Just click on the 'Open Poetry Competition' link on the home page and make someone's day, in the best possible way. Deadline for votes is July 15.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Festival and farmers' market on World Cup weekend

A little more on the festival weekend. Every Saturday morning there is an excellent Farmers' Market in Courtenay/Comox, conveniently placed right next door to the festival. So the minute we'd staked our tarp we marched ourselves over there to see what was on offer. There was a looong line snaking towards one of the several bakery stalls and I later heard it was all about the cinnamon buns. But I went elsewhere, and bought some incredibly good cheese bread, a fantastic pumpkin muffin and some durable vegetables for snacking on, including peas in the shell and cauliflower florets. This morning I came upon a clipping that's been floating around my office for a while that says certain vegetables, particularly broccoli and cauliflower, are naturally abundant in the compound sulforaphane (SFN) which is believed to reduce the risk of developing hereditary cancers.

Back at the site, I was greatly amused by Todd Butler who hosted a Sunday morning workshop. Acknowledging they were up against the gospel hour on the big stage he said, thank God for atheists or we'd have no audience… Paul Reddick's concert was well attended by a well baked Sunday afternoon crowd. One of them in a mellow stupour in front of me piped up at the end of Villanelle. Hey, he said, did you write that one? Yes I did, said Paul. Man, that was beautiful, said the listener... Sunday afternoon in the barn was hot in oh so many ways when the giant talents of the Campbell Brothers shook the pigeons loose from the rafters. As this musical mayhem was immediately followed by epic and ecstatic helpings of Los Rastrillos, the birds didn't get much rest till much later... Crankiest moment of the festival came courtesy Jamaica-based Anglo-German punker Ari Up who dropped out of her scheduled workshop to feature herself in another and then tried to run overtime, and when that didn't work she -- um... the polite word is remonstrated I think, although her arguments appeared to have far fewer syllables than that -- with the beleaguered organizers. I suspect she's not getting a repeat invitation. Even if her mom did marry Johnny Rotten. (Well ya didn't see Peter Yarrow's daughter or Joe Fafard's son behave that way. )

Charlotte and I slipped away midday to cheer with the Italians and weep with the French in the air conditioned comfort of the bar at the local golf club. It was harder than it should have been to find ourselves a World Cup venue (shockingly, we were two of only six footie supporters in the pub) and near impossible to find an authoritative start time for the match: there was not a newspaper in sight and I must have asked at least a dozen people at the festival (including the Information booth, the First Aid booth and a pair of homesick Ozzies working the Mediterranean BBQ kiosk) before a man at the Security booth said he'd heard from a dedicated soccer fan that the start time was 11:00 (PST). Cut no ice with the bartender who had looked it up and decided it started at noon, so we missed the first 21 minutes before he got around to switching it on. And of course with two goals in the first 19 minutes, that was tragically poor timing. Since it all ended I'm tapering off by checking at intervals for breaking news of What Materazzi Said To Zidane To Make Him Do It.


Monday, July 10, 2006

Festivalia on the Island

Just back from a weekend sitting on the cold hard ground, alternately sheltering beneath waterproofs or burning under a too-hot sun, having my eardrums blasted by massive speakers, my sensibilities overwhelmed by fried foods, cold drinks and new music. Yes, it's festival time again. I was drawn to hear our local wonder Eugene Smith, poetical blues guy Paul Reddick and the always interesting Steve Earle, but a couple of new (to me) standouts this year included a ten-man Mexican reggae epiphany, Los Rastrillos, and Jon Voigt's musical brother Chip Taylor (songwriter of Wild Thing and Angel of the Morning) with fiddlin' singer Carrie Rodriguez. Favourite festival food was cheese and potato taquitos from Tita's - served with Oliva's salsa (smooth and dangerous: tomatillos, avocado, sour cream, jalapenos).

Eugene Smith

Chip 'n Carrie

Los Rastrillos

Prior to departure I had to say a sad farewell to my fluffy lodger Boris who has gone back to hang out with his fellow furbies at Animals for Life, dreaming no doubt of the pleasures he found in Anton's dog dish (and Anton well pleased to be rid of him). With his charming white socks and endless frisk I'm sure he'll be among the first to find a new home.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Not talking about poetry and not eating oysters

I enjoy talking prosody or fine technical points in the context of a workshop, but otherwise I'm not a one to want to discuss poetics with all and sundry. On this matter I was glad to find a kindred spirit in WS Merwin, who made a few seemingly timeless points when his 1956 collection Green With Beasts was made Poetry Book Society Choice:

"I don't usually like literary conversations, though I deeply enjoy talking with writers other than poets about the practical side of getting things written. I like talking with some people about particular poems: though I think that in such conversations all I usually do is to try to describe a quality that excites my enthusiasm in a poem. I do not like writing about poetry... Above all I do not like trying to generalize about poetry...

...I think that one of the dangers of modern poetry has been a tendency to become inbred. Its small audience enhances the danger. It even seems possible for some poets to write as though critics, even particular schools of critics, were a fit and sufficient audience for poetry."
He then makes
"one of the few general statements I feel safe in making about poetry. It is a mystery. It is a metaphor of the other mysteries which comprise human experience. But, like some other mysteries, it gives us a feeling of illumination - one mystery giving us a name by which to know another."
I've been feeling some illumination from reading a collection of writings by MFK Fisher called The Art of Eating. Her prose is exquisite. In The Well-dressed Oyster she begins, firing on all cylinders and out of both barrels:
"There are three kinds of oyster-eaters: those loose-minded sports who will eat anything, hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive, as long as it is oyster; those who will eat them raw and only raw; and those who with equal severity will eat them cooked and no way other.

The first group may perhaps have the most fun, although there is a white fire about the others' bigotry that can never warm the broad-minded."
One suspects her allegiances lie with the second group.
"..almost every oyster-eater who does not belong whole-heartedly to the third and last division, would die before denying that a perfect oyster, healthy, of fine flavor, plucked from its chill bed and brought to the plate unwatered and unseasoned, is more delicious than any of its modifications. On the other hand, a flaccid, moping, debauched mollusc, tired from too much love and loose-nerved from general world conditions, can be a shameful thing served raw upon the shell."
At least we have her words to savour, in lieu of a leisurely oyster harvest on the beach, since red tide has robbed us of some of our summer fun.