Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Back to school

There's the inescapable edge of gold on the maple leaves, the geese are gathering on the Gorge and the wasps are getting cranky and slow. The blackberries are getting tasteless and starting to wither, the autumn apples are beginning to drop. Those of us blessed with the permanent-student gene are feeling itchy for new stationery, the crack of textbook spines, the scent of printers ink.

And so, narrowing my view to avoid inconvenient questions like how I'll afford it, or how I'll make 10,000 arrangements in 60 days, I've accepted a place in a year-long master's program at the Slow Food's University of Gastronomic Sciences in Colorno, near Parma in northern Italy.

No, it's not a cooking course, or even a study of stomach ailments - at least not deliberately - just a year of learning about food. The courses include:
Food History and Elements of Food Culture
Wine History and Wine Culture
Food Anthropology
Sociology and Psychology of Food Consumption
Journalism and Web Page
Techniques of Food Photography
Sensory Analysis
Culinary Techniques
Field trips are required, throughout Italy and in France, Spain and southern Germany, in order to study pasta, cheese, cured meat products, oil and wine. Luckily it's taught in English, as my Italian was bad even before it was rusty, though there are language classes and of course a lot of opportunity to practice. So now I have a couple of months to get ready for the next adventure.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Lightning cake, sloes and plums

Looking for something to do with a basket of plums, I turned to my mother's old Boston Cooking School Cookbook, whose spine is now made of electrical tape and which has all manner of interesting thing poking out between the pages. In it I found a recipe for Lightning Cake, and the suggestion to add a layer of plums or tinned prunes to the top, with a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar. The batter rises up and surrounds the fruit and it looks decorative and tastes heavenly. Here's my version:

Lightning Plum Cake
1 egg
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup milk
3 tbsp melted butter
1/4 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp vanilla
about a dozen fresh plums, halved and pitted
juice of half a lemon
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
  • Beat egg and add sugar; add sifted flour, baking powder and salt; add the milk and melted butter, lemon and vanilla. Pour into a buttered 7x10 pan.
  • Lay the plums cut side down over the top of the batter. Sprinkle with lemon juice, and then with the sugar mixed with the cinnamon. Bake at 350 for about half an hour.
To go with this I'd recommend a poem by Gillian Clarke called Plums (which I have in her 1985 Selected Poems) rather than the William Carlos Williams one (afraid I never did like that poem and found his act of pilferage unforgiveable). Here's a blog entry with yet another plum poem, by WS Merwin, although I am not sure that sloes are really ever known as night plums; that sounds more like a lipstick shade to me. If I could have laid my hands on any sloes in Victoria I'd have made a batch of sloe gin, which is a strange and unique substance that somehow preserves the pucker of the sloe even after its long bath in alcohol.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Potluck Capital of the World

Victoria seems to me to have an above average number of dinner parties of a potluck nature. (These are not to be confused with potlatch parties which are on another plane entirely and I have yet to receive an invitation to one.) For last weekend's event - in a largely vegetarian household - I was assigned a starter or salad course, so I turned to the infallible Delia for inspiration.

In my treasured tome Delia's Vegetarian Collection I found a winner in her Red Onion Tarte Tatin: the onions turn sweet and joyful, and the crust - a butter pastry which I've never had much luck with - even worked. Here are the ingredients, translated into North American measurements. Purists with kitchen scales (and those wanting photos and the recipe's instructions!) should turn to the original recipe. (There's a quicker variation, based on a shallot tarte tatin recipe, using commercial puff pastry, at

2½ lb (1.15 kg) red onions (about 5 medium)
2 tbsp butter
1 teaspoon sugar
6 small thyme sprigs
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly milled black pepper
For the pastry:
3/4 c white flour
2/3 c whole wheat flour
1/4 c soft butter
1/3 c cheddar cheese, grated
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
And here's a ditty from Jonathan Swift to mutter as you cook:
This is every cook's opinion -
No savory dish without an onion,
But lest your kissing should be spoiled
Your onions must be fully boiled.
My next task will be juicing some of this year's apple crop - nothing nicer to dig out from a winter deep freeze than home made apple juice sweetened with summer carrots - but a lot of peeling and chopping ahead of me to get those apples into the juicer. So I was pleased and inspired to find a poem called Apples in a collection I've been reading (Saltations, by Jennifer Still - poet and co-founder of JackPine Press, which produces exquisite chapbooks).


Monday, August 21, 2006

Horses and kidneys

While I was in Edmonton last week, a couple of people mentioned a book that had been recently launched - Ride The Rising Wind: One woman's journey Across Canada by Barbara Kingscote - about a woman who rode across Canada on a horse.

This made me think of a gorgeous poem, Jack, by my heroine Maxine Kumin; it's the title poem from her most recent poetry collection. I was lucky enough to see and hear her at the AWP conference in Vancouver in 2005, where she was the gracious and feisty subject of a tribute by five other poets. Her reading of this poem had us weeping in the aisles. I had forgotten that it starts with a meal of corn on the cob, so topical in these days of seasonal plenty.

Last night we had steak and kidney pie, which was the ritual dish my mother used to make for all large family gatherings. Kidneys can be a stinky thing to handle but surgical gloves help, as does soaking the kidneys for an hour or two in slightly salted water. I don't think she added mushrooms to hers but I do to mine; otherwise I think this is the gist of her recipe.

Steak 'n Kidney Pie like my mama used to make
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 kg stewing beef, in 1 inch chunks
1/4 kg beef kidneys, trimmed and soaked for 1-2 hours in salted water (or well rinsed)
1 onion, chopped
2 cups fresh mushrooms, scrubbed and sliced or quartered
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 potatoes, peeled and diced
2 medium carrots, diced
1/2 cup dry sherry or red wine
1/2 cup beef broth
  • Mix seasonings in flour and use this to dredge beef and kidneys. Fry the meat in batches in hot fat (bacon fat, according to my mother) until brown on all sides. Remove meat to a casserole. Cook the onions in the same frying pan; cook till transparent and add to casserole, scraping the brown bits into the mixture. Next brown the mushrooms and add them to the meat. Then combine the garlic, potatoes and carrots and stir into the pan for about 5 minutes, until hot and partially cooked. Mix into meat mixture. Stir in sherry and broth; add bay leaf. Cover casserole and cook in 350 oven - or on low heat on the stovetop - for 1 hour, or until the meat is tender, stirring occasionally. Remove and cool; keep overnight if you like or freeze until you need it.
  • When ready to serve, cover the mixture with puff pastry, propping up the pastry with a ceramic pie bird if you have one, and cook in a preheated 375 oven for 1/2 hour, until pastry is puffed and brown and meat is bubbling. You can divide into smaller casserole dishes so you have individual servings if you prefer; adjust cooking times accordingly.

Perhaps the poet Unknown was thinking about steak 'n kid when (s)he penned this verse in 1880:
I surely never hope to view
A steak as luscious as a stew.
The latter is the tasty goal
Of elements in perfect whole,
A mad assemblage of legumes
Exuding warm ambrosial fumes,
Each seasoning of proper length,
Proving in Union there's strength.
A steak is grander, it is true,
Yet needs no special skill to brew.
It is an art a stew to make,
But anyone can broil a steak.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Ekstasy in Fernwood and home made ketchup

I was shocked to find myself at a poetry reading in fabulous Fernwood last night, on a balmy summer's eve; one of the early events offered by local publisher Richard Olafson in celebration of the 25th anniversary of his press, Ekstasis Editions. George Melnyk was in town, reading from his Elegy for a Poem Garden, poems and photographs inspired by a visit to Ian Hamilton Finlay's original. Yvonne Blomer read from her new poetry collection, A Broken Mirror, Fallen Leaf; and Eric Miller read from his collection of essays, The Reservoir.

Summer's put me in the mood for bbq foods like smokies and hamburgers, and as I checked my condiments I realised I had no Ketchup, so whipped some up from a recipe I've had and tinkered with for years. It beats anything you can buy and is infinitely adjustable to suit all tastes 'n flavours.

1¼ cups crushed tomatoes (12 oz can) or tomato paste
1 c water
¼ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp mace
pinch cloves
¼ tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/3 c cider vinegar
1 tsp molasses
1 tbsp sugar or honey
  • Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and simmer until thick, about 40 minutes. Store in fridge and freeze any surplus.
To guide you as you aim for the right consistency, let us give the last word to that prolific author Anonymous:
Tomato Ketchup

If you do not shake the bottle
None'll come and then a lot'll.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Festival finale




The plastic wristbands have been snipped off, the sunburns are being soothed and the festival t-shirts and cds are being assessed for staying power. Where does the festival time go?

Sunday was a little anticlimactic for me music-wise, but excelled in the food and weather departments. I had a pretty wonderful freshly made waffle for breakfast with strawberries (canned) and whipping cream (aerosol) from Cornstars; alas the Second Cup coffee was so thin we had to get extra shots of espresso from D'Amore's Deli to get us through our morning. My India Palace lunch was so good - chicken bhoona and saffron rice - that I had supper - beef and potato curry with a crispy samosa - from the same place.

Started off the day with a couple of nicely done jazz numbers from Mary Coughlan before wandering off to catch up on the latest from the Wailin Jennies - absolutely mobbed at their stage, and double-mobbed at the same stage when Greg Brown arrived in his railway cap to thrill all the women way down to their toes with his deep deep voice. Wandered aimlessly for a while buying trinkets at the craft tent and seeking shade from the blistering sun. Bopped along to Balfa Toujours for a few numbers, then caught a few home truths from Iris DeMent, and on to the supper hour, beating the worst of the food queues and fending off the swarm of entrepreneurial youngsters who offer to return re-usable plates for you (pocketing your toonie deposit). Salif Keita and his 9 musical companions were followed by the neo-folk-activist harmonies of Chumbawamba, and we packed up our tarp after the Blind Boys from Alabama shook a few birds from the trees, not waiting for Sarah Harmer or the singalong finale.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Edmonton folk 'n food

Arrived in festival city on Wednesday and have been having a fine old reunion with my former home. We ate at the BulGoGi House where the bulgalbi (ribs) were as fabulous as the smells of barbecuing beef had suggested; some jap chae (sweet potato noodles) to pad out the nooks and crannies and we were done. Friday we dined at the Urban Diner, a good place for a satisfying plate of meat loaf, or liver and onions, or fried chicken, or some very tall desserts.

The folk festival has been a good 'un, with one day left. 27 years old now and running like a huge but well-oiled machine, yet still friendly and easy going. Have not braved the beer tent queues, but managed to experience plenty else. Some rain and chill the first night weakened my will to persist on the second, and so I missed highlighters Susan Tedeschi, the Neville Brothers and the Friday night workshops; but I also passed on a night on the hill in steady rain, chilly temperatures and a nasty late evening breeze that I'm told moved half the audience to leave before finale by Hawksley Workman, starting late on top of bad weather.

James Keelaghan led the ill-fated Saturday session I was at, featuring Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies, Lennie Gallant and Show of Hands. The clouds we'd watched blubber in from the west finally cut loose in the second number and the musicians watched awestruck as audience members hauled out rain gear, ponchos, umbrellas and either scattered for cover or stared them down from the assault and battery of a spectacular hailstorm. Eventually Jez picked up his guitar and wooed back the sun with Singin' in the Rain, and gradually the precipitation slowed to a trickle and the audience dribbled back to full numbers. The sun was out again before they were done. Awesome organisation by the festival crew who were out shortly thereafter raking sand across the slickest puddles, and we were dried off and restored to sunny normalcy within a couple of hours. Thanked our lucky stars we'd stopped in at Mountain Equipment Coop and Mark's Work Wearhouse the night before to top up our supply of quick-dry clothing and rain gear.

Saturday afternoon at the aptly named Master Class - Ricky Skaggs, the excellent five-piece doubled-up band billing as Southern Routes, a couple of members of Solas, together with terrific last minute substitution Oscar Lopez - burned a hole in the workshop experience, with Lopez setting an unbeatable pace on guitar and the others nimbly galloping alongside on a variety of instruments - mandolin, banjo, fiddles, bass and accordion. Sometimes it just all comes together like magic, and this was one great gathering. The group rendition of the old Hank Williams standard Jambalay was jaw dropping.

Tonight I heard what I came to hear: David Gray, in a fabulously elaborate setup, backed by five musicians, performing with manic diffidence. His show was geared to sell the new album, yet generously woven through with plenty of old favourites from White Ladder... We all knew closing time was nigh with the wistful, pumping piano that signalled the start of Babylon.

Other highlights so far for me: The Waifs, Feist - smoky supercharged melodies. The effortless power and purity of Linda Ronstadt's voice; gorgeous music in well chosen ballads. Some beautiful churning Cajun fiddles from Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.

The food on offer is above average but you have to shop carefully. I had some excellent mango-mint salad from Homefire Grill the first night, and the same vendor's bison stew was given a thumbs up by my dining companion; tonight I supped on a big meal of beef and chicken skewers together with a tasty shredded papaya salad (scary for unsuspecting vegetarians - it featured slivers of beef jerky) from Hoang Long. But mostly it's down to that comforting festival formula: variations on fried dough. Elephant ears (aka whale tails, beaver tails etc etc) with fruit (edible but somewhat disappointing - just canned pie fillings in apple and strawberry) for breakfast; green onion cakes and deep fried pork dumplings for lunch.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Market Envy

We have a lot of excellent markets and farm shops in Victoria, but reading a pair of articles in the Guardian about food markets made me pine and yearn all over again. Borough Market is one I try to visit every time I'm in London, and it seems to get better every time; the variety and quality are staggering, and the ambience incomparable. In the companion article about new vs traditional food markets the excellent point was made that marketeers offer human contact in an age where we're removed not only from the source of our food itself but also from the people who raise, process and package it. And that small scale trading in food is not a bad way to make a living, for both sides of the barrow. Supermarkets are cheap, fast and impersonal, like so much of our world today; I'd rather give my money straight to the farmer if I can.

It's not unlike buying discounted books: if you buy a cut-price read from Walmart or Costco or an online discounter, you are also cutting the royalties of the writer, which are slender enough. So too the farmer loses on the profit margin for retailing through supermarkets. So I don't begrudge paying a supermarket price to a farmer any more than I do paying the retail book price to an author (who's had to purchase the book from the publisher).

Something struck me in a recent interview with 87-year old Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
"My poetics are totally different to something like the Ginsberg school, which is based on the idea of 'first thought, best thought'. It is a solid concept to get the most direct transcription of your consciousness, especially if the person doing it has an original mind. Allen Ginsberg had a fascinating and genius mind and so the poetry is fascinating and genius. But when this method is laid on to thousands of students, many of whom don't have original minds, you get acres of boring poetry."


Monday, August 07, 2006

Juggling jam jars and polishing poems

Exhausting times in the kitchens of chaos. Blackberry season is upon us, the apples are waxing and the corn has hit the shelves, or rather the bins of Silver Rill. The jam jars are filling, batch by batch. This week I've made two kinds: plum and blackberry, and salal, raspberry and blackberry. I've stewed blackberries and apples and picked some oregon grapes and juiced them ready for the next batch. I have accepted the cruel truth that there is not one plum to be had from my trees and am biding my time till the apples are fully ripe, dusting off the juicer in anticipation. I thawed some frozen apple, blackberry and carrot juice I made last summer and agreed with myself that baby carrots are the bee's knees in a combo like that.

Between cauldrons of jam I looked up some information about writing competitions that's come my way. Alors, you can sense the coming of autumn when you hear that the CBC Literary Awards competition is open already. The deadline this year is November 1st, 2006. Poets are advised to note that the word limits for poetry have been changed to between 1000 and 2000 words. A first prize of $6000 and a second prize of $4000 are awarded in each category, poetry, short story, and creative nonfiction. Winning texts are also published in enRoute magazine and broadcast on CBC Radio.

Well in advance of deadline, I visited the site of Poet's Letter to read about the Beowulf Poetry Competition, whose first prize is a staggering £10,000.00, and which gives you until July 31, 2007 to get your entries in. The theme for the 2006/07 Prize is Poetry of Cities (anything and everything about cities: living, growing up, working, falling in love, buildings, architecture, engineering, arts, culture, food, suffering, agonies and joys).

The July issue of Poet's Letter magazine features our very own Victorian, Yvonne Blomer, who had wandered off to England for year to earn her University of East Anglia MA.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The 100th post

Goodness, I have blogged 100 times since February.

Years ago, when I was still naively eyeing the glossy chrome and enamel glitz of Kitchen Aid mixers, pining after industrial-looking Kenwood kitchen machines, and had bought a wimpy but ever-so compact Braun all-in-one mixer/food processor/blender to fit in my tiny English cupboard, my mother had the wisdom to snap up a couple of Bosch kitchen machines for herself and my sister-in-law. These are serious mixers, but more importantly they sell on the principle that you keep them for life and add bits and pieces as you need them. Mine has a blender and slicer/shredder in addition to the mixer with its whisk and dough hooks and has been churning along happily for over 20 years, its white finish yellowing but its motor unfazed by anything I throw at it. The local supplier is helpful and creative, and her very useful website now offers online cooking courses by the batch, using simple narrated slideshows. There's a free one on making bread in 1 hour 15 minutes, and if that doesn't make you rush out and buy a Bosch right now I don't know what will.

There's a good discussion about poetry on CBC's Canada Reads pages. During this year's Canada Reads series, the question was asked, What makes something a poem and not paragraph? and the query was finally answered by several poets. I thought Susan Musgrave's response was particularly good: "It troubles me that others worry about this distinction (between what is poetry and what is prose): either the poem affects you, or it does not."

Another literary competition with a charity reaping the rewards has a looming deadline. The Canadian Aid charity offers commercial publication of a previously unpublished book-length manuscript. Deadline is August 31.