Monday, January 28, 2008

Tons of Tonnato

A less than beautiful substance caught my attention in Parma last year. I would see it in the windows of delis and think, mmm, a platter of grey sludge: how appetising! And then I tasted.... Last night I had my second successful experience making a version of Vitello Tonnato, served over hard-boiled eggs to make it Uova Tonnato. We thought it would be good as a dip or dressing for vegetables, or drizzled over cold poached fish, as well. It's smooth and delicate when properly made, and its flavours meld to a point it becomes hard to identify. I made a variation of Delia's version (less the eggs and garlic). Interestingly, Vitello Tonnato is mentioned quite often (translated as Veal in Tuna Sauce, which does not sound so appealing to me) in the book about the origins of Slow Food, Slow Food Revolution, which makes sense since it is a Northern Italian specialty.

I also wanted to report that the vegetarian haggis worked out really well on Burns Night, even without being piped in and addressed. It's not a million miles from a nut loaf, to be fair, but it's not all that different in texture or flavour from the real thing either.

Went for a hike to Witty's Lagoon on the weekend. In one of those quirks of the weather systems (and with apologies to my countrypeople currently suffering -40c temperatures) our pleasant afternoon of this....

gave way, a few miles up the road, to this:

Friday, January 25, 2008

Reading week

I have had a good run of reading lately. After finishing In Defense of Food, which I have charmed all my acquaintances by quoting from incessantly, I finished reading the book that came out of The 100 Mile Diet yesterday. I liked the attention the authors paid to making things - crackers, pasta, sauerkraut - from scratch, and it was interesting to learn what was and wasn't easy to come by in and around Vancouver.

I have Shopped and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle standing by to begin, but am now reading Peter Singer and Jim Mason's The Way We Eat - Why Our Food Choices Matter. The authors are a philosopher (specialising in bio-ethics) and a lawyer from a farm family. It's got a lot to do with who pays for our food choices: if we buy cheap food, someone (maybe us) will pay, in many ways. More about that another day.

I'm also reading a history of the Slow Food movement, called Slow Food Revolution.

It's Burns Night, and I found several recipes for vegetarian haggis, which I had eaten a couple of times in Scotland before Christmas; it was very nice with neeps and tatties and a dollop of onion gravy. Here's another (bit simpler) one.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Food, poetry, film, school dinners

A foodie poet has told me about a literary journal in New York, Alimentum, which is about food! I had also heard that Gastronomica publishes poetry. Good to have a couple of markets for food poetry.

Went to see How to Cook Your Life last night, a foodie delight; a German documentary about an American Zen master and foodie. I particularly liked the talk about respecting food, and about waste: treat the food, he said, as if it was your eyesight, as if it was that precious, and don't waste a single grain.

Saw the film made of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly on the weekend: wow.

It made me ask myself why I hadn't found the time to read a book that was so unbelievably painstaking for its author to write. But it has become a beautiful film, with - yes - food involved, improbable enough for a character fed by tube (significantly for a Frenchman, perhaps, one of the incentives offered by his physiotherapist is that he must learn to swallow so that he can eat normally). One of his fantasies involves a prolonged and sensual seafood feast, mostly raw oysters of course, but it looked like there were a few calimari on the table as well.

And interesting and heartening to see that the UK school system is introducing cooking classes so that teenagers leave school able to to more than operate a microwave. Jamie Oliver is credited with waking up the British public to the same sorts of issues about juvenile nutrition and food skills that Alice Waters has been talking up on this side of the Atlantic.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Vancouver's Italian food trail

The day after the BC government announced funding for improvements for the province's transportation, I travelled from Victoria to Vancouver using only public transportation. For those not familiar with the art of getting off this island, my options were:

1. Fly: from the Inner Harbour, round-trip fares run about $275 (tax included) on a seaplane; airport to airport it's about $300, plus local travel costs. I guess it would take 2-3 hours door to door. Each direction.

2. Drive: the ferry fare would have been $47.80 in each direction, a round-trip cost of $95.60, plus gas and parking in Vancouver. To make the ferry I wanted (without incurring an extra $35 round-trip reservation fee) I would have had to allow about 4-5 hours travel time door to door, in each direction.

Private bus line (this company has a monopoly on direct non-stop service to and from ferry terminals on both sides): the round-trip cost would be $83.00 plus about $10 in local bus fares, and it would have taken (door to door) about 5 hours in each direction.

4. Public bus service
: the round trip cost was $39.60 and it took me about 6 hours, door to door each way. Curiosities of public bus travel include: the Vancouver bus fare was a nice round $5 from Tsawwassen terminal, but they will only take coins! The Victoria bus that runs from Swartz Bay terminal to downtown costs $3 (and will take bills) but the route's publicity shouts out that they have no room for luggage: We do our best to accommodate all customers, they tell us, but oversize luggage and backpacks can be difficult to accommodate on any transit system.

So whatever you do, you lose. Though I was happy with the economies of my route - and I managed to read all of Michael Pollan's terrific new book, In Defense of Food, during the trip, which put the ferry's dismal food offerings into perspective. I was pleased to have brought my own: which was indeed food; not too much; mostly plants.

Once I arrived, I had just time to forage for a quick supper, and found some truly awful sushi on the food floor of an underground mall at Granville Station, then went on to an STC meeting to learn something about authoring documents with DITA.

The next day, to keep me from drifting too fully into the dark world of technical writing, I was whisked away to spend a delightful day touring some Italian groceries. Our first stop was the wonderful Cioffi's, which has an awesome meat counter, generous offerings of salumi, olives and cheeses. I bought some taralli! and a few pieces of their excellent pancetta for our risotto of the evening; the staff were extremely kind and charming.

Then on to Ugo & Joe's, which was very big and had lots and lots of meats and cheeses on offer, although I paused at seeing some cheese labelled as "Grana Parmigiano"... hmm; something not quite kosher there; because they were also selling cheese labelled Parmigiano-Reggiano, I wonder if the mystery cheese may have been my old friend Grana Padano, the labelling blurring some boundaries between two quite different products. Because both these cheeses are technically referred to as "Grana" cheeses, meaning they are similar styles of cheese - hard and granular - produced in much the same way (though the rules over milk quality and length of aging are the chief differences) it is technically correct to call the artisanal product Grana Parmigiano-Reggiano; what this particular shop meant by "Grana Parmigiano" will have to remain a mystery until my next visit.

After that, we were a little peckish, so we stopped at Pasticceria Italia where the pizza had been recommended to us. It looks like their bread can't get any fresher as there was a customer outside cooling his loaves on the roof of his car when we got there. We bought a giant slab of tomato & cheese pizza, which was fabulous. The lovely woman behind the counter said to us, "See you tomorrow!" and we sure understood what she meant.

Then another treasure - Renzullo Food Market was compact but well-provisioned, and the owners were delightful, knowledgeable and friendly.

We then did a swift little tour of offerings on one corner of Commercial Drive.

We stopped first at Fratelli bakery, then to the La Grotta del Formaggio (lots of cheese, yes, and a great selection of olive oils which we had to fight the crowd thronging the sandwich bar to get to). Most excitingly, I saw a familiar package on the pasta shelf: it was our old pal Spinosi from Le Marche! Very thrilling to know that his products have made it to this far outpost of the pasta eating world.

We then nipped down the block to the doors of
JN & Z Deli which sadly for us were closed (winter holiday), and so we finally subsided with a giant, strong and beautiful cappuccino at Continental.

A final stop at Bosa's spacious big store, where I came away with a giant bag of beautiful fresh walnuts.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sweet Mama, what a week

Not a monumental one, but a week in which food and poetry converged at last.

Some good food coverage on CBC, including a week on hospital food, a whole series on food issues in the new India, and an interview with Michael Pollan.

I spent one morning of slashing rain interspersed with bright sunshine driving up the Saanich Peninsula to my favourite grocery stop, Michell Brothers Farm, where I loaded up on leeks, tubers, squash and other winter vegetables. Then on to Dan's Farm Shop to pick up a Farmer Dan's Chicken and some organic chicken sausages, and then home to puzzle over my bounty. I had some leek & yogurt soup with dried mint, (using a broth made of my last Farmer Dan's Chicken) which was fabulous and just as I remembered it.

I am looking forward to eating the Sweet Mama squash which Michell's grows. My clever cousin, who had encountered it first in New Zealand where they ate it with roast lamb, told me to slice it into wedges and roast it, with or without other vegetables or a Sunday joint, which I have been doing - it's wonderful, including the skin, very sweet and moist. Michell's sells both Sweet Mama and Buttercup which looks almost indistinguishable, which got me to wondering about it.

Apparently it is a kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) variety. It can be cooked in Mirin, soy sauce and broth and if you ignore the advice about skinning it, eaten whole that way, a very waste not want not recipe, or you can make it into soup - though you'll probably have to sacrifice the skin (thinner and more tender than most squash I've found, and also tasty) for aesthetic reasons. You could also use it in a pumpkin risotto.

The bad news for growers is that it's a hybrid and according to at least one source, can't be grown through seed saving.

I went to Planet Earth Poetry last night, for the first time since my return. It was the first reading of the new year and the place was heaving with youth and energy. There was a lengthy open mike, of good standard - including Linda Rogers, Barbara Pelman, Yvonne Blomer and Pam Porter - all of whom recently had Christmas poems in great big pages of the local paper. Then as ever the young scamps who'd just come to read or hear their buddies in the open mike disappeared and paying seats opened up for the main acts. Sina Queyras flew in from Montreal and young performance poet Martin Hazelboweer paddled over from Vancouver. Queyras had a satisfying revenge poem, The Tummy-Flat Girls, about some of her more resistant ex-students; it showcased well an interesting poetic quirk, a kind of list form (or ok, let's call it anaphora) which seems to feature in pretty much all her poems.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

All kinds of water

Hard not to start the year in a state of environmental angst. Water is always topical here on Vancouver Island: we either have too much or too little at any given time.

In this our water-fronted, rain-sodden wintertime in Victoria, it's hard to look ahead to our annual drought season, or to grasp the issues around water waste through the year. So I was interested to hear Costing the Earth this week, which was about how each of us can make a small change to our lifestyles - including being more aware of water use - to improve our record on consumer waste, which contributes to all kinds of evil.

One of the things they talked about was the concept of embedded water - how much water does it take to produce, for example, a single pint of beer (170 litres). Meat is, as usual, the worst enemy: a hamburger (150g) takes 2,400 litres to produce, because of the water needed to raise the animal it comes from. That of course is before you factor in the climactic damage caused by clearing Amazonian rainforest to grow soya to feed northern hemisphere cattle.

The commentator spoke to an environmental activist who was so horrified by what he saw when he visited the Amazon some years ago, he came back to London and changed his life. Among the other things he did was to install solar panels - yes, in London - to heat his water, power his fridge and generate electricity in sufficient quantity to make him the first individual to sell power back to the national grid. He gathers rainwater from his roof to use for flushing his toilet and washing the floor, and meets 75% of his water needs that way.

Over and over the commentator asked, what about China? We could all bend backwards, lower the thermostat, keep our heating off when we're not in the house, buy less of the things that will go to waste -- and meanwhile the Chinese are striving for all they're worth to be big wasteful consumers just like us.

And the answer was, set a new consumer/environmental standard for those who aspire to a good standard of living. And in doing that, remember that "every single small action you take does make a difference."

Another bit of trivia I was reading about: the British Medical Journal's discounting of the 8 glasses of water a day rule that used to cause us all to have a glass, if not a beaker, of water at our desks over the last decade or two.

"There's a lack of medical evidence showing you need to down this much water daily," says the Globe & Mail.
This common prescription can be traced to a 1945 medical recommendation that stated: "A suitable allowance of water for adults is 2.5 litres daily in most instances. An ordinary standard for diverse persons is one ml for each calorie of food. Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods."

If the last, crucial sentence is ignored, the statement could be interpreted as an instruction to drink eight glasses of water a day. Evidence suggests you can meet all your fluid needs through food and other beverages including juices, milk and even caffeinated drinks.
And finally, maybe if we don't have to drink so many glasses of it, we can cut our use of bottled water - with its embedded packaging, transport and retail costs - and go back to the tap. Gosh, who remembers drinking fountains?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Something for the new year

A lot of you expressed envy at my departure for Italy to study food for a year, and to anyone of that mindset in the Victoria area I offer glad tidings: my classmate Don Genova is offering a course at UVic called Food Culture: Fast Food to Slow Food which covers a lot of the sorts of things we learned in Italy. It gives you the opportunity to meet local food producers and doesn't incur the cost of travel to Italy (though you might feel a need to go once it's over!).

Here's Don's blog/podcast site if you want to get a sense of who he is. He's a good speaker and he knows everyone, so I think it will be a great class. (And no, I'm not getting a commission, though I have certainly offered to be his assistant!!)

Anyone not in Victoria will perhaps enjoy looking at the scenery (from a walk along the Gorge on Boxing Day) and wishing you were here...

But it's not all fun and games in Lotusland. We do have a police presence here, and environmentally-minded transportation for them. We weren't sure what crimes were being fought at this point but it may have been that one of the fisherfolk needed help with a dodgy lure..?