Posts Tagged ‘food’

I sometimes think that the hardest part of being a widower is not learning to live alone, but going to a party. To my relief, nobody has tried to fix me up with anyone (although I fear it’s only a matter of time), but everybody does something far worse: they try to send me home with food.

Apparently, it’s a heartfelt conviction that, because I live alone, I must be either starving or else eating at restaurants seven nights a week. Or perhaps people imagine that I’m like one acquaintance whose idea of meal preparation was to cook seven pounds of hamburger on Sunday night then wrap it up in seven pieces. The idea that I might actually enjoy cooking, or find it an important part of my routine never occurs to them.

The truth of the matter is very different. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I made a point of stocking my kitchen with basic supplies and taking a cook book, in the firm belief that normal adults, male or female, should know how to feed themselves. This outlook baffled the room mate I had briefly, whose idea of food was whatever he could find to eat when he was hungry.

In fact, one reason we parted ways was that I thought he should reciprocate and do some cooking occasionally. But his idea of cooking was to fry an egg, and, after he burned through an over mitt by leaning on a stove burner while he was talking, I thought it wiser not to insist.

When I married, I continued to cook twenty-nine days of the month out of thirty. Often, I was working from home, so I was the logical cook if we were going to eat before midnight. I didn’t mind; it was better than washing dishes, and freed me (I used to claim) to dirty as many pots and pans as I wanted, secure in the knowledge that I would never have to scrub them.

Besides, preparing a meal helped to divide my work and personal time – a line that easily blurs when you work at home. Instead of a commute, I drag myself away from the computer and spend half an hour in the kitchen, clearing my mind by focusing on the simple tasks of cutting up vegetables and mixing sauces.

As a result, while nobody would call me a gourmet, I like to think that I know my way around a kitchen. My freezer is packed with meats and berries, the refrigerator with vegetables and fruit. I have firm ideas on which spices or cheeses I should use in a given circumstance. I have two dozen standard dishes, ranging from sweet potato pie or risotto to lasagna or meatloaf for days when I’m not feeling imaginative, several dozen side dishes such as potat bravas, corn fritters, or spanakopita I can mix and match for variation, and a dozen carefully selected cook books I can use as the starting point for improvisation when I experiment. Unless I’m meeting a friend, I only eat out or order take in a couple of times a month, usually when my work has run late or on the Friday after an exhausting week.

In short, I am a better than average cook. Moreover, many of my friends should know that, because I’ve fed them. Yet, at the end of a party, surveying the leftovers and wondering what to do with them, everyone seems to forget that fact. Perhaps they even see a chance to do a kindness. All the same, I’m irked to be an object of pity, and annoyed that my hard-won competence in the kitchen is overlooked.

But of course I say none of this. Instead, I express my thanks, declining the offer with the (usually) true excuse that my freezer and fridge are full. Then, just before I leave, I check my pack for any stray tupperware containers that might have been slipped into it when I wasn’t looking.

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When I was younger, I loved dark chocolate or good quality milk chocolate. Add almonds to either, and, if I wasn’t bodily lifted into heaven, I’d feel that I was about to be. But eight years ago, I gave up chocolate for the same reason that I gave up coffee: the caffeine was too much for me; forty grams, and I’d have a buzz for the next day. It’s been a learning experience, to say the least.

To start with, not eating chocolate is only marginally more acceptable than smoking. Basically, North America is organized for chocolate lovers.

If you don’t believe me, go into a corner store and try to find a snack that doesn’t include chocolate. With luck, you’ll find gum, a few hard candies, and nuts or sunflower seeds so heavily salted that most people should avoid them. The best recourse is usually to find a deli or a bakery, neither of which is especially common.

Go out to dinner, and you have the same problem. If a restaurant has six dessert items, four or five usually have chocolate. Often, the desserts not only have chocolate, but several other sweet, sticky ingredients like raspberry syrup, and could strike you with Type 2 Diabetes if you weren’t careful to gaze at them only in a mirror.

When you eat in somebody’s home, it’s even worse. No matter how often you explain that you don’t eat chocolate or why, friends and family never remember. After the main course, they usher in some masterpiece in chocolate that they’ve slaved over more than the rest of the dinner put together, and you have to tell them that, regrettably, you can’t have any if you plan on sleeping that night.

I’m not sure which is worst: the look of betrayal, or the pitying gaze that follows it, as though to not eat chocolate is to be excommunicate from the communion of desserts. At times, I’m driven to lie and simply say that I’m full, rather than endure that pity or the explanation for my abstention.

There’s no way, either, to tell all those who pity you that you don’t really miss the chocolate. Their tastes are so conditioned that they don’t understand that there are flavors beyond the simple combination of sugar, fats, and caffeine.

Probably, few people would believe you if you tried to persuade them. Honey? Cinnamon? Nutmeg? We are now well into the third or fourth generation of North Americans for whom savories, let alone other forms of sweetness, are not just unknown, but distasteful.

But honestly? Giving up chocolate has helped me to discover so many different flavors that, far from pining for it like an addict, I don’t miss it at all. These days when I’m offered chocolate, my reaction resembles that of Peter Wimsey when offered Turkish delight – I refuse with a delicate shudder, thinking a taste for chocolate childish and unrefined.

And for that heresy I am cast into the social darkness, forced to walk the purgatory of those who avoid the normal social vices and generally unable to snack when away from home.

Like I said, though, I don’t really mind.

The food is really much better where I am. You see, the taste’s not blotted out by chocolate.

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Having been a student and a freelancer for much of my marriage, I’ve also tended to be the chef. I’ve been home more often, and preparing the evening meal helps to divide my working day from my personal time. Besides, while I enjoy the creativity of cooking, I have a pronounced distaste for washing dishes while my partner doesn’t mind the task and dislikes cooking, so the division of labor is a natural one (although I probably take unfair advantage by dirtying more pots than I would if I had to clean them myself) . And, like any domestic chef, I’ve developed my own repertoire of specialties – most of them hearty peasant dishes, which I’ve always found has more possibilities than haute cuisine.

The one I’ve been making the longest is lasagna As made by most people, lasagna is protein and carbohydrate-heavy, and mine is no exception, with three cheeses (in the current incarnation, Chevrai, fresh Parmesan, and Swiss) and lean turkey forming the layers between whole wheat pasta. To round off the meal, I had snap peas and basil leaves, along with a heaping mound of shredded spinach, and season with garlic and basil.

Another long-time favorite is sweet potato pie. It starts with a crust of semolina, barley and shredded carrots. Within the crust, I place a mixture of sweet potato, honey, lemon, HP sauce Parmesan, and cashews rather than the usual pecan – a habit begun because of the high cost of pecans but continued in our latter days of relative affluence because of the smoother taste. On top of this mixture, I place a layer of wheat germ, and whatever cheese is at hand on top of that. I often serve it with sausages and roast potato, but it can easily be a vegetarian meal by itself.

Then there’s my Greek meal. It begins with saganaki, or kefaloteri cheese rolled in egg and semolina, fried with constant flipping in olive oil, and served with a capful of lemon juice. On the side, I do whole wheat pita bread baked in an oven – never fried! — and spread with either butter or humous. The main course is dolmathes (grape vine leaves stuffed with meat, cheese, rice and sometimes a bit of carrot, as my whimsy takes me, and topped with an egg lemon or pesto sauce), potatoes roasted in butter, lemon juice and dill, spanakopita (spinach, feta cheese, and spices wrapped in phyllo pastry), and – just for contrast – unadorned peas and corn. Ideally, the meal is served with retsina, the rotgut resinous wine that you either adore or hate at first sip (I adored).

A couple of years ago, I added a meal based on Spanish tapas I’d enjoyed at the now closed El Patio restaurant at the edge of Vancouver’s Yaletown district. The main dish, which has deviated so far from its origins that I no longer have a name for it) consists of shredded ham and a mixture composed of equal amounts of semolina and Parmesan, as well as rosemary, garlic, and a hearty splash of red wine. I knead this mixture into small balls, which I coat with pesto or fine herb sauce, then bake in the oven. I serve the dish with potat bravas, or diced potato baked or fried in olive oil until just short of crispy, then baked for another ten minutes with a mixture of tomato sauce and mustard with paprika and cayenne pepper.

These aren’t all my special meals. In homage to my ancestry, I used to do a mean Yorkshire pudding, although I haven’t made it for a while. I also do a risotto, three bean chile, meat loaf, and turkey fillet in a lemon-honey sauce, all with my own original touches. However, the four described in detail are the ones I’m proudest of, and most likely to serve to a guest or bring along to a potluck. I’m very far from an expert chef, but, with these four meals, I’ve improvised enough to make them distinctly mine.

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