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Petit Dejeuner
01 April 2007 @ 23:25
Victoria in the early 1980s was home to exactly two Indian restaurant: the Taj Mahal and Da Tandoor. My parents, fresh from a year in London, undaunted by the fact that the closest restaurant was across town, still ordered curry on a regular basis. My four year-old palate was deemed to young for proper curries but I was allowed to try naan bread, chappatis, and poppadums. My earliest memory, though, is not of the food but of crawling into the large box that the delivery had come in and falling asleep smelling newsprint and cumin.

After that early introduction, curry seemed to fade from my consciousness until a good decade and a half later. It was one of the first Christmasses after my parents had split up and we made the decision, consciously or otherwise, to not try to replicate previous years. This Christmas would be different. And the first thing to change was Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve had meant pasta at home, followed by driving around to look at the Christmas lights, before heading to the nearby church for midnight mass. This Christmas, my brothers, mum and I went downtown to have dinner before church at the cathedral. The only place open for dinner on Christmas Eve was the Taj Mahal and as this was as different from pasta as you could get, it suited perfectly. I had my first Indian meal: vegetarian biryani, and cup after cup of sweet chai. We were the only ones in the restaurant, and it felt nothing like Christmas Eve. A new tradition was born.

But it wasn't until I moved to Scotland that I really experienced curry. The Balaka in St Andrews had been recognised as the best curry restaurant in Britain and it didn't take me long to try it out. I ordered chicken korma and peshwari naan, indulged in coconut and cream, and was hooked.

Curry was an almost weekly occasion and I'm ashamed to admit I seldom ventured beyond the mild, creamy curries: until I started dating a guy from Dundee almost two years later. By this time, I'd learned that mild curries come with connotations of their own. Those who stick to kormas and butter chickens are not regarded as true curry eaters, and while a madras or jalfreezi wins the ultimate approval, a mere venture beyond the children's page of the menu is seen as acceptable. I switched to rogan josh and while I secretly harboured a longing for the coconut korma, a nasty bout of flu after one such takeaway was enough to cure me of that for a few years at least.

Now, I head towards the vegetarian options: the sag aloo and daal are favourites. I prefer poppadums to naan, and I drink lager instead of lassis. I may have been late but now, when it comes to curry, I've finally learned to think outside the box.

****

I've eaten a lot of curry this week. It started last weekend when we went to visit some friends, just back from India. I ate so much that I sat in a sag aloo stupor for the rest of the evening. Last night, it was our turn to entertain as friends of ours came over for a (vegetarian) curry feast to celebrate their engagement.

My other half claims that he does his best culinary magic with lentils. His lentil soup is my favourite, but his daal is awfully good too. Tonight he whipped up daal as well as a sag aloo and an aubergine curry, mountains of basmati rice, and naan. For dessert, I made the somewhat incongruous rasberry pavlova.

The daal was fantastic. Tasting almost nutty, it was flavoured with garlic, ginger and coriander and I mopped it up with the hot bread. The sag aloo was fresh and light and the aubergines rounded the plate out with a welcome dash of red. I cleaned my plate, even scraping the last traces of mango chutney with a corner of a poppadum. Better than the take-away down the road? You bet, and with leftovers to boot.
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Petit Dejeuner
22 March 2007 @ 12:45
Where I grew up, pizza was square. We didn't get take-out; my mother made our pizza from scratch, rolling the dough and chopping the onions, peppers, mushrooms, pepperoni, and olives. Because we only had one round tray, she would make the pizza on cookie sheets in large rectangles, meaning we ate squares instead of slices, for which she would always apologise.

While she cooked, I would hover around, stealing bits of mozzarella and pepperoni and waiting until the sauce had been spread on the dough with the back of a spoon. Then I was allowed to scatter the toppings, a task I managed with varying degrees of success usually requiring my mother to tidy up the sections after me. I wouldn't allow peppers near my part, while my brothers refused olives and mushrooms. My mother's pizza was beautiful: not at all oily, with a dusting of cornflour under the crust and brown, blistered mozzarella on top.

Fast food pizza was welcome too, but it held a different place in my heart. Greasy brown boxes filled with soft, fluffy dough and layers of cheese, pizza days at school were always a favourite (when I remembered to bring my $2). Later, slices of Brickyard pizza - each slice weighing in at a pound - eaten standing up with one last beer, were the perfect ending to a night out.

My mother's was always the paragon of pizza, though, and given the choice between take-out and home-made, she won every time. But I confess that the decision wasn't based solely on the pizza: a major deciding factor was what would happen the next morning. When she made pizza, my mother always made a little extra dough. She would wrap this tightly in plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge overnight. And then, the next morning she would divide the dough into little balls, flatten them, and shallow fry them in oil. From the skillet she would drop them onto a paper towel and dust them with powdered sugar before placing them in front of us. Hot, sweet, and better than donuts, sadly they always filled me up before I was satiated. They were amazing.

I'd always thought that this pizze frite was a bizarre family thing, but a few years ago I found mention of it in an Italian cookbook. There, they sprinkled the fried dough with salt and herbs but it was still the same idea. Somehow, finding that mention made me feel more connected to my Italian family than anything else. A few years ago I went to Rome, with the intent of eating my way from Rome to Florence. One of the first and most common things I ate was pizza. Bought cold and by the slice, in Rome they cut as big as you wanted and then weighed it and charged accordingly. And, in this the home of pizza, my mother would be delighted to know that the pizza they served was always square.

***
Wednesday night is date night and last night was the classic dinner and a movie. We didn't have much time before the show so went for a quick meal at a nearby Italian where they do wonderful log-fired pizzas. I ordered the proscuittio e funghi: olives, mushrooms and rosemary topped with slices of thin, smokey ham. The food arrived quickly: plates of pizzas bigger than my head with think, crisp crusts. The waiter plunked down a large caraffe of 'chili oil', as they always do, and as I always do I wondered what exactly I was meant to do with it. Extra oil on pizza is not something I've ever thought necessary, but before I could consider for too long the precious container was whisked away to the next table where it was met with more confused looks.

We were starving, and ate faster than we'd intended. The glasses of wine emptied, and we still had time for a quick coffee before the movie. I was too full for popcorn but strangely, I could have managed another pizza.
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Petit Dejeuner
19 March 2007 @ 15:45
There's snow forecast for today, and even though there's not a cloud in the sky I'm pretending. I have a woolly sweater on, even though the office is heated, and I keep pressing my nose to the window like an overexcited Labrador puppy. Chances are we won’t see a flake, and if we do that it will have melted before it hits the ground, but I don’t care. Waiting for snow is almost as good as the event itself and when you’re young, the excitement of seeing the first flakes fall is comparable only to Christmas morning. And nothing goes along with snow better than hot chocolate.

I grew up on an island. Tucked into a peninsula, sheltered from cold temperatures and close to the sea, snow was rare. While the rest of Canada suffered under six foot falls, by February winter was a thing of the past and the only white stuff falling was cherry blossoms. But that’s not to say we never saw snow. About once a year we’d get a flurry and if we were lucky, the few inches would last a day or two. I remember a few snow days when I was very young, waiting by the radio as the list of schools was read out and praying that School District 61 would be on the list. Because Victoria was so unused to snow, it didn’t take much to close the city down and cause mass panic among drivers but we didn’t have to worry about that. Snow meant trying to find the hat and gloves somewhere in the closet and making sure you were the first person to tramp through the fresh snow. And when you came back home, red cheeked with fingers burning from the cold, there would be hot chocolate.

Hot chocolate is everything that is nice. Chocolate, like cheese, somehow manages to improve when it melts and whoever first thought to top it with cream and marshmallows deserves a medal. That’s not to say that the hot chocolate we got when we came in from playing in the snow was anything like that. More often it was packets of instant Carnation chocolate mix, with mini-marshmallows mixed in with the powder, but it still worked. Canadians do hot chocolate well: I imagine this comes from the eastern provinces where much of the year is spent under snow. Tim Hortons, the national Canadian institution and donut chain founded by an ice hockey player makes if not the best, the most iconic hot chocolate: cheap, and so sweet that even I felt slightly ill after a cup. Late night trips to Timmy Ho’s with donuts and cocoa are even now a favourite, and I always bring a tub of hot chocolate mix back to Scotland with me. (This was actually the basis of a string of Tim Horton’s advertisements just before I moved to Scotland: a Canadian student at Glasgow University writes to Tim Horton’s to tell them how much he misses them and in return gets boxes of coffee and chocolate posted to him. I should try this sometime.)

There is, of course, proper hot chocolate as well. I first learned about this in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate: chunks of dark chocolate melted slowly, mixed with milk and spices and served bitter and steaming. While vastly superior to the powdered, sweet mix I grew up with, this kind of hot chocolate can never really compare. Because really, hot chocolate is not about gourmet. It’s not about Aztec spices and pure Madagascar cocoa beans. It’s about warming your freezing fingers on a mug of sugar then heading out to try and build a snowman before the snow melts.

***
I keep getting up from my desk to go look out the window. There’s no sign of snow yet, although the clouds are turning a sort of heavy colour and it’s definitely cold outside. Mid-afternoon on a Monday, I’m in need of a little escapism.

There’s a tin of hot chocolate mix in my second drawer, and a bag of slightly crunchy marshmallows hiding there as well. I measure the three spoonfuls of powder into a stained, abandoned mug that I take from the cupboard, and then add one extra scoop for good measure. Top with hot water and stir, but not too vigorously: the lumps of undissolved chocolate powder that crunch in my teeth are one of the best parts. Returning to my desk with the spoon, I add five marshmallows (three white, two pink) and force their bobbing, dissolving stickiness under the surface to melt.

One of the things I was never good at, and still can’t do, is waiting for it to cool. No lessons learned here, I burn the roof of my mouth on the melting marshmallow and scalding water. The sun is coming through the clouds, but in my mind I’m eight years old and have just pegged my brother square in the face with a snowball. I drink the chocolate sludge from the bottom of the mug and wait for the sugar shakes to start.

You can’t beat a mug of hot chocolate.
 
 
Petit Dejeuner
11 March 2007 @ 17:52
I used to have a romantic idea of pies, formed from a book of nursery rhymes where blackbirds and whole plums were common fillings and pies were enormous, steaming affairs to be stolen and eaten in a corner. My mother didn't make many pies that had both top and bottom crusts, and certainly never ones with the three perfect slits in the centre allowing a peek of dark berry colour through the rising steam.

Instead, the pies I knew when I was younger were meat pies, bought at a pie shop in Oak Bay when my father was responsible for feeding us dinner. Our pies, wrapped in a brown paper bag, once home would be heated to the appropriate temperature in the oven and served, carefully extracted from their silver foil shells, on plates. These shells were my favourite part: I was still scared of meat in those days, and while my brothers happily tucked in to chicken or beef pies, I nibbled on a quiche Lorraine - but the silver cups gave me hours of fun. Folded in half they could be beaks for birds; left intact they were sailing ships. Glued together, UFOs.

My mother did make a few pie-like dishes: a tortiere for New Year (a French-Canadian ground beef and pastry concoction), and a potato pie were staples. Potato pie was a family favourite: mashed potatoes mixed with sour cream, topped with cheese, and baked in an open pie case: always eaten with a knife and fork.

I'll never forget my first pie in Scotland. I had just been to see Scotland play at Murrayfield (they'd lost, as they did most of the time in those days). But despite a heavy defeat, the mood was light as we walked back into town in rain. We were in Bert's Bar in the West End, surrounded by jubilant Irish, when someone pressed a pie into my hand. "Here - best in Edinburgh," he slurred through mouthfuls of pastry and gravy. "Try it." One problem: I'd never eaten a pie while standing up in a crowded bar, no plate, knife, fork, or even napkin to hand. "Just pick it up and bite it," my bemused friend instructed.

The art of pie eating, as I soon discovered, takes practice. That first pie collapsed in my hand, leaving me holding the soggy ruins of a delicious, but fast disintegrating, crust while steak and gravy dripped onto my shoe. My mistake was in both the grip and the first bite. The pie must be removed from the tin-foil shell, held firmly and confidently, and the first bite must be a level chomp through all the layers. Nibbling delicately around the edge, as I had attempted, does not work.

Since that day, I have eaten many pies. Steak and gravy is my favourite; Scotch pie will do in a pinch. Melton Mowbray pork pies are essential for any summer picnic, and a macaroni and cheese pie is actually really good. It's a world apart from the pictures in my nursery rhyme book, but when they taste as good as they do it's no wonder there are poems written about them.

*****
Saturday afternoon are about football, and football is about pies. It might be a stereotype, but it's one that I love. We're going to Easter Road, and fortunately the steak and gravy pies there are quite good. Bad pies do show up at football, much to the shame of the supporters who not only have to suffer through substandard pies but also endure the abuse of travelling support who mock their pies as much as they do the team. Good pies, however, lend you an air of credibility as a football club, regardless of the on-field performances.

Every football fan has an opinion as to where the best pies can be found. In Scotland, Kilmarnock claim that theirs are top but the word among fans is that Dunfermline's steak bridies are in fact the zenith of football savouries. My vote goes to to the first division and St Johnstone's steak pies: not only are they excellent, they're a steal at £1.80.

It's rainy this week, and cold, so by the time I get to my seat at the top of the west stand my pie has cooled enough to bite straight in. A squirt of brown sauce adorns the top, and the tang mixes with the beef and gravy. The pie vanishes in half a dozen bites, temporarily warming my insides. The foil wrapper gets folded and casually dropped under the seat and my attention turns to football: until next week.
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Petit Dejeuner
06 March 2007 @ 12:45
Wraps were the next coffee. Arriving on the scene about a dozen years ago, suddenly everything was coming up wrapped. Bagels were old; subs were passe: it was all about the wrap.

Even though the wrap comes with a high risk factor of spilling its contents down the eater's chest, it's still a hugely popular alternative to the sandwich and this success is based around one simple truth: everything taste better when it's wrapped. It's like cheese always tasting better when it's melted: it might be the same ingredients as you would put on a sandwich but wrapped, it's that little bit better. Wraps also fool you into thinking that they're healthy. There's something about the thick roll of a wrap, rather than thick slices of whole wheat bread, that exudes healthiness. Maybe it's because once everything is muddled up you can't see the mayo and the cheese, or maybe it's because they tend to crunch, but even a cheese, bacon and chicken wrap exudes a healthiness that an egg sandwich will never hope to attain. Nutritionally, there's no basis in the idea that a wrap is healthier than bread but it's a good myth to buy in to: frankly, because everything does taste better as a wrap.

When I was in university, my greatest vice was not cheep beer Thursdays or Wings Wednesdays. I'm ashamed to say it wasn't an addiction to black coffee or cigarettes. No, I was hooked on Sweet Greens' hummus wraps. Sweet Greens was a 'build your own sandwich' place on campus and although I rarely needed to stay at university long enough to warrant eating lunch, I made sure I had an excuse. A spinach green wrap would be filled with an ice-cream scoop worth of hummus and then my choice of three vegetables. Carrot, green pepper and spinach were the best but in a pinch mushroom, olives, or even cucumber could fit in. A sprinkling of salt and pepper and my wrap was ready, but at a price. $4.20 might not sound like a lot, but when you're averaging five wraps a week, it adds up. It was an expensive habit. For a time I made my own, but I still crave that perfect hummus wrap and nowhere else has come close.

Soft tacos, chicken fajitas, even just peanut butter and banana, wraps have remained a prominent feature in my menus. I suppose I could get scientific about this and argue that a wrap increases the chance of perfect coverage with each bite. Each one offers you maximum access to all ingredients, meaning that you don't end up with just salad at the bottom, or just cheese at the top. But I don't think it's that complicated. I think it's mostly down to the novelty: that, and the danger of potentially spilling it all down your front. Because after all, that's a wrap.

****

I was starving by the time lunch rolled 'round today, and headed across the street to the cafe to find something voluminous and hot. The special of the day was a hot chicken wrap, with guacamole, cheddar, sour cream, lime and chili. Perfect. I waited for it to get toasted and then hurried my warm, greasy bundle back to my desk.

The paper had melted to the cheese in places but once I separated the two, I bit in. And it was heaven. Cheese and sour cream dripped down my fingers and the avocado was creamy and rich in my mouth. Calories galore, but I didn't care. After all, I'm sure that wraps really are healthy.
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Petit Dejeuner
02 March 2007 @ 20:31
There is a huge difference between New York bagels and Montreal-style bagels. New York bagels are doughy, generally larger and denser than Montreal bagels. Montreal-style usually have a distinctive knot in the dough from where they are rolled out and are boiled before being baked. They are chewy, a step down from a pretzel but heading in that direction.

In Victoria, there is a fantastic bagel shop that makes Montreal-style bagels. They are even better than Montreal-style bagels from Montreal: I know. I've tried them. I used to visit this shop on sunny days in the summer and buy half a dozen bagels and a tub of herb and garlic cream cheese. With a friend or two - or sometimes just the dog - and a sack of warm bagels I would head to the gardens of the Lieutenant Governor and picnic. No knives or plates necessary: just tear off pieces of bagel and dunk.

In the summer after my second year, I was desperate for a job. I'd just been dumped and I needed to keep busy. I had applied to every position that was advertised and heard nothing back. Summer job competition in Victoria is always tough as the thousands of university and high-school students fight for the few summer jobs. More than once I'd ended up working under the table, below minimum wage, and this was shaping up to be one such summer, and in desperation I wrote to this bagel shop. My cover letter mentioned nothing of my experience and qualifications. Instead, I went on about why I loved their bagels, and how much better they are than New York bagels.

Turns out it worked. They gave me the job, and for the rest of the summer I worked Monday to Friday mornings until 2 as a nanny, 2:30 until 7:30 at the bagel factory. On the weekends, I worked Saturday and Sunday mornings from 4 30am. I was definitely busy, but the bagel shop was relaxed and sunny in the afternoons; I could take all the bagels I wanted, and I got to know all the regulars. When the summer ended, I stayed on at the weekends and went to classes during the week.

My bagel gig soon won me points with the boys next door. I'd drop by on a Saturday when I finished my shift with two dozen bagels for them; in a house of five boys, they lasted a day or two. And that was how the Great Bagel Challenge was born.

Eric had fast become my favourite in the house. He was a surfer (a rare thing in Victoria), and treated me more like a sister than a girl. We went to the movies together and he made me laugh. Eric also had a infinite appetite and on one famous occassion, when I showed up with the week's bagels, he devoured three and announced he could easily eat three dozen. A dangerous thing to say in a house full of boys: they promptly challenged him to do just that - three dozen bagels in the space of an hour.

The next week, I brought the bagels: a variety of flavours, and cream cheese. Eric bravely tucked in and managed the first dozen within twenty minutes. Then things got rougher. I won't go into details but suffice to say we plumbed the depths of the human stomach that afternoon. In the end, Eric managed 24.5 bagels and those of us watching managed no to lose our lunches - barely.

When I go back to Victoria, the first morning I wake up in my old bed, I head to Mount Royal Bagels. With the jet lag fresh, I'm up and out just after 7 while everyone else is still asleep. I drive the very familiar empty streets, park and order a dozen. There's a different girl behind the counter, trying not to look sleepy. They don't remember me, but the rollers do: still the same three men, effortlessly and mechanically rolling the dough and tossing it into the boiling water. I worked at the bagel shop for a whole year. By the time I left, I'd eaten an approximately 730 bagels - over the course of a year, and never more than three in one sitting, but still a substantial amount. And they still are the best bagels around.

******
One of the best things about my new job is that there is a kitchen full of useful things: a microwave that works, a hot water urn, a sandwich maker, and a toaster. This means hot lunches, elevenses, and today - a bagel with cream cheese.

Maybe it's not the most nutritionally balanced of lunches. Maybe it's not from the best bagel shop in the world. Maybe the cream cheese is Philadelphia light, rather than hand whipped garlic and herb. Sometimes, that just doesn't matter. A bagel is a bit like chocolate: even when it's bad, it's still pretty good.
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Petit Dejeuner
21 February 2007 @ 17:20
I left home for the first time when I was 18. I spent a month in France and Germany and arrived in England at the beginning of October - the day before Canadian Thanksgiving. I was to work in Cambridge as a nanny, taking care of an 8-year old girl with whom I shared the same first name. It was, to say the least, an experience.

To an eighteen year old, nannying, or 'au pair' work, sounded like a dream. I would take care of the child before and after school, until dinner when I would be free and left to my own devices. Weekends were my own, and as well as room and board I would receive £40 a week. This princely sum, when converted to Canadian dollars and cost of living, seemed more than enough to live on for a few months.

How wrong was I. That arrangement might have been the standard nannying agreement, but in practice it doesn't exist. I worked every weekend but two, and usually long into the evenings. As well as taking care of the girl, I did the shopping, cleaning, and sometimes the cooking. I had no space, no rights, and once I realised how expensive things were in the UK, no money.

It was a difficult time but for all the bad, there were parts of it I loved. I loved my freedom, the cosmopolitan-ness of being able to hop on a train to London or Liverpool -not that I had the money to go, but the idea was still nice. My biggest problem, though, was food. I never had any. The parents ate breakfast and lunch out, and the kitchen was stocked only with white bread for their daughter, who refused to eat anything else. Dinner was hardly an improvement. The lady of the house was a terrible cook, her version of lamb chops being solely responsible for my gag reflex activating any time I smell lamb. Often, and especially if there were people over for dinner, I would only get whatever was left after everyone else had eaten. It sounds like a modern version of a Dickens novel and sometimes it felt like it was. On £40 a week, I couldn't afford much but I lived off the kindness of the bartender in my local who fed me pints of Guinness while proposing marriage (he wanted to emigrate) and for lunch, Sainsbury's egg and cress sandwiches (89p) and Winter Vegetable soup.

The sandwiches weren't bad, but it's the soup that I still crave. Creamy, with chunks of potato, parsnip, carrot and beans, it was comfort in a bowl. I would heat it on the stove and eat in front of the tv, wrapped in a blanket against the cold. Lunches were my only time, free from the family and alone for a few hours. I was lonely in Cambridge and my free time revolved around what few things I had to do. Lunch was my favourite, and I would drag it out as long as I could: walking in to town and wandering the shops for an hour before heading home to eat.

I flew back home just before Christmas. My luggage was 23 pounds overweight; I was twenty pounds lighter. I didn't miss the work - or the family - but I still eat egg and cress sandwiches and, when I can get it, Winter Vegetable Soup from Sainsbury's. I suppose it reminds me of my first time away, my first taste of independence, and the one time of day that I was happy: lunch.

******

I was at Sainsbury's yesterday and they happened to have their Winter Vegetable soup in stock. I've only seen it a few times since I lived in England; obviously it's seasonal but even so it's rare. I bought a tub for my lunch today, and some oatcakes to go along with it.

It's different now from how it used to be, but I suppose that's not too surprising after eight years. It's smoother: no chunks of vegetables, and it's creamier as well. It's still very nice, but not quite similar enough to how it used to be to make me nostalgic.

It's Ash Wednesday today, and traditionally Catholics are meant to fast. At the very least, as my mother used to say, it's a day of moderate eating and no meat. I wasn't thinking of that when I bought the soup, but given my past associations it seems more than apt for today.
 
 
Petit Dejeuner
19 February 2007 @ 22:30
The summer after my second year of university, an amazing thing happened. I'd developed a crush on one of the best looking men I had ever seen. He was beautiful: that is the only word for it. Tall, athletic, lean with olive skin, dimples, and eyes like warm chocolate brownies swimming in melting vanilla ice cream. He had been a student in a class that my mother taught, and she had introduced us. With a little cunning surveillance on my part, I had planned my entire third year so that the few classes I didn't have with him were in close enough proximity to his that we'd be sure to pass in the halls. I'm not sure whether I should be proud of this or not.

And then, a week before term started, it got even better. Walking home one afternoon, I spotted this perfect specimen - shirtless, no less - in front of the house just three doors down from mine. He had rented it. For the year. With four other attractive young men. This was the stuff of Cosmo fiction and teen movies. It was going to be a very good year.

Slowly but surely, I infiltrated that house. I was working in a bakery at the time and would bring them a sack of leftovers at the end of my shifts. I was readily available for study groups. I took neat, photocopiable notes in class. I made them birthday cakes (including an almost disastrous Black Forest Gateau, the tale of which will be recounted at another time). I was the perfect girl next door and everything was going to plan.

Until my mother invited them over for dinner. My mother, an eager matchmaker, must have fancied the odds that in a house full of single, virile young men there must be one to take her only daughter - me - off her hands. All that was required was the right menu. The way to a man's heart and all...

My mother's bolognese is legendary. The recipe in its original form contains six different kinds of meat: perfect for five growing men, who arrived on time, scrubbed and bouncing with energy like a litter of puppies. They brought flowers, devoured the pasta, complimented the chef, conversed with my little brother, and offered to do the dishes. It could have - indeed, should have - all gone so wrong, but it didn't. It was an almost perfect night. They left late that evening and we all said that we should do it again sometime.

Unfortunately, I didn't marry any of them. As the year continued, they gradually acquired girlfriends and sometimes they'd ask me for advice on what to do with them. My favourite moved out in February, citing irreconcilable differences and I saw less and less of 'the boys', as my mother called them. Instead, I found my own boyfriend, and I woo-ed him by making him dinner: my mother's bolognese. The girl next door might never have worked for me, but that bolognese certainly did.

*****
We were having friends over for dinner and for once, there were no vegetarians in the group. I'd been looking for an excuse to make bolognese, and this was it. This bolognese takes several hours to make and feeds eight comfortably, the kind of recipe that takes all afternoon to make but is so worth it in the end.

I begin by browning bacon and proscuitto in butter, then add a finely chopped onion, celery, and carrots and stir until they are soft. Then in goes the meat: beef and pork, but if I were being true to the recipe there would also be veal. (And chicken livers, but I leave those out as well.) The meat simmers slowly in chicken stock and red wine until most of the juice has simmered off and then the chopped tomatoes and spices are added. Generally when you think of Italian herbs and spices, it's basil, oregano, and garlic that come to mind but this recipe takes cloves, nutmeg, and salt and pepper. The whole (very large pot) simmers again until it is thick and then in go the chopped mushrooms and a pint of cream.

We started with a goat's cheese and bacon salad and then followed with bowls of pasta, topped with grated parmesan. This bolognese is rich and creamy, full of the flavours of the meat and the butter, and we mop our plates with bread. To finish, I made a rasberry pavlova and we scooped the cream, berries and crunchy sugar and egg whites into our mouths.

[These are three of the original boys next door.]
 
 
Petit Dejeuner
13 February 2007 @ 13:11
Growing up, the worst week of the year was Holy Week. For most children, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday meant a short week of school followed by a long weekend, chocolate, and a visit to the shopping mall to have their photo taken with the Easter Bunny. For me and my brothers, it was Catholic hell.

While we lived under her roof, our mother insisted that we went to church: every Sunday, and every holy day of obligation. While our friends spent New Year's Eve at sleepover parties, we were at church. Hallowe'en to most meant trick-or-treating: for Catholics, it's All Hallow's Eve. Sunday mornings were a weekly battle as she forced us out of bed and into the pews, but the struggle became an all out war in the run up to Easter. The seven long weeks of Lent meant that we had to give up something (usually junk food) but as a family we also gave up something much worse: television. By the time Palm Sunday came 'round we were fed up, and not even the distraction of getting to fold palm branches into elaborate origami crosses during the sermon appeased us. We were facing church on Tuesday (confession), Wednesday (the Chrism mass), Thursday (Holy Thursday), Friday (Good Friday), and Saturday (the mother of all masses: all nine readings and 4 hours of the Easter Vigil). If we were lucky, we weren't taken on Easter Sunday as well.

To be fair, these masses were all a bit different from the ordinary ones and so at least kept us on our toes. Good Friday involved a big cross, the priest lying in front of it, and sometimes having to kiss Jesus' feet (I hated that). The Easter Vigil had baptisms, confirmation, and no shortage of fires and candles. But Holy Thursday, the Last Supper, was the one I never complained about. It tended to have foot-washing (gross) but it also had hot cross buns after mass.

I was enthralled by hot cross buns: the spicey fruit, the doughy markings on the top, and their appearance only at Easter. They even had a song about them that we learned to play on the recorder in school: one a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns. I looked forward to them more than creme eggs, which have begun to appear in January and last until June. Although I tended to confuse them with cinnamon buns, leading to some small disappointments, the presence of hot cross buns in a week of stark, Christian misery was enough to make holy week almost bearable. Almost.

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I've bought my first pack of hot cross buns this year - luxury ones from M&S no less. I have a peculiar and particular way of eating them that no one else seems to appreciate, cultivated from years of speed-breakfasting on my way to school. I slice the buns in half and then microwave them, about 20 seconds, until they are steaming and soft. A pat of salty butter goes inside and I let it sit so that it melts slightly, like an Arctic iceberg, but still leaves a thick centre in the middle.

I devour the whole soft, squishy, spicey mess in about three bites, washing it down with a cup of Constant Comment tea. Nine years after my last Holy Week, I can eat them without shuddering. Praise the Lord.
 
 
Petit Dejeuner
10 February 2007 @ 16:29
10. Bacon. Bacon on the grill at breakfast, or browning with onions for dinner - the smell of bacon can fill a house and instantly provokes a rumbling in my stomach.

9. Popcorn. The smell of movie theatres and nights on the sofa, the salt and butter smell turns tasteless bits of popped corn into something magic. Even after the last kernel is eaten, the smell lingers, often sending me back to pop another bag.

8. Cinnamon Toast. My favourite toast topping is cinnamon and sugar, sprinkled liberally on buttered toast. The smell is soft, homely, and spicey and the taste of crunchy granulated sugar in salty butter is out of this world.

7. Roast. Chicken or beef, the smell of Sunday dinner roasting in the oven with potatoes or Yorkshire pudding is one of the most satisfying and comforting smells of all. Long before dinner is on the table, the smell has started the digestive juices churning. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year are represented in the classic roast dinner.

6. Chocolate Cake. Of all the smells of baking, chocolate cake is perhaps the most recognisable, and the best. The gust of chocolate flavoured steam that fills the kitchen when the oven door is opened makes waiting for the finished product that much harder. Steaming chocolate cake may not be the best, but the smell certainly is.

5. Bolognese. Everyone has their own version of bolognese, but I'm certain mine is the best. Coming from the Italian side of my family, it ideally contains no fewer than six kinds of meat. Although I leave out the chicken livers and ground veal, the smell of meat browning in butter and wine is unbelievable.

4. Coffee. No surprise that coffee features on this list: few can resist the smell of coffee beans. I remember driving back from the coffee shop with a pound of coffee in the car, leaving the windows closed so that the smell almost overpowered me. Far better than the taste of the brewed version, I would love to sleep on a pillow of coffee beans.

3. Baking bread. Another unsurprising list topper, the smell of baking bread apparently makes houses sell faster and no small wonder. Passing by a bakery in the morning when dozens of loaves are baking is one of life's great pleasures.

2. Fresh basil. Herbs in general could have made this list, but fresh basil is the best of them. The explosion of smell when the leaves are torn and coarsely chopped is something I wish I could bottle and perfume. The heroine in Captain Corelli's Mandolin is said to leave a trail of the scent of basil behind her when she moves: I aspire to that.

1. Garlic browning in olive oil. The smell of olive oil heating is delicate but sublime. When garlic is added, the pungent and wonderful smell is reminsicent of every nice thing I've ever eaten. The base of many Italian recipes, garlic in olive oil is perhaps my all-time favourite part of cooking.
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