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Monday, May 26, 2014

Healing Meals (with a bonus recipe)

I want to write about so many things: The recent mass shooting, a gendered hate crime; My dad's death; My ex (typical, so very typical); The windy, not-fucking-around weather tonight, which I adore; My first time in a sex club (which I promised - and I swear I will write about it soon). But I've decided to write about food, meals, and why I love cooking for people.

Despite our society's complicated and fucked up relationship with, and messages about, food, delicious meals usually make people happy. I'd venture to guess it always makes us happy, even if we feel guilty afterwards (an often unwarranted guilt, but no judgment - I understand completely - especially when the guilt surrounds the conditions of farm workers, animals, and food distribution). For me, cooking meals for friends, family, or even strangers is a big part of my self-care routine, and I generally have at least one friend at my table per week. Usually more when I'm lucky. I used to spend most of my money on weed. I quit smoking in January (yay!). I rarely drink. I don't do drugs often (and when I do it's with a client who pays for them). I don't spend money on shoes, purses, scarves, or even books (thanks library card and tablet).

I spend much of my disposable income on delicious food. I splurge on smoked cheese and fresh asparagus. I indulge in Shiitakes, Shanghai Bok, and okra. I check the flyers. I let what's on sale inspire me. I go to the grocery store 2-4 times per week, especially now that my bike is operational again (I go less often when I have to rely on transit). The colour of the produce section excites me. I get angry when stores like Sobeys (on the pricey side) have nothing but cellophane-wrapped cauliflower and packaged creminis, and sometimes I'll even drop my basket in protest and walk out, mumbling about crimes against nature. In the summer (well, some summers - sometimes my neighbour lovingly, selflessly does all of the work), I grow veggies and herbs, have an ever-expanding strawberry patch, and vocally encourage the green onions to reach, reach for that sun. In the morning, I'll fry eggs with a handful of fresh basil, parsley, dill, and oregano, and sprinkle some smoked gouda on it all. It's unbelievably delicious and simple. I wish I had a bread maker or better bread-making skills.

People often joke about adding love to food. But I take it seriously as an ingredient. I'm lucky: I'm blessed with what seems like an innate cooking ability, a finely tuned palate, and no lack of creativity. Aside from the palate, it's been a steady work in progress. A series of triumphs and disasters. Just watching my dad when I was younger, keeping things simple, marinading, sampling, and letting me help, taught me so much. Growing up with enough privilege to, at least for some of my life, access fresh, home-made food, has shaped me into a person who appreciates healthy, delicious meals. (Not having access, post-divorce, and having my food intake policed, created disordered eating, which is another blog post entirely.)

Sharing those meals with people, especially people I love, is one of my favourite things in the world. I love all of it: from initial inquiries about allergies and likes/dislikes, then planning, to shopping for the ingredients, to the last-minute substitutions (celery leaves replacing cilantro, for example). My poverty-honed skills of pairing new food with what's already on-hand, or working ONLY with what's on hand, has forced me to get creative while maintaining yumminess. I love setting the table, finding enough matching silverware and plates (not always possible, depending on the number of guests). I love the delight of drinking water or iced tea in a wine glass, of being fancy when I'm broke. I love to hear their praise, when they can smell my cooking from down the street. I love the looks on their faces when the meal turns out perfectly, or near-perfectly. The look of lush desire and appreciation when they try roasted rutabaga for the first time. The astonishment at how delicious Brussels sprouts can be. Glorious, halved, seasoned and roasted Brussels sprouts. One of my specialties and favourites. The curiosity of how I made that amazing tahini sauce (see below for recipe), and why the rice smells like popcorn (Basmati). The same look you might get when a lover massages your shoulders or kisses your neck. I love when they ask for seconds and I have more than enough to offer them. I love the laughter, conversation, and fun that occurs around the dinner table.

I simply adore trying new recipes, and succeeding, thus adding to my repertoire. Most recently it was quiche, a truly versatile, whatever-you-have-in-the-fridge budget-friendly dish (check out this amazing crust tutorial). I feel proud when I can vegan-ize, de-glutenize, de-lactose-ize, and still present something mouth-watering. A meal that my guests will dream about later, and talk about for years. I love knowing exactly what is on my plate, and what is going into my body. No artificial colourings, flavourings, or unpronounceable chemicals.

Us Canadians (and most North Americans) in large cities are ridiculously privileged in terms of pricing of, and access to, food. We waste more daily than most people in the world can ever dream of eating in a week. We let vegetables rot in the fridge while we order pizza. A lot of us don't appreciate what we have, and don't understand the real price of our cheap food. We're ignorant of the unfair and imbalanced food distribution system, and we pretend that other countries, who feed us, are poor. We just mindlessly consume goods, and call ourselves "consumers". We rage when the store is out of our favourite spinach dip, or when the price of apples, all the way from China, goes above $2.00/lb. It's all going to change soon, I suspect - by force, not choice. This is deserving of a whole other blog post, though.

So the next time I sit down to a meal, prepared with my own hands, farmed by an underpaid worker, or a local farmer, and trucked fifty or a million miles to reach me, surrounded by awesome people who love me, I'm going to stop and say a silent thanks, and constantly remind myself of the million blessings I'm lucky enough to have. And then, I will savour, bite by precious bite, the plate of love I set down in front of myself.

Now, for a recipe. I adapted this from my ex's recipe, and even he agrees: Mine is far superior in texture, taste, and simplicity.

Reasonable Facsimile
Photo credit

Tahini Sauce (vegan, gluten- and soy-free)
This recipe requires a blender. A food processor or immersion blender *may* also work, but I've never tried either.
Measurements are not exact, and should be adjusted according to tastes, desired thickness, etc.
• 1/2 c. tahini (sesame seed) paste (usually found in the "ethnic", "Middle Eastern", or "Mediterranean" section of a supermarket, and widely available in most health food stores)
• 3/4 - 1 c. cold water (more or less, depending on desired thickness. The sauce will also thicken in the fridge)
• 3-4 med. sized cloves of fresh garlic - peeled. Either microplaned or roasted (or otherwise softened) and mashed. You want the garlic to be a paste. I strongly recommend not subbing the garlic for the jarred or powdered variety.
• 1/2 - 2 tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice
• 1-2 tsp. salt
• 1 tsp. black pepper
• 1/4 - 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
• 3-4 tbsp (or a small handful) of curly parsley - I leave the stems in, and just break it apart. The food processor will take care of it.
• Optional: 1 tbsp cilantro (or a few celery leaves) - I made the latest batch without cilantro, and it was as delicious as ever.
• Optional: 1 tbsp oil (olive, sunflower, grape seed, or other light tasting oil) - The tahini paste already has a lot of oil, so you don't really need it.

Stir the tahini paste well, making sure to blend the oily part with the paste. It's a bit messy and sticky. I sometimes lick the excess right off the jar after pouring it - tahini is too awesome to waste - and on its own is reminiscent of peanut butter. But if you want to be less gross than me, wipe the excess with your finger and lick that. Some of it will likely stick to the spoon and/or your finger. Try to not get in on the sides of the blender jar - it's hard to get off - and water won't work. Add the rest of the ingredients. Blend on low, then high, until it's well pulverized - I usually use the "cream" or "liquidize" option. It should have a slight green tint. Taste, and add more of anything you feel is missing. If it's too thin, add more tahini paste. If it's too thick, add a bit more water, 1/4 c. at a time. Transfer to a glass jar with a lid, or a plastic food container. It will keep in the fridge for 5-7 days, but if you're like me, it won't last that long. I use it on rice, as a dip with pita chips and veggies, or even in a soup. I put it on anything and everything I can think of.

If you try this recipe, I'd love to know what you think - please post questions, results, thoughts in the comments.

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