September 17th, 2009

Something was not quite right.

There were yellow and green zucchinni squash at the farmers’ market that day. There were huge dusty bunches of basil, and rusty-hued bouquets of autumn flowers. Cabbages, check. Pears, apples, carrots, and late peaches, check, check, check.

But there was a missing colour. Red. Tomato red, to be exact.

What. Happened. I asked one of the people selling vegetables. He frowned. Blight. was all he said.

Since then I’ve been collecting tomatoes, as though they’re some sort of rare orchid. I’ve been paying exorbitant amounts, and then rushing home with my loot. I’m being extra charming to friends with tomato harvests not struck by blight. It’s September, the one time of year that tomatoes are actually edible and don’t come out of a can, and we’re looking down the barrel of a tomato shortage.

Since then I’ve heard more. Sosnicki Organic Farms, north of Toronto, who usually have the most exquisitely coloured and shaped tomatoes for sale, lost their entire tomato harvest to late blight. It’s a fungus exacerbated by cool wet conditions.
One farmer at the market said it usually occurs every twelve years or so. But it happened in 2000. It’s happening more often now, as global heating ( a more accurate term I think) creates unexpected climate change.

So, I’ve been buying organic hot house tomatoes at $3 (or more) a pound. At Trinity-Bellwoods Market, if you go early enough, that’s what you’ll find.

But I don’t care, because I’ve been craving tomato pie. It’s a dish that can only be made in September as it calls for fresh, juicy, flavourful tomatoes. A friend was coming for dinner. Academic articles, emails and course-planning were put aside as I spent an afternoon stewing and reducing those tomatoes until they had the deep, burnished taste I wanted.

We sat outside on my deck in the fading light of a September evening, eating up that pie. We talked for a while about the urge to have kids. She’s the queer mother of a teen. I have no kids.

Why. Did. You. Have. A. Kid. I’ve known her for decades. I’ve never asked her that before.

There’s. No. Single. Reason. she said. And the reasons always change. She went on to talk about how queers have a right to make that decision and a right to all of the rewards, pitfalls, mistakes and regrets that might come with it.

We had seconds of tomato pie, and the grilled beet salad I’d made to go with. The air became tinged with a slight and subtle autumn chill. We went inside, I turned on a lamp. I served up some freshly made peach-blackberry crumble still warm from the oven, savouring the umami tastes of fall.

Tomato Pie
I’m posting this recipe again, due to popular request.

Filling & Topping:

3 lbs. (approx. 6 cups) fresh tomatoes, chopped
1/2 tspn salt
1 onion, sliced
2 tbspn butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan
a handful of fresh basil, chopped
same amount of parsley, chopped
12 black olives, pitted and sliced
1/2 lb mozzarella, sliced
3 tbspn olive oil

In a medium-sized pot, saute garlic in olive oil over medium heat. When softened, add tomatoes, salt, herbs, a grind or two of pepper. Simmer over low heat until thickened and reduced by half (about an hour, possibly more).

Meanwhile, thickly slice the onion, then saute in butter in a frying pan with 1/4 tspn salt

Once crust is made, sprinkle parmesan over bottom of pieshell. Add the sauteed onions. Cover with tomatoe sauce. Place sliced mozzarella on top and sprinkle with love slices.

Bake for about 35-40 minutes at 325 degrees, or until the filling seems more-or-less set (it will set further after you take it out of the oven). Let stand for at least twenty minutes before serving.

(You can make this while the sauce is simmering)

11/2 cups flour
1 tspn sugar
3/4 tspn salt
1/2 cup canola oil
3 tblspn cold milk

Mix dry ingredients directly into a 9-inch pie plate. Combine the oil and milk right in the measuring cup; beat until creamy with a fork. Pour over dries and mix lightly until just damp. Press into plate.

Pizza, Popcorn and War Planes

September 9th, 2009

The last long weekend of summer began with the screech of warplanes. People froze on the streets and stared up at the sky, dumbfounded. No, we weren’t in downtown Kandahar.

Air Show. I’d say to my traumatized fellow pedestrians.

Whaaat? They’d say.

I’d say. And then: Email the Mayor! Complain!

The Canadian International Air Show invaded our ear drums and skies for five anxious and unpleasant days.

Unable to get out of the city, I tried to go as far away in the city as I could, travelling east to meet people in neighbourhoods I don’t usually spend so much time in.

I met a dear friend at a Southern Italian restaurant called Lil’ Baci on Queen Street East, just as the sun was in its final sticky yellow burst of the day. After a couple of months of summer we were both full of plans for new films and writing projects. We shared a pizza buffala with a crisp, light crust. I drank a lively fruity white wine. The sun fell behind a tall building and we kept talking.

The planes continued their drone and roar all weekend. I formed a Facebook Group, Harried Citizens Against the Toronto CNE Air Show. People wrote in throughout the five days of audio torture.

One woman wrote: As I walked along the Lakeshore on the way to the Ex today, we passed the seating (VIP, but also grass banks for lesser folks) for the Air Show which was about to begin. A voice over the loudspeaker told everyone to stand for “our” anthem whereupon the American anthem was sung. Apparently Canada had been annexed in the night.

Another person wrote: My boyfriend works nights and can get no sleep for these past 4 or 5 days. So, then there’s also old people with heart problems…there’s small babies and new mothers who are trying to get some sleep and peace, the birds are all freaked and out of wack and yes, there ARE victims of war who live in Toronto and this is NOT fun for them. There was one plane that crashed and came down a few years ago. Should we wait see if one comes down in a residential neighborhood?

A movie was a good escape, no roaring planes to be heard inside the cinema.

There was a long conversation with an old friend from my M.A. days in a tiny vine-covered patio behind a bar on the Danforth. Habermas, teaching, our shared Ukrainian/Albertan origins. A mediocre Caesar salad, cider, the sky turning purple over our heads.

Breakfast with another friend, another day, on his porch, and food to remember his last trip to Italy: prosciutto, melon, caprese salad made with tomatoes donated by his generous Italian neighbours.

The planes screamed overhead as I bicycled home.

If you too were tormented by the planes and the propaganda (or sympathize with those that are) write a letter to the Mayor of Toronto about the air show:

CC your letter of protest to these councillors and CIAS people:;;;;;;;;;

These Waning Summer Days

August 31st, 2009

It’s the last day of August.

We are in that uneasy border zone again, between summer and fall. The heat, when it happens, is delightful and unsettling, like a kid in a party dress at the wrong time of day.

It’s the absolute best time of year to cook. The variety is unbelievable, dazzling; fruits and vegetables sing with operatic flavour. A bounty of fresh herbs grows outside my kitchen door.

My tomatoes, are, as usual, reluctant to ripen. The Tennis Player, joining me for a drink on my patio, eyes them skeptically. The next day there is a manila envelope full of her own red, candy-like cherry tomatoes outside my front door.

I drift to Toronto Island, on one of the last hot days of summer. The beach is full of feral children, moms on cellphones, people alone reading novels, people in couples drinking beer, groups of youth playing ball. I have brought my new memoir manuscript with me, all 194 pages. This does not make for the most relaxing of afternoons. The lake is full of wind and waves.

I have friends over for dinner, they are apologetic about their respective wheat and yeast intolerances. I am up for the challenge. I eschew aged cheeses, wheat flours, anything fermented. No olives, capers, or balsamic. I manage to create a meal that surprises me with its sweet, spicy flavours. My favourite new recipe discovery is Piedmontese peppers (recipe below), which I allows me to show off the Tennis Player’s sweet, juicy tomatoes.

What are you cooking or baking these last waning summer days?

Piedmontese peppers

This recipe is adapted from the blog Rachel Eats, who in turn got it from Elizabeth David via Simon Hopkinson’s ‘Roast chicken and other stories’

* 4 fine sweet red or yellow peppers
* 4 plump cloves of garlic peeled and finely sliced
* about 30 cherry tomatoes
* olive oil
* salt and freshly ground black pepper.
* Anchovies to decorate OR goat cheese to sprinkle over top

Heat the oven to 220°c

Halve each pepper and carefully cut away the white pith and shake out the seeds but try and leave the green stem intact – a totally aesthetic exercise.

Season the insides of the peppers with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Put a few slices of garlic in each halve and then cut the cherry tomatoes in halves and tuck 4 or 5 in each one, of course, the number of halves will depend on the size of your pepper

Season each pepper halve with a little more salt and pepper and transfer to a baking tray.

Dribble olive oil quite generously over each pepper halve and then roast in the oven at 220°c for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, turn the oven down to 180°c and roast the peppers for another hour or so or until the peppers are tender, collapsing and gently charring at the edges.

Allow the peppers to cool in the tin for a good long while while before carefully transferring to a serving plate, being careful to catch and precious juices and spoon them over the peppers

If you are going to add the anchovies, drape them over about 30mins before serving.

if you are going to add goat cheese, sprinkle the crumbled cheese over top after you pull the peppers out of the oven.

Old School, New School: Dim Sum via Facebook

August 25th, 2009

The last five weeks, I was unplugged: no email, no Facebook, no Youtube, except when I went into town once a week, for an hour.

So it was highly amusing, when I invited my friend The Camera Dude for dim sum, and he created a Facebook group called “Yum Chah” complete with its own theme song.

People say digital social networking separates and isolates us all. But this is a guy who creates instant community via computer and cellphone. In no time at all there were six people happily slurping up dumplings and all manner of deep fried things around our big round table in a cavernous dim sum palace on Dundas West, the Forestview This. Is. One. Of. The. Last. Old. School. Places. Left. For Dim. Sum. said Camera Dude. My. Ma. Comes. Here. Every. Day.

I looked around. Faded carpets, yellowing walls. But the dim sum trolleys glittered with their wealth of deliciousness: I had a garlicky shrimp and spinach dumpling that had me groaning with delight. Camera Dude pointed out all the Chinese grannies ruling various tables, surrounded by generations of descendants. The tough-faced women running the trollies flirted with Camera Dude; someone brought him his special chrysanthemum tea on the house.

Dim. Sum. Doesn’t. Work. With. Less. Than. Three. People. said Camera Dude, firmly. He’s right; you need to have critical mass so you can order a dazzling variety of stuff.

I had been floating in this city since coming back from The Remote Island, unmoored. A round table, good food, and a gathering of artists and dumpling lovers grounded me, reminded me I was home.