strawberry jam and polarities.

July is a month of opposites. The intoxicating thrill of hot weather casts a spell of electrifying delirium, but also a stupefying and mind-numbing glaze. Office workers are scant – all having escaped to the lake by Thursday at 2 pm, or at the very least, cool basements – while university students flit by on their bicycles, the breeze they make the only form of respite. The children are still riding the high of freedom from school, before the melancholy of late August sets in.

This year is even stranger: with no festivals or large public gatherings, the time feels mushy, unmarked by these events. Making plans with friends would have been framed by these things (“I’ll see you after Folk Fest” “Let’s go to the festival together!”), but without these milestones, the days feel untethered. While there is a longing to gather, to press skin against skin, there is also a love and consideration given in the act of staying apart.

In summer, teaching yoga is usually difficult. Attendance is lacklustre because everyone wants to be outside or has BBQ/sangria plans. Years of indoctrination into a school year’s rhythm that dictates we take summers off has resulted in this idea that we needn’t, shouldn’t, couldn’t learn anything in July and August: it would be antithetical to the institution of summer.

This year, the tone of the yoga classes has had more gravitas: due to the lockdown, studios had been closed for over two months, if not longer, while some have permanently closed their doors, succumbing in large part to a different sort of virus, aka the untenable cost of commercial rent. Coming back to teaching in the height of summer has had a morose tinge – a dissonant energy when backdropped by long bright days. I sense a grim sort of gratitude from the students, a deeper understanding that we need to savour this, because it could all go away again in an instant.

July is the month that strawberries ripen in Manitoba. The strawberry season is a mere 2-3 weeks, assuming the weather cooperates. Going to a u-pick farm is a bit of a competitive sport, and this year is no exception. This is my second year of going to the u-pick, and fortunately I emerged, with my partner-in-picking, successful and relatively unscathed (except for red-stained fingers)! For days after, strawberries take priority over everything else and I live, eat, and breathe strawberries: eating them raw, in granola, making strawberry cake, freezing them to be enjoyed in the winter months, and making batch after batch of jam. I close my eyes at night and all I can see are strawberries. These special days are perfumed by the berry, and the sound of the jam bubbling on the stove is my life’s music. I am thrilled with the resourceful alchemy of creating preserves that’ll be enjoyed for the rest of the year and gifted out to family and friends, making the most of a day that I had spent squatting in a field amidst nature’s bounty, underneath the prairie sky.

July is also the month that one of my teachers, Michael Stone, suddenly and tragically passed away in 2017. It is also the month before my teacher and friend, Jonathan Austman, took his own life, one year ago (August 1st, 2019).

July is a month of polarities, indeed.

As I get older, the contrasts of life feel more complicated. One feeling ripples and braids out into a million more, like roots searching for water through the soil. How is one thrilled and mournful at the same time? Joyful yet laden with grief? Letting oneself feel this multiplicity is difficult enough, never mind trying to communicate it to another.

Getting older has also meant experiencing more endings: deaths, favourite businesses closing down, old ways of doing things disappearing (don’t think we’ll be eating a birthday cake that someone has blown the candles out on any time soon!) – leaving things behind is destabilizing, especially if the path forward is unclear, as it most often is.

Uncharted territory can be exciting and expansive for some, but for me, the strangeness and instability of the past year has knocked out most of my creativity. Any ideas I have had seem to float out of my lips, hover, and then drift down through my fingers before I can catch them, disappearing into the cracks in the ground opening up underneath me. Just as the days stretch and blend to get lost in unmarked time, inspired thoughts drift and elude being caught.

Michael would often talk about how creativity isn’t limited only to the Arts, but actually becomes most interesting – and necessary – when applied to how to live your life. This is the kind of creativity I crave and need the most: ideas to navigate and solve issues like, how do I continue a career that is getting crushed down to the bone by financial, social and political factors? How do I continue a practice that honours my past teachers without dogmatically repeating the statements of ghosts? How do I love my partner and give him my full presence when we spend 23 hours of the day together? How do I, how do I…

Then again, it doesn’t always make sense to innovate. The ratio of fruit and sugar has to stay within a certain range for a strawberry jam to set properly. There are some laws that are immutable.

So I keep stirring the jam, as it bubbles away. I stir, because I don’t know what else to do, and because it prevents the jam from burning, because it’s an act of maintenance, that prevents things from getting worse. I make the jam in a huge tin pot, that Jonathan handed down to me, years ago.

I hardly use this pot. In fact, I once almost got rid of it because it was too big for everyday use. I kept it though, because it was a nice gift, and at the end of the day, you can never have too many pots.

Last year in July, when I had gone strawberry picking, I had the fortunate problem of making too much freezer jam that I was running out of space. I brought some jars to the yoga studio and shoved them into the freezer there – not only to set, but also to give away to teacher-friends. I had labeled each jar with the person’s name, and emailed them to let them know to pick it up. At the time, Jonathan was away on holiday. For some reason, I didn’t leave him a jar. For the past year, I have racked my brain for memories, but I can’t find an answer as to why. I suppose it worked out, in some regard, because he never came back to the studio. It would have broken me more to have had to take home a jar with his name on it.

This year, as I stir the jam in his pot, I wonder what he made in it. I have an inkling it wasn’t his pot to begin with, so I wonder a little more, about its origins and various owners, and of how we think things belong to us, when they actually don’t.

I am canning more jam than is humanly possible (or advisable) for me and my partner to consume in a year. So there’ll be a lot going out to family and friends, which brings me much joy, as feeding others is definitely my love language. And while I’ll never make food for Jonathan again, his pot will be put to good use. The gifts of his life will be passed on, in innumerable and creative ways.

——

Strawberry basil lime jam

Adapted from Everything I Want to Eat, by Jessica Koslow

3 kg strawberries, destemmed
1.84 kg white sugar
1.5 limes, juice and skin
5-8 sprigs fresh basil

De-stemming strawberries is an excellent form of awareness practice: cutting exactly where it needs to be cut to keep as much fruit as possible, and to do it in a steady rhythm. It’s nice to set yourself up comfortably for this task: since I hold a paring knife in my left hand, I have the garbage can to my left, and the pot to catch the strawberries on my right.

After de-stemming, pour the sugar over the strawberries in the pot. Using a potato masher or a large wooden spoon, mix everything together. Since my pot is tall, and I’m not, I set mine on a chair so I can lean over it and press down to mix the crystalline granules with the whole fruit. At first there will be a lot of resistance, but soon enough it’ll magically combine to a shiny, bright red globular sludge. Cover the surface with parchment paper and let it sit overnight to hydrate – this will reduce the amount of cooking time.



The next day is the big day! Remove the parchment paper and put the pot on the stove over high heat. I keep the lid on until the berries reach a boil, at which point I take the lid off so the moisture can begin evaporating. All jam recipes talk about skimming the scum off the top. I really don’t understand why. After a while, that foamy stuff will collapse back into the jam, and become indistinguishable. Why fret over the foam? Admittedly, I do some foam-skimming to pay homage to jam-makers before me and to let the jam know that I am taking care of it and love it and will never abandon it.


Then, squeeze in the juice of 1.5 limes and throw in the skins as well. The pectin from the lime skin will help thicken the jam, because as you have noticed, we will not be adding pectin to this jam! Pectin is a naturally occurring soluble fibre found in fruits and vegetables, and isn’t something to get your shorts all twisted about, but there is a beautiful simplicity to the jam-making process if you can reduce the amount of ingredients and really let the fruit shine through.

Now, the waiting begins. This is a good time to throw a few small plates in the freezer for your Plate Test (more on that later) and to wash 5 x 500 ml mason jars (or 10 x 250 ml, or some combination of the two sizes that amounts to 2.5 L volume). Arrange your glass jars and lids (lids off the jars) on a baking sheet and stick them in the oven at 250 degrees F for 20 minutes to sterilize.

(Note: if you are very serious about jam-making and canning, feel free to cross-reference these temperatures / times with other websites that Mother Google offers.)

When you feel that the jam has reduced in volume by about 15-25%, throw in the whole sprigs of basil. As the jam thickens, you’ll want to stir the pot more frequently to prevent sticking and burning on the bottom.

When the jam has reduced in volume by about half, you are getting close to the desired consistency. Careful, as it gets thicker, it’ll start to bubble up like lava! This is the time to begin doing Plate Tests: dribble a teaspoon of jam onto a plate from the freezer, and then put it back in the freezer for one minute. Take it out, and slide your finger through the middle of the jam. If the jam comes back together, then it needs to keep boiling and reduce more. If the jam stays apart, then it is ready to go in the jars!

Once the jam is at the desired consistency, use tongs to remove the limes and basil sprigs. Ladle the jam into the jars, leaving about 0.5 cm of space from the top. Screw the lids on with a light firmness, and then turn the jars over for 20 seconds to help push out air. You want to fill the jars with swift steadiness, so the jam doesn’t cool down too much.

With the jars on the baking sheet, stick them back in the oven at 250 degrees F for 25-30 minutes. This is to sterilize the jam so that they can be kept at room temperature for the next year until you crack open the lid (at which point, keep the jar in the fridge). The pressure from the heat might have loosened the rings of the lid, so when you take them out to cool down, very carefully tighten the rings again, and stay around (again, make sure you let the jam know you love it and won’t abandon it) to hear/notice for the lids to pop and the vacuum to seal. If they don’t, you can simply store those jars in the fridge. A fridge that has its back wall lined with jars of jam is a beautiful thing.

Enjoy, and share with loved ones.


beets and self-sufficiency.

Even before the pandemic happened and all the restaurants were forced to close and life ceased to be as it was, I had cooked and baked almost everything we ate. Besides the meals themselves, I made lots of kitchen staples: loaves of flax-laden sourdough, almond walnut granola, jars of spicy salsa and sweet marmalade…delicious things upon which to base a meal that I created and maintained stock of before the pandemic, now during, and forever, as long as we have interest in eating them.

Now, this isn’t some back-door self-compliment slide-in designed to make me look like the perfect homemaker/roommate/invite to a potluck (before we all thought potlucks were Petri dishes of germs); I just genuinely enjoy cooking, so I make it a priority. I have fun making my own ketchup, never mind the flavour is better. Cooking has long been an activity that grounds me, getting me into my hands and out of my head, while offering the gratifying outcome of something good to share and eat afterwards. Even the fact that the food is eaten and disappears is comforting; nourishment was enjoyed, and now there’s the room for the process of creation to begin again.

I’ll also say that my motivation for taking the extra time and effort to make lots of things from scratch comes from my time (albeit short-lived) working in the food science industry, and seeing what goes on behind the scenes. Some people may not know what I mean by “food science industry” because it is so hidden and label-less; essentially it is the industry that deals with what happens when an agricultural product leaves the field (or water) and before it reaches the grocery store. It is the sorting, cleaning, processing, packaging, etc, that happens to food before it becomes, well, food. Even a bag of chopped lettuce needs to get processed: leaves get cut, washed in chlorine-y water, bagged, flushed with nitrogen, and then sent on its way in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. Someone has to think about how to optimize every step of that process; and by optimize, I mean, to make profitable.

In the industry, the joke/truth has always been that the cheapest ingredients are: air, water, sugar, and salt. Say you were going to make a packaged cookie with a shelf life of one year: well, let’s make it fluffy (air!), expand its volume (water, sugar!) and then add lots of sugar (and a little bit of salt) which will immobilize all that water so that microbes can’t grow, because we want a 4evah cookie. All that sugar will also make it really tasty to our reptilian brain, the part of us that is programmed to love sweet things. When formulating a product, it boils down to making something decently palatable (subject to opinion) while keeping the production cost as low as possible.

Iterations after iterations of products are made behind closed doors before the ideal balance of flavour and cost are achieved. On a personal note, having to taste test hot sauce every day for two months does things to you. Even if you like hot sauce. Moreover, when you are tasting in a professional setting, personal preferences do not matter. You taste the hot sauce even if you hate hot sauce, because it’s your job – and you are trying to be a Professional so that you can keep your job and move up the corporate ladder.

This economy-driven approach has serious compromises to the health of us, our communities, and our environment – the malodorous details of which have been dealt with by far greater minds than mine, so I’m not going to belabour them here. And if economy is driving the way your food is produced, then it indubitably is playing a role in other realms of your life.

We buy convenience foods that supposedly save us money, because we are busy at our jobs, trying to make money, to then spend on convenience foods. Couple this grinding cycle with the propaganda perpetuated by teams of marketers for large multinational food brands – telling you that making things yourself means you are smug and self-righteous to do so, that you would be robbing your children of precious together-time by slaving away in the kitchen, that you would be robbing your partner of precious sexy-time by getting sweaty standing over a hot stove, that somehow you are more empowered when you spend all your hard-earned money on their products, that why don’t you give up already, and on and on. It’s relentless.

As the whirlwind of opinions and emotions has swirled and eddied during this pandemic, one cry of “I want it to go back to normal” makes me sit up straight and ask, “WAIT – were you actually happy with how it was?”

Take your time thinking it through.

Consider that it takes a woman seven tries before finally leaving an abusive relationship for good…

Well, things are complicated – at least in terms of food. These large multinational food companies are part of the reason why our food supply is so secure compared to previous generations who underwent huge political and economic turmoil. Even though the local and global economic markets look like they’re settling in for a long recession, we get to enjoy a relaxed and lush food supply, at least for now, unlike our ancestors.

And if things get really bad, you’ll have to learn how to get creative with that jar of fancy olives (expiry date 2012?!), parboiled rice, and yellow mustard that has been languishing in your fridge door since BP (Before Pandemic).

Mind control tactics of multinational corporations aside, anyone who has peered long enough into these depths and has kept their head on straight will essentially advise this: if you want to eat something and feel good-ish about it, then make it yourself.

This has been the advice I’ve received from mentors in the industry. It’s the advice I’ve arrived at myself.

Make. It. Your. Self.

This is true empowerment.

As many of us have been spending lots of time at home (perhaps busy taking care of children, not able to go to the gym, and eating our feelings), it seems like prime time to learn how to bake a cake. Sweet treats being kryptonite for the brain’s reward system, it might behoove you to know how much sugar goes into a cake. With awareness comes choice. Do you still want the cake? Sure. But now you know what’s what. A homemade cake asks of your labour and time and money, and with the full knowledge of what went into making it, you can fully savour each bite.

Now if you haven’t really cooked or baked, this isn’t some rally cry to get you to become a Betty Crocker-Superwoman-Jamie Oliver hybrid bot. Start with one thing, and see how it goes. At the very least, you might get a nice stretch reaching up to get the baking dish from the shelf, and work the buttocks as you squat to find the flour.

May I suggest that this chocolate beet cake to be a good introduction to the world of Make It Yourself: you add everything to a bowl and mix it together. That’s it. The beets keep the cake moist and add a glamorous pinkish hue to the cake. Unless you despise beets and can sniff out their wet-dirt smell from a distance (I can’t, but I’ve been told), then they simply give a slight earthy note which works really well with cocoa powder.

This recipe asks for cooked beets; my preparation strategy is that whenever I’m turning the oven on for a period of time, I wrap root vegetables (beets, potatoes, etc) in foil and toss them in the side of the oven. This way I’m making the most of the oven being turned on, and I have easily created something to turn into a meal later. Exact timing depends on the oven temperature and the size of the vegetable, but I’ve always preferred an overcooked beet to an undercooked one. This plan-ahead-move comes in handy for this recipe, as you want to use room temperature beets when mixing up the batter.

Bake, and beet happy (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

——

Chocolate beet cake

Makes 1 loaf cake

2 cups cooked beets, puréed (at room temperature)
1 egg
1/3 cup warm water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
Pinch salt

Add everything to a large bowl in the order stated. Mix, slowly at first, until everything becomes cohesive. Scrape into a loaf pan that has been greased and lined with parchment paper. I love the look of a slice from a loaf pan, but you could easily bake this in a round cake pan if you’d rather.

Bake in a preheated 350 degrees F oven for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let it cool before slicing. It is lovely served with a dollop of whipped cream as an afternoon pick-me-up, and maybe some green tea to refresh the palate.

peanut butter and jealous.

I’m a piler. I like to pile things; it’s how I put things in order. Currently on my desk, I have: two piles of books, three piles of papers (separated based on topic), and a pile of yarn that I’m making something with. It’s not pretty to look at, but I do, in fact, know where everything is. When the piles get a little harried, I re-make the piles and continue on my merry way. In my mind, it’s organized.

A sense of order is necessary for getting things done. It’s difficult to think creatively when things are in disarray – and I’m not just talking about the state of my desk. Chaos on a bigger, more collective scale – like scarcity, poverty, deprivation – creates tunnel vision, in which we become fixated on the things we don’t have, instead of appreciating and making do with what we do have.

Right now in the midst of a global pandemic, in which the totally valid but ludicrous question of, “When will this end?” is the theme du jour, it feels completely reasonable to feel uncreative. This type of creativity I am referring to is not limited to the Arts, in the sense that we should all be painting masterpieces and learning a Romance language; I mean creativity in the way we are living, like how to stretch out the contents of your fridge to minimize visits to the grocery store, or how to navigate through late-stage capitalism.

Then again, struggle begets creativity. I am a big believer in this, and there have been some pretty incredible examples of it in the past few weeks: restaurants pivoting to supply groceries, a government offering grants to university students who volunteer to help slow the pandemic, lots of homemade face masks (with questionable efficacy, but, nonetheless).

And so, it oscillates: between feeling lost in a black void of nothingness, and swimming through a wave of glowing bioluminescent algae-ideas.

In the desire for inspiration, sometimes I hop onto social media and see what others are up to.

(Are you trying to grab me through the screen to stop me? Yeah, I would too. Thanks for looking out for me.)

Is social media teeming with ideas? Somewhat, that is if you want to learn how to prettily arrange a flat-lay of food, or a butt workout that loops over and over again for 15 seconds.

Is scrolling through Instagram an activity fraught with the high potential of losing my sense of self-worth? You bet.

But it’s hard to stay away. Social media feeds the very human desire for connectivity, but somehow, it gets twisted into commodification. Needing to belong and feel relevant are normal, but then how it plays out ends up feeling tokenistic and trite. How is it that sincere acts of generosity and kindness start to come off as ploys for upping social currency, while at the same time one can feel jealous about these inspired moments of goodness, because you wish you thought of the idea first? (I’m asking for a friend.)

Looking externally for inspiration can quickly fall into a game of comparison, especially if one is not inwardly aligned, has not meditated, done yoga, drunk a green juice, taken a cold shower, oiled their face with organic fair-trade botanicals, and smiled genuinely at the mail courier.

Shakespeare, via Iago, said it best, that jealousy is the “green-eyed monster that makes fun of the victims it devours.” Preach, Shakespeare. Othello needed to take a self-care day, reflect on his choices, and get real.

Then again, comparing oneself to others is a normal human activity. Jealousy is a normal human emotion. Annoying, but normal. It goes back to needing to belong to the group, because belonging means survival, and if all the drastic measures that are taking place during this pandemic proves anything, we all seem to want to survive.

And survive we will. Until we don’t. There is an end to everything, an end to each situation, to each one of us, however you define “me” and “us” and “you” and “situation.” It is something we must squarely face at some point, and it might feel better to do it on your own terms.

If Othello had taken a moment to check in with himself (hands on heart, please), perhaps he would’ve realized how his emotional brain was taking over his rational brain, and that he needed to realign his direction in life to avoid a seriously messy situation. If he had realized that jealousy wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but just an indication of his desires and values, then maybe things would’ve turned out differently.

Jealousy doesn’t have to be ugly monster. It doesn’t even have to be annoying, either. In fact, I propose that we lean into jealousy, that we get more jealous.

How?

Well if you’re going to be jealous of someone’s positive traits, accomplishments, ability to pose effortlessly in front of a camera lens – then you ought to be jealous of THE WHOLE PERSON.

Getting jealous over someone’s accomplishments? Then get jealous about their pain of needing to be validated by said accomplishments. Jealous of their creativity? Be jealous of their struggling, which resulted in the creativity. Be jealous of their “perfect” photos, by also being jealous of the very distinct possibility that it is due to insecurity around their looks, so that’s why they are so careful about how they present themselves. Be jealous of their kindness, while also being jealous of their deep wounds that created in empathy.

Be jealous of all of it.

Nothing arises out of a vacuum. Pain creates compassion, grit, and resilience. There’s always more to the story of someone. And it’s not necessarily so personal to you; it’s personal to them. They are just a mirror showing you what’s going on with you.

So where does that leave you?

With yourself. With your own story.

“Getting real with yourself” about how/what you’re doing is, I suppose, the slang-y way of saying “be mindful” – and honestly, I prefer the street vernacular. You do have to get down into the muck if you want to excavate some nuggets of creativity. “Being mindful” doesn’t feel all that committed, like how I feel about vacuuming behind the couch (will do it next time, or the time after that). “Getting real with yourself” feels like you’re going to pull the furniture away from the wall to get at the baseboard and remove the sofa cushions to vacuum into the crevices and fluff/rotate them before you put them back in place.

I’m fluffing. I’m rotating. I’m pulling things out and putting them back. I’m piling, tidily. I’m looking into my crevices and trying to hold space for whatever creatures (green-eyed and otherwise) jump out. I’m trying to create feelings of safety. Struggle inspires innovation, but if there isn’t some baseline of safety, there’ll only be paralysis.

Safety comes in many forms, and certainly one of the most basic versions is a well-fed tummy. We are fortunate that in the midst of the pandemic maelstrom, our food supply is still strong and abundant.

So here’s a stew from our kitchen to yours: it asks for a lot of pantry ingredients, and you can swap in any fresh vegetables you happen to have. You can also include the wilting, limp vegetables that you bought three weeks ago, and they will perk up in this peanut-tomato-coconut elixir. It is followed by a peanut butter cookie recipe, which also asks for pantry staples, and there are few things in life more comforting than the smell of freshly baked cookies.

May you be safe, and feel safe.

——

Peanut tomato coconut stew

This recipe is derived from one in the excellent cookbook, The Kitchen Shelf, by Eve O’Sullivan and Rose Reynolds, which celebrates the ease and intelligence of cooking with pantry staples.

1 small onion
2 stalks celery
3 small carrots
1 small eggplant
1 tsp each of ground cumin, coriander, ginger
1 generous pinch of red chilli flakes
1-796 ml can whole tomatoes
1/3 cup peanut butter
1-398 ml can coconut milk
Salt, to taste
Squeeze of lemon juice

Start off with prepping the vegetables: finely dice the onion, and cut the other vegetables into chunks. Feel free to swap in whatever vegetables you prefer; little trees of cauliflower are lovely, or if you want something really hearty, diced sweet potato.

In a large soup pot, add a teaspoon or so of your cooking oil/fat of choice. Over medium-high heat, toss in all the vegetables. Let them start to soften and steam for a few minutes. Add all your spices, and a generous pinch of salt – the salt will help draw the moisture out of the vegetables.

Next, a fun moment: you are going to hand squeeze the canned tomatoes. This is a true embodiment of living fully. I suggest you do it like this: first, use your hand to hold back the globules of tomato while draining the liquid into the pot. Then reach your hand inside the can to squeeze the tomatoes, letting bits fall out. It is ideal to be doing your squeezing when your hand remains inside the can, otherwise you might squirt tomato all over the place. I speak from experience.

After adding all the tomatoey goodness to the pot, turn the heat up and bring it to a boil. At this point the liquid should just barely cover the vegetables, and this is fine because the vegetables will exude their liquid as they cook. Cover the pot, and turn the heat down so that it simmers for 15-20 minutes until the vegetables are tender but still have bite – the time will depend on the type of vegetable and how big the chunks are.

When the vegetables are cooked, stir in the peanut butter and coconut milk. If you have it, you might stir in some cooked chickpeas. Another nice touch is to add some handfuls of spinach or other leafy greens to wilt in at this last moment. Adjust the taste with salt and lemon juice. Serve, maybe with some brown jasmine rice, or a good hunk of bread.

Peanut tomato coconut stew

——

Gluten-free peanut butter cookies

This recipe comes by way of Longer Hollow Legs’ mom, and I have taken the liberty of adjusting the ingredients to suit what I happened to have on hand. It turned out to be a very forgiving recipe, which is a quality I think we could all use more of.

3/4 cup coconut oil
3/4 cup peanut butter (natural or not, you do you)
1-1/3 cups white sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1-3/4 cups brown rice flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Beat together the coconut oil, peanut butter, and sugar until it is smooth and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Add the remaining ingredients and mix until smooth and cohesive. Form into 1-tbsp size balls and arrange on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, about 2” apart. Put it all in the fridge to cool for 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Take the dough balls out of the oven, and using the tines of a fork, press them down and make a cross-hatch pattern. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until they are lightly golden.

I crammed too many cookies onto the baking sheet and they grew into eachother, but I kind of like how they cozy up to eachother like this.

Gf peanut butter cookies

I also have this peanut butter cookie recipe which asks for more ingredients and isn’t gluten-free, but is still delightful! 2017 may have been the last time I made peanut butter cookies before this recent edition…

brothy soup for murky times.

Buckle in, because I’m going to talk about death, grief, and fatigue – but! There’ll be a great soup recipe at the end! Balance!

I hesitated sharing this, because it would appear that I have already talked a lot about death on here. Sorry. Unless you’d prefer I’d talk about one of life’s other inevitabilities, like…taxes?!

It’s just that death is inescapable, both literally and figuratively. And it’s odd to me that our culture spends so little time talking openly about it, when: it touches everyone’s life, it’s something we are all going to do, and it is the most obvious way to create meaning and purpose.

I wouldn’t say I’m fascinated by death itself; instead I’m more interested in how life continues after death. How do we carry on when something in our lives no longer is?

Grief can happen in so many forms. Of course there’s the grief of a loved one’s passing, but there’s also grief for your childhood (oh, those simple days!), grief for your pre-baby body (when my body was only mine and not a feeding machine!), grief for a pre-Internet world (phones with cords! Less distractions! Non-pasteurized milk!) – grieving the loss of something can essentially be happening, moment by moment, as life is a constantly shifting parade of situations and permutations.

Except this: that grieving is not happening. In an increasingly pressurized world, where our attention is frazzled by blinking notifications, where financial security is becoming as nostalgic as a white picket fence, and who knows what will happen with climate change – it is easy to feel squeezed from all sides, and that the only option is to keep pushing the rock up the mountain, even when you know it’s going to roll down anyway. There is no time to grieve, no time for mourning, because if you stop, you’ll get squished.

Grief requires you to stop. It requires life to pause, in order to be fully felt. The margin in our lives that allows us to pause is shrinking. Grief is not economically productive, and while you might gain some social currency by sharing it online, it is short-lived, because the emotional bandwidth of others is already thin. Besides, everyone is tired, and already muting your posts anyway.

I can feel my brain changing. Like most everyone else, I have fallen into the habit of compulsively checking my phone, waiting for the latest catastrophe, or the top three life hacks to optimize my sleep, or a soothing image of a monstera plant in a white ceramic vase on a blush-pink woven rug to prevent my eyeballs from bleeding. All the Hollywood movies where the artificial intelligence becomes sentient and it becomes a war between humans and AI – in a way, it’s already happening. The algorithms that determine what shows up in your social media feed and the sidebars of websites touting advertisements are designed to make you want to look, want to engage, want to surrender your attention to the highest, most flashiest bidder. They are attacking, even if your fists aren’t up.

How can we create time to stop? How can we allow for grieving to unfold, as it is a necessary aspect of the human experience?

In the past, I’ve tried the social media detox thing. It was somewhat helpful, but I felt disconnected, and when I rejoined, I found I slid back to addictively clicking. It was a short, temporary respite. I’ll probably do it again in the future but I am realistic about its benefits.

I’ve heard of others petitioning for companies to instigate interruptions in their online interfaces to modulate addictive behaviour. I’m certainly glad that others have taken on this fight, but I don’t know if that’s where I want to be.

My current strategy is to keep my phone on silent mode, resting face down. Futile? Probably.

I grieve my pre-smartphone brain. I grieve an earlier time of disconnect, silence, and incandescent light bulbs. I grieve being eight, when my only options were to watch X-Men or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Saturday mornings (or both, because you’d switch the channel between the two during commercial breaks). I grieve my naïveté, that I didn’t know how special it was to work through being a teenager without Instagram.

I grieve the present; that I, like so many others, are struggling to figure out how to stay engaged and connected, to do our civic duty of being informed (ideally, by truthful reporting), while holding onto our sanity and sovereignty.

The other day someone said something like this to me, “You don’t seem to have many problems,” – I don’t recall the context, because the statement completely shocked me. It was so incorrect, so childish, so selfish.

I don’t appear to have many problems because I don’t air them online. I share them privately, in-person, with a small circle of people whom I trust and haven’t annoyed the shit out of (yet). In the end, this person’s statement showed how little they knew about me, and how, despairingly, things don’t seem to count unless they are announced online.

There have been many deaths, and there will be many more. I’m not sure how to proceed, but I know that my individual strength plays a role in the collective’s strength. Living with the certainty that Sisyphus is my homeboy, I know that I’ll need to fortify myself so I can take a turn at pushing that boulder up the mountain, and give him a break.

There are many days that feel like a scramble, and I have to admit that I am not always good at catching myself before the deep fatigue sets in. I also refuse to accept that it’s all up to me, as an individual, to change the trajectory of the collective. It is a strange form of conceit to think that if I sleep eight hours a day, plunge my skin with coconut oil, chomp through all the vegetables, and #livemytruth, that everything will be fine.

Meanwhile, I savour the small victories. One way that reliably bolsters me, both physically and spiritually, is to cook. When I cook, I don’t check my phone, and I hardly ever listen to music or a podcast. It is just me, in my kitchen. I rarely follow a recipe; I open the fridge, see what ingredients are before me, and let the alchemy occur. Even though so much of my food is sourced from far away places, it still feels more real to me than anything spewing forth from a screen. I can use all my senses, not just my woefully abused eyes, to create something good for us to eat. Also, it takes time to make a meal, like a good thirty minutes or more, not 20 seconds like in those Tasty videos with the disembodied hands. It is a level of temporality that I can actually compute, and am grounded and comforted by.

The last time I made this soup, was for the meditation retreat I catered for my teacher, Jonathan. That was about seven years ago I think, and now I make it again as a gift for a friend whose father recently passed away. It is light on the palate and soothing for the body, and doesn’t mind being eaten with one’s mind half elsewhere, because that’s how it is sometimes when our world changes irrevocably.

——

Brothy soup w/ mushrooms, spinach, and orange vegetables

Makes a lot

This recipe calls for dried mushrooms, but of course you can use fresh ones if you’d rather. I do find that dried mushrooms add more silkiness and depth of flavour to the broth – and also, accommodates for any apocalyptic-esque behaviour that might arise in the waves of hysteria that are characterizing our modern times.

A generous handful of dried mushrooms (a variety, or just shiitake)
A medium-sized sweet potato
1-2 carrots
A small knob of fresh ginger
1 bundle of green onions
Several fistfuls of baby spinach
Lemon/lime juice, to taste

Soak the dried mushrooms in 1 L of room temperature water for at least an hour, or until they start to feel soft. If the mushrooms are really large (like whole shiitakes), then slice them into a more manageable size so that a piece doesn’t flop off your spoon when you’re eating it and cause a catastrophic splash of hot soup all over you.

Dice the sweet potato and carrots into cubes. Heat your cooking oil of choice in a large soup pot over medium heat, and throw in the sweet potato and carrot. Let it cook and colour slightly.

Pour in the mushrooms and water. Grate in the fresh ginger. Bring to a boil, and then put the lid on and turn the heat down. Let it simmer until the sweet potato and carrots are cooked through. Add the finely chopped green onions and spinach. Stir until the spinach is wilted down. Season with salt and a healthy squeeze of lemon or lime juice. If you find there’s not enough liquid, feel free to add a splash of hot water. Best served in a silent atmosphere with all smartphones in the other room.
Brothy soup

tahini zen circles.

There is a meditation practice in the Buddhist tradition of drawing circles. Using a calligraphy brush, the Zen circle is drawn with one quick stroke. It exemplifies directness, simplicity, presence. A dubious ripple indicates an unsteady mind; an unfortunate ovoid betrays overthinking.

Once, I stumbled upon a video of Thich Nhat Hanh drawing perfect Zen circle after circle, while photographers clicked their cameras with appreciation and onlookers cooed and awed. At the time – which I am ashamed to now admit – I thought it rather overrated, but then again, I hadn’t yet tried the circle drawing practice myself, and later my strange amoebic sprawls would knock me down a few deserved notches.

While I’m sure it’s useful to some to fill pages of notebooks with Zen circles, I lean towards more practical arts, usually of gastronomic circumstance. We’ve had the good fortune to eat some delicious, beautifully presented food in respected establishments – and since my inner food scientist lives on in the creases of my heart, I feed her with minute analytics of the hows, whys, and with which’s that a dish was constructed.

For those with particularly keen eyes, it probably comes at no surprise that, for a while now, chefs seem to be really into smearing a smig of sauce on a plate, with the back of a large spoon, and then artfully tumbling the solids on top. It certainly is more chic than globs of sauce dribbled over hunks of food, which would hide the perfectly cooked chunks of this and that. Inspired by such edible artistry, I myself have attempted some self-conscious smears at home, and even with the warbles and false starts, I have to say it is a very satisfying somatic experience.

In fact, it reminds me of Zen circles.

While I haven’t yet attempted (or seen others attempt) a full-circle-smear of sauce, even a partial circle – or streak – of whatever proportion, does require some modicum of the same precision and focus required when handling brush, ink, and paper. In a way I have a deeper admiration for the edible version, because it requires several steps of work: first, to assemble the ingredients; next, to make the food; finally, to plate in a visibly pleasant way. It speaks of discipline, hard work, and perseverance.

My admiration of discipline, and my personal goals to establish it within myself, have been long standing. I recall in grades 3 through 6, that I had a self-imposed bedtime of 9:30 pm, and if for some reason I wasn’t under the covers by then, mental self-flagellation would ensue, which would ensure that I couldn’t fall asleep until 11:00 pm. In high school I would turn down invitations to birthday parties, because going to one social event that month (the school dance, from which I asked to be picked up from at 10:00 pm) was “more than enough fun for me.”

Since then, I’ve relaxed somewhat (I go to bed at 11:00 pm, at best), and while it might initially appear as a straitjacket existence, the truth of the Stockholm matter is that I have known somewhere deep down that discipline was a necessary part of living a gratifying life. That is, discipline that I chose to partake in. The privilege of getting to choose my problems was something that I felt was important, even if my nine-year-old self couldn’t articulate why, and if that beat my parents to the punch, then even better.

I’d like to indulge myself with thinking that my idea of discipline has matured over the years, has become less punitive, and encompasses more meaning than, “Only one bar of chocolate a week” and “Move my body so I can save myself from complaining about how tubby I feel.”

Instead of a brand of discipline that narrows and insulates, I am striving to establish a sense of discipline that is the springboard for enrichment.

For instance: apparently one of the life-hacking skills that highly successful people (read: financially rich) employ is to eat the same breakfast everyday. By automating their breakfast choice, they do not lose energy through the decision-making required for such an apparently mundane task as shoving calories into your body. While I often do eat the same breakfast every day, it is because it is my homemade granola, with a strong dose of chia and flax seeds, in order to keep my bowels regular, upon which my sanity depends. Less worrying about the state of my bowels frees up mental space for me to focus on other important issues.

In a desperate attempt to make my life mean something more than its economic productivity, most of my adult life has consisted of centring my efforts at cultivating discipline according to the Bodhisattva vows.

A Bodhisattva is a person who sees that their liberation from suffering is inextricably intertwined with the liberation of everyone else, so through compassion and dedication, they work tirelessly to promote a path to freedom for themselves and others.

In other words: being at peace doesn’t work if no one else is.

The tricky thing though, is that the work is never done.

The tragedy of life, but also from which one can derive meaning, is that the pain never stops. In fact, striving to be free of pain often produces more pain. And, while acknowledging this, the Bodhisattva way is to keep on keeping on. All the turmeric, green juices, and coconut oil won’t keep a life-threatening disease away forever. All the yoga classes, cleanses, and retreats can be mighty helpful, but the dull malaise will return.

A Bodhisattva understands that none of us will never be fully healed. But the work is still worth it.

Which brings me back to the Zen circles: I plan to continue making amateur swipes of sauce across the plate. I don’t expect practice to make perfect; I just expect more practice. And I hope for the resilience to keep at it, wholeheartedly.

Here are the Bodhisattva vows, translated by Michael Stone:

Bodhisattva Vows
Beings are numberless, I vow to serve them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

——

Tahini sauce to swipe around

Thus far, a tahini-based sauce has been my favourite medium for swiping (using the back of a large spoon), but I plan to venture into other viscous forays as time marches on. It is incredibly versatile, and goes well with roasted vegetables, rice, etc. This recipe makes about 2 cups.

2/3 cup tahini
2/3 cup plain Greek yoghurt and/or sour cream
1/4-1/3 cup lemon juice
1/2 tsp sea salt
Water, to adjust consistency

As you might tell, this recipe is really about ratios: a one-to-one-ish ratio of tahini and yoghurt/sour cream, with a squidge of lemon juice added, plus water to make it as thick or runny as you prefer. Considering the fact that each of these ingredients is pretty delicious on their own, you can keep adding a bit of this and that until you land upon something you like. This recipe also lends will to variations and permutations: sour cream will make a richer flavour than yoghurt, you might switch the lemon for lime, or add something spicy like grated ginger to make it interesting. What I do find important though is to keep the smooth consistency, so when considering how you might modify, consider maintaining a frictionless experience.

grapefruit season of life.

We didn’t grow up eating grapefruit. In terms of citrus, my family ate oranges, with maybe some mandarins here and there on special occasions. In fact, I don’t think I tasted grapefruit until I was an adult living on my own, and its sharp bitter sourness was initially so shocking that I couldn’t understand how people liked it. Its flavour seemed to match the people who had affinity for it: people that proudly proclaimed their preference for grapefruit seemed to be as sharp and opinionated as their acerbic nourishment. Perhaps they grew more angular for being able to stomach such a punch, or their inherent toughness allowed for such a blow – either way, I couldn’t quite relate.

Until now. At the risk of becoming a smug, pinkish-yellow fruited contrarian, I’m really into grapefruit these days.

First, there’s the colour. The dusty rose jewels of flesh are equally soothing and refreshing for the eyes in the middle of a gloomy grey winter. It has become a favourite mid-afternoon break to stand at the kitchen counter and gently peel the scraggly white membrane to reveal little pink gems (technically called endocarp, by the way).

Then, there’s the heft. They are the size of softballs, but even heavier; so that if you were to hurl one at a passing car that has just splashed you with dirty street slush as it buzzed by, you could do some serious damage. It would be a waste of grapefruit though. Also, please stop splashing pedestrians with your driving. Thanks.

And of course, the surprise of it. Grapefruit is energizing! While the soft pinkish hue and subtle aroma suggest a demure flavour, all of a sudden there is a powerful punch of sweet-sour-bitter when a wedge is pressed against the roof of your mouth with your tongue.

For me the surprise is always the bitterness, and I find it is revivifying – a welcome jolt to prevent a full-on slide into the winter blues – complementing the soporific soups and stews typically consumed during these cave-dwelling dark months of the year. Then, there is a quiet hush of sweetness that softens the harsh bitterness. I am glad for complicated flavour, especially for the inclusion of bitter, as we plod on in this age of conventional farming and its desires for uniform blandness.

I’m not completely sure if I’m getting tougher by eating punchy citrus fruit, but I certainly could use a dose of tenacity. What I am certain of is that our food cravings can provide insight into the needs of our inner lives. According to Ayurveda, there are six tastes in food (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent) – all with their benefits and pleasures. Bitterness is especially useful for creating a sense of cleansing and resetting. It is for this reason I think that I’ve been craving grapefruit so much – this past year, while, having had many joyful and delightful moments, has also been incredibly heavy, grief-ridden, and tough – and the ground has not settled yet. Tenacity aside, I’m gladly welcoming a sense of renewal, even if it is only a momentary respite that comes in pink bulbous form.

Despite its potential mood-altering capabilities, when you are captivated by something and compelled to buying big bags of it, you have to eat them sometime or another. And even as much as I love grapefruit right now, there are only so many I can eat in their raw and solo form before my palate feels a little punished by the repeated slaps of bitterness.

They say when you have lemons, you make lemonade.
When you have grapefruit, you make a bunch of things.

First, a cooked salad.

Beet and grapefruit salad

Winter calls for root vegetables. This beet salad answers that call. A tumble of roasted beets that have been peeled and sliced, are adorned with nibs of grapefruit, toasted almond, and shredded mint. A simple sprinkle of white balsamic vinegar and sea salt keep the flavours very clean and crisp, though a dribble of peppery olive oil would also be lovely.

Then, marmalade.

Everyone seems scared of sugar these days (except when it comes to double-tapping photos of sugar-laden foods on social media), but there’s really no danger of overdoing it with this marmalade because it is also decidedly bitter. The albedo (the white layer between the peel and the fruit) contains pectin, which is necessary for thickening the marmalade, and its inclusion ensures an acerbic note. The alchemy of simply combining grapefruit and sugar to create a sticky, lumpy mass of translucent coral is both incredibly satisfying and fascinating. A bumpy slick of gentle pink across a slice of sourdough toast is a beautiful beginning to the day, and a hopeful harbinger of better things to come.

——

Grapefruit Marmalade

4 grapefruits
3 cups sugar
2-4 whole star anise (optional)

With a sharp paring knife, cut off the zest (be sure to include some of the albedo) of the four grapefruits. Cut into small bits. Peel off and discard as much of the remaining albedo and membrane. Cut the grapefruit flesh into rounds, removing the seeds.

Add the zest bits and grapefruit rounds to a large pot, along with the sugar and star anise (if using; it adds a subtle je ne sais quoi). Bring to a boil, and use a wooden spoon to break up the pieces of fruit. Turn the heat down to a simmer, and let it keep going for at least 10 minutes, if not longer, until it reaches a consistency that you like. You can test the consistency by putting a spoonful of marmalade on a plate, and sticking it in the freezer for five minutes to quickly cool it down. If it’s still runny, keep letting the marmalade cook down.

In the meantime, sterilize a few jars to eventually put the marmalade in. I always use an array of sizes, so I’m terrible at giving advice as to how many, so good luck with that?! I sterilize my jars by filling them with boiling water and letting them sit five minutes before pouring the water out. Probably not totally sterile to the nth degree, but good enough for me. I also don’t bother with boiling the marmalade in the jars later to sterilize them – I am just too lazy, and so I keep the marmalade in the fridge.

Okay, when the marmalade has reached a consistency you like, spoon it into your semi-sterile jars, and screw the lid on! Remember that as it cools it’ll get thicker. If you prefer less bitterness in your marmalade, you can decrease the amount of zest – to some taste testers I overdid it by using the zest of all four grapefruits, so own your choices and decide for yourself. Be inspired by the grapefruit, and be bold!

to soothe and protect.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading these days, of books. Books of all sorts: from research on the intersection of yoga and science, folk stories and the psyche, white fragility (uh oh!), to cookbooks. Books have always been such a comfort to me growing up – a chance to get to step into worlds beyond the walls of my room – and they continue to be a source of expansion, challenging me in my opinions, or bringing vocabulary (usually better than mine) to thoughts previously unfleshed.

The company of books remain a true fellowship, and they help sort out the confusion of navigating this life and this world. Recently I did a bunch of research to brush up for a workshop I led on breathwork: looking into human anatomy, the nervous system, and the inner workings of our emotional and spiritual lives. Questions like, “How do we truly feel rested?” And “How do we insulate ourselves from the stresses of life while being useful citizens participating in the larger world?” Have been of prominence. You know, casual existentialist stuff, no big deal.

Intertwined with our own whirlwinds of personalized nitty-gritty, we have climate change, poverty, systemic racism, a bunch of other -isms, all busting out of every seam and corner of our collective consciousness. It is an uncomfortable time. But if yoga teaches us anything, it is to sit with discomfort. It is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If we can hold a belly-smushing twist for five breaths, it will strengthen our nervous system to hold steady when we are in disagreement with someone. Useful.

So the next time you are taking some deep breaths (hm, how about right now?) remember this about yourself, you amazing human specimen: the sympathetic nervous system is one arm of the autonomic nervous system in the human body. When we are in stressful situations, it becomes activated. Stress could mean running away from a bear, not getting enough likes on your Instagram post, seeing someone deemed “sketchy” walking towards you at night. Sympathetic means the response of fight, flight, or freeze.

To complement, there is the parasympathetic nervous system, which becomes dominant when we feel safe. It is a “rest and digest” state, in which our inner resources are directed towards digestion (of both food and thoughts), repairing tissues, and rejuvenation.

In trying to make sense of what is happening in our communities, both local and beyond, it feels apt to think of our communities as a giant body. Collectively, we can be operating from either a parasympathetic or sympathetic state. For better or worse, we seem stuck in sympathetic: fighting eachother about what’s mine/yours, running away to not deal (aka denial), and/or feeling paralyzed by fear or overwhelm.

How do we collectively move ourselves back into parasympathetic, where we feel safe enough with eachother to have honest conversations, hold space for eachother’s hurt and opinions, and heal?

Perhaps the answer can be found again in observing how an individual body operates. The vagus nerve is one of the most important nerves in the body that connects to almost all of our internal organs above and below the diaphragm. It sends messages from our organs back to the brain, and vice versa. Essentially, it is a huge network of communication that sends internal messages about our physiological and emotional health. It is a beautiful, elegant manifestation of interconnectedness.

So if we truly want our communities to exist in peace and happiness, if we want a sense of belonging and safety, we have to start with ourselves. Can we find contentment within ourselves? Can we create safety for ourselves? Can I take good care of myself? Can I belong to myself, fully accepting myself in all my shades of grey? It is the work of a lifetime, but just as we stand on the shoulders of the previous generation, we can create the steady ground for the next.

Inner peace as a conduit for universal peace is not a new idea; in fact it might be a trope that is annoyingly repetitive. Well let me answer with another trope: suffering will keep showing up in your life until you learn the lesson. And so we keep trying to take steps forward.

As always, I return to food. Within a meal is the sun, the rain, the earth, the farmers – all the people and things that had a hand in creating this deliciousness. Within a meal is both joy and a vote for change. So eat good food. Eat real food. Eat food that nourishes your soul, your cells, your inner community of gut bacteria that really want you to stay alive and thrive (it’s helpful for them). Eat well for your community, for your farmers, for your land, for your oceans and lakes.

The details of what consists of good food will vary based on your location, genetics, socioeconomic status, and some more -isms. At the end of the day, take good care of you. And let that be synonymous with taking good care of a whole lot of other things.

And, one more thing. The esteemed Zen teacher Bernie Glassman used to say frequently that if we ended every statement with, “That’s just, like, my opinion, man” – then the world would probably be a much better, calmer place. So, like, this is just my opinion. May we all have the inner resource to reflect and form our own opinions.

——

Carrot and coconut soup

This soup is based off of the same lifehacking tools as the previous post (“lifehacking” sounds so scrappy. How about we say, “skillful”? Hm, classy.) Consistency and reliability are soothing qualities to have in life, as is a soup that is blended into a velvety puddle of muted amber orange. As well, it can easily scale up, in case you want to gift it to someone and use it as a soupy token of friendship. The following will make about 2 L of soup.

2/3 cup caramelized onions
2 largish handfuls of roughly chopped carrots
A thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger
1 can of coconut milk
Splash of lemon juice
Salt to taste

Bring to a boil the carrots and ginger – in just enough water to cover them. Let it simmer until the carrots are tender. Pour it all into a blender with the caramelized onions and blend until buttery smooth. Pour back into the pot and add the can of coconut milk. Take your time stirring the milk into the orange velvet, as this is a calming aesthetic and somatic experience. Add the lemon juice and some salt to help bring out the flavours. Ladle out and eat.

Carrot coconut soup

slow down soup.

For someone who makes a living off of telling people to slow down and take their time, I feel like I have very little spare time. I am subject to the same pressures as anyone else – the pressure to perform, to hustle, to get this done, that done – you know the drill. Being idle is a true luxury, and I could use some interest off of my investments.

For better or worse, this struggle for more spare time begets creativity. And some of that creativity is mighty satisfying. Over the years in the kitchen, I have devised some useful strategies to maximize output with minimum input. I squish as much “doing” as possible into the allotted time and energy for preparing food for us to eat.

And by energy, I don’t mean just mine, but also the oven’s. As a way to minimize energy consumption (and bills), I have strategies as to how to use my oven to their fullest potential. When it’s on, it’s on.

For instance: when I bake bread, I bake four loaves at a time. It takes the same amount of time to preheat the oven to the requisite scorching 475 degrees F, and about the same time to bake four loaves as it does one. Therefore, four.

And actually, there’s more: when it’s bread day, I’m also wrapping sweet potatoes and/or beets in foil, and wedging them into the spare space in the oven beside the sheet pans of free-form, homemade bread. Bread day becomes bread-plus-root-vegetables day.

The cooked veg become the starting point of another meal. Perhaps sliced cold and dipped in mayonnaise, chunked into a salad, or evolved into a soup.

Which leads me to my next kitchen hack (are you taking notes?!): caramelizing a whole whack of onion slices, separating them out into more reasonably-sized portions, freezing them, and pulling each out when I need golden, soft, delicious onions in my life. It takes about the same amount of time to cook down half an onion as it does three – plus it stinks up the apartment the same amount. Specialization of labour can actually work, mostly when applied to cooking onions.

Now for the fun part: combining these singular ingredients into something tasty. Cooked sweet potato and caramelized onions are basically code words for soup, so soup is what I usually make. As this is going to be a blended soup, I also add any vegetables that have been withering forgotten in the fridge. This time it was limp carrots, which I simmered until tender, then everything got blended until smooth and creamy and voilà! – a soup made in the time it took to boil carrots, because time is precious and slipping through my fingers like a wet beet when I’m trying to peel it.

Of course this isn’t to detract from the pleasure of taking one’s time to prepare a meal. I do that too, but unfortunately it can’t be an everyday occurrence. Hence these little tricks to make the most of my time and energy, because there is also joy and leisure to be found outside of the kitchen walls.


Sweet potato carrot soup

1 roasted sweet potato
1/2 cup caramelized onions
One large handful chopped carrots
Small knob of fresh ginger

Boil the carrots in water until tender. Throw everything in the blender and blitz until smooth. Adjust consistency by adding more water. A splash of lemon juice or white wine vinegar would be good too. Another nice addition could be a can of coconut milk to make it extra creamy and rich. Add salt and pepper to taste. Oh, and nutritional yeast for a hit of vitamin B12.

I had some leftover roasted cauliflower, which I used as a topping for crunch, but mostly to help clean out the fridge.

ginger, rediscovered.

This past May we went on a long-anticipated trip to Japan. For three weeks, we walked, ate, observed, photographed, and talked our way through some of the major cities and smaller rural areas. We practised the little phrases of Japanese we had learned (I spent almost an hour trying to perfect my pronounciation of konbanwa, or “good evening” – to then have the elation of greeting an elderly local man who responded in kind). We practised bowing: to 7-Eleven shop clerks, to Michelin-star chefs, to grandmas making soba noodles, to shrines, to empty rooms. We practised living with complete presence and dedicated self-reflection, as it would turn out to not only be an outward journey, but also an inward one.

My admiration and fascination with the Japanese way of living started when I was a child. Growing up Chinese, I felt like the loud, penny-pinching, gaudy ways of my Hong Kong ancestors were garish and unruly compared to the images of Japanese culture that I knew: refined, quiet, serene. With time and experience, I can now see how simplistic and unfair those ideas were, but as my consciousness grows, I am also awakened to having an inferiority complex for being a first generation immigrant.

I can definitely remember as a child wanting to be blonde, fair, and freckled. I wanted to fit in, to be considered pretty and sweet. Instead I felt dark, both on the outside and within.

I don’t feel like blaming anyone for that. I could point to the media, systemic discrimination, poor role models – but it wouldn’t matter much. If I decide to play victim, then I would just stay in hurt and resentment. I wouldn’t get anywhere. Instead, I’d rather learn and grow. I’d rather find my own version of brightness and radiance.

Going to Japan was, in an unexpected but welcome way, a sort of homecoming to my own ethnic heritage and cultural upbringing. Little daily things like drinking copious amounts of tea, using chopsticks, having meals centered around rice – I hadn’t realized up until this point that I had put these aside as a way to fit in to some idea of what it was to be “normal”, and when I rediscovered them in a country whose homogeneity made these culinary rituals ordinary to the point of mundane, it was like finding a long-lost favourite old sweater in the back of the closet, putting it on, and feeling like myself again.

One of my yoga teachers once said that those of us who grew up in predominantly Judeo-Christian communities would likely have to find their way back to spirituality/religion through something that felt completely different, like a Buddhist practice. He meant that sometimes it’s too close, too raw, and too triggering, to find spirituality through a modality in which you know the ins and outs of its flaws and letdowns.

In a way, Japan was that for me: through my experiences there, I can now start to fully embrace the beauty and wisdom of my own culture, that my parents tried painstakingly to pass on to me, so that I could remember where and who I came from.

However, that isn’t to flip completely and forget the unappetizing aspects of my ancestry (of which there are many). But everyone has blood on their hands, no one is perfect, and individuals and communities alike are in a process. There’s always more work to do.

When I was sick as a child, my parents would always make me a hot drink of ginger, lemon and honey (TONS of honey). They would slice fresh ginger into a mug, squeeze in a bunch of honey and a spritz of lemon, and pour hot water over. It was a simple salve of love.

We’d also have stir-fried vegetables with slices of fresh ginger mixed in. It was an entertaining moment to see someone’s face twist up when they inadvertently bit into a chunk of ginger!

Pickled ginger is something that I have only encountered in Japanese cooking. It is the perfect spicy and sour hit to balance the sweet and soothing notes of the rest of the meal, and a great way to speed along digestion.

In my longing to be back in Japan, I decided to make my own pickled ginger. It is so simple and easy to do, that the resulting gratification is quite disproportionate to the effort required. I make a 500 ml jar of it and it lasts for about a month in the fridge. When all the ginger is gone, I use the pickling liquid to make an impromptu salad dressing with tahini and turmeric (ratios eye-balled). The frugality of my ancestors (and all our ancestors really, didn’t everyone starve at least once?!) lives on.

Here’s to finding your way home, wherever that might be.


Pickled ginger

Pickled ginger, or beni shoga, is only pink due to the addition of red shiso leaves. I don’t bother, and the ginger keeps its natural creamy yellow hue.

Pickled Ginger
(adapted from Seductions of Rice: A Cookbook, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid)

1 lb ginger (a large handful-ish)
2 tbsp sea salt
1.5 cups rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar

Peel the ginger using the edge of a spoon. You can keep the ginger skin, dry it, and mix it into your own tea blend.

Then, using a mandolin slicer or a very sharp knife, slice the ginger crosswise very thinly. Set aside any awkward knobs for making tea with.

In a bowl, toss 1 tsp of the salt with the ginger slices and let it stand for 10 minutes. Then rinse off the ginger with boiling water and drain well.

Gently heat the vinegar, sugar, and remaining 1 tbsp plus 2 tsp salt in a small saucepan until the sugar has completely dissolved. Meanwhile, fill a 500 ml mason jar with boiling water, then drain it – this is to somewhat sterilize the jar.

Use tongs or chopsticks to place the ginger in the jar, then pour the hot vinegar mixture over it. Screw on the lid, and keep it in the fridge. Wait 24 hours before using it for the first time.

Pickled ginger

celebration.

Oh HI! It’s been a few blinks. Life piles on, and it doesn’t always leave room for chronicling it online, or more importantly, in my mind’s memory bank. For better or worse, significant moments seem to be marked by the food surrounding them. As I think of past meals, I am better able to recall what has transpired, and as these autumn days grow shorter, their tastes linger for a brief moment, helping me to digest the subtler things of life.

For instance, this summer I ate:
– wild blueberries and corn on the cob while camping with my love in the Canadian Shield
– homemade pickled ginger, inspired by our travels to Japan earlier this year
– crustless cucumber sandwiches at a memorial service
– piles and piles of strawberries, picked by yours truly

The strawberries have been a lush, juicy, rosy emblem of this past season – and while the peak glory was fleeting, their cheery spirit has carried on. I have eaten them in almost every way I can think of: fresh, of course, on their own or tumbled into morning granola; blitzed into a freezer jam to spread on toast; frozen red stones melded with ice cream for a milkshake, and sandwiched into a simple white cake with whipped cream.

It is difficult to decide which is my favourite way to pump more strawberries into my body, but I would say that thus far the cake method has been the most enjoyable way to share my strawberry hoard with others. When there are celebrations to be had, nothing quite marks the occasion like cake. Whether it’s a birthday, an engagement, or everyday gratitude – a lofty, gorgeous cake is the way I like to say I like you. Getting to share the bounty has been a sweet delight amidst a summer of beautiful surprises, unexpected deaths, and a slew of memories to chew on when I end up bedded down for winter in a few months.

I have made the following recipe three times in the past few weeks, and each time is just as lovely as the last. It is a straightforward white cake, that also happens to be gluten-free. It feels quite versatile, and as my strawberry stores dwindle in the dark months, I imagine it would hold up very well with a thick slick of jam, or just copious clouds of whipped cream.

Here’s to celebrating life, in all its ups and downs.

The Cake Recipe

1-1/2 cups (202 g) brown rice flour
1 cup minus 1 tbsp white sugar
2-1/3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 eggs
1/3 cup (46 g) grapeseed oil
2 tsp orange blossom water (or 1 tsp vanilla extract + 1 tsp water)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Celsius. Line an 8″ round cake pan with parchment paper. Set aside.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix all the dry ingredients together. Blop in all the wet ingredients, and mix thoroughly. Scrape into the lined cake pan.

Now, this is important: let the batter sit in the pan for about 15 minutes before baking. Is it science, is it superstition? Who knows. But the baking powder starts to react and create bubbles, and the flour has time to hydrate, and fairies have time to come by and bless your creation…

Bake for about 35-40 minutes, until the middle looks dry. Let it cool in its tin for a few hours.

When you are ready to assemble a full-on cake, slice the cake into two layers with a serrated knife. I like to scratch a line all the way around before I go in and actually cut the middle. Place your bottom layer on a pretty serving plate. Pile on a bunch of strawberries – whole, halved, or sliced, it’s up to you. Gently drop on a few clouds of whipped cream. I’m very serious about my whipped cream to cake ratio, so I use about 500 ml of 35% cream for one cake. Add on the second layer of cake, and repeat.

Another important thing: let the cake “age” in the fridge for at least four hours before serving. It helps moisture transfer into the cake, so that it is delicious, harmonized, and perfect. Everyone gets to know eachother and steep in cake bliss. Enjoy.