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Into the Kitchen

As a child, we lived behind our store, Tele Sound. There was a sunken living room and a small kitchen. My mother prepared our food there and we had a table and chairs where we ate our three meals at 9, noon and 6, together, rarely if ever deviating from that schedule. Because the stove door never properly closed, my mother’s attempts at cake baking were never fully realized. As well, as soon as she attempted a new food combination, a customer would enter the store, her work interrupted. Foods occurred with regularity on specific days such as liver, thin and hard as shoe leather on Mondays, hamburgers plain, or if my sister and I were lucky, transformed by Bravo Tomato Sauce into spaghetti on Tuesdays, heavenly roasted chicken surrounded by potatoes and carrots Friday, etc. Our kitchen and her preparation were plain and functional, informal. Today many kitchens are beautifully decorated and coordinated, some with stoves that appear to be able to heat the entire house( in colours previously never visited in a cooking space), marble, granite or Caesar stone for counters, islands on which food can be arranged and contemplated, stools at the edge for conversing, lolling.

Recently I realized that in spite of having a beautiful living room, when we have guests over,I draw them into the kitchen to chat over hors d’oeuvres, welcoming them into our kitchen where the heart of our home exists. Although there is no fireplace around which to warm ourselves, that idea of a primal spot still pervades. Our table like a fire pit is round and our leather nook surrounds it, enclosing our guests and ourselves in an unending circle. Perhaps this is a relic from my own childhood because in our first house before the store, we did in deed have a small nook.

Elsewhere in the house there is a formality of individual chairs, side tables not exactly aligned for placing drinks or nibbles and before dinner conversation. But later of course, the formal dining room is the spot where dinner will be served. Years back I would ready the eatables in the kitchen, but with age and greater ease, I invite people directly into the kitchen that is surrounded by large windows that open brightly onto the garden. It is here I am most relaxed, even adding last touches to the evening’s fare, deciding on an additional desert, fretting over a sauce that is not velvety or meringues that are too chewy.

When we were young and entertained a lot, I followed Julia Child’s cookbooks with most recipes requiring over three days to perfect, I always believing( still do) in developing from scratch entire symphonies of food. One particularly frantic day, having decided on a spanakopita dish, I rushed off to the butcher shop and purchased lamb ground to perfection on the spot. Here my memory fogs slightly as I cannot recall where the glass shards that had fallen into my preparation had come from! Had I precariously positioned wine goblets too close to my elbows, were they everyday glasses I had jostled in my hurry, but In my mind’s eye, I observe helpless – unable to freeze stop the action in slow motion -the breaking of glass into the mixture.

Of course I could not serve fragmented bits in my dinner. Kids thrown back into the car, more frantic and more upset still, I returned to the butchers to purchase more ground lamb. Realizing I had spent my last dime and did not have any more money to spend, I began to weep before the perplexed man behind the counter, explaining my plight through gaggled sobs in a store full of curious patrons. The kindly butcher provided me with the meat and I left in a haze of tears. Still in a flurry, I retraced all of my steps to formulate my dinner, exhausted by the travails, my own sloppiness and frustration.

And as always my mind darts to the Holocaust when even in the worst of times, women scrounged bits of paper onto which they secreted recipes of home to share with other inmates, endeavouring to resurrect the normalcy of their prior lives and invoke the family meals where all beloved members conversed, engaged, once sharing in quiet, calm food loving created by who those who cared deeply. These written fragments hidden in the recesses of clothes or corrupted corners stimulated memories of smells, tastes, environments, freedoms and the recalling of a life in which food, now savagely missing ,conveyed a world once cherished.

Conversely, some of my favourite reminiscences also revolve on backyard parties where food was the star, expertly designed cakes, carefully chosen and concocted recipes, flowing wine, to the backdrop of widely blooming flowers, always white, in the backyard, our kitchen extended beyond the limits of the walls and doors to enfold the yard, the grass, the guests, the out of doors.

But still it is the kitchen, the centre of the cooking activity that pinpoints where we come together, to talk and to be. In the den, we may sprawl, read, relax, even doze from time to time, but in the kitchen we sit , attuned to one another, upright, listening attentively , even pausing over mouthfuls to interact, respond, disagree , nod heads.Our children recall inviting their friends to dinner, our lively discussions on diverse topics, volleying back and forth, each participant at the meal, waiting for a hesitation or tiny gap into which to insert their opinions, voices rising, heads turning from speaker to speaker, lively, committed talk.

Here in this kitchen, too, are photographs of my parents with my children when they were young, and at the window ledge, other pictures of the grandkids, especially Thing One, Two and now Three, to bring them close , especially as they live far away. We, pretending, they are actually at the dinner table,chortling, turning to gaze out of doors, requiring a bib, a napkin,overturning glasses of chocolate milk, faces smeared with leftovers- like their cousins who come both Monday and Thursdays. Those stand-ins, sacred totems, those photographs presiding , watching, combining in the kitchen .

How to describe what happens in the kitchen. With a desk and a computer, the kitchen has become the brain of the house- and it is not surprising to find me here writing an article in the morning, or Howard working on his cases in the evening, or the grandkids involved in puzzles, constructing with Lego, attempting circuit manipulations, cutting, pasting… On our kitchen table, we work at things, building, relating with both our minds and bodies, forgetting we literally feed ourselves in the same spot, physically fortifying our intellects and souls.

From the enclosing windows I can watch the cardinals pose on the ledge or dig for food in the gutters. I can observe the robins preside over the thickening grass, I can catch sight of the ducks who fly into the pool at winter’s end and I can gauge the season’s change with the parade of flowers from tulips to clematis to lilies and dahlias, each signalling the end of spring, the beginning of summer or the cool dawn of autumn. I can make a mental note regarding the lilac tree that has twisted reaching for the sun in a shady backyard, the textures of green as they differentiate leaf from leaf, bush from bush, or ponder why some plants have not returned even though their identical twins have.

In deed the kitchen is the monarch, the governance of the house. Although showing some evidence of time and the yearly onslaught of ants now, it endures much as my granite island is symbolic of the rocks that are at the core of the earth: the kitchen, the hub of our home and my life.

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Alo

It’s Tuesday, not a dining out night but as a belated birthday present, my son has procured a dinner reservation at Alo. It’s been a muggy rainy on and off day but the skies now clear.
 I imagine a speakeasy or a New York resto tucked away innocuously- in a downscale neighbourhood. At the bottom of the stairs is a tiny elevator operated by an employee. We know the magic password so we are allowed entrance. Service, welcome, greeting pleasantly opens up to contrast the confines of that stifling elevator box. You don’t really absorb the flair of the entrance till you use the washrooms later and pass through a lively bar setting on the edge of a kitchen. There seems to be another eating area too but we are on leather upholstered couches facing large windows on lower Spadina.

Throughout the evening, whether sommelier, servers or waiters, you get the impression that these people are just as happy to be there as you ar: smiles appear genuine, not forced. 

The menu is set with three real choices, appetizer, main and desert in the course of seven .Dinner begins and the first starters that appear will foreshadow the rest of the meal: tiny perfect jewels of food that look too beautiful to devour. Stunningly assembled eatable pieces of art that both externally and inwardly showcase incredible talent. First there is toro, coconut and coriander and tuna loin, avocado and finger lime. Again they are almost too precious to eat and recall to my mind the pint size chocolates you might see at Nadege’s or an artful truffle shop in a hidden lane. 

I choose Hokkaido sea scallop, sudachi crème fraiche, daikon and ice lettuce for my starter. The freshness and melange of flavours is delectable but combines as a well played instrument in an orchestra of food. There is a sprinkle of something resembling a bit of carbon you hold momentarily on your tongue that gently evaporates, enhancing the total treat. My husband has the 30 year aged beef ribeye tartar,quail egg, brown sauce, Tete de Moine.How many ways can you say amazing? At each offering, I emit a noise: mmmm…. 

The pain au lait has been raved about in many other reviews so I won’t elaborate except to say it could also be one’s guilty pleasure. 

Two of our party vote the morel mushrooms in a lobster bisque, iberico loom garnished with eatable nasturtiums as their favourite, speaking to the surprise sensations of crunchy and soft, delicate and bold in this one dish. 

The other two diners go with the agnolotti of Beaufort cheese, the superb perfectly green English peas garnished with slivers of duck prosciutto as their fav.Mmmm…mmm … We eat with our eyes as well as our pallets and these offerings are tiny abstract paintings where the shapes and colours exact an additional observation as we’ve now come to expect – in this perfectly paced journey of food, textures bright, fresh, incredibly well chosen and always unique in themselves but carefully combined to produce a satiny elegance on the tastebud This artistry of presentation has been studied to evoke a strong aesthetic response from the diner. 

Striped bass, artichokes, mousseron mushrooms in a clam emulsion is a prelude to the choice of mains of veal ribeye and Quebec pork loin, Only here do the veal eaters comment: with such small ( thankfully) portions, the presence of tiny fissures of fat and a too too rare cooking mar an assemblage that includes young green asparagus, porcini mushrooms and ramps.  

There are three delectable deserts and an added surprise of a tiny chocolate ganache birthday cake with a candle that I imagine in a doll’s house. But of the three, we all laud the burst of the mandarin orange, honeymilk , with again that magnificent contrast set off by the flake of honeycomb. Small is definitely big here. 

Words of course do not provide insight into the diversity of tastes, and what can occur when one ingredient sidles up against another to create an unexpected pop or hint of the unexpected.

This has been an incredible night. The food and Italian wine have perfectly coalesced. The conversation engaging and fun, but certainly the food was the star.

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