When I was little, I was obsessed with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and the romanticized life of a settler: learning how to live off the land, to make do with what you had, and to be self-sufficient.  It was a far cry from the concrete-laden cityscape that I traversed in my red-and-white Keds sneakers, whose only markings of a hard life were grass stains and the squished earwig that had crawled into the right shoe and met its demise under my pediatric phalanges (they had decided to infest our basement one year, a rather vexing period).

As an impressionable 8-year-old, one of Ingalls’ books, The Long Winter, really stuck with me.  In it she described the challenges of surviving one of the longest winters they experienced in Wisconsin, and eating only one potato a day.  I recall her talking about how she became sick of eating potatoes, and while this may be my memory playing tricks on me, I think she also found comfort in getting to eat at least something (because they did run out of food).  Well, I can say that I think I would find it comforting to get to eat something if there was almost nothing left to eat.

Luckily my situation has never been so dire, but the psychology of survival and coping and trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel has remained.  The thermometer might have read warmer temperatures this year, but it felt like a long winter anyhow.  Relationships, deaths, personal struggles…these things play a role in the climate of our lives, and it has been a difficult spell.

So as always, I turn to food.  Cooking and serving food to others has always been a great comfort – and it hasn’t failed me yet.  I particularly like the phrase “serving food” and the idea of serving, as opposed to helping.  In my food-addled brain, “serving” means helping others with no expectation of getting anything in return, whereas “helping” has a more egotistical tinge to it (“Look at me, I’m so great to be helping others” – that sort of thing).  So I like relating this idea of serving to cooking for others and sharing my table with them.

So: here we have some curry coconut dal soup.

Soup is one of the greatest comfort foods, a warm and nourishing poultice of sorts for the heart.  The way Ingalls described living off the land to feed and heal her family and friends has an earthy and wholesome quality to it, that I find present in every and all soups.  Make a big batch: some for you, and some to give away.

Curry coconut dal soup

makes 6-8 servings, or about 2 x 1 L Mason jars

1 yellow onion, finely diced
a large fistful of carrots, chopped
a slightly smaller fistful of celery stalks, chopped
about 1 cup of split mung beans (dal)
1 small handful of dried lime leaves
1-2″ knob of fresh ginger, sliced
a handful of button mushrooms, sliced
a small fistful of green beans, sliced into 0.5″-long pieces
1-2 tsp each of cumin, coriander, cardamom (all ground), garam masala, turmeric
1 can of coconut milk
salt and pepper
lemon juice

In a large stockpot, heat a good splosh of vegetable oil over medium-high heat.  Cook the onion, stirring occasionally, until translucent and a little brown on the edges.  Stir in all the spices.  Add the carrots, celery, and split mung beans.  Stir for a minute or two, and then cover it all with water (about 1.5 L).  Stir in the lime leaves and ginger.  Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat and cover.  Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the mung beans are cooked.  Remove the lime leaves and ginger (if you are handy with chopsticks, they are a most excellent tool for this job).  Remove the pot from the heat and use an immersion blender to slightly break down the vegetables to achieve a softer texture.  Return the pot to the heat.  Add the mushrooms and green beans, and continue to let it simmer until the vegetables are cooked (about 5 minutes).  Stir in the coconut milk and adjust the taste with the salt, pepper and lemon juice.

This soup is vegan and gluten-free.  Serve some soup for yourself, and give some away; best not to expect getting the jar back.

curry coconut dal soup

A few years ago during a road trip, a mouse got into our trunk and made a home for a few nights.  He slept in the instant oats, nibbled on the stump of a muffin, picked open a bag of corn chips but didn’t eat the chips themselves – and most interestingly, ate a whole Ziploc bag of popping corn kernels.  On one hand I was annoyed at the unwelcome intrusion, but on the other I had serious respect for the mouse’s choice of probably the healthiest, least processed food in the car.  No M&M’s, buddy?  (It appeared he licked but didn’t eat them).

Sometimes I don’t feel so different from our rodent companion, though I feel more squirrel-y than mouse-y, mostly because I can relate to a squirrel’s penchant for hiding food in places for later (we have a very well-stocked pantry).  And the bushy tail, I like the bushy tail.  But anyway, I feel like these almond millet chocolate bars pay homage to the four legged companions that flit in and out of our lives.  They are gluten-free, vegan, and made with recognizable things.  The chocolate topping is made with unsweetened chocolate so that the sweetness can be adjusted according to taste with the addition of icing sugar, making for a more wholesome, mouse-worthy snack.  Similarly, brown rice syrup has a relatively lower sweetness, so it can be exploited for its magical gooey powers of holding things together without going off the sweet charts – hence, these are the first snack bars I have ever made that didn’t crumble apart when I cut into them.  Less crumbs on the floor mean more crumbs in my tummy, which I feel is a good thing.

Almond millet chocolate bars

makes one 9×12″ pan

4 tbsp coconut oil
11 soft dates (if hard, soak in hot water for 10 minutes to rehydrate and plump)
250 g / 1 cup raw almonds
80 g / 1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
50 g / 2 cups puffed millet
2/3 cup brown rice syrup

100 g unsweetened chocolate
2 tbsp icing sugar

In a high-speed blender or food processor, blend the crap out of the coconut oil, softened dates and almonds.  Scrape down occasionally to make sure everything gets obliterated by the blades.  Scrape out this mixture into a large bowl and mix in the pumpkin seeds and puffed millet.  Meanwhile, gently heat the brown rice syrup in a small saucepan until it becomes looser in consistency and the edges just start to bubble.  Pour this over the mixture and fold together to evenly distribute the syrup.  Scrape everything into a 9×12″ baking pan lined with parchment paper, and press down evenly and firmly.  Chill the pan in the freezer while you make the topping: in a double boiler, gently melt the bittersweet chocolate.  When it is completely melted, stir in the icing sugar until it melts as well.  Pour the chocolate over the bar and smooth out with a spatula.  Freeze for at least 30 minutes before attempting to slice.  Only attempt to slice when you are feeling calm and collected, lest the bar crumbles under unabated emotions, in which case, add more brown syrup next time and all will be well.

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It’s been a while.

My hollow legs have been busy.  Somewhat.  Mostly going between the fridge-stove-counter.  But also scrambling up mountains, squatting to look at worms committing suicide on sidewalks, crossing in various patterns while sitting on coffee shop chairs.   The brain sitting somewhere above the hollow legs has been busy too, reading cookbooks, imagining dinner parties with various peoples, and somewhat suffering under an inferiority complex that sharing what I ate for lunch is rather banal and who really cares.  But then an image of Miss Piggy declaring, “I am Woman!” springs to mind and then, reassessment.

Anyway, here: an energy bar recipe that’s so easy it’ll make your head feel empty (sometimes desirable).  Also it’s a good thing to pack in your bag when you are out and about.  Helps propel you up a mountain, whether it be a figurative or literal one.

Ginger date cashew lemon bars

150 g / 1 cup raw cashews
12 soft fresh dates, pitted
5-7 round pieces of candied ginger
50 g / 1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup lemon juice

Process the cashews in a high-speed blender or food processor until it resembles a coarse flour.  Dump into a bowl.  Then process the dates, ginger, coconut and lemon juice until it gets sticky and homogenous.  Scoop out into the bowl with the cashew meal.  Work it all together with your hands until it becomes a thick, slightly sticky mass.  Press it into a rectangle that’s about 1/2″ thick.  Cover with plastic wrap and let it set in the fridge for at least one hour, preferably longer.  Cut into bars and hubba hubba.

I imagine these bars would be excellent reworked as a gluten-free pie crust, say with a pumpkin or cream cheese filling.  Next level!

ginger date lemon coconut bars

The key to successfully cooking for other people while they are on a meditation retreat is to think thoughts of love and compassion, so as to channel those same qualities into the food you make, hence providing nourishment that dares to delve into a world beyond physical.  With this intention in mind, I like to think of unicorns and bunnies to facilitate this work.  If I find myself getting caught up thinking whether my imagined unicorn should have a pink mane or a purple one, I resort to softly humming, “Kumbaya” or “My Favourite Things” from the Sound of Music (bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens are da bomb).

Ultimately, retreat-worthy food is nourishing, but easy to digest; tasty, but leaves the palate clean so to avoid distractedly licking one’s chops while trying to meditate.  Here is a vegan salad made of pickled beets and black rice that I served this past weekend at a day of silent meditation – I think it would be an enjoyable lunch, eaten in silence or not.

Beet and black rice salad

serves 4

1 cup uncooked black rice
1-750 ml jar of sliced pickled beets
1 orange
1/4 cup white sesame seeds
1/4 cup nigella seeds
1/2 cup zereshk or chopped dried cranberries
1 heaping handful of fresh parsley
1/4 cup sesame oil
salt and pepper

making beet salad

Cook the black rice in a spacious pot so that it can simmer in excess water (start with adding 3 cups).  By cooking the rice in a loose, dance-y way, it will clump less in the salad.  When the rice is cooked (about 30 minutes), drain in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse with cold water.  Tip the rice into a big bowl.  Now drain the jar of beets and rinse the beets with water – just a little bit is fine, you want the beets to still retain some of their vinegaryness.  Add the beets to the rice.  Grate over the zest of the orange, and squeeze over its juice.  Add the remaining ingredients and toss toss toss.  If it still tastes too sour for your liking, add a tablespoon of sugar or maple syrup to balance out the flavour.

vegan beet black rice salad

A note about sourcing ingredients: black rice can be found at an Asian supermarket, or substitute wild rice if that’s easier to find.  Nigella seeds are little, dusty-looking black seeds that have a spicy, onion-y taste – they can be found at a Middle Eastern supermarket.  Zereshk is the dried fruit of beriberis, and look like smaller versions of a raisin, but have a sour taste.  They can be found in a Persian or Middle Eastern supermarket as well.  If you happen to live in Winnipeg, both nigella seeds and zereshk can be found at Dino’s Supermarket on Notre Dame.

Over the weekend I baked a large carrot cake for my friend’s birthday.  It was served at a party with lots of our friends, and our friends are nice people, so they congratulated me on how delicious and beautiful the cake was.  My outward response was, “Thanks!” but inside I thought, “Well I guess they didn’t notice the lumps in the icing.  Or that the cake had cracked apart on the inside.  Or that a corner of the cake had fallen off and had been patched together again with icing and luck.”  They obviously didn’t notice my vacant stare as I had this inner monologue.

I think we don’t give each other enough credit for being kind-hearted souls that want to support and wish each other well.

I also think we don’t give ourselves enough credit.

Many years ago I made a cake of similar size (chocolate sponge, white chocolate icing) for a friend’s grandma’s 80th birthday.  She asked me to make it because she thought I’d have fun doing it.  When she saw I was so upset at how the cake wasn’t holding together and that there were crumbs in the icing, she said quietly, “I thought this was supposed to be fun.”

Her gentle reminder brought it all home for me, and I realized how awfully dramatic I had been about the whole matter.  It is supposed to be fun – or at the very least, not terrible and tragic.  Making food for others is one of the best ways to show you care, and eating is one of life’s greatest joys.  (I secretly believe that those people who just pick at their food and say blankly, “Oh I’m full” go home and decadently dip apple slices right into the peanut butter jar and chase it with vanilla ice cream and chocolate cookies).  However, being human, things don’t always turn out (it gets a little burnt, it’s too soft, too thick, whatever), so what you make doesn’t always look like it belongs on the cover of a magazine.  But I think that’s okay, because the point was to say, “Hey, I like you enough to make you a cake/cookies/stew/falafel.  Let’s continue to like eachother.”  And the person receiving it will say, “I’m hungry, so ditto” or something like that.  They won’t see the imperfections, they will see the effort and love.  And then you should tell yourself, “I made an effort, I’m an all right human being.”  And then divvy out some portions of what you made so you can enjoy it together.

So, as MFK Fisher says, “Serve it forth.”  And heap on the love.

Bread was among one of the first things I ever baked, and it was a strange, mysterious and incredibly rewarding experience.  Watching the yeast dissolve and grow foamy in sugary water, then the springy aliveness of the dough – it was all so new and exciting.  Enamoured with my new hobby, I even wrote a short story about breadmaking for a high school English assignment, about which my teacher said, “This is very sensual” – a comment that surprised my logical, rational outlook of myself, but I didn’t know much then (I still don’t).

From that first basic white loaf I branched out into making whole wheat bread, rye, pita breads, bagels, challah…but of course the next big step in any self-proclaimed serious baker’s repertoire is sourdough.  The promise of Real Bread flavour, the beautifully uneven holes that are revealed upon slicing – these rewards demand planning and patience, qualities that apparently our fast-paced lives lack regard for.  Feeling somewhat ready for the challenge, my first dalliance into sourdough was over eight years ago with a wild yeast starter made with organic raisins (I don’t think I could find organic ones then, it still wasn’t that common), flour and water.  The lumpy potion sat in a Mason jar on the kitchen table for a week, eyed suspiciously by my roommates.  After a week, not even a blip of a bubble came out of it, and I was crushed; looking back now I see that the whole thing was a misguided and overly ambitious endeavour to be made in the dead middle of a Canadian winter in the suburbs of a university town.  Brokenhearted, I went back to the relative dependability of store-bought dried yeast, but the shadows of sourdoughs unrealized haunted me.

This fall, I decided that it was about time that I shook off the emotional distress of the past, and pep-talked myself into feeling that I was finally mature enough to take care of a sourdough starter.  To leave nothing to chance, I used a recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book (by Edward Espe Brown) that called for a small amount of dried yeast.  From my research I knew that eventually wild yeast would inoculate the starter and the flavour would come to represent the local microflora of the Canadian prairies, but for now I was satisfied with a generic Sourdough Baby.

Luckily, the Sourdough Baby began showing signs of life right away!  The first loaves where a miracle, and so were the second and third.  It has been a joy and delight to use and feed my new pet.  For the past few weeks, Baby and I have been getting to know eachother: every time I make up a fresh batch of dough, I learn more about Baby’s preferences, such as warmer temperatures, a pre-ferment without any salt to get the carbon dioxide production going, which pans it likes to be baked in to give the most volume, a regular feeding schedule.  I am very proud to say that I haven’t bought bread for many weeks now, as Baby and I are getting used to eachother’s rhythms.

I foresee a happy life together.

sourdough rising

This summer, Longer Hollow Legs and I took a 6-week road trip through our homeland.  We camped every night (except for two – we desperately needed showers) and it was so lovely to see our beautiful country up close.  Canada is so diverse: from prairies to mountains to glaciers to the tundra, there is so much to see and appreciate.

Through it all, this is some of what we ate and drank:

grocery shopping

This is the load of groceries we bought before embarking on the trip. Ooh yah.

camping breakfast

Our first breakfast on the road! It would be more of the same later. Amazingly enough that jar of Nutella lasted the whole trip – I thought I would pound through it in one week.

Phil and Sebastian

We stopped in Calgary to visit a friend (yay!) and check out Phil and Sebastian coffee (yum!)

camping breakfast, another version

Breakfast is serious business when camping, especially if you are going to go for an 8-hour hike up a mountain that day, you got to start it off right!

cream cheese and crackers

A favourite snack: herb and garlic cream cheese on vegetable crackers. Even when the cream cheese gets waterlogged from all the melted ice in the cooler, it still doesn’t go bad (yay for preservatives..?!?!)
Before our trip I decided to treat myself to an Opinel folding knife; it has become one of my favourite possessions. The beautiful wood handle feels comfortable, and the weight of the knife is well balanced and substantial. I hope to take it on many more adventures.

How to make coffee when camping

This is how Longer Hollow Legs makes our coffee while camping! It’s simple, requires little extra equipment than what we would bring anyway, and it makes a delicious cup of coffee that properly shows off the beans. When you are on the road for a long time, having little rituals like making coffee in the morning are so comforting.

a big mushroom

Look at that mushroom!!! We found this majestic creature in a campground in Hyder, Alaska. No, we didn’t eat it…but we did wonder about it.

blueberry pancakes

We hardly make pancakes at home…so making pancakes while camping was doubly special!

breakfast in Dawson City

Every so often we treated ourselves to breakfast in a restaurant – this was a lovely start to the day in Dawson, Yukon, to bolster our confidence before embarking on the gravelly (and legend would have it, treacherous) Top of the World highway. Suffice to say, eggs Benedict are good luck.

Sorachi Ace, Brooklyn Brewery in the Yukon

After a few hours of stumbling around in the Arctic tundra, we treated ourselves to the Sorachi Ace by Brooklyn Brewery moments before it began weeping rain. We had been to Brooklyn a few months ago and weren’t able to try much of the local brew (too much other stuff to imbibe!) so in a strange twist of fate we found a bottle of this in a dodgy liquor store in Prince George, BC.

crow berries in the tundra

After what proved to be the most informative and engaging interpretive hike in the tundra, we spent the rest of our time there pointing out and naming all the new flora we had learned about and picking crowberries, which are a great source of water on a hike if you happen to run out of some!

The Rookery, Juneau, Alaska

It rained for all the five days that we were in Juneau, Alaska. Amazingly enough, all the locals were happy and didn’t complain once about the broody weather! We basked in their optimism mostly at the Rookery, a cafe/bistro in the middle of the historic downtown area. French toast with bits of maple-glazed bacon…how can you be unhappy with that served to you?

camping breakfast, another version

Last year during our road trip we went wine tasting in California – so we figured it was time to make it a tradition and go wine tasting again, this time in the Okanagan Valley, BC. We did a vertical tasting of some wines at Black Hills – the same wine from consecutive years. It was enlightening to taste how the weather affected the wine so drastically from year to year.

And now we’re home – back to running water, a 4-burner electric stove, a full-size fridge, a grocery store down the street.  I am so grateful for these modern conveniences, as well as for the experience of not having them.  I’m still “digesting” the trip, but as I look through the pictures, I am certain I will remember it fondly.

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