Fresh Inspiration

Spring is here, though in Ottawa it is still cooler than most of us would like it to be. Still, I’m grateful for the sunshine and even the showers that washed away the snow and salt and are bringing us spring flowers. The Byward Market is blooming into its spring/summer look, with farmers beginning to set up their booths. Last week, some delightful fresh herbs could be purchased there.

Spring is a time of brightness, fresh scents and the return of vibrancy. It is a period of renewal, light, life and hope. Springtime lends itself to considering new opportunities and to challenging all that may seem impossible. My move to Ottawa from Vancouver Island occurred around this time nearly four years ago, and I remember how wide I smiled when I saw the beautiful spring bulbs of Parliament Hill. I knew there held some exciting promises for me in my new home; little did I know what the next four years would bring.

This month’s CFEP theme is the Canadian garden. I don’t currently have my own garden, and in fact, I’ve not grown any food plants other than in containers for a few years. I’ve been greatly inspired by family gardens in my life, and I wrote about this in my September post when I reflected on poignant food memories.

As has become habitual for me in this project, I was left considering what I might write about and create, only a couple of days before this post was due. I’m always a bit of a strategic procrastinator: I leave things until late, but not usually because I dread the task or am lazy. On the contrary, I wait until passion and inspiration seize me, and then I run with it.

 
Yesterday, I was reflecting on this month’s theme with a friend, and remarked to him that through this project, I’ve discovered that as much as I truly enjoy cooking, I love baking even more. I really savour the process of creating baked goods for others’ enjoyment. I feel a sort of artistic connection to inventing and designing desserts. I also derive a lot of peace and relaxation from baking in silence; the slow, systematic process of combining ingredients, applying both literal and symbolic warmth to them, and then constructing the final product….Baked Therapy.

 
So, my friend suggested I make lavender shortbread. It was an awesome idea, but I’ve made lavender shortbread and sugar cookies countless times, and lavender isn’t in bloom yet. Nevertheless, his suggestion did stimulate me in the way all good inspiration should: to consider the things I love and derive enjoyment from and to create something beautiful and unique. With his idea as my starting point, I decided that I would in fact use shortbread as my foundation; one of my most favourite treats. I then thought about the container gardening I have done over the last few years, and my primary product: fresh herbs. Finally, I thought excitedly about the approaching summer season and one of nature’s best gifts: fresh berries. All of this, and lots of love, were brought together to make this month’s creation: Mint-Strawberry Shortbread Sandwiches, the esthetics of which were slightly inspired by a timeless French confection: the Macaron.

 
Mint-Strawberry Shortbread Sandwiches

 
Fresh Mint Shortbread Cookies

 
~ 1.5 cups butter, softened
~ 1 cup cornstarch
~ 1 cup icing sugar
~ 2 cups all-purpose flour
~ 1 ½ tablespoons fresh mint, very finely chopped

Mix together dry ingredients. Add softened butter and use wooden spoon or hands to combine until smooth. Place in fridge for 30 minutes if you used your hands and the dough is too soft.

 
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

 
Roll out dough on smooth, floured surface to about ¼ inch thick. Use small round cookie cutter to cut out circles and place on cookie sheet about an inch apart.

 

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Bake for about 13-15 minutes or until edges/bottoms get just golden. Do not overbake. Remove from oven and cool completely.

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Strawberry-Mint Filling

(Note: this makes a good quantity of purée, probably about 250ml, which is way more than you need for the recipe. I then freeze it for later use. If you don’t wish to have extra, cut the recipe in half)

 
~ 4 cups fresh strawberries, stems removed and coarsely chopped
~ 2/3 cup white sugar
~ 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
~ 6 fresh mint leaves (or more if you desire)

 

Place strawberries and mint leaves into food processor. Process until very smooth.

 

Pour purée into medium saucepan and add sugar and lemon juice. Heat over low-medium and simmer until purée becomes darker and thickened, about 30 minutes. Stir frequently to ensure it doesn’t burn on the bottom.

 

Remove from heat and allow to cool completely, either on the counter or in the fridge. May be made a day or two in advance.

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Construction

When cookies and filling are cooled, create sandwiches by placing about a ½-1 teaspoon of filling on top of one cookie and placing another on top. Voilà!

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I cut out my cookies about 1.5 inches wide, which produced about 40 sandwiches.

The finished cookies have such a beautiful, sweet and summery fragrance. I hope these cookies put a little spring in your step. 🙂

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The Canadian Food Experience Project is Valerie Lugonja’s call to Canadian Foodies and Bloggers alike to unite on the 7th day of each month and creatively discover and share Canada’s unique culinary voice. You can read more about this exciting project <a href=”http://www.acanadianfoodie.com/the-canadian-food-experience-project/the-candian-food-experience-project/”>here</a&gt;.

Canadian Food Experiences, Poignant Memories

A late start in the Canadian Food Experience Project meant I didn’t intend to go backwards and complete previous months’ challenges. This was due to two factors: first, a lack of spare time at present and second, a difficulty in thinking of authentic “Canadian” food memories. Then, I read the blog entry of a friend of mine who gave me an entirely different perspective on this challenge. The creative juices started flowing and lo and behold, so did the memories.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I did not grow up in a traditionally Canadian family. Though my paternal grandmother was actually born in Czechoslovakia and my maternal grandfather in Transylvania (Romania), they eventually ended up in Hungary. I consider my whole family Hungarian since Hungary is where they spent most of their lives preceding World War II, Hungarian is the only language aside from English spoken in the family, and Hungarian food formed the foundation of my childhood nourishment. In our own home, my mother was (and still is) a very skilled cook, and experimented with delicious foods from around the globe. Thus, when I read that the June challenge for the CFEP was to write about an authentic Canadian food memory, I turned up nothing at first. Then, as I said, I found new perspective in the idea that as Canadians, we are very much a collection of interesting, multicultural and multiethnic people who found themselves in this wonderful country of Canada. Our identity is largely founded in our weaving together so many heritages and experiences into a beautiful tapestry. My Hungarian heritage and my family traditions have helped to form who I am, so this is undeniably part of my Canadian identity. Moreover, the childhood memories I have of food are inspired by a vast array of culinary treats, techniques and attitudes that were themselves founded in European ideals. These shaped me while I matured, surrounded by the landscape, people and collective culture of Canada.

My early food memoirs are poignant, and it is difficult to chronicle one particular event or circumstance. Accordingly, I will share two collections of experiences that induce a great, emotional response in me.

My paternal grandmother was not the warmest woman; she did not show much physical affection and she could be critical and even harsh at times. This was unquestionably as a result of the thorny life she had experienced before coming to Canada. Where she was extremely gifted was in the art of cooking, and she showed her love for her family through her food. In return, she expected her family to eat multiple helpings of her heavy, rich Hungarian meals, in fine stereotypical form. Every Saturday afternoon, the family would gather around her dining table to enjoy a mid-afternoon three-course meal. There were ten of us in total before my grandfather died, and then more once my cousins starting bringing their girlfriends home to Grandma’s house for approval. If they did not eat enough, they were not fit for the family.

This table was the heart of enthusiastic dining, conversation and debate. I loved being surrounded by my family, though oblivious at that time to the conflictual undercurrents I was yet too young to recognize. My grandmother’s meals were simply mouthwatering, always authentic, and eternally consistent. As well, her dishes were ultimately inimitable because she never used a single recipe. Though I have a few Hungarian dishes in my own repertoire that are pretty delicious, they will never compare to hers, nor will any dish eaten in a restaurant. I even have a few scribbled recipes in my collection that I attempted to record while watching her create in the kitchen. These include ridiculous directions like: “pile a bunch of flour on the countertop and crack three eggs into the center…..” with no measurements to speak of. Somehow, that “recipe” for Beigli (a walnut or poppy seed filled, rolled cake) has turned out, thanks only to my years of observation and tasting.

My grandmother’s appreciation for fresh, local ingredients was also immense, as I reflect back now. Though she did not have space for her own garden, my mother would take her every Friday to the enormous local farmer’s market, where she would purchase all her produce for the weekend gathering. She made friends with many of the farmers, who knew her by name. When she got older and weaker, some of them would pull up a chair and she would sit down and chat for a few minutes while my mom ran some of her own errands. Contrary to the unaffectionate demeanor she usually bore, she was actually very sociable with strangers and developed some very strong and lasting friendships.

My sister and I took turns having separate sleepovers at our grandparents’ houses every Saturday night until we were in our mid-teens and started wanting to see our friends instead. I loved that time with all of my grandparents, and during those evenings spent alone with them I was spoiled with attention and food. On no other occasions in my childhood was I so free to eat so many sweets, to snack as often as I liked, to be waited on hand and foot, and even to eat butter with a spoon (no, not peanut butter, creamery butter).

If I really concentrate, I can still taste some of my Grandma’s food, years after her death. She was the true matriarch of the family, and after she moved into a long term care home, the family Saturday dinners ceased. The foundation of my grandmother’s love and the legacy she left behind was almost exclusively centered on food. And even though I initially developed some less healthy eating habits via poor examples of nutrition and self-control, I also recognize some of her positive traits in myself. Though my fundamental personality and desire to openly express love make me very dissimilar to her, I did acquire her passion for making others happy through food. I do in many respects equate happiness and loving relationships with gathering together to enjoy a meal.

This second collection of memories explains my love of fresh, natural ingredients and in particular, local or home-grown vegetables and fruit. My maternal grandfather’s ancestry was founded on food; his parents owned and ran a food production and canning business out of an outbuilding on their property in Hungary. They made dill pickles, vegetable marrow and other prized delicacies in large quantities, selling to local families and commercial businesses alike. He was actually a baker by trade, and so was put to work in this capacity while serving in the Navy. He hated the war so much that he never baked again, so sadly we never saw his skill in action. My Granny was the primary cook in the household despite her detestation of cooking. I’m convinced that the powerful love she had for those she was cooking for pushed her to persevere and learn to prepare tasty meals for us all.

My Grandpa had a passion for gardening. His colourful, fragrant rose bushes were the most beautiful I’ve seen to this day. They lined their driveway and passersby would often stop to admire them. He had a massive back garden, mostly devoted to an impressive collection of food plants. He grew raspberries, red currants and green wine grapes; cherries, pears, apples and plums; carrots, parsnips, potatoes and horseradish; lettuce, scallions and tomatoes; on the list goes. He was so incredibly proud of his annual harvest, and rightly so. His beautiful, colourful garden was organic before organic ever became a buzz-word. Grandpa’s passion was contagious, and at the age of 3 or 4, I was already fascinated. Every Sunday, we would spend the day with my Granny and Grandpa and eat our Sunday dinner there. Grandpa would take my hand and walk me through his vegetable plot, teaching me all about each plant. And every week, I would excitedly ask if the vegetables were ready to pick and eat. For weeks, he would explain to me that they were not yet ready, and that perhaps the following week I could eat some. The next week would come, and I’d be disappointed to hear that the veggies were still not ready to pick. My mother figures this was his way of ensuring I would want to come back, not that there should ever have been any doubt as I was extremely close to my maternal grandparents. Occasionally, I would mischievously grab a tomato and injure a branch, or go for a bunch of carrots. He would scold me and instruct me again on garden etiquette and how to gently remove fruit from the vine. Finally, after much patience, I would get to munch on the fresh fruit and vegetables at each plant’s harvest time. Back then, a whole, fresh scallion dipped in salt was a perfect snack to me, and I can still remember sitting with my little dipping bowl and resulting onion breath. I therefore grew up knowing the amazing taste of produce straight from the source, and the value of such magnificent products of hard work and care. Those gorgeous vegetables would then get incorporated into our many Hungarian family meals, and the flavour of those dishes was heightened by such incomparable freshness.

We have the immense benefit in Canada of being able to safely and freely grow so many varieties of food plants in our backyards, and my hands-on exposure to this at a young age, while bonding with my Grandpa, was an authentic and infinitely memorable Canadian experience.

So many memories come flooding back as I write and most do not belong here. Nevertheless, my life has been touched in many ways by the love of my grandparents, in many cases shown to me through food. I am eternally grateful for all that they taught me, including the way that meals inspired by great love touch the heart and soul, as well as nourish the body. Indeed, through their many examples, I learned the invaluable ethic of hard work, and the way in which our effort is evident in the products of our endeavors, be they edible or not.

The following photos are of my Grandpa, Granny, Mom and Uncle Gabe. I could not get my hands on an old photo of my paternal grandmother in time.

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The Canadian Food Experience Project is Valerie Lugonja’s call to Canadian Foodies and Bloggers alike to unite on the 7th day of each month and creatively discover and share Canada’s unique culinary voice. You can read more about this exciting project here.

Weeds

I just recently read an article in the current spring issue of The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine that made me think about something we most often take for granted: weeds. It is a photo essay of stunning quality; its images moved me in a way that perhaps you might find strange. It begins with a formidable photo that really looks more like a painting, one I’d purchase without a second thought. The image is of papery, fiery poppies lining a cracked roadway. A sea of teacup blossoms, soft teardrop buds and seed pods waiting to ejaculate life across their expanding lea.

The essay speaks of humanity’s desire to abolish the weed from our perfect little gardens and how yet our world would be much less colourful and in some cases, less fruitful and healthful, if it were not for those plants we call invaders. We see weeds as plants that are ugly, unwanted, or simply growing where they ought not to be. I desire not to be seen as someone that unnecessarily creates metaphors simply for the sake of them, but I truly felt impassioned to draw some simple links between my life and the weed. And certainly, I could turn this into a social missive, discussing the way we classify people as unwanted or undesirable to suit societal ideals, but I won’t.

What I will instead relay is how, in experiencing this essay, I was struck by the image of a lone chamomile plant stubbornly surviving in a dark subway. I closed my eyes and imagined the sweet scent the chamomile blossom emits, and the lovely, calmative tea it gives us. Then, I was moved by a winter photograph of a tenacious bramble bush pouring over a fence, so abundant it reminded me of the strength and fullness with which a river flows over every rock and outcropping in its path, unrestrained. And finally, a photo of ash seedlings, sheltering between abandoned railway tracks; where humans no longer see utility, the minimalism of nature finds solace.

And so, it occurred to me that so many times in my life, circumstances have seemed imperfect, untimely and ugly. I’ll spare you the details of those hurts and disappointments, but I think many of us know that if we are wise, we’ll look back upon difficult situations in our lives and attempt to draw strength and opportunity from them. And even as I struggle now with arduous, complicated situations and decisions, I recognize these occasions are really a gift. All of those trials have provided me with a realistic perspective of life and its sometimes inconvenient circumstances; the strength I own in my mind and spirit to conquer them; the relationships that have been built in the process; the innumerable joys that have ultimately resulted after the worst storms. As I read the article, I was reminded that this same poppy, purposefully plowed out of farmers’ fields, has prevented much human suffering through its medicinal properties. Then, I contemplated the comforting yet haunting imagery of Flanders Fields, from whence it became the inspiration for a timeless poem. What more strikingly immortal place could a weed occupy?

I’m in no way indicating I’ll allow weeds to overrun my garden, but I will say that I will look at them differently when I struggle to pull their deep roots out of the soil in which they cling so obstinately. As the article clearly states, weeds are our most successful plants. They live abundantly in some of the most desolate, tortured and extreme living conditions. They keep trying, despite our best efforts to eradicate them, to live richly in the face of adversity, and some of them manage tremendous beauty in the process.

You can read the essay here and the photo gallery is viewable, but you’d be remiss not to pick up the magazine to see the full sized photographs in the set if they interest you.