I know very little about tea, but I admire those who do. I enjoy a cup now and then and have a few favourites—English Breakfast, Genmaicha, Russian Caravan, Earl Grey, Moroccan Mint—but I’m sure I would fail any number of blind tastings.
Twenty years ago, I used to work at a non-profit that participated in projects in Sri Lanka, one of which involved supporting tea-picking women with educational and nutritional programs. So when I think about tea now, there’s sometimes this distant background noise in my brain about the colonial oppression associated with the tea plantations of the British Empire.
But the story of tea is certainly much more than the relatively recent influence of the British. Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. It’s been cultivated in one form or another since the prehistory of an area that now includes northeastern India, southwestern China, northern Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.
That kind of storied past and current influence inevitably leads to devotion in some.
Not long ago Boing Boing posted a link to an essay by George Orwell entitled A Nice Cup of Tea. Orwell proscribes a list of “eleven outstanding points” for properly enjoying “one of the main stays of civilization.”
According to Wikipedia, “Tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid whose consumption is strongly associated with a calm but alert and focused, relatively productive (alpha wave dominant), mental state in humans. This mental state is also common to meditative practice.” Oddly enough, this clinical description echoes Orwell’s thoughts about Tea’s ability to make one “…feel wiser, braver or more optimistic…”—by which he definitely does not mean green tea: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”
Despite Orwell’s reluctance to embrace it, I’ve long enjoyed green tea, which I would more closely associate with meditative states. When I went to school in Montreal in the late 80s and early 90s, I used to frequent a cheap restaurant in the basement of an ancient brownstone in Chinatown. The round pink laminate tables had clear plastic covers that the waiters would use patron’s leftover green tea to wash. This charmingly bare bones restaurant was both my first exposure to a lifelong passion for Singapore fried noodles and my first time drinking green tea.
I enjoy it now, as I did then, but sadly not enough to obsess over.
Sadly, because I think obsessive behaviour, in small controlled doses, can help us to—if not master a subject—at least become pleasurably immersed. Malcolm Gladwell’s (admittedly highly controversial) 10,000 hour rule is really only possible, to me, if you have some level of obsession with the topic you apply the time to.
In the world of food and beverages, you can find all types of people who obsess over a particular consumable—and to some degree I share a few of the more common: whiskey, bacon…I don’t know, I have so many…smoked things? And generations of obsessives have helped refine many of these consumables to the level of art.
Last January, Michelle and I went on a short shopping trip to Toronto. It was a bitterly cold thirty-below* day and we were wandering through Chinatown. We’re both reasonably hardy in cold weather, but we reached a breaking point in the face of a nasty gust of wind and decided to duck into a tea shop. I remember thinking: I’m low on gunpowder, so look around for a bit and then drop a few bucks on a tin, well worth it.
A foot inside the door we were accosted by a tiny yet ferocious Cantonese woman who proceeded to hard sell me on a small box of Jasmine Phoenix Dragon Pearl tea that set me back a—to my rudimentary experience with Chinese tea—staggering $30. At the time it seemed a ridiculous price to pay to warm up for ten minutes, but after trying the tea, I had to concede that it’s pretty damn good. I still have no idea if the price was fair.
I, somewhat reluctantly, admire the obsessiveness that led some ancient tea master to hand roll green tea leaves with blooming jasmine into little fragrant buds that unfurl into an aromatic swirl of foliage in hot water.
An obsessiveness shared in some part by Orwell in his strict dictum on the preparation of a nice cup and, by association, you and me for spending so much time thinking and writing and reading about “simple” foodstuffs.
*Celsius…although at some point I think the different scales merge into absurdity.
Despite being a member of, in Anthony Bourdain’s words, the “Hezbollah-like splinter faction” that is the vegan community, Colleen Shea is also the author of the charming Jam and Idleness blog, a friend and fellow book lover.
In the spirit of inclusiveness—and to perhaps balance out my many essays on flank steak—let me please share Colleen’s wonderful personal essay I Was a Salad-Hating Vegan, which is up over at Food Riot.
She manages to compare salad eating to smoking and now I want a cigar…
Complaining that there are no longer educational cooking shows on the Food Network is akin to whining about there being no music videos on MTV these days—a ship that sailed so long ago it’s come back over the horizon at me as an indicator of how old and out of touch I’ve become.
Nevertheless, let me repeat: I’m bone-tired of cooking competition shows. There was a middle-brow, low-def elegance to the PBS how-to shows of the past that I miss. The 21st Century disease that is reality television has so thoroughly infected the Food Network that little actual content can survive on the channel now. Once in a long while a new “personality” emerges that I find amusing or entertaining, but I never actually learn anything from watching the network anymore.
I realize that I can seem naive just for expressing the desire to learn something from watching television food shows, but it can still be a real possibility with some imagination—just apparently not on the Food Network.
Mr. Greenwald has used a review of the 45 minutes of torture-by-overexposure-to-hyper-neurotic-posers that is Food Network Star to mount a highly cogent take-down of the whole damn network. And let me just slow clap in the back row as it all burns to the ground.
In the wake of Paula Deen’s very public—and seemingly well deserved—pillorying, Andy Greenwald’s excellent and sharply pointed article reminds many of us who spend any time thinking about food, that the Food Network no longer gives a shit about the varied and magnificent world of real gastronomy—if it ever did.
Am I becoming addicted to new gadgets? It’s possible…
I love the flavour of smoke on almost anything: meat, fish, seafood, chips, condiments, cheese, fruit…uh, spices. I would have to work hard to come up with something smoked that I don’t immediately enjoy. Smoke can elevate virtually any ingredient or dish to something sublime—maybe it’s the genetic memory of how our cave ancestors learned to cook over open wood-fire.
So, when my son recently pointed out this smoker box* to me, I had one ordered the next day. He had seen a show with Heston wherein the great chef had extolled the virtues of a simple smoker box. Were I a handy man, I probably would have cobbled together something myself using a hotel tray, wire rack and some tinfoil. But I am not handy and the internet makes it so damn easy to acquire these things.
Also, the Cameron’s smoker box that arrived is magnificent. I’m not often a proponent of single purpose cookware, but this thing works so well, I would recommend it to anyone. It’s a stainless steel box, with a drip tray that allows the smoke to vent along its edges, a wire rack, a sliding cover and fold-up handles. Seems simple, no? But everything fits so well together that the process of smoking becomes highly efficient and effective—and a good value at less than $60.
Ignoring caution and common-sense I elected to use relatively expensive ingredients for my first experiment, arctic char fillets and spiny lobster tails. Using the brine recipe I created previously for trout jerky (maple-juniper), I soaked the fillets for one and a half hours.
For the lobster tails, I opted to peel off the small legs, crack them open and brush with a simple lemon-pepper butter—a couple tablespoons of melted sweet butter, cracked pepper, fleur de sel and lemon zest.
This smoker box only requires roughly one to two tablespoons of wood chips for most projects. I used alder chips, which seemed like an appropriately light flavour for fish and seafood. It’s important for the items to not be touching each other to allow for proper circulation of smoke.
I set the loaded box on a low to medium flame on the side of my outdoor gas grill. It began to smoke in minutes, and in ten the fish started to take on that oily sheen you want to see on top. When closed, there was very little smoke lost and many people note online that they’ve used similar smoker boxes indoors with success. I’m skeptical that my fire alarm would let me get through this task without a headache, but it’s certainly possible.
One word of caution here: my side burner on my gas grill is recessed a little, so I had a problem with flames moving along the bottom of the box and melting the plastic edges of the burner. Next time I would put the whole box into the grill on top of one lit side, as recommended by the manufacturer. Your side burner may have better clearance, just be aware that it might be an issue.
After twenty minutes both the fish and lobster were beautifully smoked. The flavour of the finished product was fantastic: lightly but evenly smoky throughout, with the sweet-salty-piny notes of the fish brine and a low hit of citrus on the lobster.
I can’t wait to smoke everything else in the fridge…assuming I can get melted plastic off the bottom of my brand new smoker box.
Note: all the photos from this post shot by Harry Edmundson-Cornell.
*Once again: not paid to endorse these things, just happens to be the first one we found.
Is there any human endeavour not touched by some conspiracy theory? Apparently not…
Bon Appetit online recently posted an article in a proposed series on the influence of Freemasonry on the world of French cuisine. I have little to no opinion about Freemasonry other than I remember being a little mystified as a child about its importance in one of my favourite movies, The Man Who Would be King. And I guess I’m still surprised that so many American presidents were Freemasons. Google “Freemasonry” yourself and prepare to be inundated with a broad range of complex conspiracy theories about their impact on world events. I should even mention Dan Brown’s best selling oeuvre in this context, but I prefer not to.
I guess I’m a little disappointed. It seems inevitable in hindsight, but I like to think of cooking and eating as relatively benign activities, even though I know that’s willfully naive—just ask Mark Bittman or Michael Pollan or go back and dig out that battered paperback of The Jungle.
But, as I’ve ranted before, it’s just cooking! Psychologists have long studied the human appetite for conspiracy theories and written thousands of words on paranoia and cognitive biases and shortcuts—I get it—but do we have to drip our craziness onto everything?
Any time I’m faced with this kind of truthiness, I think of Umberto Eco’s magnificent and underrated Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco’s novel of self-fulfilling and Ouroboros-style self-devouring conspiracy theories is the rationalist (and literate) version of Dan Brown’s nonsense:
“The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.”
—Chapter 10, Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
I`m not even going to apologize for how long it’s taken me to post this, ’cause LIFE, you know?
For Christmas this year (or, I guess, last year…2012) the lovely Michelle bought me a sous vide* set up. How cool is that? Long have I pondered the usefulness of the technique widely in use in France back in the seventies**, and popularized in recent years by food artists/amateur scientists like Mr. Blumenthal. Is it worth the fussy equipment? What are the results really like?
For my first use I decided to fall back on a staple of mine flank steak. I know, I know, you’re sick of flank steak. But as a trial run, it’s ideal: fairly tough and low fat and I know exactly how it should turn out using conventional methods like slow cooking or BBQ.
I cut the flank in half across to make it more manageable in the sous vide tub and liberally seasoned it with ground roasted coriander, kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper.
Next I sealed the flank pieces into vacu-bags…
…and loaded them into the tub of water, which I had previously brought up to the temperature recommended by the instructions, 56.5 degrees celsius. I set the timer for 24 hours. The instructions suggest anywhere from 4 to 30 hours for tougher cuts of beef, but I’ve seen the pros on television sous vide anywhere up to 72 hours—which seems like showing off to me, but whatever.
After 24 hours in the sous vide cooker the flank steaks resemble something you might set aside to weigh during an autopsy—pinkish grey and unappetizing.
The next step, to my mind, is critical: I seared the flank steaks in a very hot cast iron pan. You could probably use the un-seared steaks in certain preparations—sliced thin and covered a sauce say—but to me, it’s not steak without the treasured Maillard reaction.
I’m happy to report that the finished steaks were delicious. One thing about flank steak is that due to its uneven thickness, it’s a little challenging to ensure even cooking using conventional methods. The sous vide technique created a wonderfully even pinkness throughout. The meat was also buttery and tender, although not dramatically more tender than a long dry rub marinade and thin slicing provides—but still, noticeably more tender.
All-in-all I’m thrilled with Michelle’s gift and looking forward to many more sous vide experiments. If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments below. I seem to remember reading about a sous vide of fennel in duck fat somewhere…
*Once again, it’s important to note that no one pays me to promote their products, this is just the one I received as a gift.
**According to Wikipedia, the theory was developed in 1799.
A friend and former co-worker in the corporate salt mines, Colleen Shea, writes a charming blog about reading and food called Jam and Idleness. She recently revived an interview feature from a previous blog under the new name of Brain/Food and yours truly was interviewed for the inaugural edition.
The bright and witty Colleen sent me a very engaging set of questions via email, to which I responded at some length. Too much length really. But the questions were so good, I had trouble containing my enthusiasm. I often find myself daydreaming about how I’d answer the ten Pivot questions* on Inside the Actor’s Studio, so Colleen’s interview played right into that same intellectual vanity and tendency to soapbox.
I enjoy the Jam and Idleness blend of book and food topics—such naturally related pleasures. It always makes me think of the slow Sunday mornings when I manage to leisurely read over coffee and maybe a croissant at my dining-room table. Although to be fair, Colleen’s blog is more lively than that prosaic image might imply.
*For the record: the sound I love is the chunky guitar noise you hear on tracks like Led Zepplin’s In the Evening—it happens around minutes 3:44 and 4:02 of Jimmy’s solo. Although, if I were ever on the show, I would go on to explain that I’m not really a classic rock person per se and that The Clash is my all-time favourite band.
Here’s the short version of this post: Take a pencil and glue some paper around it. Done.
Here’s the long version of this post:
I have a strangely extensive collection of stationery including paper, pens, markers, stickers, and a curious bank of office supplies. I am not into making scrapbooks but I do enjoy origami and other paper-based crafts and I am known for still sending hand-written letters.
I have fond memories of getting ready for fall by browsing through flyers of back-to-school sales, finding the best deals on my favourite stationery items (yay to new Laurentian pencil crayons in a fold-over 24-pack!) and planning the shopping trip with my sister of what we would buy at each store to get the most items for our money.
Last month when I was going through a stack of flyers, I was drawn in by the ads for school supplies and the resulting rush of childhood memories. I was a bit nostalgic for the days when I was in school and September meant new school supplies. If no one in your household is in school, then the fall no longer feels like the start of a new year but that didn’t stop me from giving into the fun and undertaking a stationery craft.
While I will spend money on unique or interesting stationery items, I do have a tendency to put my own touches on the plainer stationery I buy. For example, rather than limiting myself to my basic work-issued desk set, I gathered up a few containers from a thrift store and covered them with a range of Japanese papers. It makes for a fun touch in my otherwise monochromatic office.
I use work-issued stationery for essentials or for loaner pens (yes, I have loaner pens) but for my own use and particularly for my use at home, I like to jazz things up a bit. This craft is an inexpensive way to personalize your stationery. It is also easy enough to do with kids and it can add a little more fun to going back to school.
In the photo above you will see pencils covered in a range of items, including hand-made Japanese papers, a Brazilian marbled paper (which I adore!), some quilling paper, and even some package cord. The idea here is to just grab some materials and glue them to a pencil. That said, there are a few tips I can share with you to make it a lot easier and to make it turn out nicely.
In my case, I have a wide selection of paper suitable for this project but you could do it with any decent paper. What you will want to avoid are papers that are too porous or fibrous to withstand use after the pencil is covered. For example, construction paper would not be a good choice for this craft as it will wear off with use and with the wrong glue, will just turn to a wet mess. To save you some other trial and error, I will tell you that the best glue I used for this was Martha Stewart’s fine-tipped glue pen. Not only did it allow me to place the glue exactly where I wanted it but it avoided the often-seen rippling that comes with thick, wet, white glue. However, if you are gluing things like package cord or rhinestones (which I started and sorely lost patience for well before it was complete), a white craft glue is perfect.
You can use a glue stick but if you do, you’ll want to be sure you use a decent one, get good coverage, and let it dry completely before using the pencil. If you don’t, your paper will peel off or will shift.
This craft can also help dress up plain pens. In fact, some of the more elaborate materials are better suited to covering pens, merely because pens don’t need to fit into a sharpener.
I measured out enough paper to easily wrap around the pencil and glue onto itself with plenty of overlap. In most cases, the paper I used measured 15 cm (6″) by 3.8 cm (1 5/8″) , depending on the circumference of the pencil, the thickness of the paper I used, and whether or not I wanted to cover the pencil to the eraser or not. In one case, I stuck a little gemstone on the end for a pretty accent and it worked out well. I bet a tiny button or a circle of coordinating paper could also work well, depending on the look you were after.
If great comedians like Patton Oswalt had their way, people would stop spending so much money on birthdays. He puts forward a list of acceptable birthdays to celebrate (found on his Werewolves and Lollipops CD) and non-milestone birthdays for adults did not make the cut. Well, I completely reject this list* and shamelessly celebrate my birthday every year with a generous party.
Not only do I celebrate my non-milestone adult birthdays with a party but I always add in the controversial element of a theme. People tend to groan at the idea of a theme party and I can understand why. We’re adults and we do not need too much direction to have fun. However, as a hostess I find a theme gives structure to my planning and as the celebrant, I simply enjoy the silliness.
Fortunately, my friends indulge my nonsense and give me the room to be the ham I often like to be. I think their accommodation is due in large part to the fact that while I like a theme, I tend to limit my plans to those that guests will notice but that will not require them to do anything special themselves. That means that my theme elements are included in invitations, the menu, and the décor but nothing close to compelling them to dress up or play games.**
This year, the theme for my birthday was, “Christmas in July!” I thought of it a while back when I was trying to find an excuse to get Andrew to make more food that included summer savory. It is one of my favourite herbs but he finds it utterly underwhelmning. It hardly ever gets used outside of holiday time and I am not patient enough to wait until December to enjoy it so I made my plug. When Andrew came up with the idea of putting it into turkey burgers with a cranberry something-or-other on top, the xmas theme emerged.
The invitations for this party were ridiculous, as most of my birthday invitations are. I drafted a series of letters to Santa and I answered them on his behalf, working in the details of the party. Last year I sent out a detailed script of two people having a conversation (about “Fajita Fiesta!”) and the previous year was a list of formal Frequently Asked Questions (about “Grilled Feast!”). The invitation is always sent as a 1-2 page email, so it is short enough that people will read through but long enough for me to amuse myself. I don’t use mailed invitations for this casual summer BBQ party. I also don’t use online invitation sites because the number of recipients is usually under 20 so the volume of messages is easy enough to manage myself.
We chose to hold the party on a Sunday this year. We did it last year due to a tight summer schedule and happened to find it worked well. People who had other typical summer plans like Saturday afternoon weddings or visits to cottages tended to be in town late in the day on a Sunday so we had a decent turnout. It also gave us a day to do the cooking and other party prep without having to take a day off work or be up too late the night before. This year’s party had a lower turnout but that’s just the way it goes with summer parties; people are often out of town.
I have started to get in the habit of putting out some sort of marker on our door when we host a party. Not only is it festive, but it helps people find our townhouse easily in a row of identicals. Last year I made myself a feather wreath that was suitable to leave up through winter. The white feather wreath was surprisingly suitable for a summer party, much more so than a heavy pine wreath would have been.
The décor for the party was fairly simple but it definitely said, “Xmas in July.” I did a great little craft I found on The Daily Digi for the centrepiece (see photo below).
It couldn’t have been easier. Bunch up strips of tissue paper and attach them to a foam cone with colourful pins. No measuring is required (although if you are looking for a reason to measure, you could make the strips of tissue uniform. I used my finger width as a general guide.).
To finish them off, I cut and hot glued green felt to the bottom but that is optional. I made two small trees and two taller trees and they looked great. I have tucked them away to have nice holiday table accents when we host family in December.
My stepson also helped by making us some paper snowflakes. We put them up on the walls, hoping to help us forget the 30C (85F) temperatures outside.
For these parties, we always opt for buffet service. For a pop-in event, it doesn’t make sense to plan a sit-down dinner or to limit things based on the time people arrive. It also helps people be a little fussy or timid about our different concoctions.
As for the menu, Andrew prepared a great summer version of a Christmas dinner. Here was the offering:
- turkey sliders with choice of topping: cranberry-orange relish, bacon apple butter, or spiced ketchup (regular ketchup with a splash of hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce)
- fried potato cakes
- ‘stuffing bites’ Admittedly, these were brilliant. Andrew mixed up some dressing and we let it sit overnight in a plastic bag in the fridge to get cold and damp. I then pressed it in mini-muffin tins and baked it off at 325 until toasted brown. We served these at room temperature with a meaty dip (see next item).
- We wanted to make a gravy-style ‘dip’ for the stuffing bites but didn’t want to make gravy as we hadn’t roasted a bird and it is somewhat unappetizing when it isn’t hot so Andrew made a brilliant (and tasty!!) dipping sauce that was basically a reduction of turkey stock we had in our freezer. It worked out perfectly and was an ideal complement to the stuffing.
- a tray of vegetables. We had originally toyed with blanching brussels sprout leaves and making a salad with them but while they are one of my favourite vegetables, they aren’t for everyone so instead, we went with a simple cold vegetable tray but picked items in theme-friendly colours (red and green peppers, cherry tomatoes and white button mushrooms). It was a summer party after all so we decided to save the heartier vegetables for colder days.
- for drinks, we had a cooler of assorted beers but we made up a cooler jug of cold, spiced apple cider and let people serve themselves. Next to the cooler was a bottle of rum so guests could spike their own as they saw fit.
- pre-mixed mulling spices are not always available in the summer but my stepson (who is always a great help!) made up a great little pouch of spices (anise, cloves, cardamom, allspice and a few cinnamon sticks) and tossed it into the plain, cold apple cider overnight and the resulting drink was refreshing and delicious! Note that we reserved a couple of cups of cider and froze it in a plastic storage container to add in as an ice cube to keep the drink cold.
- pumpkin pie squares – A few years ago, my friend, Jackie, made up a cookbook of collected recipes from family and friends and gave us all a copy. In that book was a great recipe for pumpkin squares. I have made these a few times, including versions with substitutes for the cream and for the flour and so far, it is a forgiving and consistent recipe. It also lets people have a “little bite of pie” rather than a whole slice and it lets pepole eat with their fingers, which is convenient for a BBQ.
- xmas sweets – As I always like candy on my buffet table, I put out a few glasses of peppermint sticks and other seasonal treats like cheap chocolate macaroons and licorice.
It was a fun theme to carry out and it was a good time.
* Although I do find it pretty funny and encourage you to check out his comedy.
** Truth be told, I would do those if the group were up for it.
I have been an admirer of Chris Onstad since the day I read The Great Outdoor Fight—his seminal multi-part story in the groundbreaking web comic Achewood—all in one sitting while I should have been working. Achewood’s deceptively simple art is a vehicle for a restlessly imaginative world of talking cats, a meth-addicted squirrel, a sleazy robot, a worldly-wise senior teddy-bear and other assorted characters of mixed reputation.
Achewood’s magical-realism and absurdist plotting are only part of the work’s appeal. For me, the core charm of Achewood lies in Mr. Onstad’s language: a fresh blend of idiosyncratic slang and unusual character-based rhythms. Mr. Onstad is so conversant in each of his characters voices that he has even done a number of separate blogs from their…unique…points of view.
I’m pleased to find that something of this playful approach to language has carried over into Mr. Onstad’s latest ventures into the world of food writing. In addition to becoming the staff restaurant reviewer for The Portland Mercury’s Food & Drink section, Mr. Onstad recently had a wonderful article published in Saveur on dining in the Benelux.
Mr. Onstad’s approach to food writing includes much of the wry humour he brought to Achewood, tempered by the demands of different media. His Saveur article retains some of the ironic detachment of Achewood, while his restaurant reviews hew more closely to a traditional form.
Restaurant reviews are tricky bits of writing. It can be difficult to balance the implied mission of consumer advocate with the inherent desire for a writer to stretch and explore. So far, Mr. Onstad’s reviews have struck that balance with aplomb. He is neither too hard on the restaurants in question, nor too flighty in his prose. His reviews hit what I think is the sweet-spot for this kind of writing: the feeling of actually being in the presence of an intelligent and humourous raconteur, discussing one of the simultaneously prosaic and yet potentially finest experiences available to us all, a good meal.