Everything Bar Raval does is glorious. But in spring you can sit on their patio and have a fermented rhubarb doughnut, and chase that with a cocktail. Or you could just have a second doughnut.
an existential food blog
I turned 31 on a Monday. Johannes and I both took the day off work, and went to Nadege on Queen Street West where we shared a $8 cakelet for breakfast that seems unethically indulgent any other time of the year but on a birthday. We hung out at a bookshop, had a cocktail at Bar Raval, and then went home to cook burgers (ground meat from Sanagan’s or Cumbrae’s, mixed into patties with toasted and then ground coriander and a little bit of cumin, salt and pepper and an egg, then cooked in a dry, very hot cast iron pan sprinkled with salt so that a crust quickly forms. Buns from Black Bird Baking Company if we’re around Kensington Market, smeared with mayonaise and Dijon mustard, topped with rings of raw onion, Johannes’s fermented dill pickles, and some very mature Cheddar. Burgers are serious business in this house.)
Then we cooked dinner for some friends. In Arcadia I had an average of four birthday parties every year, over the course of around a month. Ten years of accumulated friends and family will do that. In Toronto, in the middle of a PhD, one party is all I can handle. (I look forward to a post-PhD life where this is not the case. All dinner parties, all the time.)
So this was dinner. To begin, a savoury kataiffi attempt with finely chopped olives, feta, fresh oregano and walnut, rolled sliced into rounds.
We bought billowy pitas from the new Paramount Fine Foods that opened down the street, and served them with Sam Sifton’s oven-roasted chicken shawarma. The chicken, marinated overnight in lots of lemon juice and garlic and paprika and cumin, is roasted the next day, then shredded, then placed under the grill. It was a revelation. On the side we made Michael Solomonov’s hummus tahina from Zahaav, which I’ve read a lot of people rave about. In our case it was close, but no cigar. For the amount of work that homemade hummus requires the results needs to be stellar. Solomonov’s did not change my life. We also roasted aubergine and topped it with garlicky yoghurt and dried sour cherries, and roasted cauliflower and tossed it with a vinaigrette and some flat leaf parsley.
Dessert was chocolate mousse, but it deserves its own post. This is what we woke up to. Immediately cleaning up after a party is anathema to me. Why would you want to erase the memory of the evening? Leave the table be.
It’s always awkward returning to a blog after you’ve been gone for a while. You’d think that after having blogged for ten years I’d have that figured out by now, but here we are.
I won’t bore you with the details of my absence, except to say that after a three year hiatus I am teaching my own course again, and it is absolutely wonderful and absolutely exhausting, and everything else has taken a backseat in the meantime. There’s also this quote from Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts that pretty much exemplifies my joy right now:
We’ve been eating our way through the new summer produce. A lot of asparagus, a lot of zucchini (which I’m increasingly considering as a pretty pointless vegetable), and a quart of strawberries a day. And others have been cooking for me – last weekend my new friend Tess served us maple breakfast sausages and fleshly baked corn bread studded with blueberries for brunch, and last night Jihee grilled Korean short ribs and served them with scallion pancakes and a kimchi stirfry, and it finally feels as if we have a community in this city. That counts.
More on what we’ve been cooking, soon. (In the meantime, brighten up your day with this.)
I am alone at home in the middle of artichoke season. So I am sewing a high-waisted skirt for spring, and steaming some artichokes to have for dinner. I steam them with garlic and some onion (I actually have no idea why I do this, I suspect I read it somewhere) once I’ve snapped off the toughest outer leaves and clipped the sharp edges off what’s left. Once it’s steamed I do very little but dip the leaves in some melted butter spiked with lemon juice, and eat alongside a large tumbler of water.
My friend Tombi has a very deep love for the artichoke, and is the one who taught me just how sweet water tastes when a gulp follows the taste of artichoke. One year, for her birthday, a group of our friends descended upon the home of Hanli, at the end of winter when the rest of the country was warming up. The Free State, where Hanli lives, had missed the memo and was still bitterly cold when we arrived with a boot full of spring produce procured in the city. But there was a wood stove just off of the kitchen, and we had enough wine to hole up for weeks. The first night we had a very memorable dish of chicken cooked with a wooded Chardonay, and a French dark chocolate and chestnut tart that was utterly disappointing – the beginning of my distrust in creme de marron, a distrust which has since deepened into rendering it an ingredient non-grata. But the first course was the most striking, a large bowl of freshly steamed artichokes, lemony butter for dipping, Tombi making sure that each person had a glass of water to drink while eating.
We slept very little that night, and listened to a lot of Johannes Kerkorrel en die Gereformeerde Blues Band. We all went to bed smelling like artichokes.
There are few things as consistently satisfying as baking your own bread. But for every solid period of having our bread game together, of being in the rhythm of always having a long-proving batch of dough standing around the house, of cultivating sourdough starters and going months without buying bread, there is also a stretch where we lose that rhythm, where there is too much work or too much travel or where we spend our bread-baking time making sausages or chutneys or beer. In those stretches we buy bread from one of two places: Forno Cultura on King Street (which deserves a post of its own), and Blackbird Baking Company in Kensington Market. The amount of work that goes into the bread at Blackbird reminds me of Tamar Adler’s line in An Everlasting Meal where she reminds us that “If you’re going to choose a food not to make at home, choosing bread represents a judicious division of labor.” I love their baguette and their seeded sourdough, and they make lovely hamburger buns, too.
A few weeks ago when I was in Cambridge for work, I returned home with three things: a lot of gin, yards and yards of floral bias tape, and a recipe for nutmeg muffins that I will probably bake for the rest of my life.
I woke up in my AirBnB room one morning with the smell of melted butter in the air. It turned out that my hostess was baking Marion Cunningham’s last word in nutmeg muffins. The muffins were, without a doubt, the best thing I ate in ten days, and more importantly, they were a solace, at least as far as a muffin can be. I find work travel is becoming harder over time – partly because so much of my equilibrium comes from being at home, and partly because I’m usually exhausted, but also – and perhaps this is because I’ve read too much Adrienne Rich and Shulamith Firestone this week – I am at the point where prolonged absences from Johannes render me pretty miserable. I don’t want to be that woman, but I am.
The muffins were a glorious distraction. I ended up borrowing my hostess’s copy of Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book and holed up in bed that night to write down the recipe and, to no one’s surprise, around ten other recipes for baked breakfast goods as well. Every recipe in that book feels like the life I am trying to make for myself, it feels like, paraphrasing Ted Hughes, the me I love and want to live with.
(Bloody Ted Hughes. As much as I find him problematic so many of his words have lodged themselves in my mind, have become part of my inner monologue, the way I think about my life.)
But I digress – we’re here to talk about Cunningham. There’s a recipe for buttermilk pancakes, for thin yellow cornmeal pancakes that I’d like to eat with melted butter and drizzled honey, and a yeasted buckwheat pancake. Yeasted. Buckwheat. Pancake. This is the stuff of culinary arousal.
The trick to these muffins is, I think, the fact that it contains one and a half whole nutmegs that you grate into the batter, and that it contains almost a cup of cream. I should also mention that although Cunningham presents her muffins as is, my hostess topped hers with a streusel, and this is now how I make it too. There’s something so ubiquitously American about streusel-topped muffins, which feels right in this context, and although it means you have crumbs of streusel everywhere (I have a particularly bad record of accidentally dropping streusel crumbs into my shirt as I eat), life’s too dismal to worry about your breasts being coated in a thin layer of sugar, flour and melted butter.
It is perhaps time to speak about pizza.
I am alone for two weeks while J is in South Africa for work. I was planning on writing a post on what one cooks when you find yourself suddenly alone, but it’s turned out much less interesting than I’d hoped (salads, scrambled eggs), so for now all I have to tell you is that I have a heavy teaching load at the moment, which means that when I get home in the evening I mostly drink wine and read Adrienne Rich and Shulamith Firestone and The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, strange but satisfying bedfellows, and that tonight I’m making pizza.
(Before I get to the pizza, listen to this delightful piece on the history of fudge, from the very same Oxford Companion: “An 1880s fudge-making fad among students of elite American women’s colleges, especially Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith, fostered the use of the new creation. The young women made fudge in their dormitory rooms, often in tin boxes balanced on the chimneys of spirit lamps, and later in chafing dishes (occasionally, fire rather than fudge resulted).” I have spent an inordinate amount of time this week imagining what it must have been like being a woman at Vassar in the 1880s making fudge with other women in her dormitory room, and if this doesn’t sound like the best life you could possibly ever live then we clearly have different priorities.)
Back to the pizza. We’ve been making the same pizza for almost four years now. The dough is one of two recipes – we either use Peter Reinhardt’s from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, or the flatbread recipe from Casa Moro. The Reinhardt recipe requires proving the dough in the fridge overnight, and this is mostly the method I follow even with the Moro version. I find this to be the key issue in producing a silky, manageable dough. Like all of us, dough has a deep and abiding need to rest. Give it that. Once it has proved for a long time (between 12 and 24 hours), you are able to work it into a really thin base. For tomato sauce I make Marcella Hazan’s version, never anything else. The beauty is in its simplicity: just tomatoes (I use canned San Marzano), an onion, and butter. The butter brings out the slight sweetness of the tomato, the richness of it a lovely foil against its acidity, and against the assertiveness of the onion.
As to toppings – we usually do just mozzarella and one or two other elements – either anchovies, or olives, or whatever is lying around the fridge – some soppressata, or artichokes, or like tonight, some ramps (!!) I scored from the farmer’s market over the weekend.
Finally, what pizza desires just as much as a long rise is a hot oven. I bake mine at the highest temperature an oven has on offer.
And suddenly, it is spring. Even here. I bought peach blossoms at the farmer’s market this weekend, and the first of the season’s rhubarb. My heart is full.
We also had some gelato, and if you’re in the city you should get some, too. There’s a Turkish place on Queen Street West that opened a couple of months ago, and inside is another business, named Death in Venice Gelato. The flavours are complex, and in some instances quite daring – we tasted a very intriguing hay gelato, and although it wasn’t part of the roster when we visited, I’ve read that they also do a delightful baba ghanoush and tahini flavour. When we were there they had a yoghurt, beetroot and rosewater gelato, a saffron, vanilla and ginger gelato, something they call break-up gelato (peanut butter and croissant), and a smoked chocolate and Jack Daniels flavour. But we settled for a scoop of the subtle ricotta, lemon, rosemary and honey gelato, and the very flavour-forward Mexican chocolate mole gelato, topped with a crumble of pumpkin seeds and cornbread. Both of these are of the best gelato I’ve had in the city. Do it.