Category Archives: cooking

Important Matters

ha ha ha, I bet you're hungry now

Lunch is one of my three favorite meals of the day

In her excellent book, Much Depends on Dinner, Margaret Visser says, “The extent to which we take everday objects for granted is the precise extent to which they govern and inform our lives.” If you haven’t read the book, it’s a brilliant meditation on how we are shaped by the quotidian, and how little we appreciate the miracles of everyday life.

Nom!

Dos Viejos Comiendo Sopa, Goya, 1819-1823

I got to thinking about this the other day when I mentioned that I was having grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch. My friend Babins, a not-very-serious person whose humour I quite appreciate, noted that I only had to add a cup of weak tea to make it a perfect nursing home meal.

I get it: it does sound like a safe, nay, middling, choice for a meal. Something a harried mother might make a fussy kid, or a gentle meal for someone with limited appetite or shy a few horsepower in the mastication department.

Mmm, you smell like soup

Soup is like a hug, but hugs won’t burn your tongue.

But that really misses the potential haecceity of such a meal, the ‘thisness’ that makes it evoke powerful ideas and memories. I’ll wager that the picture above made a few people salivate, a few others tilt their heads and think about getting something to eat, and a few might even have misted up, thinking of the comfort and safety that such a meal conjures in the heart. A grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup isn’t a simple meal: it’s a powerful spell that can not only banish hunger, but fill the soul with contentment and soothe a mind battered by the concerns of the day.

But only if you do it right. I have powerful ideas about what constitutes ‘right’ in the case of grilled cheese (the soup shown above is homemade from tomatoes from my garden, but that’s a blog for another day). I’d rather go hungry (and let’s face it, I can afford to go hungry once in a while) than eat a sandwich with lousy, squishy bread and cheese made from plastic products, fried in a waxy yellow substance suitable more as a floor wax than a butter substitute. Here’s what I do when the urge for crispy, unctuous grilled cheese strikes me.

don't use the whole stick of butter

The best recipes have the fewest ingredients

Quality is of the essence, simplicity the watchword. Use top quality bread–I bought this from a local bakery, but if I have time I make my own. Day-old bread is a little better: too soft and it’s gummy. Slices need to be thick enough for structure, but thin enough to heat through easily. Butter–and only butter, please–is a given, but cheese needs a more thorough discussion.

If I’m making a melt or serving the sandwich alongside something with contrasting flavours I might choose a mellow or nutty cheese, like Muenster or Jarlsberg. If I had a load of spicy pickles I might choose Raclette, which I love. But for the sweetness of tomato soup I prefer cheddar. Choosing a sharp, well-aged version is crucial, but don’t get one that’s terrifically old or high in fat: it still has to melt effectively and ultra high-fat or low-protein cheese can simply liquify under heat, leaving a greasy mess. Don’t use too much: the cheese is for flavour and holding the crispy bread together. A thick gummy layer will cool down and be gloppy before you can finish eating your lunch.

My pan is over sixty years old, and I expect it to outlast me.

My pan is over sixty years old, and I expect it to outlast me.

You only need two tools, a frying pan and a spatula. Step one, preheat the pan over medium-low and add a teaspoon of butter to it–don’t butter the bread, because that will put way too much grease in the finished sandwich.

Nestled like sugarplums

Nestled like sugarplums

Next up, place both slices of bread in the pan. No cheese yet. let them gently brown for a few minutes to heat and crisp up on one side.

Grilled side goes inward

Grilled side goes inward

Take the bread out of the pan and assemble the sandwich, crispy side in with the cheese. Ho ho ho! It’s going to be crispy everywhere!

Flip as often as you want: the point is to get a perfectly crispy exterior just as the cheese melts inside

Flip as often as you want: the point is to get a perfectly crispy exterior just as the cheese melts inside

Add another teaspoon of butter to the pan and return the assembled sandwich to it. Careful not to scorch: don’t walk away here, as it’s crucial to get a nice crunch on the outside without scorch. You can flip it a few times if you’re getting too hot on one side. It should only take another three minutes or so.

Serve with your favorite condiment. I’ll often have a little hot mustard to dip the edge of the sandwich in as I go, but more often these days I’ll have a little Sambal Oleek, a crushed chili paste that suits my palate. Also, if you have some homemade pickles, they go down a treat.

Yeah, bay-bee

Yeah, bay-bee

How was it? Short lived, unlike the comfort and satiety that it gave me. Now where’s that cup of tea?

Garden Days

bumblebee

Lavender helps keep my bee girls healthy and strong.

Times have  been crazy busy at Chaos Manor, both personally and professionally–I’m really excited about Master Vintner, and all the good things we’ve got going on over there–don’t miss my ridiculously controversial blog post, Lies, Damned Lies, And Sulfites: The Facts. I love that topic, especially the angry mail I get from it.

I’m going to do a couple of garden updates this month, and a couple of cooking specials, sharing my love of good food to pair with good wine–and good friends. Many of my garden crops have come in and gone, still others are producing.

currants

I try to stay currant.

There’s currant jam to make, black currant wine, I made a bunch of spanakopita with my spinach crop, and I found time to make a batch of delicious head cheese.

I’ve been brewing pretty frequently as well: I’ve got half a dozen wine projects on the go, experimenting with extended maceration with grapeskins in wine kits and I’ve got a couple of hundred litres of cider to process.

produce

Fresh–really fresh–food.

First things first though: I’ve got a nice little dinner planned with minted peas, new potatoes, carrots and broccoli. Fresher food you can not get, and I’m pleased to be eating from my own garden.

 

 

Catching Up, Up, and Awaaaay!

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

It’s been a long radio silence from me for reasons varied and sundry, the principle of which is that I’ve been rascally busy for the last two months, with matters professional and personal. I know that professional technically includes ‘keeping my blog updated’, but that’s one of those important-but-not-urgent things that gets pushed back enough that it sometimes disappears altogether.

A few berries short of a sundae

A few berries short of a sundae

Part of my occupation was my community garden plot. We’ve had an extraordinarily good spring and summer–come to think of it, we basically skipped winter as well, with a long, warm period extending from November through to the middle of April, when suddenly it was summer–no spring, no tentative sprouting of plants, just a drop-kick right into full-on heat and sunshine.

That'd be a pretty short elephant

That’d be a pretty short elephant

This is a pretty big contrast to past years when we were joking about ‘Juneuary’, and bemoaning the endless grey rains, conveniently forgetting the fact that we choose to live in an actual rainforest. Normally I’d plant my garden on the May long weekend (the Monday before May 25th) but this year I had a lot of work to do and got it in on the last week of April.

Part of the work was building five new boxes. I have a community garden located on the site of a reclaimed marsh. While it may have been fertile one hundred years ago, the soil is pretty much hardpan clay, with a few inches of topsoil to cover. For a decade I rototilled, added sand, peat moss, compost and other amendments, but the soil quickly ate that up and returned to its peevish ways.

Two years ago I gave up and built some garden boxes. I make them deeper than is usual, and it seemed to work out really well–the results have been beyond what I could have expected. I expanded from three big boxes and three smaller ones, adding four big boxes and one broad but shallow one for vines like zucchini and squash.

Pay no mind to the man behind the kilt

Pay no mind to the man behind the kilt

It was quite a bit of work, between pounding stakes, screwing boxes together and then filling them, wheelbarrow by back-breaking wheelbarrow with soil. As I usually claim, I’m in it for the fresh air and exercise: tasty vegetables are just a by-product. But what a by-product! Between top-quality soil and an early, hot and extended growing season, things have been going crazy.

Gardens gone wild

Gardens gone wild

Unfortunately, the garden is a bit disruptive: it’s on an old farm site, but it borders a nesting sanctuary and a marsh. As such, there are marshy-type creatures there, including some that love fresh garden produce. The worst are beavers: you wouldn’t believe the damage a couple of beavers can do to a garden in only a few hours, especially to grape vines (I’ve lost four over the years) and fruit trees–a decade of growing and poof! It’s part of a dam.

Download these raspberries

Download these raspberries

When the beavers get bad, the wildlife service comes and hauls them away, relocating them. One doesn’t bother beavers without the help of a professional. First, they’re protected and only licensed hunters and trappers can harvest beavers. Second, they’re incredibly dangerous, and routinely kill people who try to interfere with them.

Beavers aren’t the worst, though, as they’re a once in a while animal. I save most of my ire for rats. Sadly, it’s my fault they’re trouble. If you think about it, the average rat is a timid riverbank rodent eating seeds and the occasional bird’s egg. Plunk down eighty or a hundred garden plots next to that riparian paradise and all the rats see is about a trillion calories of easy-to-get deliciousness. They multiply out of proportion to the natural landscape and start raiding. This year I finally took action, netting my corn and setting traps for them. While it worked, I’m not happy with having to murder rodents whose only crime was to recognise an easy meal. Thus is ever the life of an ethical omnivore.

Aside from the garden, I’ve been busy other ways. The building next to me (as in, right up against my suite) burnt to the ground.

fire

Gelato is not supposed to be served hot

That was exciting, especially the part where the flames shot up over the garden wall and incinerated my magnolia tree.

Ashes are good for trees, right?

Ashes are good for trees, right?

Sheesh. Not something you want to see out your bedroom window.

Also, there was the Winemaker Magazine conference in Portland, a delight as always.

workin the booth

Master Vintner! The best winemaking stuff ever!

This year I did a day long boot camp seminar, teaching a class full of people advanced techniques for making wine, demo’ing equipment and doing things like post-fermentation elevage, as well as four other lectures, an author’s round table, and a couple more.

The folks at Winemaker Portland were a happy bunch.

The folks at Winemaker Portland were a happy bunch.

The earlybird winemakers get the wormy old teacher.

The early bird winemakers get the wormy old teacher.

Those people at Winemaker beat me like the family mule sometimes.

Catching up with Gi--always a delight

Catching up with Gi–always a delight

Fortunately there was time to hang out with old friends, enjoy a few noshes

If you're in Portland, I recommend Ox. They have meat.

If you’re in Portland, I recommend Ox. They have meat.

Winemaker was fun, if a bit of a whirlwind. It was really nice to catch up with my pal Wes Hagen. We just don’t get to see each other often enough. As a consequence, we tend to act like ninnies when we do, which is always fun.

In which I corrupt Wes' palate with hoppy hopulence.

In which I corrupt Wes with hoppy hopulence. Photo courtesy of the delightful JT Matherly, a fine new Portland friend.

After Winemaker it was time to gear up for the AHA national conference in San Diego. I’ve wanted to go to an AHA conference for at least 20 years, but always had some corporate drudgery that made it impossible to attend. This year I went under the auspices of my good friends at Northern Brewer, which got me in everywhere and helped me make some new friends.

Yes, that's Wil Wheaton: Tabletop, Titansgrave, Star Trek, Stand By Me and zounds of other things. I felt pretty cool

Yes, that’s Wil Wheaton: Tabletop, Titansgrave, Star Trek, Stand By Me and zounds of other things. I felt pretty cool, hanging with such a chill dude.

Not only did I get to hang out at the NB booth, I got to do some backstagey stuff, like drink a whole keg of Russian Imperial Stout at an afterparty, plus hang out with a thousand-odd homebrewers and taste some of the best dang beers in the whole world, all in one convenient place.

Sessioning the Woot Stout. Whose idea was that?

Sessioning the Woot Stout. Whose idea was that?

Hanging at the Northern Brewer booth with Todd and Chris. Good times!

Hanging at the Northern Brewer booth with Todd and Chris. Good times!

Pro night at the AHA--so much good beer, so little liver capacity!

Pro night at the AHA–so much good beer, so little liver capacity!

As part of the trip I rented a car and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway. If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it. It’s the most beautiful drive you can imagine–and just when you think it can’t possibly get any more gorgeous, it does.

Yawn. Yet another spectacular view.

Yawn. Yet another spectacular view.

I even got in a little whale-watching, when I decided to pull over for the first time in 2 hours and picked the only spot on the coast with a deceased mammal washed up.

Not very lively, but it was easy to keep track of.

Not very lively, but it was easy to keep track of.

I also made my traditional stop at the Tonga Room. It’s the finest Tiki Bar on earth, located in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. There’s something about a restaurant that serves drinks the size of punchbowls, and has a boat floating in the middle of the room, the better to facilitate the occasional indoor rainstorm.

tonga room

Great drinks, excellent food–that really floats my boat.

Returning home, I had a load of projects to get to. First up, a 4th of July barbecue. No, not grilling: a real barbecue.

home barbecue

Ribs, for your pleasure. Along with brisket, chicken and sausage.

Also, there was a seafood boil.

Spot prawns, dungeness crab, white prawns, chorizo, with corn and potatoes from my garden.

Spot prawns, dungeness crab, white prawns, chorizo, with corn and potatoes from my garden.

I was also part of the Tri-Cities Cask Festival, and we really had a great time doing our first beers-from-outside-of-Vancouver-city tasting. I was media man, but managed to get in on the keg tapping action (note: all pictures courtesy of Vancouver Photoworks).

First, drive in the spile.

First, drive in the spile.

Next, drive in the tap.

Next, drive in the tap.

. . . and then the gushing and the shouting and the glayvin!

. . . and then the gushing and the shouting and the glayvin!

I did a little brewing as well, trying to keep my skills sharp.

My ISA with Caliente hops. Fruity yum-yums.

My ISA with Caliente hops. Fruity yum-yums.

Let’s see, what else have I been doing . . . oh yes, I conducted a Scotch tasting.

Scotchy Scotch Scotch

Scotchy Scotch Scotch

Made some epic sandwiches . . .

Garden tomato, home-smoked pork belly, Muenster cheese, double-grilled.

Garden tomato, home-smoked pork belly, Muenster cheese, double-grilled.

Spent some time with my now very old gentleman cat.

He's a very good boy.

He’s a very good boy.

And I worked on my winemaking.

Beards help you taste.

Beards help you taste.

Speaking of which, lots of good things coming up in the Master Vintner winemaking world! But this post is long enough with the catching up already. Tune in soon yet more will be revealed.