Bittersweet

So much of life revolves around food: basic nourishment, health, celebrations, art, community. Tonight we gathered at the table for a timely, albeit somewhat uncomfortable meal. My dad gathered six of his closest church friends, my mom and my brother and I for dinner to discuss his final wishes. Dad is dying.

My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this spring, just about the time my mom-in-law died of the very same disease. Nasty, nasty cancer that it is. To date there are no reliable early detection methods for pancreatic cancer and survival rates are unfortunately low. In my mom-in-law’s case, it had metastasized so much that by the time she was diagnosed, she only had a few days to live.

Dad’s tumour, although not large, is inoperable and there are no treatment options. His health is declining and we’re noticing how cancer is slowly taking over and how Dad is slowly slipping away.

But true to Dad’s wise and practical nature, he’s taking care of business. As hard as it may be, he’s thought through endless details and has made his final arrangements. And of course he would share these with the ones he trusts most at his favourite place, the dinner table. So tonight we feasted on platters of Chinese food and talked and reassured Dad that things will be the way he wishes. We also laughed and joked and listened to Dad’s always eloquent stories of life, politics and travels.

Life is uncertain these days. But the table is where we can always find some comfort, solace and love.

Back to school!

It’s that time of year again! Kids are both dreading and looking forward to heading back to school. Parents are also looking forward to sending their kids off but dreading having to pack lunches. Last fall I posted the One Less Challenge and this year I am throwing down the gauntlet again.

I took my own advice to heart last year and managed to cut down on the few store bought processed foods I was packing. These are some of the things we swapped out:

  • Cold cuts: our kid wasn’t a big sandwich eater but when I packed them, I would often include deli meats. This year I was almost able to eliminate them and replaced them with other protein such as smoked firm tofu, homemade karaage (breaded chicken), salmon salad, leftover roast or grilled meat and homemade meatballs.
  • Crackers: I got tired of paying big bucks for whole grain crackers that contained ingredients that were entirely unnecessary and that would be eaten within a few days, so I started making them. Cheap, healthy and delicious.
  • Yogurt cups: We’ve never really bought them as I find pre-flavoured yogurt way too sweet and it contains more artificial stuff than I want. When the Kid went to summer camps, we’d fill up his chilled food thermos with frozen berries and plain yogurt sweetened with a touch of honey. By snack time and with enough jostling, he had a delicious frozen yogurt treat.

Ready for the challenge? Can you pack one less processed food in your kids’ lunches every week? Sure you can!

Happy back to school!

Honey-roasted Apricot Ice Cream

There are a few food rules we like to stick to in our household:

  • Choose unprocessed foods.
  • Cook from scratch.
  • Choose the best ingredients possible.
  • Take time to enjoy your food.
  • Food is meant for sharing.

But of course, we all know that rules are broken. We will sometimes buy Timbits on a road trip. When we eat at Chinese restaurants, we don’t make a big deal about how the meat was raised. Sometimes we don’t want to share our food.

I’ve been making homemade ice cream for the past few years and have to say I’ve made some really delectable ones. None of them have wowed me as much as this luscious honey-roasted apricot version. The apricots were roasted to drive off moisture and intensify their flavour while the honey is present but gentle enough to impart a sweet nuance without being overwhelming. Summer perfection.

Sorry. I don’t think we’re going to share this batch. Nope. Gotta be a rebel and break the rules sometimes, you know.

Honey-roasted apricot ice creamHoney-roasted Apricot Ice Cream

Roasted apricots
About 2 lb. ripe apricots
Mild honey

Halve and pit apricots and lay them cut side up on a parchment lined, rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with honey.
Roast at 450 degrees F for 20 to 30 minutes or until apricots start to caramelize.
Cool and reserve 2 cups and chill. Happily eat the rest.

Crème anglaise
1/4 cup honey
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
1/2 vanilla bean
2 eggs
Pinch salt

Combine honey and sugar in a medium saucepan. Over medium heat, cook until honey starts to bubble and sugar melts. Turn down heat and cook for about 5 minutes.
Add cream, milk and vanilla bean and return to heat. Some of the molten honey will harden but will dissolve while the cream heats.
Turn off heat and let mixture steep for 15 or 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, lightly whisk eggs and salt in a heatproof bowl.
Remove vanilla bean from cream and gradually whisk cream into eggs. Return the mixture to the pan. Stir and heat gently until custard is thickened and coats the back of a spoon.
Strain through a fine meshed sieve and chill until very cold, at least 4 hours.
Combine with reserved apricots and churn in ice cream maker while pacing in anticipation. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm. If you live with other people, stash container at back or bottom of freezer so no one notices it. Savour when no one is looking.

Makes about 1 1/2 ambrosial litres

Be the change

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi.

For the past few years I’ve been rethinking our relationships with food. I, like many around me, love food and love to eat but I’ve noticed a real disconnect between people and their food. Somehow, there’s a whole generation of my peers, if not more, who has lost the ability or the will to cook. Why cook when we’re convinced that it takes too much time and energy, when marketers are seducing us with prepared foods, when the latest meal-in-a-box is deceivingly “cheap”? When cooking has become a spectator sport and when kids think macaroni and cheese comes from a box and bagged carrots are naturally mini?

I’ve been fueling a passion for food literacy, the ability to understand all facets of our food: its origins, how to grow or produce food, how to cook and eat it, its nutritional value, its social values, how our food choices affect the bigger picture. There’s no doubt that this evolution has been influenced by having a child and my desire to help him connect to food in a broader context. I knew from day 1 that one of my roles was to educate him about as much about our food world as I could, if not to give him basic life skills but to give him the knowledge to become an informed consumer.

Can I effectively change the next generation? Am I able to influence those around me to understand the food they eat and make healthy choices? I have to.

I started devising a plan, albeit a small one, to help me get my message out there. Start with my own child. Begin a dialogue about food, use all our senses, encourage him to cook and explore, grow food, read about food. Then work on his peers: take the Kid’s classmates on a fieldtrip to the community garden, host cookover playdates, talk about food. Small change but I felt that I was making a difference.

Then the potential vector for bigger change came my way. The posting for a job as a food coordinator at our local neighbourhood house landed on my proverbial plate. They were looking for someone who would work with different groups to build dialogue about food, to build capacity to feed themselves, to help revitalize an edible garden, to work with care providers of school aged kids to provide more nutritious snacks. And the job would be in my own community.

Gratefully I got hired for the position and I’m immersed in a warm, embracing atmosphere with supportive, inspiring colleagues and even more inspiring participants of all ages. I had worked in non-profit, community service environments for years before dabbling in other food related fields. When you’ve worked in the community, there’s a part of your heart that’s always rooted there. And when you leave the field, there’s a voice calling you and reminding you of what is important. I feel like I’ve come home. I feel like I can finally be the change I want to see.

Canning Season is Officially Open!

By mid-June, both the Kid and I are jittery. He’s excited about the end of the school year and I’m just as excited about the official beginning of canning season. Of course I can preserve all through the year, but June is when we start our annual fruit picking pilgrimages to gather pounds and pounds of fruit to freeze or preserve. Pure joy to us DIY folks. Joy!

At this time of year I start dreaming up my master list of preserves for the season. Sometimes I get to all of them, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I come up with more ideas as I come across fresh produce. This is a sneak peak at some of the early season preserves I’m scheming:
-strawberry vanilla jam
-apricot cardamom butter
-raspberry lychee jam
-chocolate raspberry jam (!!)

As the summer grows into fall, I’ll be putting up peaches, a few chutneys and relishes and lovely things with pears and apples.

Will you find any of these goodies under the Christmas tree this year?

Oh! And not to be forgotten…strawberry vodka!
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Sweet embrace

Nothing prepares us for the loss of a loved one. Nothing. When someone vibrant, vivacious and full of life dies suddenly, it stops you in your tracks and things come to a standstill. You walk in a surreal fog and go through the motions and get things done and you consciously know what you’re doing and why, yet you can’t believe it.

We lost my mother-in-law this month. She died after a mercifully brief fight with pancreatic cancer that she faced with dignity, grace and bravery. She was resigned to the fact that she had had a good, full life and that if God wanted her, she was ready to go. She wanted us to remember her laughing and enjoying life and indeed we will as she was laughing and joking up to her very last breath.

In this sadness there is comfort and light. In reminiscing about touching memories of time spent together. In quirky mannerisms that we laughed about in life and will continue laughing about in the future. In family and friends that come together from all corners of the world. In the grandchildren who love her so. In community who embrace us as their own.

Ma’s community drew us in and held us tight with a tremendous generosity of comforting words, hugs, kisses, tears, prayers and food. During the mourning period before the funeral, our family hosted visitations and provided a customary sweets table for guests. Amidst the grief and sorrow, one after another tita brought platters of sweets that filled table after table: ube biko, cookies, orange sponge cake,  brownies, mango, ube and pandan sponge cake rolls, ensaymada, kutsinta, turon, cupcakes, puto…. And they did the same thing the next day. This kindness and compassion, which I had never before experienced, brought me to tears. The overwhelming outpour of generosity was simply a measure of what my mother-in-law meant to the community.

After paying their last respects, guests gathered by the heaving tables and ate some dessert and talked and laughed and ate some more. And that’s exactly what Ma would’ve wanted.

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Electronics Ban Solidarity

After a brief reappearance here, I’m taking off for a while again.

Last week the Kid’s teacher proposed a 10 day ban on electronic devices for the class. Those items include iPads, computers, mp3 players, TV, video games, etc. The Kid started his ban today and I will be joining him in solidarity! So starting at midnight, I am taking a break from the ‘net. Other than checking e-mails and using the computer for work purposes, I won’t have extraneous online presence.

So no texting, skyping, googling, surfing, youtubing. No Etsy, Ravelry, Pinterest, Epicurious. No photos taken on my iPhone.

I’m looking forward to the fast. There’s plenty to do now that it’s warm enough to work in the garden and there are plenty of cookbooks for me to read, reread and use to cook.

See you in a while! Cook and eat well!