Writing the book is the easy part.

For a period during the 90s, my parents embraced the power of positive thinking (see above), and they received much of that messaging via audiobooks on cassette tape that they’d play in the car while we drove around town on their weekend errands.

I am not exactly the world’s most positive thinker – I am a worrier, and always imagining worst-case scenarios, most of which never occur (but YOU NEVER KNOW so there’s no reason to ever stop this pattern of behaviour). There’s a perverse satisfaction in imagining you’re on the verge of some spectacular failure and then having everything work out fine – you always sort of feel like you’ve avoided catastrophe, or like maybe your luck is changing.

Positive thinking may not be as powerful as some motivational speaker – or my parents in 1994 – would have you believe, but somewhere deep in the dusty back corners of my hippocampus, I know that I can manifest strange scenarios based on my particular worry of the day. Positive thinking is fine, but the true power is in the brain’s ability to retain and mutate an idea over decades.

If you can believe it, you can achieve it! Kind of.

I work at the University of British Columbia, and I have been there, more or less, since 2004 when I started taking classes in the Creative Writing department. I started working at the university in 2008, and have been a regular customer of the campus bookstore for much of that time. They feature a lot of local authors, and there is often a shelf for books by staff and faculty.

When Well Fed, Flat Broke: Recipes for Modest Budgets and Messy Kitchens came out in 2015, my very first thought was “I wonder if UBC Bookstore has it, and more importantly where they have put it.” I don’t know what I was imagining, because I wrote a cookbook and not, say, a book of short stories or a history of Canada, but I thought it might be on display somewhere people might see it. So I went to the bookstore on my lunch break. I worried that maybe no one would buy the book, but I wasn’t worried about anyone recognizing me because who knows what any author looks like unless they are famous and I’m not.

In an unusual turn of events, my worries were misplaced.

And so I puttered around the store, assessing the shelves full of new releases and the tables full of featured nonfiction, and the book wasn’t there. “That’s fine,” I’m sure I thought. “Maybe they’ve filed me beside Vikram Vij in the cookbook section, which would be flattering and good.”

I wandered to the back of the store where the cookbooks were shelved. It wasn’t there either, but it was a new book and maybe they didn’t have it yet. I accepted this, because though I am a worrier I am also mostly rational once I think about things for a minute. Everything would be fine. I would check back in a week. Maybe they’d devote a small area of the front to displaying it. You know. Maybe.

I cut through the nonfiction section on my way back to the front of the store where the new releases were – I don’t generally leave bookstores empty-handed. I walked past two women with a cart full of books to be shelved, and they were chatting and I had no plan to interrupt, except that at the exact moment that I walked past, I caught a glimpse of my dumb face leering up with a terrifying watermelon grin from the cart, and then I died.

They saw me, and they saw me pause for the millisecond it took for my death to occur.

“Is this YOU?!” one of them ask-exclaimed.

“HAHA OH MY GOD,” I remember saying.

I began backing away.

“Would you like to sign a few copies? We don’t mind!”

“I AM NOT LURKING IN THIS BOOKSTORE HOPING TO BE NOTICED!” I think I yelled. I think they said something reassuring, like “no one thinks that” or “wow you are turning so red” but I can’t be sure because I, an adult woman in her thirties, dressed in drab business-casual clothing as if to suggest a level of professionalism and maturity, turned and ran away.

For clarity, I did not walk briskly, it was a full run which is unusual because I don’t like to run and I know I don’t look graceful doing it. I stumbled out of there and ran back to the building where I work and pretended that I was a normal, functional human being for the rest of the day, even though every 30 minutes I had to pause for a nervous shuffle to the washroom to relive and/or purge my shame.

I wish I could tell you I learned something tangible from that experience, but here we are in 2017 and I’m still lurking in bookstores.

Dutch Feast is now out there in the world, and I’ll be visiting Winnipeg and Toronto to launch it into the Canadian market (we launched in Vancouver on November 7), and I don’t know how it’s going to go but I’m trying not to imagine scenarios that involve me sprinting away from the scene.

With that in mind, I’d love if you’d come say hello! I’ll be in Winnipeg on the evening of November 27, reading a bit and hopefully sharing some Dutch sweets at McNally Robinson Books. And if you’ve ever wondered about writing a book, just know that getting the words down is the easy part.

 

 

 

 

 

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Let’s talk about Snacks (and a giveaway).

Your next must-read book came out last month and I meant to tell you all about it … last month. And now it’s November. Maybe it’s better I tell you about it now, because the book is Snacks, and I think you should buy it for your snackiest friends and family this holiday season (which we can fret about later, at this rate my household will be celebrating Christmas on January 25).

Snacks: A Canadian Food History, by Janis Thiessen, explores the history and context for Canadian snack foods and it’s absolutely fascinating. Thiessen’s writing is engaging throughout, weaving the history of our national love of chips and candies with stories of the workers behind the brands and tales of corporate intrigue. I read the book over a month ago and am still a little miffed that Old Dutch Foods isn’t even really Canadian (or Dutch, for that matter – some guy named Carl Marx called the company Old Dutch Foods because he associated Dutchness with cleanliness).

Thiessen is an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg, where she lectures on Canadian, food, and business history, and brings a unique perspective to the topic of snack foods in Canada. The thing that spoke to me the most about this book was Thiessen’s critical look at how we vilify some foods as junk, and why we do that. I, for one, am very bored with hearing about how best to eat and live, as usually that kind of information is aspirational at best (at least for me as a lady professional out in the world having it all and then falling over from exhaustion).

Whole foods are good and fine, but sometimes I want to eat sour cream and onion chips and Hawkin’s Cheezies, and I want to enjoy them for what they are. Thiessen quotes food historian Sara Davis: “There’s a lot of unacknowledged privilege at work when food activists insist that the endgame should be more people cooking more meals at home,” explaining that disdain for snacking has its roots in gender bias – which is to say, if more people (women) stayed at home and prepared more meals from scratch, we wouldn’t need snacks, and we wouldn’t snack so much.

I like working and I like snacking. Thiessen makes a solid case for the benefits of a food system which, though it could be vastly improved, allows us to enjoy the occasional bag of chips we needn’t fry for ourselves. (Her favourite are dill pickle flavoured.) While the book was centred around snacks, the stories are what makes this so interesting – Thiessen incorporates oral histories from workers, business owners, and other academics to create a complex picture of the Canadian food landscape. Canadians are an idiosyncratic people, and I enjoyed learning more about our national quirks and odd preferences (ketchup chips are our passion, whether I am okay with that or not).

You should absolutely give this book to your best foodie friend for Christmas this year (ideally with a box of Ganong chicken bones). And because I love this book so very much and want you to have your own copy, I’m doing a little giveaway.

Comment below or follow me on Instagram and tell me there: what is your favourite Canadian snack food? (It is totally fair, by the way, if your faves are this entire list of PC chips from Superstore, from which I cannot choose just one. Maybe the sriracha ones. Maybe the jerk chicken ones.) You do not have to be Canadian to enter, but liking Canadians in general is preferred. Anyway, let me know by Wednesday, November 22 and I’ll pick a winner from Nick’s old hat and drop your copy into the mail before I head off to Winnipeg.

Also, because this is my site and I do what I want, I want to state for the record that All-Dressed chips, a uniquely Canadian thing, are trash and Serious Eats is wrong.

Overkill brownies.

I didn’t realize when I took this photo that there was a dry macaroni noodle in the shot, the sort of thing I’d usually try to notice and correct, and that remains in the frame partly because we were in a real big hurry to eat these brownies and my making everyone wait while I took photos was, I’ll admit, a little rude. I’ll crop it out for Instagram, but let the record show that these brownies are the kind of thing that inspire a sense of urgency.

And they are – as I have been told I am so many times – just “a bit much.” They’re show-offs, all fudgy and chewy, with a delicious secret buried beneath a smear of cream cheese frosting – nine whole, perfect Reese’s peanut butter cups. If you’re going to go to the trouble of making dessert for company, it should always be “a bit much,” or why bother? You can eat fruit and yogurt on your own time.

Overkill brownies

  • 1/2 lb. semisweet chocolate chips
  • 6 tbsp. butter + 2 tbsp. butter, cut into pieces, divided
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract, divided
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 9 Reese’s (or comparable) peanut butter cups (about three packages)
  • 4 oz. (1/2 package) cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 1/4 cup cocoa, sifted

Preheat oven to 325°F. Lightly grease an 8″x8″ baking pan, then line it with parchment paper.

Using a double boiler, a glass bowl over just-simmering water, or a microwave (three rounds of 30 seconds, stirring each time), gently melt chocolate chips and six tablespoons of butter, stirring occasionally until smooth.

Beat the sugar, salt, and one teaspoon of vanilla into the melted chocolate, then add eggs eggs one at a time, beating continuously. Add the flour and stir until just moistened; batter should pull away from the sides of the bowl.

Pour batter into your prepared pan. Press peanut butter cups into the batter (three even rows of three).

Bake 35 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out mostly clean. If in doubt, err on the side of under-baking these.

Let brownies rest in the pan 10 minutes before removing to a cooling rack. Let cool completely before frosting.

Meanwhile, beat cream cheese, remaining butter, confectioner’s sugar, cocoa, and remaining vanilla until smooth and spreadable. Frost cooled brownies.

Cut into 16 pieces.

Dutch macaroni.

Not to rush the end of summer (I would never!), but I’m getting pretty excited for fall dinners, leggings-based outfits, 60 per cent less boob sweat, and a little cookbook launch party I hope you’ll attend if you’re in Vancouver. (I hope we can get to Winnipeg, Toronto, and elsewhere – stay tuned! If your local bookstore, pannenkoekenhuis, or licorice parlour wants to talk boeterkoek and bitterballen, drop me a line!)

In the meantime, while the temperature has dropped slightly ahead of another summer heatwave, I’m in the mood for macaroni. This recipe, a family friendly Dutch weeknight dinner not unlike American Goulash or a fancy take on Hamburger Helper, is a one-pot weeknight staple for us; I use whole wheat macaroni in mine because no one here seems to notice and, you know, fibre.

Dutch macaroni

(Makes 6 to 8 servings.)

  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 6-oz can low-sodium or no-salt-added tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp grainy Dijon or Dutch mustard
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 14 oz dry macaroni
  • 4 cups low-sodium or homemade chicken stock
  • 4 oz shredded Edam cheese

In a large pot on medium, brown beef with salt in olive oil for about 5 minutes. Remove meat from pot and set aside. Drain off all but 2 tbsp grease.

Add onions, bell peppers, carrots, celery, and garlic, and sauté for about 4 minutes, until colors have brightened and vegetables are shiny. Stir in tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, pepper, smoked paprika, oregano, and basil, and coat vegetables.

Return beef to pot. Add macaroni, and stir well. Add chicken stock; liquid should just cover mixture. If not, add a cup or two of water.

Bring contents to a simmer, and cook 10–12 minutes, until macaroni is tender.

Add Edam and stir until melted. Serve immediately.


Dutch Feast is currently available for pre-order from Arsenal Pulp Press, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and other fine online retailers; order online to receive your copy this fall, or purchase it from your favourite local bookstore in November, 2017.

Mirza Ghasemi.

A few months ago a very sweet student in one of the labs at work phoned his grandmother in Iran to get me a recipe, which he then translated from Farsi but maybe not very well. I knew he could cook, and I had wondered if he ever made mirza ghasemi, a dish of grilled eggplant and tomatoes mashed together with olive oil and spices and garlic and topped with fried egg. I had recently fallen in love with the dish at a Persian restaurant, but wasn’t sure exactly what was in it – there was no description on the restaurant menu, and sometimes Google lies. He knew it, but he didn’t make it, so he asked if I could wait a few days and then called home.

It wasn’t eggplant season then, but it is now, so I pulled his recipe out of my inbox and realized there were a few things lost (or exaggerated) in translation – the ratio of eggs to eggplants was way off. A promising neuroscience student, he was hired away to Germany in the meantime so I can’t ask him my questions; this is a loose adaptation of his grandmother’s recipe, a dish from northern Iran that transforms bitter eggplant into a smoky dip for sangak or regular old white bread (toasted to within in an inch of its life for optimal sopping). The eggs make it a meal for two, or a hearty appetizer or snack for four.

I have given directions for this dish using the oven and stove, but please note that if it is a hot day and you have a side burner on your outdoor grill, you can make this entirely outside using roughly the same instructions and it will be that much better. Serve with bread and lemon quarters

Mirza Ghasemi

(Makes 2 to 4 servings.)

  • 2 lbs eggplants
  • 1 lb tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp. + 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tbsp. roasted shelled pistachios, roughly chopped
  • 2 tsp. fresh thyme, roughly chopped

Heat oven (or grill) to 400°F.

Using a fork or a toothpick, poke holes into eggplants and tomatoes all over. Drizzle one tablespoon of olive oil over whole eggplants and tomatoes.

Roast or grill eggplants and tomatoes for 20 minutes, until charred in places and softened – eggplants should appear to slump. Remove eggplants and tomatoes to a glass bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Cool for at least 15 minutes, or until you can handle them comfortably with bare hands. Eggplants and tomatoes can be roasted or grilled up to 24 hours in advance – just store in the fridge until you’re ready.

If you roast your veggies ahead of time, return your grill or oven to 400°F before proceeding.

Gently remove skins from tomatoes and eggplants. If you like a smooth puree, you can use a food mill to slough off the skins and stuff. I prefer to mash the veggies’ innards with a fork or potato masher until they form a chunky mush. Reserve any liquids that have accumulated at the bottom of the bowl you cooled your veggies in.

Heat remaining olive oil in a 12″ skillet or cast iron pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, and cook for about three minutes, until translucent but not browned. Add garlic, cumin, salt, paprika, turmeric, pepper, and pepper flakes, and cook for another minute, until the spices are fragrant.

Add eggplant-tomato mush, and any remaining liquids, and simmer for about six minutes, until the liquid has evaporated and the mixture looks a bit dry and sticky, like it would burn to the bottom of the pan if you’d let it. Add lemon juice, stir, and taste. Adjust seasonings as needed.

Using a spoon, create four little holes in the eggplant mixture, then crack an egg into each hole. Place the pan in the oven, and bake until the eggs have set to your liking, five to 10 minutes.

Sprinkle the finished dish with fresh thyme leaves and chopped pistachios.

Cake for breakfast.

“Okay, but why are you sorry?”

“Because you got mad.”

I’m at the stage in whatever process I’m in – book-writing, middle-management, big-kid parenting, all of it – where I would like to turn a few pages back in this choose-your-own-adventure story of life. I accidentally set a meatloaf and four sweet potatoes on fire on the barbecue this week and then cried because Nick ruined dinner by spraying it with the fire extinguisher. How could he. If a little char adds flavour, what might a little incineration do? I guess we’ll never know.

“But do you know why I got mad?”

“It’s just something you do sometimes when I break stuff.”

Remember when we were teenagers and the high school teachers had us fill out those aptitude tests to find out what we should be doing with our lives, as if that meant anything? I took the test twice because my first result was “street performer.” I have no musical talent and it rains for months at a time here. My second result was “embalmer,” and I panicked because HOW WOULD THAT EVEN WORK? (Side note: what the hell, 1990s Surrey School District administration, did you buy the discount testing package?!) I was terrible at science and failing math and worried that I wasn’t meant for anything that would support my future cat family and ability to finally own a pair of Mavi jeans. Instead of aptitude tests, teachers should tell teens about all the things they will have to juggle one day, effectively and with a smile, and all their “what am I going to do with my life?” fears would be replaced by “how can I avoid all of that?”

Maybe worrying about your future career path is pointless. Maybe they should give kids parenting workshops so that they know what to do when they inevitably find themselves bested by the world’s sassiest five-year-old.

Aside from “marry rich” and “don’t teach your children to talk,” I don’t have many answers. But perhaps I can make a suggestion? Don’t try to be the kind of parent and partner and worker the internet thinks you should be, at least not all at once, and don’t sign your five-year-old up for soccer and T-Ball at the same time while you try to write a book and work a full-time job on five hours of sleep per night. Another suggestion? Eat cake for breakfast.

Ontbijtkoek means “breakfast cake” in Dutch, and the Netherlands is a place that in a lot of ways has its priorities in order. There is comfort in something that feels just a little indulgent, but still a little nutritious. Not that nutritious, though it has a reputation for it; traditional recipes for this particular delicacy boast of the whole-grain goodness of rye flour, and that there is no fat to speak of in the bread. Traditionally, it also calls for a bucket of honey and molasses and sugar, but that is beside the point. Health! Health?

I wouldn’t exactly call this health food, but I wouldn’t call it junk either. It is wholesome, somewhere between a bread and a cake. Drier than cake, but sweeter than bread, if that makes sense? It’s a very nice way to start your day, especially with a big cup of coffee or tea, and a generous smear of butter and a drizzle of honey. Coffee and cake for breakfast are how I’m surviving the chaos of little boys, and grown-ups who want to add to my to-do list and food that just engulfs itself in flames at RANDOM and not through any fault of mine. I’ll let you know if it works.

Ontbijtkoek

The rye flour in this loaf makes it more substantial than a typical loaf cake, and the molasses means it’s not as sweet. It’s virtuous cake, if there’s such a thing, and it’s meant to be eaten in the morning.

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ¾ cup fancy molasses
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup dark rye flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. Kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. ground allspice
  • ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp. ground cloves

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9″x5″ loaf pan, and set aside.

Whisk together milk, molasses and egg. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine all-purpose flour, rye flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves.

Gently work the wet ingredients into the flour mixture until dry ingredients are just moistened but not lumpy.

Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan, and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean.

Turn out onto a wire rack to cool. After ten minutes, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and cool to room temperature. Will keep for about three days.

Speculaas blondies

speculaasjesI live in Vancouver, which is in Canada but not typically Canadian in many ways, the most disgraceful of which is our complete inability to function in the presence of even a tiny bit of snow. It doesn’t snow much here – some years, it doesn’t snow at all. I can’t remember my last snowy Christmas. We do not have the infrastructure to support this kind of weather, and so a couple of centimeters of snow on the streets sends us into turmoil.

It snowed today. I worked from home.

We are planning our next adventure, and we’ve booked our flights – we’ll be in the Netherlands in late January. I am working on a new book, Dutch Feast, and it will be in bookstores and online in fall 2017, and the thing about Dutch food that is so lovely is that a lot of it is sugary carbs. And so even though it’s cold outside and my toes have yet to defrost from this morning’s failed attempt at finding a bus to work, I’m eating Dutch sweets and my home smells like speculaas spices. I mean, it’s an absolute disaster because recipe testing is messy and I’m usually remiss in cleaning up, but it smells nice and if I don’t look in the kitchen this whole scene is pretty cozy.

These speculaas blondies are an adaptation of a recipe in Heleen AM Halverhout’s Dutch Cooking (©1972); she suggests baking speculaas cookie dough “like brownies,” which she called speculaasjes. I like this idea quite a lot, because everyone knows brownies are better than cookies. We can debate this, but I’m not likely to entertain opposing viewpoints in this case. The nice thing about these speculaasjes is that they require no special equipment (no cutters or rolling pins required!), so if you start right now, you can have chewy, sweet speculaas blondies in time for this evening’s cup of tea.

Speculaas blondies

(Makes 16 pieces.)

  • 1/2 cup room-temperature butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp. dark rum
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup candied ginger (about two ounces), chopped
  • 1 tbsp. confectioner’s sugar, for garnish

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Grease an 8″ x 8″ square baking pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Cream together butter and sugar. Add the eggs, and beat until the mixture looks smooth. Add rum, cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, cloves, and salt, and mix until combined.

Gently fold flour into the spiced butter mixture until just moistened. Add chopped candied ginger, then spoon the mix into your prepared baking pan.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out mostly clean (a few clingy crumbs = perfect). You want these just shy of totally baked, so that they are still chewy.

Cool the blondies in the pan on a wire rack for five minutes, then turn them out onto the rack to cool completely.

Once cool, sift confectioner’s sugar over top. Cut into sixteen pieces.

Serve with tea or coffee and your feet in fuzzy socks or slippers.