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Life without recipes (or time in the kitchen)

No so long ago, I used to make all my dinners from scratch. I basted, I summered, I marinated and turned at intervals prescribed by my latest glossy cookbook.

If you’d dropped by our house during the height of my culinary obsession (when I was raising a child and holding down a job at a newsmagazine), you might have found the dining room chairs draped in homemade fettucine, fresh from the teeth of a hand-cranked gizmo like the ones Italian nonnas use in the old country.

Enough of all that, I say! I’ve finally figured out that I don’t have to fuss in the kitchen, or even follow a recipe, to serve a meal that makes me glad to be eating at this table, on this day, in this company. What I need is good fundamentals (no squishy bread or limp veg) plus one eplosively flavourful ingredient that elevates the rest of the dish, however simple it may be. A big hand, please, for…

Avocados Silky, voluptuous and such a pretty shade of green when you luck into one with none of the gray patches that lurk inside perfectly normal-looking specimens. (If you can identify a dud avocado, would you please let me in your secret?) Guacamole is all very well, but avocados also do a lot for sandwiches, scrambled eggs and salads (especially roasted beets and asparagus). Rumour has it there is such a thing as avocado ice cream. I swoon at the thought. My blogger friend Kerry Clare has been making avocado scones. What a tantalizing idea!

Anchovies Eew, you say. So fishy. In fact, I used to say this myself, but that was before I tasted proper anchovies. The best (aside from the fresh ones served at Spanish tapas bars) come whole, packed in salt in giant tins; you then rinse and fillet them at home. I once frequented a store (long gone, sad to say) that would sell me a week’s supply in wax paper. Now that I’ve given up on finding tinned, whole anchovies anywhere in Toronto (and believe me, I’ve conducted quite a search) I buy them in a jar, packed in olive oil. (Soya oil is an unacceptable compromise.) To jazz up steamed vegetables, I toss them in a pan with olive oil, garlic and a little mashed anchovy. My green beans don’t taste fishy; they’re just tinged with a sweet brininess that no one can place, or resist.

Bacon I know, I know…it’s not cardiologically correct, but sooner or later, we’re all destined to take a dirt nap (to use Bob Dylan’s expression). So we might as well enjoy those succulent, crispy morsels while we can. See what one crumbled rasher (and maybe a little bacon fat) will do for earnest veg like broccoli. Tuck a little bacon in a grilled cheese sandwich, and think of all the poor souls who have nothing to tide them through lunch hour except a sandwich that tastes of Saran wrap.

I recently dined two nights in a row on bacon and fresh eggs from St. Lawrence Market (very lightly scrambled with chives and grated cheese). Best meal I’d had all week, which is why I felt compelled to have it twice (had my husband been around, I’d have worried about fatiguing his palate, but he was out of town eating banquet fare, poor soul). I used bacon from Berkshire pork, which costs at least twice as much as regular bacon but delivers more lip-smacking pleasure than any steak I’ve ever bought. As for the eggs, they actually had a faint whiff of sunlight and pastures, like the long-forgotten eggs of my childhood.

Pesto I used to make my own, but now I just buy a nice pesto made with pine nuts and olive oil (no substitutes accepted). I stir it into orzo, slather it on sandwiches or spoon it onto my pan-grilled dinner of the moment. The other night I topped the swordfish with a chunky, robust cilantro pesto (mine comes from Sabores Latinos, a mom-and-pop stand in the aforementioned St. Lawrence Market, but I’m betting there’s a counterpart somewhere near you).

Extra-virgin olive oil I mostly gave up butter long ago, but I’d sooner drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log than go without the pungent green elixir that swathes every dinner I produce. A chef wears a toque; I wear my Pablo Neruda apron (a souvenir from one of his houses in Chile) emblazoned with a generous quotation from his poem “Oda al Aceite” (ode to olive oil).

The other night, for once, I came up with a meal that contained not a drop of olive oil. But only because it was bacon and eggs. In other words, heaven on earth.


Posted by Rona

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