I recently realized that I had become addicted to Twix bars. It has reached the point where I have to consciously stop myself from eating more than one stick a day. This is quite a new thing and I am not sure how it started. However, this new habit reminded me of one of my earlier great loves — the Mars bar, and something I wrote way back in 2008:
“Back in the day, the Mars Bar was the true king of chocolate bars. It took a long time to eat and satisfied every umami receptor that one had. The original Mars was a substantial eat: a thick wall of chocolate that took some biting through encased a vault of the thickest caramel that coated one’s teeth and gums. It was a real treat and the greediest kid couldn’t eat more than one at a sitting.
Yesterday morning I was feeling a low blood sugar moment coming on and I bought a Mars bar to get me through it. First up, the size wasn’t what it should have been. The original Mars bar was a hefty piece of work that filled one’s hand. What I got yesterday was a disappointingly short stick that weighed hardly anything. There was no resistance at all as my teeth bit through the chocolate skin, and the bitten piece just seemed to melt in my mouth. It wasn’t what I expected or wanted.
Looking at the thing in section it was easy to see how thin the chocolate coating was, and how the caramel had been reduced to a slight sliver squeezed into place on a soft whipped mass that filled the bar. It was just terrible!
Kids today, of course, know no better because the old bars just aren’t available for them to compare. They should sue the bar makers, I say. Sue them for taking away one of the great joys of childhood.”
Sam Sifton holds a very high place in the kitchens of the world. He is the brain behind the very popular New York Times Cooking site. His current passion is for what he calls “no recipe” recipes, which do away with exact measurements (Fanny Farmer is screaming “No!”) and fetishizes improvisation. I haven’t read his new book, but I have read Laura Shapiro’s review in the Atlantic and she calls Sifton’s ideas “an exciting, but daunting, invitation to improvise.”
“Conventional recipes that spell out each step are useful, he says, and if you follow them correctly, you’ll arrive at the destination planned for you. But that’s not the only way to get dinner on the table, and here he evokes the great jazz masters who wouldn’t dream of relying on a printed score. Each “no-recipe recipe,” Sifton explains, is “an invitation for you to improvise,” a skill that will turn you into an imaginative, stress-free cook able to wing it through the preparation of any meal.”
She does rather make it sound as if Sifton is onto something new. But …
When I came to Canada in 1978 at the age of 29, I was certainly able to cook for myself; however, boring, predictable, and safe is how I would describe my culinary arts at that time. Back then, before there were entire channels running food shows 24/7, there were a few cooking shows on TV; and the one I was attracted to was James Barber’s Urban Peasant series. It was that show that turned me into a passably good cook.
Barber’s whole method, it seems to me, was based on use what ingredients you have, improvise methods if needed, and make it as simply as possible. Having grasped those basics, I was then able to grab ideas from all over and make some really interesting meals without worrying about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. I’ve been doing that now for forty odd years.
James Barber was a Vancouver original. Sam Sifton should try some of his recipes.
We read and hear a lot about the damage the corona virus pandemic and the associated restrictions are having on the hospitality industry including restaurants. For example, as the Commercial Drive BIA reported at the last GWAC meeting, revenue for local bars and restaurants is down 50-75% this year over last. However, random headlines would also suggest that fast food franchises are thriving.
Every once in a while I find myself perusing the news at Nation’s Restaurant News (mainly to look at fascinating new menu options) and just today I saw the following four stories being reported.
First, let me heap praise on a cook book: Jane Lawson’s wonderful “Cooking Curries“. Every double-page consists of one or two recipes and a gorgeous colour photograph. She covers the widest range of curries from the obvious — India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, for example — to the more obscure — such as Goa, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Bali, and Kenya. Under her steady guidance, I have learned to mix and make a dozen or more new curry pastes, and she has really taken my hand and led me to a new confidence in using coconut milk and different fruits in my cooking. I picked the book up by chance from Book Warehouse for $7.99 more than a decade ago and have derived hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of education and pleasure from her writing. This was probably the best buy I ever made in a cookbook.
Some time ago, I wanted to cook supper and had actually remembered to get some chicken breasts out of the freezer to thaw in the morning. I had also vaguely decided that I would make something from “Cooking Curries” and had picked up a stem of lemongrass and some fresh cilantro from Chinatown. Other than that, I had no real idea of what I was going to do. As I slowly sauteed the chicken pieces in an oil and crushed lemongrass mix, I scanned my way through the book until “thai red duck curry with pineapple” caught my eye. I chose it because I knew I had most (not all) of the stuff needed to make the red curry paste. The fact that I didn’t have either duck or pineapple was of no concern: I had sauteed chicken and — at the perfect suggestion of my wife — mandarin orange segments.
To cut a fun time of chopping and boiling and simmering and stirring short, we ended up with a pretty darned good meal. A chicken curry over rice, sweetened with coconut milk and orange segments (which, like good anchovies, had melted away leaving just their umami essence), seasoned with a hot red paste (made from homegrown Thai peppers, I am proud to say), and with strong Thai undertones from the lemongrass, lemon zest and fresh cilantro.
The late Vancouver chef James Barber taught that you make do with the ingredients you have; that you cannot not cook something just because you are missing an item from a list; that the spirit and love you put into cooking is almost as important as basic technique. Combining this ethos with Jane Lawson’s already inventive recipes allowed me that night to fully experience the joy of cooking.