"There's-been-a-run-on-pumpkin!" Sweet Potato Pie

One of the minor irritations of living on an island is shopping for specific items. With only a couple of small grocery stores you never really know what's going to be available so it's pretty pointless to go shopping with a list. In the summer I see city people wandering through the market looking increasingly desperate as they realize that they won't be able to find the smoked paprika and bomba rice they need for their paella.

A few weeks ago I decided to make a pumpkin pie to take to a pot luck for Thanksgiving. The friend who was hosting is wheat and lactose intolerant so I thought it would be a fun to try to come up with something that didn't taste like a compromise. I didn't really have the time to cut up and cook the pumpkin from scratch so I stopped into our market to buy a can of organic pumpkin. It should have come as no surprise that the pumpkin spot on the shelf was completely bare. After a fruitless search of the back room the kind person who worked there suggested that I try sweet potato as a substitute. I also picked up some pecans and oatmeal for the crust and a can of coconut milk to stand in for the dairy. Here is the happy result of my experimentation:

Sweet Potato, Maple, and Coconut Pie with a Pecan Crust

For the Crust:

3/4 cup oatmeal (quick oats are fine)
3/4 pecans
6 tablespoons brown sugar
3 - 4 tablespoons neutral-flavoured vegetable oil

In the bowl of a food processor process the oatmeal and pecans until finely ground. Add the brown sugar and combine. Add just enough oil to make the mixture clump together when you squeeze it with your fingers. Press the mixture into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie pan.

The filling:

2 large or 3 small sweet potatoes (often labeled yams in Canada)
1 cup coconut milk (shake the can or process in blender or food processor)
1/2 cup dark maple syrup
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (preferably freshly ground)
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamon (preferably freshly ground)

Heat the oven to 425 F. Roast the sweet potatoes for 40 minutes to an hour or until they can be pierced easily with a fork. Allow to cool slightly and peel. Place them in the bowl of a food processor and puree until completely smooth. Measure out 2 cups (save the rest to use in soup). Scrape the pumpkin into a mixing bowl and add the remaining ingredients.

Whisk until smooth and pour into the prepared nut crust. You may have some filling left over - pour it into oiled custard cups and bake alongside the pie for post pie-baking snack (they'll take 20 - 30 minutes).

Reduce the oven temperature to 375 and bake the pie for 45 minutes to one hour or until it is slightly puffed around the sides but still jiggles a little in the centre. Allow to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate. Decorate the top with candied or toasted pecans. (I tossed the pecans in a bit of sugar, cinnamon, and oil and baked them at 300 until they were toasted).

I really like this pie. The maple flavour was subtle, the coconut not too overpowering, and the balance of spices was just about right. The crust held together much better than I thought it would. It's a keeper!

Simple Pleasures

There's nothing like a year-long mystery illness to make you appreciate the simple things in life. These days I find myself feeling grateful for everything - cooking a meal, hanging the laundry, baking a loaf of bread, or pulling a few weeds in the garden all seem like small miracles.

Before I got sick I think I was becoming jaded about food. We're spoiled for choice here on the West Coast. In Vancouver there are so many world-class restaurants, representing virtually every kind of cuisine - and much of it is reasonably priced. New restaurants open up almost every week - from opulent temples of molecular gastronomy to local hash houses (and a few of the other kind of hash house, too). It's almost monotonous in its variety. Having a seriously restricted diet forces you to retrain your palate and really taste food again. You can't rely on butter, cream or culinary pyrotechnics to cover up inferior ingredients.

The chicken stew I cooked last week is a good case in point. The ingredients were simple: free-range chicken, onions, garlic, celery, carrots, rutabaga, potatoes and a few herbs - and that's it! No wine, stock or tomatoes, just a cup or so of water to form the sauce.

All the components tasted entirely of themselves and it was one of the best things I'd eaten in a long while. It didn't hurt that all of the ingredients except the celery were local.

A few days later I was inspired by a blog post by David Lebowitz to make eggplant caviar. I picked up some gorgeous eggplants from my friend Dana and smoked them on the Big Green Egg.

A handful of other ingredients including some roasted Gabriola garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and parsley were pureed together in the food processor.

I finished it with a sprinkling of Piment d'Espelette (a mistake I'm afraid - I know I'll be struck down by lightning for saying this, but the Piment d'Espelette, for all it's cachet, tasted a bit like the red pepper flakes in a Knorr dried soup package). I served the caviar d'aubergine with some market vegetables and toasted baguette slices. The fanciest baba ganoush couldn't hold a candle to it.

Saturday Market

There are days when I feel like pinching myself - I'm so lucky to live in a place like this. I went to the market on Saturday with my camera and was thrilled to see so many people there. It was Wine Festival day and many people had arrived at the venue early to do some shopping before the serious drinking began.

The balance between produce,

prepared food,

and crafts, was just about perfect. One of the more famous markets in the Gulf Islands has recently become craft-heavy and somewhat precious. The last time I was there it was difficult to find food amongst all the chachkas, and the little produce that was available was expensive. Locals were a bit thin on the ground, too. Our market has become a real magnet for islanders and it's a good place to catch up on gossip and have a cup of coffee with friends. Tourists are always made to feel welcome, too. It's really come a long way in the last five years.

Another Island

I don't know whether or not it is a universal experience for all island dwellers but when I travel I find myself inexplicably drawn to other islands. For a number of years I had my eye on a vacation rental on one of the outer islands in the Venetian lagoon, called Mazzorbo (or more properly Mazzorbetto, as the island in question was accessible only by small boat from Mazzorbo). In October of 2005 the planets were aligned and we were finally able to make the trip. The house was far from the Venetian crowds but close enough to make it an easy day trip. To get there we took the vaporetto from Venice to Mazzorbo (about 20 minutes), walked across the island, and jumped into our boat (included with the rental) for the 3-minute crossing to Mazzorbetto. The wooden boat was charming but barely seaworthy - one morning we had to paddle across the canal when the engine stubbornly refused to start.

The house had been a monastery at one time and the supporting walls were over 1000 years old. They were literally crumbling before our eyes - every morning we swept up little piles of dust that had accumulated on the floor and furniture.

One of our neighbours, the farmer who cultivated the fields behind the house, showed us a 400 year-old map that clearly depicted a thriving community of homes and churches, but when we were there only a handful of buildings remained, some of them abandoned. The desk drawer in the hallway held a treasure trove of ancient majolica shards that the owner had excavated in the back yard.

We did our shopping on the neighbouring island of Burano which was accessible by a pedestrian bridge from Mazzorbo.

There was a small supermarket for basics, a wonderful fish market (where the fishmonger let us sample some raw razor clams), and a few vegetable stalls. We generally went out for lunch in Venice or one of the other islands and came back to the villa to cook dinner.

Our not-so-trusty boat took us to Torcello, Venice's first settlement, and San Francesco del Deserto, an island monastery visited by Saint Francis in 1220, where an impossibly handsome and stylish monk took us on a tour. But we didn't dare take it into Venice with all the gondolas, water taxis, vaporetti and private boat traffic there.

I have long been an advocate of choosing vacation apartments or house rentals over hotels. There is no better way to get a true feeling of the culture and daily rhythm of life of any place you choose to visit. And there are extraordinary things that can happen when you're living in a typical neighbourhood that would be impossible if you were staying in a hotel. On Mazzorbetto my husband befriended our neighbour Bruno, one of the last people still fishing in the Venetian lagoon. Bruno invited him to go out fishing with him one morning. The trip was a resounding success, particularly from Bruno's perspective - he caught a large (and increasingly rare) fish that he was able to sell at a premium. In a strange twist that can only occur in a place where people truly appreciate and eat local food we were served Bruno's prize fish in the restaurant where we had dinner that night, Al Gatto Nero on Burano.

There was only one slight down side to this trip - the mosquitos! The house came with an arsenal of mosquito-killing products and although normally I try to avoid chemical insect repellents I was happy to use them all. I guess it's no surprise that the word "malaria" comes from the Italian (meaning "bad air").

After we left Mazzorbetto I dreamed about it for months: dreams about boats and water and canals. We had planned to go back but sadly, when I emailed the owner, he told me that the house had been sold and was not longer available for rent. You can still stay on Mazzorbo though, a new hotel called Venissa has just been opened by the prosecco maker Bisol.

In case I've enticed you into renting a house in Italy, I just happened to have written a book on the subject. You can read about it here and buy it here.

Soba Sushi

When I lived in Japan there were many traditional summer foods that I craved when the temperature started to rise: dishes like hiyayakko, cold soft tofu with ginger, green onions and soy, or somen, thin wheat noodles served on ice with a dipping sauce flavored with shiso and green onion. But my favourite was zaru soba, a tangle of cold buckwheat noodles scattered with strips of nori and served on a bamboo tray called a zaru. I ate them almost every day, gently dipping the noodles into the wasabi-spiked sauce and slurping them enthusiastically in true Japanese fashion. In the Tokyo heat (and without any air conditioning in my apartment) it was often the only thing I had any appetite for.

Yesterday, my friend (and fellow food blogger) Dan invited us to a party on his gorgeous sea-view deck and asked us to bring an appetizer. Zaru soba was the first thing that came to mind, but I thought that serving a dish that needed plates, bowls, and chopsticks would be unwieldy for a cocktail-style party. That's when Elizabeth Andoh came to the rescue. In her brilliant book, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Kitchen, I found a recipe for "soba sushi", an inspiring alternative. The soba noodles were spread out on nori sheets along with cucumber strips, radish sprouts, and sesame seeds and rolled up and sliced just like sushi, making perfectly manageable two-bite morsels - genius!

One of the most difficult tasks for a food writer is to describe a complicated technique to the reader and make it understandable without resorting to a series of drawings or photos. Mrs. Andoh took what could have been a very complex and frustrating procedure and made it simple. I've made plenty of rolled sushi (when I worked at a Japanese restaurant in Vancouver) but I think even a beginner could tackle this.

The key to success with these rolls is to tie the noodles together into bundles to keep them straight and untangled. I boiled the bundles in a shallow wide pot and used a chopstick to separate the noodles. They were rinsed in cold water, blotted on a kitchen towel and laid out on plastic wrap to wait for the assembly process.

The noodles were laid out on top of the nori, the first bunch placed so that the tied end was hanging over the right side and the second bunch with the tied end on the left. I scattered the cucumber, radish sprouts and sesame seeds over the top and then clipped off the tied ends and strings.

Rolling was a snap. The finished rolls were wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in the fridge until just before we left for the party.

Each roll was sliced into six pieces and arranged on a plate. They were served with a simple dipping sauce made from dashi (japanese broth), soy sauce, mirin, a bit of sugar, and wasabi paste. Although the day wasn't quite as warm as we had hoped the "soba sushi" was a big hit and I wouldn't hesitate to make it again. It was a wonderful party. The food that everyone brought was delicious and it was great to reconnect with friends that I hadn't seen in almost a year.

Farmers' Market and a Simple Supper in Parchment

This year I decided not to have a stall at the farmers' market. I literally burned myself out last summer - I caught some sort of a strange virus in August that I'm still recovering from. The doctors (I saw about a dozen) were never able to determine what it was and most of them said helpful things like, "You'll probably get better." or "This thing should run its course but we really can't say for sure." Well, it's been almost a year and I can finally see that there will be an end to my fatigue and digestive distress and I'm feeling pretty grateful to have come through it in one piece.

I took my first trip to the market last Saturday and it was great fun to be there as a shopper. I found some gorgeous new potatoes, carrots and artichokes (the bell pepper in the picture is just there as "lipstick" and the asparagus was from California - I couldn't resist - it was cheap!)

The woman with the flowers was there again and I picked up this bouquet for a few dollars. The vase is an incised French shell casing from World War I known as "trench art". I bought it for fifty cents at a garage sale.

We had picked up some halibut cheeks before getting on the ferry on Friday so I decided to invite a few friends over for dinner. I wanted to keep things simple - I wrapped the fish and vegetables in parchment and boiled a few potatoes to serve alongside. Baking in parchment is a wonderful way to coax the natural flavours out of food and I absolutely love this style of cooking. I placed a long piece of baker's parchment on a sheet pan and arranged all the ingredients in one layer over the top (I had blanched the carrots for about three minutes beforehand). I seasoned everything with a bit of olive oil, soy sauce and thin slices of onion and ginger.

I covered it in another length of parchment and sealed it well. It baked at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.

A sprinkling of fresh parsley was all that was needed for a final touch. It tasted like the essence of summer!

For the Love of Laundry

We should all do what in the long run gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry.
E.B. White

I have never considered myself a particularly domestic person. House cleaning just frustrates me (you mean after all that work, I'm going to have to do it all again in a week?), ironing seems pointless, and three-meals-a-day cooking is tedious. But I love doing laundry. I love the piles of clean clothes with their promise of good things to come - a fresh start to every day.

But laundry isn't really laundry unless you hang the clothing out to dry. There is nothing like the smell or crisp feel of line-dried sheets when you crawl into bed at the end of a exhausting day. Sadly, North America is one of the few places in the world where energy guzzling dryers are considered indispensable - and dryers are second only to refrigerators in power consumption.

I come by my laundry lust honestly. My grandfather was the laundry hanger in the family and took great pride in his skill. Neighbors in their small Norwegian-Canadian community were judged by the orderliness of their laundry lines. I don't think he would approve of my profligate use of clothespins, though. I don't like the little spot that stubbornly refuses to dry when you clip one item to another.

When we moved to our house on the island I was delighted to find a laundry line strung between an arbutus tree and the corner of the house. I could look out over the ocean while hanging the clothes and the breezes would dry them in just a couple of hours. The only thing that didn't change during the renovation was the location of the laundry line.

In Japan, bedding is hung out to dry along with clothing but the sight of futons on the line is becoming increasingly rare as regular beds take their place in people's homes. When I lived in Tokyo I always dreaded laundry day. We didn't have a washing machine so we had to use the laundromat down the street. There was an underwear thief in the neighborhood who would sneak in when no one was around and steal my unmentionables. You also had to be careful leaving laundry out for too long in Tokyo - after more than twelve hours the clothing had to be rewashed.

Italians are also very particular about the way they hang their laundry. It's always very orderly and elegantissimo. One wouldn't dare present a brutta figura by displaying a sloppy clothes line. God forbid you should hang a sock from the cuff rather than the toe or place a bra between two towels.

The word that best describes the laundry hanging style in Shanghai is "exuberant". Laundry literally hangs everywhere; from the trees, the lamp posts, power lines, and road signs. The municipal government there has been on a campaign recently to try to convince people to keep their laundry inside for the duration of Expo (to little effect).

After enlightenment, the laundry.
Zen proverb