In an age when technology allows us to find out almost anything with a Google search, it may seem odd to think of exchanging recipes personally with someone. But I will admit I still enjoy the chance to get a personal recipe from another cook, in their own handwriting. I have more than a few ingredient-stained pages glued in an old journal that I still cherish as one of my favourite cookbooks. It is not just the bits of ingredients on the page that adds to the magic of cooking the recipes and tasting them again and again. I think herein lies the true root of soul food.
This weekend I am making a recipe I call Best Friend Banana Bread. It’s an old favourite, one that comes from one of my best and longest-held friends, a soulmate who currently lives in England. This recipe is one she sent to me on airmail paper about 30 years ago, as one of her favourites. In those days she was living in her home country of South Africa, and had just started a family with her new husband and daughter (my goddaughter). It’s a wonderful combination of health food and decadence, and I love it for that as well as how it reminds me of my darling friend.
We have shared many great recipes over the years. I sent her my Mom’s Brown Sugar Shortbread recipe, and she sent me the one for South African Milk Tart. In my movie catering days, her recipes for bobotie and carrot cake were favourites with the crews I fed. And when she brought her family to Canada so we could share Christmas together, they were amazed at my husband cooking turkey in the BBQ, and they loved his French Canadian traditions of tourtière and bûche de Noel. Food was one of the ways that kept us connected across the miles and it added to our shared memories when we could get together.
I spent a week in England at my friend’s house 8 years ago this weekend, to catch up and join in the celebrations for her 25th wedding anniversary and my goddaughter’s 21st birthday. It was amazing to think that we had been friends almost 30 years, since my first trip to Europe. We hadn’t seen each other for 7 years, and yet as soon as I arrived, we sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and some biscuits and picked up where we left off like it had been last Sunday. I could feel my soul filling up like I had stopped in at the gas station. All week long we savoured moments, many of them around the table.
My husband and her husband shared time at the stove – hers loves to cook, and with mine being a chef the two of them are often engaged in a sort of kitchen chat. It’s a bit like that Actors Studio show, where you have this interview/conversation between an expert and an admiring and not unknowing layman. Martin shared some of his secret spice blends on that visit, and he got to see a pheasant prepared for a weeknight dinner like it was chicken. The grand finale was the men cooking Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict for the group of 12 staying at the house – all hot and perfectly cooked!
After coming back home, I felt as though I had been replenished. I posted some new recipes in the archives for her husband Vic to try – poached eggs in red wine sauce is one I know he found interesting! And Martin became a new lover of Sticky Toffee Pudding; he used Merle’s similar recipe for the South African Cape Brandy Pudding as a starting point for his own recipe which he now cooks for clients.
We met again in person a few times over recent years while they travelled but I was ever so grateful that we had a chance to stay with them in Senegal where Vic was stationed up until the end of 2019. It was another lovely opportunity to share recipes and time around the table, reminiscing about the many memories we have made together. We ate delectable African seafood and sampled coconut and mango jams with the French pastries available in Dakar, courtesy of the colonists. Merle and Vic spoiled us again.
The kitchen continues to be one of the best places to stay in touch across the world it seems, and I like the idea that our friendship might help warm some other hearts as well. Martin and I are hoping that when the world gets back to some kind of regular existence, we can finally host our friends in our kitchen here in the Okanagan and toast to our fantastic history across the miles.
Life is about moments, and enjoying them. Catching moments and hauling them in every day can be very rewarding; when you get everything right, it can be like winning the local fishing derby.
I am a cook that is inspired by circumstances. The combinations of memories and tastes move me to choose certain recipes. I suppose I am a traditional eater too; I eat seasonal ingredients and I eat what fits with the weather.
Recently we have had our annual hit of cold winter weather. The windows are all frosted up, the wind blows to chill your bones and the skies are shades of grey that swallow every other colour. The word dreary does not begin to describe the mood.
These are the times when comfort food comes to the rescue. We needed a dinner to make us forget the weather. One of those rich dishes with stick-to-your-ribs texture and simple heartwarming flavours. To kick it up a notch, I added in a childhood memory.
I was thinking of stew, but the universe intervened. My mom and I had chatted about a British pub standard and Lo and Behold, a recipe post from Paul Hollywood appeared in my feed.
My mom made a fish pie, which sounded as comforting as stew. When I read the recipe post, the sight of smoked haddock as one ingredient immediately transported me back to childhood.
When I was little, my most favourite dinner was “finnan haddie”, smoked haddock in a bechamel sauce served with toast soldiers. It is my earliest comfort food memory.
It was as much curiosity as desire to be comforted that got me shopping for the Whitby Fish Pie recipe ingredients.
I amped up the traditional filling of just fish with a bit of celery, carrots and onions sautéed first, as well as a red potato. And although simple was the theme, that didn’t mean we couldn’t have some herb flavour (a bit of our dried thyme and oregano worked wonderfully).
The best part is, this recipe is faster to prepare than a stew. Infuse milk with flavours. Make pastry and chill it. Sauté veggies, then make sauce. Add fish and warm through. Roll out pastry over top of the oven-safe pan and bake till done.
I was comforted and full of happy nostalgia. Hubbie was happily satisfied and a good sport about hearing my childhood ramblings. We forgot all about the driving wind and dreary greys.
When the conditions get ugly, that’s when you dig deep. That’s when you have to reel, and if everything falls the right way, you land the big catch.
In a world full of trends, I want to remain a classic.
Being a foodie, I’m always on the hunt for new flavours, new combinations of tastes to create and share. But I was struck by an interview I heard recently with Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi.
They spoke about the possible disservice done to us by having so many recipe options to cook. They keep publishing new recipes. We want to keep trying new things but then we never have a chance to perfect any one thing.
I will admit to falling into that pit. It can be fun to embark on a cooking adventure; but when I’ve had a few less-than-expected results in a row, I have felt discouraged. Chasing trends is a risky business.
I guess it’s like trying to wear those leg warmers when everyone is into wide leg pants. Or anytime the trend just didn’t work for you. No one needs more of that awkward feeling in their life.
When I’m feeling down, I look to set myself up for success. Before I throw in the towel and go for some kind of order-in comfort food, I look for a classic recipe I hardly need to look up to accomplish well.
Of course some of this is nostalgia. The recipes my Mom made week after week, the first ones I wrote into my now-weathered journal – those are often my go-to classics.
Mom and I have been chatting weekly since the first lockdown in March, and she reminded me of one childhood classic a few weeks ago. The reminder brought that taste top of mind, like a tickle in my nose.
And so, this week we had a classic snack with dinner. Our lovely BLTs showcasing the last few tomatoes and bit of arugula from the garden sat beside celery sticks with Cheese & Pimento. I even put the spread in one of my Dad’s handmade ceramic bowls with one of his carved wooden spreaders.
I have made all kinds of spreads, and I have dipped celery in plenty of flavours. I suppose you could argue that retro dishes have become somewhat trendy again, but this classic has been with me through its low points too.
Comfort food is a good thing. But a classic recipe gives us the chance to create a comfortable world, not just a comfortable meal.