A PRACTICE OF COOKING
My first home with Sean, the man who would later become my husband, was a light-bathed, third-floor walkup just off the main drag of a decent-sized city in southern Ontario—the city where he was born, but a place I’d only visited. The apartment had a postage stamp for an entry, a sliver of a kitchen, a large living room, two bedrooms, one bath, and a balcony that ran the length of the place. Tall windows lined that same side, windows wider than my arms could stretch, with sills deep enough for a row of succulents to sit in matched white pots. My favorite seat in the house was at the end of a couch closest to those windows, through which a massive maple tree would stain the sunlight turmeric come autumn.
I miss those windows.
From that apartment, we could walk to the grocery store, to the lakeshore, and to the coffee shop, and Sean could walk to work. It was a good neighborhood.
Our preferred pub was a block away, a smallish place that was decidedly British in its leanings. The room was perpetually dim. The deep banquettes were burgundy velvet with button-tufted backs, and the tables were glossy wood atop heavy iron bases. The walls were crammed, frame to mismatched frame, with horse racing, football, and royal memorabilia. It was the kind of place where on your second visit, the staff would remember you from your first. Besides fish and chips, bangers and mash, and a decent chicken tikka, that pub made the best burger around. It came charred on the outside and juicy at its middle, garnished with thick-cut bacon, cheddar, iceberg lettuce, and a generous slice of beefsteak tomato. Pickles were served on the side. I miss those burgers, too.
Choosing that apartment was probably one of the easiest, and smartest, decisions I’ve ever made. Aside from choosing the person I shared it with, of course. That apartment was where everything began.
For the first time in my life I felt like I was making a home rather than playing at it. In the domestic division of duties, I took over our kitchen. I was comfortable in the tiny galley space and found a specific sense of fulfillment in being in charge of it.
The trouble was, after furnishing it with pots and pans and crisp tea towels, I had no idea what to do in that room. I had no idea what to cook.
I knew how to cook. I grew up in what could only be called a food-loving family, after all; a family that discussed lunch at breakfast and planned road trip routes around where we wanted to eat along the way. My maternal grandmother, who stayed with us often, kept notebooks on the coffee table for scribbling down recipes from the cooking shows on PBS. My mother collected crockery. She and my father held unforgettable dinner parties, with Mum chic in pearls and wearing perfume. She’d have cooked for hours, and there was a bubbling excitement in the reveal of what she had made. Dad would fill up the ice bucket and polish the silver. Ours was the house, and the kitchen, at the center of celebrations with both friends and family.
My childhood was one without culinary boundaries. My parents had moved to Canada, specifically Montréal, only a handful of years before my older brother was born (I was born soon after). They were originally from India—my mother from the north, and my father from the south. From my birth to about when I was fourteen, we often journeyed back to India to visit. My mother’s and my father’s side each had differing culinary traditions; there was tandoori chicken, idlis and sambar, rassam, chapatis, thali meals, and pani puri, as well as shepherd’s pie and Yorkshire puddings my maternal grandmother adored. (Through her my family has an Anglo-Indian connection, the particulars of which are unfortunately unknown.) When I was two years old, we moved from Québec to Ontario. Our next-door neighbors, the Roganos, had two daughters, and later a third, with the middle daughter my age and my best friend for all the years we lived side by side. They were Italian. And so, in between the masala dosas and sausage rolls at home, I’d be over at their house, asking for seconds of chicken scaloppini and licking Nutella off a spoon.
We were also a Canadian family. I knew that my hometown had the best bagels. Mum would make Buffalo chicken wings and egg drop soup, and one time she made a cheesecake crowned with a pile of cherries and a golden graham cracker crust that climbed all the way up the sides. I recall how the fresh, dairy tang of the cheese was set off by the tart fruit, lush and bathed in thick syrup. I thought no other dessert could be more beautiful. At Thanksgiving we’d have a proper roast turkey with all the trimmings and mutton pilau.
It was a childhood where cooking was part of our daily routine, and the kitchen was where we hung out.
I have cooked for as long as I can remember. The food I first made was often outside of my family’s canon—I’d wager it was my way of feeling independent. I “invented” pizza sandwiches in elementary school and assembled casseroles with canned soup as the featured ingredient. I took on cookies and cakes in high school, and fine-tuned my Pavlova in university.
After university came the next stage of my adult life, the first I truly shared with another. And so I began to think about the food we liked. I wanted to establish the way I cooked, the flavors that intrigued our palates, and the recipes that might slowly become our regulars.
The idea of we, not me alone, was another thing altogether. At the time, Sean didn’t like onions, the first ingredient in so many Indian recipes. I, on the other hand, held a years-old prejudice against mushrooms—one of his favorite foods. Sean’s family has been in Canada for generations, with Irish and English roots, and the tastes to match. It was through the Ralphs and O’Bradys that I was introduced to the nuanced merits of an exceptional butter tart, one with a pastry that’s both sturdy and flaky, and the filling firm enough not to ooze. In their company I ate a particular pasta salad, ice cream sandwiches made with fresh waffles, and a cake that had sliced apples standing on end in concentric circles, like edible dominoes, in a clafoutis-like batter.
Sean brought an entire food history to our home, one drastically different from my frame of reference. However, as much as my upbringing shaped me, my way of cooking and my tastes weren’t that of my parents, not exactly. Neither were Sean’s that of his. Deciding our food would be an act of both negotiation and discovery.
I strode as confidently as I could into the uncharted wilds of our kitchen. I wanted to be able to improvise, to master the culinary witchcraft that allows a true cook to whip up something delicious from seemingly nothing, to tell if bread dough has enough flour by feel and if a loaf is properly cooked by sound, or to check if a cake is baked by eye, and to judge by the smell of butter that it is browned and not burnt—tricks only learned by doing.
I culled sources for advice on what should fill fridge and pantry; I compiled a catalog of equipment to keep on hand and ingredient combinations that worked together.
I started to cook. Not every day at first—that pub on the corner was still our usual reward on Friday nights, and the diner down the way was our destination come Sunday mornings—but I cooked a lot. I cooked from memory, advice, magazines, books, the Internet, and television shows.
I tried recipes printed on the backs of food packages and flour sacks and in promotional materials they gave away at the grocery store checkout. I made yogurt the way my mother did, leaving it overnight in the oven with the interior light on. I made peanut butter cookies to fill a jar on the counter, fiddling with the ratio of sugars and honey with each batch until I settled on the best combination of chew and crunch. I tested and tasted my tomato sauce until it was close to Mrs. Rogano’s of my memory. I made cinnamon buns that were a spectacular bomb one Christmas morning. I volunteered a dish for every office party and potluck. We held our first dinner party.
Sean learned to like onions, and I came around to mushrooms.
At some point in that tiny kitchen, I fell in step with the rhythm of cooking. I learned which spices I wanted at arm’s reach, which knife felt right in my hand, and the vinegars that were most useful. The kitchen shelves filled up. I made fewer lists, instead taking more notes. I noticed the way oil spreads and shimmers in a hot pan, how a fresh egg slips thickly from its shell. I didn’t just cook; I became a cook.
One year into living in that apartment, I started a blog called Seven Spoons, so named for a number that seems to pop up in my life quite often and, well, spoons sounded nice with it. It would be my modern-day recipe file, a place to keep all the scraps of cookery knowledge I was collecting.
Seven Spoons was a chronicle of what was going on in our kitchen and, by extension, our lives. It granted me a space to work through the emerging opinions I was developing about food and cooking, and was my way of offering the newly established online food community a seat at our table.
These days, ten years from that apartment and since Seven Spoons began, my life is quite different. Sean and I bought our first house, and had our first son (Benjamin), then moved to our second house, and had our second son (William). There are a million and one directions in my waking hours, but I find there’s a welcome habit in cooking, in the routines of the kitchen around which our lives revolve. It’s what gets us going in the morning and brings us back together each night.
Blurry Sunrise Smoothie
This tie-dyed smoothie sounds a little like it belongs on a Tiki bar menu instead of as a breakfast offering. Still, the moniker, inspired by how the golden and fuchsia layers blend into each other, amuses my children and me, so there’s that.
If raw beet isn’t appealing, go ahead and steam, roast, or even microwave it until barely tender, then chill before using here. The aim is to soften the flavor of the beet, without cooking the life out of it. For extra color and kick, include a spoonful of Golden Honey Elixir (page 62) when buzzing the carrot.
If you don’t have a high-powered blender, the beet and carrot may be need to be grated rather than chopped.
2 navel oranges, peeled
1 red beet, scrubbed well and chopped
1 cup (105 g) fresh or frozen raspberries
1-inch (2.5 cm) piece ginger, peeled and chopped in half
Very cold water, as needed
1 cup (185 g) fresh or frozen chopped mango
1 carrot, scrubbed well and chopped
Break 1 orange into segments and add to the carafe of an upright blender. Puree. Add the beet, raspberries, and 1 piece of ginger, and blitz again. Add cold water to get the blade moving if necessary. Divide between 2 glasses.
To the same blender, add the remaining 1 orange in pieces, followed by the mango, then the carrot, and the second piece of ginger. Puree, once again adding cold water as needed. Tilt one of the filled glasses and carefully pour half of the carrot smoothie over the top the beet (this will give a slant to the layers). Do the same with the second serving, then use a straw or chopstick to swirl the layers. Sip away.