Grainews: First We Eat – By the Book


Dave and I are writers. Every room in our house is filled with books and literary journals, framing windows and filling every shelf. Upstairs in my studio, half the room is devoted to my culinary library.  The kitchen, too, has a bookshelf, thanks to my mother.

Mom is in her early 80s. Back in the day, Mom – prairie-born, married to an Air Force man whose job took us all overseas – was a scratch cook with seven to feed on a tight budget. She came home after years in Europe with a taste for Italian breads and eggplant dishes. But cooking has fallen from her good books, and nowadays, Dad shares the honours. Just a few cookbooks are in their kitchen – all of mine, of course, plus a stained and battered 1960s-era Five Roses Cookbook, a slightly older Blue Ribbon Cookbook, James Beard on Bread, and Carol Field’s The Italian Baker.

Soon after Dave and I moved to the farm, Mom eyeballed my thousands of food books. “Just how many cookbooks do you really need?” she asked.

“I need them all!” I protested.

That lip-pursing meant she didn’t believe me. “Twenty-five.” She made a gesture of dismissal. “Put them in the kitchen and get rid of the rest.”

Her comment hit a nerve. I’d been collecting books on food – recipes, politics, history, science, culture – for decades, an outgrowth of my life as a chef and food writer. I love my books.

Mom left. I went upstairs and studied my library. What were my essentials?

I selected 25 books and shelved them in the kitchen. What made the cut? Seven books on Indian cuisine, two on breads, one on sweets, three on preservation, several Asian cookbooks, four eastern Mediterranean, one compendium of everyday French fare, one exhaustive “best-technique” collection, and one on homemade dog treats.

I kept many others upstairs, but I packed up box after box and shipped them to my sons in Calgary. I didn’t notice the absence of those discarded books, although I did observe that my shelves soon re-filled, with poetry and fiction and essays.

Recently, I borrowed Vikram Vij and Meeru Dalwala’s latest, Vij’s Indian: Our Stories, from the library and consumed it cover to cover in one sitting. “I need this one in the kitchen!” I told Dave.

“But you already have lots of Indian cookbooks,” he said, sounding reasonable but baffled.

“Yes, but I need this one!”

He knew better than to argue, and I bought a copy, promising to actively cook from it; I do – almost, flipping the pages for ideas when suppertime looms.

We all have ruts we fall into, even if, unlike my Mom, we still love cooking. Mine veers to Indian food, as you might expect, having read the list of which books made my “hot” shelf. But if I don’t open a book at least once within a few months, it migrates upstairs to library purgatory, my own version of beating the rut. Even the rut of beloved books.

The following recipe from one of my own recipe books sprang to mind as I perused Vij’s new book. For next time, I have another story to tell. But first we eat Indian-style salmon.

Curried Salmon with Spinach and Chickpeas
For a richer sauce, stir in coconut milk in place of some or all of the stock. For a vegetarian dish that hits all the right notes, omit the fish. Leftovers make great rice or pasta topping, or a divine soup.
Serves 4
1 Tbsp. cumin seeds
1 Tbsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. dried mint
1 Tbsp. gram masala or curry powder
salt and hot chili flakes to taste
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
4 5-oz. filets wild-caught salmon or steelhead
1 onion, minced
2 carrots, grated
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. grated ginger root
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup cooked chickpeas or white beans
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1-2 tsp. cornstarch dissolved in cold water
1 bunch spinach, well washed
1 Tbsp. honey
salt and hot chili flakes to taste
1 lemon, juice and zest
minced cilantro for garnish

Mix together the spices, herbs, salt, chilli flakes and oil. Smear the fish with half, then roast uncovered in a 400 F oven for 12-15 minutes, or until done. Remove to a plate and loosely cover to keep warm.

Meanwhile, cook the onion, carrots, garlic and ginger in a sauté pan with the remaining spice mix and oil until the vegetables are tender, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in the chickpeas and stock, bring to a boil and thicken with cornstarch dissolved in cold water. Add the spinach when the sauce is translucent, and quickly wilt the spinach. Adjust the seasoning with the honey, salt, pepper and lemon juice and zest. Arrange sauce on a platter and top with the salmon and cilantro. Serve hot.

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