I don’t know a woman who has not struggled with body-image issues.
For my part, in my adult life I have largely avoided the weight (or, more accurately, weight-loss) fixation that seems so commonplace in our culture, but I am by no means immune, especially since having my children:
It took me two years to lose the 90-plus pounds (yes, you read that right) that I gained while pregnant with my daughter; and, nearly three years in, I am still working at shedding the last of the (considerably less, thankfully) weight that I gained while carrying my son.
In both cases, I was aware but largely unconcerned about the impact of my post-baby girth until one too many well-meaning comments penetrated my maternal bliss enough to make me want to get moving – not so much because I was displeased with how I looked (although I do cringe a little, looking at the photos from those times) but because I began to feel vulnerable and a little bit ill-treated; and at some point it occurred to me, humiliatingly, that my outward appearance was no longer an accurate reflection of – well – me.
I won’t burden you with the details of the resulting lifestyle choices (that very phrase being one of the most narcolepsy-inducing I know), but if you know me at all by now, you will be aware that, no matter that I am nearing forty and lead a generally responsible adult life, self-denial at the table is not – and has never been – my strong suit.
So instead, I try to get out running as often as I can.
I am not very sporty, and I don’t much like being around other people, so running suits me well: music blaring, lost in thought, unhinged from my daily responsibilities, I come home from a run bursting with a happiness that feels almost reckless.
The way I see it, there are at least two happy side effects to all of this (and no, lest anyone tell you otherwise, the hard work etc. is not its own reward): the first is that I have made peace with my park.
The second is that I believe that my daily run makes me a kinder person, or at least a more tolerant one.
(I know for a fact that it makes me easier to live with – as evidenced by the fact that my husband will, if I am lingering grumpily around the house on a given morning, ask me in the same slightly impatient tone he uses with our children when they are being particularly unreasonable, “are you running today?”)
Even given all of that, though, I don’t always love it. I will gratefully welcome an excuse to skip it, and wander down the road to join all of my neighbours for a latte instead. On those days, rather than the large lingering lunch that might be my preference, I pour myself a glass of Perrier and eat things like this.
Feast or Famine? A Summer Salad
I am not a fan of the leaf-heavy, hair-shirt-y salad; in fact, that I consider this a healthy lunch is perhaps a more telling insight into my daily diet than I intended – all that’s missing is the bacon! – but there’s only so much I’m willing to do.
For the salad, gently toss the following together in a large bowl:
2 pints grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise
1c canned black beans, well rinsed
2 tbsp capers
1 1/2 lightly packed basil leaves, finely chopped
1/3c pine nuts, toasted and cooled
175g feta, cubed
For the dressing, whisk together until emulsified:
1 tsp dijon
4 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/4c extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp umami paste (optional – I recently discovered this stuff and I love it! Anchovy paste – or even nothing at all – would be a fine substitute)
fresh ground pepper
Pour dressing over salad and toss gently.
Serves two very hungry people, or four moderate eaters, or six as part of a larger spread.
For me, pickling conjures up visions of charming country kitchens, steaming pots, banging screen doors, and faded Liberty print housedresses; row upon row of shiny jars packed with bright, tasty things to spice up the dreary winter ahead.
At this time of year especially, that vision of industry, tradition and simplicity has its appeal.
Of course, it’s totally a fantasy: despite my attempts at various other incarnations over the years, I am a city girl through and through, completely and happily entrenched in city life, not bound to tradition, and not terribly industrious either – especially when the task at hand involves the kind of repetition that home canning demands.
I am also not a fan of making things in bulk, so, much like life in that country kitchen, those rows upon rows of jars would drive me a little crazy after a very short time.
(And did I mention that I don’t even really love pickles?)
And yet – and yet! – the fantasy remains.
These two (delicious, bright, and easy) salads are the closest I will come this year, but they will, in my mind’s eye, almost get me there.
Slightly Pickled Carrot and Peanut Salad
I should warn you that neither of these salads keeps particularly well over night, so don’t plan for leftovers.
1/4c white wine vinegar
1/4c olive oil
1 tsp sesame oil
6 medium carrots, thinly sliced
3/4c salted peanuts
Whisk together vinegar and oils in the bottom of a large non-reactive bowl (I use a Pyrex mixing bowl).
Add carrots and toss well. Leave 3-4 hours, if you can!
Add peanuts just before serving, and toss well.
Slightly More Pickled Zucchini Salad
4 medium zucchini, thinly sliced
1/2c white vinegar
1/4c brown sugar
2 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh chives
Place zucchini in a large non-reactive bowl (I use a Pyrex mixing bowl). Add 1/4c of the vinegar, 2 tbsp of the sugar, and 1 tsp of the salt, and toss well. Let sit at least an hour or two, then turn zucchini out into a colander and drain well.
Return zucchini to bowl and toss with remaining vinegar, sugar, and salt. Add chives and toss well.
Each salad serves 4-6, depending on what else is on offer. Faded housedress optional.
I use the term “my garden” fairly loosely, since it will soon belong to someone else – which is why it is so overgrown.
I have no complaints about the mint and chives, though – they are two of my favourites, and I am happy to have them in abundance, at least for the time being (my new garden is lovely and lush, but also very well-ordered; so, for this growing season, anyway, there will be no invasive herbs running amok).
Between the mint and the heat, our meals have been largely inspired by the Mediterranean – a lot of grilling, quite a lot of olive oil and garlic, some rosemary, some lamb.
I am now at the point of almost constantly fantasizing about my new kitchen and all of the things that will happen in it: long, lingering conversations, slow cooked dinners, multi-course breakfasts (really!).
But until we get there, the order of the day is meals in minutes.
I am aiming generally for luscious, robust things that will fill me and cheer me, and can be made in the amount of time it would otherwise take to scoop some ice cream into a bowl.
I found this dish fit the bill admirably.
Lunch in minutes
I used a grilled eggplant leftover from a previous meal, which is why this took so little time for me to cobble together; but if you don’t happen to have any leftovers on hand, the grilling only adds a few minutes to your prep time.
1 medium eggplant, sliced crosswise and grilled
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh chives
3 tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
1/4c extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp wine vinegar
100g feta, crumbled
Cut grilled eggplant slices into cubes.
Combine all ingredients in a large salad bowl , toss gently, and serve.
Serves 4, as a side dish
I nearly couldn’t eat them – I was so taken by their beauty that I just wanted to sit and stare.
I gazed at them on every lovely surface I could come up with (the white stove top, the pale blue platter, the yellow tablecloth, the green couch).
I sniffed them: they smelled like the memory of a garden from childhood.
Aren’t they gorgeous? Days later, I am still rapturous at the very thought of them.
After ogling them for a while longer and spending considerable time deciding how best to enjoy them, I made this sauce.
Then everyone in my family ate it.
And that, friends, is why I love food.
Fabulous Sauce from Fabulous Tomatoes
This is one of my favourite simple no-cook pasta sauces, but it also makes a great salad if, like I did recently, you discover partway through your preparations that there is no pasta to be had in the house. This is also one of the rare times when I have to insist that you use the best olive oil you can get.
3-4 large heirloom tomatoes
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp sea salt
freshly ground pepper
1/2 good quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp finely chopped chives
2 tbsp finely chopped basil
1 (340g) ball mozzarella, cut into small-ish cubes
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Lightly score each tomato with a sharp knife, then plunge the tomatoes into the boiling water (you may need to do this in batches) for just a minute or two, to facilitate peeling.
Scoop the tomatoes out of the water and peel them, then cut each tomato in half and remove the seeds. Core and coarsely chop tomatoes.
Place tomatoes in a large, non-reactive mixing bowl and toss gently with sugar, salt, and a few grindings of pepper. Let sit at room temperature a minimum of two hours, and as many as eight.
When nearly ready to serve (ie. while your pasta is boiling), add chives, basil and mozzarella to tomatoes and toss gently.
Makes sauce for about 450g of pasta, or salad for six.
She and I are in similar circumstances: our kids are the same age, and neither of our husbands is often around during the dinner hour. We are also both, at the moment, living without air conditioning; and it has been very, very hot and humid in our city these past couple of weeks.
We were discussing the indignity of having to get dinner on the table when it’s 30 degrees both inside and out and you’re outnumbered by your children, and our conversation went something like this:
Me: You know, I am so tired and hungry by that point in the day that I can’t cope with making a salad. And I refuse to turn on the stove. I’m embarrassed to tell you how many nights we’ve had the cereal supper in our house this past week alone.
My Friend: I know, it’s too much. Although I will eat a salad, as long as it has lots of cheese in it.
Me: Oh, I love cheese in a salad. And croutons.
My Friend: And nuts.
Me: And a side of sausage.
As grateful as I was to learn that I am not the only one who struggles with the dinner hour these days, I do recognize that, heat wave or no, the cereal supper is not something every mother would like to commit to on a long-term basis.
(I’d like to mention at this point that I used to love hot weather, and I have not had air conditioning my entire adult life. Hot weather, for me, used to mean cold bubble baths and dinners that consisted of drinks on ice.
Since having my children, though, I find that when the heat is on, nobody in our house sleeps well through the night; we move through the days with our energy sapped; and we find excuses to spend time in our climate-controlled car.
In fact, these days, I find that too much hot weather makes me a little angry.)
However, I think I may have come up with a reasonable alternative. Since discovering this recipe (thank you, Sara!), I have made it three times, varying it a little each time. The one you see here is my favourite so far – side of sausage optional.
Adapted from Culinerapy
1/2c red wine vinegar
1/2c extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground pepper to taste
2 bunches asparagus, trimmed
1c roasted walnuts, chopped
1 1/2c crumbled feta
In a large bowl, whisk together vinegar, oil, and salt & pepper. Chop asparagus crosswise, and add to bowl along with walnuts and feta.
Refrigerate a couple of hours before serving.
We all joke that discussing the forecast is one of our national pastimes, and I’ve noticed lately that I actually am one of those cliched Canadians whose conversational gambits often begin and end with, “Isn’t it a [insert appropriate adjective here] day?”
It’s not the worst thing to talk about, but I could do with some new subject matter.
The trouble is, I have not been keeping up well with the news lately; I know nothing about sports; and my taste in music is both un-current and probably a little pedestrian to anyone who might actually like to talk about music with me.
Of politics in my city I know shamefully little, and I am late to register my daughter for school in the fall, so I avoid that subject at all costs.
I do love to shop, but the various vintage treasures that I’ve unearthed at bargain prices may not be of interest to everyone I meet – and besides, I have declared a pre-move moratorium on acquisitions (and how that is going for me is the stuff of a whole other epic conversation).
So you can see why, at a loss for small talk, I drift back to my old reliable, the weather.
Aside from the polite innocuousness of weather-related chat, discussing the forecast also offers the opportunity to segue into my absolute favourite topic, which is, as you have no doubt realized by now, what I am going to eat next.
And today, because it is a beautiful May day, that happens to be the salad you see here.
adapted from Food and Wine
I actually made this over the weekend, but it makes quite a bit and it tastes better every day.
1 1/2c pearl barley
1c roasted almonds, coarsely chopped
5 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2c olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp lemon zest
1c packed Italian parsley leaves
1c crumbled feta
Cook barley in a large pot of boiling, salted water until tender, about 20-25 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water to cool. Shake out excess water.
Meanwhile, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and lemon zest in a large bowl. Add barley, parsley, and feta and toss gently. Stir in chopped nuts, toss again, add some salt and pepper if desired, and serve.
Serves 4-6, depending on your desire for leftovers
I haven’t forgotten how it all came to be – it happened so quickly, and so recently, that it’s still very fresh in my mind – but I do marvel.
I marvel that five years ago right around now, I was single, with a very lightweight secret crush on a guy I barely knew; loving the spring weather, and thinking about spending some time in another city, just for a change of scene.
You can guess, I am sure, what the next phase looked like: my lightweight crush became my great love, and spending time in another city became moving my entire life to begin anew with that same love – who, in turn, became the father of my children and then my husband.
We’re just about to move into a new house, another brand new start for the two of us, who have been lucky enough to have many of those already in our relatively brief time together.
Before I met him, I would never have considered myself a romantic.
This is one of the first dishes I ever cooked for him, and it remains a favourite.
Once in a Lifetime Chicken and Coleslaw
This recipe is easily doubled, or tripled, for a crowd, and it’s even better the next day.
4 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp rice vinegar
6 tbsp lime juice
6 tbsp fish sauce
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp sesame oil
4 tbsp soy sauce
4 cloves garlic, crushed
700 g boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/4c finely chopped fresh mint
1 package (454g or 1 lb.) coleslaw
In a shallow bowl large enough to hold chicken pieces, whisk together sugar, vinegar, lime juice, fish sauce, olive oil and sesame oil until well combined. Remove 3/4 cup of liquid from the bowl; reserve.
To make marinade, add soy sauce and garlic to the mixture in the bowl and stir well. Add chicken pieces; toss to coat, cover, and marinade as long as you can (minimum 20 minutes, maximum 4-5 hours).
Stir mint into reserved 3/4 cup of liquid to use as dressing for the coleslaw.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Use tongs to transfer chicken pieces to a well-oiled shallow baking dish large enough to hold chicken in one layer. Bake, basting occasionally with marinade, until thighs are cooked through, 20-30 minutes. Let rest about 10 minutes before serving.
While chicken is resting, toss coleslaw with dressing.
Serves 2, generously.