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The Scent of Love Floating on Air…

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I want a little sugar in my bowl
I want a little sweetness down in my soul
I could stand some lovin’, oh so bad
I feel so funny, I feel so sad”
Nina Simone

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A warm wafting garlic scent intermingled with fresh tomatoes, oregano and cumin hang-glides like a heavenly wispy cloud, drifting insistently through the walls and under doors into bedrooms beckoning lovers like a magnetic force, irresistible, trance-like.

There is a sensuous beauty in cooking a scrumptious meal. Cooking… at its best… is like making delicious love while standing.

Chicken Shawarma, Aji de Gallina, Lemon Risotto, Rogan Josh, Guinness Irish Stew, Lamb Tajine, Roasted Red Pepper Lentil Soup, Moros y Cristianos, BBQ Ribs, French Onion Soup… such sweet carnal names that call out so insistent and charming.

Cooking is Patrick Swayze with his arms cozily wrapped around Demi Moore (or vice versa in my personal dream), caressing wet, slippery clay in their hands together… absorbed in the flow of warm moisture, the sinewy ooze between interlocked fingers, the light texture of warm soothing breath on the back of the neck…

Preparing a meal is foreplay where the pleasure is in the process – the cinnamon smells, the coriander tastes, the soft melding of complementary spices and oils…

There’s the lovers’ experimentation of trying this and that, seeking out a variety fun-pack where slower or faster pacing of the preparation become critical components of the whole experience… the joy of new discoveries.

And finally the moment arrives, everything is laid out in anticipatory beauty, that moment where shared pleasure heightens as we sit together as a group or face-to-face, smiling, sipping deeply-tinted Cabernet Sauvignon, nipping at summery Pinot Gris, the swirling stream of conversation weaving with the flavourful blend of colour and texture on the plate, on the fork.

Messy, noisy sucking of succulent tender meat off the rib bone and the rich feel of it melting, coating the inside of our mouths, the tangy sweetness rising through our nose hitting all the pleasure centres in the brain.

All we need to complete this delicious metaphor is a taste of something chocolatey or some other sumptuously sweet “climax” to bring the whole erotically lustful event to a satisfying finish.

A truly happy ending. With hopefully no buns left in the oven afterwards.

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Cooking is like investing or really almost everything we might do in life… each year that passes makes us more experienced, more in tune with the magic that makes it work and what doesn’t.

Fine cooking improves in our personal aging almost like a well-cellared wine.

All of the experimentation, the trials, the errors, the frustrations. And finally the successes.

You want trial and error? How about the fried rice I made at the age of 11 for a family gathering. As a young culinary neophyte, I lacked the knowledge to cook the rice in liquid first before frying – yup… CRUNCHY!!  Big Oops!

But the frequent failures blend with the successes over time… the 80:20 ratio of failure:success which was unsettling and frustrating has now flipped to a debatably 80:20 ratio of success:failure.

When my kids visit now and vocally remind me about how I’m”cooking the garbage”, I’m pretty sure they’re saying it tongue-in-cheek. Or perhaps I’m just delusional…

The 10,000 hour rule of mastery plays its part, in cooking as in our other passions.

I’ve known a few really wonderful cooks in my life beginning way back with my Mom and her incredible deep-brown caramelized roast potatoes followed by delicious flaky-crusted Northern Spy apple pies at our family Sunday night dinners.

My sister-in-law Lois was a superb cook with an amazing arsenal of ethnic food dishes learned while living in countries like Malaysia, India, Egypt and Nigeria.

My good friend Denise who, despite growing up in a British family (Brits can’t cook, can they?!), has developed a wonderful and richly-deserved reputation as a cook extraordinaire.

In the past year or two I’ve worked alongside a few other creative, skillful chefs in the Greek Restaurant where I bartend occasionally; also, even surprisingly in the soup kitchen where I do some volunteer work. I’ve discovered that great cooking doesn’t only waft in the air of kitchens in high-end spots. Passion for cooking can flow from any kitchen, any locale.

The best I can do is to watch and learn from all of those who take pride and delight in their cooking. And then mostly, I learn from cooking.

Again and again. Try this. Try that.

This flavour combination is marvellous. Oh, that one really sucks! How could I have never used fenugreek before?

I’m pretty lucky to live in a time where I have access to an amazing assortment of food ingredients. Ideas for recipes and flavour delights surround and hug me like wonderful foamy bubbles in a large bathtub.

I can prepare meals today that my parents and grandparents would never have dreamed of in their lives. Meat and potatoes are my heritage but not a major part of my current reality.

Cooking is an act of love we share with our friends, our families, our lovers.

That love may be fraternal or familial, but sometimes… when we want that sweetness down in our soul, the scents and flavours spin and whirl and twist in the spicy evening air in erotically, sensuously charged pleasures.

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Clap Along If You Feel Like Cookin’ …

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Man-cooking

This is definitely not ME! Paying close attention to recipes is not in my playbook…

Why do I feel so damned Pharrell Williams “HAPPY” when I’m cooking up a storm in the kitchen? Even if the kitchen isn’t “a room without a roof“?

What kind of a real man eschews the world of sliding under cars to manhandle greasy gaskets, or watching blood-spattered UFC supermen, to “perform” on the stage of culinary arts?

I think I must be what you would call gastrosexual.

Cooking and food – as we all know –  is really a metaphor for the warm and soft, fuzzy aspects of our lives.

Food provides calories, but isn’t just sustenance, would you agree?

Food means sharing, friendship, family, love, sex, laughter, discussion.

Throw a bottle or two of wine into the equation and it also means political arguments, RAUCOUS laughter, louder talk, dysfunctional families, wine goggles, raunchy sloppy sex.

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A typical Sunday night at my house…

……………………

Sometime during the 1980’s I remember a great heated discussion in the (now defunct) Canadian back-to-the-earth magazine Harrowsmith about the cover photo of a woman holding a hot steaming loaf of bread, fresh from the oven.

The blush and shiny glow in her cheeks hinted to some readers of a post-orgasmic flush and maybe even a hot-and-ready yeasty bun in her own personal oven.

To naive little me, it looked like a woman proudly offering up a beautiful loaf of bread, but I’ll admit that sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar. Yes, once again, sex rules the media, and it’s everywhere.

Switching to the movies, one of my favourite “family” cooking scenes from cinema comes from none other than big John Candy and little Macaulay Culkin in Uncle Buck.

Whenever my kids are home and I’m stirring and chopping away in the kitchen, inevitably, one of them will whisper the classic line loudly, “Dad’s cooking our garbage“.

Now you might prefer the more serious-toned Julie and Julia for your film cooking chops. This is all well and good but makes cooking and cuisine a job to be wrestled into an organized round of beginning, middle, and end.

DING, the round is over … the recipe has been followed exactly … there, done!

Damn, forgive me. I keep getting sidetracked from the message I’m here to talk about today.

Which is … that I have a different approach to edible art.

The Alternate Zen of Cooking

Aside from the obvious connections between cooking food and family and love in its various forms … for me, cooking also means musical themes, and exploration and travel.

How so, you ask?

Cooking can be regimented and stiff, or, if you’re like me, free-form like jazz.

I know that for some, food preparation is a rote symphony – you measure every quarter note and 1/4 cup to the T… you place every rest and teaspoon in its perfect momentary place. The cuisinary maestro is to be strictly adhered to for the music and vittles to sound and taste so sweet. This is fine, I suppose.

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In Marrakesh, Morocco, Karina ensures I measure everything for a Tagine dish just so …

I was told by Karina, my cooking guide in Morocco this spring to:

 Respect the Recipe”

Bahhhh… I want to play my cooking-style like uplifting jazz, using a recipe only as a guideline where a list of ingredients is important but amounts vary from time to time, and my imagination allowed to summon up a flavour that I favour on that day.

More lemon today, more ginger tomorrow, less oregano and cumin this time around. Maybe quinoa in place of rice.

Cooking is like playing in the sandbox with the kids, it’s fun and learning all mixed together in an agreeable mess.

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Lugme, a delightful Cusco friend, stacks our freshly-baked guinea pigs into a container for the short walk back home from the community oven … a tasty Peruvian delicacy…

A wonderful bonus of today’s connected world is the availability of ingredients from every region of the world, all of the time.

Any day of the week, I can choose to eat Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, French, Spanish, Caribbean, Hawaiian, or whatever style of food you can name with one quick visit to the local supermarket.

Is this a great world, or what?

I can hear you already. You might believe strongly in the 100-Mile Diet.  I get it. I want the local grower to do well too. But, I figure that the peasant farmer in Quillabamba, Peru or Wenchang, China or Ladysmith, South Africa deserves a livelihood as much as my friendly orchardist down the road. I support both. ‘Nuff politics, OK?

Even if I’m not travelling, cooking transports me to other worlds and exotic locales.

A special meal is like catching a plane and taking a vacation in your own home – a STEAK’ation if you will.

We can create recipe sex in our own homes where Thai meets Italian meets Brazilian and an incredible taste explodes for us like an atomic bomb in our mouths.

But at some point I grow tired of staring at the map on the wall and making dishes from afar.

The true measure of great cooking, eating, and enjoyment is to settle in the dust of the region where that food originated.

Just put a forkful (or chapati-full, or chopstick-full) of locally-cooked, flavour-laden food where the street sounds and smells encircle you … music floating on the evening air… then close your eyes and absorb all that surrounds you.

Here, I’ll take you on a short cooking-style trip right now… hang on… it won’t take a lot of your time or money!

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Oscar showing us Spanish-language students in Cusco how to prepare “Ahi de Gallina”.

I’ll throw a great little Peruvian peanut-chicken stew recipe at you here from my Cusco, Peru master-chef amigo Oscar? Listen for the pan flutes playing through the thin, cool Andean air.

Oscar makes lovely gourmet-style meals for large groups using only a 2 burner propane-fired hotplate. Try this in your own kitchen and feel free to adjust the amounts.

Ahi de Gallina (Serves 6 – Oscar gave this recipe to me in Spanish, but I’ll make it a bit easier with translation)

Ingredients:

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 100 g white cheese (mozzarella or cheddar or monterey jack)
  • 1 1/2 onions
  • 4 aji peppers (any small hot pepper will do)
  • 1/4 litre milk
  • 50 g roasted, ground peanuts
  •  150 g chicken stock
  • 1 litre chicken stock
  • 150 g water crackers
  • 4 garlic cloves

Preparation:

  • Boil the chicken breasts in 2 litres water with a clove of garlic, some salt and pepper for 15 minutes
  • Drain the broth but reserve 1 litre of the cooking liquid and hand shred the chicken into small strands
  • Chop 1 onion, garlic and peppers into small pieces (remove and discard seeds from hot peppers)
  • In a large frying pan on medium heat, saute the chopped vegetables in a small splash of oil, add salt and pepper to taste
  • After a few minutes, add the milk slowly in equal portions to the crushed water crackers
  • Add cubed cheese, the peanuts, and the chicken broth and stir for a minute
  • Pour the entire mixture into a blender and liquify until smooth
  • Cut the remaining half onion into julienne strips and add to the frying pan and saute for a minute before adding in the blender mix and the shredded chicken
  • Stir over heat until it reaches the boil point and add more milk or broth for a smooth consistency
  • Serve over rice or potato, accompanied by olives and hard boiled eggs

…………………..

Now when I travel, I want to spend time in the company of local cooks and learn their magic with local traditions and foodstuffs. Few things in life bring us more warmly, more peacefully, together than cooking and sharing a meal.

And I’m just at the start of this journey. Morocco, Peru, Spain, Cuba, China, even Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories of Canada … the list will grow and recipe sex will make the spicy ambience of life a bit richer.

So it might seem crazy what I’m gonna say but I’m just gonna put on my Pharrell cooking hat and keep pirouetting and gyrating my Happy-dance as I blend the fusionary, culinary, provisionary, sometimes flavourful, sometimes disastrous kitchen concoctions and dream my way to the furthest corners of the world.

Sexy Man in the Kitchen

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SexyVegeMan

I love to cook, but it wasn’t always thus…

…turning the clock back…

There was a harmony of delicious scent when I excitedly pushed my way through my family’s back door on chilly winter Sunday afternoons.

I was still wearing the ice skates that shrouded my icicly-frozen toes. My friends Larry (yep, another Larry…to avoid confusion, he called me Lawrence, I called him Larry), Dave, Jerome, Hugh and I had just finished a game of hockey “shinny” across the road on the seasonal ice rink the city workers built for us each winter in the school park.

Mom was in the kitchen cooking, the dining room windows were hazy with steamy condensation from vegetable water boiling on the stove and all was well with the world … it just was.

From the living room, I could hear the sounds of the black and white console TV and my Dad’s raucous laughter at something a little tyke had said on “Tiny Talent Time”, a prehistoric version of the many “Idol” or “Talent” shows that litter our current TV screens. If I came in a few minutes later, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom would have a roaring lion or a soaring giraffe crossing the screen.

There were pan-roasted potatoes with a delicious salty-caramelized outer surface sizzling in the oven. A heady beef gravy smell wafted like a culinary aphrodisiac, saturating every room in the house. The dining table was set and soon an oblong ceramic dish would be laid down with large, dark slices of roast beef that occupied centre stage every Sunday evening in our house like a specially-invited dinner guest. I would feel a surge of pleasure when the plate was placed at the table.

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I’m pretty sure this is exactly what my family’s Sunday dinners looked like…

Idyllic memories aside, there were some downsides to this heaven-on-earth. Squishy piles of pumpkin-orange mashed turnips that I love so much now were a decided turnoff as were insipid soggy pale-green peas delicately served from a Green Giant tin can.

There are what we call comfort foods.

This is what I would call a comfort meal.

It was a warm, friendly, dreamlike scenario that played out once a week, every week. My parents and my brothers and sisters and maybe their partners gathered around a family table. We shared a roast beef and we shared the stories of the past week, both good and bad. This was the scene of many many middle-class WASP families in Canada of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

There were no cookbooks in sight or for that matter anywhere in the house. Food preparation was something handed down from mother to daughter with time worn recipes (sometimes hand-written on cards) that were part of the DNA of any woman worth attracting a man of substance.

But we boys and men didn’t cook. We might help out a bit on the side mashing fluffy potatoes or carrying plates to the table. And on hot summer weekend days, men held dominion over outdoor cooking on the BBQ where clouds of charcoal smoke, beer and red meat encapsulated the spirit of manliness.

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But real cooking belonged to the girls.

In yesterday’s world, men were the bread winners and women were the bread makers.

And yet, something that was taken for granted just 50 years ago, that is, that woman do the cooking, has been totally turned upside down.

Today, I love to cook. Lots of men do.

The reason? Men have finally learned one of the great secrets in life.

Good Male Cooking = Sex

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I first came to enjoy cooking as a way into a young lady’s pants.

Some guys build big vein-streaked muscles or hunch over greasy car motors to attract cute girls. For those of us non-hulky young fellows lacking any sort of mechanical aptitude, we had to resort to other means to draw sweet bees to our hives.

I developed two strengths that assisted in my often weak attempts to seduce and capture the hearts of young women. I learned to strum the guitar. And … I learned that cooking for the fairer sex could be a powerful aphrodisiac. Go figure.

Women chefs cook with their hearts and souls in pursuit of nourishment of the body and their families, while male chefs cook with their head and their private parts in pursuit of … well, you know. An exception to this is poutingly-hot TV cook Nigella Lawson who has cornered the sexy female side of food preparation. I would devour uncooked scorpions from her fingertips.

My go-to dish was French Onion Soup.

French Onion Soup with Stringy Melted Cheese 500

It was my fishing lure of choice in the sea of attraction. The broth was dark and rich and tantalizingly fragrant, with a hint of fresh thyme. It had the whiff of European sophistication that layered me with a hint of cosmopolitan elan. And there is something very pre-orgasmic about a dish that has a guy and a girl eyeing each other across a table with gooey strings of molten swiss cheese hanging teasingly from a spoon.

I used my cooking skills on one or two (OK, maybe 3!) occasions in my teen and early 20’s years to lure and seduce. Did it always work? I would say yes, although to be honest, I didn’t normally cook for someone until the outcome was almost 100% secured. Cooking just sealed the carnal deal!

Years have passed, and now that I’m older and happily coupled, cooking is a pleasurable part of my everyday existence, and not just BBQ’s! I love to combine spices and flavours to make something exciting to look at, savour, and taste.

My kids don’t see anything sexy or alluring about the dishes I set at the table, which is a good thing. While it’s all simple and straightforward, the colours and textures of foods are still a sensual experience of pleasure.

The sight and scent today of a plate of steaming roast beef at the table takes me inside myself to a warm time of family pleasure and the company of my long-gone parents. I longingly wish that I could make pan-roasted potatoes or apple pie that compared to my Mom’s.

Life has its cycles and rhythms. Yesterday my son in Nova Scotia phoned while walking on his way home from purchasing fresh beets to make Borscht … hmm … could this be his “seduction” dish?

If my kids only knew the thoughts that course through my head when we sit around the table together and I sip a spoonful of French Onion Soup … well, I can hear them now…EWWWWW!

When I grow up, I'm gonna cook sexy food just like Dad...

When I grow up, I’m gonna cook sexy food just like Dad…

 

Cafeteria Lunches at Glendale High…Improving Our World with French Fries

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Glendale Secondary2

Hands down, the school cafeteria was my favourite place at Glendale High School, just ahead of the Band Room and WAY ahead of the sour sweat-stinky gymnasium.

After the 4th or 5th period of classes, I’d go to my locker and grab the brown paper bag lunch my Mom had made me and head to the cafeteria with Jerome, Renato or Frank (my Ukrainian, Italian, and Hungarian friends) or whichever of my friends was in my last class before lunch.

Passing through the grey-metal, glass-windowed cafeteria door was like entering a whole different world. All thoughts of books or homework assignments dissipated when I was first hit with the heady scent of french fries and gravy wafting through the air, aggressively pushing back at the school hallway’s scent of Dustbane.

There were plenty of calories in our lunch bags to get us through the school day: sandwich, homemade chocolate-chip cookies, muffin, apple. Still, we rushed to the front of the cafeteria and took our place in the line leading up to Mrs. Jack standing behind the serving counter in her blue cotton front-zippered shift. She lived up to her Scottish stereotype by dishing up meagre servings of hotly fragrant french fries into white cardboard boat containers like you get at the beach in summer. We’d always smile sweetly at her – even though we didn’t really like her – and beg her to add more of the crisp, golden potato delicacies to our boat and then go fill whatever gaps existed between the fries with great squirts of ketchup, or nose-pungent vinegar, then sit at the long lines of parallel tables beside other kids.

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Just a few more, OK Mrs. Jack???

In my blue-collar “lunch-bucket” Hamilton hometown high school, the tables were filled with Slavic kids with garlic-smelly meat sandwiches. Or Italian boys with names that always ended with the letter “O”…Mario, Angelo, Ezio, Vito.

We’d talk about important things like Mr. Mason’s little coloured peg “rewards” for correct answers in French class or Carole J.’s amazing breasts. Talking about them was the closest I was ever going to get to those babies.

Didn’t everyone go to a Glendale High School …

where cafeterias were staffed by middle-aged Mrs. Jack’s, where the echoing din of voices of hundreds of hormonal teenagers gathered to gab and gossip? And to munch on the chocolate- or caramel-chemical cake sensations Jos. Louis or Ah Caramel?

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Probably not… but for a long time I thought they did.

  • I thought that everyone lived just like me in my insignificant east-end “Steel City” home.
  • I thought the whole world was the same as what I could see out my window.
  • I thought that sticky, hot, humid summers and wet, slushy winters were everywhere and all-the-time.

I entered the world naked and clueless, not knowing anything other than what I was surrounded by.

And then one day I accidently stumbled and fell through the looking glass and found a whole new, shiny world that had only existed for me in fancy fiction books, glossy magazines, and newspapers. Like the change of black and white to rainbow-hued Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz.

And not just one new world but a whole big gamut of new worlds and new people and new experiences.

And there would be no going back. No Larry, you can never go home again.

At the age of 20, I finished my medical lab certification at local Mohawk College and then, almost on a whim, went north to spend just a few months in the Canadian arctic before I would return forever to the warm, comfortable womb of my childhood years.

But instead of returning home, I went to Europe and backpacked my way across and around that continent. I married a great lady from British Columbia and went to live in her beautiful mountainous homeland. Later on I ventured to South America and spent time with Incan ancestors in the Andes for a few months. I travelled to China and drank snake wine. I voyaged on boats around warm southern islands. I ate cod cheeks and tongues and bakeapples in Newfoundland.

Arctic Larry

Two + years in the arctic changed my icy heart…

I was changed. I was new. I was improved.

The look out my home’s window wasn’t a whole lot different, but my outlook on the world was transformed.

We’re all going to be dead in 100 years. Everything and everyone we know will be gone, and we’ll just be an eighth note in the symphony of existence. I want my eighth note to be memorable, because I was given this time through the lottery of life. There won’t be a second coming for this non-Buddhist.

We live our lives with expectations and a belief in things moving forward as they have in the past. If I hadn’t left my home city when I finished college, I wouldn’t have changed and I would have lived a lesser life. Not a bad or worthless life, but totally different and less rich with experiences.

One of the life lessons I’m FINALLY coming to realize through my running is that we can’t keep doing the same things and expecting the outcome to change. If I don’t change my training habits, I’ll likely not improve my running results … if I live my life the same way I always have or as others tell me I should, then the results too will be the same. Expanded experiences develop my tolerance muscles.

I’m frightened by change. I get palpitations when confronted by new challenges or experiences. But I’m excited by it too.

We can spend our entire lives in our own backyards. It’s easy to do. Historically, a major reason why we’ve had wars and racism and intolerance and why different countries and different religions fight against each other and amongst themselves is that we’ve never left our own sandbox and climbed into someone else’s. There’s usually a good reason why they like brown sand and I like white sand, but I’ll never know the reason until I sit down and make a sandcastle out of brown sand.

I’d love to go back and have Mrs. Jack serve me up some hot, salty french fries in the cafeteria of Glendale High School. It would be great to sit and be kids again with all of my old multi-ethnic friends.

But what’s really cool is that I’ve discovered that I can pass through cafeteria doors anywhere in the world and love the french fries wherever I go, and I kind of like where the salty winds have carried me so far.

korea-french-fry-party

Now this is MY idea of a french fry feed…