vegan moussaka

You know what I miss? When I had the time to flip through my cookbooks or scroll through food blogs and bookmark recipes I actually planned on making. My hours of stomach-rumbling browsing has turned to minutes. My zest for multi-step, artfully assembled dishes such as this vegan moussaka with pine nut cream, has dwindled to cravings for simple and quick meals.

For all the things that being busy gives, there are so many things it takes away: the time to let books enliven the mind, friends renew the spirit, and food delight the senses. At least I have the pictures to remind me of these things passed, surely to come again.

I made this moussaka a month or so ago to share with friends for dinner. It made for a wonderful side dish to the salad, cheese, bread and wine they provided.

My first experience with moussaka was in Patra, Greece. Freshly off the ferry, my companions and I stopped for a bite before boarding a tumultuous train to Athens. I don’t remember much aside from the picture I have of the moment. Isn’t it strange how pictures so often circumvent memory?

I can see four women bent over plates of pita, gyro, hummus, and tzatziki. I can see goblets of wine casting their sunny purple on our stacks of this earthy eggplant casserole, with all its layers fused together with rich tomato sauce.

The picture takes me back to that slight strangeness we felt, having just met, and it’s quick dissolution over the new tastes before us. I can almost sense, once more, the Mediterranean air so near our skin.

The bright colors of this carefully layered dish bring two things to mind then. One, the gift of having time to make good food, and two, the thrill of newness. Balance is not an easy thing, but gratitude, once learned, surely is.

On this (Canadian) thanksgiving weekend, the pictures of this meal remind me that there will again be balance in my life and serenity in eating. I might not have time to make and photograph a whole new kitchen extravaganza, but I have these saved memories of meals I have not yet shared. It may not be turkey, but it speaks loudly of the slow and simple life.

I have so much to be thankful for, even just in the past few days. A surprise visit from my mom and an impromptu trip to Canada, finishing my first marathon, and a week that’s already looking better than the last. My glass is truly full, and with my mom around, tonight so will be my plate.

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dolmas done right

I first tasted dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, in Greece. I was 19 and still more or less uneducated in the cuisines of the near East. They were delicately Mediterranean, bursting with new combinations of taste and texture.

My friend and I were sharing a white stucco flat on the island of Naxos, overlooking the Aegean Sea. We had met an Australian woman named Grace, who introduced us to the cigar-shaped delicacies packed in olive oil. I was a sucker for anything offered to me in that accent — or any accent, for that matter. To this day I still adore two of her recommendations: dolmas and halwa, a sweet spun from sesame-seeds.

In those lazy days we lived on dolmas and baklava. These days all I can find are the canned ones packed in excessive amounts of oil, unless I want to pay a dollar apiece just up the street. With the way the weather has turned, that seems like a steep price to pay to have a cool Greek snack at hand. If you love the nutty, lemony squish of a chilled dolma on a dog-day afternoon, a dolma’s all that will do ya.

And then — thank Zeus! — along came my friend Susan. Being schooled herself in these mysterious dolmatic ways, she passed on her expertise to me. Though I observed more than I participated, I learned that making them yourself cuts the oil and the need to fly back to Naxos. I also found out that dolma is from the Turkish word for “stuffed thing.” Turns out I have more in common with this finger food than I thought.

Grape leaves should be easy to find in a well-stocked international grocery store. I used a California-Style brand called Castella, but the choice was rather arbitrary in front of a shelf full of them. Grape leaves must be one of those foods, like the “single use appliance,” that doesn’t seem to have many other uses. I declare these, however, to be wise stewardship of the leaves that nurture our wine-producing grapes the world over. If they’re good enough for grapes, they’re good enough for me.

These are an easy substitute for the endless chopping, precision rolling, and meticulous fish- handling of sushi. They are deliciously cool and light, the perfect compliment to a serene back porch gathering around a pitcher of Sangria, or to a rollicking twilight tapas bash. Easy to make and easy to eat, these dolmas are so good you might just want to break a plate or two. Just make sure they’re your own, and not someone else’s Royal Daulton.

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oui, chutzpah! (israeli couscous and french lentil salad)

It’s hard to top summer’s abundance of leafy greens piled high with fresh-picked vegetables from the garden. The Queen of Summer cuisine is back, in shades of fern and chartreuse. The Salad has arrived, piled high on our plates like hibiscus blossoms offered to a Hindu god, to cleanse us of any vegetable estrangement that might still linger from winter.

Yet there’s another kind of salad that’s captured my coeur. A salad with chew and bulk and just the right amount of cheekiness. A salad merging the semolina pearls of Israeli couscous with the freckled indigo lentilles du Puy. A salad with chutzpah.

Like other pasta- or grain-based salads like tabbouleh, this salad will do double-duty as a side or the main show. Cool enough for company and easy enough for Monday, it shines alongside burgers or lugged along to potluck. Or how about stashed away in the fridge for a lunch-hour crisis that might otherwise send you to the snack cupboard? Sharing is so overrated.

When I first made this salad, it was the not-so-obvious combination of textures and tastes that really struck the “make again” sensors. As I get more comfortable making “ethnic” food, I have learned that mint and cinnamon, dates and pine nuts are perfectly happy co-habiting. These surprise minglings are one of the most basic pleasures of eating — something that too often gets lost to convenience and habit.

Let this salad break you out of a romaine n’ ranch rut. I promise it will make your taste buds bellow a different kind of Tradition! from the rooftop.

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