On being … chef-y

By Ingrid Sapona

As I was sitting down to write today’s column, it dawned on me that readers may end up thinking I’m a chef wanna-be. My immediate reaction to that is a simple No. But then I realized perhaps I should reflect on that a bit, as maybe there’s something to it. So let me get back to you on that later…

I don’t know about you, but my friends and I seem to share more meals over the summer. There’s something about sunshine and all the fresh fruit and vegetables that inspires me to invite friends over and to trying new recipes. And, this summer I’ve been working on upping my game by trying to be more “chef-y”. Ok – that’s a term I’ve coined – but I’ll explain what I mean.

Obviously, chefs have specialized training and know a whole range of things about food. They also know where to find all sorts of exotic ingredients. For example, not too long ago I had a pasta dish that had little teeny tear-drop shaped peppers that I had never seen before. Turns out they were Sweety Drops from Peru.

But, I’ve observed a handful of things chefs do that I think end up making a big difference and I’ve been focusing my energy on these. The first has to do with planning the meal. I used to decide what I wanted to serve and I’d go in search of the necessary ingredients. The past few years I’ve taken a more chef-like approach. Now I narrow it down to a few different recipes and I don’t make the decision until I’m at the market. Then I choose whatever seems the freshest and best value. It seems a no-brainer, I know – but it does require a level of flexibility.

I’ve noticed that chefs also pay a lot of attention to texture in dishes. For example, a sprinkling of pine nuts on a plate of pasta or a handful of shredded cabbage tucked inside a pulled pork sandwich is probably more about adding crunch than about adding flavour.

Colour is also something I’m sure chefs consider and it’s something I’m paying more attention to too. While you won’t catch me adding squid ink to make my risotto a dramatic black, I do look for ways of adding colour. For example, I may add sliced red pepper on top of a green bean salad, or a spear of roasted carrot alongside a scoop of rice. I also try to make sure there’s colour contrast between the main and sides.

Another chef-y thing is how they combine interesting, unexpected flavours. Pickled veggies seem to be a favourite way of adding a bit of tang, while chutneys and compotes are often used to add some heat. While I enjoy some chutneys, I’m not keen enough on them to bother making them. But, I’ve been playing around with quick pickling things ever since I read somewhere that it’s a great way of using up leftover veggies. My current favourite is adding quick pickled corn to arugula salad – it adds colour, zest, and interest. Very chef-y, don’t you think?

Mind you, some combinations chefs come up with seem to work better on paper than in reality. The other day, I ordered a burger because I was intrigued by one item in the description: tomato jam. I’d never heard of that and so I was curious to see whether it was just some fancy catsup. Turns out it was truly a jam – very sweet. I’m not a fan of mixing sweet and savoury, so it kinda ruined the burger for me. So, it’s not something I’m going to try to imitate, but I don’t mind saying it’s nice to know that not every combo a chef comes up with is necessarily a winner either!

And of course, there’s plating the food, which chefs have raised to an art form. Whether it’s a thin streak of pesto along the edge of the salad plate, or a carefully sculpted pyramid of saffron rice next to a flakey piece of fish – chefs clearly have an artistic vision for each dish. And, when they plate something, they always manage to add a few little grace notes – perhaps a couple wafer thin radishes or a curly garlic scape for good measure.

Of course, because a restaurant menu features many different dishes, a chef has all sorts of interesting ingredients on hand that can be used to add pizazz. It’s a bit more of a challenge to have a variety of little things to add to make a plate look interesting when you live alone. But, if you were to peak inside my refrigerator this summer, you’d see that I’ve been making quite an effort in this regard.

So, I’ve been having fun playing around with all these things – from planning the menu, to adding texture, to trying unusual combinations and being more creative in how I plate things. But, does all this mean that somewhere deep down inside I wish I’d have become a chef? I honestly think the answer is no. I love learning about cooking and I enjoy trying to make different things. But, I wouldn’t want it as a career because I’d hate for it to start to feel like a job. Instead, I’m happy just trying to be more chef-y.

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona


On being … in the dark

By Ingrid Sapona

As the story of the Thai soccer team in the cave was unfolding, I chose not to read articles about it. Part of the reason I avoided the details was that I couldn’t take the whole roller-coaster of emotions. The headlines alone took me – and the rest of the world – from fear, to disbelief, to worry, to sadness, then doubt, and ultimately – thankfully – to relief.

Whenever I did reflect on the story, my thoughts were very much about what the boys’ parents must be going through. As the days elapsed before the divers found them, I wondered how the families could have maintained hope in what seemed a hopeless situation. Then, I imagine the news that they’d been found must have seemed like a miracle. But, before the families could relax in the knowledge that their prayers had been answered, there came news of the rising water, the depleting oxygen level, and the coming worse weather.

As the news emerged about how treacherous the route into the cave was, I was struck by the bravery and selflessness of those involved in the rescue effort. And, on news of the death of the diver, my thoughts shifted to his family and how devastated they must feel.

I also began thinking more about the boys’ feelings. I wondered whether they knew that someone died trying to help them. Frankly, I hoped that the boys weren’t told at the time because the news made clear the difficulty of the situation and the danger. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help think that if they got out, survivor guilt may haunt them for the rest of their lives.

The story also made me think about how quickly an innocent decision can turn into a nightmare. Indeed, it brought to mind a cave adventure friends and I set out on years ago. We were staying at a lodge along a river in southern Belize. It had rained quite heavily the first couple days we were. As parts of the path between our huts submerged, we were reminded that it was hurricane season. Even so, we were surprised at how quickly the river rose around us. But, there was nothing we could do, and the locals seemed unfazed.

One of the excursions we had been interested in going on was cave swimming. I had a bit of trepidation about it, as I worried about bats. I think my friends had some fear too about possible claustrophobia. But, we all decided to conquer our fears and we signed up for it.

To get to the cave we took a boat and then had a slippery, miserable half-mile-or-so walk. When we got near the cave, we were told to wait while our guides went ahead to check the cave opening. When they returned they said the water was too high to go in.

On our way back to the lodge, the guides told us this was the first time they had ever decided against going in. They said we could try again in a few days, but we decided not to. Now, when I think about it, I realize how lucky we were to have experienced guides. It never occurred to me that if we had gotten in, the water could continue to rise. Clearly that young Thai coach and those boys never thought about that possibility either.

After the rescue of the soccer team, I went back and read some of the news stories I had purposely avoided. I was struck by how sweet the notes were that the boys wrote their families. They seemed to go out of their way to reassure everyone that they were alright. I couldn’t help wonder whether notes written by a bunch of North American teens trapped for so long without the basic necessities (not to mention connectivity) would be so pleasant.

One detail in particular got me thinking about how the boys coped during the 10 days before they were found. Apparently the coach, a former Buddhist monk, had taught them how to meditate. That struck me as a truly inspired idea, and – again – one I think few of us from North America would even think of.

The whole story has caused me to reflect on how I would have managed in the face of such a turn of events. How would I cope with the cold, the hunger, and not knowing whether anyone was looking for me? Would I manage to stay calm? Would I manage to remain hopeful? Or would the darkness get to me? I don’t know for sure, but I have my doubts…  

What about you?

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona