Friday, September 4, 2009

Square 55: Train

Square 055

I spent yesterday afternoon on the train from Guelph to Ottawa. Danny and I have come here for a long weekend away from the usual, but he would be coming down in the evening, so I went alone.

When I was 11 I took my first train trip. My parents took me on Algoma Central Railway's Agawa Canyon Tour Train through a rugged part of Ontario to see fall colour at its most grand and resplendent. I have loved this most of travel ever since.

Railways seem to find the loveliest scenery. This square does not give a literal depiction of the coloured landscape flashing past the windows yesterday, but my impression. It was a glorious summer afternoon, with puffy clouds in the distance and golden sunlight washing the hills and woods. At times the blue-grey expanse of Lake Ontario spread to our right.

An elderly woman from California sat in the window seat beside me. She was touring North America, visiting relatives in Seattle and Idaho en route to a niece in Ottawa. She had taken the train across Canada, but the rollicking trip was uncomfortable and views of the Rocky Mountains disappointing. She said this stretch in easy-moving cars through rolling farmland was the most pleasant so far. As much as I long for new and exotic landscapes, particularly the mountains of the west, I could appreciate her fondness for Ontario.

What is it about a train ride that heightens romance? I could be travelling anywhere for any purpose, but I'm always delighted. Perhaps it is the sense that I will arrive without mishap, or the relative comfort of the passengers over time and distance. The people I meet on trains are generally happy and not in a hurry. We talk about our diverse origins with nostalgia, our destination with anticipation. These are the blessed comings and goings of life, threads crossing and interweaving.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Square 54: Dill pickles

The first time I took my daughters to St. Jacobs Market, Brenna was about seven years old. After browsing around the tables of baubles and goodies for a while, it was time to get a snack, so we shouldered our way through the crowded food court. I recommended the apple fritters, and the girls agreed. But beside the place where we bought juice was a booth where you could buy a huge dill pickle on a stick. Brenna eyed those, but didn't say anything.

A while later as we were getting ready to leave, Brenna said, "Next time, I'll get a pickle on a stick."

I realized she thought that since Marian and I wanted apple fritters it would be too much trouble to go to the other booth, so I said, "You can have a pickle, too."

I will never forget the way her face lit up. It was as if I had opened a door to all the treasures of the world. I doubt anything can give me greater joy than to see one of my children take utter delight in a simple thing. We went back to the booth, and she spent the drive back to Guelph happily devouring that giant pickle.

I didn't like dill pickles when I was little. It was something I had to grow into, and after making them as gifts for family members I came to appreciate them.

Now I love them, and since Brenna likes them, too, we can have fun making them together. So I have come full circle from the story about making jams with my mother to making pickles with my daughter. When she visited me a few days ago we spent a super evening packing cucumbers into jars. Brenna says she wants a garden and canning equipment of her own some day, so she can carry on the tradition. I hope she will pass the knowledge of this family custom to her children.

Dill Pickles

  • 3 quarts medium-sized pickling cucumbers
  • whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • fresh dill heads
  • mixed pickling spice
  • dried whole chili peppers
  • 3 cups distilled water
  • 3 cups white vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons sea salt

Sterilize jars and lids for 3 quarts or 6 pints.

Scrub the cucumbers and pack into sterilized jars. For each pint also add a dill flower head, a clove of garlic, 1½ teaspoons of pickling spice, and a dried chili.

Bring water, vinegar and salt to a boil. Add the brine to the jars to a quarter inch from the top. Seal.

These jars must be processed in a boiling water bath in a canning kettle, about 15 minutes for quart jars and 8 minutes for pint jars. After the jars cool, check the seals. If a jar does not seal properly it must be stored in the fridge and used promptly.

The pickles are best stored for six weeks to let the flavours blend before use.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Square 53: Apricot conserve

Square 053

This week I made apricot conserve. Considering I've been trying to improve my diet lately, this stuff is sugary and unhealthy as hell. On the other hand, it's such a fire pot of nostalgia it must be good for the psyche.

Toronto Transit Commission's Poetry on the Way program places works from Canadian poets in place of ad posters on subway cars. It's a nice way to bring a little culture and reflection into people's hectic schedules. A while back I read Margaret Atwood's "Apple Jelly" on one of the trains. It suggests that making preserves is not worth the cost, time and effort, until you realize the inestimable value of picking a jar of summer off the pantry shelf six months from now.

Growing up, I used to help Mom make jams, jellies, pickles and preserves. During my teens I started looking up and experimenting with recipes of my own, like peach chutney and zucchini relish. At Christmas each year I gave my older brothers and their wives boxes of jars containing memories of summer.

Now when I make preserves it's like spending time with Mom again beside a steaming pot of goodness.

Essex County where I grew up is the southernmost county in Canada, and one of the few places in the country where apricots will grow. They were easy to come by. A fresh apricot, not too ripe, is one of my favourite fruits, second only to peaches.

Sometimes in winter I wistfully approach the apricots in the supermarket, imported from somewhere else. They look so delicious, and their colour is incomparable, like a sunset or a hillside of maples in October. But if I am seduced into taking a few home they are always a disappointment, their texture mealy and dry, their flavour insipid.

The only way to enjoy apricots is during the few weeks in August when the real Ontario fruit can be found at the farmers' market. Even if I go to the trouble to make preserves, come next January it will not be the same—nothing can bring fresh fruit back until next time around. But like those imaginary visits with Mom, it's worth the trouble of evoking the colour, flavour and aroma of a memory.

Apricot conserve

  • 1 quart apricots
  • 1 can crushed pineapple (540 ml/19 oz)
  • ½ cup maraschino cherries, quartered
  • 2 oranges
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 cups sugar
  • ½ cup slivered almonds

Drop apricots in boiling water for 10 seconds to loosen the skins. Remove promptly. Peel and quarter. Drain the pineapple, reserving the juice. Slice oranges and lemon, remove seeds, and cut slices into eighths. Put all the fruit in a large kettle.

In a medium-sized pot, combine pineapple juice and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Pour the boiled syrup over the fruit, and bring all to a boil for 25 minutes. A tiny piece of butter may be added to reduce the foam.

Add the almonds and boil one minute.

Remove from heat. Stir and skim for five minutes to prevent fruit from floating. Pour into sterilized jars and seal.

Makes 4½ pints. This is good served with scones or vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Square 52: Favourite month

Square 052

In August when the sun has started to travel south, its rays fall longingly over the drunken trees. Summer is like a lover departing when he realizes the situation can’t go on forever. Too much growth and heat would ruin this part of the world. He knows he must depart, but his heart is breaking. A wistful morning mist rises from the lake, blinding the sky’s eyes to the forest’s worst failings. The open spaces beneath the canopy smell of old leaves. Grasshoppers gossip in golden grasses along the lane. “He’s going now,” they whisper. “We’ll have our heyday now!” No one wants to imagine what will become of the land when August finally closes the gate and drifts beyond the hill. They don’t appreciate his light and warmth. Everyone has been too busy carousing to notice his disenchantment. August was the best companion we ever had.