The surprise box

My doorbell rang on Monday evening, and I hurriedly pulled on some pants and ran downstairs to see who it could be. I thought I had changed the delivery time for my Cook It boxes, but I learned the hard way that I’d only modified the date for two boxes. Oops. I put everything away, logged into my profile, and made sure to update my preferences for good. A Monday box means everything sits in my fridge for a full five days before I get to it.

Of course, I started with the French toast. It wasn’t my first recipe using panko breadcrumbs; I had toasted it, coated sausage with it, and enjoyed the texture and crunch it brings to a dish. This time, I would be dipping bread into an egg mixture and then onto a plate of panko. Mmmmm.

My major lesson here was: leave the French toast in the pan for more than two seconds unless you want burnt breadcrumbs and underdone toast. The burnt smell permeated the entire apartment, but the breakfast was still delicious (who new fruit + jam = fruit salad?).

Then it was time for more savoury endeavors. Tater tot poutine was fairly straightforward and simple and I am astounded that I have never made poutine with tater tots before. Then a burrito beef bowl, where the skins of tomatoes stressed me out because I was worried about the knife slipping and slicing into my finger (again).

Cooking still stresses me tf out. It’s a testament to my ongoing insecurity in the kitchen, which after months of this Cook It project, I have yet to fully shake. Each recipe is a new experience, even though there are common elements and I have gotten pretty good at many steps. Sauces scare me, and broth cubes are sometimes just sad clumps in the pan that I try to smash with my spatula in hopes that the flavour spreads beyond concentrated little lumps.

Here is where I need to remind myself that I have a binder full of recipes and dozens of pictures of dishes that I have enjoyed (and occasionally wolfed down without a shred of elegance). In the moment, it’s easy to forget what I’ve done and get stuck on the fact that I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing. The time element gets to me; what if I burn the food or my fingers or (worst, gasp) what if not everything is done at the right time and something gets cold and gross?

Ultimately, it’s okay. The recipes are beginner-friendly and if I mess up, there’s always delivery to console me for my cooking clumsiness. But it hasn’t happened so far, fingers crossed for the future.

If you want more culinary mishaps, get your ticket for Confabuluation presents the Shortest Story XI, where I’ll be joining close to 20 other storytellers. Mine will be told from (and take place in) the kitchen, and involve feeling faint and trying not to hyperventilate (so what else is new?).

Chef Rowland

“I can’t cook,” is the sentiment that began the story I shared at the end of last autumn’s Confab StoryLab. I was in a grocery store, overwhelmed despite the list I had made, completely uncertain whether slow-cooker lasagna would actually work. It did, crispy edges and all.

I got off track after that. Gathering the necessary supplies for one recipe was daunting, my kitchen was less than ideal, and the guy I cooked for didn’t stick around. (His loss, I now understand.) Several years passed before I started to get serious about cooking again.

I always had it in my mind that I’d take a course once I had enough time and money, but of course everything shifted sideways and plans got utterly derailed if not canceled entirely. I had the good fortune to find myself a stable job that paid a decent wage, and my take-out habits had taught me that I could afford a few meals delivered a week.

So why not learn something from them?

Instead of supporting Uber and its dubious practices of undervaluing both its labour force and the restaurants it delivers for, I chose to give a local company a try. My friend and mentor shared a leftover plate of pesto penne, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and then I asked myself, “Could I make this too?” I got her referral code and gave it a try. There was a sandwich on the menu that sounded right up my alley.

I have since tried dozens of recipes, chopped onions and broccoli, and minced garlic. I have deglazed pans and sautéed green beans and made delicious sauces to get soaked up by bread and pasta and barley. Perhaps most importantly, I have shared those meals and the process of making them with a partner who constantly reassures me when I start to doubt my skills or my ability to interpret the instructions of a recipe.

Recently, I made the decision to include on breakfast or brunch in each of my Cook It boxes. My work schedule consistently gives me weekends off, so I moved my delivery time to Thursday and have saved my cooking for the weekend. This morning I made mini quiches with broccoli and jalapeños and breakfast potatoes on the side. I rounded off the day with eggplant parmagiana with mozzarella and fettucine. That young man with a slow cooker from five years ago could not have dreamed of being able to accomplish this.

My mid-30s seems like the right time to be able to feed myself something more substantial than Kraft dinner, and I look forward to a time when I can invite people over and feed them too. For now, I’m content to continue exploring and sharing meals with my partner, who has taken to calling me Chef Rowland. It makes me feel good. And since these photos have seemed to take over my personal Instagram, it seemed about time to give them a dedicated space of their own.

Follow @chef.rowland for updates on my cooking adventures, and be sure to watch Confabulation’s the Shortest Story IX for a tale of how I sometimes have to blunder my way through a recipe. I want to provide weekly updates here as well about recipes and feelings and the fullness of my belly (the eggplant parmagiana was ridiculously good), because it has been a wild ride and I’m not done discovering flavour combinations. I recently made my first Cook It recipe with rosemary, allowing me to sing “Scarborough Fair” as I had previously used parsley, sage, and thyme.

Next week is tater tot poutine (‼), a Mexican beef burrito bowl, and crispy panko French toast!

A little less stressed

Moving sucks.

I’ve managed to usually move from one situation to a better one, and this time is no exception, but putting your life into boxes and carrying them someplace else and not being able to find things for weeks is taxing af.

My new apartment is gorgeous and the morning light makes everything worth it. That and I’m always a little happier when a mug of coffee is within reach.

I am now a resident of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (locals call it NDG, for those of you outside Montreal). I was first introduced as a Concordia student taking French classes in a drafty building on Loyola Campus. Still, it was a proper campus in my mind, whereas taking classes downtown always felt a little weird to me. I went to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for three years; that campus had grass and cypress trees and a swamp (there were even alligators in it, true story).

Graffiti on a brick wall that reads "Yo, daddy"
Spotted in a park near my apartment.

Now I live in a duplex with a nice family for downstairs neighbours. I have an office to work in, for my day job and creative time, and I am unspeakably grateful for this dedicated space with a view of a snowy backyard. I am eager to explore the neighbourhood a bit more, but it’s cold and we have a curfew and socializing in person ranges from risky to illegal.

My boyfriend and I have been gradually setting up house, claiming the space as our own, organizing, and decorating. It’s an ongoing process, like everything else in life, so it’s easy to let go of worrying how long it’s taking. (I still worry, of course, but I can usually acknowledge the feeling and let it go by.)

I was recently given an opportunity to channel my fear by Leila Marshy, who asked me to write a piece for Salon .ll. about the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It was a great way to process my feelings about witnessing yet another “once-in-a-lifetime” historical event while taking a look back at where I come from and how I ended up where I am now. The first draft came out in an incoherent ramble, and comments from Leila and Linda Leith helped me find direction and make sense of the piece. Take a look at Darkness at Noon.

Confabulation had its first meeting of the year, and oh have we got plans! It’s time again for the Shortest Story, a quarantine edition from spaces in Montreal (and hopefully beyond). I’ve been working on my two-minute story with friend and neighbour Emma Lanza, which will be a short and sweet follow up to the Cook It tale I told at the end of our last StoryLab. Sign up for the Shortest Story XI on Facebook, and send your pitch to tellastory@confabulation.ca if you want to join us!

A new session of StoryLab starts March 2 at 7:00pm ET, once again led by the fantastic Deb VanSlet and Michele Luchs! You can sign up for this six-week storytelling workshop by sending a message to storylab@confabulation.ca. Whether you’re a seasoned storyteller or new to the art, a workshop is a fantastic space to learn and experiment and find new ways to tell your story.

As far as writing goes, I’ve been doing daily practice fairly consistently using a three-card tarot spread as a prompt. So far, it’s basic fortune cookie advice, but I have my copy of Writing Down the Bones nearby and I plan to chart a more structured course for myself in the coming days. As much as I loved StoryLab in the fall, I don’t have the time or bandwidth to take on another workshop just yet (and I’m starting to consider my Cook It adventure as a thrice-weekly cooking course from the comfort of my own kitchen).

Now I have a few more things to check off my to-do list before I have to login to work. See ya soon.