Indulgences: Writing Life Novels, Pasta Primavera

The food: pasta primavera

The story:

I just read After the Workshop, a satiric novel by John McNally about a failed writer in Iowa City who has become a media escort for authors on book tours.

Writers who write fiction about writers and the writing life are often accused of being self-indulgent and self-reverential. Worst of all, they’re said to be producing work of interest only to other writers (good god, not that).

Sure enough, my non-writer husband E, an avid reader of contemporary literary fiction, had no interest in reading beyond the first chapter of After the Workshop, but I did. Not because of its in-depth skewering of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program, about which I know very little, but because I like reading about blocked writers (and about how they overcome the block); the satiric bits about agents, publicists and high concept memoirs were funny; and I found one of the characters, a courtly, older author named S.S. Pitzer, quite endearing.

I also recently enjoyed the comic novel How I Became A Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, published in 2009, which, like After the Workshop, is a faux memoir of a writer in crisis, though How I Became is both more ambitious and more broad in its comedy – it takes on all genres of bestsellers, and is rife with punchlines and parodic passages of bad writing.

I feel a little guilty when I read this kind of insider novel (another notable one that comes to mind : the comic Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon), the same way I feel when gossiping with my writer friends about other writers (not that I ever do that).

In contrast, a refreshingly guilt-free indulgence is the pasta primavera recipe with shrimp, fresh tomatoes, feta cheese, asparagus and arugula that I recently devised – it’s a fresh, lively dish that combines cooked and raw ingredients to satisfying effect and will taste good in summer, too.

Linguine with Shrimp, Tomatoes, Arugula, Feta and Asparagus


2 Tbsp. butter, divided
2-3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 Tbsp. dry white wine
4 cups arugula, stems removed, washed and drained
1 ½ cups cherry or strawberry tomatoes, seeded and quartered
¾ cup feta cheese
1 lb asparagus stalks
1 lb large (20-30) shrimp, shelled and deveined, thawed if frozen
1 lb linguine
2-3 Tbsp. lemon juice (juice from ½ a lemon)

salt and freshly ground pepper


1. Put on large pot of water to boil for linguine.
2. While water is heating, chop arugula leaves coarsely, and cut feta into ¼-inch dice. Place arugula and feta in large serving dish along with quartered tomatoes.
3. Snap off bottoms of asparagus stalks, and cut stalks into 2-inch-long pieces.
4. When water boils, add linguine to pot and cook according to package directions.
5. While linguine is cooking, heat 1 Tbsp. butter and 1 Tbsp. oil in sauté pan under medium high heat. Add shrimp to pan in single layer (cook in 2 batches if necessary), and cook for 1 minute on each side until pink. Add 2 Tbsp. white wine, turn off heat and cover pan, let sit for 2 minutes until shrimp is opaque. Turn cooked shrimp and any liquids in pan into serving dish.
6. In a large skillet, heat remaining 1 Tbsp. butter over high heat. When bubbling, add asparagus pieces. Turn quickly to coat with butter, then add 2 Tbsp. water to pan. Cook over high heat for 1-2 minutes more until asparagus turns bright green and is crisp-tender and most of the water boils off. Add cooked asparagus and any liquids in pan to serving dish.
7. When cooked al dente, drain linguine into colander and while still hot, add to serving dish. Drizzle with 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil and juice of half a lemon, toss linguine with all other ingredients in dish, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
9. Serve immediately.

Serves 4-6.

Feasting on Architecture and Pizza in Chicago

The food: Thin crust pizza in Chicago

The story:

I’ve been a minor league architecture buff since researching and writing my novel The Restoration of Emily, about an architect who restores old houses. So when my sister suggested we go to Chicago for the annual Wright Plus weekend put on in mid-May by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, I was up for the trip.

This was my first ever visit to Chicago, a city full of architectural treasures, old and new, including the turn of the century State Street Macy’s (formerly a Marshall Field’s store) where one can shop amidst soaring atria and under a beautiful Tiffany & Co. mosaic ceiling (installed in 1910):

The Wright Walk event out in the lovely, leafy suburb of Oak Park was a full day outing, attended by 3,000 ticket holders and staffed by hundreds of volunteer docents (AKA major league architecture buffs) who guided vistors through carefully synchronized tours of eight houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or his contemporaries. We only managed to see 5 of the 8, what with the lineups outside each:

but were impressed and captivated by those we did see, and by the great logistics achievement the day represented.

After feasting our eyes on beautiful buildings throughout the city, we were delighted to discover La Madia, a casual but stylish downtown restaurant serving artisanal Italian pizza and salads (and other foods we didn’t get to try on our two visits there).

Everything we ate was delicious and reasonably priced, including the Heirloom Beet Salad, Watercress, Salt-Roasted Almonds & Gorgonzola Dolce for $8.50:

the Parma Classic pizza ($14):

or the pizza with burrata, wood-roasted summer squash, market tomatoes & torn basil for $17, shown at the top of the post.

Who needs deep dish pizza, when you can feast on a La Madia pie, made with a thin-but-not-too-thin crust – it had a nice, tangy chew to it – and heaped with fresh high quality ingredients? Not me.

La Madia on Urbanspoon

A Steak Taste-off

The food: grain-fed steak vs. grass-fed steak

The story:

This past week, I read an entertaining and informative book by writer Mark Schatzker called Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, for a review I wrote that appeared in the Globe and Mail newspaper.

To quote my review in part: “Schatzker has done an ace job of combining interesting historical facts and stories, dense lessons on food and animal science, and amusing accounts of his steak-seeking travels into an entertaining, story-shaped narrative arc, complete with suspense, clever setups and payoffs, a satisfying steak resolution – this is not a personal redemption memoir about finding oneself through eating, it really is all about steak – and mouth-watering food descriptions.”

After reading Schatzker’s account of eating a great steak from a grass-fed cow – steak that made life worth living (!) – I decided to go out and invest in a piece of grass-fed steak for myself.

My first stop was Cumbrae Meats, an artisanal butcher shop on Bayview Avenue in Toronto, where the naturally raised steaks cost $25.99/pound, and come from “animals grazed on fresh grass and alfalfa hay and finished on grains for flavour and marbling.” I wasn’t yet willing to order a box of beef (minimum order $75) from Alderspring Ranch in Idaho, the source of Schatzker’s life-changing steak, but I wanted to try beef that was raised solely on grass, so I left the shop without buying anything, and moved on.

Down the street on Bayview, I stopped in at Whitehouse Meats, another artisanal butcher, where the counter man told me the naturally raised beef from Top Meadow Farms was grass-fed – though he neglected to mention that, like the Cumbrae beef, it was finished with grain, which I later found out when I looked up the brand online.

At least the Top Meadow steak was a little cheaper, at $20.99/pound. I picked out the $13 strip loin pictured on the right, above, and also bought a supermarket, grain-fed strip loin — undoubtedly pumped through with antibiotics and hormones — for $4 (pictured at left, above), which I was almost afraid to eat after reading the book’s account of how feedlot cattle are raised, and brought both steaks home to cook.

Schatzker’s 15-step recipe for how to cook steak was published in the Globe and Mail this week and can be found at the end of the article here. To summarize, his method is to wipe the steaks dry with paper towel, salt them, cook them at high heat on both sides until well-browned, then let rest for 5 minutes off the heat and out of the pan.

I cooked both the steaks in one big pan according to that method, sliced them up – they came out perfectly medium rare – and plated them with some suitable steak dinner accompaniments: mashed potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, blue cheese, and sauteed-in-butter asparagus and green beans.

On the plate you can’t tell the steak slices apart, but I could definitely taste the difference – the partially grass-fed, naturally raised steak was more tender and juicy than the supermarket steak. Was it significantly more full of robust beefy flavour though? I don’t think so. If I want to find a steak with the delectable “pure savour” that Schatzker writes of – the taste of the grass and soil and sun and water that produce a cow – I’ll have to keep searching for purely grass-fed beef.

Dites-Moi Pourquoi

The food: fresh, seasonal fare in NYC

The story:

During a recent spring visit to New York, E and I ate a refreshing artichoke, caper, Reggiano and arugula salad (above) and a couldn’t-be-more-spring-like pizza (below) featuring ramp pesto and roasted ramps at Co. (It was beautiful, and made with the chewy, tangy Co. crust I love, but it was ultimately too oniony for my palate.)

At Market Table, a bright, airy new-to-us West Village restaurant specializing in seasonal food,

we tried the crunchy fried calamari over guacamole and wished for more guacamole,

enjoyed the classic blue cheese/avocado/bacon combination of flavours in a Cobb salad:

and liked how the Cobb’s richness contrasted with the chunky, zucchini-laced, piquantly flavoured falafel plate:

Between spring-inspired meals, E and I caught a performance of South Pacific at Lincoln Center, a show I’ve had antipathic feelings about since I was a child in the 1960’s, when my mother, in her first and last act of stage motherism, encouraged me to audition for the touring production playing in Toronto.

I learned the simple opening song “Dites-Moi, Pourquoi” with my mother’s coaching, but, paralyzed by stage fright, and also, I think, by a reluctance to play onstage a part for which I was, perhaps, too uniquely qualified, I wept and wailed, refused to go try out, and have avoided the show ever since.

My personal history with the show aside, the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific is beautifully staged and engagingly played by its current cast, and comes across as somewhat forward, for its time, in its treatment of racism, though its claims of progressiveness become a little difficult to swallow whenever the sailors speak longingly of killing some “Japs,” and when you consider that the fate meted out to Lieutenant Cable, the one Caucasian man in the play who falls in love with an Asian woman, is death.

Good show otherwise, though. (!)

Matthew Morrison of current Glee fame played Cable when the Lincoln Center production opened in 2008, and thanks to the interwebs, his lovely rendition of the tuneful, seasonally apropos but morally questionable – how old is the girl being sung about, exactly? – song Younger Than Springtime – lives on: