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Leah McLaren: The Gremolata Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley


Gremolata: You've spent the last few months working on a novel. Did this affect your usual cooking routine?

Leah McLaren: Yes, it did, mainly because I was working at home all day so I could have nice lunches instead of the nasty Globe cafeteria fare (I rarely get it together to bring my own lunch to work). I made myself mache salads with canned oily fish like sardines or salmon. I like the President's Choice canned smoked salmon in particular. Either that, or a lovely cheese sandwich. I'm a huge fan of the classic cheese sandwich with toasted multigrain, really old cheddar, mayo and a slice of tomato -- there's nothing better in the world.

Another great thing about working at home is it gave me more of a chance to think about dinner during the day. I often eat out, but if I was cooking at home I'd go for a walk in the afternoon and buy ingredients (usually at Magnolia and Grace Meat on College). The other thing about writing is that I need to eat ALL THE TIME while I'm doing it. Not sure why this is, some kind of oral fixation, I'm sure.

Fiction takes a lot out of me so I need constant brain food. I'd drink ginger green tea all day and at the beginning I was constantly going to the kitchen for handfuls of raw almonds. Then I started to put on weight so I switched to organic baby carrots and granny smith apples.

Gremolata: Speaking of oily fish, didn't you go on a salmon-only diet once?

Leah McLaren: Yes, it was for a story. For a week I basically ate nothing but smoked salmon, canned salmon, salmon fillet, salmon steak, salmon sashimi and salmon mousse. It was supposed to be good for your skin, but it put me off salmon for a year. I still can't eat the farmed Atlantic kind. I'm convinced the fat is full of mercury. I eat the canned stuff (which is Pacific Coho) and wild salmon, which is available at Whole Foods. Last week at Bymark I ordered gravlax at lunch and it was delicious, so maybe I'll start eating smoked salmon again.

Gremolata: Whole Foods is excellent for fish. Where else do you shop for food?

Leah McLaren: I like Grace Meats for roast chicken (a.k.a. the single gal's best friend), Magnolia for produce and good old Dominion for assorted regular stuff. Sometimes I buy special stinky cheese at the Alex Farms counter in the bottom of Manulife centre. Mainly I shop where it's most convenient. I'm not one of those people who drives up to the 401 and Godknowswhere Ave. to get special pheasants hand-fed by free range Mexican orphans. I like convenience.

Gremolata: You recently lived in the UK for a spell. How does the food and wine shopping in Toronto compare to London?

Leah McLaren: Everything is better in London on that score. They're way ahead in terms of organics (particularly meat) and specialty products. It helps that continental Europe is so close. I miss being able to buy organic lemons on the branch from Italy and those delicious oily round Spanish almonds. Also rocket. Why is there no rocket in Canada?

Gremolata: There's tons! Only we don't use the French name, rather the Sicilian: arugula. Although it tends to be a little rougher than what you get in England. Interestingly, the arugula at Terroni is much finer than you find in most shops.

You mentioned canned fish: what other prepared or packaged foods find their way into you shopping basket?

Leah McLaren: Arugula is completely different than rocket -- even baby arugula. It's similar in flavour (peppery) but not half as tender or sweet, and the leaves are a different shape. Rocket leaves look like tiny two dimensional Christmas trees... sorry, I'm getting boring. As for prepared and packaged foods, I'm a big fan of the Sha-Sha spelt ginger snaps with tea. I also buy La Bomba, a spicy, pickled spread type thing you can add to sauces, sandwiches or eat on crackers really. And canned smoked oysters. It's a bit embarrassing to admit, but my laziest dinner is a can of smoked oysters on Carr's water crackers. Mmm.

[At this point in the interview, Gremolata became so concerned at the possibility that arugula wasn't rocket, that Alan Davidson's The Oxford Companion to Food was consulted. For the record, here's the OCF entry: "Rocket: Eruca sativa, a plant which grows wild in Asia and the Mediterranean region, has been introduced elsewhere, including N. America (where it is known by an Italian sounding name, arugula)…" Gremolata did concede, however, that the plants commonly found in Europe are of a much gentler variety, and we'll keep an eye out for them in the Toronto shops.]

Gremolata: What does one drink with smoked oysters and water crackers? What are you buying wine-wise?

Leah McLaren: I have only one rule with wine which is that I buy the most expensive stuff I can afford. This is kind of embarrassing, but I buy most of my wine by label. Favourites include: that pinot grigio with the wire haired wiener dog [Collavini, LCBO# 33340, $13.95] on the label, a white Burgundy with the big French chateau [Chablis des Vieilles Vignes, La Chablisienne, Vintages# 942243, $23.95] and a robust Chianti that Tony and his gang always order in The Sopranos [Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico, LCBO# 45195, $24.95].
I'm also a big fan of chilled Guiness. Did you know it has fewer calories and less alcohol than lager? I like to pour myself a pint and drink it in the bath at my farm.

Gremolata: Are you growing anything at your farm?

Leah McLaren: I'm not growing anything there now, but next year I'd like tomatoes and lots of herbs. I'm not going to be overly ambitious right off the bat, but eventually I'd like to have a whole veggie garden and Guinea hens and bees for honey and maybe a little vineyard too! My father, who lives nearby, is looking into buying some calves to raise for organic beef but we're arguing over Black Angus or Hereford. I don't see the point if it's not Black Angus. If we do end up getting them Dad says I'm not allowed to name them or dress them up and take photos...

Gremolata: Be careful! Chickens are high maintenance. My step-mum raises them and is constantly rushing back to the hen house to put her "girls" in for the night. You'll definitely need a farm hand.

Is there any food you despise?

Leah McLaren: A very sexy young farm hand. In ripped shirt and overalls. Holding a big pitchfork... sorry what was the question?

Oh right, foods I hate. There's nothing I really detest as a rule. Junk food (especially McDonalds and KFC) I avoid like the plague, not because it doesn't taste good, but because it makes me feel like an ass afterward. Raw onions disagree with me and bruised bananas are icky, but other than that I'll eat basically anything that's put in front of me provided I'm hungry enough. For instance, last Wednesday night I had dinner at Lee's. It was great, but as is often the case there, my companion and I didn't really order enough and we found ourselves starving a few hours (and glasses of wine later). We ended the night with nachos and beer at Sneaky Dees and I swear to god those nachos were the best thing I've tasted in months.

Gremolata: What's you ultimate home cooked meal?

Leah McLaren: My favourite home cooked meal is my mother's chicken curry. She makes it from scratch and serves it with saffron rice. I always ask for it on my birthday.

In my own cooking repertoire, I'd have to say osso bucco (with gremolata, of course!). It's super simple to prepare and you get to make your guests suck the marrow from the bones, which is a kind of social bonding experience.

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