Friday, August 31, 2012

Foodie Friday--Finn and Tasha

I hope you enjoy the following short story, a sort of epilogue to my Ellora's Cave book, Arctic Destiny, giving a peek into the lives of Finn MacEwan and Tasha Watson after the end of the book. And I also hope you'll try the recipe that follows, a family favorite and traditional Sunday dinner side dish back home.

Rewriting the Destiny

Finn MacEwan stood in his studio and stared at the hunk of marble on the workbench in front of him. Instead of a vision appearing to him in the stone—a shape latent beneath the rough exterior—it remained just a formless block. Worse was the sensation of no longer really knowing what to do, as though not only his artistic sense had vanished, but had taken the muscle memory that made his sculpting possible too.
Slowly putting down his tools, he tried to regulate his suddenly rough breathing and quiet the pounding of his heart. Although the drizzly autumn day was cool, a sheen of perspiration coated his brow and he wiped at it as he strode to the dormer window and stood staring out at the quiet Toronto street below. Frustration at his restlessness and inability to concentrate made his teeth clench.
He’d done well since leaving the north and coming to the city with Tasha. His career was growing in leaps and bounds, and God knew he’d never been happier than he’d been over the last three years. There was nowhere else he’d rather be—no one who could fulfill him, heart and soul, like Tasha. He just couldn’t understand why his ability to sculpt, even the need to do it, had suddenly deserted him. If he were being brutally honest with himself, and now he forced himself to be exactly and precisely that, the loss of the one thing he’d clung to all those years of being trapped was frightening.
Bone-deep, soul-witheringly frightening.
And he had no idea what to do about it.
“Finn?” Tasha’s voice floated up from downstairs, and even after all their time together it made his heart leap with joy. “Dinner’s ready.”
Taking a deep breath, forcing the tense muscles of his face to relax, he called back. “Coming, love.”
As he headed for the staircase, he tried to push the fear and anger aside. Tasha knew there was something wrong—it was almost impossible to keep anything from her—but he’d tried to minimize the extent of the problem. The last thing he wanted was for her to worry.
Getting to the bottom of the steps, he paused, surprised. Rather than the island/bar top where they usually ate, she’d set the dining table with her best china and cutlery and adorned it with candles and fresh flowers. For a moment he mentally scrambled to see if he’d forgotten a birthday or anniversary, but nothing came to him.
Tasha turned and grinned at him from the kitchen, and he couldn’t help smiling back, the weight of his fear lessening. She was so beautiful, her smile so full of love he could feel it reach across the room.
And she was his. What did anything else matter in the face of that?
“Sit down.” She picked up a platter from the counter and walked around the island into the dining area. “I hope you’re hungry.”
It was only then he took a good look at the food, and his eyebrows lifted in surprise. Tasha’d cooked what he thought of as one of her special occasion meals. She had eclectic tastes in food, picked and chose from various cultures to create some of the most interesting meals he’d ever had. Tonight it was a pork roast redolent with rosemary and thyme, scalloped potatoes done in the oven, steamed broccoli and carrots, and Jamaican-style Rice and Peas.
“What a feast.” He pulled out her chair, bending to capture her mouth for a sweet, lingering kiss. Her lips softened beneath his, and for a long moment he forgot everything—food, art, anxiety—in the wonder of her.
Tasha put a hand on his chest, right over his heart, and eased their bodies apart. She was still smiling, but her eyes had grown languid and her breathing was ragged. The low, delicious tenor of her voice sent his libido soaring, as she said, “Food first. Then we can pick this up where we left off.”
Teasing the corner of her mouth with his lips, he whispered, “I look forward to it.” And he couldn’t help smiling at her little shiver.
The meal was wonderful, and Finn realized she’d made some of his all-time favorites. Although she’d made a sinfully rich gravy, the soft texture of the Rice and Peas made it almost a shame to put any on it. The side dish had quickly become one he looked forward to seeing her cook.
While savoring the meal Finn still couldn’t help feeling he’d missed something. ‘Special occasions demand special food’, she always said, and this was definitely, deliciously special. And food was one of the ways Tasha dealt with problems or comforted others, not as a panacea but as a way to show she cared. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore, and had to ask.
“What’s the occasion, Tash?”
She didn’t pretend not to understand, but immediately put down her fork and levelled a serious look on him. “I thought we should have a really nice meal, something I won’t be able to cook while we’re away.”
Surprised she’d make plans without asking for his input, he put down his utensils too. “You didn’t mention anything about a vacation. Where are we supposed to be going? And when?”
Her gaze slid away from his for a moment, then came resolutely back to snag his again. “I took a sabbatical and we’re going to Churchill in two days. Everything is booked.”
Taken aback didn’t begin to describe his feelings. Stunned would be better, and even that didn’t cover it adequately. Leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms, he tried to marshal his thoughts, but she rushed into speech before he could find his tongue.
“Darling, the north was a major part of your life for so long, it’s unreasonable to believe you can just walk away from it and not have that affect you.”
Finn opened his mouth to object, then closed it again. His knee-jerk reaction was to say she was wrong. That he’d spent a hundred and twenty-five years trapped by the north, unable to leave for longer than a few months at a time, and if he never saw the Arctic again, he’d be happy. And yet…
If he closed his eyes, he could see the distinctive landscape, so beautiful in its stark majesty. At night sometimes he dreamed of spring in the Taiga or the wild beauty of winter when the polar bears, his brothers, roamed as lords of the ice. A part of him still yearned for it, and it had taken his wonderful wife to recognize that.
“It’ll refresh you. And I’m looking forward to going back to where it all really started.”
She tried for a touch of humor, but there was a hint of uncertainty in her voice and he realized he’d zoned out, leaving her wondering what he was thinking.
Rising, he circled the table and held out his hand. Even though he hadn’t said anything she got up, slipping right into his arms. Tilting her head back, she smiled at him, and he held her tight, so full of love and desire and thankfulness he could hardly breathe.
“Yes,” he said, letting his hands slide down her back until he cupped her ass and pulled her even closer, letting her feel his arousal. “Back to the beginning, and the future.”

Like Tasha I celebrate with food, and no celebration in our house is complete without Rice & Peas. Variations of this dish can be found in the cuisine of most Caribbean islands, some made with red kidney beans, others with pigeon peas. On some islands salted meat adds flavor, on others coconut provides it.
The recipe here is my quick-and-easy version of the Jamaican style, which utilizes coconut milk. Back home, if you’re doing it ‘right’, you’d make the coconut milk yourself, cracking open a dry coconut, extracting the hard flesh, grating it or liquidizing it in a blender or food processor with a little water, and squeezing the “milk” out by hand. It’s a time-consuming job, so I use pre-packaged blocks of dehydrated coconut milk. If that’s not available, use canned or frozen coconut milk. I’ve made it with canned coconut cream, but the flavor is quite different, so for a more authentic taste, make sure the product you use says coconut milk, rather than cream.

Quick and Easy Jamaican Rice-and-Peas

½ block dehydrated coconut milk or 1 can coconut milk
1 regular size can red kidney beans OR pigeon peas
Long grain or par-boiled rice
1 stalk scallion, chopped fine (spring onion)
½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves OR 1 teaspoon fresh
1/8 teaspoon allspice

Either add ½ block dehydrated coconut milk to approximately 4 cups of water and bring to a boil OR mix the can of coconut milk with enough water to make about 4 cups of liquid and bring to a boil, turn heat down to medium. Boil water and coconut for ten minutes (watch the pot so it doesn’t boil over) then add the canned peas, including the liquid.
While the ratio of rice:water usually is 1:2, for rice and peas I like slightly more water, so that the end result is slightly soft, rather than grainy, but that’s a personal preference. I can eyeball the amount of rice, but that’s after years of practice! My mother never could, so here is her method for calculating the amount of rice needed.
Carefully strain the contents of the pot into another pot. Return the peas to the original pot, and then measure the amount of liquid, returning it to the pot too. In my experience, you will probably find it is just about the 4 cup mark again, but sometimes it’s more or less, so measuring is a good idea! Bring the peas and coconut, etc. back to the boil. Add the appropriate amount of rice, following the prescribed 1 cup rice to 2 cups liquid for shelly rice, or ¾ cups rice to 2 cups liquid for softer consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste, as well as chopped scallion, thyme and allspice. Bring back to a boil, then cover, turning down the heat to medium-low. Cook for about 20 minutes, until rice is properly cooked. Stir to evenly distribute peas, and serve.

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