Though Tara O’Brady grew up in one of the proudest production regions of one of central Canada’s most iconic foods, butter tarts were not a part of her childhood. She tried them once or twice: The packaged ones you could get in the Avondale convenience stores around the Niagara region. She’d peel back the cling film to find oily pastry and too-sweet filling and just didn’t get it. They were a piece of Canada that O’Brady could never understand.
Her parents had moved here in the early 1970s, her father, a ship’s captain, from Chennai originally; her mother, a homemaker from New Delhi.
As O’Brady writes in Seven Spoons, her superb and stirring new book of modern Canadian cooking, she grew up eating tandoori chicken, “idlis and sambar, rassam, chapatis … and shepherd’s pie and Yorkshire pudding,” as well as Nutella and chicken scallopini at the Italian-Canadian next-door neighbours’. Her maternal grandmother was an Anglophile, but also “had a thing for McDonald’s fried fish sandwiches on Fridays,” O’Brady told me. “If it was tasty then we’d eat it.” Her mother often made the likes of Buffalo chicken wings and egg drop soup.
Seven Spoons, published this week in both Canada and the U.S., was born from that experience of infinite variety – it’s one of the first cookbooks I know that convincingly captures the openness and internationalism of how so many Canadians eat today. “We like to pick and choose influences and put them back together in our own way,” O’Brady said.
Next to her recipe for bucatini with lemon, cream and roasted kale, O’Brady includes a spectacularly tasty curry that’s built around meatball-like lentil koftas.
She tosses grapes with Italian grappa and honey and roasts them, alongside Middle-Eastern labneh (strained yogurt), until the grapes are near to bursting and the labneh, stirred with orange zest, takes on the firm, milky-savoury taste and texture of cheesecake. (That one requires all of five minutes’ work; it is the making of dinner party legends.)
In the book’s breakfast section, she fries eggs in ghee to riff on the huevos rancheros that she buys at the farmers’ market near her home in St. Catharines.
Under Soups, Starters & Snacks, she makes Vietnamese-style sausage rolls. She does a burger, but treats it a lot like steak. (O’Brady sneaks a dab of miso butter onto the burgers as they’re cooking.)
Her version of a paloma – that’s Mexico’s tequila-grapefruit-soda water miracle – tastes like a boozy summer evening on a cantina patio, but with a subcontinental kick from Indian chaat masala.
Yet while O’Brady’s recipes were born in part from modern Canadian-style culinary freedom, they’re also a testament to compromise. After graduating university, O’Brady moved in with her boyfriend. The boyfriend, named Sean, was old-stock Southern Ontarian, with family roots in England and Ireland. (“And the tastes to match,” she adds in the book’s introduction.)
Sean grew up eating butter tarts – his grandmother often contributed her butter tart recipe to church cookbooks – and couldn’t stand the taste of onions. O’Brady couldn’t imagine forsaking onions, an ingredient at the foundation of so many of her childhood foods. “Deciding our food would be an act of both negotiation and discovery,” she writes.
And so 10 years ago, she started a blog about their trials and successes. It was about food, of course – about yogurt-banana bread, and wonton wrapper ice-cream cones, and zucchini fritters – and it was also about relationships. It was human, honest, plucky, beautifully written, filled with photographs that could make just about anybody want to lick their computer screen. And at its heart, O’Brady’s writing also captured the choices that so many Canadians make every day.
Saveur, Kinfolk and Bon Appétit took notice, as did book publishers. She signed with Ten Speed Press in the U.S. and Appetite by Random House in Canada. That’s like turning up for high school hockey tryouts and getting offers from the Lightning and the Canadiens.
On a Monday a couple of weeks ago, O’Brady came over to cook for the day. She brought a woven wicker picnic basket and a bin filled with hand-thrown earthenware. She brought whole spices – star anise, cumin, coriander – that she carried in a stainless steel masala dabba, a large lidded tray nested with individual spice tins. She brought Kashmiri chili powder that tasted as though it had been smoked, a little like Mexico’s dried chipotle peppers.
Within 10 minutes, the kitchen smelled like toasted spice, roasting onions, cinnamon and ginger. She rolled out those lentil koftas (O’Brady includes both yogurt and chopped cashews in the mixture) while I made her tomato raita, and a fresh green chutney built on tart green apple and coriander.
O’Brady is one of those cooks who’s able to talk as she’s at the stove. She has a story for everything, for every ingredient and every flavour; her mother had personally carried little baggies filled with a friend’s chaat masala back from India just the other month, she laughed; she first made those koftas one day when her mother was away in India and couldn’t be reached, and so she had to recreate the recipe from scratch.
She has an eye for detail and design; though O’Brady never trained as a chef, she works as a professional food stylist as well as a blogger and author. She almost never stops smiling. I had to remind myself that we were cooking live, and I wasn’t watching her demonstrate her recipes on TV.
What was most extraordinary, though, was how fluidly she moved between culinary cultures; if a cuisine is a language, she spoke a dozen of them, nailing their grammar, vocabulary, idioms and syntax. She sliced a block of halloumi cheese into rounds and seared them in a dry pan, and then tossed the golden, melting slices in olive oil and North African-style herb-and-spice chermoula. (This, too, will make you a dinner party hero. And it is easy.) I made us a couple of her tall, cool, tequila-chaat masala palomas. I tried as best I could not to drink mine in a single gulp.
And then for dessert, O’Brady pulled out what has become one of her signature recipes: a walnut and sour cherry butter tart pie.
A few years after they moved in together, O’Brady and Sean the boyfriend got married. Today they have two boys, Benjamin and William, ages 9 and 6 3/4. Over time, they found their food. Onions weren’t so bad, Sean decided. Tara realized she’d never had a proper butter tart before.
She realized she even liked them – finally she got it. And so, because above all else this is what modern Canadian cooking does, she took the recipes she’d been given and then picked and chose a few other influences, and put them back together into something that was theirs alone.
The pie she brought that day was exquisite: buttery, crisp pastry that crackled into layers as you ate it; the tart, soulful fruitiness from sour cherries and depth from the walnuts. The sugar-based filling tasted unmistakably like butter tart, but was nowhere near too sweet.