Douglas Fir

Look up but watch where you’re going.

On a recent trip to the mountains I was reminded of the diversity of the forest and the interesting world of trees. I may not work in the field, but I have a four year university degree in biology which included more ecology, botany, and entomology coursework than any normal lifespan should have to contain.

Even though it didn’t turn into a job, those four years earned me an immovable respect for the natural world and a firmly entrenched fascination with the diversity of living things.

I was looking up at the trees, but not really watching where I was going.

Of the many of varieties of trees I was looking at, and among the dozens of species that make up the mountain forests, there is one that has held my interest for a very long time: the mighty and curiously-named Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii. It has held my interest not because it is necessarily an interesting tree, which it probably is in its own right, but because when I learned about this tree as a kid my best friend’s name was “Doug” and I always felt a bit jealous that he had his own tree.

Yet, the Douglas fir was most definitely not named after my school chum, Doug. It was in fact named after a nineteenth century Scottish botanist and explorer named David Douglas. He is credited (in the narrow bandwidth of European science) with first cultivating the fir which would later bear his name. He did this in his twenties. In his twenties!

I certainly did not discover or cultivate much of interest in my twenties. Though in my thirties I helped cultivate a daughter who is now a teenager and who is anxiously contemplating her future education. We spent nearly an hour last night having a heart-to-heart conversation, me trying to bear witness to her struggles to find a meaningful life path, and also empathize through recounting my plight of squandering a university education in an interesting field for which I still have passion but most definitely no career.

She is young and still looking up at those millions of trees in the forest and their possibilities.

I’m getting older and often watching my feet, trying to remember to look up occasional and admire that world around me.

Look up.

David Douglas died under mysterious circumstances at the age of thirty five, but the officially documented cause was still interesting. Like a cartoon villain in a Gilligan’s Island rerun, he fell into a trap hole on a Hawaiian island and was mauled to death by an angry bull while his dog watched from the edge the pit. I suppose it could be said he, being a young and ambitious guy, spent a lot of time looking up at the trees and what was under his feet ultimately got him in the end.

The moral of the story is that if you’re always looking up at the trees someone might name one of those trees after you forever securing your legacy… but also don’t be surprised if you fall into a hole to your immediate doom.

The parenting lesson is that I need to give my teenage daughter the ability to look up and admire those trees, take her to the forest (both literal and metaphorical) but that I also need to be a good dad and keep my eyes on the ground for her. Maybe those four years of university weren’t a waste of time after all.

Savoury Avacado Chicken in a Cast Iron Wok

I’ve read all manner of reviews about one of the epic cast iron pieces in my collection, the fourteen inch wok, and it turns out the idea of a big and heavy iron wok is divisive and controversial.

A traditional wok (which I do not own) is an agile tool. It is light. It’s meant to be brought up to screeching hot temperatures in which food is moved, flipped, agitated, swirled and stirred with motion of both a scoop in the hand and by tossing and lifting the wok itself. Wok cooking is truly an art form.

It does turn out however that a residential gas stovetop with modest ventilation is not an ideal place to cook in a traditional wok. On the other hand, a wok-shaped bowl of cast iron is pretty darn good enough to replicate some of the properties of a wok. In fact, having spent the last two years learning how to cook well in my cast iron wok has been a remarkably rewarding experience.

And a tasty one.

Our challenge in the wok has been learning to cook dishes that have a curious cultural legacy here in North America. Not everything cooks well in a wok. Woks have a very narrow purpose even in experimenting across cultural recipes. Again, this may be a sensitive topic for some, but as a result of colonial history and inequalities among those who settled here over the generations, in the twenty-first century we have what I understand is a unique form of cuisine: North American Style Asian food. Or as one of my running pals who hails from Hong Kong reminds me frequently “not real Chinese food.”

What I’ve read is that cooking styles and spices mingled with availability of ingredients and limited by tastes linked back to various European ancestries meant that traditional cooking was almost impossible. Immigrants who crossed the Pacific rather than the Altantic set up restaurants as a means to make a living and a life here. They found that they needed to invent dishes that brought the knowledge and experience from their homelands but would be palatable to western tastes (so people would buy and eat it) so dishes like General Tao’s Chicken, Chop Suey, or Ginger Beef became locally known as “Chinese food” but were never dishes that one would actually find in China.

Fast forward to my kitchen, and decades of savouring those shopping mall food court noodle and rice clamshells of spicy goodness. A cast iron wok in my kitchen and a very Canadian-style of recipe that brings together a mish-mash of cultural and regional styles, ingredients, and flavours that results in many various stir-fry-style dishes something like Savoury Avacado Chicken:

The Recipe.

First, mix up the following as a deglazing sauce and then set aside.

125 ml water
15 ml of cornstarch
small packet of chicken bouillon powder
15 ml of lemon juice

As you heat up the wok to get it screaming hot, mise en place your main ingredients, frying in succession the chicken, then the peppers and mushrooms, then adding the spices and diced avacados until it all comes together into a lovely stir fried jumble.

vegetable oil and/or sesame oil for pan
450 grams chicken breast meat (cubed)
handful red bell pepper (diced)
handful white mushrooms (sliced)

10 ml curry powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 large avacado (diced)
toasted sesame seeds to garnish

Deglaze the whole thing with the boullion/lemon juice mix from earlier, and serve over rice garnished with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds.

Thus, the controversy of the cast iron wok: not an authentic wok, sure, but I’m not cooking authentic recipes. It all evens out, right?