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Table scraps

Two fingers better than one

Cooking for one isn’t always a lot of fun.

I enjoy the occasional solitary night where you are alone with your thoughts over a special dinner – one that you will be eating for the rest of the week because cookbooks rarely cater to the table-for-one diner.

More often than not those “me” nights are preceded by a flip through the yellow pages. And even if you transfer your favourite Sachi Sushi rolls out of those little plastic boxes onto your best sushi-ware, pour a glass of wine and sit back to watch a movie at your dinner-for-one couch, there is something lost in the ritual of cooking and sharing that cooking (burnt, cold or otherwise) with friends and partners.

James Barber, author of Cooking for Two, couldn’t agree more.

“Cooking, like sex and dancing, is a pleasure to be shared,” he wrote in the book’s introduction. “This is a book about what two people can do with their own four hands, and not a lot of time… The recipes in this book are basically simple. Very few of them take more than half an hour to get on the table.”

Now this is my kind of cooking. This philosophy of anyone can cook, and that recipes can be simple, tasty and made from things you can find at a corner store, all the staple ingredients of what has made James Barber famous. Before spending ten years with the CBC-TV hosting the cooking show, The Urban Peasant, Barber penned how-to cookbooks.

He spoke about how his first book Ginger Tea Makes Friends came about at a food-writing workshop I attended last fall at the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival.

He was on a first date with a woman who didn’t know how to make an omelet. Being the helpful guy he was, he drew a step-by-step diagram on a napkin of how to do it: from cracking the egg to beating it to sliding it out of the skillet. Wedding bells didn’t come out of the date, but Barber’s first bestseller – part picture book, part cookbook – did.

There are no diagrams in Cooking for Two, but recipes are so accessible and ingredients identifiable, no pictures are required.

Popeye the Sailor Man spinach is gussied up a bit with a spinach, pine nuts and raisins recipe. A chicken and rice dinner on the fly sounds fancy, Riso Con Pollo, but it can be made in less than 25 minutes. Get out of your Spaghetti western of noodles and red sauce with the A Simple Sicilian Spaghetti recipe with spaghetti, walnuts, parsley and blue cheese. Make carrots kids will eat with cinnamon, cumin and garlic, and turn a tin of salmon into a main entrée of fishcakes with last night’s leftover mashed potatoes.

Barber’s recipes are designed for the workingman. Homemade pesto doesn’t have to be about expensive Parmesan cheese and pine nuts. A Barber pesto suggests money-saving alternatives such as cilantro instead of basil, walnuts instead of pine nuts and safflower oil instead of olive.

“Make a pesto out of mint and walnuts and oil and garlic and a little bit of lemon juice (leave out the cheese altogether) and eat it with barbecued lamb or chicken – it’s quick, cheap and easy,” he wrote. “Surprise yourself.”

Barber takes the snobbery out of fine cuisine and like the four-hectare farm on Vancouver Island where he grew fruits and vegetables (as well as bred miniature donkeys), Barber encourages food lovers not to be afraid to get down and dirty, and throw themselves into cooking with wild abandon.

He even makes non-bakers step up to the oven without shuddering – most of the time he does away with the need to master the finicky temperatures of an apartment-sized oven all together.

BBQ fruit skewers with mint yogurt make a beautiful, not to mention healthy, presentation for guests. A last minute dessert to satisfy the sweet tooth can be sliced up in minutes with oranges and grated chocolate. Show off with poached pears with ginger and red wine if you are feeling daring or relive childhood memories with bread pudding with bananas.

  “These few desserts are pleasant puddings – simple, easy and comforting,” he wrote. “Dessert doesn’t have to be the star of the show.”

One of the world’s brightest stars burnt out last November. James Barber, 84, died of natural causes doing what he loved best: he was sitting at the dinner table reading a cookbook with a pot of soup simmering on the stove.

Along with the television show, Barber penned a dozen cookbooks, wrote for numerous magazines and was inducted into the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame this month. He was a sailor, physicist, actor, musician, choreographer, salesman, miner, fisherman and husband as well food enthusiast.

He leaves behind a legacy of cooks rising above macaroni and cheese, with cooks paired in twos if he had his way.

“Of course, you can’t both hold the knife to chop parsley, nor can you both stir a sauce with the same spoon. But what you can do and will find yourselves doing, if you cook together, is dancing. That’s exactly what it is: learning to move and accommodate one another, learning to enjoy one another’s peculiarities and discovering the pleasures of unspoken communication,” he wrote in Cooking for Two. “Everything tastes so much better if you’ve both had your fingers in the pot.”