February 05, 2014

The Way to Perfect Hard Boiled Eggs


The number of eggs I've ruined over the years just trying to make egg salad sandwiches would shame all chickendom.

Then Chef Ian came to class with this gem of knowledge and said it would never fail.

He was right.The perfect hard boiled egg isn't as hard as I thought. 

So...

It all starts with putting your eggs in a pot of cold water. Just to the top of the eggs.

Add a splash of white vinegar.

Bring the pot to the boil.

Add a dash of salt.

Put the lid on the pot.

Turn off the heat.

Let the eggs sit in the pot for 15 minutes.

Cool off in cold water.

Peel and away you go...

...love simple wisdom...


December 16, 2013

On Holding a Knife

The number one thing that will make you a better cook is learning how to hold your knife properly.

Seems simple. But there's a lot about life that is deceptively simple...as well as a lot about life that seems overly complex.

But slicing through something can be easy. You just need the courage of your convictions. Remember?

And I found just holding the knife properly makes you feel more courageous. I spent most of my chopping life working my way through various hand holding options...like these two, classic mistakes.




Not.








Not.





The key is your index finger and your thumb have to touch the blade. You put your index finger along the ridge where the blade meets the handle.





Close your thumb along the other side of the same ridge. So now you're basically pinching the blade at the heel (where it meets the handle).


Cup your three remaining fingers under the handle. Voilà. That's all there is to it. Centuries of chefs evolved knife skills for you.





October 31, 2013

Lessons, Tips and Facts from Our Chef

It's great to be with a chef as he cooks something you're about to try cooking too. You can watch and listen and ask questions - here are some of the surprises I picked up from Chef Ian in my first 7 weeks of cooking school...you might already know these...but I was surprised by some of them.

Never stir stock.

Add bones to the pot, add cold water just to cover.

Bring it just to the boil, then to a slow simmer, skimming off the scum as it rises to the surface. (sounds like life doesn't it?)

Then add the vegetables and herbs.

For dark stock – use veal and beef bones...and knuckle bones give off a lot of gelatin…you’re looking for a gelatinous stock.

Remove the vegetables and bones when done and continue boiling down until you have a condensed stock – much easier to store in the freezer and then add water when you need to reconstitute. So don't add salt until you're making something with it.

The difference between broth and stock? Broth is made of stock and other things you add…stock is just stock…it’s the foundation of sauces, soups, and ahem, broth.

Cooking times are longer than you think – about 4-6 hours for chicken stock, 12-24 for dark stock – a slow cooker is good for making stock overnight.

Always cool down the stock by putting the pot in the sink and running cold water under it – needs to cool down fast. Then get it in the fridge or freezer.

To create a sachet for some stocks you can split a leek lengthwise, lay the bay leaf and thyme sprigs in the middle and then put the leek together again and tie with string. 

Tie sachets to the handle on the pot to make them simple to remove later.

Chef only cooks with black pepper. First night he passed around black and white pepper for us to smell - white pepper reminded me of horses or farms or something. Then he said he only uses black pepper because white pepper smells like a barnyard to him. But smell both and see which you prefer.

Use a steel on your knife every time you use it – sharpen it, professionally, once a year. (Unless it's Japanese, then you should check whether you need a special diamond or ceramic steel.)

Hold a chef’s knife with the thumb and forefinger at the front edge of handle…curl the other fingers under the handle.

Your other hand holds the food - like a lemon. Imagine you're holding a lemon with your palm down..see the shape of your fingers? That's how they should rest on top of the food you're cutting. The flat part of your middle finger the most prominent, nails tucked back, your thumb and pinky slightly behind.

Slice away with your food and your knife at opposing 45 degree angles - so you form a triangle - you, your knife arm, and the food held by your other hand…

How to slice vegetables – it's a rocking motion, the knife sliding forward through the food…blade shouldn't have to leave the board.

The food doesn’t move, the knife and your hand do.

Buy a rubber shelf liner at the dollar store to put under your cutting board to prevent it from slipping. Or in a pinch, lay wet paper towel under the board.

Use flat leaf parsley for cooking, use curly parsley for garnish. Curly leaf parsley releases too much chlorophyll turning food green.

Add salt, pepper and any citrus at the end.

Making sauce - either your roux is hot and your liquid is cold...or your liquid is hot and your roux is cold.

Roux: equal parts fat (butter/oil etc) to flour mixed together.

I'll pull together another list as we move along...If you have any to add, please do...let's build up our tipsheet together.

October 28, 2013

A Trout in the House with White Wine Sauce

You know when you are ladling something out of a pot – and it’s dripping and dripping and you can’t get it over to the bowl you need it in…and you stand there as a stream of stuff hangs like a string, then turns into drips then turns into slower drops and you just wait for that break in the dripping to get quickly over to the bowl…and then you rush and slurp stuff all over the place? And then throw the ladle back in the pot and it splurts up the sides…okay…maybe it’s just me…

But I learned last night that if you dip your ladle in the sauce, soup, stock whatever, hold it up, then dip the base again in the surface of the sauce, soup, stock, it will stop the stream, drip, or drop and you can cleanly get whatever over to the bowl you need it in.

Huh!

That is one of the many lessons I’m picking up at cooking school. I’ll write a whole list out for you – stuff I didn’t know – that you probably do – but as home cooks we don’t necessarily run across in our books or online.

The class is very cool. We work in professional kitchens, on stainless steel islands for four people and I have a friendly, collegial group of Lisa, Sheryl and Anna…we get along great and everything is about cooperation – not a whiff of competition.

We’re now six weeks in and more and more comfortable wearing our chefs whites and hats, brandishing our chef knives, and even turning on the stoves. The ranges are big mothers – six burner Garlands. And they growl as you approach them, daring you to try.

We are in the fishbowl – so named for being right at street level, with floor to ceiling glass and we’re encouraged to wave at the people who stop to watch. One reason I grabbed the space at my island – one of the furthest from the edge of the bowl.

At the front is Chef Ian’s demo counter and stove, with cameras and monitors so you don’t miss any manoeuvre. We start the evening standing around watching him demonstrate what we’ll be cooking…taking furious notes…then we scatter like an offensive line coming out of a huddle.

They supply trays of ingredients portioned and to be shared with your teammates.

You know those towels that chefs wear tucked over their apron strings? They’re for using as pot holders – not for wiping your hands…I’ll master that one day…I still can’t bring myself to tear paper towel for every wet hand you have while cooking.

Last week we made fish. And it exercised our knife skills, our sauce skills, and our timing skills. And then as always our cleaning skills.

Ontario trout is quite lovely. These were farmed trout fillets.

We poached the fish and then made a beautiful sauce with the poaching liquid. Thought I’d share.

Poached Filets in White Wine Sauce

4 portions

1 Filet Ontario lake trout
2 oz butter
1 oz shallot, diced
2 oz white wine (recipe calls for reisling, but use a dry white if you have it)
8 oz fish stock (we cut ours in half because Chef thought it was too strong)
If you’ve cut the fish stock, make it up with water
Parchment paper cut into a circle (see video for a great tip on how to shape it easily – this is what the chef taught us too)

Sauce
1 pint fish velouté - or have on hand some more fish stock and wine to bulk up liquid once you've cooked your fish
Whipping cream to taste (although recipe called for 3 ½ oz)
1 oz butter
12 green seedless grapes, sliced in half
4 sprigs flat-leafed parsley chopped
1 stem of fresh thyme, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste (there’s a blog to be done on white pepper)
½ lemon, juice and zest

You can make the fish velouté separately if you like, but why not use the liquid you poached the fish in? Then you dirty only one pot. Makes sense…Oui?

Okay.

The fish. If the skin is on, you’ll have to remove it. Get out your best, sharpest filet or boning knife (mine, a Victorinox, was $30 at a kitchen store and the chefs all recommended it – no, neither they, nor I get anything for that).

Lay the fish skin side down on the edge of your cutting board (make sure your cutting board has either a sheet of wet paper towel under it, or a rubber mat, to prevent slipping – I bought a roll of that rubber stuff at a dollar store and cut it into pieces).

If you’re right handed, have the tail to the left, and if you’re a southpaw, like me, you put the tail to the right.

Starting about half an inch from the tail end, slice down and toward the tail (counter intuitive, I know). Then turn the blade toward the business end of the fish – toward the main body of the fish. Laying the knife firmly and flat against the skin, and with your other hand pulling the tail and skin taut, start carefully slicing between the skin and flesh (you’re actually slicing the membrane between the two).

It’s a slight sawing motion. If your knife is sharp enough, you’ll slide through fairly easily. The trick is to hold that tail taut. As you progress through the filet, fold up the flesh to check you’re not leaving any of the red meat on the skin. Adjust your knife lower if you are.

It should come off in one piece, and you can hold it up to your neck and pretend you have a fish tie. No, seriously…do it. It’s part of the ritual.

If you’ve come through the skin or it tears…and you can’t catch the edge again with your knife, you’re probably going to have to do what I had to do the first time I tried this – flip it over and laboriously pull the skin up with your filet or boning knife until you’ve got it all off. That way takes a good five to ten minutes…the proper way takes a minute. Worth trying.

Once you’re done, you can choose whether to poach the filet whole in your sauté pan, or cut it into portions. I found cutting it into portions much easier to handle…and they fit in the pan better. 

So.

Get out your sauté pan. Do NOT put it on the heat yet.

Take a chunk of your butter and smear it along the bottom and sides of your pan (I used a pan with the vertical sides – not a true sauté pan).

Evenly spread the diced shallot all over the bottom.

Carefully place your filet portions on the shallots. Fold the tail section (the thinnest probably) in half to mimic the thickness of the other portions. Salt and pepper them.

Pour in your wine (dribble it over the fish).

Pour in your fish stock. And if you’re adding water, pour in the water.

The liquid should come halfway up the fish.

Cover the fish with your perfectly-made circle of parchment paper. Remember to cut it a little larger than the pan so it comes up the sides a little. Push the parchment down to touch all the filets.

Now, carefully bring it to a boil on the stove, and then turn it down to a simmer. It should take about 10 minutes. If the fish centres are not cooperating after about 10 minutes, just carefully flip them over and put the parchment back over them for a minute or two. The filets should look done and a little flaky.

While you’re waiting for the filets to be done, you can get a jump on the sauce. Make a beurre manié in a small bowl. Sounds fancy, but it’s just equal parts of butter and flour mixed together. (You can err on the side of more fat to flour) Mix it well. Set aside.

Remove the filets when they’re done and keep them warm.

Now for the sauce.

The rule for making sauces is that the liquid and the beurre manié have to be opposite temperatures.

So as our beurre manié is at room temperature or a little cooler and our pan liquid is hot…we’re good to go. Add more fish stock/wine/water if you need more liquid in the pan, bring it up to a boil, reduce it by about ¼, then turn down to a gentle simmer. Put some of the beurre manié in the pan and whisk. Don’t put all of it in…otherwise you might have too thick a sauce. As it heats and melds with the fish stock and wine and shallots, it will start to thicken. Add more if it's not thick enough.

The sauce should coat the back of a spoon. When you run your finger along the back of the spoon it should leave a gentle trail. Feel free to add more stock or wine if needed.

Add the cream, and add this to your taste, no matter what the recipe says.

Now add the sliced grapes and the chopped thyme and parsley. Simmer gently for 10 minutes or so.
Season with salt and pepper. Add some lemon juice and zest, if you’re like me I can’t resist the zest – but fair warning, be careful with the lemon, it can get too ‘citrus-y’ quickly.

Plate your fish – and drizzle the wine sauce over it, making sure each person gets a few grape slices.
I was amazed how good the grapes were in this. I didn’t think they’d add much. But I liked it.

In fact, I like this so much I made it again the next night with the spare trout filet they gave us. It’s a quick dinner believe it or not. Great if you’ve got guests coming over on a weeknight, or weekend…

So far, our friends are pretty happy with this whole cooking school thing – mostly because I bring stuff home and need help eating it.

By the way if you replace the grapes with button mushrooms you’ve made a different sauce – something called sauce bonne femme. Just add the mushrooms earlier in the recipe so that they cook.  Use it on sole filets or whatever you like…

Just try it…See where it takes you.

The lovely thing about sauce is that it is pretty generous. It will work with you – too thick? Add liquid. Too thin? Add more beurre manié.

Generosity – that’s what cooking is all about.

Enjoy.

September 09, 2013

Don't Apologize


“When you flip anything you must have the courage of your convictions, particularly if it’s sort of a loose mass like this. Oh…that didn’t go very well...But you can always pick it up. And if you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?”

Cooking. A metaphor for life. And wisdom from Julia Child.

A perfect source of wisdom for me right now. Because, believe it or not, after months of building up to it - I left chef school. In the first week.

And I learned a lot. But not what I was expecting.

Chef school is exciting. The kitchens are dazzling. The demo labs, the industrial mixers, the massive stoves, the chef whites, the knife kits, the hats, elevating you into the profession. (Although one baking teacher asked why we all wanted to go into the life of a domestic servant…)

These chefs are very passionate, determined and dedicated artists.

Through all of that I discovered something.

I really, really, really don’t want to cook to the standard of a restaurant. It was like hitting my passion for food with a nuclear bomb.

And though no one asked them to, my classmates figured out quickly that if the chef asked us if we understand, they said, in unison, Yes Chef!

I wasn’t sure if it was in me when I wrote about it before I went. And guess what? It isn’t. My neck and shoulders tighten, my lips get pursed. And I suddenly find I’m trying to shake my shoulders loose. Nope. It’s just too much. You know…set to 11.

It was a blow. I spent most of the week on the verge of tears in public and letting them overflow in private. It was shocking. The thoughts started creeping through - the money...the risk...the embarrassment...the naivete, and my age old panicky feeling of doubt followed quickly by paralysis - I can't go forward, can't go back.

The old me would have torn myself to shreds. For a long time. In a voice I wouldn't use on anyone else. I debated pushing through. I've been in these settings before (anyone in a newsroom or tv control room feels it) and wondered why I pushed on. But here no. I knew if I went back, my body would stop myself from going in the classroom. Hmmm. Journalism was what I was meant to study. What I loved. And cooking school was adding a specialty to my life. And one that I can still learn.

I had made a huge mistake.

So this time, I quit.

For me, the “courage of my convictions” was in calling it.

When a goal leads you down a fork in the road and you see another path veering away from you – you get to call quits. And you will never quite know. And that, my friends, must be what growing up feels like.

I’m a home cook. I want to get better. I want to, in fact, be the best I can be. I want to taste well (not good, that’s different). I want to practice up my palate. I want to create. And I want to share.

Cooking is generosity, not competition. Not so much the culinary Olympics. For others maybe, but not for me.

Goal/motivation psychology tells us that if your goal is taking you in the wrong direction, adapt the goal. Find a related goal – one that’ll get you near. In psychology gobbledygook it is called ‘goal disengagement’ and ‘goal reengagement’. And people who can do that apparently also have the added benefit of better physical health.

In other words, flogging yourself to death because you won’t quit what you don’t even want ain’t good for you.

When I told my closest friends, they all had the same reaction – in calls and emails…first complete support and congratulations for knowing so fast...and second, worried that I’d beat myself up…I seem to have a reputation.

The not-much-younger me could hear the muffled voice inside my head trying to break through to scream at me for failing…for quitting…for not following anything through…for thinking I could even do this in the first place. Imposter!

The not-much-older me shored up the walls. And ignored it.

I did some research – discovered a different certification program that is part-time and signed myself up. I start that in less than two weeks. I still get to wear my chef whites, carry my knife kit and learn to be a much better, and happier, cook.

And with that, by the end of Friday, I’d reached the end of my first, and last, week of chef school. I had set a goal. It hadn’t worked. I found another. I moved on.

Julia Child had it down – her philosophy was work hard, take risks and if you make a mistake – don’t apologize.

If you need me, I’ll be on the other fork in the road.

August 09, 2013

The Food Life

Many years ago, just before I turned 40, a friend wanted to go to the driving range. It was one of those muggy summer nights when you can’t really think of sleeping, when the air is soft but thick on your skin - like velvet, and the stadium lights have a glow around them.

I hadn’t hit anything with a golf club in years. We had hacked around at various driving ranges once in a while, the way most of us go bowling or try curling…to say we’d done it, to be bad at it, to laugh our asses off.

But this night meant heading to the driving range with someone who was born to golf - who had put in his 10,000 hours before he turned 20. And so, my competitive spirit and fear of humiliation kicked in. And I wanted to be good at it. In my late 30s…like…sure.

I think most of us want to pursue stuff we’re good at – it makes us feel good - no, competent, when a lot of the world is so competitive that feeling incompetent or unsure is more the norm than not. So I approached the range with a great deal of dread. And excitement.

I had been watching golf tournaments for years. I loved the mental part of the game, the skills, and that the players were playing a game against the course, and themselves. But play? No. And for good reason.

My dad was a golfer which made Mum a golf widow. We moved to a house in the middle of nowhere because it was close to his golf course. Weekends were about waiting for Dad to finish his game and his social time at the club. He took the car…we waited at home. That was the kind of time it was. Mad men…

And one year after we’d moved in, Dad left. He took the car, his clubs, his stuff, and the smell of golf stayed rancid in the house. Golf was never really mentioned as a bad thing…but as a kid I just got the vibe. No. I had no intention of playing.

So that summer night we got our buckets of balls and walked over to the tees, I had no expectations.

My friend handed me his 7-iron. He put a ball on the tee. ‘Hit it,’ he said.

I stepped up. I swung the club back and down and through, and the ball sailed into the night air.

He stood and looked at it. Then he grabbed another ball, put it on the tee, and said, ‘do that again.’

So …I did. And again, it went sailing into the night air.

He jumped up from his chair and hugged me. ‘You’re a natural,’ he said. ‘Who says watching golf doesn’t teach you anything?’

A lot of life is like that – yes, I just said golf is a metaphor for life. Yes I did.

I was thinking about this today. I am a late bloomer. I’ve always said that. I think it has to do with learning to be comfortable with risk – which took me a very, very long time. In fact, way into my 30s.

Life really does evolve – in surprising ways. In my rolling rock of life, I found myself learning about things I never, ever thought I was capable of learning – I loved journalism and writing my whole life (but I didn’t jump in until I was 28 and couldn’t find anything else to do), and that, by serendipity, took me into science (which I had dropped in grade 10), which led to international travel to some of the world’s most fascinating spots, which led me into health journalism (and got me through my phobia about medicine and doctors and the word ‘probe’ and any word ending in ‘-oscopy’), and brain science…I used to write on my resume that if my science teachers were dead, they’d be spinning in their graves. And the stress of that life – it ain’t all glamour like you may think – led me to just start running one day. And suddenly I was getting into uber fit mode…and uber eating mode.

So then, my love of food and a need to understand its meaning. I really can’t tell you where that came from. The obsession.

I think it was born when I finally figured out that it’s okay to be true to what you want in life.

It started with finding a nook in a bookstore and leafing through cookbooks. This was before the Food Network. Then with food tv I picked up tons of tips and ways and means of doing things – like rubbing my fingers on the sink after chopping garlic to rid them of the smell, or the virtues of browning meat on the stovetop before popping it in the oven - from Julia to Ina, from Alton to Emeril…I picked up stuff and put it away in my brain. And the food magazines started forming towers in the living room.

But it was more than that – because it was touching an emotional chord in me. I loved cooking and feeding my friends. What was underpinning that? I remember when I started this food blog back in 2006, I actually had to look up what a blog was, then what a food blog was, and suddenly I found tons of people sharing their food lives online. Like an underground community or tribe. That was 7 years ago. I had no idea it would lead me here.

Food is a way to show kindness. Love, I guess. To be generous - even to myself. To get the thrill that comes with the magic. Taking six things, or less, and mixing them – and suddenly the alchemy of say tomato, garlic and fresh basil explodes beyond the individual ingredients.

But if I’m being completely honest, making food was not only a way to show love, but to get love back.

Tasting reminds me of listening. Have you noticed that?

I picked up my chef uniform this week – two tunics, two chef hats, one pair of chef pants and two aprons. And I find it a tad ironic that as I jump into chef school and its complex French cuisine, I find myself trying to cook at home with fewer and fewer ingredients. You know finding a place for each individual ingredient to shine and yet work in concert with others. To enhance and nurture the best out of everything, not diminish it or squelch it into blandness.

Yes, I just said cooking is a metaphor for life. Yes I did.

So the big question is –is it ever too late to start on the next 10,000 hours? It better not be…I'll go have a look at the PGA Championship. Tiger's on the tee.

July 29, 2013

Grocery Philosophy

Grocery shopping takes some philosophy.

Maybe I’m overstating it. Maybe it simply takes planning. Doesn’t really matter.  I find both pretty hard – philosophy and planning.

My grocery method is a non-method…

I fall into the category of ‘oh-look-pretty-shiny’. If it’s gorgeous, or on sale, my cart wheels its way over there…then over there, then over there…and then it gets parked, and I find myself just wandering through the produce. Which drains $100 from my pocket pretty quickly. But it’s good exercise.

I don’t know really what I want to buy. I probably need milk, tea, bread, tea, salad greens, tea…that’s what my shopping list looks like, if I get as far as a list.

My brother in law and his wife came across the country for a visit a few weeks back. And I pulled in all kinds of food for the week. It was a joy – from hummus and tabbouleh from my favourite place, to the fish from my favourite fish place, to the meat and eggs from my favourite place…that was a good day.

My brother in law is a FANTASTIC cook. And the knife doesn’t fall far from…the counter. His son is an executive chef. They’re vegetarian, or his wife is, and Bill’s meals are a delight.

But it was their grocery shopping that had me mouth breathing for a while. When we visited them about eight years ago, we went to the market with them one weekend morning. Before we went, there was a conference to determine the menu…for the whole week. I was in awe. We went. We shopped. Bing, bang, boom. Done.

As Sam explained, they live a ways from the nearest store so it’s a pain if you’ve forgotten the quinoa…We live three blocks from a main street. We can shop every day if we want – and often do. She also said that when she shopped without a list of menus, she threw a lot of food away…um…guilty gulp.

Only yesterday I threw out a box of organic greens that smelled more like organic sewage. And old watermelon chunks. And biggest crime of all - furry Rainier cherries. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

I guess there are personalities for shopping – or philosophies. And they can collide. Right in the aisle.

When Bill and Sam visited us a few years back, we went to a local grocery store to pick up stuff for dinner. I pushed the cart and wandered as I do from aisle to aisle in the produce section.
                                                     
I saw stuff. I stopped. I’d put stuff in the cart. I’d walk over to the other side, around the corner and back…zig, zag…meander…and Sam snapped a gasket. She looked like a mother goose herding goslings. She got the cart back, got me/us focused on what we were doing there and off we went – bing, bang, boom…done.
My eyes were twinkling a bit as they do when I realize I’ve annoyed someone and I find it amusing that we have completely different approaches to something. I laughed…I think she did too…later…

Grocery shopping is something of a pleasure for me – I know it’s part of drudge work for some people and I get why. Even when I rush in for a litre of milk (yes, I’m in Canada, so it’s a litre), my feet brake suddenly as I pass the fruit or vegetables displayed near the door. I pull out my phone to take pictures of the beautiful eggplants or radishes.

And if I'm visiting anywhere, I must, must, must, find my way into a grocery store - foreign food stores are fantastic adventures.

It’s a thing for me. What is it? It’s not a philosophy and it certainly isn’t planning…it’s a visual pleasure – maybe it’s bounty, plenty, health, joy. And it slows me down. That can't be bad. Now all I have to learn is how to honour the best of that food that ends up in my cart before the rot sets in…And that’s veering dangerously near a philosophy… and a plan.

July 24, 2013

Deep Breath

Le Chef de l'Hôtel Chatham, Paris
Deep breath. It’s not as cold as I think. Go on…Dive in.

I’m going to chef school. This September.

It’s a culinary skills course. For a year. For a certificate.

And frankly, as everyone congratulates me on moving in a new direction, I’m terrified. But then, what else is new?

I’m 50 for crissakes. 

I make my own tomato sauce, salad dressing, and turkey stuffing…so what makes me think I can jump to the next level? Really. People think I’m a good cook. I read almost exclusively food books and cook books. But that does not qualify me to be a chef.

The hardest part of switching direction is trying to determine if this is the right path – if I’ll go for a month and then wake up one day saying this isn’t really what I want…or wake up one day and figure it’s too a)hard b)scary c)stupid d)authoritarian e)all of the above.

I don’t know if a chef demands I jump that I can just say how high…I’m not sure it’s in me.
I’m not sure I won’t look silly in the hat – okay…actually I’m excited about that part. And I think the chef whites will help temper my imposter syndrome.

And I’m not sure I want to go to school as the most definitely oldest student in the class. Or more realistically if I want to go to school with a bunch of kids – and yes…they could be my kids.

Out, out damn-ed doubt.

I went to the information night last fall (just back from Italy and still digesting tons of excellent food and even more excellent red wine – by the way, can anyone explain why I don’t get a headache from cheap red wine when I’m in Italy?) and listened to the chefs explain how the courses work, what to expect and how delighted they were they had chosen this line of work and that god probably created humans to become chefs – the chosen tribe. (and on that previous parenthesis thought – I wonder if red wine in France has the same effect?)

I went up to the chef who was giving most of the information to ask about the different types of programs and what I was thinking of doing – he said (with a straight face) that he’s had a lot of people come through the program in their 30s and also a fair number in their 40s who were thinking of changing direction – he’s even (and this was where the straight face thing came into play) had one person in their 50s.

I just looked at him and nodded…but inside I had fled through the door, out into the rainy, cold October night, with that familiar feeling of just not belonging…

What a freak. A flighty, quirky, weird sort…
Oh well…so I’m flighty…

I thought about it through the winter and into the spring – and a couple of weeks before my 50th birthday, one evening, impulsively, I filled out the form – my finger hovered over the ‘Submit’ button…and I pressed down. I felt that metallic cold flush of fear like I’d just made a huge error.
I looked at Steve with my eyes wide and he just said, ‘What?’ – ‘I think I just applied for chef school.’

Steve, being Steve, just smiled. Then he said, ‘good for you’.

How I love that man.

So now the tuition is paid and I’m wrestling with the stupid, self-important educational bureaucracy, and going to orientation in just over a month. Next week I have to register for my courses and the next day have to take a placement test for English (yes, really – two degrees including one in journalism – although any journalist and especially editor will tell you that has no bearing on the quality of my English) and a test in math (just gulped). 

Of course it’s not a totally new direction. And no, I don’t want to be a Chef…no, I don’t want to work in a restaurant or, god forbid, an industrial kitchen…I want to write about food. And I want the cred to do it.

I’ve blogged on and off for a few years, but that ain’t going to cut it with what I think I want to do.
I have a project, or two, in mind for after I’m done. And they’re big.

But for now, baby steps, just drop myself into a place where I feel I know nothing – Just be there to learn…that’s my zen goal for now… how to chop an onion, how to make sauces, how to roast a chicken…and working in those beautiful, new, professional kitchens…hey maybe the excitement could actually douse the fear…maybe…staying tuned.

May 02, 2013

Spaghetti Bolognese - Now or Later

We have entered the parent care years.

Decidedly.

3 parents. In their 80s. 2 of 3 in their right minds, but their bodies starting to show signs of wear. 1 of 3 in her wrong mind and wrong body.

Between the three of them we’re playing hard and fast against the brain, the heart, the lungs…trying drugs, trying bars and chairs, shoring up their lifestyles – keeping at least one well out of institutional care.

There’s a lot of adaptation that has to happen – for those dealing with their aging bodies, and for us – as we try to help as much as we can to keep everyone safe, and comfortable and as happy…well…as can be.

And yes, food is involved. Because life is a lot easier if you don't have to worry about dinner so much - or if someone makes it a tad easier for you...

So I'm going to share some of the recipes I have found that work...won't share the ones that don't...and if you could share some ideas too that would be fantastic.

I found myself holding a 500 gram packet of ground beef – grass fed, organic…and there was no way that was going to wait around in the fridge until I finally chucked it in frustration with myself. Yes…that happens.

I needed a recipe that would work now and later – something that could go in the freezer for my Mum to do a quick thaw and chomp. I asked her about shepherd’s pie, cottage pie, chili con carne…but when I said spaghetti Bolognese…her eyes lit up.

So I looked up a bunch of recipes…because you know how you think you know how to make something, but really you find the group brain core dumping ground a much better place for ideas? And the web didn’t disappoint…

Except in one sense – why do the British need to call spaghetti Bolognese ‘spag bol’? 

Uh…no.

I found this recipe on the BBC Good Food site. And it was interesting.

So, here is my interpretation of the recipe.

4 slices bacon, diced
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, diced
(the recipe also calls for a chili pepper, diced, but I didn’t have one)
1 lb ground beef, I used extra lean
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 – 28 oz can plum tomatoes
6 or so fresh cherry tomatoes
Fresh or 1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried oregano, or more to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 glass red wine
Beef stock (as much as necessary for liquid)
2 bay leaves
Fresh basil leaves, some for cooking, reserve some for serving

Put a glug of olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan, heat to medium and fry the bacon until brown and crispy. Lower the heat a little and add the onions, garlic – let them soften a little (but not brown) and then add the celery, carrots. Add the rosemary and stir the mixture letting it soften for 8-10 minutes. Add the ground beef and break apart in the pan. Let it brown thoroughly. Stir in the tomato paste for a couple of minutes. Add the canned tomatoes and the wine. Stir in the oregano and basil, salt and pepper. Slice the cherry tomatoes and toss in. Stir. Bring everything to a simmer – and if you need to, this is when you can add some beef stock. Then lower the heat, cover partially, and let simmer for 1 hour 15 minutes. Stir occasionally, making sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom.
The recipe calls for 75g of grated parmesan to be added once it's cooked – however I didn’t have any – and didn’t miss it. I also did a quick taste test as I do with tomato sauces at the end…and added a teaspoon of sugar to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes. Then I chopped up some more fresh basil and added it to the sauce right before serving it – with some as garnish too. Brightens the taste immediately. Serve with spaghetti.
I portioned out the sauce I needed for dinner, then split the remainder among a few food containers, let it cool, then threw it in the freezer. It will easily thaw in the microwave or in a pot on the stove. And it is one of those meals that tastes better the next day…

Mum was happy. And still has some in her freezer for another day.

March 04, 2013

Random Sundown

In the midst of this winter, I was trying to remember twilight...in my childhood. In the summer. The heat dissipates. Air is thick. My body stills. The window open, the sky slips off the edge from violet blue heading to black. The air soft, velvety, tired from the day’s sharp and heavy humidity. I can smell grass that’s just been cut by someone’s dad after dinner. I hear a sprinkler. A mosquito buzzes over my ear, close, its bass hum making me twitch. I can hear people chatting quietly, laughing occasionally, ice cubes clinking against glass in the distance. A gate squeaking open and closed, the latch clicks…porch lights come on.

~

People are drawn to sundown…we gather. Primal. Watching the end of day, watching the source of our life slip over the edge – a collective release of optimism, or is it hope, that we will be fine to wait for its return. We treat sunset reverently. We stand facing the same way – joined, but alone. I’ve seen the sun set into oceans around the world, but had never seen the green flash until last year. We arrived at Anna Maria Island for a week in April. We arrived late afternoon – with plenty of time to walk to the beautiful beach. No haze on the horizon – a clear prospect for the sun to drop cleanly off stage. At its last possible moment, it winked a brilliant green light, like a magnesium flare…and we looked at each other and said at the same time – did you see it? There’s almost no twilight. Sun sets. People turn. Night comes.

~

As the day fades into evening my husband’s mother fades too. Her brain on Alzheimer’s mode, she gets lost. Her instincts tell her she’s not safe, like an animal looking for shelter. This is when she has most of her falls. When her bones crack, and her breathing is short. She is losing this battle. Every day is a new wonder of yesterday’s facts – why she’s in the hospital. What hospital she’s in. Why she can’t move her arm. Why she can’t go home. The experts debate the drugs: they help her brain, they make her fall…which is the lesser of the evils. The specialists call it sundowning – but it's not...it's shadow raising...it should be about shadows…not sunset.

~

The day was just about over when we finally pulled into Agra. A long drive from Jaipur. The dust, the dung, the frenetic, and frankly, suicidal, tendencies of our driver frazzled us. It was the end of day Thursday – and we were there for 24 hours to see the town’s virtue – the Taj Mahal. As we checked in, the hotel owner warned us to get over there pronto as the government had just changed the rules – the building built for love was now closed on Fridays. That, I thought, was pretty much my karma when it came to love. We grabbed a taxi. As the building appeared in the distance beneath the Mughal arch, my breath reflexively drew itself in. The Taj Mahal is spectacular, a tribute to beauty – even swarmed by barefooted tourists, wedding couples, families. Its symmetry gives you some peace, except the sky used that moment to open. We were drowned in torrential rain – not drips, buckets. A second karmic tribute to my love life. We ran for it. Taking shelter in the actual mausoleum, staring back along the gardens as the rain washed the tourists away. And once it faded and moved on, we crept back out and wandered gently back along the gardens. My third karmic signal of love. The sky to the west was a deep metallic grey, with a severe straight edge just hovering above the horizon. And an equally severe and beautiful glow of pink was growing behind it as the sun met the opening before hitting the horizon. We spun around to look at the Taj Mahal. And as we did the sun burst below the cloud line, deep on the edge of the earth, and for the final minutes of that day, it lit the white marble to a stunning pink and peach, warming the sky…and lighting us up. I’ll never forget – it gave me hope that love comes even if it’s before sunset – and it can be spectacular. It did. And it is.

~

Twilight, long and slow. Beautiful in winter. As the northern hemisphere bends itself towards the sun come spring…the colours of the fading daylight bring me the same sense of calm they did as a child. But also a sense of sadness – a profoundly deep sense of time I feel in my cells. Mere moments of time I wish I could lock away somewhere. The sun moves beyond the reach of my window as it creeps further and further over my head. Longer days, sunsets, and the trailing spectrum of blues that lead us through night. It is, and will be, long after me. I close the blinds to the night. I turn the porch light on.

February 02, 2013

Super Wings

Superbowl.
The Harbowl...
I'll be watching. We even bought a hi def antenna for it. There is NOTHING like watching football in hi def...(update...Yay Ravens!!!)

We'd be watching anyway, but our friends' son, Cameron, adores sports. He eat, breathes, sleeps, lives it...and gets paid for it. After working for the Florida Panthers, he scored a gig with...you guessed it...the Baltimore Ravens...and so after a couple of years of working with them, he's spending this weekend dancing in the streets of New Orleans, living at the peak of that particular sports' world...and we couldn't be prouder or happier for him...he's buzzing (and he got tickets for his parents and sister for the game...)

So how to celebrate? Food of course. Food and the Superbowl go together like...well food and the Superbowl. Like our infamous Snipe 'n Munch party. Did you hear that the most popular superbowl food has spiked in price these last couple of weeks? Well...if you're going to invest in chicken wings for the Superbowl...then treat them well. They deserve your respect...And so...by regulation...here is a Canadian twist on a Superbowl super food: Maple Garlic Ginger Chicken Wings

These are courtesy of a food blog called She Cooks and He Eats.

I've made these at least half a dozen times...and they're delicious every time.

So go...fast to the recipe for Maple Garlic Ginger Chicken Wings
They need a few hours to marinate - I've done them after an hour in the sauce and I've waited three hours...whatever works for you...

I do have to share the video she posted on how to eat chicken wings...it's kind of brilliant.

Oh...and Go RAVENS!


January 18, 2013

A Home of My Own

Sigh. I hate to admit this.
I have never owned a house.
I really hate that I hate to admit this. Re-Sigh.
What I hate more, is that having never owned a house makes me feel a bit like a loser.
I don’t think I’m alone. Oh god don’t let me be alone.

I know a few other people, mostly artists, who have never scraped enough money together for a down payment – let alone cover a mortgage. Even in this time of unprecedented, unbelievably cheap money. That bastion of adulthood - a mortgage. You've arrived...right?

Contrary to popular belief, house ownership is not an entitlement. Until the late 1940s most people in North America rented. The housing boom made owning possible. And now about 2/3 of Americans own a house – or the bank owns it while they live there. Which means a significant number of people still rent...

I went through the numbers with my husband when he came into my life. He’s owned before. He knows this whole ‘budget’ thing. He watches real estate like a red-tailed hawk on a field mouse. He hasn’t seen the market making any sense for the last number of years. So we’ve put money away…paid all our bills…and we sit patiently - okay I’m not so patient - waiting for a ‘market correction’. By the way, the Toronto real estate numbers were recently released, and sales here have dropped a whopping 19.5% over last year at this time…BUT…prices haven’t.

Steve created an excel spreadsheet with every variable and compared owning to renting (and saving/investing the difference). Yes, we save the difference – our shredded sofa is ample evidence. We do have that discipline.

On balance, it kind of balances…but…and yes there is a but…if you buy early in life…and if you pay it off, then the advantage is to owning. And there is a difference once you’ve cashed out as an owner and have to live on the money – you might be better off....

Blah, blah, blah. Money and math and business decisions...

I’m more fascinated by the feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s uneasy. That feeling like you’re being left behind at the train station while everyone heads off to vacation/beach/funland. Or there’s a party somewhere…you can hear it…somewhere…Friends have urged us to buy – saying the same thing I’ve heard over decades – jump in, or you’ll never get in – always said when things are in a frenzy.

Part of my problem is that I forgot. I mean time flew by…and sort of like having children…I forgot there might be a deadline. And here is what I hate even more. It might actually be too late. There is an encroaching deadline on this…why buy something that I have to commit too many years to paying off…years that would now take me wayyyyy beyond retirement (assuming I were to live a fantasy life and actually retire)?

Buying now just doesn’t make sense to me…it doesn’t make sense. And I shake my head loose, and my shoulders and my arms…as if I’m starting afresh – pushing away the propaganda that says my life is not successful without a house in my name. And trying to live in the spirit that works hard not to follow the herd…

I know. I know… renting…

…the house isn’t ours, the things we’d improve aren’t really in our power to improve. We share the basement laundry with our landlady (as lovely as she is)…so she has to come briefly through our apartment to get to the basement. The century-old place is nowhere near sound proof or insulated. Personal conversations have to be whispered, no one is dumb enough to come over without a sweater – unless we’ve had the oven on for a couple of hours.

And yet, my life is actually better without a house right now. My quality of life is quite high compared to previous years – I can travel…I can sit here and write and don’t have to worry about next month's rent. We put a lot of money into the food we buy. We have a stove, a fridge, and a counter…and our overhead isn’t that high. We live close to the subway system, in a fantastic neighbourhood. And if we lost an income, as we did late last year, we’d be okay. Because we didn’t buy. It bought us some freedom. On balance…not a bad deal.

And when I look at it that way – I haven’t been left out of the party – in fact, I can host the party.

Which brings me in a long, roundabout path to New Year's Eve. We had 8 people at our dining room table. We’ve ritualized the many-course dinner over the years. It started with homemade paté, thanks to Andy, and prosecco. When we gathered around the table, we started with lobster and shrimp rolls. Then a salad – simply green, scattered with toasted walnuts and pomegranate seeds with a lemon dressing. In between various friends kindly got up to wash the dishes…and dry them…while Nicole and Jean Paul’s dog Connor (dear Connor) joined in and tried to help by eating the scraps that had gone into the compost bin…and then…on to the next course.

We ate pork loin roast – stuffed with apricots and prunes and smothered in a Madeira wine/molasses glaze served with a mashup of rutabaga and carrot, and steamed green beans with garlic and ginger. Then coq au vin with rosemary roasted potatoes. Then flourless chocolate cake, thanks to Nicole. And the cheese plate? We never got there. But the dishes were all clean.

We barely got to the champagne at midnight. Some of us just had cups of tea and were lolling on the furniture wobbling our way into a standing position to wish everyone a happy new year. Oh my god we laughed and talked and yammered and yawed…we laughed so hard. What a great way to bring in 2013. I love my friends. Feeding them ‘til they hurt was my way of showing that.

No, we weren't in our house...but we were definitely home. 

January 16, 2013

Lobster Rolling Into Another Year

We all seemed so tired as 2012 came to a close. Just so tired. It wasn’t one specific thing. I’m not sure what exactly led to the sense of exhaustion. But as I racked up the good and the bad points, devouring our way out of 2012 seemed the best revenge.

It was an interesting year…the team I was on won a media award…and I learned tons technically...and I finally became a Canadian citizen……and I quit my job (phew…that was hard)…and we helped one of our Moms clean up, sell up, and move out of her house…and I went to Italy to help one of my graces celebrate her half-century mark…and suddenly the twilight of the year was here.   

I guess, on balance, that makes for a good year.

But it was hard, and trying, and testing and sparkling…

We have created a ritual. When we’re in town for new year's eve, we get together with friends to cook and enjoy a feast – a feast of many dishes…and small portions…and many hours of lounging. And laughing.

Everyone was very busy this year…so I decided, with more time than anyone on my hands, to get it together and get us into 2013 happy and full.

We started with lobster rolls.

I’ve never had lobster rolls. Seriously.

I’ve been lucky enough to eat lobster twice, the best way possible – full food karma – on the Atlantic coast.

The first time was in Lubec, Maine. I. Love. Maine.  
 
We were there to tell the story of a dedicated, passionate team of whale researchers who were getting to know, and save, the most endangered whale in the world – the northern right whale.

At the time, there were about 300 whales left in the north Atlantic. They had gained the name right whale from the days of whale hunting…they moved so slowly they were the “right” whale to hunt.

Moira (Moe) Brown, a fellow Canadian, and her gang have made huge strides in protecting them.

When I reconnected with Moe in the fall (I’m so happy to have relinked), she told me the population is around 500, averaging about 22 calves per year for the last decade…and most of that, I think, is because Moe and her team and have worked tirelessly for decades now to keep the slow, lumbering animals out of harm’s way – even convincing the governments to move the shipping lanes so that the gentle beasts don’t get run over…

On our last night in Lubec the research team bought a pile of lobsters for dinner (we paid for ours). 

They cooked them in a pit in the backyard – with seaweed, and stuff and more stuff…I’m not sure what…as we had also bought a pile of wine and the recipe dimmed into the twilight and night. But the lobsters…were…sooo…good. We made tables out of doors and all plonked ourselves down for a seafood feast.

Then we all went over to Campobello Island, where FranklinDelano Roosevelt spent many summers, and walked, well…weaved along, the raised boardwalk through a bog to a big wooden platform – and under a perfectly clear sky, wrapped in sweaters. We laid on the platform on our backs and looked up at the stars. One of the researchers had brought his telescope…and he set it up…and we all marvelled at the crab nebula. An appropriately crustaceous end to a lovely evening.

We were back on the east coast the next year meeting up with Gary Dedrick to explore the disappearing fish from the sea banks off Nova Scotia. Gary was a fifth generation fisherman if I remember correctly, and all his brothers but one were fishermen. 

He was a passionate defender and advocate of how to responsibly maintain the fish stocks – taking us through the docks, the various fishing methods (he was not fond of draggers), the fish plants where many women prepped and iced the fish…An entire way of life was disappearing as fishermen were sunk by few fish, big debt, and absolute misery.

We spent time with Gary, who is on the fisheries sector council, as he advocated for his fellow fisherman - turning defending his livelihood and everyone else's, into his livelihood. And with us he had to put up with having a camera in his face as we followed him around on his journeys for a week and a half...with us babbling constantly about how he should just ignore us...act natural...

Right.

He patiently explained to us landlubbers how the fishing industry worked…how he stitched together a living between long lining, lobster season, and swordfish season. 

So again on our last night, the Dedricks and friends invited us for supper, in their backyard. 

The lobster was a complete surprise for us, our host/producer had hinted at a lobster obsession. She is of small stature …but, man, could she pack away lobsters like a longshoreman. It was impressive. 

The Dedricks watched us eat. And they took video and pictures. Gary said, “Don’t look at the camera. Just pretend we’re not here…” They guffawed…”yeah just act natural.”

Gary also taught us that night that if you snap the lobster’s tail fan off, you can pull the meat out with a fork in one, big piece…And while that was almost 20 years ago,  I pulled out that very trick the night I made lobster rolls. 

Lobster rolls are really easy. It’s lobster meat mixed with a beautifully-flavoured mayonnaise sauce. Then it’s all stuffed into a hot dog bun. Traditionally…

…but this was New Year’s Eve.

I looked up about a half-dozen recipes for this – and made up my own concoction in the end. And bear in mind I made this for 8, but it was an appetizer/first course, so the portions were smaller…adjust amounts accordingly if you’re planning this as a main course.

Lobster Rolls

4 lobster tails – can be frozen if necessary
1/2 cup melted butter
pinch of paprika
salt and pepper
1 lb fresh wild shrimp
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped, a little set aside
olive oil, enough to coat shrimp
1 cup mayonnaise (depending on how mayonnaise-y you want it)
2 tbsp lemon juice and some lemon rind
a small splodge of mustard (optional)
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 green onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp or so of capers, roughly chopped
parsley, finely chopped (optional)
8 buns – split open, toasted if desired

I bought lobster tails and broiled them. I decided to broil them after watching how. I split the tail shells down the middle with a pair of kitchen shears (not as easy as it sounds, and there are many spiky bits that the lobster keeps for its last revenge). I pulled open the shell a bit, poured the melted butter on the meat, and sprinkled it with paprika, salt and pepper and broiled them until they were opaque. About 10 minutes. I watched them very, very carefully because one minute too much and the meat would have been tough.

Remove the meat from the tails and roughly chop into bite size pieces. Set aside.

Now that the broiler is off…turn the oven on to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wash the shrimp, and let them drain well.

Chop garlic (2 cloves or so to your taste) and set a little bit aside (you can cook the shrimp with most of the garlic and add the remaining raw garlic you’ve set aside after the shrimp come out of the oven.)

Toss the shrimp in olive oil, chopped garlic and salt and pepper. Lay them out in a single layer on a tray. Put them in the oven. They too should only take 8-10 minutes at the most. Keep a close eye and pull them out halfway to turn them over.

Toss them with the remaining raw garlic and set aside.

At this point, you can put the seafood in containers and refrigerate until you’re ready to mix with the mayonnaise and serve. I don’t know that I would let it sit too long in the mayonnaise…but maybe I’m just being paranoid.

So…the mayonnaise – this can be a bit of a creative jaunt.

Put the mayonnaise in a mixing bowl.

Add the lemon juice and rind. Mix thoroughly. Add the mustard, celery, green onion, capers and mix.
The key is that this concoction gets to sit in the fridge for a few hours to mature.

When you’re ready to serve, mix the mayonnaise sauce with the lobster and shrimp meat. I shelled the shrimp before putting them in the mixture. (By the way, the shells from both would be a good source for fish stock – if you are partial to that kind of thing).

Toast the bread buns if you desire, then line them with lettuce or greens and spoon the seafood mixture into the crevice. Serve…

And dream of the ocean. May we all get a taste of the ocean in 2013...

January 04, 2013

Christmas Vegetables...I mean, Turkey

Yeah...so...I've been digesting for two weeks...I'll be done by spring.

The fridge has gone from bursting – with food stuffed on top of it, beside it, up and down it – to empty…in a week.

And the other thing I've noticed?...After all that food...I'm hungry all the time.

Christmas dinner was part of that – I broke a record – a personal best on the vegetable front. Previous record? Six vegetables. But this year…beat that by two. Yup eight vegetables. For three people...


 
  • Carrots
  • Rutabaga
  • Leeks
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Potatoes
  • Parsnips
  • Green beans

…and turkey with sausage stuffing and gluten free bread stuffing…
…with gravy and white sauce (for the leeks)
…with cranberry sauce




…followed by flaming Christmas pudding

Groan…

And then, there was new year’s…but that’s my next blog. Happy 2013.

December 20, 2012

A Taste of Italy


I haven't indulged myself in gushing about my trip to Italy (yet). It was just a couple of months, and a few windchill weeks back. But in looking through my food photos of the country...I came across this from the market in Florence. Sigh...bellissimo.

A Little Tagine Does the Heart Good

This is the season of cinnamon. And ginger…of savoury and sweet…of warmth.

I made this again last week for my friends. And they seemed to love it. I think the power of these spices is perfect for this time of year, in this cold and wintry landscape, even though tagine comes from a hot part of the world. Tagine is one of those impressive dishes that is just a lovely, spicy stew - you can make it with anything - I've written about lamb tagine before. And this one made of chicken is a lovely, lovely recipe that will wrap up all these flavours and senses and feed you well.

Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Almonds – adapted from Epicurious.com
serves 4 - but I did scale it up successfully 

1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp black pepper
1 ¼ tsp salt
3 tbsp olive oil
3-lb chicken in pieces (I’ve used bone-in thighs and boneless thighs – both worked)
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium red onion, halved, then sliced ¼ inch thick (although I don't think a white onion would be remiss)
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5 sprigs fresh cilantro
5 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 ½ cups water
2 tbsp mild honey
3 inch stick of cinnamon
½ cup dried Turkish apricots, separated into halves (that is, the hard way – slice them open and through)
1/3 whole blanched almonds

Stir together the ground cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, pepper, 1 tsp salt, and 2 tbsp oil in a large bowl. Add chicken and turn to coat well. This smells so amazing…

Heat butter and 1 tbsp oil in base of a skillet, uncovered, over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Brown half the chicken pieces, skin sides down, turning over once, 8 to 12 minutes.

Transfer to a plate.

Brown the rest of the chicken adding any spice mixture left in bowl.

If you’re doing a lot of chicken (I doubled the recipe last time) keep an eye on the smoke and burning at the bottom of the pan…I would recommend stopping at the halfway point and starting again with a clean pan and oil…you’ll need the fond at the bottom of the pan later and you don't want it to be burnt as it melds with the sauce in the pan…

Add onion and remaining 1/4 tsp salt to pan and cook, uncovered, stirring frequently, until soft, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes.

Tie cilantro and parsley into a bundle with kitchen string and add to tagine along with 1/2 cup water, chicken, and any juices accumulated on plate. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 30 minutes.

While chicken cooks, bring honey, remaining cup water, cinnamon stick, and apricots to a boil in a  heavy saucepan, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until apricots are very tender (add more water if necessary). Once apricots are tender, simmer until liquid is reduced to a glaze, 10 to 15 minutes.

I never came close to running dry...and never quite achieved the "glaze" they talk about...but I'll try this again...and if you try and succeed, can you let me know?

Heat a small skillet and cook the whole almonds, keeping a close eye, until just golden, 1 to 2 minutes. The recipe calls for this to be done in a 1/4 cup of olive oil. But I did them in a dry skillet - as I said...keep a close eye.

Ten minutes before chicken is done, add apricot mixture to the chicken. Discard herbs and cinnamon stick. When you serve the dish, sprinkle the top with the almonds and some more chopped parsley. I served this with rice – but green beans, or a simple salad, or couscous, quinoa would be great too.

December 15, 2012

Basil Pesto

Yesterday I spent the day in the kitchen - my cocoon of warmth and beautiful smells and comfort.

I was prepping for a dinner party for people who hadn’t been to our kitchen, who hadn’t sat at our family table – people I wanted to bring into our home and enjoy a meal.

Oblivious to the news, I had checked the twitter headlines in the morning…a teacher shot somewhere like Connecticut…oh…you know…sadly, it’s the States…I got on with what I had to do.

Ironically, when you’re cooking on deadline, surrounded by piles of vegetables and meat and spices and herbs, you don’t tend to eat yourself. I finally sat down for a bite at about 2pm.

That’s when I pulled out the computer to catch up on what the world was up to…that’s when I discovered the world had shuddered to a stop – that a very, very disturbed young man had ended his life by taking the lives of so many others, in a little place called Newtown, and with the added shock and horror that he took little ones, and those who care for them every day, with him.

With all the other shootings that have happened my shoulders have slumped in despair and I’ve said nothing will change…this won’t change anything.

But I’ve had it. Enough. Effect change people – I would like to see a cultural turn of mind away from the gun…and I wonder if it can happen.

One of my favourite journalism people Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute has some interesting stats for journalists who are covering this tragedy. But they’re good for everyone to absorb – it gives us all some context.

In the New Yorker Jill Lepore wrote, "There is no solace to be found, not in the crushing, aching sympathy felt by everyone on hearing the story, not in the candlelit vigils, not in the agony of the President, who, during a press conference, winced, and was nearly overcome. This is the face of a nation undone."

It will take some time to wrestle our souls and minds into understanding the horrible nexus where an obsessive gun culture meets mental illness that fuels horrible, horrible anger.

~

I will write about what we ate last night – a lovely recipe for tagine (yes, another) and a beautiful lasagna, I’ve written about before. But not now.

Now I need to write about something basic – a backbone to cooking that is magical.

Basil Pesto – adapted from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen

I love Mollie’s book – it was my first cookbook when all this food thing started – I particularly love Mollie’s drawings.

The first time I made this I didn’t have a food processor. I crushed everything in a bowl pretending to be the mortar, and the bottom of a glass pretending to be the pestle (yup it’s pronounced pessel). It was excruciating.

It was the reason I bought a food processor. The first recipe I made in it was the pesto. I put in the ingredients, I pressed 'on'. After a few seconds I pressed 'off'. I just stood there looking at it in the bowl, I pressed 'stunned'.

I lost that food processor in a breakup with a boyfriend. And with the loss of the appliance went my memory of this recipe. Because I wasn’t going back to the bowl mortar and glass pestle.The pesto had to wait.

Well, thanks to my credit card company I scored another food processor on reward points a couple of weeks ago.

And then in need of a vegetarian dish for last night, karma created the perfect reason to make pesto again. So the first recipe I made in my new processor was, once again, pesto.

This makes 2 1/2 – 3 cups (although when I cut it in half yesterday I yielded only one cup of pesto – which was fine as that’s what I needed)

3 cups of packed fresh basil leaves (no stems)
3-4 garlic cloves
¼ - ½ tsp salt
¾ cup grated parmesan cheese (no, the fresh kind…)
¼ cup pulverized (I used pine nuts, but I think any nut would do)
½ cup olive oil

These are optional add-ons:
½ cup packed fresh parsley
¼ cup melted butter
freshly-ground black pepper

So, given my new love of the food processor…pull out either your food processor or even your blender – you can make basil smoothies later.

This is so easy it’s stupid.

Put the ingredients in the bowl with the steel blade fitted, put on the lid, hit 'on'…and let it whirr away until you have a uniform paste.(I stopped it a few seconds in to push down the stuff that had crawled up the sides of the bowl.)

The smell and look of this magical mixture will blow your senses. You can mix with cooked pasta – to taste. (Be careful with pesto – I find it’s one of those beautiful ingredients that can become too much too fast…so consider yourself warned.)

Or you can freeze it - put some in an ice cube tray - then you'll have portion sizes ready to go rather than a big green block.

 If you make this, please let me know. Share it with your family and friends – food is a form of love. And most of all people – peace.

December 06, 2012

Pickled Turnips

I have been carrying around this recipe stored on my shopping list app on my phone. It feels very vulnerable there. I am terrified of deleting it...I must give it some measure of posterity here. It deserves it.

This is another recipe for Pickled Turnips with Beets. And it’s courtesy of Sam at the Armenian Kitchen. I’ve written about the AK before in my screed on routine. It’s a bit of a Toronto institution for those who come from east of Yonge St. – and for those with a taste for homemade hummus to die for – and baba ghanoush - and shawarma – and kabobs…all made there.

As my friend’s friend said…east of Yonge…not as far east as Pickering…you know…the middle east…

The pickled turnips come with every meal. They’re brought to the table on a saucer – and it’s a fight for survival from then on…Steve and I wolf them down like people finding an oasis in the desert.
Last time we were there, Sam brought us a takeout container for the rest of our hummus and baba ghanoush and tabbouleh…oh I forgot the tabbouleh!... and I asked him why all the people around us were leaving the turnips untouched. “Are they crazy?” I asked, apparently very loudly…. Steve and Sam jumped a little…

It’s a food crime.

Which tells you I’m not adult enough yet to accept that people might not like everything I like. I refuse to accept it…so…there.

I posted a recipe before that I gleaned from several sources in a vain attempt to match these…but they don’t come close.

Sam took pity on me when I explained how I was making them – and he gave me the recipe…and we tried it…we’ve tried it three times now and the fourth batch will be ready this weekend.
Let me know if you give these a try. And if you can get to the Armenian Kitchen – it’s in a dingy Scarborough strip mall on Victoria Park Ave – between Eglinton and Lawrence Ave.

Sam just smiled and wagged his finger at me when I asked for the hummus recipe...it was worth a shot.


Armenian Kitchen's Pickled Turnips

1 cup white vinegar
5 cups cold water
2 tbsp sea salt
1 good sized beet
5-6 smallish turnips (we found the smaller turnips better)

Mix the vinegar and water with the salt and stir until salt is dissolved.
Scrub the beet and turnips and trim their ends. No peeling required.




Finely chop the beet. Set aside.

Chop the turnip into bit-sized slices about ¼ inch thick. Set aside.

Keep the beets and turnips separate.




In a very clean jar (Sam didn’t say you had to sterilize it, but make sure it’s very clean) layer in the turnip slices until they’re just under halfway up the jar.

Add a layer of beets.

Layer in the rest of the turnip. And finish with a layer of beets. Weigh it down if you can.

Pour the water mixture into the jar, filling it.



Sam was very precise about this part – do not touch the inside of the jar with your hands at this point.

Lay plastic wrap over the neck of the jar, and screw on the lid.


Set aside for two weeks. “Two weeks! Not one! Not like my wife who will sneak in before the two weeks is over. Two. Weeks,” Sam said…And when Sam says…two weeks…he means two weeks.
…which for us is this weekend. It’s like Christmas...

Enjoy.

November 30, 2012

Exercising the Rite and Right for Christmas Pudding

The days are sharp, short and cold now.

I find myself looking at the weather radar screen for the striations of pale blue that tell me that snow is on its way. Yes. I want snow at this time of year. And Toronto tends to have a force field around it that pushes snow in every direction but inward.

Yes that was a taunting jab at the gods.

Canadians are completely bonkers about this. A White Christmas is more than a movie – it’s a national rite. I get a little thrill from seeing catalogues of sweaters, slippers, and snow sliders. I buy apple cider by the jug. I can’t do anything about a fireplace without setting off the smoke alarms, as we don’t have a fireplace.

I know what it is. I’m looking forward to Christmas – for the sense of festivity, for the food.

And an important ritual has just passed. Mum has finished making her Christmas puddings. And she’s written down the recipe for the first time in her 85 years. (Okay I give her a waiver for the first decade…maybe two.)

If you like Christmas fruitcake (I know, I know I’m talking to a select audience)…are partial to the deep scent of allspice, cloves and sweetness…and you haven’t tried Christmas pudding…it’s kind of a combination of naughty and nice. And maybe, just maybe, an acquired taste.

I still remember one Christmas…when I was about 9 – back when we dressed up for Christmas dinner – ladies in long dresses, men in suits and ties, when the ritual of the Christmas pudding hit its stride. The pudding was always brought on a platter from the kitchen to the dining room in a kind of procession like a birthday cake…the lights went dim, then in came a flaming mound of pudding – the blue alcohol-ho-ho-ho-lic flames tickling the entire pudding – right down to the plate. There was a plentiful supply of brandy. And there were cheers all round.

And I hated it. I loved the cream and the custard that went with it…but the pudding. Yuck. Everyone was so happy to see the platter come in. And I burst into tears. Sobbing, needy tears. “Why – sob - can’t – sob - I – sob – like – sob - Christmas pudding? What’s wrong with me?”

I got cuddled and calmed and given a bowl of peaches to have with my cream…but I still felt the indignation of not being a part of it, and not ‘getting’ it.

But I wasn't alone. The Christmas pudding world is split decisively and irrevocably between those who love and those who hate it.

As it turns out I grew up to LOVE it – especially my Mum’s – and am now making up for some seriously lost time.

Of course, I found out that the majority of the people in my world would choose the canned peaches and cream over anything like Christmas pudding.

Which is fine. More for us right?

My Mum was in a rush to get them made in November – she says they need at least a month and (Delia Smith suggests 6-8 weeks and no more).  That said - Mum told me her aunt found an old Christmas pudding in the larder that had been put there during the war and forgotten. About five years later they discovered it during a larder excavation and decided to give it a go in the steamer. She said it was delicious - although you could only stomach a small slice as it was so rich...and in a time of such deprivation...rich is as good as it gets.

This is a mashup of Mum’s various recipes and experience with Delia Smith’s recipe…the best kind of mashup.





My Mum’s Christmas Pudding (adapted from Delia Smith’s Christmas) and how it looked on Christmas night

Makes 2 - 1 pint puds



4 oz. suet, shredded (if you’re a vegetarian, this is not for you. I find suet in the freezer section of the market, usually next to the tubes of sausage meat)
2 oz. flour
4 oz. breadcrumbs
1 tsp. ground mixed spice
¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
“a good pinch” of ground cinnamon
8 oz. dark brown sugar
4 oz. sultanas
4 oz. raisins
10 oz. currants
(the recipe does call for 1 oz. candied peel, but I draw the line at candied peel…ugh…so we add a little more of the other dried fruit, or add dried cranberries.)
1 oz. chopped almonds
1 small apple, peeled, cored, finely chopped
Zest of ½ large orange
Zest of ½ large lemon
2 eggs
2½ oz. barley wine (Mum has never used any of these liquors in her pudding…)
2½ oz. stout
2 tbsp. rum

Mum always uses brandy or cognac, and used the rum for the first time this year. Use any malt liquor, she says. She’s used rye and/or whisky. She has also topped up with apple juice if she doesn’t have quite enough.

The day before: Take a large mixing bowl, mix together the suet, flour, breadcrumbs, spices and sugar.
Gradually mix in all the dried fruit and nuts. Add the apple and orange and lemon zest.

In a smaller bowl mix the liquor, then add the eggs and beat thoroughly.

Here comes the muscle part: add this liquid concoction to the other ingredients and mix thoroughly.

I love this part in Delia Smith’s recipe: “It’s now traditional to gather all the family round, especially the children, and invite everyone to have a really good stir and make a wish…”

It should be sloppy. Cover the bowl and leave overnight.

Next day, prepare two lightly-greased pudding basins. Split the mixture between them. Cover them with a double sheet of wax paper and a sheet of foil and tie it securely with string. (Another gem from Delia: “…it’s also a good idea to tie a piece of string across the top to make a handle.”)

Put the pudding basin in a steamer, over a pot of simmering water and steam it for 8 hours (steam both puddings for the same length of time - even if in two separate steamers). Keep an eye on the water level and keep adding boiling water from the kettle when it’s getting low.

When it’s done, let it cool. Replace the wax paper and foil with fresh ones.

Keep it in a dark, cool place until Christmas Day.

To reheat it fill a pot with water and bring it to the boil. Put a steamer on top, turn the heat down to a simmer. Put the pudding in the steamer, cover, and let it steam for approximately two hours. Keep an eye on the water level - we've all made the mistake of letting it boil dry…

To serve it slide a knife or spatula around the outer edge of the pudding, place a plate upside down on the top of the pudding bowl, then quickly turn it over. If you’ve loosened the pudding well enough, you should be able to pull the pudding bowl off and reveal a beautiful Christmas pudding all ready to go on the plate. Except for one thing...

The flaming cognac!

Heat a ladle full of brandy or cognac on the stove…suspend it over the pudding and get someone to light a match and bring it close to the ladel – please watch your arms and assorted body parts at this point. Once the brandy is alight, pour it over the pudding – Delia says to do this at the table…not sure how you walk from the kitchen to the table with a flaming ladle of brandy…but…since my kitchen and dining room are one, I can pour the flaming brandy directly onto the pudding and bring the plate with flaming pudding to the table…still pretty spectacular. 

And wayyyyyy better than canned peaches. Seriously.

Serve with whipped cream or rum butter or custard…and may whatever you and your family wished for come true...