Sunday, December 7, 2008


Stew made from lamb shanks is another winter favourite of mine. It is rich and hearty: a real stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal. This stew, like any meat stew, requires several hours of simmering until the meat is tender and falls off the bone. I prefer making stew from the shank rather than pieces cut from the shoulder. The bones add lots of gelatin and flavour and create a thick gravy without having to add any additional flour.

You can buy lamb shanks in the freezer section at the supermarket or from your butcher. Ontario lamb is wonderful and usually available by special request from any reputable butcher. The Healthy Butcher gets its hands on the most divine Certified Organic lamb. It costs a fortune (about $15/lb) but is incredibly delicious. Ontario lamb tends to be less barnyard tasting that the frozen New Zealand lamb you find in the freezer section. If you don't like lamb because of that barnyard taste, then only buy the freshest Ontario lamb you can find.

This recipe is concocted from the stew made by Mama Rosa at 7 Numbers restaurant on Eglinton in Toronto. She told me her recipe ("I use garlic, onion, white wine and rosemary" she explained, gesticulating widely). I interpreted her explanation as the following, adding red lentils for additional sustenance. Very tasty.

Serves 2-4
1 Tbsp olive oil
2-4 lamb shanks
3 garlic cloves and 2 shallots, minced
2 cups water
2 cups white wine
1 tsp salt
1 tsp fresh rosemary, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme, minced
2 bay leaves
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1/4 cup dried red lentils
salt & pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
In a heavy large lidded pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Sear the lamb shanks on all sides until they are brown, about 10 minutes. Remove shanks from the pan and set aside. Reduce heat to medium and saute garlic and shallot, being careful not to brown or burn (add more oil if necessary). Return shanks and their juices to the pot, then add the wine, water, salt, herbs and tomato paste. Bring to boil, then simmer covered for 3-4 hours. If the liquid doesn't cover the meat entirely, turn shanks every hour or so.

Once the meat is tender, add the lentils and stir, then simmer another 30 minutes. Remove from heat. If desired, or if serving for more people than there are shanks, remove the bones. Taste liquid for seasoning and finish with extra virgin olive oil.

Serve alongside boiled green peas (this is how Mama Rosa serves hers), soft polenta, or steamed winter greens such as kale, collards or rapini.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Banana Walnut Muffins

I have gotten so behind in my posts! I have several recipes I have been making lately that I will be sharing within the next few days.

Here is one of my favourites: a banana muffin recipe I love. It took a while to hone. Some recipes out there, especially sugar-free ones, use bananas in every muffin or cake. I wanted a recipe that did bananas justice. Nutmeg is key. Adding the walnuts may seem excessive for a recipe made with almond flour, but it's important. Walnuts have a distinctive taste perfect for bananas.

I also recommend using muffin cups to line your muffin tin. The almond flour is delicate and these muffins tend to split when extracted even from a greased silicone tin.

Makes 12 muffins
330g almond flour (about 3 cups)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

2 ripe bananas
2 eggs
1/4 cup yoghurt
1/4 cup honey
Preheat oven to 350ºF.

In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, mash the bananas and add the other wet ingredients, mixing well (I use an immersion blender for this). Add wet mixture to the dry ingredients, combining everything with quick strokes.

In a regular-sized muffin tin lined with large muffin cups, distribute the batter evenly between the 12 cups. The batter is sticky. I use two tablespoons to do this.

Bake 25-35 minutes or until they are golden and the tops pop up when pressed lightly with your finger.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Whey more to eat

Aren't these pickles beautiful? I packed them yesterday and am patiently waiting for them to ferment so I can have a taste. They are pickled with salt, water and whey extracted from the yoghurt I have been making, a pickling process called lacto-fermentation. Right now, the jar is sitting at room temperature in a kitchen cupboard, pickling away. I get to taste them tomorrow evening.

I got my recipes for pickling from a cookbook called Nourishing Traditions. It's a political cookbook, designed to “challenge politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats.” The author, Sally Fallon, argues in favour of a diet high in animal fats, gelatin-rich broths, raw meat and lacto-fermented foods such as pickles and yoghurts to support good health. She explains herself in just under 700 pages, providing not just recipes but loads of references and justification for her version of the ideal diet. Regardless of whether or not she's right, I'm grateful to have found a philosophy of eating that is based on how my ancestors ate. It tastes right.

I have been enjoying eating two other foods lately:

1. Yoghurt cheese
I have been making yoghurt for several months now with my yoghurt maker, a very simple process that yields fabulous fresh yoghurt with no added thickeners or gelatins. Yoghurt cheese (or Greek yoghurt, or labaneh) is simply strained plain yoghurt. I put 500mL of plain yoghurt into a sieve lined with paper towels and let it stand over a bowl on the counter for several hours. The liquid that drips out of the yoghurt is whey, which is high in lactic acid and bacterial cultures and can be used for pickling, so keep it if you're interested (you can also drink it: it's very nutritious). The resulting yoghurt cheese will be thick like cream cheese and can be spread on bread, muffins and pancakes, added to dips and dressings or enjoyed on its own with honey (this is how the Greeks eat it). Two cups of yoghurt strained yields one cup of yoghurt cheese.

2. Chick pea soup
I've been making this recipe weekly for over a month and we don't get tired of it. It's filling and hearty: just the soup for cold fall days. Use vegetable stock or bouillon cubes if you prefer to chicken stock. The resulting soup will lack the animal protein but will be just as tasty.

Serves 4

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 large garlic clove, peeled and smashed
1 28-oz can chick peas, drained and rinsed
1/2 28-oz can whole tomatoes
1 L chicken stock
1/2 tsp each dried rosemary and thyme
1/4 c extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot over medium heat, warm the oil and add the garlic. When the garlic starts to sizzle, add the chick peas, tomatoes, stock and herbs. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil then simmer, lid on, for 20 minutes.

Remove from the heat and add the oil and parsley and season with salt and pepper.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Chicken Diaries

This is me and Kiyan, fellow chicken lover. I met Kiyan last night on the bus platform at St. Clair West station. He was sitting on the wooden bench with several grocery bags open beside him, eating feverishly. Inside one of the bags was a roast chicken, and he was pulling strips of meat off with his hands and slapping them between pieces of torn baguette before shoving them into his mouth. I could not resist meeting a person I recognized as my doppelganger, someone who shares a primal need for poultry. When I motioned to him that I wanted to sit, he moved some of his parcels aside to make room for me, all without interrupting his consumption. I said, pointing to the bird: “That is my absolute favourite thing to eat in the world,” and without hesitation, he asked me if I wanted some. He must have sensed my sincerity, recognized a fellow compatriot. How could I refuse?

As we ate, we told chicken stories. We shared memories of past chicken feasts. I told him of the divine combination of roast chicken and hummus, along with my Death Row Chicken meal, which he heartily agreed would be his last request as well. We identified our favourite parts of the chicken (he the drumsticks, which he had already eaten; me the oysters on the back, which he graciously shared). He proclaimed his love of Swiss Chalet gravy, only to be intrigued by my tales of St. Hubert, a rare find in this province, and their more subtle, savoury sauce.

When the bus arrived, we moved our meal inside, and continued talking and eating. The woman across from us offered napkins, which proved woefully inadequate in wiping off the grease that dripped off our hands. When my stop arrived, I left, reluctantly. I felt sad knowing that this encounter was rare in our neat, reserved, business-as-usual city. Kiyan, thanks not just for the chicken, but for reminding me that sometimes it's worth getting a bit messy to enjoy the things you love.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Fake baked beans

I have already admitted my love affair with beans. When it comes to baked beans, however, I am particularly nostalgic.

I have two childhood memories of baked beans. My mother used to make the real deal, the true baked beans soaked overnight and then slow cooked in the oven all day. She would use the same white Corning casserole dish for the beans that would scorch on the rim as the liquid reduced in the oven. The smoky sweet smell of bacon and maple syrup would fill the house all afternoon, and I would wait in anticipation for dinnertime. Back then, I was impressed by foods that were the result of hours of preparation. To my young mind, the caché of baked beans was only surpassed by pierogies, made from scratch only by my grandmother on her indulgent yet infrequent visits.

My second memory of baked beans is of the canned variety, which I also adored. This instant version, accompanied by steamed weiners and buttered toast, was often served for lunch at my then best friend's house by her English nanny. These lunches, along with others such as Kraft Dinner, Alphaghetti and instant chicken noodle soup, were my interpretation of high class food. Somehow I was aware and impressed by the expense of purchasing prepared food at a higher price. Strange though how at age eight, fine dining to me was either the result of hours of preparation or none at all.

And so, my beans. Until recently, I have satisfied my baked bean cravings by cracking a can of Heinz: Cravings are rarely met by cooking food that requires 24 hours of preparation. I have now created a recipe for fake baked beans, cooked on the stove in 20 minutes rather than in the oven for 8 hours. They taste better than canned, though probably not as good as the real thing. Slow cooked food, no matter how hard I try, can never be replaced.

Serves 3-4
1 Tbsp oil
1 small onion, diced
1 19-oz can navy beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup water
1 Tbsp blackstrap molasses
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbsp pure maple syrup (optional)
In a medium-sized pot over medium heat, cook the onion in the oil until soft and translucent. Add the beans, water, molasses, tomato paste and mustard. Bring to a boil and stir until all ingredients are incorporated. Reduce heat and simmer 15-20 minutes with the lid off until the liquid has reduced by half. Season with salt and pepper. If using, stir in maple syrup.

NOTE: If you want to add bacon, dice two strips and fry in the oil before adding the onion. Continue with the rest of the recipe as described above.

Photo: Fake baked beans.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fast food for one right now

As much as I love to cook, most of the time I don't have the energy to create new culinary masterpieces: I just want to fill my belly. As I invariably get swept away in whatever I'm up to in my life, my meal planning skills lie dormant somewhere, forgotten, unused. I inevitably find myself in the kitchen, shaking with hunger, realizing I've already eaten all the leftover Indian takeout and having to make something or starve. I haven't done the grocery shopping yet, so all that's left in the fridge are a few pieces of whatever vegetable I've committed myself to that week and my essentials.

Ah, the essentials. Every cookbook that considers itself a tome devotes a chapter to staple items no kitchen should ever be without. I recently purchased Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food to judge her take on the subject. Her list is quite extensive, divided into two categories (pantry staples and perishable staples). Clearly her list is to serve cooking in general rather than simply fast food. And, apparently she doesn't own a freezer, or doesn't condone using one, because freezer staples are absent from her list. Still, her direction is simple: “If your pantry and refrigerator are stocked with these ingredients, you can be secure in the knowledge that no matter what time it is, and no matter who shows up hungry on your doorstep, there will always be something to eat.” Here, here.

When it comes to fast food there are mitigating factors. One cannot wait for rice to cook, let alone overnight to soak beans, or several hours to defrost a whole pack of chicken breasts when you only want one. Sometimes, I can't bear waiting the 45 minutes it takes for the Indian food to arrive.

And so, here are my essential items, listed in no particular order. With these things, I have the keys to the kingdom, as the saying goes.
  1. Tuna packed in olive oil, single serving size. This, to my mind, is the miracle food. Pop open the can (no can opener required), squeeze with lemon juice, and eat with a fork. It's the perfect protein to add to bean salads, toss with cooked pasta, mixed with egg and leftover cooked potato and fried into fish cakes. I find it in most supermarkets, usually up high or down low on the shelves. Look for Rio Mare in the salmon pink tins or Callipo in bright red. They're both made in Italy.

  2. Canned beans. Soup or salad, done in ten minutes. Hearty and filling. Beans are peasant food for a reason. They are cheap and sustaining. As for the purists out there that think that beans cooked from soaked dried are better than canned, I have this to say: They taste different, not necessarily better, and when you're hungry, who cares? Search for the canned varieties and brands that you like for their texture, taste and price, and buy them in bulk.

  3. Frozen single servings of meat. If you really want to conquer fast food, buy selection of resealable bags in various sizes and freeze everything in single servings. When you bring home meat from the market, take a few minutes to divide some or all into single portions. Even if you're cooking for more than just yourself, you'll appreciate the time it takes to defrost several individually-bagged chicken breasts by throwing them in a sink full of warm water for 15 minutes, versus the alternative: waging war with the defrost setting on your microwave, then prying apart half-frozen, half-cooked meat from the butcher tray. Buy a variety so you always have selection: chicken breasts, boneless chicken thighs, sausages, fish filets, chicken livers, even bacon. I began to use bacon so much more when I froze it in two strip packages. It adds instant flavour to any fast-food dish.

  4. Frozen peas. This can really mean frozen vegetables, but I like peas the best. It is a myth that frozen vegetables are less nutritious than fresh, as vegetables from the freezer are usually processed right after harvest. Peas are sweet and cheerful, make instant soup with water and bouillon and add colour to any dish.

  5. Frozen cooked brown rice. This may sound crazy, like a granny who freezes birthday cake bought on sale three months before the party, but it is such a time saver. Brown rice takes 40 minutes to cook, but its flavour and nutritional value far surpass white rice that it is worth the trouble. I have recently discovered that I can cook vast quantities of brown rice at one time and freeze it in small packages without any affect to taste or texture. I have also included my method for cooking brown rice, which is never clumpy or mushy, below.

  6. Lemons. I feel incomplete and unprepared if I don't have lemons in the house. Hot water and lemon is my tonic of choice. Add the zest and juice to a chicken breast fried in butter you have a quick, flavourful favourite. Lemon is indispensable when cooking with beans or fish.

  7. Flat-leaf Italian parsley. My husband and I have an ongoing disagreement that has become a joke. He argues that parsley has no flavour, whereas I think it's hugely fragrant and is my indispensible herb. The joke now goes like this. Me: Do you like your food? He: I don't know if I can taste this (insert main ingredient). It's so overwhelmed by the parsley. Ignore him. Parsley not only adds flavour, it adds colour, which is important for food to feel complete.

  8. Eggs. I hope everybody knows this. Omelet or scrambled eggs is the fastest meal in the west. Take 5 minutes to heat the pan over medium-high heat, then add a nob of butter then the two beaten eggs and swish it around. In about 15 seconds, your eggs are ready. Season and serve.

  9. Dried red lentils. This makes my husband's favourite soup, prepared in under 20 minutes. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a saucepan, add 1/2 cup dried lentils and a chicken bouillon cube and simmer 15 minutes until the lentils have fallen apart. Finish with lemon juice and garlic- and/or chili-scented oil and serve.

  10. Garlic- and/or chili-scented oils. Really, you don't need to worry about garlic, peeling, chopping, storing, if you finish or start your dish with garlic-scented oil. And if you feel like adding zing to your meal, sprinkle over some chili oil. Both are easy to make (see my instructions at bottom of this post) and keep on hand.

  11. Chicken bouillon cubes. Find your favourite brand and keep them on hand. I like the one by McCormick in the dark green and white box. It's all-vegetable, MSG- and gluten-free, and it's tasty.

  12. Butter. Salted for eating with baking and unsalted for cooking.

  13. Oil and vinegar. Extra virgin olive oil for finishing and dressings, light olive oil for scented oils and sweet dressings, coconut oil for frying, white wine vinegar for full-bodied dressings and rice vinegar for sweet ones.

  14. Tomato paste in a tube. This is another amazing Italian invention. Who wants even a small can of tomato paste when you only ever really use a tablespoon at a time? You can keep the tube in the fridge almost indefinitely and impart any dish with the sweetness of tomato without slopping in the real thing, canned or fresh. Again, you have to search in the tomato section, but this item is available in most supermarkets.

  15. Dijon mustard. Emulsifies any dressing, making it creamy, smooth and full of flavour. Instant salad dressing: 1/4 cup oil, 1 Tbsp vinegar and a squirt of Dijon, salt and pepper. Combine ingredients in a glass jar, put on the lid, and shake.

  16. Salt and pepper
Everyone has their own list. What's yours?

I soak my rice for several hours before cooking because apparently it produces rice that is more nutritious and easily digested (though it's been a while since I've verified this claim). Nutrition aside, it also reduces the cooking time by half.
3 cups long grain brown rice
Fill a large pot with cold water and add rice. Soak the rice at least 1 hour or overnight in the fridge. Once soaked, drain and refill the pot with fresh water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes or until the grains are tender. Drain and rinse. Allow to cool before putting in bags and freezing.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Thanksgiving redux

My favourite holiday. We have one holiday on our calendar that is entirely devoted to worshiping food. And thank goodness, not just for nature's generous bounty but also for our wherewithal to recognize the miracle of a successful growing season.

Our meal was divine. We served turkey and the works to our immediate family plus one cousin, 11 of us in all. We ate and drank, remembered those who are no longer with us, and reminded ourselves why families matter.

The meal preparation, extending over three days, went far from smoothly, but resulted in incredible fare. At the advice of my new butchers, I followed their directions for preparing a turkey, which included brining it overnight and rubbing an herb butter between the skin and the breast meat before roasting. The addition of these extra steps increased my workload, but the effort rewarded a remarkable bird. And despite my mashed potato stuffing expanding in the oven, rupturing the neck cavity and spilling all over the bottom element, then having the turkey sit in a room temperature oven for over an hour until I realized I had turned the oven off when I cleaned up the potatoes, thus delaying our meal by about 90 minutes, the roasting process was remarkably stress-free. It was the best turkey I have ever tasted.

My mashed potato stuffing was also incredibly tasty, though next time I won't pack the cavity so tightly. I made Nigella Lawson's potato-stuffed goose last Christmas and thought that I would create a potato-stuffed turkey as well, hoping no one would miss traditional stuffing too much. The addition of the lemon zest and herbs create potatoes that are so good they could easily be enjoyed without the benefit of being roasted inside a bird.

Here was our menu:
  • Healthy Butcher organic free-range roast turkey
  • golden mashed potato stuffing
  • gravy
  • baked yam casserole with marshmallow topping
  • brussel sprouts with nutmeg and lemon
  • spinach and apple salad with an orange ginger dressing
  • orange cranberry relish
A fine meal. Truth be told, I think I've finally outgrown the marshmallow yams. They are cloyingly sweet, and I found myself following my dad's example of scraping off the white fluff and leaving it on the side of my plate. However, tradition is what it is, and my sister insists the marshmallow yams are an integral part of her holiday meal.

The directions for the turkey are available on the Healthy Butcher website, a fine purveyor of organic meats raised in southern Ontario.

Serves 10
4 lbs. yellow potatoes (Yukon Gold or similar variety)
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
1 large rib celery, diced
2 shallots, diced
1 Tbsp each fresh parsley and sage, finely chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
zest of two lemons
1 tsp ground black pepper
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Peel and quarter potatoes and put in a large pot of salted water. Bring to a boil and simmer 15-20 minutes or until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork or knife. Drain.

While potatoes are cooking, in a skillet heat the butter and oil. Add the onion, celery and shallot and cook until translucent, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat. Add the herbs, lemon zest and pepper.

Add the onion mixture and butter to the drained potatoes and mash with a potato masher. Stuff inside the turkey, or serve. NOTE: This stuffing will expand significantly inside the turkey, so do not pack it into the cavity. Leave room for expansion, then if there is remainder, heat in the oven in a separate casserole before serving.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cheese biscuits on a rainy day

I’ve been making these cheese biscuits whenever I want a pick-me-up in the afternoon. I also served them for brunch a couple weekends ago with scrambled eggs and steamed greens and they were a big hit.

I have been tweaking this recipe over the last month or so since buying the Grain-free Gourmet cookbooks. Their recipe for plain biscuits is wonderful. Their cheese biscuit recipe, included in Everyday Grain-free Gourmet, is also good, but I wanted a cheese biscuit that was less sweet and with fewer ingredients. I use pecorino cheese in mine: a mild, slightly nutty sheep-milk cheese that complements the sourness of the yoghurt. Cheddar, though higher in fat, would also be good. The resulting biscuits are moist and soft and taste great on their own, with butter or jam. You can also use them like English muffins for eggs benedict (I haven't tried, but can you imagine? Yum!).

Makes 8 biscuits

220g almond flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
80g shredded pecorino
2 green onions, finely chopped
2 eggs
1/2 c plain yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 160C/325F.

In a bowl, mix the almond flour, baking soda and salt. Mix in the cheese and onions. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and yoghurt until mixed. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring with brisk strokes to incorporate. The batter will be thick.

Using a soup spoon, drop biscuit batter onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet forming eight equally sized biscuits. They will spread a bit in the oven, so leave about 1 inch of space between.

Bake 22-25 minutes until golden.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Soup by the bathtubful

I could have devoted my entire blog to soup. I love soup: making it and eating it. I am not alone.

I recently purchased a cookbook written by Pierre and Janet Berton, The Centennial Food Guide, published in 1966. According to his wife, Pierre – Canada’s renowned historian and author of The Last Spike – was smitten with soup, requiring 3 or 4 bowlfuls a day. The first page of text in the cookbook, sandwiched in between the table of contents and the introduction, is a recipe for “Janet’s Soup”, under which is inscribed: “The male editor of this book unconditionally guarantees this soup. In twenty years of marriage he has drunk bathtubfuls of it. Moreover he has never seen anyone content with but a single bowl. It demands seconds, thirds and even fourths, which is why we urge that it be made is vast quantities.”

Certainly the Berton household required “vast quantities” of anything given the nine-member family vying for sustenance. Janet’s Soup is somewhat of a time capsule, requiring one large beef heart to prepare the stock and, among other oddities, Angostura bitters and monosodium glutamate for flavouring. While I doubt I’ll ever make Janet’s Soup, Pierre’s resounding endorsement notwithstanding, I do heartily appreciate the intensity of sentiment surrounding this family favourite.

Which brings me to my love of soup. Were it not for summer heat and humidity, conditions which apparently did not affect the Bertons as they do me, I too would eat soup every day. (I can’t abide chilled soups, no matter how hard I try.) The arrival of fall is the return of soup: comforting, savoury, and inspiring soup.

Making and eating soup is a commitment to an idea of how to sustain oneself: completely, and in one bowlful. The restorative properties of soup were its original marketing strategy. The French origin of “restaurant” apparently comes from “restaurer”, the term applied to the Parisian street vendors who exclusively sold soup, an inexpensive concentrated broth they claimed was the antidote to physical exhaustion. The notion of frugality is often applied to soup, but I like to think that economy is a matter of stripping life of anything extraneous, leaving behind what is essential and indisputable. Perhaps this is why I love soup: it is an exercise in selection.

I mentioned in my last post that I reserve my homemade chicken broth for vegetable soups. These are soups that require usually two or three ingredients in addition to the stock. They are quick, simple and hearty. This is one I have been making and enjoying now that fall is truly upon us. The Romano beans are a lovely pinkish brown and have a rich flavour and the kale is a robust complement. To “kick it up a notch,” fry some diced bacon or pancetta with the garlic to add smoky flavour to an already divine soup.

Serves 3-4

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 14-oz can Romano beans, rinsed and drained (or white kidney, or Borlotti)
750 mL chicken stock
1 Tbsp chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme, parsley, or 1 tsp dried)
1 cup kale, finely chopped
salt & pepper

In a medium soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat and add the garlic, cooking until the garlic is fragrant. Add the beans, stirring to coat with the oil. Heat for one minute. Add the stock and herbs, bring to a boil, then simmer with the lid on for 15-20 minutes.

Using an immersion blender of the back of a spoon, pulverize some of the beans to thicken the soup base. Do not purée: there should be some whole beans left in the soup.

Add the kale and simmer 5 minutes longer until the kale is tender. If soup is too thick, add more stock. Season with salt and pepper. Serve and finish with extra virgin olive oil (optional).

Monday, September 29, 2008

Two soups and a stock

The convergence of several factors inspired Saturday’s food preparation. It was a rainy day, and nothing suits a grey day better than a bowl of soup. Also, I had over half a neglected roast chicken in the fridge that I had to use or lose. I ended up making two chicken soups from what I had on hand and used the bones to make another batch of chicken stock.

When making soups with leftover roast chicken, I tend to use water rather than chicken stock. The cooked chicken has enough juices from the roasting process to flavour and thicken the soup as a stock would, so I save my stock for vegetable soups. As with any meat, chicken needs to be simmered in liquid for at least 25 minutes before it will soften and fall apart. If it is not cooked long enough, it will be tough and chewy.

These are both hearty, meal-in-a-bowl soups.

Serves 3-4
1 Tbsp light olive oil
1 large clove garlic, peeled and smashed
1 14-oz can white kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 large tomato, chopped
1 1/2 cups cooked chicken, chopped
1 L water
1 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs or 1 tsp dried (e.g. rosemary, thyme, parsley)
4-5 leaves swiss chard, chopped
salt & pepper
extra virgin olive oil
In a medium-sized pot, heat the oil and garlic over medium heat. When you can smell the garlic cooking, add the beans and stir for one minute. Add the tomato, chicken, water and herbs. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and put the lid on the pot, allowing the soup to simmer for 25-30 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.

Once the chicken is tender, add the chard. If the soup looks too thick, add some hot water. Replace the lid and allow to cook another two minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and finish with several tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.


This recipe is my version of the soup Carole King sings of in her song of the same name. I have her voice in my head whenever I make this: “Cooking once, cooking twice, / Cooking chicken soup with rice.” Her song doesn’t contain a recipe per se, and I add lemon and parsley for simple, essential flavour.
1 Tbsp light olive oil
1 celery stalk, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1/3 c white rice
1 1/2 cups cooked chicken, chopped
1 L water
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt & pepper
In a medium-sized pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the celery and carrots, and cook for five minutes. Do not brown. When the vegetables are beginning to soften, add the rice, stirring to coat with oil. Cook another minute until you can smell the rice beginning to toast.

Add the water and chicken and increase the heat to bring mixture to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat and simmer 20-25 minutes. Check the soup periodically to ensure that the expanded rice has not used all of the liquid, adding more hot water if necessary.

Once the chicken is tender and the rice is cooked, add the parsley, lemon juice and season to taste.

Makes about 1.5 L

In a 3 L soup pot, place the bones of one roast chicken, removing any items left inside the cavity (such as whole lemon or bread stuffing). Add half a peeled onion, one peeled carrot and one celery stalk. Fill to the 2.5 L mark with water. Bring stock to a boil slowly over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low. Allow the stock to simmer all day or overnight. Check the liquid periodically to ensure the heat is not too high and evaporating the water too quickly. There will be some evaporation, but not much. After 8 hours or so, strain the liquid into a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge. Remove any fat that collects at the surface. Divide into containers or freezer bags and freeze up to one year.

NOTE: Prolong the shelf life of stock left in the fridge by bringing to a boil for several minutes. This will kill off any bacteria and allow the stock to be returned to the fridge to remain available for use for another 5-6 days.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Death Row Chicken

This is my death row meal: roast chicken with roast potatoes and boiled green peas. That I have roasted a chicken once a week for several years without tiring of it says a lot about the pleasure of this simple, essential feast. During the summer months, when the weather is too hot to warrant turning on the oven, part of me longs for the return of cooler temperatures and thus my weekly ritual.

Knowing how to roast a chicken is a basic life skill as far as I'm concerned (that is, if your life includes eating meat). There are few things more satisfying than pulling a fragrant roast chicken from the oven, hearing the crackle and pop of the juices bubbling in the roasting dish and tucking into your favourite parts of the bird before it has even reached the table.

Roast chicken is good economy as well. Leftover meat can be used in sandwiches and salads, or simply picked off the carcass in the fridge as a late-night snack, dressed with mayo. Save the roasting juices to make insanely good roast potatoes on a day when you need a culinary hug. And of course, once you have picked the bones clean, throw them in a pot of water with an onion and some celery to make chicken stock, the basis of the easiest and most comforting and delicious soups.

Everyone has their own chicken roasting recipe. Certainly, cookbooks are no help to finding the essential roasting method. Roasting temperatures will range from 325F to 450F depending on who you consult, and the variations of preparations are endless.

There is also some debate over cooking position (of the bird, not the cook). As a flightless bird, the breast muscle is unused by the chicken and as a result, the meat is lean and flavourless. The back and legs, which get all the action, are sinewy, riddled with blood vessels, and full of fat and thus flavour. Some cooks compensate for the breast meat's lack of flavour by roasting the chicken breast-side down, the theory being that the back fat will permeate the breast on its way down to the bottom of the roasting pan. Some cooks position the bird breast-side down for the first half of roasting, then flip it over for the remainder of the cooking time to brown the breast. (This, incidentally, is how I roast my turkey, which is never dry and always tasty.)

I've roasted chickens in several different configurations of breast up or down, and in every position, the meat tastes pretty much the same to me. I stick to breast up now. No result warrants neither the sacrifice of crisp, golden breast skin, requiring prolonged exposure to the oven heat to achieve perfection, nor burning my hands trying to wrestle with a hot, slippery, half-roasted bird. This effort I perform only once a year, usually with the assistance of my father, as we coordinate our movements to turn a 16-pound stuffed turkey in its roasting tray. No easy feat.

Through all of the experimentation, I have found a system that is simple and easy: no flipping or fuss. I like cooking that requires minimal effort to achieve grand results. My method is largely based on Nigella Lawson's direction save a few details, specifically the oven temperatures. Perhaps my oven is hotter than hers, but if I roast my chicken at 450F-425F, the fat splatters so much that my kitchen is filled with smoke within half an hour. Here is how I roast a chicken:

Serves 3-4
1 4lb (2kg) roasting chicken
1 lemon
salt and pepper
1 tsp butter
Remove the chicken from the fridge 1 hour before cooking so that it reaches room temperature. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.

Most chickens come from the butcher or supermarket already trussed. If the chicken has been in your fridge for a couple of days, then rinse it with cold water and dry it inside and out with a paper towel. Place it breast-side up in a roasting tray deep enough to collect the roasting juices. I use a 9 x 12 in. oven-safe glass dish.

Reach into the chicken cavity (located between the legs) and pull off any large fat pieces. (The fat looks like butter and is located just inside the cavity.) Generously sprinkle the cavity with good salt and pepper (about 1 tsp large-flake salt). Cut the lemon in half and stick half directly into the cavity. You may need cut the half-lemon into smaller pieces to fit it into the cavity without having to untie the bird. If you need to truss, do this next.

Spread the butter over the breast and legs and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper (again, about 1 tsp large-flake salt). Put the chicken in the oven and set the timer for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 375F/180C. Roast for one more hour. Test for doneness by piercing the thigh with a knife. If the juices run red, return the chicken to the oven for another 10-15 minutes. When the juices run clear, the chicken is done.

Remove it from the oven. Squeeze the remaining half lemon over the chicken and sprinkle with a pinch more salt. Let the chicken sit under a kitchen towel for at least 15 minutes before carving.

NOTE: Cooking time is roughly 15 minutes per pound, plus 15 minutes for a room-temperature bird. However, I always forget to check the weight of my chicken before throwing the butcher label into the trash, so I don't slavishly follow this guideline. I just roast for anywhere between 1.25-1.5 hours, depending when I remember to take it out. After an hour, it's generally done. Another way to tell if the chicken is done without releasing its juices with a knife is by the amount and quality of the juices at the bottom of the pan. If there is very little juice or if it is either clear or bloody, then the chicken is not done. The juices should be golden brown, plentiful and bubbling.

Serves 2
2 baking potatoes (such as russett or yukon gold)
leftover chicken drippings, duck fat, or oil
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Put the drippings/fat/oil (about 1/4c) into a baking dish and put in the oven to heat.

Bring to a boil a medium-sized pot of salted water. Peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks, size depending on your taste. Boil the potatoes for 10-15 minutes or until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Drain.

Remove the baking dish from the oven and add the potatoes, ensuring to cover the potatoes on all sides with the hot fat. Return to the oven for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are crisp and browned.

If roasting the potatoes alongside a chicken, add the boiled, drained potatoes to the roasting pan 30-45 minutes before the chicken is to come out of the oven.

Photo: Death Row Chicken, before and after roasting.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Have your pie filling and eat it too

I love pumpkin pie. Or rather, I love pumpkin pie filling. Since I don’t eat wheat flour, I eat my pumpkin pie with a twinge of guilt, scooping out the filling with my fork and leaving the empty pie shell behind.

I look forward to eating pumpkin pie every Thanksgiving, which will happen here in a few weeks. But, I’m getting impatient. The pumpkins are now in the store (another of my favourite orange vegetables). They beckon me.

Several weeks back, I had an idea to create a pumpkin cake with almond flour. I imagined the cake would taste like pumpkin pie filling: moist, spiced and mildly sweet.

I was inspired by a cake I make every Christmas: Nigella Lawson’s clementine cake (How to Eat), a dense flourless cake made with almond meal and egg, as well as whole clementine oranges. I thought pumpkin could easily replace the oranges, and brown sugar could replace the white sugar, add some spices, and voilà! Pie filling that can stand on its own.

The result, which I baked today, was a grand success. It tastes like pie filling with its eggy, almost custardy richness. It is moist yet firm, sweet and spiced. If you love pumpkin pie, you must try this cake. And, because it’s made with almond flour and eggs, it’s high in protein and fibre. I am so proud of this cake.

6 eggs
zest and juice of 1/2 orange
225g dark brown sugar
250g almond flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp each ground nutmeg, allspice and ginger
375g cooked pureed pumpkin
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Prepare a springform cake pan (8-10 in. dia.) by greasing the inside with butter and lining with parchment paper.

Beat the eggs with a wire whisk or electric beaters. Stir in the zest, juice, sugar, flour, baking powder, and spices. Add the pumpkin and mix well. The batter will be quite liquid.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and place in the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. If after 40 minutes or so the top begins to burn, lay a piece of aluminum foil over the pan and continue to bake until done.

When baked though, remove the cake from the oven. Leave the cake in the pan on a rack to cool. When cool, remove from the springform tin.

Serve either plain or with whipped cream or crème fraiche.


On the pumpkin: Cooked pureed pumpkin is available in cans at the supermarket, however I cooked mine from scratch. If you are cooking your own pumpkin, DO NOT buy a Jack-o-lantern pumpkin. Make sure you get your pumpkin from the produce department. It will be labelled as a “pie” or “cooking” pumpkin. To cook, cut pumpkin in half, remove the seeds and place each half cut-side down in a large casserole dish. Add water to the dish (about 1/2 in.) and place in a 400F/200C oven for 45 min or until the flesh is easily pierced with a fork. Scoop out the cooked flesh and puree in a food processor or with an immersion blender.

On the measurements: I got a kitchen scale a year or so ago and will never go back to measuring with cups when baking. If you are a fan of British cookbooks, you will already know that their recipes only give measurements for dry ingredients by weight, not volume. It's more accurate, and quite frankly way easier than leveling off measuring cups. You can get a good kitchen scale for under $30. Here's one at Canadian Tire.

Photo: Pumpkin cake.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's yam time

The arrival of fall signals the return of locally-grown orange vegetables to the produce department and thus, to my table. Of all the orange vegetables, my favourite by far is the yam.

I have read many arguments on the distinction between sweet potatos and yams. Scientifically, there are two species: sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and yams from the genus dioscorea. Why don't supermarkets list their vegetables by their Latin names to avoid the confusion? (Just kidding.) In North America, we tend to use the terms yam and sweet potato interchangeably, which doesn't help matters. The tuber I am writing about here has dark red skin and bright orange flesh.

I call them yams because I like the word.

Yams are best baked in the oven, at 400F (200C) for 45-60 min until they pierce easily with a fork. If you're pressed for time, cut each yam in half lengthwise and place them cut side down in a greased baking dish. This reduces the cooking time by half. Serve them hot with lots of butter and the best salt.

Yams are also great peeled and sliced, then baked or fried in oil. They turn soft in the middle and dark on the edges, the yam sugars caramelizing in the heat. Bake them in the oven at 425F (210C) and turn them once in the oil to ensure they brown evenly. On the stove top, add enough oil to the frying pan to fill the bottom by a couple of millimeters and heat the oil before adding the yams. They should sizzle when added to the oil. Again, turn them periodically to cook evenly.

I made this soup the other day, a double hit of orange. Given that most of the work is done in the oven, it's a cinch to make and tastes fragrant and sweet.

4-5 medium-sized yams
1 L chicken or vegetable stock
zest and juice of 1 orange
salt and pepper
Bake the yams in the oven. When they are soft, scoop out the flesh into a soup pot and add the stock, zest and juice. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup in the soup pot, or if using a blender, puree in batches and return to the soup pot. Once pureed, heat the soup to the desired temperature. Add salt and pepper to taste. If the soup is too thick, add more stock or water.

Serves 3-4

Photo: Double Orange Yam Soup.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ode to a smørrebrød maiden

When it comes to open-faced sandwiches, the Scandinavians are hard to beat. According to Wikipedia, in the United States, a sandwich must have at minimum two slices of bread to be legally considered "sandwich." Too bad for them. In Denmark, smørrebrød (pronounced smur-er-BREWTH) is literally "butter-bread": a thin slice of dense, whole-grain rye bread covered with butter, then adorned with a selection of traditional toppings (roast beef, shrimp, mackerel in tomato sauce, pickled herring, liver, breaded fried sole filets, and others). The butter, applied thickly, prevents the bread from becoming soggy.

The smørrebrød maker is loyal to tradition, as certain toppings are always combined with specific condiments. The frickadeller (Danish meatball) smørrebrød comes with red cabbage. The roast beef is topped with pickled cucumber and crisp, deep fried onion pieces. Soft white bread is used for the shrimp salad, beautiful pink shrimp topped with a dollop of mayonnaise, roe, a lemon slice and a sprig of dill. Smørrebrød are eaten with a knife and fork, and washed down with shots of Aquavit, a strong dill-flavoured schnapps. These shots are sipped in unison: someone at the table lifts her glass and taps the edge of table with her fingers, waiting until everyone has their glass ready in the air before shouting "skol!"

The smørrebrød shops in Copenhagen proudly display their beautifully assembled butter breads in their windows in neat, abundant rows. The smørrebrød makers, typically women, are called smørrebrød jungfru, or "smørrebrød maiden." They are akin to the sushi chef, as the smørrebrød maker is trained in the craft of smørrebrød and makes nothing else.

According to Birgitte Toft, a smørrebrød specialist at the Manhattan restaurant Aquavit, smørrebrød must be piled high with toppings: ''One important rule is that the bread must not show. It must be completely covered with ingredients to suggest abundance. It has to look much bigger than it is.''

We ate our smørrebrød this afternoon at Sunset Villa, a Danish association village in Crieff, Ontario. My husband's father is Danish, born and raised on Bornholm before arriving in Canada as a teenager in the early 1960's. Both of his parents, recently deceased, now reside in the mausoleum at Sunset Villa, and we visit them periodically, always enjoying a smørrebrød luncheon in their honour.

This New York Times article includes lists of the different traditional smørrebrød combinations as well as recipe for Danish liver pate.

Photo: This smørrebrød is made with smoked mackerel in tomato sauce, lettuce, chives, cucumber and sour cream.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Baking feeds the soul

One of my inspirations for starting this blog came by way of an old friend and her fabulous cookbook.

About eight years ago, tired of chronic daily allergies and colds every 6-8 weeks, I visited a nutritionist who told me to stop eating wheat (as well as any other glutinous grain: rye, spelt, kamut, titricale, semolina, oat, and barley). I complied, desperate to rid myself of waking up every morning with sneezes and a runny nose. Within several months, my allergies disappeared completely, but I was left with a huge, gaping chasm of loss: no baking.

I dealt with the absence of baked goods in my life as best I could. I bought gluten-free cookbooks to replace traditional baking, but found rice flour unpalatable and the reliance on gluten-replacement substances like guar gum unsettling. I would sometimes fall off the wagon, indulging in croissants and cookies, only to regret my actions when my body revolted. I would finger through my favourite cookbooks with sadness, longing for the satisfaction the writers felt with the simple baking and eating of a coffee cake. Eventually, I resigned myself to accept life without cookies, scones, breads, muffins. I would be okay.

A few weeks ago, I did a Google-search of "grain-free" and found a familiar name. Jenny Lass, my classmate from senior kindergarten through grade 8, is now a diagnosed celiac and co-author of the Grain-free Gourmet cookbooks. I ran out and bought her books and, with trepidation, began testing the recipes. The baked goods rely on almond flour for their substance, which, to my surprise, is readily available and tastes great. The introductions to each book are simple and informative, imparting the science and philosophy of the specific carbohydrate diet as well as the personal journeys of the co-authors. I'm looking forward to reconnecting with Jenny tomorrow afternoon after more than 20 years.

Yesterday, I made Basic Biscuits from the second cookbook, Everyday Grain-free Gourmet. I realized through this process that baking is not a result. It's a complete experience, from feeling the craving for something warm and comforting to eat, through preparing the dough, preheating the oven, and watching the baking rise and turn golden brown. I remember now being eight years old and waiting with anticipation, watching my cakes and cookies rise through the plexiglas window of my Easy Bake Oven, swelling under the heat of a 60 watt bulb. The completion of the baking experience is extracting the goods from the oven and eating them, warm and fresh. They are tiny miracles: the product of intention and patience.

I ate my biscuits with butter, yoghurt cheese, jam and a cup of tea. They were warm and soft and tasted exactly as I remember. Thank you, Jenny.

NOTE: The best way to buy almond flour is in bulk. It is available for as low as $6 per pound through and can be frozen to maintain its freshness indefinitely. Almond flour is also available in small quantities at health food stores, though is much pricier. I have also found almond flour in the health food section of my local supermarket.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Death Row Beans

There are certain meals in our home that we esteem beyond all others. We call these dishes our "death row" meals, the ones we would want to eat our last night on earth. Yes, it's a morbid classification. The system, however, has us continually attuned to some of life's essential experiences. This is one of my husband's selections. For me, this dish is a staple I make once or twice a week. I crave these beans. When I'm really hungry and desperate for sustenance, nothing else will do.

Serves 2-4
1 Tbsp light olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 14 oz. can cannellini beans (aka white kidney or tuscan beans), drained and rinsed
6-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 Tbsp each fresh rosemary and thyme, chopped fine (or 1/2 tsp each dried)
1 cup water
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
handful flat-leaf Italian parsley, stems removed, roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Peel the garlic clove and smash once under the base of the unopened can of beans. Add the garlic pieces to the oil. Once the garlic starts to sizzle, add the beans, tomatoes, herbs and water. Increase the heat to bring the beans to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and let simmer, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes. The beans should continue to bubble.

Once the liquid has reduced and thickened, turn off the heat and add the extra virgin olive oil and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Serve in large bowls with steamed greens, fresh crusty bread, or on their own.

NOTE: If the sauce doesn't thicken, mash some of the beans with the back of a spoon and stir the mash into the rest. This will do the trick. Also, if the beans lose too much water, don't be afraid to add more. They'll be fine.

VARIATION: If you have some bacon or pancetta in the fridge, cut a few slices into small bean-sized pieces and fry them with the oil and garlic until browned before adding the beans. The smoky flavour tastes unbelievably great with the beans.

This will be the first of many posts about beans. There is so much to say about the world's perfect food: debates to weigh in on, stories to share, information to impart. Stay tuned.

Photo: Death Row Beans with steamed kale.

Monday, September 8, 2008

It's pannekoeken time

When I smell fall in the air, I think of Amsterdam. This morning, the outside thermostat read 13 degrees and the house was cool and fresh. I felt like we were back in Holland where we spent our week-long honeymoon in October, 2002.

We stayed in a houseboat on a street called Achtergracht, a word that when properly pronounced summons vast amounts of phlegm. We realized once we arrived to the city that we had chosen our ideal honeymoon destination. We recovered from our wedding by spending our days wandering through museums and outdoor markets, recharging ourselves in "coffee shops," and walking along the canals. Fall had already settled on the city, as the trees had lost most of their leaves and the autumn winds gathered intensity with each passing day. The day before we returned to Canada, we were treated to a massive storm that whipped rain and debris around the city and made walking next to impossible. Our little houseboat held fast, though we could feel the canal waters churning beneath.

One of our favourite meals in Amsterdam was at one of the many pannekoeken huis, eating the large crepe-like pancakes they served with fresh fruit. In the photo above, my husband's fork is a blur, proof of how fast we gobbled down these Dutch treats.

I found many recipes for pannekoeken online. This one seems quite basic, and I saw this gluten-free one as well. Since I no longer cook with grain flour, I made my own version using almond flour and maple syrup. I can't remember if they taste like the Dutch version since it's been so long. No matter: They were really tasty.

Serves 1
1/4 c almond flour
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
2 eggs
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp maple syrup
Combine the almond flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Using a wire whisk or fork, beat in the eggs, vanilla and syrup. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in in the fridge for 10-15 minutes to thicken.

Heat a large skillet or crepe pan over medium heat. Brush melted butter onto the heated surface (the butter should sizzle on contact when the pan is hot enough) and spoon out a third of the batter, swirling the pan around to distribute it evenly. Flip the pancake when the batter is no longer liquid and the edges start to brown and curl. Remove to a heated plate.

Serve with chopped fruit, syrup, ice cream, jam, ham and melted cheese, chocolate sauce, cinnamon and sugar, or anything else you can think of.

Makes 3 pannekoeken.

NOTE: If you like pancakes, a crepe pan is both inexpensive and indispensable. I bought mine several months ago and am amazed how pancakes never stick to the surface. Never wash your crepe pan -- only wipe it with a paper towel after use -- and never use it for anything except pancakes. It will be yours for life.

Photos: At top, my husband eating pannekoeken in a cafe in Amsterdam, October, 2002. Above, my well-seasoned deBuyer crepe pan.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Seasoning with salt

Learning how to season your home cooking with salt is your secret weapon. Food over salted is, of course, too salty. But under-salted food is tasteless and boring.

The first meal I cooked for my husband -- the dish we call “carrot and vermicelli” -- is famous only for being the blandest meal I ever made. The soup, inspired by the rice noodle pho we enjoyed at the Vietnamese restaurant near where we worked, was my offering to my then boyfriend of my skills as a potential life partner. My version was cooked rice noodles, shaved carrot and ginger, green onion, chicken breast and chicken stock from a can.

I remember preparing our meal in my tiny apartment kitchen so carefully. I assembled all the ingredients, thinly and evenly slicing the carrots, following the package directions on the vermicelli, and unwrapped the Japanese noodle bowls and chopsticks I had bought for the occasion. The result was beautiful to behold: a tangle of rice vermicelli beneath modest slices of carrots and chicken resting in broth and garnished with onion and ginger. It tasted, however, like carrot peelings with a vague hint of starch. I provided soy sauce for the seasoning, and toasted sesame oil for pizazz, but to no avail. I think we ended up ordering a pizza.

Just as the salt you use is a personal choice, so too is how much of it you add to your meals. My taste buds are fairly sensitive to salt, whereas my husband, who can scarf down plates of olives and hunks of asiago cheese, likes his meals saltier.

As you cook, you will learn how salty you like your food to be. I add salt to a dish based on the number of servings, measuring approximately 1/8 tsp ground salt (or 1/4 tsp large flakes, or one generous pinch) per serving. I provide salt at the table for additional seasoning to suit individual tastes.

I remade carrot and vermicelli the other night, tipping my imaginary toque to my first lesson in seasoning. I cooked the noodles, put a handful in a large soup bowl and ladled in a cup and a half of hot homemade chicken broth. I cut pieces of leftover chicken breast and sliced the carrots and green onion. (I was out of ginger.) Then, I salted everything with Maldon and added garlic chili oil for pizazz. It was wonderful.

With the leftover cooked noodles, I made this simple and delicious noodle salad for an afternoon picnic. I used chicken simply because it's what I had in the fridge, but you could use pork tenderloin, steak slices, tofu cubes, or leave out the protein altogether. Here is the recipe:

Serves 2
1 cup cold leftover cooked rice vermicelli
1 cup cold cooked chicken, sliced or pulled into thin strips
1 large peeled carrot, sliced into ribbons with a potato peeler
2 green onions, chopped
1 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs (try cilantro, basil, parsley, mint or combination)
1 small yellow zucchini, sliced into thin discs
2-3 leaves swiss chard, sliced into ribbons (discard stems)
zest and juice of one lime
1 Tbsp flavourful oil (I used chili garlic oil. Toasted sesame would be great. Light olive oil would also be fine.)
Combine ingredients in a bowl, toss and serve.

NOTE: To make chili garlic oil, buy a 500mL bottle of light olive oil, open the lid and break back the inner plastic pouring guard with a knife. Add to the bottle 5-8 peeled garlic cloves and 3-6 red chili peppers cut in half lengthwise. Before adding the garlic, mash them a bit using bottom of a heavy can or mug to release the juices; the cloves should be broken open but not completely pulverized. You can also use dried chilies. Let the oil steep for several days to reach maximum potency. If it's too strong, add more oil; too weak, add more garlic/chilies.


There is only one ingredient in great cooking that is indispensable: good natural salt. Table salt -- the iodized variety, that nasty collection of mean, uniform crystals -- imparts a sour, metallic taste to food that is unnecessary and to my mind unforgivable. Salt should enhance and support the natural flavours in a dish, not smack those flavours into submission.

I feel for ingredients when they are unfairly overwhelmed by bad salt. I think of tomatoes growing on the vine, developing their redness, their tangy sweetness, preparing themselves for their day in the spotlight, only to be relegated to fifth fiddle.

There are many opinions on the kind of salt you should use in your kitchen:
Martha Stewart: “Coarse kosher salt has the best taste to my way of thinking. It imparts a better taste and consistency and it enhances natural flavor. I use it in all my recipes.”
Robert Carrier: “I prefer rough-ground seas salt, gros sel. I find food cooked with sea salt is far superior to food cooked with ordinary powdered salt, so I always have quantities of glistening white flakes on hand to grind into casseroles and salads.”

Nigella Lawson: “I want my salt to be Maldon.”

Alice Waters: “I keep two kinds of sea salt close by: a very coarse one sold in bulk (the gray kind, with its high mineral content, is especially good) for salting boiling water and brine, and a finer, flakier one for seasoning and finishing dishes.”

Giorgio Locatelli devotes three pages of his massive Made In Italy to the lowly mineral, with “natural sea or rock salt” as his preference.
As you can see, selecting your salt is a personal choice, however iodized table salt is not on the menu. I use two kinds of salt at home: Maldon salt for seasoning and finishing, and kosher or coarse sea salt for salting potato and pasta water, depending on what’s available in the supermarket.

Food is precious. Throw out that old box of table salt and buy some natural, non-iodized sea salt and notice the difference. You will like it.

Next post: Seasoning your food.

References: Feast (Lawson), The Martha Stewart Cookbook (Stewart), The Robert Carrier Cookbook (Carrier), The Art of Simple Food (Waters)

Photo: I keep my Maldon salt in a salt cellar by Mario Batali's cookware line. It has two compartments. I use a pestle to grind the salt in the top for baking.