Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Solstice

Well, we did it. Once again, we've completed our journey to the shortest day of the year. Today, at 13:47 EST, you can raise your coffee mug to the cosmos. The winter solstice signals that from now until the end of June, every day will include a few more seconds of daylight. From this day forward, our frozen land will begin to thaw and new things will be coaxed into existence.

Lately, I've felt the appeal of hibernation. We've had our first below-zero weather of the season for the past week or so, and the few centimetres of snow that fell earlier in the month have solidified into ice. I bought my first proper winter coat, a shin-length down-filled monstrosity that, though a tad unwieldy, has proven very warm indeed. And even though I'm using my new cold-weather technology to move from place to place without becoming an icicle, all I really want to do is sit in my living room, fire crackling away in the hearth, and knit. I want to be surrounded by wool, feel it move through my fingers as I knit the world's largest afghan, big enough to cover its country of origin. All the while, elves will be busying themselves in my kitchen, brewing hot cocoa with cinnamon, baking spice cake spiked with brandy and softly singing hallelujah.

This is also the time of year I feel inclined to watch long, epic movies while wrapped in a blanket on the TV room sofa. Last year, I spent the requisite 14 hours to complete yet another viewing of the Lord of the Rings movies, and the year before, Byron and I unplugged the phone for several days while we blazed through the first three seasons of Lost. I don't know what I'll feel like watching this year, but come Boxing Day, the day after all our family holiday obligations are fulfilled, I'll have made my choice.

Whatever your holiday traditions, I wish you the best of everything. May your season contain visits with family and friends, great food and whatever makes you smile. See you in 2010.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Thanks to the greater Toronto area's significant Italian population, these lovely Christmas treats are in our grocery stores right now, so get them while there here. This seasonal Italian pastry is a sweet, light bread dotted with raisins and candied citrus peel. Traditionally, panettone is served with mascarpone cheese and a sip of fortified wine, but I like mine toasted with butter.

Panettone (sometimes called Pandoro) is usually packaged in big shiny boxes with ribbon loops at the top for hanging. You'll probably find them stacked high near other seasonal foodstuffs in your grocery store.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hello December

Hurrah! November is finally over. The bookends of winter, November and March, are the hardest months for me. November signals the beginning of the long haul, whereas March feels never-ending, as cold grey winter reluctantly makes its sluggish retreat.

This is a two-season city: warm and cold, or if you prefer, green and grey. This November has been unusually warm, perhaps delaying my acceptance of the inevitable. (I dreamed earlier in the month that it was mid-February and the ground had not yet frozen. I stood in the warm winter sun on green grass regretting that I had pulled out my annuals.) Yesterday, however, I awoke to frost on the grass and one degree weather. The freeze is on its way.

December, at least, has great food to its credit. The flavours of Christmas are my favourite of the year. I ate my first clementine orange yesterday and was reminded of the season. I love watching the oils mist in the air as I remove the peel. I'll be making Nigella's clementine cake again this year and can already taste its moist orange-scented goodness. I'll also try to recall how I made my stovetop Christmas cake, a concoction I threw together last December and of course didn't write down, but resulted in a beautiful, rich and boozy fruitcake that I'll desperately try to recreate for the rest of my life.

I'll also visit Sandra Juto's photo blog to remind myself to notice the beauty of winter. Her daily pictures of Gothenburg, Sweden, where she lives, are always astonishing in their simple aesthetic. Winter, there as here, has a lovely palette of muted, mixed greys, blues, greens and purples all perfectly complemented by the low dim light of the winter sky. This is the perfect backdrop to enjoy white steam rising from a cup of hot chocolate while wrapped in wool and sitting on a park bench.

November is always the hurdle. Now I'm settled in.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gnocchi with chicken and cream

Now that fall is in full swing and the temperature is continuing to drop, I've added a whole chicken to my grocery list and am enjoying the ritual of the weekly roast chicken cycle.

Roasting day is my favourite. I love preparing the bird for the oven. I take the chicken out of the fridge an hour or two ahead of time to let it come to room temperature. Then, while the oven is preheating (to 325ºF), I rinse and dry the bird, lay it in the roasting tray, and rub a wad of butter over the entire surface. The white skin feels smooth and cool, and the muscle and bone underneath is firm. I examine the fat at the tail end and remove the excess. Salt and pepper inside and out. If I'm so inclined, I'll slice half an onion or pick some thyme from the garden to insert into the cavity for extra flavour. While in the oven, the chicken roasts away slowly, eventually bubbling and sputtering, sending its delicious aroma into the air. Once finished, and having rested for a quarter hour under a tea towel, the chicken is ready to eat. This is when to enjoy the crisp, freshly roasted skin, and, my favourite bits, the wings. I eat these standing over the stove in the kitchen.

I keep the chicken in its roasting dish in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap, so that the roasting juices congeal at the bottom. Never throw these away. They are rich in flavour and nutrition and add depth to any sauce. My new favourite thing to make with leftover chicken and the juice is gnocchi with cream. This recipe is so simple, delicious, and fast with a prep time of only 10 minutes. I encourage you to try it.

Finally, the end of the chicken cycle is when all of the meat is picked away and the bones go into the stock pot. Again, glorious smells fill the house as the stock pot gurgles. I yield about a litre of stock per chicken carcass, enough to make an easy lentil soup for the next day.

Serves 2
1/2 pound gnocchi
two handfuls roast chicken, torn or cut into bite-sized pieces
roasting pan juices, fat removed
1/4 c whipping cream
chopped fresh parsley (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

In boiling salted water, cook gnocchi until they rise to the surface. Drain. In the same saucepan, add the pan juices and cream, bringing to a boil. Add gnocchi and chicken, stirring to coat and heat, 30 seconds with the lid on. Remove from heat. Add parsley and season. Serve with steamed broccoli, or a side salad.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I thought I'd share a few insights about preparing Thanksgiving dinner for those of you lucky enough to be doing so this weekend:

1) Go with the flow

In my eight years of preparing this feast, something has always gone wrong. Last year's error was perhaps the most spectacular: an exploding turkey. I lovingly made the most divine lemon-scented mashed potatoes and sealed the whole lot into the main cavity and neck of the bird. I was unaware that the potatoes expand in the turkey and create a heck of a lot of steam, and as such they ceremoniously squirted out of both ends and lined the bottom of my oven. Fortunately, my husband noticed this before they managed to burn and catch fire. We saved what we could, and stuffed the rest back inside the turkey. The result, despite the in-oven theatrics, was a delicious tender turkey and glorious lemony potatoes.

This year, I've already had to modify one of my recipes, since the directions printed in the cookbook resulted in something other than what was advertised. (Note to Nigella: In what universe does simmering cranberries for even a moment not result in gloopy sauce? Please revise your Cranberry and Cornbread Stuffing recipe in Feast.)

2) Simple food makes for great eating

Steamed brussels sprouts with butter, nutmeg and lemon juice. Baked yams mashed with butter and lime juice. Yukon gold potatoes mashed with cream and butter. These turkey accompaniments are not complicated yet are wonderful to eat. Their success relies only on the quality of the ingredients and your attention to make sure they aren't overcooked. Save the labour-intensive recipes – the ones with twenty steps and a thousand futsy ingredients – for when you don't have fifty other dishes to prepare at the same time.

3) Let your guests help you

Not only will some of your dinner guests – your friends and family, people who love you – offer their help out of the goodness of their hearts, but they will usually hover around you in the kitchen until you give them something to do. This is a sign: They want to help. My sister's fiancé is case in point. He's cleaned my kitchen, made the mustard for roast ham, cleaned my barbecue, and done all manner of chopping and dicing. Helping makes him feel great. Remember, there's no prize for slaving feverishly to bring a feast to table all by your lonesome, especially if you arrive at your place wilting with exhaustion. As a result, your guests will focus on your well being rather than the food and eachother, and that's just not fun.

4) Never criticize your own food

Even if you are eating not only the worst thing you've ever made but also the worst food in the history of the universe, never say so to your guests. I learned this from Julia Child and I agree with her completely. Again, the point of the meal is to be together, not to focus on your own culinary shortcomings. Of course, you're your own worst critic: What tastes terrible to you might be the best thing your guests have ever eaten.

5) Have fun

If you're not having fun, then what's the point? If you don't like cooking, then do a potluck Thanksgiving, have it catered, order Thai food, roast weenies, whatever floats your boat. There are no rules, so create a day that makes you happy. If you're happy, then your guests will be too.

I'm making my pumpkin cake again, soaking my turkey in brine overnight, and stuffing it with cornbread. I'm also doing as much as I can before the day of, so I'll have lots of energy to enjoy Thanksgiving as much as possible.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Goodbye Gourmet

Ever since reading Ruth Reichl's fabulous memoirs, I have been comforted by the notion that she is at the helm of Gourmet magazine as editor-in-chief. She's still out there, I think to myself, connecting ideas to food and sifting through our culture's culinary habits for the meaning of life. Alas, as reported this week, Gourmet magazine is no longer; Condé Nast finally pulled the plug on what was probably a very unprofitable subscription. The Globe and Mail featured a pair of opinions (one for and the other against) by two of its food writers on the demise of this 68-year-old publication. Much is made of Condé Nast's decision to keep Bon Appétit, its other food magazine, while scrapping the veteran. The writers' comparisons of the two magazines is entertaining.

As much as I love Ruth Reichl, I never once even glanced at a copy of Gourmet under her direction. My only memory of Gourmet is of flipping through the odd issue kicking around my parents' house and marveling at the utter insanity of some of the recipes. My thought was always the same: Who really cooks like that? In the mid 90's at least, Gourmet was about bringing fine dining to our homes, teaching us how to make the dishes requiring hours and hours of preparation, like the ones we might sample at Le Cirque if we were charmed enough to dine there. I imagine the current version of Gourmet isn't much different. Perhaps the element of fantasy was always the point; by featuring food to drool over rather than recipes to add to your arsenal for quick dinners, Gourmet lifted readers out of the everyday slogging that is feeding. By comparison, I continue to buy Vogue, another Condé Nast publication, yet I will likely never dress off the pages in head-to-toe designer togs.

I feel a little funny saying farewell to a magazine I've never read, but I feel a twinge of sadness at its loss. I feel for Gourmet's devotees. I remember my own disappointment at the recent loss of Blueprint and Domino, two similar lifestyle and home decor publications targeted to a reader exactly like me, a stylish 30-something woman, cut to improve some bottom line. As will likely be the case with Gourmet, there are no magazines in print that can replace the ones lost, none to fill the void, none that match the needs of the specific reader so perfectly.

And so, I raise my keyboard first to Ruth Reichl. Thank you for being fearless in your writing about food. And to the readers of Gourmet: I hope you find what you're looking for.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Salt redux

If you haven't read the multi-part special feature on salt in the Globe and Mail, have a look. The series was first published during the summer, but is still available on their website and well worth examining.

In case we need reminding, Canadians consume on average twice the amount of salt required for a healthy diet. While we've become obsessed with monitoring our fat and sugar intake, we continue to scarf down 3,092 mg of sodium daily. Low fat and "healthy" choice prepared foods such as President's Choice Blue Menu products have up to 600 mg of sodium per serving, almost half-way to the 1,500 mg per day quota for optimal health. A diet high in sodium is particularly detrimental to individuals who have high blood pressure or are prone to hypertension. (Watch this narrated video diagram on how salt affects your body.) Clearly, if consumers were as attentive to the negative health impact of salt as they are to the effects of sugar and fat on their waistlines, manufacturers would be forced to redefine what constitutes a "healthy" choice.

The Globe feature includes a number of interesting articles. Who knew, for instance, that you can limit your salt intake by seasoning your food at the end of preparation rather than at the beginning? Apparently, we require less salt to taste when we salt previously unsalted food at the table verses food prepared with salt. Also amusing is Dave McGinn's The Sodium Diaries, a daily blog devoted to his efforts to stick to the 1,500 mg per day quota, which he fails miserably. I guess no one pointed out that if you want to stick to the daily limit, you can kiss eating prepared foods goodbye: everything from instant oatmeal to canned tuna, our ideas of "healthy" choices, contain heaps of salt.

The bottom line, as always, is that healthy living requires commitment and forethought. All we can hope for is that over time, our governments will consider excessive salt intake a national health crisis, as it did with smoking in the 1980's, and will throw its weight behind the awareness campaigns, incentives and bans this issue deserves.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chocolate collard green pie

My next post is taking longer to write than I anticipated, so in the interim, here is something to read:

Chef Harry Eastwood has created Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache, a book of baking recipes that hide vegetables in cakes, pies and cookies and apparently taste great. This article in the The Globe and Mail is a tad misleading, suggesting that Eastwood's recipes are healthy because they replace butter and sugar for veggies. While there are lots of specific starchy vegetables (not a kale cake in sight, I'm sure) in each recipe, they are also loaded with nuts to replace the butter, and they still contain sugar. Perhaps readers, sensing that "Muscavado" sugar must be exotic and therefore healthier than the plain old, are the same people who also think "evaporated cane juice" is somehow not sugar either. Regardless, almond flour baked goods are always a treat, so it's nice to have a new recipe.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mass vs. volume... mass wins!

At last, the perfect loaf of bread. I've been waiting a long, long time for this. I had almost given up on being able to bake a light, fluffy loaf of bread. Even my husband was starting to get a little disparaging. After chewing thoughtfully on a slice of my last loaf, he admitted: "Maybe bread just isn't something you're good at making." Oh, how I hated hearing that. But a part of me thought that he might be right.

Until today, all of my bread has been leaden. "Dense" would be a compliment for my bread, suggesting the healthiness of whole grain rather than what the loaves really were: edible door stoppers. It seemed that each loaf I made was heavier than the last. Although they all contained the same amount of flour, less and less air puffed its way into the dough, compressing more and more grain into every slice. I followed my recipe book slavishly, measuring accurately, kneading accordingly. I would wait patiently at the oven door, hoping the dough would make its final ascent in the heat and heartbroken when it didn't. All of these efforts to no avail. My bread was a failure.

Today, I put my bread book away and thought I'd try one last time. I had nothing to lose, and so I followed the simple direction given by Michael Ruhlman in his book Ratio. His bread dough ratio is so simple: five parts flour and three parts water. Add some yeast, salt for flavour and oil if you like. Knead and let rise as you please.

I used my kitchen scale and measured out 20 oz of flour (mostly white; about 1/4 whole wheat) and 12 oz of lukewarm water. I added two packages of yeast, about 1/2 Tbsp of salt, a glug glug glug of olive oil and a long squirt of honey. I also threw in a handful of whole grains (millet and Scottish oats) for some crunch. Then, I kneaded the dough for about 10 minutes and put it in a bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and set it in the stereo cabinet to rise. After about an hour, I punched the dough down, wrapped it back up, and let it rise again. After another hour or so, I took the dough to the kitchen, kneaded it for about another minute or so, cut it in half to form into two loaves, and let them rise covered with a kitchen towel for about 30 minutes. Then I baked them for 35 minutes in a 375ºF oven. Done.

I surmise that the problems I had been having with my previous breads is that my recipes had too much flour and not enough liquid. By measuring the bread to liquid ration by weight and not volume, I will be able to make bread with consistency, I hope. As you may know, the volume of flour changes dramatically over time; sifted flour, light and lofty, will take up more volume per ounce than unsifted flour. Any European cookbook I have ever read always measures baking ingredients by mass, not volume. But for some reason, North American recipes have always relied on imperial volumetric measures for dry ingredients.

All this to say that if you like fresh bread, go out to Canadian Tire and buy a kitchen scale, measure out your ingredients and have fun. It's really easy, and will surely be the best bread you have ever tasted.

Eggs and broccoli

I went for a proper brunch the other day, and by proper I mean for a meal I could never be bothered to make at home. I had eggs Florentine, a life-long favourite: poached eggs on English muffin with steamed spinach and hollandaise. Making this dish at home, though possible of course, is fraught with difficulty. While steamed spinach and toast are fairly simple to manage, the other two components are a nightmare of timing and precision.

I've made hollandaise sauce once in my life: successfully, though not without the requisite bother. Setting aside the concern of the shocking amount of butter needed to make hollandaise, the sauce also requires feats of strength and patience to complete. The mixture of butter and egg yolk, once combined in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water (a bain marie), must be whisked continuously to avoid separation or over cooking. In addition, hollandaise must be served immediately after it has been made, for it continues to thicken if left on the heat or separate if unattended. Unless I either hire a sous chef or grow another pair of arms, poached eggs (a task requiring an equal amount of attention and care) and hollandaise is a meal best left to professionals.

And yet, now that I've had a taste for unctuous butter mixed with the tang of lemon juice and the smoothness of egg yolk, I can't go back to plain boiled eggs for breakfast. And so, I have invented my own poached eggs hollandaise: two soft boiled eggs with butter and a squirt of lemon juice. It's cooking down to the basic ingredients, and it certainly will never replace the original. But, cooking is about making something to eat, not driving yourself crazy, so I am pleased that my minimalist version is so satisfying.

From the web
Ever wonder how long mothers have been forcing their kids to finish their broccoli? Eight thousand years, give or take. This food time line tells us at what point in human history different food items found their way onto our plates. We've been eating wheat for 10,000 years, though ravioli is a 13th century invention. Some items I've never heard of, like the emmer and einkorn grains of 17,000 and 16,000 BC, respectively. Also listed is the first cookbook, a Dutch "kitchen book" called "Good and Noble Food", published sometime in the 15th century. Given Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440, it must not have been long before someone noticed such books would be appreciated.

P.S. I took a break from Pickle Pea over the summer, as regular readers may have noticed. (Sorry for the lack of notice. Thanks for your patience!) I'm back now. Expect a return to my usual schedule of 3-4 posts/month.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Made in Canada... I mean, Kerplackistan

In light of last week’s recall of several President’s Choice beef products for e-coli contamination, I realized that my sporadic reading of local news may prove one day to be detrimental to my health. Were it not for my father telling me about the recall before biting into his hamburger at our backyard barbecue, I would have never known about the recall at all. (Fortunately, our food was among the items not on the recall list.)

I have since discovered, however, that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has an RSS feed for all food recalls and allergy alerts. Once you subscribe, you will be notified via email or through your RSS reader of any items that are contaminated. Isn’t technology great?

While we’re on the subject of information about what we eat, I also found this article in last week’s Globe and Mail. It references the PC beef recall to inform us that as consumers, we never really know where our food comes from. Items that say “Made in Canada” may mean that the food is only packaged in Canada but the raw materials are produced or grown in another country altogether. For those of us who want to eat Canadian beef to support our local industries may have to look further than the product packaging to find out if a box of frozen burgers fits the bill. I am again reminded of Paul Robert’s The End of Food and the economics of modern food production: companies now search for the lowest price on raw materials from around the globe, awarding supplier contracts to the lowest bidder, whether they be from Red Deer or the Red Sea.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The sky is still falling, right?

Agribusiness is in the news. Perhaps my attentions are tuned in after having read Paul Roberts’ The End of Food and I’m noticing articles that were previously off my radar.

We have this article in today’s Globe and Mail about engineering tastier vegetables to meet consumer demands. Initially, I can’t help agreeing with Jamie Reaume, executive director of the Holland Marsh Growers' Association: “The overriding concern that always pops up when you start to deal with vegetables is what was wrong with the original taste and why are people trying to improve it?” Then I remember that we are human, always striving to create something better, whether it be to sell or to savour.

I’m certainly not as gloomsday centered as the target Star reader, given the tone of this article on the California über-strawberry. Those big red strawberries we see in grocery stores, available nine months of the year for as low as $2 a pint are obviously bad news, given that they’re grown 5,000 km away and are engineered in every possible way. Packed within a tiny paragraph, however, is the truth of food production on a large scale: high volumes and crop specialization yields fruit that is more efficient and produces fewer greenhouse gases per pound than fruit I would grown in my backyard. But forget about that. They’ve got to be bad in other ways, so keep feeling guilty that we’re all ruining life as we know it.

Speaking of California strawberries, I’ve got some in my fridge that I bought on sale for a couple bucks the other day. Time for a smoothie.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Two Things

I have been preoccupied with other writings this week. I do have two things I wish to share before the weekend arrives.

Ruth Reichl
I have been reading the memoirs of food writer Ruth Reichl over the last couple of weeks. I completed Tender At the Bone on Wednesday and ran out to purchase another of her books the following day. I love her writing. She has created a life devoted to sensation, of following her instinct to find something as basic as food that tastes good. In Tender At the Bone, she recounts growing up under the tyrannical rule of the Queen of Mold, her manic-depressive mother who would routinely serve green sour cream and fuzzy bread. Her stories of her mother’s most memorable and horrific occasions, including an engagement party for her brother that sent 29 people to hospital with food poisoning, are almost impossible to believe. While most food writers highlight personal backgrounds that encouraged good eating, Reichl reveals that storytelling was prized in her family. I find myself reading her words slowly, savouring them as I would a good meal. I have yet to understand this response and I am curious to discover what makes her writing so different.

Vegetable Love
New ingredients create new opportunities for discovery. I have been shopping at Loblaws with the weekly sale flyer in hand, so I have been buying a lot of things that I wouldn’t normally eat and in large quantities. One of the results of my shopping trips was six hearts of Romaine lettuce (five bucks!) as well as a bag of avocados. As such, I dug out my copy of Barbara Kafka's Vegetable Love and realized I had been ignoring a treasure trove. Her “Shrimp and Avocado Salad on Lettuce and Sorrel” was the inspiration for my recipe below, seeing as I had several pounds of shrimp in the freezer from another shopping spree. I haven’t made her version, but I highly recommend her combination of soy sauce, lemon juice and avocado, three ingredients I never before thought to marry. My version is served warm and thus much easier to make.

Serves 1
1 Romaine heart, chopped
1 small or 1/2 large avocado, peeled and sliced
1 Tbsp chopped basil (or mint, parsley or coriander)
2 tsp oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
pinch hot pepper flakes
handful of frozen uncooked shrimp (about 3 oz.)
2 tsp tamari or soy sauce
juice of 1/4 lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Prepare salad by chopping clean lettuce and placing leaves in a salad bowl or dinner plate. Arrange avocado slices and chopped basil on top. Set aside.

Heat the oil and garlic in a small frying pan on medium high heat. When the garlic starts to sizzle, add the shrimp. Fry five minutes, turning shrimp to cook both sides. When shrimp are pink, add soy sauce and lemon juice and heat for another few seconds. Remove from heat and pour directly over vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste and enjoy!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Toast and tea

I have an olfactory memory I can’t quite place. I bought a loaf of egg bread the other night, prizing the soft glowing challa over the other sub-standard offerings at my local market. I can’t remember the last time I bought a challa; most of my childhood memories of egg bread are of being at my best friend’s house on Friday nights, breaking a fresh-baked challa hidden under a kitchen towel as part of her family’s weekly Shabbat ritual. This week, I’ve been enjoying my egg bread toasted with butter. The moment I smell the slices starting to brown, however, I have a memory of eating challa toast with butter and honey and drinking peppermint tea. My memory is purely sensory, activating my taste buds and providing no visual cues. I recall my mother serving us toast with honey and tea whenever we had the stomach flu. She would give us whatever bread she had, and like me she rarely bought egg bread either. Perhaps there was one rare moment when she too selected a spongy glistening challa over all the other breads on display, a day when I just happened to be needing some toast and tea.

Some things to read in The Globe and Mail today:

  • This article about cooking oils. It’s quite thorough, explaining the difference between the Omega fatty acids and where to find them, “good” and “bad” cholesterol, etc. At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with having a cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil in the pantry.

  • Ever wonder about the state of Canadian street meat? This article showcases a Vancouver hot dog stand, Japadog, that serves everything from fried okra to daikon radish and wasabi on wieners and sausages. Vancouver, like Toronto, limits the kind of food available on movable kiosks.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

We must always eat

I had decided earlier in the week to write my next post about cabbage, an entry I have been meaning to create for some time now, though one I have put off for several months. Even now, as I am finally beginning my cabbage post, I am overcome with boredom. Such is the nature of most of our everyday cooking: We cannot escape drudgery. No matter how great our moments of culinary inspiration may be, when our zest for cooking is boundless and we delight in the entire process of preparing a meal, these moments surely pass, but we must always eat. Cabbage is one of my fallback vegetables, perfectly suited for the most listless, uninspired moments in my workaday life.

Cabbage is the only vegetable with the resilience to outlast everything else in the fridge. It can sit patiently on the bottom shelf wrapped in plastic for weeks - even months - crisp and new as the day it arrived. While green brassicas like kale and collards turn yellow, and more tender leaves mold and rot, cabbage remains true. Even carrots and parsnips, though long in shelf life, eventually shrivel and grow brown in the crisper. Cabbage is a miracle.

I have been buying napa cabbages to keep in the fridge. The leaves are frilly, like lace, easily shredded and cook quickly. I have been stir-frying them with garlic and hot pepper flakes, adding some salt to help release the water to create steam, and sprinkling with a few chopped coriander leaves at the end before serving. Sometimes I throw in a handful of frozen peas for good measure. I eat this with boiled pork dumplings you can find in the freezer section and dipping sauce made from a combination of soy sauce, sesame oil and chili sauce.

I present cabbage not necessarily to entice you to include it in your lineup of kitchen staples. We all have the items we fall back on when we can’t think of something thrilling to cook. I could tell the story of my first failed attempt at making cabbage rolls, the filling folded ineptly between the thick, unyielding leaves of conventional white cabbage. Or I could reveal my source for my current method for preparing napa leaves: a casual Chinese luncheon celebrating the successful arrival of a new baby. Instead, I invite you to consider the ways you cook without thinking: how you squirrel things away in the fridge, freezer or pantry to prepare when you just need to eat.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fight the power

If I wasn’t completely smitten for Jamie Oliver before purchasing his latest cookbook, Jamie’s Food Revolution, I am now. I was always impressed by his infectious enthusiasm for all things culinary; he’s like the energizer bunny of celebrity chefs. I’ve enjoyed watching him bounce from one project to next, heralding simple “naked” cooking using fresh ingredients and straightforward methods.

More than anyone else, I think, Jamie’s food philosophy is about empowerment. He recognizes that cooking your own food in today’s world is not just a political act: It’s downright radical.

I wonder if he’s read Paul Roberts’ The End of Food, an impeccably researched treasure trove of information for anyone concerned by how reliant westerners (and now emerging markets like China and India) have become on heavily processed (or, as Roberts calls them, “high margin”) foods. According to Roberts, the items in our supermarkets with the lowest nutritional value (pop, cookies, chips, snacks, etc.) and made with the cheapest ingredients (corn syrup, vegetable oils, synthetic thickeners and flavourings, etc.) have the highest profit margins available to the manufacturer. This is why these items are so heavily marketed to us. (The numbers one and two most recognized brands in the world are Coke and Pepsi, two very high margin items.) Making your own salad dressing, then, becomes not just a quest for superior ingredients and eliminating chemical additives. It’s an act of rebellion, an idea I think Oliver is beginning to communicate more effectively than ever before.

Oliver’s idea for Revolution is to bring the power of cooking to the people. He kick-started his “pass it on” movement by traveling to Rotherham, England, and teaching recipes from his new book to a handful of working class, processed food dependent non-cooks. He then charged them, and all of his readers, with the task of instructing four friends their one recipe, who in turn pass it on to four friends, and so on and so on. After seven repetitions, he says, there will be enough people who know how to cook one good recipe to fill Yankee Stadium one and a half times (that’s almost 80,000 people).

The recipes, as usual, are simple and tasty, like spaghetti bolognese, omelets, fish baked in foil packets and chopped salads. As such, there’s nothing much new, though their presentation (step-by-step photographs, variations on a theme) is really useful.

On the food side, I’m interested in two pantry staples Oliver uses in Revolution: quick oats and cream crackers. I’m always in search of new tricks. On first glance, I see Oliver throwing handfuls of quick oats into everything from smoothies to topping baked salmon. And the cream crackers smash up to make killer toppings and breadcrumbs. Already I have made a smoothie with some oats, and it didn’t turn into a gooey mess. I’m eager to try the rest of the recipes. I’ll let you know how they fare.

Thank you, Jamie, for being a champion of culinary self-empowerment. Rock on.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The nocebo effect

Nocebo effect: The power of negative thinking. This idea comes my way via Margaret Wente’s column in today’s Globe and Mail. She is in support of the once radical now less incendiary view that our obsessive attention to the minutae of our health and nutrition is unnecessary. I believe she refers to this article in Maclean’s magazine, though one need not look far to find yet another writer claiming that we’re killing ourselves with our seemingly harmless habits. Have a read to get in on the discussion.

I also picked up two books in the airport last Sunday, displayed side-by-side on the non-fiction centre table: Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and Paul Robert’s The End of Food. Funnier still is the front cover quotation by none other than Pollan in defense of Robert’s book: “For anyone concerned about the future of food, this is an indispensable book.” Now I’m intrigued: Are these seemingly opposite views really the same book? I’m curious to learn how similar they are rather than how different.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Spring things

Over the past week, my garden has sprung into action. I have a sizable plot mixed with perennial flowers, herbs, shrubs, rocks and empty spaces for annuals and edibles. My garden is a consistent source of joy and woe, as are most creations, although after seven summers toiling in the soil, I am confident I have worked out many of the problems.

Truth be told, I’m not much of a gardener. I have soaring bucolic fantasies, including an impulse every few years to move to the country and live off the fat of the land. In practice, however, I avoid working in the garden like I avoid vacuuming or washing the shower curtain. Weeding, as any gardener knows, is a never ending almost Sisyphean task requiring constant vigilance and commitment. I also have an irrational fear of worms. Much to my dismay, in any outdoor garden, worms are unavoidable: toothless, sightless and prehistoric, lurking in the darkness, waiting to pounce.

I am looking forward to this year’s garden, the maintenance of which I have now entirely subcontracted to my landscaper. He is a proper artist whose loving attention to garden beauty and bounty makes up for his bureaucratic failings. We have devised a system we will test out this year I'm hoping will satisfy both my need for financial order and his desire to create at will. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Through the years, we have grown a sampling of edibles with varying degrees of success. In the beginning, I imagined growing enough vegetables to preserve and consume all year long, keeping step with my prairie ancestors. In reality, the abundance of tall Norway maples in our neighbourhood prevent the maximum sun exposure such a venture requires. That's a good technical reason for my failure. I would be remiss not to mention, however, that my ancestors were farmers, a seven days a week, sun up to sun down job, whereas I have many other things I want to spend my time doing. Such is the distraction of the city.

Of all the vegetables we’ve planted, only a few are worth repeating. Many were more trouble than they were worth. Lettuce, for instance, tastes wonderful when freshly picked, but comes in quickly. Unless you are skilled at timing your crop, planting seeds every two weeks throughout May and June as the package demands, you will have all of your lettuce available at once. Then, after a week or so, it will bolt, become tough or bitter, and unwieldy. Radishes require lots of sun and resowing to leave space for the roots to form, as do carrots. The chore does not yield produce any better than can be purchased at the green grocer.

Two items in particular warrant the fuss of home growing. One, swiss chard, is hardly a fuss at all if you don’t mind earwigs and sprinkling the slug bait once a week or so. I have been growing a bed of swiss chard for several years, enjoying the tender fresh leaves once or twice a day from July through the end of October. Their flavour is unmatched by the leaves you buy in the store, and as such to my mind worth the effort.

The other item we grow is cherry tomatoes. Truth be told, all tomatoes grown in the garden are unparalleled by ones bought in the store. Cherry tomatoes, however, are far less effort and frustration than their larger bretheren. Squirrels, for some reason, bite into tomatoes when they're green, then leave them to rot on the ground, uneaten. They don't do this with cherry toms. So unless you’re into building cages for your plants, cherry tomatoes is the way to go: the squirrels seem to ignore them. Remember to prune your tomato plants every few days, removing the dud sucker shoots that only serve to drain the plant of its resources. They are easily snapped off with your fingers, resulting in exponentially more fruit.

Of course, growing fresh herbs is a no-brainer, such as the lemon thyme I have pictured above, already available for use this early in the season. Whatever you choose to grow, you will be pleased I'm sure with the feeling of independence and power that comes with providing for yourself.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Banana break

This piece of culinary genius comes from my husband. He rarely cooks, though as I have said before, when he does the results are inspired.

We are preparing for a vacation to the Cayman Islands for a friend’s wedding. Given the high cost of everything from toothpaste to dry goods on the island, we have been planning to bring a suitcase or two of non-perishables to prepare in our kitchenette. We leave in a week, and so far we've eaten about half of everything I have bought for our trip, including a box of PC Organics Original Pancake Mix.

I am interested to discover all of the possible uses for pancake mix. Not only does it make great pancakes, but as we have now learned, a thicker batter with double the egg works as a delicious frying batter for sweet treats. B cut up several not-too-ripe bananas we had sitting on the counter and dipped the pieces in the batter before frying them for several minutes per side in hot oil.

I remember being slightly horrified when I watched Nigella Lawson dropping battered mini Bounty bars into her deep fryer and gobbling them up straight from the vat. Now I’m more concerned for us never leaving the house and dipping everything we can think of into pancake batter. It tastes so good.

For those of you who are regular follows of my blog or know me at all may wonder why I am now embracing the wheat, so to speak. I wrote about my no wheat policy several months ago as I began questioning the necessity of my personal ban. Since then, I have visited an allergy specialist who quickly concluded I am not allergic. She gave me a good earful about not just food allergies, but also how the digestive system works, and I can see that my personal fluctuations had more to do with stress than anything else. I have subsequently been eating all things gluten-filled for two months now with no change in my general health and well-being.

If you are one of the many people who has been recommended by an alternative health practitioner to avoid certain foods, I invite you to consider verifying their claims with your family doctor. After all, why live life without all of the tastes our culinary world has to offer if you don't have to?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ratio + imagination = freedom

Good news! There's a new book out called Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. The author, Michael Ruhlman, went through the trouble of writing down what every good cook knows. Each recipe, whether it be for bread or soup, is developed in accordance of basic ratios between the ingredients. Once you learn these ratios, you can ditch the recipe books and cook freely according to your taste and whim.

To adopt this method, dust off those kitchen scales, or break down and finally spend 30 bucks on this indispensable tool. The ratios are measured by mass, not volume. This is a vital distinction when it comes to flour since depending on humidity and settling, a single cup can vary in weight by several ounces.

The ratios are simple. In this article, Ruhlman shares the 3-2-1 ratio for making cookies: 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat and 1 part sugar. Use white flour, butter and white sugar and you have a basic sugar cookie. Replace some of the sugar for brown sugar and you have a darker cookie. Add molasses and some ginger and you have a gingersnap. Increase the fat and add some eggs and you have a richer cookie. The possibilities are endless.

I am eager to try the ratio, shared by Ruhlman in this video, for making levened dough: 5 parts flour and 3 parts water. The amount of yeast, he says, is not critical, and salt is for flavour. I have been experimenting lately with making my own bread, feeling tied to my recipe book, following the steps and hoping I haven't missed a critical ingredient. My book, Bernard Clayton's canonical The Complete Book of Breads, may be interesting and thorough, but it nonetheless uses volumetric measurement for dry ingredients. I am frustrated by this lack of precision.

I love how automatic I am at making soup, or adding salt to meats, ratios I have learned and absorbed through trial and error and are now second nature. Now, I will try my hand at the bread ratios. I have a feeling I will see instant results.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Orange food

I was reading the Health Canada Food Guide again the other day, and noticed the fine print on their recommendations for fruits and vegetables. We may all have the “five-to-ten servings” advice knocking around in our heads, most likely from the V-8 commercials that suggest drinking their “vegetable” juice is the best hope some of us have for fulfilling our daily quota. Health Canada’s fine print, however, says that of those five-to-ten servings of fruits and vegetables, one vegetable should be dark green and another should be orange. So much for V-8.

In terms of fast and convenient eating, the green veg is far more accommodating than the orange. Frozen spinach bought in pellets is easily prepared and can be added to soups and omelets. The fresh variety, especially when bought as washed baby spinach, creates the beginnings of a great salad. In addition to baby spinach, several other dark greens can be eaten raw, especially swiss chard, whose tender leaves, when shredded, also make terrific salads and slaws.

Unless you enjoy eating carrot sticks, however, the preparation of orange veg requires more planning. Aside from carrots, in the orange variety we really have two other options: squash and yams. Neither can be enjoyed in their raw form and both require peeling, which is unfortunate when you are trying to prepare food quickly.

There are solutions. Yams are best eaten baked, when their flesh is soft and the sugars have begun to caramelize. Accomplish this by placing scrubbed yams on a baking sheet in a 375ºF oven for about an hour or until they feel soft and are easily pierced with a fork. Baked yams can be stored in the fridge for up to a week, in their skins and sealed in an airtight container. (I haven’t tried freezing them, since they usually don’t last long enough to make it to secondary storage.) So, if you like yams, bake a whole tray full at a time and save the rest for later. At mealtime, scoop the baked yam out of its skin and reheat in the microwave, adding butter and salt once it’s hot. One orange veg serving done.

Squash and yams also make great quick soups. For a fast yam soup, put some cooked yam in a saucepan and add water or chicken stock, enough to cover. Bring to a boil, then purée with an immersion blender, season and serve. The same can be accomplished with uncooked squash, peeled and cubed and simmered for five minutes in water or stock until the pieces are tender. Purée and season as with the yam soup, then serve.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Breakfast redux

When it comes to breakfast, we all have our habits. Nigella Lawson cleverly wrote that first thing in the morning she would “rather make breakfast than a decision.” She eats the same breakfast every day, as I’m sure most of us do. My parents have been following the same breakfast schedule for years: porridge on weekdays, fried eggs and bacon on Saturdays and waffles on Sunday. There’s a certain comfort I get from knowing that wherever they are, I know what my parents had to eat that morning.

Lately, I've been enjoying soft boiled eggs and buttered toast for the most important meal of the day. I have taken the guesswork out of cooking the eggs by employing my egg-cooker, an ingenious contraption that looks more like a UFO than a kitchen appliance. I like that I am following the same ritual as Nigella, several hours later and with notable exceptions: the Italian eggs and Poîlane toast she demands are not available here. Poor me, unable to fully appreciate the domestic goddess's daily feast. Only in England, it seems, are the nationality of eggs of vital consideration. Said the Queen: “I myself prefer New Zealand eggs for breakfast.” Don’t we all....

I looked up some other notable breakfast quotations. (There aren’t many.) My favourite is from Arnold Schwarzenegger: “My body is like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don't think about it, I just have it.” I took moderate offense to Oscar Wilde before wondering what exactly he really meant by “only boring people are brilliant at breakfast.” I also realized that, in this modern life of eating breakfast at my desk, I am perhaps avoiding a potential minefield. After all, according to A P Herbert, “the critical period of matrimony is breakfast-time.”

Other breakfast links:
What’s your breakfast routine?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring green

We had a much awaited and highly anticipated arrival this morning. At 7:44AM, after a long and particularly cold winter, spring began! We are overjoyed and look forward to growth and abundance over the next few months. Hurrah!

The weather today is sunny and crisp. It's cold: the thermostat is barely above freezing. But no matter. The sun is high in the sky and there isn't a cloud to be seen. Spring is here.

To celebrate the occasion, I wanted to eat something green and fresh for lunch. It needed to be hot and comforting, since it's still cold out, but crisp and new tasting as well. I had bought a bunch of coriander and some limes at the grocery store the other day, sensing my impending need for something fragrant and green.

I made a puréed pea soup, a soup I make all year long. Today's version, however, I've never tried. It marked the occasion perfectly. The green of the peas is piercing and the coriander and lime complete the verdant triad.

This is a quick soup: five minutes or so to prepare. If you don't have coriander and lime, you could improvise: parsley and lemon, dill and sour cream, basil and some parmiggiano. Anything that adds spring to your soup!

Serves 1

1 cup frozen peas
1 cup water
1 handful of coriander leaves, minced
juice of 1/2 lime
1 tsp oil
salt and cayenne to taste

Put the peas and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for several minutes until the peas are cooked. Remove from heat.

Using an immersion blender, purée the peas. (If you don't have an immersion blender, you can pour the soup into a conventional blender.) Add the coriander, lime juice and oil. Season to taste and serve immediately.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

O Mighty Taco, Harbinger of spring!

I’m home from my vacation. Toronto has greeted me with below-zero temperatures and a light dusting of snow. Charming. I’ve been miserable all day and wishing I could be back in vacationland, a.k.a. Scottsdale, AZ, to soak up more sunshine and smell the glorious, jasmine scented air. I’m sure I’ve been a delight to be around since I’ve returned. Poor B, excited to see me, has been heroic while I regale him with remarks of how great Arizona is and how much I hate being back in the Great White North (except for seeing him, I reassure).

It’s amazing how much weather influences how and what we eat. While in Arizona, I craved the tastes of the southwest: corn, refried beans and jalapeños. I bought bunches of cilantro put it on everything. I devoured the grapefruits I could pick off the neighbourhood trees. But mostly, I wanted fish tacos. I both made my own, and sought them on the menu at restaurants. I think I ate one a day.

Here in Canada, we are generally deprived of quality Mexican cuisine. Until a few years ago, my understanding of tacos was that they were those hard shell disasters filled with greasy ground beef, soggy iceberg lettuce and pale tomatoes that would fall apart at first bite. Having gotten the stomach flu after one taco night when I was 10 aided to cement my belief that Mexican food was for people who also liked Cheez Whiz, balogna and ranch dressing. In other words, it was for people who were unaware that it was possible to eat something better.

A couple of years ago, while visiting relatives in Chicago, my cousins took us to their local taqueria. I was delighted to discover that I could purchase a taco in a soft, handmade corn tortilla filled with meats such as pulled pork and roast chicken, and even spicy white fish. These tacos stayed intact while I ate them. They tasted fantastic. I was hooked.

In Toronto, we don’t have 10 varieties of soft corn tortillas in every supermarket. (In Chicago, they sell fresh soft tortilla shells in pharmacies and convenience stores!) Last summer, after another taco-filled Chicago visit, I bought a tortilla press and some masa harina to make my own. This is surprisingly simple to do so long as you have the proper equipment (make sure to line the tortilla press with plastic wrap). I think I will make some this weekend, filled with the leftover chicken I am roasting this afternoon. I’ll pick up some jalapeños and cilantro on my walk. Perhaps I can entice spring to arrive a little early.


Incidentally, for those who despise the taste of cilantro (also called coriander), the perfect omnivore directive applies to training oneself to enjoy this strong and fragrant herb. I don’t know of anything that tastes more green, but it is surely an acquired taste. I urge you to commit yourself to learning to love this distinctive herb. (Remember, it only takes 8-10 tries.) Once you do, you will be glad as there is nothing that tastes like it. It belongs in Mexican salsas as well as east Indian curries and big bowls of Vietnamese pho.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Have you had your eggs today?

Eggs are in the air! Must be a sign of spring, I guess. Just days after sharing my recipe for uova in purgatorio, I have waiting for me in my blog reader this morning recipes for, you guessed it, eggs poached in sauce. This one is from one of my favourite food blogs, I'm Mad and I Eat, and explains how I used to get my tomato-y egg fix: done ramekin style in the oven (the fussy method I now have no patience for most days). She lists several other fellow bloggers’ versions including this one from Buff Chickpea done in a skillet with tons of veggies. Lots of chopping, but it looks great.

I’m heading to warmer climes on Wednesday and in my flurry of pre-vacation preparations, I am appreciative of fast food more than ever. My old favourites are serving me well (Death Row Beans in particular). My standby lunch is tuna with beans and celery, something I've made for years and was reacquainted with in David Rocco's Dolce Vita. I realize that I have neglected to share a recipe I make for myself at least three times a week. Yikes! It goes something like this:
1 4oz. can of tuna packed in olive oil, drained and emptied into a salad bowl (Callipo or Rio Mare brands are good)
1 rib celery, chopped
1/2 c canned beans, drained and rinsed (navy, white kidney or Romano beans work well)
juice from 1/4 lemon
1 glug of good olive oil
chopped parsley and salt and pepper to taste
Put all of these things in your bowl, toss them a bit and dig in. I make this for myself to go as well, throwing everything in a plastic container before leaving the house. It takes about three minutes to make.

P.S. Sorry for the weird title. What can I say? My head is already on vacation....

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Blasphemy and best ever

I had to showcase B’s amazing BLT from yesterday lunch, his “best ever.” He doesn’t cook very often, but when he does he pulls out all the stops. This version had escarole (a bitter green) for the foliage and smoked salt to season. The bacon is our fave: low-salt and house smoked from Pusateri’s. I love when B cooks for himself. He takes such delight in his creations. Though his repertoire is limited, his attention to his craft is impeccable.

A couple of interesting links today:
This article from the New York Times’ Harold McGee (a.k.a. The Curious Cook) is on how much water you really need to cook pasta. He argues in favour of reducing the amount from the traditional 4-6L to 1.5L per pound of pasta, as well as putting the pasta in the cold water and allowing it to cook as the water heats. His point is green: less water means less energy consumed. I imagine waiting less time when cooking pasta to be a stronger incentive for most. As well, the resulting pasta water will have a more concentrated starchiness and taste that is perfect for thickening any sauce. His notes on these tips plus his canvassing of the Italian cooking elite (this method is “blasphemous”) are worth a read.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that even the greats have a run of bad luck. Molly Wizenberg over at Orangette gives us this candid account of her recent culinary disasters, photos included. Earlier this month, The Times of London declared Orangette top of the heap for food blogs (there are 33,000 of us) and for good reason. Her stories of her life in the kitchen are humorous and warm and her recipes are inspired. Try not to fall in love with her.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Presto indeed

Restrictions necessitate creativity. I guess the more familiar saying is “necessity is the mother of invention,” but I like my version better. Where would we be without our ability to make something great out of almost nothing? This is true for all art forms and, as I have discovered, cooking is no exception. Perhaps we could expand the maxim: laziness causes restrictions. Or, winter blahs nets fewer shopping trips which causes restrictions and thus necessitates creativity. Oi, my aching brain.

There are mitigating factors when it comes to cooking, the most obvious being hunger and available materials. I love to cook, experimenting with new flavours and ingredients, but as I have said before, sometimes I'm just too hungry to perform acts of culinary greatness. Or so I think. The wonder of cooking is that our common restrictions—nothing in the fridge, exhaustion, etc.—often produce miraculous (or if you prefer a less sensational adjective, unexpected) results.

Lately, I have been encouraged by the almost too enthusiastic Italian-Canadian David Rocco in his cookbook David Rocco's Dolce Vita. He corroborates my claim by pronouncing in his introduction that magic (or in his parlance, “alchemy”) is the method in cooking. Make your food and pay attention to the process. “Suddenly,” he writes, “you've created alchemy using the most ordinary ingredients.”

This morning I made his recipe for uova in purgatorio, or “eggs in purgatory,” a dish I had often made for myself before I had his book, though using a far more complicated method. I would make mine as you would œufs en cocotte, using warmed buttered ramekins submerged in a bain marie and baked to perfection in the oven, replacing the cream for tomato sauce. (The French, it seems, complicate everything.) In the crisp snap of fall last October, I must have made this three times a week. Now, deep in the fatigue of winter, this method is too involved. My head hurts just to think of performing the many steps to complete the recipe. Rocco to the rescue. In his version, simmer a 1/2 cup or so of tomato sauce in a pan, crack in the eggs, add some grated cheese, cover and turn off the heat. In about 5 minutes you have beautiful eggs poached in sauce. Presto.

My tomato sauce, another super-fast concoction, is also inspired from his book. It's another non recipe: too simple to require one of those annoying list of ingredients that make my eyes glaze over and my hand turn the page. Smash a clove of garlic and add it to a saucepan with about 3 Tbsp of olive oil. Wait for it to sizzle, then add one 26-oz. can of plum tomatoes, undrained. Crush up the tomatoes a bit with a utensil. Add any herbs of your choosing, fresh or dried (oregano, basil, parsley, bay leaf...). Bring to a boil and then simmer for at least five minutes, or the time it takes you to prepare whatever it is you're serving the sauce with (cooked pasta, meatballs, fried eggplant, sausages, etc.). Season to taste with salt and pepper. What could be easier?

I have other such instant discoveries I will be sharing with you over the next few days. In the meantime, do you have any fast food inspirations to share with me?

A note about canned tomatoes
ONLY BUY SAN MARZANO TOMATOES. This is the great secret of Italian tomato sauce. Mama Rosa told me so (though I had heard it years before by the owner of Positano). San Marzano tomatoes are D.O.P. certified in Italy, grown and packed in the traditional manner. They are more expensive than standard canned tomatoes (usually around $4/26-oz.), but they are worth it. I'm not a food snob per se, but in the case of canned tomatoes, there really is one kind. Since it’s a non-perishable, I don't mind buying something I know won't go to waste before I have a chance to eat it. After all, we would spend $3 minimum on a jar of prepared tomato sauce, something that invariably sits half-eaten and rotting at the back of the fridge. Trust me: You won't be able to resist eating your own sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes with everything. Several brands (Unico, Pastene and others) offer San Marzano tomatoes in their canned tomato family. I buy mine packaged by Pastene in yellow-labeled tins at Loblaws.

News about storing fresh parsley!
In the photo above, you can see a bunch of beautiful, fresh parsley leaves filling the top of the frame. Would you believe that bunch has been sitting in a vase on my counter for a week? No joke! I have taken to arranging my parsley in a drinking glass or small vase when I bring it home from the grocery store, putting a half-inch or so of water at the bottom of the jar to keep the ends moist and replacing the water every few days. I'm so happy I made this discovery. It’s pretty and such a time-saver: One less thing to pull out of the fridge when I'm cooking! If you try this, I guarantee you'll be adding fresh chopped parsley to every dish you make.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Nemesis, thy name is Headcheese

My list is shrinking.

I have discovered that my aversion to eating great-tasting foods because I think they are bad for me is a nuisance. B and I had a lovely Sunday morning coffee and croissant (pain au chocolat, no less!) and, miraculously or not, I have lived another day. Thus, I have amended my list to only include the foods that I cannot bring myself to eat, that cause an instant gag-reflex in my mouth. This list is relatively small, as it probably is for most people. But we do all have our culinary kryptonite.

Texture is a deciding factor for whether or not we enjoy our food. A Google search of "Why we hate certain foods" will return pages of testimony from individuals on the items they cannot abide, including the reasons for their revulsion. I have a friend who can't stand yoghurt. "Too phegmy," is her criticism. I've put natto in that category for myself, as well as improperly cooked oatmeal. When the spoon leaves the bowl, there should be no viscose attachments clinging to the underside. Otherwise, it's gross.

Sometimes it's a question of temperature and state: solid or liquid. I once had a co-worker who couldn't eat cold butter. If the butter was applied to hot toast and melted, that was fine. If he could feel the cold slick of butter in his mouth, however, he'd have to spit it out. As a child I had the same rule about cheese: melted only, please. Cold cheese, especially when served in cubes on the ends of toothpicks, disgusted me. I would only eat cheese that was still bubbling and runny, fresh from the oven, and never allowed to cool.

Of course, there are the foods that just freak us out. Yesterday, I met a woman who has an irrational fear of dried fruit: "anything larger than a raisin." I suppose on a conceptual level, dried fruits are like the bog people of the food world. They have an unnatural almost mystical moistness that contradicts the nature of their preservation. Yet they are indeed mummified: brown, shriveled and old.

I have grouped my feared foods according to what I think bothers me about eating them.
Too slimy and/or gelatinous: brie, okra, natto, sea urchin, kefir, shark fin soup, beef liver (if cooked medium), real Chinese food (corn starch sauces), some prepared yoghurts, sea urchin

Too rubbery: seaweed, mushrooms, tripe, beef liver (if cooked well)

It freaks me out: processed cheese food, ranch dressing, sweetbreads, headcheese, tongue, durian, furry/moldy cheese

Taste: cream cheese, rum

Friday, February 20, 2009

Leftover lessons

It's the morning after the night before. I'm laughing at myself.

After yesterday's epiphany via Jeffrey Steingarten that I have been letting my food phobias run (ruin?) my life, Byron and I went out for dinner. I discovered two things:
1) Some food just isn't worth eating
I remember my cousin Brenda, a lifelong healthy eater, once telling me that if she were to leave her regimen for a piece of cheesecake, it had better be a pretty darn good piece of cheesecake. I thought of her last night. Fresh from my commitment to become a perfect omnivore, I dutifully ate from the plate of breads placed on our table. The foccacia, normally soft, was dry, and the lone dinner roll was uninspired. As I chewed on pieces of stale foccacia I first soaked in olive oil (to no avail), I was reminded of Brenda's adage and subsequently reinterpreted Steingarten's message. The point of becoming the perfect omnivore is to free yourself of restrictions so you can choose from everything being offered with neither fear nor remorse. Instead, I had interpreted his direction as go forth and consume the foods you are afraid of eating whenever they are put infront of you. I am pleased with my amendment: Eat it if it's worth eating.

2) Eating food you find repulsive takes extraordinary feats of strength
Byron, as usual, ordered the cheese plate for dessert. One of his selections was taleggio, a supremely stinky cheese with the odor of, for lack of a more polite analogy, butt crack. He gladly consumed this cheese among the others (marscapone and an aged pecorino) and then enjoyed sneaking his unwashed fingers under my nose for the rest of the evening. Even now I feel a tad queasy. I understand what Steingarten meant when he said he had to sit down alone and eat a plate of chickpeas, one by one. I will need to buy my own wobbling slab of taleggio and eat it piece by smelly piece, recommitting myself to the cause after every bite. As such, I am going to amend my list of feared foods, removing the items I clearly enjoy when they're worth eating and leaving the ones I cannot approach without the automatic dry heave. I will tackle this list in a schedule to be determined.
For dessert, I happily ordered tiramisu: not the best I'd ever had, but certainly delicious. Even though I was already full, I ate a few bites, then brought the rest home for breakfast.

Oh the hardship.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to become a perfect omnivore

I came across this article by food writer Jeffrey Steingarten on overcoming food phobias. He argues that since human beings are omnivores--that we are basically designed to digest anything--our recent hyper diligence in controlling what we eat is nothing short of mass hysteria. According to Steingarten, only a very small percentage of us have true food allergies such as lactose intolerance or celiac desease. Instead, our fear of the consequences of eating forbidden foods rather than physiological necessity prevents us from consuming freely. Informing others of our food "intolerances" is our way of managing these fears to our detriment. We forgo the pleasure of sharing food with one another in favour of feeding what separates us--what makes me unlike you--all for the illusion of safety. With great humour and humility, he recounts how he overcame his own food phobias--including dill, chickpeas and coffee ice cream--ultimately training himself to be the perfect omnivore, free to enjoy all of the tastes life has to offer.

Of course his argument struck me. I have lived a virtually wheat-free diet for almost 10 years. One day out of the blue, I stopped eating wheat because a nutritionist told me I should. I have never been medically diagnosed with a food allergy or intolerance. I don't even know if such a thing is possible. I simply took her word as truth and believed with all of my energy that she was right.

Looking back, her words were music to my ears. The shock of her pronouncement lasted about a minute before I began scheeming how I would enact such a restriction. I have remarkable will power and enjoyed the challenge of removing one of our staple foods from my life. During the last decade, I have credited my growth and success in part to my careful and conscious nutrition. In the story of being me, life before eliminating wheat was fraught with illness and insecurity. By eradicating my enemy, I could finally flourish.

If I think about it, I can see why I have enjoyed this story. I am the heroine of my own epic saga: me vs. the wheat-obsessed world. I have overcome adversity, challenged the status quo, forgiven people their trespasses. Only occasionally do I consume the odd slice of bread. These moments are usually in a restaurant, a fresh-baked loaf sitting before me, waiting. I am by myself, separated from anyone who knows what I never do, and I devour the crusty baguette or the pillowy foccacia feverishly and with wild abandon. I know I am doing something forbidden: something I will regret.

Steingarten says that people can learn to eat anything if they try it eight times. Any child given spinach often enough will learn to like it. Regarding adults, I have only ever heard this said about olives: that if you can stand to eat eight olives in a row, you'll eat them for the rest of your life. To achieve his goal of becoming the perfect omnivore, Steingarten took his list of feared foods and overcame them one by one: eight sprigs of dill, eight chickpeas, eight scoops of coffee ice cream.

When I first read his article, the foods he claimed to have once feared seemed absurd, almost frivolous. How could he not like chickpeas? I imagined my own list of foods that I don't like or are afraid to try and chuckled at the obscurity: okra, natto, lapsang souchong tea, durian, etc. Not in a hundred years would these foods ever appear at a family gathering or at a friend's dinner party; I could easily live an unencumbered life without training myself to enjoy sea urchin or shark fin soup. But now, I'm filled with dread knowing that my real food phobias are of the ones people eat all the time, things like like birthday cake and ice cream, pasta, coffee, wine, milk, macaroni and cheese. These are the foods I have defined myself by in their exclusion from my life. To embrace what I fear, I would be changing who I know myself to be.

I am unsure how I will proceed. I am hesitant to commit myself to the challenge of conquering my food phobias. The excitement I feel at the prospect of being free to enjoy all of life, however, is a powerful incentive. Here is my list of feared foods:
wheat, yeast, milk, coffee, any stinky cheese, brie, cream cheese, buttermilk, ranch dressing, okra, natto, sea urchin, sweetbreads (i.e. pancreas, or is it adrenal gland? they're both on the list), brain, tripe, durian, lapsang souchong, blood pudding, oatmeal, processed cheese, mushrooms, kefir, Guinness, rum, dulse, seaweed, mocha, capers, iced coffee, ice cream, anchovies, raw fish, yak butter tea, real Chinese food, bitters and beef liver
(I'm sure there are other foods to add that I'm forgetting.)

Husband and I have just agreed to eat tonight's dinner at Grano, one of our favourite Italian restaurants. Although I love their food, given my restrictions, I usually have a total of five items on the menu to choose from. I see a grand opportunity to begin this new quest.

What are your feared foods? Leave a comment with your list and see if you take on the challenge of becoming a perfect omnivore. As scary as it may seem, I think in the long run it's going to be fun.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More greens please

Even though it's snowing outside, I felt for the first time this week the beginnings of spring. I don't know what it is: whether the sun is higher in the sky, or the days are slightly longer, or because the snow has mostly melted there is less cool air evaporating from the streets. Regardless, spring is in the air. Soon, the ground will thaw and new shoots will push through the once-frozen earth. I can sense them getting excited.

Perhaps this feeling of spring prompted my craving for spice. I have added hot pepper flakes to every meal this week. I even bought a prepared sauce, which I rarely do, and have enjoyed adding it to everything. It's a sweet teriyaki sauce, deep red speckled with pepper flakes and sesame seeds, all organic. The bottle was awkward, so I decanted into a jam jar and promptly took the original vessel to the curb. I don't recall the brand name or the ingredients list.

Buying prepared sauces is such a tease: the promise of the miracle sauce, everything you could ever want to taste in one bottle, and the disappointment upon realizing that you will be adding another mediocre confection to the angry mob of bottles already crowding your refrigerator. But, I fell for the new bottle the other day, perhaps because it was tall and thin like me, or that it promised organic goodness.

I also bought some new dishes from Ikea and have felt a flush of inspiration for new cuisine. Sautéed asian greens and napa cabbage, rice vermicelli, spicy rich chicken broths, and pulled chicken. My new dishes are pure white porcelain and showcase any meal so brilliantly. I especially love the plates I bought with little bowl-holders. I now imagine meals according to how I will configure food into this arrangement, and consequently I'm cooking differently than I normally do. Who knew that buying a few new dishes could inspire so much innovation?

As for methods, I have mothballed my steamer basket and am sautéeing leafy vegetables in garlic and oil. I use the Italian method, slicing a clove of garlic thinly, letting the slivers brown in hot oil and adding a pinch of hot pepper flakes before adding the chopped greens. Turn the greens in the pan, adding a few drops of water as needed if the pan is too dry. Finish with salt and/or any sauces you have vying for your attention in the fridge.

I love the velocity of this kind of preparation, the loud woosh sound the moist greens make as they hit the hot oil. I feel like a pro.

I'll leave you with this list from the New York Times of the top 11 healthy foods “you aren’t eating.” Hmm. Is that a challenge? I think so.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Instant risotto

February sucks. There's no way around feeling the blahs, especially when it's grey and raining like it was yesterday. I lose my inspiration for just about everything, especially cooking, so I'm glad when opportunity takes me by the hand and leads me in a new direction.

In this case, a combination of laziness and financial constraint has kept me at home and fending for myself by living off of the foods in my freezer. I arrive in the kitchen fainting from hunger and needing to fill myself with comforting food ASAP.

This risotto did the trick. Ordinarily, cooked from scratch, this dish would take about 25 minutes, which is too long by my hungry-meter. I mocked myself (as probably some of you did) when I said I freeze cooked rice in portions. Well, this recipe is the best reason I can think of to do so. I also have bacon frozen in two-strip quantities and frozen peas. Risotto in about 8 minutes. What could be better?

Now, to assuage the purists, this is not risotto. It's not arborio rice cooked in broth for just the right amount until the grains become little toothsome pearls in an iridescent sauce. It's mockzotto.

The key is with the egg. If you've ever made spaghetti carbonara (which you can watch my friend Linda make here) you'll remember that adding a beaten egg quickly to the pasta and bacon creates a velvety sauce, but cooked to long and it turns into scrambled egg. The same goes for this recipe. Make sure to remove your pan from the heat before you add the egg, mix it in quickly and serve. If not, you'll have fried rice with the eggy bits cooked solid.

Incidentally, I made mine with brown rice, verboten to true risotto, but it tasted really good.

Serves 1
1 tsp olive oil
2 strips bacon, cut into pieces
1 clove garlic, smashed
1/2 c cooked rice (brown or white)
1/4 c frozen peas
1 egg, beaten
1 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp shredded hard salty cheese (Romano, Parmesan)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional)
In a skillet over medium heat, fry the bacon in the oil with the garlic. Be careful not to burn.

Defrost the peas and rice in the microwave for a couple of minutes if they are frozen solid. When the bacon is crisp, add the rice and peas to the pan. Cook until heated through, stirring frequently so the rice doesn't stick, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat.

Add the egg, butter, cheese and parsley to the rice mixture and stir quickly to coat and heat through. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if desired. Serve immediately.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Salty Truth

The Globe and Mail gives us a report of this year's nutritional winners and losers. I was interested by the section on nutritional information in Canadian fast-food chains, particularly the statement that a Kelsey's fajita dinner contains 4,550 milligrams of sodium. Given my interest in salt, as well as a family connection to the Kelsey's franchise, I was intrigued by this number. I realized, specifically, that I had no idea it means. So, I did some digging.

According to Health Canada, the average adult requires 1,500 mg of sodium per day for basic functioning and recommends daily consumption of no greater than 2,300 mg. They also stress that Canadians on average consume twice the sodium they require for good health.

But, how much sodium is in salt? My first guess was to translate the Kelsey's figure 1:1, which sits at just shy of a teaspoon of salt. That seems excessive by my taste, but I'm a salt lightweight, so I figured the average taste buds would want more.

Then I learned the actual conversion. Every teaspoon (6 g) of table salt contains 2,400 mg of sodium. That means that the Kelsey's dish contains almost TWO teaspoons of salt. By comparison, I would use that amount of salt for a huge pot of soup, enough to feed 8-10 people. That's a lot of salt!

The Health Canada link above gives lots of tips on how to avoid excess salt intake, such as ordering salad dressings on the side in restaurants and consuming more fresh, unprocessed foods. Of course, if you cook your own food from these fresh ingredients, you'll only add salt to your taste, which in my very un-scientific opinion is the true measure of how much you really need.