Humble Bones

They sat there in the baking pan, as naked as they came. A geometrical mass of bone and flesh; a macabre still life in white and pink.

002It may not be obvious at first glance, but what rests in that pan is the beginning of something beautiful. It marks the first step of a slow transformation – an alchemy, really – that starts with an ingredient so basic, understated, stripped down, that you can barely believe it will become much of anything at all.

Bones. They are the very definition of unpretentious, no-frills food and a cornerstone of cooking traditions the world over. As mundane as they seem, they are the key to making the richest, most flavourful stock, used in everything from French onion soup to Vietnamese phở to Japanese tonkotsu. While traditions vary, the method is essentially the same across the board: roast, season, simmer. In this version of beef stock, the bones are roasted bare in a hot oven, then some aromatics are added and the pan returns to the oven until the whole lot is dark & caramelised. It all then goes into a stockpot, is covered with water and left to simmer for an afternoon.

That’s. It.

What emerges is a densely-coloured, heady, mineral-rich broth, ready to cure what ails you.

Next time you visit the butcher, ask for a few bones to be added to your order. They might even give them to you for free (one of the many perks of being on a first-name basis with your butcher). With that, you’ll have the makings of a delicious, fortifying stock to warm you through the colder months ahead.

Basic Beef Stock (makes about 4 cups) – adapted from Bon Appétit

  • 5 pounds veal and/or beef marrow bones*
  • 4 peeled carrots
  • 4 celery stalks
  • 2 halved peeled onions
  • 1 halved head of garlic
  • ½ bunch flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
  • cold water

Note: to achieve a darker colour, you can brush the bones with a bit of tomato paste right before putting them in the oven to roast.

(If you’re asking yourself what the heck is the difference between broth and stock?, you’re not alone. I didn’t really know the answer until I stumbled upon this run-down by Nourished Kitchen, which, in addition to explaining the difference between the two, discusses bone broth, a close cousin of stock, but requiring a longer, 24-hour simmer.)

Directions

Preheat oven to 450°. Roast marrow bones (have your butcher saw them into pieces) in a roasting pan, turning occasionally, until browned, about 30 minutes. Chop carrots and celery into large, 3” pieces; add to pan along with onions and garlic. Roast, turning occasionally, until vegetables are brown, 25–30 minutes.

roasted bones

024Transfer to a large stockpot; add cold water to cover. Pour off fat from pan, add ½ cup water, and stir, scraping up browned bits; add liquid to pot along with parsley, thyme, bay leaves, and black peppercorns. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 4 hours, occasionally skimming foam and fat from surface and adding water as needed.

Strain. Let cool and then transfer to a glass bowl or Mason jars. Cover and chill for up to 3 days. Use as a base for soups, stews, sauces and gravies.

Note: Once the stock has been chilled, any remaining fat will have risen to the top and solidified, forming a protective layer against bacteria while the stock is in the refrigerator. If you plan to freeze the stock, simply remove and discard the fat and pour the liquid into a freezer-proof container. Frozen stock will keep for about 3-4 months

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City Reprieve

My bus stop to and from work is positioned right off one of Montreal’s busiest highways, the 40. It’s a strip of steel and pavement that moves all day long in inexhaustible waves of blaring horns, blaspheming drivers, exhaust pipes spewing gasoline fumes, and every so often, the crunch of metal-on-metal resulting from a driver eyeing their cell phone instead of the road. It’s a purgatorial feast for the senses, to say the least. But it’s also a daily necessity, getting me to and from my place of work. With convenience comes sacrifice. So, along with my fellow commuters, I’ve stood there, quietly absorbing its noxious offerings, morning and night, every weekday for the last two years.

Like the guy from Whole Larder Love and others of his ilk, I’ve become more sensitive to the drawbacks of city-living. This isn’t say that I intend on becoming a tree-dwelling hermit, or have what it takes to walk around in cold cow muck each morning at the crack of dawn, in a uniform of denim overalls and wellies. But there are days when those things sound much more appealing than ingesting smog and hurrying around with selfish commuters who can’t see past their nose. On those days, cow muck sounds like the better kind of bullshit.

Since I will likely never become a farmer, or goat-herder, or cultivator, I rely on intermittent opportunities to take a break from the city. Like the one that presented itself out of the blue in late August, when my friend Rose asked if I wanted to spend a three-day weekend on a farm in the Eastern Townships. A three-day escape to the country? Man o man,

sign

me

UP.

It just so happens that Rose’s mum (the lovely and talented, Gwynne Basen) operates a small-scale farm in the hamlet of Dunkin, near Mansonville, Quebec. True to its name, every inch of Abbondanza is plentifully bestrewn with plants and produce – from the keyhole garden overflowing with squash and the colossal heads of cabbage lining the garden path, to the long tendrils of heirloom tomatoes, greenhouse peppers and bright patches of nasturtium flowers, it is a sight to behold. A plant nirvana.

If there was ever an antidote to city-fatigue, this would be it.

garlic

The Friday we arrived, Rose and I busied ourselves prepping produce for the Saturday farmers market. At the kitchen table, we took turns sorting, packing and weighing fresh leaves of kale, spinach, mesclun, as well as different types of Romano, fava, and string beans in a spectrum of colours, ranging from iridescent-purple ones, to slender, aubergine-coloured ones that magically turn green when they’re cooked. Every so often, for “quality-control” purposes, we’d sample the mustard and mizuna leaves, letting them warm our mouths with their peppery bite as we sorted through the mounds of mixed greens, piled high on the table.

Once all the produce had been sorted and tucked away for the night, we sat down with some wine and a pre-dinner plateful of crisp, tempura-battered zucchini blossoms, inspired by Ottolenghi’s recipe and served alongside his (brilliant) spicy-sour lime dipping sauce. After dinner, and a couple more glasses of wine, we each sauntered off to bed, falling asleep to the sound of crickets.

—–

The next morning, we packed up the car and headed to the market with Gwynne. Alongside the beans and greens, we arranged pint-size baskets of heirloom tomatoes and fingerling potatoes, a handful of lettuce heads, and bundles of carrots, onions and turnips. Local residents came by in batches, chatting with Gwynne and selecting produce to take home. By noon, there was nary a piece of produce left on the table.

Clearly, the locals have good taste.

Back at the farm, I helped with lunch by assembling a quick salad of Gwynne’s gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, layered with shreds of milky Buffala mozzarella, basil, dill, nasturtium flowers, and sprinkled with crunchy salt flakes and a thin drizzle of olive oil.

We ate it on the porch steps, between two willowy white hydrangeas floating with honeybees. After soaking up the last of the tomato juices from my plate with a heel of crusty bread, I sat there, toes in the sun and a heart filled with gratitude.

—–

It was a weekend of perfect, quiet moments. A weekend of deep, clear breaths and introspective calm. A respite from the smog and the concrete, and an introduction to true farm-to-table living. Gwynne’s gardens and greenhouse are not only stunning, but also a testament to her commitment to real food. It’s thanks to dedicated people like her that we’re reminded of what food should look and taste like. If you’re interested in visiting the farm, Gwynne offers a variety of workshops – from sustainable gardening practices to stone-wall building. For details, visit the site here.

I hope autumn has been good to you, lovely readers. Be well, eat well xx

Stuffed Harvest Squash – serves 2 as a light main, with a side salad

    • 2 medium-sized squash (pattypan work quite well)
    • 1 small onion, finely chopped
    • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped (or 1/4 bulb of fennel)
    • 4-5 leaves of swiss chard (stems on), finely chopped
    • 2 cloves minced garlic
    • 1 can (or 1 ½ cups cooked) white cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
    • 1 tsp. fresh thyme (stems removed), chopped
    • 1/2 tsp. fresh oregano, chopped
    • 1/4 tsp. fresh sage, chopped
    • 1/4 tsp. chili flakes
    • 1/2 tsp. fennel seed
    • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Directions:

1) Place the squash flat side down in a large pot. Add about 1 inch of water, cover, and bring to a boil. Cook for about 8 minutes, until a fork easily pierces the top of the squash. Remove from the pot and set aside to cool.

2) Preheat oven to 375° F. When cool enough to handle, slice off the top of the squash and scoop out the flesh (leaving a wall of about a 1/4-inch of flesh on all sides of the squash). Chop the scooped out flesh coarsely, and set aside.

3) Heat a a glug of olive oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat and sauté the onions and celery for about 5 minutes until softened (but not browned); add garlic, diced squash, and remaining seasonings and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the white beans and cook on low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring from time to time.

4) Place the squash in an baking pan or dish. Spoon the stuffing into each shell, packing tightly (don’t worry about over-stuffing). Return the “caps” of the squash back on top and bake for about 20 minutes in the preheated (375° F) oven. Allow to cool for a couple of minutes before serving.

Note: if you have additional stuffing, let it cool, then pop it into the refrigerator. It’ll last a few days and might come in handy for weeknight dinners – reheated with a bit of oil and parmesan, tossed into pasta, or heated up and lightly mashed as a topping for toast.

stuffed squash

stuffed squash

stuffed squash

Learning from Scratch

Like most kids, my brother and I spent our early childhood and pre-teen years pleading for junk food. Fruit Roll-Ups, instant noodles, soda, Corn Pops – we wanted ALL of it. My mother, bearing the brunt of these junk food solicitations (“but everyone at school has them! Come onnnnnnn.”), was often the one who have to give the hard-line “no”. Despite all the begging and pleading (and possibly crying?), she stuck to her guns, filling the cart with items that were far removed from the world of high fructose corn syrup and red dye no.5.

Today, I’m thankful for her resolve. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom was trying to instill in us the importance of eating well, and more specifically, eating well at home. Apart from the occasional night out (or birthday party) at the local St-Hubert BBQ (chicken fingers! fries! bright pink dipping sauce!) or Pizza Hut (stuffed-crust Hawaiian! all-you-can-eat ice cream bar!), dinner, lunch and breakfast in our house was largely homemade. It was never something that, as a kid, I considered a luxury; it was just the way things were (plus, I still had my eye on those Fruit Roll-Ups). But as an adult, I look back on that time and realise how inconceivably lucky we were. Boeuf bourgignon, whole roast chicken, roast beef with Yorkshire puddings; hand-rolled perogis, homemade pasta, spanakopita, pilafs, patates dauphinoises; minestrone, split pea, tortellini and French onion soups; coffee cakes, bundt cakes, layered birthday cakes and strudel; sticky baked beans, omelettes, tea biscuits and blueberry pancakes on the weekend. This is just a glimpse of the hundreds of different dishes mom has made for us and others over the years. And while all this was considered everyday food in her mind, it goes without saying that we ate like kings.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then to learn that my mom was the one who first introduced me to cooking. She taught me how to make a quick cheat’s buttermilk and wrap fresh herbs in cheescloth to make a bouquet garni. She’s shown me how to stuff and truss a turkey, wrangle a pot roast, whip meringue into stiff peaks, blanch and “shock” vegetables and throw together a killer pancake batter from scratch in two minutes flat. She introduced me to the terms deglaze, dredge, al dente, mirepoix, rouxbain-marie and taught me that the secret to perfect Christmas stuffing is found in a Simon and Garfunkel song. You can still catch her humming it, off-key, while she’s rummaging through the spice rack at Christmastime.

Mom’s always been at ease in the kitchen, whipping around from stovetop to fridge to pantry and back again in a blur of focused energy. She’s been fundamental to my culinary education and, when I call her in the middle of a kitchen meltdown, is still keen to answer my questions about oven temperature, butter conversions, baking alternatives and expiry dates. All the while, she’s encouraged me to be bold in the kitchen and to improvise when a recipe goes awry right before the guests arrive. Most importantly though, she’s shown me how food can be an expression of love, something that becomes so much more when it’s shared.

—–

Another thing my mother has tried to instill in us is the importance of birthdays – to take the time to celebrate them, preferably with a bottle of bubbly or, failing that, a dry martini. And food. There has to be food.

Today I want to take a moment to wish my mum a very happy birthday. We’re never quite sure how you manage to do it all, but thank you for all of it.

Love you with all my heart.

Me & mumMom’s Blueberry Pancakes – makes approx. 10-12

In our house, pancakes were never from a box, but always made from scratch and served with real-deal maple syrup. Sorry, Aunt Jemima, but you just don’t cut it.

recipepancake prep

1 1/3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
3 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
1 1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup fresh (or frozen) blueberries

Directions

Set a pan on medium heat.

Mix dry ingredients and add the blueberries, tossing them to coat. In a separate bowl, beat the egg; add oil, vanilla and milk to the egg. Make a well in the dry ingredients and slowly add the egg-milk mixture. Stir quickly until the ingredients are just mixed and the batter is still lumpy.

Once the pan is hot, add a lump of butter. When the butter starts to bubble, add ladlefuls of batter to the pan. Cook until little bubbles start to form on the top, then flip.

Note: You can keep the pancakes in a low oven to keep them warm while the others cook.

Blueberry Pancakes Blueberry Pancakes Blueberry Pancakes

Amateur Gardening Hour

Back in April, one of our filmmakers in residence, Vali, sent out a mass email inviting us to build a vegetable garden in the interior courtyard at work. Well, “build” isn’t the most accurate way of putting it; we weren’t exactly knocking together pieces of 4×4 to make raised beds or fancy planter boxes. Instead, Vali suggested using individual geotextile bins called Smart Pots®. If you’ve never heard of them, they’re essentially a form of container gardening, except that instead of growing your plants in plastic or ceramic pots, you use a large, sturdy, porous, reusable bag. (I know it doesn’t sound very sexy, but bear with me.).

At first, I was a bit reluctant to hop on the bandwagon – not because I didn’t like the idea, but mostly because I feared that my black thumb would slowly destroy everything it touched. I already had a bad track record with house plants (R.I.P Edgar, Lucinda, Phyllis, Thelonius III and Mike), some of whose shrivelled remains I ended up dumping in the shrubs of my back alleyway (shhh). And then there’s been my balcony herb garden, which, despite containing some of the easiest things to grow (rosemary, thyme, parsley, mint…), has gone through phases of clinging on for dear life. I seem to have a talent for killing the un-killable. At some point, I stopped naming my plants. The back-alley burials became easier after that.

Luckily, my quiet misgivings about becoming the Grim Reaper of the work-garden collective were outweighed by a genuine (albeit latent) interest in making an honest go of gardening. Besides, working with a Smart Pot® (I swear they don’t pay me to advertise) seemed relatively simple, even for an notorious plant-killer like myself. And the idea of growing my own vegetables was really appealing – no pesticides or weird chemicals, not to mention the unparalleled satisfaction of planting something small, watching it grow, then harvesting it and turning it into dinner.

It sounded rad.

And so, in early May, when the evening frosts of spring had subsided, about twenty of us rolled up our sleeves and went to work – hauling dirt, sorting, lifting, filling, planting, watering. Before long, we had a sizeable vegetable patch populated by different varieties of tomatoes, leafy greens, cucumbers and herbs. There were even a few eggplants, zucchini and squash, along with some carrots and spinach (which a very ambitious colleague planted by seed). We were all pretty chuffed with the results: what was once a barren area in a nondescript courtyard was now alive with edible plants. The space felt resuscitated and purposeful. It was also a heck of a lot prettier than the long, sad strip of gravel that used to be there.

Most importantly, though, we had a garden – a small, but functional, beautiful, food-producing space that would have otherwise gone unused. And frankly, that in and of itself, is a triumph.

mini gardenSo thus began my amateur gardening experiment.

Each afternoon, I’d duck out of the office for a few minutes to tend to my tiny pot – pruning, inspecting, adjusting, watering. It became the meditative pause in my day, where the only sound within earshot was the low rumble of bumble bees gliding from one flower to the next. With every visit, I’d eagerly investigate the progress, gasping (or squealing, depending) at each little glimmer of hope – a tiny cluster of cucumbers sprouting underneath a big prickly leaf, or delicate white flowers that began to give way to tender, svelte string beans. It might’ve been the honeymoon phase of the first-time gardener, but watching those plants slowly transform and blossom was nothing short of magic.

And despite one suicidal cucumber…

suicidal cucumber

…the garden grew and grew and (to my sincere surprise) actually flourished.

mini garden

—–

It was at this point in the process that I began to think a lot about my grandfather. He was, without a doubt, the Green Thumb King of the family. I never knew anyone to adore plants the way grandpa Joe adored plants. When we were younger, and my brother and I would visit our grandparents in the summertime, they’d often take us to their community garden, a large swath of earth divided neatly into individual plots, each with their own set of orderly rows. Their Italian roots dictated that they have a sizeable number of tomato plants, along with an equally large amount of basil, red bell peppers, chili peppers (pepperoncini), carrots, Italian celery, garlic and onions. My brother and I had a particular soft spot for the carrots. Any chance we’d get, we’d pluck one from the earth, rinse it under the hose and crunch into it. They were always sweet, earthy and, much to our delight, gnarly and goofy-looking. If we were lucky, we’d come across one that – if you used your imagination – looked like it had a phallus sprouting a long, thin hair. For two kids under the age of ten, that, my friends, was choice entertainment.

When we weren’t laughing at carrots or running between narrow rows of tomato plants, our grandpa tried to teach us a thing or two about gardening, which was hard because we didn’t speak much Italian then and he didn’t speak much French (our common language at the time since they never spoke a lick of English), and while we tried to meet eachother somewhere in the middle, a lot was lost in translation. Then we were teenagers, and while our Italian got better, our interest in gardening took a back seat to other things (in my case, trying to memorize the lyrics to every single Smashing Pumpkins song, including the B-sides, and attempting, quite unsuccessfully, to sun-bleach my hair with lemons).

We might not have been aware of it (or appreciated it enough) at the time, but it’s fair to say grandpa was the mack daddy of gardening. His knowledge was effortless and intuitive. He knew which conditions made the most luscious vegetables, the prettiest flowers and the most aromatic herbs. He knew how to fend off pests and how to fix any plant problem. If something wasn’t yielding enough fruit or if a branch needed mending, he’d soon be rifling through his tool shed looking for the right implement for the job. His tool shed housed a vast collection of bits and bobs, many of which found their way into the garden – pieces of string, ribbon and tin, wooden sticks, electrical tape, homemade trelaces. There was even a makeshift squirrel trap at one point. (Relax – he wouldn’t kill them. He’d just wait for the squirrel to take the bait, throw a piece of cloth over the cage, get on a bus, and take the squirrel to the park, where I’m guessing he thought the squirrel rightfully belonged. This was grandpa’s (partially-humane) way of dealing with his arch-nemesis. Let’s ignore the fact that this was really, really far from each squirrel’s actual home and that one actually died of cardiac arrest on that bumpy bus ride to the park.)

With all of these measures, it was clear that he took great care to make sure his plants could thrive; with a close eye, he would look over them, carefully attending to each one. This was true not only of his plants in the community garden, but also the ones in his backyard garden, my parents’ yard, the neighbour’s yard, the local greenhouse, and the hundreds of plants he tended to in his work as a horticulturist for the city of Montreal.

Like I said – this man was the mack daddy of gardening.

grandpa the gardener

On days when I’d be out pruning, watering and admiring my tiny little garden, I’d think of him and how much care and attention he gave to his plants. I tried to imagine what he would say if he could see me, his black thumb granddaughter, actually growing food. When I think about my initial reluctance toward planting my own vegetable garden, I think in some ways, it had a lot to do with him.

And it turns out that all along, I just wanted to make him proud.

amateur gardener

garden cucumbers

Cucumber-infused gin and tonic - makes 4 drinks

This recipe is an adaptation of Heston Blumenthal’s gin and tonic, which uses a cold-infusion of cucumber and gin. Thanks to the cucumber, it’s lighter and more floral than your standard G&T. For this recipe, I used Hendricks gin, which is distilled using cucumber as one of the primary botanicals. If you don’t have Hendricks, you can still use any gin you have on hand.

  • 1 large cucumber, chopped (skin-on if pesticide-free; peeled if not)
  • 1/4 L (250 ml) gin
  • chilled tonic water (I’m partial to Fentimans)
  • 1/2 lemon
  • ice cubes
  • sprig of fresh rosemary (optional)

Infusion: Put the chopped cucumber into a blender*. Measure out the gin and pour over the cucumber pieces. Blend until smooth and then transfer into a Pyrex measuring cup or glass bowl. Cover and chill overnight to allow for the mixture to infuse.

Extraction: When the mixture is ready, remove from the fridge and strain it using a fine-mesh sieve. Put down on the pulp with a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the pulp that’s left in the sieve.

Preparation: Prepare four highball glasses by stacking them to the top with ice cubes. fill the glass about halfway with the cucumber/gin mixture, then top up with the chilled tonic water. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice into each glass. Insert a long spring of rosemary into each drink and use it as a stir stick. Serve straight away.

*If you don’t have a blender, you can do this with a hand blender, aka a stick blender. If you don’t have that either, you could use a potato masher, or a fork, but it’ll be a bit more work. You might want to consider investing in a good hand blender (or asking Santa Claus for one). It’ll change your life.

Peach Upside Down Cake

It starts to get dark before dinner time; the outdoor pools are officially closed; the local ice cream parlour is readying its “See You Next Year!” sign. These are the annual harbingers that make us want to close our eyes, stick our fingers in our ears and go “la la la la la…I can’t heaaar you”. But, as always, we realise that resistance is futile; whether we like it or not, we just have to suck it up, accept that summer’s days are numbered and put away the tan shorts.

Instead of hyperventilating at the prospect of losing the days of warm sunshine, late sunsets and Bo-bec’s mint chocolate chip, I’ve decided to focus on the last few gems of summer’s offering. After working my way through many pints of tiny, sweet blueberries and strawberries from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu over the last couple of weeks, I’m putting in some serious time with Ontario peaches, which are not only still available, but also still fragrant and lusciously sweet.

Last weekend, on a whim, part of my peach stash found its way into this cake. After an afternoon of prepping food for a family barbecue, I saw the peaches on the counter and decided to crack a couple of eggs and make a quick upside down cake. And as far as “on a whim” baking experiments go, this one definitely surpassed by expectations – tender and crowned with a layer of syrupy peaches, it had both my grandmother and sister-in-law raving about it days later.

People daydreaming about the food you made them? I can’t think of anything more gratifying.

Happy end of summer, lovely readers. Be sure to make it a good one.

Peach Upside Down Cake

Peach Upside Down Cake – adapted from Ina Garten

  • 3/4 stick unsalted butter, room temperature (plus extra for greasing the dish)
  • 5-6 ripe peaches cut in half, pitted and sliced
  • 1 cup granulated sugar (for the caramel)
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar (for the cake)
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1/3 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter a 9-inch glass or ceramic pie dish and arrange the peach slices in a circular pattern at the bottom of the dish.

050

Combine 1 cup of the granulated sugar and 1/3 cup water in a small saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until it turns a warm amber colour, about 360 degrees F on a candy thermometer. Swirl the pan but don’t stir. Pour evenly over the peaches. (Be careful not to burn the sugar – or yourself – while doing this. Caramel tends to quick more quickly near the end, so keep a close eye on things.). As it sets, the caramel will stiffen, like candy – don’t worry, it will become syrupy again as the cake bakes in the oven.

062

065

Meanwhile, cream the 6 tablespoons of butter and the remaining 3/4 cup of granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until light and fluffy. Lower the speed and beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the sour cream, zest, and vanilla and mix until combined. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt and, with the mixer on low speed, add it to the butter mixture. Mix only until combined. Pour the cake batter evenly over the peaches.

Batter

Batter

Batter

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes, then invert the cake onto a flat plate. If a plum sticks, ease it out and replace it in the design on top of the cake. Serve warm or at room temperature, dusted with confectioners’ sugar.

Peach Upside Down Cake

Mr. Van De’s Amaranth Leaves & Some Stupidly Delicious Noodles

Amaranth leavesIn case you’re wondering, these are amaranth leaves. They’re cultivated from a bushy, wild-looking super plant that grows grains, flowers and leafy greens. Until a couple of weekends ago, this would’ve just looked like a tousled mess of purple and green to me. But then I met a man by the name of Van De, who, amongst other things, taught me a thing or two about amaranth.

I’d like you to meet him.

Mr. Van De operates a small kiosk – two flip-out tables worth – at the Atwater food market. For the record, Atwater is not my go-to hunting ground for local foodstuffs; recent demographic shifts have caused its products to become more expensive, fancier, chi chi. You can buy overpriced chutneys from England or artisanal squid-ink noodles from Sardinia or pineapples shipped all the way from Costa Rica. But I’d much rather have rows of produce, piled high in front of ruddy vendors with dirt under their fingernails hawking their wares. I gravitate to markets that are raucous and a little rough around the edges, where you can hear belly-laughs and vendors yelling and old ladies bargaining; a place where people of different colours, sizes and tax brackets mingle in the same space. Ultimately, I’m there for the show as much as I’m there for the food.

But most of all, I like markets where I can have a chat with the producers – the ones who’ve had their hands in the muck, so to speak. It might sound clichéed, but in my romantic ideals of what a good food market should be, its shining star is the producer who knows their product inside and out and is eager to cut you off a slice.

And this brings us back to Mr.Van De, because he is that kind of producer. In my books, it’s what makes him the MVP of Produce at the Atwater market.

A few Sundays ago, I had to navigate through the market to run an errand for a family get-together (someone forgot to buy bread). While I was carefully dodging the droves of manicured ladies, I came across Van De’s little kiosk, which was stationed right in front of the bakery. His tables were laid right out in front of a beat-up van with its doors flung open, exposing large vats of leafy produce. He’s literally selling stuff out of the back of his truck. Who IS this guy? I’d never seen him before, but I liked his no-nonsense approach.

It turns out that Van De specialises in Asian vegetables and sprouts, which he grows (without the use of pesticides, p.s) about 25 km outside the city. Stacks of bitter melon, pennywort, amaranth leaves, Vietnamese celery and watercress are laid out beside eachother in self-serve bins. It was like being at a candy store for grown-ups. When he sees me eyeing some bright green sprouts, he encourages me to pick some out of the bin and try them. Tenez, madame, essayez. They’re extremely bitter, but also nicely acidic and grassy (I later find out it’s called rau đắng, a bitter herb that looks like sunflower sprouts and is used in Vietnamese sautées). When I tell him I like it, and ask for a small bag, he’s quick to inform me that they’re to be eaten in small quantities, preferably in the evening. This is a bit of a wink-wink, nod-nod moment, where he’s hoping I’ll catch his drift. But I don’t, and ask him why I have to be so careful. The word escapes him, so instead he begins gesticulating around his abdomen in a downward motion that can only be interpreted to mean that these tiny sprouts have powerful laxative properties. He looks me square in the eye, and with a wide grin asks, “Vous comprenez?” (Do you understand?). I nod appreciatively.

Mr. Van De – he looks out for you.

One additional advantage to Van De’s produce – which, frankly is just the cherry on the sundae – is that it’s dirt cheap. I don’t remember exactly how much I paid for my sprouts and greens, but if I think it was something like 1$/100g. Ridiculously inexpensive. And, when he saw how excited I was with all my new loot, he went to the back of his truck and returned with two generous handful of amaranth leaves, adding them into my bag free of charge. He didn’t say a word about it; he just smiled.

Mr. Van De is the Man.

—–

That extra handful of amaranth leaves ended up in the recipe below. If you’ll remember, I knew nothing about amaranth before this chance meeting with Van De. I just thought they looked interesting (which, because I’m nuts, always seems like reason enough to buy a food item. Ask me about that time I bought that bulb of jicama that sat on my counter for two weeks). So once I got home, I wasn’t really sure what to do with them, aside from spending an inordinate amount of time ogling their purply green complexion. Mr. Van De suggested adding them to a broth for a simple Vietnamese soup, or blanching them in salted water to serve as a side dish along with rice and meat, which sounded great. But I remembered a Thai-style noodle recipe I’d had my eye on, from the (smart, angry and perfectly executed) blog, Lady and Pups. It’s basically a saucy, spicy noodle dish made with rendered pork fat, crispy pork belly, bits of browned chicken, fried shallots and a bunch of curry seasonings, bound together with coconut milk to create a flavourful, salty-sweet slurry. 

I know. The thing practically sells itself.

The recipe itself doesn’t call for amaranth leaves, but after tasting them and finding that they were a little like spinach (with a slightly deeper flavour), I figured it couldn’t hurt to toss in a few chopped leaves into the sauce. While I’m usually a bit reticent about messing with what seems like a stellar recipe, I threw caution to the wind (I AM A FREE WOMAN!!*sound of wind blowing through my hair*) and added a large handful of Mr.Van De’s amaranth greens into the slurry. After all, he was quickly becoming my new favourite person. His greens belonged in something stellar.

This is the kind of food that makes you go back for seconds (or thirds…) even when you feel you’re about to burst at the midriff. It’s saucy, slurpy, addictive, diet-annihilating food. Don’t be surprised if you make involuntary grunting noises while shovelling every last bite into your gob. In any case, I suspect Mr. Van De would approve.

Khao-Soi-Style Noodles with Mr. Van De’s Amaranth Leaves – adapted from Lady and Pups

The rendered pork fat (makes for 2-3 servings – you can freeze any leftovers):

  • 130 grams of pork fat-slab (ask your butcher)
  • 4-5 shallots, finely sliced
  • 1 head of garlic, finely minced
  • 1/2 tsp of salt
  • 1/2 tsp of ground white pepper

The curry + noodles (for 1 large serving):

  • 1 large handfuls of dried rice vermicelli (thick-cut)
  • 2 tbsp of the reserved pork fat
  • 80 grams of ground chicken
  • 1 tbsp of Thai yellow curry paste
  • 3/4 cup of coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup of chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp of fish sauce
  • 2 tsp of soy sauce
  • 1 tsp of grated ginger
  • 1/2 tsp of sugar
  • 1/2 tsp of curry powder
  • 1/4 tsp of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp of finely chopped cilantro
  • 1 handful of amaranth leaves, chopped (can be substituted with spinach)

The garnishes:

    • pork crackling + fried shallots/garlic (see recipe above)
    • handful of Thai basil, torn into pieces
    • lime wedges
    • sambal olek

Making the pork crackling + rendering the fat:  Freeze the pork fat-slab until hardened (2 hours +). Cut into small diced pieces. Set a non-stick skillet or wok over medium heat and cook the diced pork fat until it has rendered out all its fat and becomes crispy and golden browned. Drain it through a fine sieve over a bowl, collecting the rendered fat. Season the pork crackling with salt and white pepper.

Rendered bacon

Return the pork fat to the skillet (about 1/2 cup) over medium-low heat, and add the sliced shallots.  Stir frequently and fry the shallots slowly until they are dehydrated, and turn medium-golden browned (about 10 mins). Drain them through a fine sieve, over a bowl, again collecting the rendered fat.  Season the fried shallots with salt and white pepper.

Return the pork fat to the skillet over medium-low heat.  Now add the minced garlic and repeat the same process. Drain the garlic as soon as they turn lightly-golden browned (3 mins). Season with salt and white pepper, and mix the seasoned pork crackling, fried shallots and garlic together.  Reserve the pork fat.

To make the noodles:  Bring a large pot of water to boil for the vermicelli.

Heat 2 tbsp of the reserved pork fat in a pot over medium-high heat.  Brown the ground chicken, then add the Thai yellow curry paste and cook for about 30 seconds.  Add all the seasonings and turn the heat down to medium-low, and cook until the mixture has reduced a little and thickened slightly (about 5 mins).  Add the amaranth leaves (or spinach) and cook 1-2 minutes or until just wilted (they will reduce substantially in size). Add the chopped cilantro and stir to combine.

Curry

Cook the vermicelli according to package-instructions. Rinse the noodles under cold water and drain well. Transfer to the pan with the curry mixture (which is still on medium-low heat). Toss to coat the noodles with the sauce and heat through.

Cooking noodles

Top with 3 tbsp of the pork crackling + fried shallots/garlic and torn Thai basil leaves.  Squeeze lime over all of it, stir, and shove generous forkfuls (or chopstickfuls) into your mouth.

Spicy noodles

Life envy and madeleines

I’d like to start this post by outing my mother, who, upon seeing this batter in the baking tin, turned and said, unflinchingly, “those look like breasts”. It was very matter-of-fact, and not the least bit sophomoric, but now all I see when I look at this photo are pairs of ample breasts with shockingly red nipples.

Thanks, mom.

uncooked madeleineWhat you might also see in this photo – if your mind is far enough out of the gutter – are French madeleines, right before they were carefully slid into the oven.

I took great care to make sure these turned out the way they were supposed to. It was my first attempt at madeleines, and since 1 out of 4 every baked goods I make either ends up soggy, or stodgy, or hard as a rock, I was determined not to screw it up. After all, I was dealing with a French classic. Its reputation was on the line.

To avoid any mishaps, I needed to eliminate the one thing that couldn’t be counted on, the bane of my homemade baking: my oven. It’s a relatively new, second-hand Frigidaire that came with my rental and which I have been living with (and cursing at) for the past three years. Our relationship is a complicated one. I can’t exactly get rid of it, but that hefty, white hunk of metal has done things to me that should qualify as grounds for divorce. (Our legal papers would read “irreconcilable differences”.) Cooking and roasting savoury stuff is fine. I manage. But sweets? It’s like playing Russian roulette. Sometimes it works out, sometimes you end up with burnt bottoms and wobbly insides. And a puddle of tears. So in moments when I’m suddenly inspired to make something like, say, madeleines, I sometimes don’t bother with my oven. Instead, I’ll call up my mom and ask if I can use hers – a convection masterpiece with electric touch-screen buttons and an extensive range of settings, like “roast” and “bread proof” and “self-clean”. It’s even got a warming drawer. Most importantly, though, it’s an intelligent piece of equipment that yields perfect results every. single. time.

—–

It’s a Saturday morning when I ask if I can come over to bake, batting my eyelashes as loudly as I can through the receiver. It’s just madeleines. I promise I won’t make a mess. I’ll even bring my own butter. She should be weary because she knows full well that my plans usually devolve as soon as I have free reign of the kitchen, turning everything upside down to concoct improvised soups and sauces and casseroles – oh, you have parsnips? what can I make with parsnips? – and just generally wreaking havoc. It’s my way of making the most of the time I have in her kitchen. Dad sometimes walks in, unaware of the cooking bonanza underway, and after scanning the piles of chopped vegetables and dirty dishes, asks with a voice that is half-concerned, half-curious, “whatcha makin’…Jules?”. Beating me to the punch, mom replies, “oh, LOTS of things”. She smiles with a grin that is equal parts amusement and eye-roll.

But because she’s preternaturally patient, generous and lovely all-round (and because dad usually rolls up his sleeves and helps with dish duty), she lets me come over and toss things around her kitchen and use all her implements without ever complaining. She doesn’t even flinch when I climb onto a footstool and start installing my tripod on her countertop, that gorgeous slab of granite which, in case you’re wondering, bares no resemblance to my dinky, melamine one. Baking at my folks’ place is like baking in a showroom kitchen. Except better, because they they don’t kick you out when you start laying out pots and pans and batter-covered spoons all over the counter.

—–

Alright, back to madeleines:

I don’t know about you, but where I live, they aren’t as ubiquitous as their French counterparts, the croissant, the brioche and the macaron. Most of the madeleines I’ve come across have been of the pre-packaged variety, sharing the shelf with the more popular May Wests and Passion Flakies in that phantasmagorical aisle of the supermarket that make children go all googly-eyed. The madeleines, for their part, always look as though they’d been there since World War II, so despite their sweetness and cake-like texture, even as a kid I was never really interested in them. (I might’ve poked at them a bit through the plastic – as one would inquisitively poke a toad in a glass jar – but that was the extent of our relationship.) Even now, it’s rare that I come across them in bakeries and cafés, and even if I do, I’m usually too distracted by the pains au chocolat.

But that was before I discovered raspberry and lemon curd madeleines.

It happened about two weeks ago, when, while searching for some tarte tatin recipes, I came across these nifty BBC videos of Rachel Khoo – a charming, impeccably dressed, British francophile who left her job in the fashion industry to move to Paris and bake cakes. (I know, it’s like out of a movie. Have your life-envy buttons been pushed yet?) I’ll let you work your way around the Internet and discover her on your own, but I’m bringing her up here because of the aforementioned raspberry and lemon curd madeleines. In one of the BBC videos, she demonstrates her take on these mini sponge cakes, using the traditional recipe of butter, eggs, sugar and flour, but then dotting each one with a fresh raspberry, followed by a squeeze of lemon curd into the raspberry’s “crater” once they’re removed from the oven. It’s a small flourish, but it’s genius.

It also proved that madeleines and I had just gotten off to the wrong start. Unlike the ones I’d seen languishing on grocery store shelves, these were soft and tender, lightly sweet and scented with threads of lemon peel. When you bite into it, the burst of raspberry meets the sweet and sour lemon curd and magical things happen. Particularly if they’re still warm from the oven.

One last thing: to achieve the traditional shell-shape, you’ll need to get your hands on a madeleine tin if you don’t already have one. They go for about $20 in kitchen supply stores. It might seem a lot to spend on a tin, but they do make a pretty little sponge cake. Besides, I’m sure you’ve spent twenty bucks on sillier things in your lifetime and now you’ll get to make sponge cookies that start out resembling breasts, but then end up looking like red-eyed cyclops!

Fun times await you.

Madeleines on cooling rackRaspberry and Lemon Madeleines with Lemon Curd (makes 24) – inspired by Rachel Khoo; madeleine recipe from The Encyclopedia of French Cooking, 1982

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda (2pinches)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • pinch of salt
  • zest of one lemon*

*you’ll be using the juice of this lemon to make the lemon curd
**given that the lemon curd takes a few hours to chill, you’re best to start by making the curd (see recipe below)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350º F.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and pinch of salt until light and fluffy. Sift the flour and baking soda; fold into the wet ingredients. Fold in the melted butter and lemon zest. With a piping bag, squeeze batter into prepared fluted tins, making sure not to overfill (you can also spoon in the mixture if you don’t have a piping bag). Place one raspberry in the middle of each madeleine. Pop in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden.081Madeleine - detail

Lemon Curd (makes about 2 cups)from Canadian Living

Note: you’ll likely have leftover curd after filling your madeleines, but you can use it as a sponge cake filling. Use within 2-3 days.

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup of butter
  • 1 Tbsp lemon rind
  • 2/3 cup lemon juice
  • 4 egg yolks (you can freeze the whites for another use)
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream (35%)

1) In a saucepan on medium heat, combine sugar, butter, lemon rind and juice. Stir until butter has melted and sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat.

2) Beat the egg yolks in a medium bowl and and slowly whisk in the lemon mixture in a thin stream to temper the mixture.

3) Return mixture to saucepan and stir constantly until it reaches a boil, then reduce the heat and keep stirring until thickened (about 10 minutes).

4) Pour into a glass bowl and once cooled, place plastic wrap on the surface and chill in the fridge (about 3 hours).

5) Whip the cream until you reach soft peaks and fold gently into the chilled lemon mixture.

6) Fill a piping bag with the lemon curd. While the madeleines are still warm, pipe the curd into each raspberry’s “crater”.

Madeleines with lemon curdMadeleines with lemon curd

Overnight Oatmeal for Late (and Early) Risers

Can you see that, dear readers? That cool, steely blue daylight stretching out onto the tablecloth in the photo above? That means it’s 6am on a weekday. 6am on a weekday, and I’m up. That’s a WHOLE HOUR AND A QUARTER EARLIER than my alarm.

This is, without shadow of a doubt, a Monday-morning miracle.

When you’re not in the habit of being up this early, there’s this overwhelming sense that you’re the only person on the Earth who’s awake; you’re not quite used to the quiet because living in the city means you’ve become acclimatised to a morning soundtrack of cars honking, people yelling, toddlers crying and two-ton delivery trucks rumbling perilously down potholed streets. It is, admittedly, a soundtrack that mimics the chaos of my morning routine. I fiddle with the snooze button far too much; I tumble over power cords on my way to the shower and almost systematically end up putting on one item of clothing inside out (yesterday it was a shirt, maybe tomorrow it’ll be underwear! Only Lady Fortuna knows!).

But early mornings like this one are different. I walked slowly to the kitchen. Casually, even. Right now, the only thing within earshot is the muffled sound of coffee brewing in the percolator, punctuated not by the shrill screech of a construction drill, but by the bright chirps of sparrows perched outside. It’s like a scene out of an old Folgers commercial. And it turns out I could live inside a Folgers commercial forever.

Sitting here, sipping coffee between bites of oatmeal, I decide I’ve got a little time to do some computer clean-up. I soon come across a folder of photos marked “Ireland/Berlin 2013″ and it dawns on me that one year ago, almost exactly to the day, I was on a plane heading to Ireland for my brother’s wedding. Gawd. It’s crazy to think that was a whole year ago…

***cue nostagic rêverie and twinkling sounds***

In the days leading up to the wedding, we stayed on a 17th-century estate owned by the bride’s family – an astonishingly beautiful and meticulously preserved cluster of buildings with guest houses that looked out onto a floral courtyard and green acreage, all of it surrounded by a hand-built stone wall and dense forest. You’d wake up to the sound of starlings and water trickling down the courtyard’s fountain. Afternoons were spent navigating the twisting paths of the forest. Wild deer would come out to graze at dusk. Over dinner, the bride’s uncle would regale us with the estate’s ghost stories and we’d all head to our beds with goosebumps, secretly hoping we’d have our own otherworldly encounter to share at the breakfast table the next morning.

The wedding itself was so fairytale-like, it would put any Martha Stewart magazine to shame. There was a heartfelt ceremony under a big willowy tree; bouquets made with wild flowers from the fields; Celtic dancing and a Viennese waltz; late-night fireworks in the yard and (because my sister-in-law is from Hamburg) elegant, well-dressed Germans everywhere.

The day after the event, my parents and I set out on coastline road-trip that took us from Sligo, to Dingle, down to the Ring of Kerry and Cork, up to Drogheda, through Belfast and all the way the northern-most tip of Ballycastle. We made ascents up treacherously thin, coastline roads that led to the most beautiful vistas – endless stretches of rocky beach, verdant hills dotted with sheep, vibrant pink sunsets, and strings of ancient stone castles that sat soulfully along the landscape. In the mornings, we walked through dewy fields and cobblestoned paths, before heading inside our B&Bs for breakfasts of black tea, Irish soda-bread, freshly-churned butter (oh, the butter), marmalade and warm oatmeal. Sometimes there’d even be a full Irish breakfast waiting for us, complete with fried eggs, bacon rashers, black and white pudding, a grilled tomato and toasted bread, each slice neatly arranged in a silver toast rack.

Mornings here were quiet and tranquil; they made me feel happy, hopeful, serene and, perhaps more than anything else, settled. All of it was like a dream – the mist, the smell of earth and grass, the mellow baying of barnyard animals.

I wanted to stay for always.

Sneem

—–

Today, on this early Monday morning – without the usual clamour of the city – the gentle magic the Irish countryside doesn’t seem so far away. It’s in the wind and the leaves. And in a quiet breakfast that doesn’t need to be rushed.

Happy (One-Year!) Anniversary to my brother and his bride. Hearts to infinity, plus one.

Hot Oatmeal

A note on the recipe: knowing how my mornings usually devolve into complete bedlam, I made myself a pot of overnight oatmeal. It’s a nice thing to wake up to, particularly if you feel like a chicken with its head cut off between the hours of 7:00 and 9:00. Cold pizza for breakfast can be fun, but trust me, homemade oatmeal is better. One caveat: you MUST MUST MUST use steel-cut oats, nothing else. Otherwise, you’ll end up with nondescript sludge, instead of nice, toothsome, nutty bits of oats. Steel-cut oats are normally a bit of a nuisance as they take 45 minutes to cook (I know, yikes) – but if you use this overnight method you can avoid waiting around for breakfast because it cooks while you sleep. *Poof* Magic!

Overnight Steel-Cut Oats (3-4 servings)

  • 4 cups filtered water
  • 1 cup steel-cut oats
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Topping option:

  • a handful of quartered strawberries, macerated in maple syrup overnight
  • a handful of smashed pistachios

Directions:
1) In a medium saucepan or Dutch oven, bring the 4 cups of water to a rapid boil.
2) When the water comes to a full boil, pour in the steel cut oats and salt.
3) Give a quick stir and let the oats cook for 1 minute.
4) After one minute, turn off the heat, give the oats a quick stir, cover and then let them sit on the stove overnight. Go catch some well needed zzzz.

The next morning: open the lid and observe the magic of perfectly cooked overnight oatmeal. Oooh ahhh. Bring the oatmeal back up to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until warmed through. There will be a bit of water in the mixture still, but the oats will thicken up as they sit (but if you feel it needs to be thinned out some more, add a little bit of milk or water to the pot). Ladle the oats into a bowl and spoon over the mascerated strawberries and pistachios.

Oatmeal with Strawberries

Oatmeal with Strawberries - detail

Spring Rolls for Heat Waves

I’m currently sitting at my dining room table, curtains drawn, lights out, with a large jug of iced water by my side and a rotating fan positioned a few short inches from my face. I’ve had three cold showers today and I’m already contemplating a fourth. With the sweltering, muggy heat comes headaches, waves of nausea and pungent wafts of street garbage through nearby windows.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Summer in this city takes no prisoners. No pool? No air-conditioning? You can kiss your good night’s sleep goodbye, along with your desire to do anything else other than spreading out like a starfish on top of your bedsheets with an ice-cold wash cloth draped across your face.

Underwear, of course, is totally optional.

Since there’s no possible way I’m turning on the oven, or boiling or braising anything on a day like today, dinner options will have to be cold and raw, light and fast. Salads can often do the trick, but they can get boring fast and sometimes don’t feel substantial enough. May I suggest another solid summer fallback?

SPRING

ROLLS,

people.

These ingenious little things, composed of paper-thin rice wrappers filled with crunchy vegetables and cool rice noodles require very minimal cooking – the vermicelli cook in under three minutes and the rice paper wrappers can be softened with tepid water. All the remaining ingredients can go in raw. The only exception is the sauce, which requires some minor sautéeing. But let me tell you, this sauce is well worth the two minutes you’ll spend next to the stove top. It’s a small price to pay for having a dangerously good, highly addictive dipping sauce at your fingertips. However you decide to fill your spring rolls, DO NOT SKIP THE SAUCE. Trust me on this one. You can thank me later when you find yourself using your index finger like a spatula to collect every last remnant at the bottom of the bowl.

Spring Rolls with Spicy Cashew Dipping Sauce (serves 4 as a light dinner) – adapted from Sprouted Kitchen

Spring roll filling options:

    • 2 carrots, julienned
    • 1 cucumber, julienned
    • 1 avocado, sliced
    • 1 cup sliced red cabbage
    • cooked vermicelli noodles or sticky rice
    • rice paper wrappers (16 small or 8 large)
    • handful of lettuce and/or sunflower sprouts
    • handful of cilantro and/or mint and/or Thai basil leaves

For the dipping sauce:

      • 1 clove garlic, minced
      • 1/3 cup unsweetened cashew butter
      • 1/2 tbsp mirin sauce (can be substituted with agave nectar)
      • 1/2 tsp tamari or soy sauce
      • 1/4 tsp chili flakes
      • juice of one lime
      • vegetable oil
      • water, as needed

Note: these are just guidelines; feel free to adjust the seasonings to suit your taste

Assembly

Boil about 2 cups of water in a tea kettle. While the water cools, start laying all the fillings on a platter.

To make the sauce, begin by heating a glug of vegetable oil to a frying pan on medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot (but not smoking) add the garlic and fry until fragrant (about 30 seconds). Add the chili flakes and fry another 20 seconds or so, taking care not to burn the garlic and chili. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the cashew butter, mirin, tamari and whisk together, adding water one tablespoon at a time until it is thin enough to be used as a dipping sauce. Add the lime juice and whisk to combine. Adjust seasonings if needed. Serve warm with the rolls.

To assemble: pour the water from the kettle (it should be tepid now) into a large, flat bowl. Lay one rice paper wrapper at a time in the water and allow to soak for about 20 seconds to soften. Transfer to a clean, damp dish towel and begin layering the ingredients in the centre of the wrapper, starting with the lettuce, then the noodles or rice, then the veg, then the herbs. Leave a bit of room at the bottom for wrapping, but feel free to allow the veg to stick out at the top. Fold the bottom of the wrapper upwards, toward the centre, roll the left flap snugly over all the filling an continue rolling until you’ve arrived at something that resembles a spring roll. Repeat with remaining wrappers and fillings.

fillings

assembly

assembly

finished spring rolls

Rhubarb Fever

I fully intended on sharing a killer cashew dipping sauce with you today. Truly, I did. But rhubarb stole the limelight this week, showing up all over the place with its shockingly pink stems and massive, lush leaves fanning out like the feathers on a cabaret dancer. You can’t possibly say no to a vegetable that reminds you of a cabaret dancer, can you? I can’t. Pretty rhubarb makes me go weak in the knees.

Rhubarb - naked

Like most things that only appear seasonally, rhubarb is one of those precious items you need to swipe up when you can, for however long you can. It’s appearance is sudden and ephemeral, only lasting a few weeks at the market in early summer. Then, the show’s over. The cabaret dancer goes home to rest until next year. It’s a fleeting affair, but all that more rewarding because of it. Knowing that you only have a small window of opportunity to enjoy rhubarb makes it a special, if not coveted, ingredient.

This summer, I’ve been able to lay my hands on a considerable amount of home-grown rhubarb – some from the garden of my mom’s friend (hey there, Lynn!) and some extracted from the little courtyard that sits between my building and the next one over. None of my neighbours seemed interested in it, so I helped myself to a few stalks. We’ll call it minimal urban landscaping.

Rhubarb plant

 

I did the first thing we all do with fresh rhubarb and made a crisp, one complete with the requisite strawberries, oats, walnuts and brown sugar. Nothing spectacular or exciting, but the fruit got nice and jammy after a long slow bake in the oven, blistering at the edges and spilling out at the sides. Crisps aren’t generally the most interesting of desserts, but I still make them from time to time. And when I get that first, still-warm mouthful of sweet-tart fruit with those crunchy, buttery oats, I’m reminded of how good crisps really are. Good in that wholesome, familiar, tuck-you-into-bed way.

Rhubarb crisp

But because you’ve likely made a million crisps in your lifetime, and because I ate all of mine and forgot the measurements, there won’t be a crisp recipe here. Sorry. You’ll have to wing that one. There are, however, two other rhubarb recipes I can share with you, simply for the fact that I took notes and didn’t shove the whole thing in my face before taking photos.

The first is a riff on a free-form crostata, where a quick rhubarb compote is topped with fresh strawberries, then wrapped in several layers of phyllo dough that have been sprinkled with crushed almonds and brushed with melted butter. There’s a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg and orange zest in there too, giving it both a bit of warmth (from the spices) and brightness (from the zest). And just when you start to think the whole thing is going taste like Christmas, there are those glorious, lightly cooked strawberries that crown the top, reminding you it’s summer. While there’s nothing groundbreaking about putting together strawberry and rhubarb, they do hum along quite nicely together and kick into peak season around the same time, making them a solid pair for balmy summer days. The use of phyllo here is nice too – it’s light and crispy and helps you avoid getting your hands mangled in a big wad of dough on a hot summer night.

The second is a savoury dish, where rhubarb is stewed on the stove top, then used as a braising base for chicken pieces. When the whole thing’s cooked, the stewed rhubarb mixture becomes the serving sauce. It’s from a New York Times recipe that I bookmarked and went digging for once I realized I’d barely made a dent in that stockpile of fresh rhubarb in my fridge. It’s a surprising recipe and one that hits the right notes – the tartness of rhubarb works well with the neutral flavours of the chicken and the addition of shallots, thyme and white wine give the sauce a very French countryside vibe, which is always lovely. It’s definitely worth trying, especially if you’re bored with the idea of using rhubarb for something sweet. Remember, though, that since stewed rhubarb loses its pinkish hue and turns a colour closer to beige, it’s a good idea to sprinkle some vibrant garnishes (fresh thyme, sliced scallions) over top. Dress up the cabaret dancer, so to speak.

Whatever you end up doing, go get yourself some rhubarb already! Lace up those shoes, get on that bike, GO! Do it before it’s all gone and you find yourself on the kitchen floor crying big fat tears of regret. Ok, I’m exaggerating. But still. GO!!!

Note to rhubarb virgins: here’s a nifty site I found covering all aspects of rhubarb (including rhubarb poison information…don’t eat the leaves!): http://www.rhubarbinfo.com/

062Strawberry Rhubarb Phyllo Crostata (serves 8-10) – adapted from Canadian Living

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup finely chopped toasted almonds
  • 1/3 cup dry breadcrumbs (panko works well too)
  • 2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 14 sheets phyllo pastry
  • 3/4 cup butter, melted

For the Filling:

  • 6 cups chopped rhubarb
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp grated orange rind
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups quartered (or halved) strawberries

Rhubarb and strawberries

Strawberries - detail

Chopped rhubarb - detail

Chopped rhubarb and strawberries

Directions:

To prepare the filling: Place rhubarb, vanilla, orange rind, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in a pot to simmer over medium heat. Stir sugar with flour; stir into rhubarb mixture and cook, stirring often, until thickened (about 5 minutes). Let cool completely. (Can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 3 days.)

Stewing rhubarb and spices

In small bowl, combine almonds, bread crumbs and sugar; set aside.

Keeping remainder covered with damp towel to prevent drying out, lay 1 sheet of phyllo on greased 12-inch (30 cm) pizza pan, aligning 1 short end with inside edge of pan and letting other short end extend over opposite side. Brush entire sheet with some of the butter; sprinkle with 1 tbsp (15 mL) of the almond mixture.

Lay second sheet at angle on top of first, overlapping by about 3 inches (8 cm); brush with butter and sprinkle with 1 tbsp (15 mL) more almond mixture. Repeat with remaining phyllo, overlapping and sprinkling with almond mixture between each and leaving equal overhang all around pan.

phyllo 1

phyllo 2

phyllo 3

Spoon filling onto centre of phyllo; sprinkle with strawberries.

rhubarb in phyllo

strawberries in phyllo

Starting with last sheet, fold phyllo sheets over, 1 at a time, folding ends back to create 4-inch (10 cm) gap in centre. Crumple ends into loose cluster around gap, brushing tops of each lightly with butter and sprinkling with almond mixture.

phyllo wrapping

phyllo wrapped

phyllo wrapped - detail

Bake in centre of 375°F oven until phyllo is crisp and golden, about 35 minutes. Let cool on rack. Cut into wedges with a serrated knife.

Baked crostata

Baked crostata

Baked crostata - detail

 

Rhubarb-Braised Chicken (serves 4) – adapted from The New York Times

  • 8 pieces of chicken, mixture of thighs and drumsticks
  • 5 sprigs thyme
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 bunch spring onions or scallions, white and light green stalks thinly sliced (slice and reserve greens for garnish)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 3/4 pound fresh rhubarb, diced (3 cups*)
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

*I tried a 2 cup rhubarb/1 cup celery ratio, which also works really well

Chicken with rhubarb sauce

Directions:

Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. Place in a bowl with the thyme sprigs and cover. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet (or Dutch oven) over medium-high heat. Remove thyme from bowl with chicken and reserve the thyme. Add chicken pieces to skillet and sear, turning occasionally, until golden brown all over (about 10 minutes). Transfer pieces to a platter.

Reduce heat to medium. Stir in onion (white and light green parts) and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and reserved thyme; cook 1 minute more. Stir in wine and bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits in the bottom of pan. Add rhubarb, honey, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Return chicken pieces to pot in a single layer. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until chicken is cooked through (about 25 minutes) transferring chicken pieces to a platter as they finish cooking (the juices should run clear to indicate cooked chicken).

Whisk butter into rhubarb sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Spoon sauce over chicken and garnish with sliced onion greens and thyme sprigs.

…and why not serve some roasted purple potatoes on the side!

  • 1/2 pound small, purple potatoes (skin on), washed and halved
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • a few sprigs of rosemary
  • olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Parboil the potatoes on the stove top unitl they’re almost cooked through. Drain and transfer to a baking tray. Add crushed garlic, rosemary and oil; toss until combined. Roast for about 10-15 minutes, or until the edges of the potatoes are crispy.

Purple potatoes uncooked

Purple potatoes cooked

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