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
Madeleines on cooling rack

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

Dream Waffles, Come Rescue Me

Of all the things I could have predicted about my 30-something life, having recurring dreams about waffles would not have been one of the things on my radar. And yet, this is where I find myself, at 32, dreaming (literally, not figuratively) about breakfast food.

I guess things could be worse.

It all began about three months ago, when I had a dream I was making waffles on a beach. Then, a week later, there was another about waffles at my old high school; a few days after that, I dreamt I was eating them in Paris, curbside, with friends (because apparently I have Parisian friends now?). I woke up from that last one bleary-eyed, thinking why can’t dreams be real life??, then rolled over, closed my eyes and hoped that I could somehow lucid-dream myself into eating more waffles by the Seine.

According to the Interweb (where, all accurate, reliable, trustworthy information resides…obviously) having recurring dreams about waffles is not exactly a good thing. But because I believe that dreams have a more visceral connection to what’s going on in our minds and bodies (because apparently I have imaginary Parisian friends AND I’m a hippie now?), I came to the conclusion that I probably just really wanted waffles – stacked high, with a generous slick of maple syrup across the top. So, the next available weekend, I made a point of honouring my demented breakfast dreams by scouring the neighbourhood for the perfect waffle.

After perusing the menus of a few places, I soon discovered that finding some standard, no frills waffles in this town is capital “H” HARD. Today’s brunch venues – complete with the requisite distressed-wood tables, exposed light bulbs and moustached waiters – serve waffles that tend to be a bit too, shall I say…hip, coming in varieties that are egg-less (yikes), Red Velvet-flavoured (gag), or lacquered in a weird, lavender-infused syrup (double gag). It seems that the trad waffle has been comically adulterated by the bourgeois bohemian crowd well-intentioned entrepreneurs of this city. All I wanted was a simple, straight-forward waffle. No fancy distractions. Just a really good, crispy, golden syrup-receptacle. After coming up empty, I spent the next couple of weeks asking myself – and anyone who would listen – where are all the goddamn real-deal waffles at? 

All that whining turned out to be beneficial, because on my birthday – lo and behold – I was gifted a WAFFLE MAKER. Yes – a machine with which I can make waffles WHENEVER I WANT. It seems like an insane prospect. And I will, without a doubt, become a hazard to myself in the process. But HOLY MACKEREL. WAFFLES. SORRY, BUT I FEEL THAT CAPS LOCKS ARE THE ONLY WAY TO FULLY CONVEY MY EXCITEMENT. That, and exclamation marks. Because…WAFFLES !!!!!!

Without an ounce of shame, I willl proudly admit that I’ve had waffles every single weekend since. The novelty having not fully worn off, I still get stupid-excited about pouring the batter onto the iron, closing down the top and waiting for the indicator light to turn green. It’s totally magical, even if they’re super easy to make. It’s the kind of food that makes you want to wear a feathered boa to breakfast and sing this Mariah classic at the top of your lungs, replacing the lyric “lover” with “waffle”.

waffle - detail

A quick note: These are not to be mistaken for belgian-style gaufres. These are decidedly US of A-style waffles – reminiscent of the thin, crispy, golden waffles of your Eggo youth. Only better, because they didn’t come out of a sad box from the freezer.

Epic Buttermilk Waffles (makes 6) – recipe from the Aretha Frankensteins restaurant in Chattanooga, TN

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk*
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon pure (natural) vanilla extract
Maple syrup, for serving

* genius trick for making quick buttermilk (courtesy of my mom): add about 1 tsp of white vinegar to nearly 1 cup of milk. Ta da!

Directions

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; mix well. Add the milk, vegetable oil, egg, sugar and vanilla and mix well. Let the batter sit for about 30 minutes.

Preheat a waffle iron. No need to grease it – the oil in the batter will allow the waffle to release easily. Follow the machine’s cooking directions. Serve immediately with syrup and any other accompaniments you see fit.

waffle - pure
waffle - berries

Existentialist Salad (with Avocado)

This is officially my fifth attempt at writing this post. One of those included a few scribbles in a notepad on a shaky bus ride to work and another on a 7-hour train ride from Toronto. On my way to Toronto, I happened to be sitting next to stranger who took the opportunity to regale me with stories of her physical ailments and the personal details of her extended family, all while six babies (yes, I counted) under the age of one filled our train car with a barrage of shrieks and ear-splitting cries*

(*for the record, I am not in way suggesting that babies are to be blamed for this, nor their parents. But sharing a space with SIX babies – six little humans fidgeting and squealing and pleading for dear life – is as debilitating to your concentration as an invasive medical exam.)

The point is, this was far from the ideal environment to write anything, save a desperate prayer or a haiku composed entirely with swear words. But on the way back from Toronto, I had no excuse – there were no talkative strangers or babies to contend with – just me and a large train window from which to gaze at grassy fields, cows and a slow-burning sunset. You’d think this would’ve been the perfect setting to spill words onto a page. And yet. And yet.

I brought a pen and a notepad, with the specific intention of writing this post. But both sat undisturbed on my lap for the entire ride. Somehow the farm animals and dewy hillsides invited a stream of thoughts – BIG thoughts – about authenticity, purpose, love, change, the absurdity of things. The usual existential merry-go-round. At some point in time, I’m sure you’ve had (or will have!) the pleasure of whirling around on that ride too. As you can imagine, none of this led to me wanting to write about food. It did, somehow, make me want to eat an entire bag of Party Mix from the refreshment trolley somewhere between Brockville and Cornwall. Which I did. Because I’m not Gwyneth Paltrow.

Truthfully, there’s been a lot on my mind lately, and by 9pm on most nights, I feel like my skull is bathing in molasses. Before I turn off the computer and shuffle toward the bedroom door, there’s a little something I’d like to leave you with, involving some black rice and a technicolor dreamcoat of vegetables. There’s no particular story behind it. No rhyme or reason for why it was made or for whom. It was last-minute, impromptu and drop-dead delicious. It may actually one of the best things I’ve made in the last little while, which is why I’m here sharing it with you. Times like these, it feels nice to put a little food-love out there. I hope you’ll catch it with both hands.

Be well and eat well, friendlies.

xx

(Existentialist) Black Rice Salad with Avocado and Spring Vegetables – adapted from Heartbeet Kitchen

Ingredients

Serves 5-6 as a side

1 cup dry black rice (about 3 cups of cooked rice)
3 1/2 cups of water
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 heaping cup of asparagus, cup on the diagonal
1 cup thinly sliced purple cabbage
¾ cup radishes, thinly slices
1 large avocado, sliced

Dressing:
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine (or white balsamic) vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
a few chives, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Ingredients - detail

 

radishcabbage

chivesTo make the dressing: whisk together all of the ingredients in a small bowl (alternately, put all the ingredients in a jar and shake until emulsified). Set aside.

To make the rice: bring water to a boil in a medium sized pot. Rinse rice thoroughly, then empty into boiling water with ½ teaspoon of salt. Turn heat down to a simmer, cover pot, and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until grains are al dente.

To prep the asparagus: prepare an ice bath – fill a medium-sized bowl with cold water and several ice cubes. Set aside. Fill a pan with a bit of water (about an inch). Bring to a boil and toss in the asparagus. Allow to blanch for about 1 minute, remove the asparagus from the water and place them to cool in the ice bath.

asparagus - detail

chilling asparagusPlace the rice, cabbage, radish and asparagus in a large bowl. Stir in the dressing to coat. Spoon out onto a serving platter and top with avocado slices and a sprinkle of salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper.

salad

salad - detail

Spring Cleaning

The first few clusters of crocus flowers have appeared. The geese are back. So are the overly-eager short-wearers. Which means, by default, that it’s officially spring around here. Eschewing the cautionary proverb, “En avril ne te découvre pas d’un fil“, over the last couple of weeks, the Montréalais(es) have piled out in droves onto outdoor terrasses, drinking beer, eating brunch, or whatever else they can get their hands on, so long as it’s OUTSIDE. Some wear tank tops, some wear jackets. At this time of year, it’s a bit of a free-for-all; vestimentary choices are varied and incongruous, providing a reliable source of entertainment for onlookers (me). I’ve still got the heat on in my apartment, but there was a girl at the bus stop this morning in booty shorts.

Go figure.

Speaking objectively, we might be a bit early in peeling off the layers. But you can hardly blame us. Having been deprived of heat and sunshine for what seemed like an infernally long winter, we’ve gotten antsy. Like ants-in-your-pants antsy. Everyone wants to lay claim to spring (it’s mine, it’s mine…and you can’t take it awaaaay!) and for some of us, that means wearing booty shorts the first day the mercury hits the double digits. For others, it means kicking back on a patio, despite frosty extremities. For the rest of us boring people, it means that it’s time for some serious spring cleaning – that kind of there’s-no-turning-back deep clean that requires gloves, scrub brushes, elbow grease and dogged commitment.

It might not sound like fun to you, but I really dig spring cleaning. Of specific interest to me is (but, of course) the kitchen, where I’m liable to tear apart the fridge, freezer and pantry in one fell swoop. It’s a full-day endeavour that I usually tackle in the (ultra-sexy) uniform of baggy leggings and an old t-shirt, with some Harry Belafonte playing in the background. The part I most look forward to, aside from the Belafonte, is going through my pantry – cleaning it out, doing the triage, making a list of new things to buy and re-stocking it. I’ve always been a sucker for a well-stocked pantry, which is why I relish opportunities like these. Spending a breezy Sunday drinking coffee, listening to some tunes, all while excavating and reorganizing the contents of my cupboard like a game of dried-goods Tetris? Sign me up.

It’s amazing (terrifying?) how much this mundane activity brings me so much joy. In rediscovering the items I have stowed away (I have tamarind paste??) and in anticipating the new things I’ll soon acquire (miso! buckwheat flour! Valrhona chocolate!), I get really, really, stupidly excited. For this – and other reasons – I’m fairly certain I have an octogenarian living inside me. But that’s ok, because at least we both like marmalade. And I’ve always got a jar lying around in the pantry.

—–

When it’s all said and done, I think the most important offshoot of re-stocking the pantry is that it renews my interest in cooking. This is especially true when things seem to have fallen in a slump (a failed attempt at a “healthy” banana bread and a tasteless celeriac soup are two of the latest hapless items to come out of my kitchen. Just be glad you weren’t around for those). Refreshing the spice rack is an important part of the pantry renaissance, as most dried herbs and spices tend to lose their potency within 6 months of purchase, if not before. If you’re into cooking, it’s crucial to make friends with your spice rack by switching out the old for the new every few months. Because, let’s be honest, the last thing you want is to spend all that time prepping an elaborate curry, only to discover that tastes like sawdust.

I’m partial to buying spices in bulk, rather than the stuff in the little bags or jars at the supermarket, because a) the spices are usually fresher; b) they’re usually cheaper; c) it allows me to buy the quantity I want, which in turn means I can buy in small quantities, often; and d) I get to peruse the Middle-Eastern shop around the corner and talk to my Iraqi spice guy, who happens to be a total pro.

Below you’ll find two recipes made with a recently acquired batch of spices – cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne and ground ginger. They might seem like wintery recipes, but given that I’m less optimistic about the weather than my fellow booty-shorts-wearing commuter, I’m banking on a few more cool, rainy days ahead. Days for when sweet potato soup and cumin-spiced salad might just fit the bill.

Enjoy, friendlies.

Sweet Potato Soup

Sweet Potato Soup with Curried Chickpeas (4-5 servings) – inspired from My New Roots

For the soup:

  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 2 tsp. coconut oil, plus olive oil for garnish
  • 1 tsp. both sea salt and cracked black pepper
  • 3-4 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • leaves of a couple sprigs of thyme, chopped

1) Preheat oven to 400°F.
2) Peel and cube the sweet potatoes and place on a baking sheet. Peel and cut onions into quarters, add to baking sheet. Peel whole cloves of garlic and add to baking sheet. Drizzle with melted coconut oil and toss well to coat. Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place in oven and roast for approximately 30 minutes until the sweet potato is tender and the garlic is golden.
3) Put the roasted vegetables in a large soup pot. Add the vegetable broth, turmeric and add the finely chopped thyme. Carefully add the roasted vegetables and blend on high until completely smooth (let blender run for a minute or so). If the soup is too thick, add more broth to thin to desired consistency. Season to taste.
4) Pour soup into bowls and serve with a sprinkling of chickpea croutons and a drizzle of olive oil. If necessary, pour into a large pot to reheat if necessary. Keeps for 3 days in the fridge. Freezes well.

For the Chickpeas:

  • 3 cups (2 cans) cooked chickpeas – drained and rinsed
  • 3 Tbsp. coconut oil
  • 1 tsp. coarse sea salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 tsp. smoked paprika

1. Preheat oven to 400°F
2. Spread chickpeas out on a clean tea towel and rub them dry, discarding any loose skins. Place the chickpeas in a medium bowl and toss with coconut oil, seasoning and spices until coated.
3. Spread the chickpeas on a large rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roast, stirring occasionally, until golden and crisp. This takes about 25-35 minutes. Please note that the chickpeas will crisp up outside of the oven quite a bit, so if they are still a little soft when you take them out of the oven, that is okay.
4. Remove from the oven. Let cool, and serve at room temperature. Store in an airtight glass container for up to one week.

Sweet potato soup - detail

Cumin-Spiced Carrot Salad with Black Beluga Lentils (serves 4) – adapted from Sarah Britton on Whole Living

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup black (beluga) lentils
  • 2-3 large carrots
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 6 prunes, chopped
  • ½ cup cilantro, chopped

Dressing:

  • 1 Tbsp. cumin seeds
  • ¼ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. ground ginger
  • ¼ tsp. smoked paprika
  • ¼ tsp. ground coriander
  • pinch of cayenne or chili flakes
  • 1 Tbsp. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. honey
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • pinch of sea salt

Carrot Marinade:

  • 1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed orange juice
  • pinch of salt
  • bay leaf (optional)
  • smashed clove of garlic

Carrot Salad

 

Directions:
1) Whisk the carrot marinade together in large bowl.  Wash the carrots and using a peeler, peel long strips and place in the bowl with the marinade. Set aside and allow to marinate while preparing the other ingredients for the salad.

2) Since lentils don’t require soaking, you can cook them straight away. First, rinse the lentils in a colander, swishing them around with your fingers, then put them in a pot and cover with 2 cups of water (you may want to add more water, just check in from time to time as they cook). Add the bay leaf and garlic. Add a pinch of salt (this will slow the cooking process, but they’ll be more flavourful).

3) Cover the lentils and bring them to a simmer. Continue to cook them over low heat, stirring occasionally just until al dente (about 20 minutes). Drain and lightly rinse.

4) While the lentils are cooking, make the dressing: toast the cumin seeds in a dry skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant. Remove from heat and using a mortar and pestle, give the seeds a rough grind. Add all remaining dressing ingredients and whisk together.

5) Add the warm lentils and marinated carrots, including any leftover marinade.  Add the sliced prunes, shallot and cilantro. Season to taste and serve.

Carrot Salad - detail

 

 

Settling the unsettled

A solitary shoe in the middle of the street. An unexpected letter from the revenue agency. A ticking clock. A night bus that’s nowhere in sight. THIS.

These are all things that, to varying degrees, I find pretty unsettling. But none of them match the unsettled feeling that creeps through me when I begin apartment hunting. I’ve moved so often, you’d think I’d be a professional by now. A cool, calm, collected professional. And yet, it’s up there with the most unnerving, frustrating, disappointing, desperate experiences I’ve been through. The idea of uprooting yourself (again), competing with other searchers, and relying on some vague faith that you’ll find something better than what you’ve already got – for a price that won’t force you subsist on beans – can be quite the emotional roller-coaster. The worst part is that through the sweating and waiting and trekking to appointments, you can’t really complain – because it was your idea in the first place.

Bah.

Though it’s barely just begun, this most recent search is already starting to make me feel weary, disillusioned, mildly petrified…weepy. When you’re hoofing to different parts of the city, visiting crappy places, in this, it’s only a matter of time before you start to lose your marbles.

As with other moments in life when I’ve wanted to climb into a hovel and never come out, I turn to food to bring me back to earth and help me confront the not-so-fun bits of life. I’m not talking about eating fistfuls of Doritos for dinner or gorging on tubs of ice cream (though, that wouldn’t be so bad). No, I’m talking about food I can rely on – something that’s grounding and provides comfort, sustenance and just the right amount of chew. Luckily, I recently discovered a recipe that is pretty much a hug in a bowl. Not soup. Not mac & cheese. But PERSIAN SPICED RICE. Yes. I found my savior in a bowl of toasted rice, warm spices, chewy dried fruit and a healthy knob of butter – a gentle reminder that the nasty bits never last forever.

Rice prep

Persian Spiced Rice (serves 6-8 as a side) – adapted from the New York Times

  • 2 cups best-quality Basmati rice
  • salt
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 large onion, diced small
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled and soaked in 1/4 cup hot water
  • Large pinch ground cinnamon
  • Large pinch ground cardamom
  • Large pinch ground allspice
  • Large pinch ground black pepper
  • Large pinch ground cumin
  • 1/3 cup chopped dried apricots
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup Thomson raisins (or currants)
  • 1/3 cup blanched slivered almonds (optional)

1) Rinse the rice several times in cold water until the water runs clear. Drain. Bring a large pot of water to a boil with 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Add the rice and boil, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Drain well.

cooked rice

2) Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, season lightly with salt and cook until softened and lightly colored, 4 to 5 minutes. Moisten with 1 Tbsp of the saffron water and stir in the cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, black pepper and cumin. Cook for 1 minute more. Stir in the apricots and raisins (or currants).

3) Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a heavy-bottomed enamel or nonstick Dutch oven over medium heat. Spread half the par-cooked rice over the bottom of the pot. Spoon over the onion-fruit mixture, then the remaining rice. Leave the pot on the flame, uncovered, for 5 to 8 minutes to gently brown the rice. (Do not stir or move the rice. Trust that it’s doing the right thing).

4) Drizzle the remaining saffron water over the rice and put on the lid. Adjust the heat to very low and leave undisturbed for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest at least 10 minutes.

5) Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat and gently toast the almonds for a minute or so, taking care not to get them too brown. Set aside for garnish.

6) To serve, spoon the rice into a wide bowl or platter. With a spatula, carefully lift the bottom crust, placing the crisp side up. Sprinkle with the toasted nuts.

Persian rice

Friday Night Couch Cocktails

A couple of Fridays ago, I had a post-work dinner date with my friend Sophie. Before making our way to the taparia, we met at my place for some (in our opinion, well-earned), end-of-week drinks. This last bit not having been planned, I quickly scoured the fridge and pantry things to nosh on, managing to scrape together a plate of olives, walnuts, Gruyère and some rye Knäckebröd, which is tastier than it sounds.

We settled on the living room couch, cocktails in hand, listening to a fun, but disjointed mix of Louis Prima, Orchestra Harlow and Laura Mvula. Luckily, my questionable DJ skills went unnoticed, since we got completely lost in chatter – about everything and nothing and all the bits in between. We laughed like crazed maniacs, catching up, reminiscing and even devising future plans. For those next couple of hours, neither of us had a care in the world. I was reminded how good it felt to be by each-other’s side, and how some friendships, somewhat miraculously, manage to stand the test of time.

I’ve known Sophie for thirteen years. Aside from the members of my family, that’s longer than I’ve known any other person. I inherited her friendship through a former boyfriend, but she’s the kind of person you’d think had always been around – from the very beginning. It’s the kind of friendship that makes you wonder, are you sure we weren’t separated at birth?

When I first got to know her, what struck me was the fact that she had few inhibitions and, unlike a lot of people I knew at the time, was naturally frank and direct. This isn’t to say she was rude – far from it. She just had an aptitude for stripping away the unnecessary layers that most people get wrapped up in. It was refreshing. Even now, her candour is something that I marvel at. She’s bold and I love that about her.

As we’ve grown into our 20s and 30s together, I’ve borne witness to her ability to take things in stride, put things into perspective and pick her battles. Not an easy task whilst navigating the growing pains of early adulthood. I’ve also always admired the way she parents – with big doses of love and encouragement (I’m doubly impressed at how she manages to wrangle her kids when things get out of control, diffusing tantrums like a pro). Perhaps most importantly, she’s able to see past the superficial in things and people, knowing how to appreciate the little things. Like a really good nap, or a low-key summer dinner in the backyard…

…or a cocktail on the couch on a Friday night.

Sophie is one of the strongest, sincerest, beautiful people I know. Though we’re not related in the traditional sense, it is with pride that I call her my sister from another mister. She keeps me grounded and reminds me how to distill what’s important from all the dust that gets kicked up in the air. We can only be so lucky to have people like her in our lives.

This one’s for you, ma belle. Bottoms up! xx

Lemon Gin Fizz

Lemon Gin Fizz (serves 2) 

4 ounces gin
2 ounces fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 ounces Lillet Blanc
1 egg white
2-3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters (or Angostura)

Directions

1) Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker without ice and dry shake for 10 to 15 seconds to emulsify the egg.

2) Add ice and shake again

3) Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

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