Box Brain

This is a photo of the apartment that I’ve just moved out of, back when I had just moved in and went on a plastering-slash-painting rampage, one week after dislocating my shoulder for the fifth (and thankfully, last time). While the photo is now four years old, I feel that it perfectly encapsulates pre and post-moving day syndrome.

I get tired just looking at it.

apartment

We’ve all been through it at some point – you’ve spent the last several weeks organizing, emailing, calling, visiting, meeting landlords, future and previous tenants, exchanging keys, scheduling, rescheduling, cancelling, reactivating, booking, renting, selling, packing, and orchestrating all the logistics of moving the contents of one apartment to another, all while your bank account haemorrhages from all the inevitable (and surprise! we want more money from you!) expenses that rear their ugly head right around move time. You’re happy to be leaving your current apartment, but your sense of space and belonging is temporarily in limbo as you sink into your new surroundings – the neighbourhood, the people, the commute, the way the new apartment smells like someone else, an unfamiliar space that is now monopolized by dingy cardboard boxes that have taken up residency over every square inch of the floor. All of it feels alien. And exhausting. And endless.

At least for now.

I still feel as though my brain is packed away in one of the unmarked boxes in the far corner of the room. I’m also still trying to come to terms with how small the new fridge is and the fact that there are no drawers in the kitchen, leaving me to keep all the utensils in the box they were packed in. On the floor. Because that’s where everything else seems to be.

So, until I find my brain and my bearings (and regain at-home Internet service), I’ll be over here riding out this ultra-wholesome diet of pizza, chips and take-out.

Be back soon. x

For Dad

Dad, thank you for –

Being the one who taught me how to drive, how to deal with a fusebox and how to trim and paint a room like a pro. And for (still) answering my questions about pest control, caulking, household electricity, bathroom plumbing and any other technical issue I throw your way.

Climbing up trees and onto the roof for those crazy, night-time snowball fights we had when we were kids. (and thank you for teaching me how to craft the perfect snowball so that I stood a chance against my brother and boy cousins.)

Being a total goof.

Building that castle tree-house in the back yard. That thing was insane. I still can’t believe you built it.

All those painstaking hours of pool maintenance so that we could swim all summer long.

Getting us that stupid cat we’d always wanted, even though (unbeknownst to us) you were allergic.

All those teeny-tiny notes in miniature handwriting that you’d leave under our pillow, from The Tooth Fairy, and for the sooty footprints you’d leave by the fireplace to prove that Santa Claus had really been there.

Singing songs to us at bedtime, as The Swedish Chef.

Keeping that enormous collection of National Geographic magazines in the family room, at kid-level, so that we could look at them whenever we wanted.

Answering all of my why-is-the-sky-blue nature and science questions, before the Internet was invented.

Bringing me back all those Archie comics from your business trips to the States.

Barbecuing us dinner through the Ice Storm of ’98.

Teaching me how to make stollen.

Making your own wine and beer, before it was cool.

Happily taking all the black and yellow candies and the burnt toast that we pawned off on you.

Making me brush my teeth, even when I didn’t want to.

Helping me through those long hours of math homework, when all I wanted to do was tear my hair out and cry.

Not disowning me when I was going through the hormonal roller coaster that is l’adolescence au féminin.

Helping me move from one apartment to the next, not once, not twice, but FIVE times, without complaining once, despite the fact that summer moves are always hot and sweaty and downright miserable.

Being one of the first people to comment on this blog and for rooting me on along the way.

Most of all, thank you for your patience and unconditional support. Neither goes unnoticed. I’m lucky to have a dad that’s always there for me, no matter what.

Happy Father’s Day, dad. Love you with all my heart. x

dad

My Kind of Food

I first heard of Yotam Ottolenghi about four years ago, at an all-ladies, vegetarian dinner party (I know that that reads like “armpit hair-kombucha-patchouli party”, but truly it wasn’t). Anyway, I got there after a long day at work and an interminable commute, so I said my introductory hellos fairly quickly and made a beeline for the appetizer table, zeroing in on a bowl of dip nestled in a ring of pita chips. Not one to ever refuse a chip, I dunked one into the hummus-y looking mush and raised it to my mouth, not expecting much in return (because, seriously, how many times have you had ho-hum hummus?). But instead, I got sucker-punched by something altogether different – a mix of tangy and sweet, bitter and earthy, creamy and light. I never thought I could get excited about dip, but this thing was a revelation. Omagah wha iv dis schtuff? I asked my host, mouth full, with a second chip already submerged in the dip bowl. Have you heard of this cookbook called Plenty?, she asked. By Ottolenghi? I shook my head no. She found the cookbook and flipped through it until she came to the recipe for Burnt Aubergine with Tahini. This is what you’re eating. Isn’t it great?

That would mark the beginning of my love affair with Ottolenghi, now four years strong.

It’s rare that I want to cook all of the recipes in a cookbook (in fact, I collect more cookbooks than I actually use), but when I flip through my copies of JerusalemPlenty, and Plenty More, they’re bookmarked with so many Post-Its they look like fringed piñatas, ready to burst. They are, without a doubt, some of my most reliable, well-thumbed kitchen companions. Recent Ottolenghi discoveries include honey-roasted carrots with tahini yogurt, grilled lettuce with farro and lemon, urad dal with coconut and cilantro, brussel sprouts with caramelised garlic and lemon peel, and alphonso mango and curried chickpea salad (which I actually just made last night and completely demolished in one sitting).

Through his cookbooks, I’ve learnt how delicate plays on flavour – like adding za’atar or sumac to roast chicken, or lime zest to a salad – can elevate a dish without overwhelming it. He strikes that tricky balance between what’s familiar and novel, what’s subtle and bold. Nothing in his cooking is explicitly for show. There are no obvious fireworks; no molecular gastronomy on display. Just well-balanced, unfussy, honest food that is delicious and gorgeous and can be made easily with your own two hands.

In short, my kind of food.

—–

It should be no surprise then, that the day I came home with a bag full of fresh fava beans from the market, Ottolenghi would be the first source I turned to for inspiration.

As usual, the man did not disappoint.

This salad is great on its own, but would also pair up nicely with a piece of fish. Don’t skip the lime zest – that subtle pop of citrus is what makes this salad what it is.

Fava beans

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Herbed Rice Salad with Fava Beans and Pistachios – serves 6 as a side

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup wild rice
  • salt
  • 1 cup basmati rice
  • 1 dried Iranian lime (optional)
  • 1 cup fresh shelled fava beans (from about 1 pound of pods)
  • ½ cup chopped dill
  • ½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • ½ cup unsalted, raw pistachios
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp finely grated lime zest

Directions:

1) Cook wild rice in a medium pot of boiling salted water until tender and grains start to split, 35–40 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.

2) Meanwhile, combine basmati rice, lime, if using, and 1 ½ cups water in a medium saucepan, season with salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat and fluff with a fork. Cover; let sit until water is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Let cool and discard lime.

3) Cook the shelled fava beans in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until tender, about 4 minutes. Drain, then transfer to a bowl of ice water. Drain again and peel them, by “pinching” the opaque, light green skins between your fingers until the bright green beans pop out.

Fava beans Fava beans Fava beans Fava beans Fava beans Fava beans

4) Toss wild rice, basmati rice, dill, parsley, pistachios, oil, lemon zest and juice, lime powder, and fava beans in a large bowl. Season with salt and serve.

Note: Fava beans can be cooked and peeled 2 days ahead; cover and chill. Wild and basmati rice can be cooked 2 days ahead; cover and chill.

fava rice salad fava rice salad

Breaking Bread

Homemade bread.

I’ve been a total wimp when it’s come to those two words. As much as I like cooking, I’ve carefully avoided breadmaking for years, mostly for fear that it’s a labour-intensive process requiring special types of flour, fancy fresh yeast, elaborate kneading and expensive pieces of machinery, like electric bread makers and large mixers with paddle attachments. And that would just be to get the starter dough going. After that, there’d the issue of rising: Does it have to rise in a low heat oven? What if I don’t have a bread-proof setting on my oven? What if I kill the yeast? How will I know if I’ve killed the yeast? And so on and so forth.

Despite all this, I somehow own three cookbooks on bread – including Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads, Soups and Stews, a hefty tome that has sat on the shelf undisturbed, for four whole winters now. I have an entire Pinterest board dedicated to bread, a place where I’ve been quietly stockpiling all sorts of recipes for leavened dough – from densely-flavoured sourdough to crackly baguette to Japanese milk toast – none of which I’ve actually made. But, despite my trepidation, I’m clearly interested in bread – the traditions, the techniques, the delicate alchemy that allows a sticky mass to transform into something crispy and chewy and ethereally light, all at once. It’s a magical beast. The unicorn of food. I’ve just been too timid to get close to it.

Then one day, out of nowhere, I decided to just effing do it already. It happened when I was making lunch with my mom over a long weekend this May:

Me: So, what if I made bread today?
Mom: Yeah, sure. If you want something easy, you should try that no-knead one Mark Bitterman did for the New York Times.
Me: You mean Mark Bittman?
Mom: Yeah, yeah…him. Anyways, it’s so easy. Seriously. There’s a video too. (she finds me the video online). Here, watch it. It’s all there. It’s super simple, you’ll see.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this no-knead recipe. My mom’s been a big proponent of it for years. It’s a version of the old European clay-pot method, modernised by baker Jim Lahey, of Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan, and then popularised by Mark Bittman when he did a piece on it for The New York Times. In the video, Lahey walks us through his recipe, step by step, starting with the introductory promise that it’s so incredibly easy, “even a six year-old” (“or a four-year old!”) can make it.

With that bold endorsement in mind, I figured that if any recipe was going to help me cross the threshold into breadmaking, this would be it. The simplicity of Lahey’s recipe is what ultimately sold me. You don’t need to muck around with special bread flour or proofing or extraneous kneading, nor do you need an expensive mixer or a professional oven. All you need is –

flour
yeast
salt
water
your two hands

That, and a screaming-hot cast-iron Dutch oven. The cast-iron is an important part of the alchemy in this bread recipe, creating just the right amount of steam to get an airy interior and a crisp exterior. The idea is you set the pot in a 500ºF oven until it reaches temp, then toss in your dough (cover on for a bit, then cover off) and bake on high heat until the bread becomes crackly and lightly caramelised on the outside. Cast-iron pots retain heat extremely well, mimicking the qualities of a stone oven and a steam-injected oven at the same time. So, whether you’re a six year-old, or a four year-old (or even a monkey), the cast-iron pot will help your first attempt at bread look like this:

baked miche

It’s seriously one of the easiest things you’ll ever make. And when you’re cracking into that first piece of freshly baked bread, straight from your oven, you’ll be so happy you made a go of it.

Happy baking, friendlies x

—–

Notes on the recipe:

  • the dough needs at least 12 hours for the first rise, then another 2 hours for the second rise. Start the night before and let it rise overnight. The longer you let the dough rise (min. 12 hours, max 24 hours), the more flavourful it will become.
  • when my mom discovered this recipe, she quickly starting making her own adaptations, one of which resulted in a drop-dead gorgeous focaccia recipe. All you need to is add a bit of olive oil to the dough and stretch it out on a pizza pan for baking. (I’ve included her recipe for a cherry tomato version below). If you decide to make both the bread and the focaccia, just double the dough recipe.

Note on Dutch ovens: if you don’t already have one, it’s an insanely useful kitchen tool have. They’re especially practical in the winter – to make soups, stews, curries – but are a must-have for this bread recipe. If you’re worried about the financial commitment, remember that you don’t need to buy the top-of-the-line models (the ones that can go for upwards of $350 a pop); I got a Lagostina version on sale at Canadian Tire for $90 and it works like a charm. They usually come with a 10 or 25-year (and sometimes, lifetime) guarantee, so they’re in it for the long haul. Just make sure that you get one with a 500ºF-resistant metal knob on the cover so that you can make your bread (the ones that come with a hard plastic knob are no bueno).

Jim Lahey’s No-knead Bread – makes one white miche

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ tsp dry yeast (like Fleischmann’s)
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 1 ½ cup water

Crucial kitchen tool: cast-iron Dutch oven

DIRECTIONS

STEP 1 – RISING

1) In a mixing bowl combine the flour, yeast and salt and blend with a whisk.

2) Pour in 1 1/2 cup of water and mix with a wooden spoon. Scrape any excess flour from the bottom and sides of the bowl, making sure the ingredients are well incorporated and form into a ball. The dough will have a stringy texture.

3) Place a piece of plastic wrap on the bowl to avoid the dough from drying out. Allow to rise in a warm dry, and draft free place for at least 12 hours and up to 24 hours. (I left mine at room-temperature on the counter-top overnight.)

STEP 2 – FOLDING & SECOND RISING

1) Dust a large piece of parchment paper, measuring about 24 inches with flour to prevent the dough from sticking during its second rising. Scrape the risen dough onto the floured parchment paper.

2) Sprinkle some flour on the dough and on your hand to prevent sticking. Lightly pat down the dough with your hands to form a piece measuring approximately 10 x 10 inches.

3) Fold one side to the centre; then fold the other side to meet the edge of the first side, like a book (see images below). Take the top edge and fold to the centre; take the bottom edge and fold to meet the top edge.

4) Turn the dough and place the folded side of the dough on the parchment paper and dust with flour to prevent sticking. Loosely wrap the dough in the parchment paper and place on a baking sheet. Cover with a tea towel. Transfer to a warm and dry place and allow to rise a second time (2 hours).

STEP 3 – BAKING

1) Place the cast iron Dutch oven with its cover, on the second rack from the bottom of the oven. Preheat the oven to 500ºF.  Dust the smooth side of the risen dough with flour to prevent it from sticking to the bottom while baking.

2) Once the oven reaches the required temperature.  Remove the pot from the oven and take the cover off. Place the dough, folded side up into the pot and cover. Bake for 30 minutes at 500ºF.

3) Remove the cover, reduce the heat to 450º F and bake for an additional 15-30 minutes until the crust becomes golden brown. To check if the bread is cooked, remove the loaf from the pot and tap the bottom with a knife – if it sounds hollow, the bread should be done. Cool on a baking rack.

baked miche

baked miche - detail

baked miche

baked miche

baked miche - section

—–

Tomato Focaccia

Mom’s Cherry Tomato Focaccia – makes one 12″ pie

  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • 1 Tbsp dried oregano
  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (plus a little more for the topping)
  • 2 Tbsp grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 1/4 cup sliced bocconcini or cubed mozzarella
  • salt flakes and freshly ground pepper (to taste)

1) Follow the directions for bread in the recipe above, adding 3 Tbsp of olive oil to the dough when you add the water.

2) After the first rise (see directions above), transfer the dough to a greased and floured 12″ pizza tray. Dust the dough lightly with flour, and with your hands spread out to the edges of the pizza pan. Place in a draft-free place to allow to rise a second time (2 hours).

3) While the dough is rising, prepare the topping by adding the prepared tomatoes in a bowl and toss with a drizzle of olive oil, the Parmigiano Reggiano, bocconcini (or mozzarella), minced garlic, and oregano. Season with salt and pepper.

Tomato Focaccia

4) Once the dough has risen a second time (after 2 hours), preheat the oven to 500º F. Spread the tomato mixture gently over the focaccia dough and bake at 500º F for 15-20 minutes.

Tomato Focaccia

Tomato Focaccia - detail

Tomato Focaccia

Tomato Focaccia - detail

Getting to Cake

Blueberry-lined cake tin

I’ve fixated on these photos and this blank page for longer than I’m proud to admit. It’s been an uncomfortable dance – coming back to the page at least a half dozen times, starting, stopping, flipping sentences, deleting whole paragraphs, trying the whole thing over from scratch. At one point, I even poured myself a glass of bourbon, thinking that if nothing else was helping, it might. (It didn’t. I got heartburn instead). At that point, I started wishing I had a typewriter – not because I thought it would solve my writing issues, but because I fantasized about ripping the page from the machine’s roller, crumpling it into a ball, and tossing it unceremoniously into the trash can, along with my frustrations. A bit of visceral, paper-crunching therapy would be nice right now. Somehow, pressing down aggressively on the backspace button isn’t half as satisfying. But, this is real life, not a smoky film noir, so I’ll have to content myself with the sticky backspace button on my I’m-old-and-I-almost-died-but-haha-I’m-not-dead-yet-so-you’re-still-stuck-with-me-you-cheap-bastard! laptop. My only solace is knowing that we’re this much closer to getting to cake. Just a few more words and we’re there…

In the simplest of terms, what I’d like to tell you about this cake is this:

1) It’s drop-dead delicious
2) It’s absurdly easy to make
3) Everyone who tastes it, without fault, will ask for seconds (or thirds, depending)

I think these three points form a pretty solid endorsement, especially when it comes to baked sweets, which often get a bad rap for being fussy. It’s a fail-proof, fool-proof dessert, capable of making anybody’s palate swoon. The batter bakes up fluffy and light, and the blueberries become nice and syrupy, crowning the top in a smooth, indigo-tinged layer. You’ll be grateful to know about this cake the moment you get invited to a last-minute dinner party, or picnic, or office gathering, and you’re asked to bring the dessert!! when really you were hoping they’d ask you to bring the wine and cheese. It’s a cake that comes together really quickly and without much mess, whether you’re a dessert-making novice or a baking pro who’s just feeling a little lazy that day. Once you lay that beautiful thing in front of your dining companions, the pieces will glide effortlessly, one by one, off the serving plate until all that’s left are a smattering of crumbs, blue-tinged lips and happy bellies.

—–

Quick note on the recipe: I’m still using frozen blueberries right now, since we’re not in blueberry season in Quebec yet, but the recipe works with either – fresh or frozen. It’s entirely up to you.

Quick note on the pictures: for the final result, you’ll have to use your imagination – the cake got flipped, berry-side up, onto a serving plate much later in the day and the camera wasn’t nearby. Which is ok, because darting for the camera might have ruined the moment. To give you an idea, it will more or less look like this. When you flip the cake, remember to be bold – lay a serving plate on top of the pan, keep one hand on the plate and one hand on the bottom of the cake pan, and flip, confidently and swiftly, in one go. If you’re worried about the berries sticking to the bottom of the pan, don’t fret – the butter at the bottom of the pan will ensure that the cake slips out of the pan without incident.

Now go forth and make cake!

Blueberry Upside Down Cake – adapted from Canadian Living Magazine

  • ¼ cup melted butter
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 2 cups blueberries (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • ½ cup butter
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
  • ¾ cup milk

1) Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2) In 9-inch square cake pan, combine melted butter and brown sugar; spread evenly on bottom. Spread blueberries evenly over top. Sprinkle with lemon juice.

3) Cream butter; gradually add sugar, beating until light. Beat in egg and vanilla. Sift or mix together flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon if using. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk to creamed mixture.

4) Spread batter evenly over blueberry layer.

Spreading the batter

Batter spread

Batter - detail

5) Bake in preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes in pan, then turn out on to large flat plate.

Baked cake

Baked cake - detail

Sustenance Salads

In looking back at the last few recipes I’ve left you with (pasta! polenta! caaaaake!!!), you might start to think it’s been a debaucherous carb-fest 24/7 over here. It is sometimes, but not always. Like most people, we eat salads from time to time too. Even sans croutons! Imagine!

I think it’s safe to say that knowing how to assemble a good salad – or better yet, and handful of good salads – is an essential part of the home cook’s repertoire. That said, the salads most of us toss together are made without a recipe (as they probably should be), which is why I hesitate to call these ones “recipes”. Think of them more like sources of inspiration you can call upon when you find yourself stuck in a salad rut (mixed greens, olive oil, vinegar, repeat) and you’re in need of something with a little more oumf.

With winter not far behind us (lest we forget that almost exactly one week ago, a flurry of snowflakes blew through Montreal), I still haven’t entered wispy, summery salad-making mode. The salads I’ve been making lately aren’t decked out in frilly sprouts or edible flowers. At least not yet. Right now, I’m still making salads with a bit of brawn, ones that can sustain me through the afternoon without the need to reach for a bag of chips from the vending machine at 3pm. Come to think of it, these salads – real sustenance salads – are good in any season. My standby trio of ingredients includes lentils (Puy are great in salads), toasted grains and/or some vegetable that’s been roasted or tossed in raw. Every once and a while, some flaked tuna might make an appearance; sometimes there’s a little radish or arugula to lighten things up. But ultimately the bones are the same – legume (lentils, beans, chickpeas), grain (farro, quinoa, couscous, brown rice), veg (whatever is in the fridge), the whole thing tossed with an improvised vinaigrette, and wham, bam, thank you M’am, you’ve got yourself a capital-S Salad.

Below you’ll find two of my new favourites. They’re a couple of good ones to have in your back pocket for quick lunches and (soon! very soon!) picnics:

Salad #1 – brought to you by the 5lb bag of carrots and 3lb bag of beets I’ve been slowly chipping away at over the last couple of weeks. Buying produce in bulk, on sale, always seems like a good idea until it doesn’t. After a week of carrot cake and carrot curry and carrot slaw, you start running out of ideas. And then you enter into dicey territory – should I pickle the rest? Can I make a facial mask with carrots? Can I dye teatowels in beet juice? Maybe my neighbours want beets? To everyone’s benefit, this salad came along instead, helping to make a nice dent in the stockpile. Everything goes in raw – carrot, beet, citrus, herbs – then you toast some pumpkin seeds in tamari and oil and throw those on top for an earthy, salty crunch, along with a sweet and sour dressing. It’s an electric pink bowl of crunchy vegetables and juicy fruit segments, closely resembling a large bowl of confetti. If this salad were a party, it’d be the one where all the fun people were invited and there was an open bar.

Salad #2 – this one is more or less an Ottolenghi-inspired concoction: lots of crispy raw fennel, yellow beets and cucumber are combined with tender mixed greens (frisée, raddichio, watercress, mint) and topped with parsley-studded Puy lentils, pistachios and a drizzle of tahini vinaigrette. That dressing – as simple as it is – is a revelation. You’ll want to put it on everything.

Before you get started, remember that you can riff on these recipes as much as you like. Salads are extremely forgiving; there’s always a little wiggle room. Don’t have an orange? Use a grapefruit. Don’t have apple cider vinegar? Swap it for some white or red wine vinegar. Make use of whatever’s already in your fridge, pantry and garden. Salads are all about colour and contrast, texture and depth of flavour. Find a balance between those things and, man, you’re in business.

Ruby Red Beet & Carrot Salad

Ruby Red Beet and Carrot Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds (adapted from The Food Federation) – serves 4-6 as a side

  • 2 carrots, grated
  • 1 beetroot, grated
  • ½ red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 orange (or grapefruit), segmented
  • a small bunch of coriander or flat leaf parsley(or a combination)
  • 1 tsp oil
  • 1 tsp tamari (or soy sauce)
  • ½ cup pumpkin seeds

For the dressing:

  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp wholegrain mustard
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed

To assemble:

1) Combine all the dressing ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

2) Heat a frying pan over a medium heat. Toss the seeds with the oil and tamari and toast in the hot pan. Toss frequently until they are crispy and a dark brown colour. (nuts and seeds burn quickly, so keep an eye on them while they toast)

3) Place all the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Add the seeds and the dressing and toss to combine.

—–

Lentil Tahini Salad with Shaved Fennel – serves 4 as a light meal

For the lentils:

  • 2 cups cooked Puy lentils (The Kitchn has good tips on cooking lentils here)
  • small handful of parsley, washed and chopped
  • lemon juice, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste

For the salad:

  • 3-4 cups of mixed salad greens* (frisée, raddichio, watercress, arugula, romaine, and/or mesclun), washed and torn
  • 1 English or garden cucumber, sliced into thin long strips
  • 1 medium yellow beet, peeled and thinly sliced
  • half a fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup fresh mint, washed and torn
  • ¼ cup toasted pistachios
  • nigella seeds, basil seeds, or black sesame seeds for sprinkling (optional)

For the dressing:

  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 Tbs tahini paste

To assemble:

1) Combine the cooked lentils with the chopped parsley; season with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Mix and set aside.

2) Combine dressing ingredients; whisk together and set aside.

3) Arrange the salad ingredients on a serving platter, layering as you go along – mixed greens and mint first, then beets, cucumber, and fennel. Add the seasoned lentils on top. Sprinkle with toasted pistachios and seeds (if using). Give the dressing another whisk and drizzle on top. Serve any remaining dressing alongside.

Chopped Parsley

Ingredients - Lentil Tahini Salad

Lentils with Parsley

Lentil Tahini Salad with Fennel

The Real Deal

In the early days of university when I was dating my first boyfriend (three cheers for the late-bloomer!), we used to have our date nights at this bring-your-own wine joint called Eduardo’s. The place was (and still is) a frumpy little hole-in-the-wall on Montreal’s Duluth street, outfitted with the usual harbingers of bad Italian dining: red and white checkered tablecloths, droopy pothos plants, and a menu longer than your arm, with few dishes that would ever come close to anything from terra madre Italia (“Camberelli alla Créole” and “Surf n’ Turf alla Eduardo” are two classic gems apparently still on offer). In our defence, though, we were students without much in terms of disposable income, and the BYOB aspect guaranteed a cheap, loopy night out.

We also didn’t know a whole lot about food outside of our usual repertoire. At the age of nineteen, I only knew how to make a half-dozen of dishes without a recipe: chicken cutlets in mustard sauce, microwave rice pilaf, tomato sauce, blueberry pancakes, minestrone, and the Moosewood Cookbook‘s banana bread, which I’d only learnt by heart after my boyfriend fell head-over heels for it’s butter-espresso laden crumb. It wasn’t a bad list of back-pocket recipes for a nineteen year-old, but it was still fairly limited. While I knew Italian food pretty well, thanks to the expats in my family, the meals I grew up with always revolved around 1) tomatoes, 2) polenta, or 3) hearty vegetable soups enriched with beans or lentils. In other words, nutritious, sustaining, peasant-food. Dishes of the northern persuasion, from regions like Lombardy and Emillia-Romagna, which tend to favour butter, eggs, cured meats, and abundant quantities of Parmigiano-Reggiano, were still very novel to me.

Which brings me to carbonara.

For better or for worse, I discovered carbonara (or, more accurately, its bastardised second-cousin) in that dingy dining room at Eduardo’s, sitting across from my college boyfriend, contentedly drinking 8$ table wine. It may not have been the ideal venue to have my first go at a venerated Italian classic, but as soon as I tucked into that hot mess of bacon, cream, egg and noodles, I knew I was in trouble. That dish – as far removed from the original recipe as it may have been – totally slayed me. In the way that a cheap grilled cheese or a good hot dog can still slay me.

—–

Little did I know, the stuff that I’d happily twirled onto my fork all those years wasn’t carbonara. At least not in the traditional sense. And when I look back on it, Eduardo’s version was nothing more than a mound of cloying, overcooked, cream-laden spaghetti littered with nubs of cheap bacon, masquerading as “spaghetti alla carbonara”. It would be enough to throw any self-respecting food purist into a total fit.

Real carbonara would only come to my attention about five years later, in an issue of Gourmet magazine. By this point, my budding interest in food and cooking meant that I was starting to pay attention to the details. I became more aware of the differences between authentic recipes and their imposters. As for carbonara, Gourmet taught me the basics, notably that the original Roman version doesn’t have one drop of cream in it (which, it turns out, is a purely Anglo-American flourish). True Roman carbonara is actually quite simpler – pancetta is rendered in a bit of fat (usually olive oil), then some eggs are whisked together with parmesan or pecorino and black pepper, and the whole lot is tossed with freshly cooked spaghetti, along with a little of its cooking water. The final result is a loose mess of noodles slicked in a rich, flavourful sauce dotted with crispy, salty pork belly.

It’s simplicity at its best. The kind of food that makes you happy to be alive.

I hope you think so too.

Carbonara ingredients

Spaghetti alla Carbonara – serves 4

  • 4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4oz. medium-sliced pancetta (or guanciale, if you’re lucky), cut into 1⁄2″ pieces
  • 1¾ cups finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1 egg, plus 3 yolks
  • freshly cracked black pepper
  • sea salt, to taste (pancetta is already salty, so go easy)
  • 1 lb. spaghetti

Note: In a dish this pared-down, the quality of your ingredients is crucial. Make sure to use good eggs, the best pancetta you can find, and real Parmigiano-Reggiano (No knock-offs! No Kraft parmesan! Don’t piss off the carbonara gods!). Freshly ground pepper is a must too. It’s also worth mentioning that this dish is one of the few that doesn’t reheat well the next day, as the eggs tend to curdle when they come into contact with too much heat. It’s definitely a dish best eaten straight away (which, I suspect, won’t be a problem).

Eggs

Directions

1) Start by bringing a large pot of water to boil (for the pasta).

2) Whisk together the egg (1) and yolks (3). Stir in 1½ cups of the cheese and mix to combine; add a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper (about 2 tsp). Set aside.

3) Heat oil in a medium skillet or cast-iron pan over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned (about 6–8 minutes.).

4) Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve 3⁄4 cup water; drain pasta and transfer to the pan with the cooked pancetta. Toss it all together, allowing the pasta to cool slightly.

Eggs and cheese

5) Pour the egg/cheese mixture over the pasta and toss to coat (the residual heat from the pasta will lightly “cook” the egg without scrambling it). Continue tossing while adding the 3/4 cup pasta water a little at a time to make a creamy sauce. Transfer to a serving platter and season with salt and some more freshly ground black pepper; sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano and serve straight away.

Carbonara.

Olive Oil Carrot Cake

Today, dear friends, I’m offering you cake.

Does it matter that it came from the (very boring) utilitarian impulse to rid my fridge of a 5lb bag of carrots? Or that it burnt a little along the edges because I forgot to set the timer? Or that the carrots strewn decoratively over the top came out a bit crisper than expected? No, none of the this matters. Because, it is, after all, still cake.

Glorious, glorious cake.

Olive Oil Carrot Bread

Or at least that’s what I’m calling it, even if it’s worlds apart from the butter-and-frosting YOLO carrot cake I made a few weeks ago (if that thing were a person, it’d be the first one to finish the keg at the party and do a cannonball in the deep end of the pool.)

No, this cake, this loaf, marches to the beat of a different drum.

The original recipe refers to it a “bread”, but I think it feels and tastes a lot closer to a pound cake, the only real difference being that you swap the pound of butter (hence, POUND cake) for one cup of olive oil. (cardiologists, rejoice.) To be clear, though, this isn’t exactly health-cake either. At least not in the strictest sense of the word. It’s still got white flour and sugar (one and a quarter cups to be precise!) and all that good stuff. Which brings me back to the reason I’m calling it “cake”. It’s got a very moist crumb – thanks to the olive oil – and crisp edges, making it perfect for dunking into coffee or tea. The fact that it’s jam-packed with strands of fresh carrot leads me to believe that it’s also perfectly acceptable to call it breakfast cake.  (If you’re not convinced, just leave half a loaf in the copy room at work. By 9:30am, that thing will be demolished. Ta da! Breakfast for all!)

Olive Oil Carrot Cake – slightly adapted from Brooklyn Supper

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 ¼ cups sugar
  • 2 cups grated carrots
  • 1 Tbsp lemon zest
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1) Preheat oven to 350°F. Liberally butter a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan.

2) In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and soda, salt, and spices.

3) In a large bowl, beat eggs and sugar on low speed (or with a whisk). Add grated carrots, zest, and vanilla. Fold in half the flour, all of the olive oil, and then the remaining flour. Mix just until everything is well combined.

4) Spoon into prepared loaf pan and bake for 40 minutes. Pull bread from oven and carefully lay 3 or 4 candied carrot halves across the top; spoon 2 tablespoons of the syrup over the top. Put back into the oven, and bake 20 – 30 minutes more or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few crumbs attached.

5) Cool for 20 minutes, and then flip out onto a platter or rack to cool completely.

For the Candied Carrots (optional)

  • 4 small carrots
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water

1) Trim the tops of the carrots, then peel and halve them. (if you’re using pretty, market-fresh carrots for this, you can leave a little spray of greens at the top.)

2) In a wide saucepan, heat the sugar and water over medium heat. When sugar has dissolved, add the carrots and turn heat down so that mixture bubbles ever so gently. Cook, swirling pan occasionally, for 20 minutes or until thinnest part of carrot is translucent.

Note: the carrot bread will keep for a few days, well-wrapped at room temperature.

Olive Oil Carrot Bread, section

A Soup Lost in Translation

In a recent phone conversation with my mother –

Me: Hi. What’re you up to?

Mom: Grandma and I are making cazzorelli.

Me (long pause): Wait, what? Cazzorelli? As in, cazzo?

Mom: Yeah, I guess so. That’s what grandma calls them. Hold on, let me ask her. Sono chiamati cazzorelli, no? (comes back to the receiver) Yeah, grandma says that’s it.

Me: That’s crazy. How come I’ve never heard of these? What are they?

Mom: They’re just these little polenta dumplings that you cook into a soup. They’re nothing special.

Me: Nothing special?? Mom, please. THEY’RE CALLED CAZZORELLI. They’re special. What’s with the name?

Mom: I don’t know. They’re Abruzzese. I guess it’s because the dough is cut into little pieces…and so the idea is they look like…little penises? (long pause) You’ll have to ask grandma.

If you know my family, you’ll understand that this is a pretty typical conversation – about food, about dialect, about the where-what-how of my grandmother’s recipes. While Nonna holds a relatively small repertoire of recipes, each have their own backstory. Some are direct imports from her tiny village in Abruzzo, others are improvised dishes pulled together from the resources they found when they first moved to Canada. Some are of them are vestiges of wartime food-rationing, while others are decadent offerings served up on big platters at weddings, baptisms and religious holidays. Every single one of them – from the soft lemon cookies with the crackled tops, to the peas fried in onion and rosemary – has a story, an anecdote, a memory that tags along.

Up until this conversation with my mom, I thought I knew all of Nonna’s recipes. But for some reason, “cazzorelli” were never part of the rotation of dishes I grew up with. The crudeness of the name, and the casual way that mom and grandma threw around the word, were an open invitation for follow-up questions. So, you’re telling me that people just go around Abruzzo saying, “Today I’m making little penis soup?” What if you make it for your in-laws? Do you still call it the same thing? Am I the only one that thinks this is hilarious??

I felt like I’d hit the dialect jackpot.

That is, until a few days ago, when I discovered that they’re not actually called “cazzorelli”. No. It turns out they’re called “cazzarielli”. Perhaps even worse, this (subtle! so, so subtle!) orthographic error was exposed, not by Nonna, but by a standard Google search. (I know, how boring). So technically, this dish isn’t called “little penis” soup. At best, it’s called “little pieces” soup.

Trust me, I’m just as disappointed as you are.

It serves me right, though. By this point in my upbringing, I should know that when it comes to dialect speaking, this kind of mix-up is par for the course. Entire syllables get lobbed off, vowels at the end of one word melt into the next. Genders get jumbled. And, inevitably, bits of the message get lost in translation. This soup (the one I began to call by a name that didn’t exist) is the perfect example of how dialect speaking – based almost entirely on phonetics – has a sticky habit of transforming words and their meaning. Food customs also travel an imperfect road, which is why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are pieces missing by the time they get to us. But I like to think that all that shifting and travelling allows them to gather substance for new stories and, ultimately, new memories. Like the name of this soup. Cazzarielli will always be cazzorelli to me, because that small phonetic flub is something I will always look back on with a big, stupid grin on my face when I think of that conversation with my mom. It’s one of the few things that’s worth being wrong about.

—–

And now, a few notes on this soup itself:

Like any good Italian peasant food, this soup fulfills three basic tenets – it’s inexpensive, easy, and satisfying. Small polenta “gnocchi” are cooked in a thick broth made up of water, potato, Brussels sprouts, fried garlic, and some chili flakes, all of it simmered with a slab of well-marbled pancetta. I imagine this was the kind of food they’d feed soldiers, or farmers, or the pregnant women who tended the fields in their third trimester (yes, yes they did). It’s robust, no-frills fare. And it certainly doesn’t win any points in the looks department. But what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in flavour. It’s rich, garlicky and full of pleasantly chewy bits of polenta, potato and cabbage. In other words, pure comfort in a bowl.

Grab a spoon and tuck in.

ingredients

For the dough:

  • 1 ½ cups dry polenta (grade 400, extra fine)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 ¾ cups hot (just boiled) water

For the soup:

  • 4-5 cloves garlic, halved lengthwise
  • 2-3 yellow, waxy potatoes (like Yukon Gold)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp chili flakes
  • 1 small slab of pancetta (about 2 oz)
  • 2 cups Brussels sprouts (or the equivalent in Savoy cabbage)
  • 7-8 cups cold water

Directions:

1) Start by making the dough: pour the polenta into a large mixing bowl and slowly whisk in the hot water until the dough comes together. Then work the dough lightly with your hands to form a loose ball. Sprinkle with flour and set aside.

2) Start making the soup: heat the olive oil in a large soup pot; fry the the halved garlic cloves with the chili flakes until garlic is golden brown. Add the Brussels sprouts, pancetta and potatoes; stir to combine and allow to cook for 1 minute. Add seven cups of water and reduce the heat to medium-low.

prep - cazzarielli pancetta Brussels sprouts potatoes

3) While the soup simmers, make the cazzarielli: cut 1″ pieces of the dough and roll lengthwise into “snakes” on a floured surface. Cut the long pieces of dough (“snakes”) into small 1/4″ pieces. Place on a parchment or towel-lined baking sheet and sprinkle with flour to avoid sticking.

4) When the cazzarielli are all made, lift them in batched in your hands to allow excess flour to “sift” through your fingers and add to the soup pot. Allow to cook about 15 minutes, or until they are tender. You may need to adjust the amount of water if the soup gets to thick (helloooo starch!). We like our soup to be somewhere between a minestrone and a chowder in terms of thickness and texture. Serve hot.

rolling dough dough "snakes" cutting the dough cutting the dough laying out the cazzarielli flouring out the cazzarielli prepared cazzarielli serving cazzarielli soup

Boeuf Bourguignon

Like a lot of North American home cooks in the 1970s, my mother’s introduction to French cooking came from two of the world’s most prolific food icons: Julia Child and Jacques Pépin. She turned to Jacques and Julia for instruction and technique, but I suspect she was also drawn to their remarkable approachability. The former, with his warm smile and smooth French accent, and the latter, with her eccentric wit and contagious laugh, made them the antidote to pretentious French cuisine. As a pair, they were a force of nature. And from them both, my mom – along with half of North America – learned how to cook all things savoury and sweet, à la française.

As her French cooking skills evolved through the 80s and 90s, it became commonplace to find mom hovering over the stove, dousing chicken thighs with wine for coq au vin or caramelising onions in a slurry of butter for soupe à l’oignon without batting an eye. After years of following Jacques and Julia on PBS, these recipes had now become her own. She didn’t need to follow a list of ingredients, or look to her TV hosts for guidance. She could practically make these recipes blindfolded. She still can.

These years also coincided with our family’s acquisition of a Rival Crock-Pot, a clunky beast of a machine that occupied a large corner of our kitchen counter for the better part of our childhood. In the fall and winter, my brother and I would come home from school, to the smell of heady aromatics and braised meat. After having a whole day to meld together in perfect unison, the contents of the Crock-Pot filled the whole house with the deep, rich scent that – not unlike freshly baked cookies or homemade bread – can only be described as pure comfort.

On days like these, when it’s -20 with the windchill (despite it technically being “spring” ha ha), I still crave those slow-cooked, full-bodied French dishes that you can ladle into a bowl and eat with a spoon. One of my long-time favourites is boeuf bourguignon, a slow-cooked Burgundian stew made with beef stock, mushrooms and red wine. Our mom used to serve it on a bed of buttered egg noodles, which is still the way I like it best, even if I lose points for authenticity. But the stew can be eaten on it’s own, or – in classic French style – with a piece of crusty bread, to sop up all those intensely-flavoured juices.

It’s the kind of simple cooking that feels like a luxury. Régalez-vous, les amis.

Classic Boeuf Bourguignon (makes about 6 servings) – lightly adapted from Saveur and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol.1

      • 5 whole black peppercorns
      • 1 bay leaf
      • 1 sprig parsley
      • 1 sprig thyme
      • cheesecloth and cotton string, for tying herbs
      • 4 lb. beef chuck, cut into 2” pieces, best quality you can afford
      • 1 (750-ml) bottle Burgundy or Chianti
      • 6 oz. bacon, sliced into ¼” thick batons
      • 5 tbsp. olive oil
      • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
      • 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
      • 2 medium carrots, cut crosswise into 1” pieces
      • ⅓ cup flour
      • 2 cups beef stock (if you have time to make homemade, see recipe here
      • 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
      • 1 lb. white button mushrooms, quartered
      • 12 pearl onions, peeled (or: 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped)
      • crusty bread or cooked egg-noodles (like pappardelle), for serving

Note: in this recipe, the meat marinates overnight, so make sure to plan ahead.

Ingredients bourguignon

Directions:

1) Place peppercorns, bay leaf, parsley, and thyme on a piece of cheesecloth; tie into a tight package and transfer to a large bowl. Add beef and wine; cover and chill overnight.

Bouquet garni - bourguignon

Meat - bourguignon

2) The next day, remove beef from marinade with tongs, allowing the marinade to drip back into the bowl. Pat the beef completely dry using paper towels and set aside. Reserve marinade and the herb package.

3) Heat half the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat; add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly crisp (about 8 minutes). Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a bowl and set aside.

4) Season beef with salt and pepper and working in batches, cook, turning as needed, until browned (6–8 minutes). Using a slotted spoon, transfer beef to bowl with bacon and set aside. Add garlic and carrots; cook until garlic is soft (about 2 minutes). Stir in flour; cook for 3 minutes. Add reserved marinade, beef, bacon, herb package, and the stock; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, covered, until meat is very tender, about 2 hours.

5) Heat remaining oil and the butter in a 12” skillet over medium heat. Add onions; cook until golden and tender, 4 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until golden, 7 minutes more. Stir onions and mushrooms into beef stew. Serve with crusty bread or over cooked egg-noodles.

Note: boeuf bourguignon freezes really well; if you find yourself with leftovers, just allow it to cool and then transfer it to freezer-proof containers.

Boeuf bourguignon

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