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

Weeknight Farro Salad

This one is for days when you trail the sleeve of your favourite, freshly-washed grey sweater through a bowl of raw chicken marinating in BBQ sauce; for weeks when your laptop suddenly dies, quite unceremoniously, after six years of dutiful service; for that moment when you come home from work, cold, soaked and exhausted to find a mound of wet mail in your mail box because the flap stayed open on that one day of record-breaking snowfall.

Simply put, this recipe is for days when you have little to no patience, time, energy, or wherewithal to make something for dinner that surpasses boiling a pot of water, or turning the crank of the can opener. Because, frankly, there are days when the idea of cooking with love makes us sick to our stomach. Yes? Yes.

But you’re an able-bodied, responsible adult. So popcorn and a glass of wine for dinner – a third night in a row – feels heinously unjustifiable. You need something that won’t make you feel like the contents of a garbage bag come two hours; something that sustains you, but is enjoyable to eat. I’m here to share a preemptive coup de génie for moments like these (one I borrowed from this post on Molly Wizenberg’s blog Orangette). Earlier in the week, when you’ve got a little time on your hands, cook a batch of farro and store it in the fridge. (For the unacquainted: farro is a sturdy, nutty grain that can be eaten hot or cold, often used in recipes instead of barley or freekah or rice. I buy the Bob’s Red Mill because that’s what the Middle Eastern shop down the street stocks. But you can use any kind you like. (p.s before you have a heart-attack, that online price tag linked above – of $49.50 – is for a 25 lb bag).

Now that you’ve got a batch of pre-cooked farro hanging out in the fridge, all that’s left to do is shred some veg, make a quick dressing and open a can a chickpeas (because, let’s be real – it would’ve been nicer to soak and cook chickpeas from scratch, but It’s Wednesday night after all).

This salad is my kitchen-sink salad – meaning I use whatever seasonal veg on I have on hand, and treat the farro, chickpeas, feta and the dressing as my anchors. In the spring and summer (when the photos below were taken), I might toss in some red endive, asparagus, or watercress. In the fall and winter, I might opt for carrots, beets, arugula or a bit of raw kale. It’s a game of mix-and-match. Use whatever’s in season and whatever you like best. The idea is to get some crunch and colour in there, and some veg that with pair up nicely with the spiky dressing and the creamy feta. This is a don’t-overthink-it salad; a work-week salad; a gift to you on the longest of days.

Enjoy.

Farro

Farro Salad with Veg and Chickpeas (makes about 4 cups) – lightly adapted from Molly Wizenberg’s recipe from Orangette

  • 1 cup farro
  • ½ tsp. salt

For the dressing:

  • 2 Tbsp. fish sauce
  • 3 Tbsp. lime juice
  • 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • 6-8 Tbsp. water, to taste
  • 1 garlic clove, minced or pressed

For the salad*:

  • 1 cup chickpeas, either canned (drained and rinsed) or cooked from dried
  • 1 red Belgian endive leaves (or radicchio, or escarole, or watercress, or arugula)
  • 1 carrot, julienned or cut into strips (or beets)
  • a few blanched asparagus, coarsely chopped (or green beans)
  • 1/2 cup feta, coarsely crumbled (or soft goat’s cheese)
  • handful of chopped parsley

In a medium saucepan, cover the farro with cold water and set it aside to soak for 30 minutes. Then drain the farro, put it back into the saucepan, and add 3 cups of cold water and ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil; then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until tender but still a little chewy (40-45 minutes). When it’s ready, drain it, and either use it while it’s warm or transfer it to a storage container for later use. (Cooked farro will keep for a few days in the fridge.)

To make the dressing, combine the fish sauce, lime juice, 1 tablespoons of the brown sugar, 6 tablespoons of the water, the garlic, and chile in a small bowl. Whisk well. Adjust the seasonings to taste. (Covered and chilled, the dressing will keep for 3-4 days.)

To assemble the salad, put the farro in a wide bowl (if the farro is cold, you might want to warm it a bit. Or you might choose to eat it cold, if that’s your jam.) Add the veg and parsley. Top with a generous amount of crumbled feta. Then drizzle over the dressing and toss to combine.

A note on mouth-breathing: if you’re having this salad at lunch at work, or before a date or at any time right before you’re about to mouth-breathe in the company of human being, do them a favour and have a breath mint or toothbrush at the ready. Armoured with all that raw garlic and fish sauce, this dressing is potent (albeit delicious) stuff.

farro

010

A Cake for Non-Bakers

Sometimes there’s the assumption that, because you know how to cook, it naturally follows that you know how to bake; that for the food-obsessed home cook, the realm of savoury and sweet are completely interchangeable. Please allow me to put that assumption to bed. Cooking and baking are two different beasts – not mutually exclusive, but not close bedfellows either. Slipping a pot roast in the oven is not the same as, say, slipping a pan of brioche dough into the oven. Not at ALL the same. While I’m a decent home cook, I wouldn’t go as far to call myself a baker. I’ve certainly baked things before – lots of things – but I’ve never really done it with the same confident ease that flows through the veins of seasoned bakers. There are people who whip around the kitchen like they were born with a whisk in one hand and a battered spatula in the other. These people are forces of nature.

In contrast, baking for me usually involves a lot of lip-biting, heavy sighing, cursing and finger-crossing. I’ve had my fair share of lumpy, jiggly, over-baked, under-baked, quivering specimens come out of the oven, which means that each time I step into the kitchen to bake something new, there’s a little bit of PTSD that creeps in. I gnaw at my cuticles. I get cold sweats. I pray a little harder to the gods of sugar and spice and everything nice. Sometimes things work out (almond meringues, whipped to perfection!), sometimes they don’t (cherry clafouti that looks and tastes like punishment!). It’s a game of baking Russian roulette, really. Except that when things start to go downhill (why isn’t the cream setting? why are there nubs in the frosting? why is the centre still uncooked, but the bottom nearly burnt?), I remember that, in my case, there are several bullets in the barrel…not just one.

Strangely, these failures haven’t stopped me trying to be a better baker. They’ve actually had the opposite effect – I still bookmark the sweets sections of my cookbooks and turn baking magazines into fringed monsters with Post-Its; I continue to fatten up my Pinterest board with baking ideas that may or may not materialise (I’m looking at you, cannelés…). It’s a habit that’s equal parts romanticism, masochism and obstinance, but it’s part of a larger goal of not letting fear dictate what I make (or don’t make) in the kitchen, even if it means burning a few things in the process.

That said…

I do have a pretty bad Valentine’s Day track record. So this year I’ve decided to cool it with the overly-complicated, thematic baked goods. (It’s a disease. Send help.) Instead, I’m proposing something for the non-bakers in all of us. Something dead-simple and ultra-delicious that can be thrown together quicker than you can say “I’m so glad I didn’t burn another batch of stupid flipping cupcakes”.

May I present your new favourite back-pocket recipe, for:

CARROT CAKE WITH CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

You’ve had a version of this cake before, I’m sure. But the one I’ve got here is 100% foolproof, straight from the ever-dependable, Canadian Living Test Kitchen. It’s been one of my mom’s go-to cake recipes for years and it’s always perfect. It isn’t French pâtisserie; it doesn’t require chilling or resting or parbaking or leavening or whipping egg whites into stiff peaks. In other words, it’s a very forgiving cake. Which is a good thing when you’re not preternaturally skilled in the baking department. I’m certain your Valentine will appreciate the gesture. (Especially because it means they won’t have to eat another batch of punishment cupcakes.)

Happy Love Day to all of you. x

—–

A note on decorating: as it turns out, my cake-decorating skills are about as limited as my baking skills, which explains why the final result looks a little like a confederate flag from a usurped Dutch republic. But, no matter. The important thing is that your cake is delicious. You’re not Martha Stewart and this isn’t a beauty contest. So if your candied orange rosettes look more like something off a cheap sushi platter, it’s no big deal. Own it. Because you did, after all, make a wicked cake. Rosettes or no rosettes. iced cake Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Candied Carrots – cake and icing from Canadian Living/candied carrots from Ricardo Cuisine Makes two (2) 8-inch square cakes (can be layered, or served separately) – serves 12-14 Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 cups grated carrots
  • 1 cup drained crushed canned pineapple
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

Icing:

  • 1 (8 oz) package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup icing sugar

Directions:

1) Grease and flour two 8″ square cake pans ; set aside.

2) In large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, salt and nutmeg.

3) In separate bowl, beat together granulated and brown sugars, eggs, oil and vanilla until smooth; pour over flour mixture and stir just until moistened. Stir in carrots, pineapple and pecans. Spread in prepared pan.

4) Bake in centre of 350°F oven for 40 minutes or until cake tester inserted in centre comes out clean. Let cool in pan on rack. (Make-ahead: Cover with plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 2 days.)

Icing: In bowl, beat cream cheese with butter until smooth. Beat in vanilla. Beat in icing sugar, one-third at a time, until smooth. Spread over top of cake. (Make-ahead: Cover loosely and refrigerate for up to I day.)

Candied carrots (optional):

  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) orange juice
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) sugar
  • 2 small, thick carrots, thinly sliced lengthwise (on a mandolin or with a vegetable peeler)

In a saucepan, bring the orange juice and sugar to a boil. Add the sliced carrots. Simmer until tender and translucent, about 8 minutes depending on thickness. Let cool completely. Drain. Arrange on cake as desired. candied carrots icing cake -1 icing cake - 2 icing cake - 3 cake layers cake slice

Ramen mania

“30 cloves of peeled garlic”

Those words alone should have been enough to dissuade me. Or any normal human being. But instead I found myself on the metro on a Sunday morning, heading to my friend Michael’s, with a backpack reeking of pork braised in thirty – yes, thirty – cloves of garlic, along with a small army of mason jars filled with stock and chicken schmaltz. If I’d been passing through US customs, I would’ve been toast. Those airport beagles would’ve torn me to shreds.

So why travel 40 minutes from home with a backpack stuffed with unidentifiable, pungent edibles that, under different circumstances, would’ve gotten me swiftly escorted to airport security? Ramen, baby. That’s why.

I’ve had ramen on the brain for a few weeks now, and it turns out I’m not the only one: Lucky Peach recently compiled a Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan. Grub Street and Rachel Khoo both featured stories on the topic last week. And just a few days ago, NOWNESS re-posted its short film, “The Eight Chapters of Ramen“, about NYC ramen chef-extraordinaire, Ivan Orkin. It’s a topic that’s been part of the zeitgeist for a couple of years now, but I get the sense that this year, 2015, will be ramen mania, full steam ahead.

Consider yourselves warned.

In theory, I dig the idea of ramen – the salty broth packed to the gills with umami, the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, the slippery noodles, the soft-boiled egg, the chopped scallions, the squishy shiitake. The obnoxious part about food trends is that they prove you can have too much of good thing. At some point, they become so pervasive that they start to drive you mental. (Remember last year’s fetishisation of grilled cheese? The countless photos of triple-decker grilled cheese sandwiches oozing all over everyone’s social media stream? The specialty grilled cheese shops that started popping up everywhere, like a rash you couldn’t get rid of? Mac-n-cheese grilled cheese! Poutine grilled cheese! Bacon-double-cheeseburger grilled cheese. Scary times.)

I think it’s fair to say that in North America, ramen is still walking that fine line between novelty and ubiquity, two extremes that often lead us down the disappointing path of sub-par food. I’ve never been to Japan, but I can tell you that my lips have crossed some pretty ho-hum – not to mention obscenely-priced – bowls of ramen in this town, with blah-tasting broth, pork that’s missing, or an egg that’s missing, or some other delicious thing missing that you then have to order on the side, at an extra cost. Gah! Why??

So at some point I figured, why not make my own ramen? Heck, then I could have the egg AND the pork AND all the other bits. The only problem was that I’d never actually made ramen before, and it seemed like a pretty long, laborious, intimidating process (it’s actually not so bad, but more on that later). For a first attempt, I needed to recruit someone else – a partner in crime, a compadre, a guardian angel – to bolster my confidence and see me through to the end.

Enter Michael – the man who whips up daunting recipes from the Momofuku cookbook like it’s nobody’s business, and who knows exactly where to get hard-to-find Asian cooking loot, like bonito dashi granules and togarashi. He didn’t even flinch when I suggested (with a string of exclamation marks) that we make a 5-part recipe that included 30 peeled cloves of garlic (p.s that’s just for the pork, friends), plus homemade garlic oil and homemade fried garlic powder. Most people would look at me cock-eyed if I’d proposed the same feat to them. You want to make WHAT? You’re going to PEEL all those cloves? Are you out of your mind? But not Michael. That’s one of the reasons I like him. Not only does he get that level of insanity, he actually partakes in it.

—–

The recipe we used – appropriately named “The Vampire Slayer Ramen-Express” comes from Mandy Lee’s impeccable site, Lady and Pups. She lays everything out, step-by-step, with pretty photos and her signature dry wit. For the full recipe, click here.

Now, before you get going on this one…some words of advice:

  • make components ahead – don’t try to make all of the ramen components in one day. Doing that will want to run from the kitchen and jump off a bridge. Pick a quiet day at home to make the stock (which you can then keep in the fridge or freeze). In this case, I made the stock and braised pork on the Saturday to serve on the Sunday. It was a breeze cause there was no rush – just me, the stock, the pork and a few back-to-back episodes of Broadchurch. On his side of things, my compadre made the garlic oil, garlic powder and soft-boiled eggs ahead of time, so once we got together, all that was left to do was boil the noodles, rewarm the (already soft-boiled) eggs in their shell, heat up the pork, and add the soy milk to the stock before putting it on the stove to simmer.
  • don’t worry about making noodles from scratch – we sure as hell didn’t. The dried ones (not instant!) from the Asian grocery worked out perfectly.
  • simplify your stock – you’re trying to achieve an opaque broth that is neutral-tasting (don’t go sticking a bay leaf in there, friends). Mandy Lee even suggests not adding salt, which is sound advice seeing that it allows you to adjust the seasonings according to whatever recipe you’re making with the leftover stock.
  • don’t skip the pork bones in the stock – just don’t
  • keep an eye on that braised pork – make sure that the braising liquid doesn’t dry up; baste it/turn it from time to time during the cooking process and add more liquids if necessary. I wasn’t paying attention and my braising liquid dried up in the last 20 minutes in the oven, resulting in shrivelled (albeit, tasty) shiitakes and pork that was a little less moist than it should’ve been.
  • if you can’t find a hunk of prosciutto – any dry-cured ham will do for the stock. In this case, my butcher suggested some cured (and cubed) Bayonne ham, and it worked out great.

Now go forth and make ramen, you crazy fools!

ramen prep

stock components

stock after first boil

pork + prep

so many garlics

braising the pork

ramen assembly

sliced pork

ramen noodlesbowls of ramen

bowl of ramen

bowl of ramen + Sapporo

End-of-days Bolognese

A little while ago, I made a promise to myself. Not a resolution, per se, but a promise. I vowed to make the bleakest, most inhospitable months of the year – January, February and March – slightly more bearable by turning my freezer into a well-organised cache of provisions. It sounds very end-of-days, I know. But from where I’m sitting, the weather feels very end-of-days right now. My nostril hairs froze while waiting for the bus to the dentist the other day; if I don’t wear tights under my pants on my commute to work, I lose sensation in my thighs; I drag a space heater around my apartment, moving from kitchen to living room to bedroom, and, on the most frigid of nights, you can sometimes find me nestled up to a hot-water bottle.

It’s unsexy, it’s exhausting, it’s an exercise in endurance and patience, not to mention mental fortitude. This is winter in Quebec. Bienvenue, les amis.

winter in Qc winter gear

Even when you’ve lived through winters like this your whole life, you never quite get used to them (in other words, you never quite get accustomed to the sensation of frozen nostril hairs) (speaking of unsexy). However, you do become a little more saavy, a little more wise, in prepping for the deep freeze. For one, you buy boots. Good boots, with a polar bear on the logo and a guarantee that says “Waterproof, -40°”. You outfit your bed with flannel sheets (the best purchase of the year, hands down). You run errands strategically – mentally plotting out your excursions in advance to minimize the amount of time spent outdoors. You layer your clothing; you pack extra socks; you do things your younger self never thought you’d do. Like wearing those aforementioned tights, under your pants. Or wrapping your head in a hefty piece of cloth that you can barely breathe through, making you not only look like a terrifying urban yeti, but also severely impairing both your peripheral vision and your hearing when navigating those busy city streets.

Making it alive through winter comes with a well-earned sense of accomplishment, as my fellow Quebecers can attest (We didn’t slip on any ice! We didn’t fracture any limbs! We didn’t lose any exposed skin to frostbite! We made it! High five!). This explains why you’ll find us lounging on beer patios as early as mid-March, when the first few warm rays of sunshine pierce through. It’s still cold; we’re still in winter parkas. But we’re that eager for the faintest glow of warmth after winter’s put us through the wringer.

—–

I’ve come to realise that a large part of surviving the deep freeze is, ironically, using your freezer to its fullest potential. Making large batches of food ahead, then freezing them into smaller portions is one of those winter-savvy moves that your older, wizened self has come to appreciate. Which is why you don’t think twice about holing yourself up in the kitchen for a whole weekend, to cook and bake, bag and freeze. Let the rest of them skate around awkwardly in their stilettos on their way to the club this Saturday night. You, my friend, have got a hot date with the Dutch oven.

The foods you choose to make are entirely up to you. There’s no real magical equation. This time around, I tried a couple of new recipes that I thought would freeze well – a curried red lentil stew with coconut, and a fennel-leek soup with turmeric – but I also stuck to a couple of classic, rib-sticking recipes, like coq au vin, brisket chili, and ragù bolognese. Foods that are familiar, comforting, and that fill the house with the heady, wintery aromatics of butter, onion, red wine and bay leaf. Perfect for those nights when you shuffle home from work, snotty, zonked and cold.

Stay warm, be well, and eat well. x

Ragù Bolognese (makes 4-6 servings) – adapted from Bon Appétit and La Cucina Italiana

*Note on the recipe: this is a reconstructed version of a classic bolognese. You’ll note that there’s no tomato (just a little tomato paste), which might seem weird if you’re used to adding it. But trust me on this one. Bolognese made in modo tradizionale is beyond compare.

    • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
    • a knob of butter
    • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
    • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
    • 2 celery stalks, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
    • 2 carrots, peeled, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
    • 2 oz. thinly sliced pancetta, finely chopped (use unsmoked, mild pancetta)
    • 6 oz. ground beef
    • 6 oz. ground veal
    • 3 cups beef stock, divided
    • 3 Tbsp. tomato paste
    • 1 cup whole milk
    • 1/2cup dry red wine
    • 1 bay leaf
    • salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve: swirl warm sauce into cooked egg noodles, fresh or dried (such as pappardelle, tagliatelle or fettuccine) and top with grated parmigiano reggiano bolognese prep

Directions

1) Heat oil and the knob of butter in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, celery, carrots, and garlic. Sauté until soft, but not browned (about 8 minutes).

2) Add the pancetta and allow it to fry a minute or so before adding the beef and veal. Sauté, breaking up with the back of a spoon, until browned (about 15 minutes). Add wine and boil 1 minute, stirring often and scraping up browned bits. Add 2 1/2 cups stock, tomato paste and the bay leaf; stir to blend. Reduce heat to very low and gently simmer, stirring occasionally, until flavours meld, 1 1/2 hours. Season with salt and pepper.

3) Bring milk to a simmer in a small saucepan; gradually add to sauce. Cover sauce with lid slightly ajar and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until milk is absorbed (about 40 minutes). Adding more stock by the ladleful to thin if needed.

Notes:
If you’re freezing the ragù: Allow it to cool completely, then transfer it to freezer-proof containers.
If you’re not freezing the ragù: Allow it to cool completely, cover and keep chilled until ready to use (I use Mason jars). Can be kept for up to 2 days in the fridge.

pasta bolognese with cheese

In times like these

I never thought I’d say it, but I’m glad December’s over. Or, to be even more to the point, I’m glad Christmas is over. It’s really weird seeing those words written down; I’m one of those kooks who starts buying brown kraft paper and earmarking Christmas cookie recipes as early as October. But this year, our family got handed a bit of a raw deal, starting with an emergency hospitalisation that took its toll on everyone – sleepless nights, worry, influenza, laryngitis, day-long headaches, back pain, more worry, endless commutes to the hospital, home and back. (Amid all this, I was in Montreal, then in Kingston, then in Montreal again, baiting and trapping mice in my apartment in between.) Almost every single person in my family was sick at some point, looking and feeling like death warmed over for the better part of three weeks. Having somehow dodged the illness bullet, I tried my best to pick up some of the slack – grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundering. The day-to-day stuff that hangs heavy unless you’re in decent shape. I put together a small Christmas Eve dinner and a New Year’s Eve/Dad’s birthday dinner on the 31st. I made cookie dough. I played Burl Ives. I tried to make Christmas feel like Christmas. But, really, it all just felt discombobulated, lacklustre, weird. Weird having someone you love in the hospital on December 23rd, not knowing if or when they’d get out. Weird seeing your folks run around like chickens with their heads cut off when they should be sitting on the couch, drinking coffee and eating spice cookies. Weird not popping the New Year’s Eve champagne, or making stollen with dad or doing any of the other requisite holiday baking with mom.

Given that everyone was so exhausted that all they could think about was their next nap, it was hard to muster the enthusiasm to make food and eat it. But, perhaps counter-intuitively, I cooked. And cooked. And then cooked some more. Because when everything around me feels chaotic and unhinged, I gravitate towards the kitchen. It gives me a sense of purpose, of focus, a project that can take my mind off things and make me feel constructive – be it slicing onions or rolling dough into symmetrical balls. There’s something meditative about simple tasks in the kitchen like that. Even if no one really had much of an appetite, I felt that keeping something simmering on the stove or baking in the oven was a way to calm the storm and regain a semblance of normalcy, of home, of comfort. It’s my way of trying to be productive and helpful when the people I care about are out of steam; like a lot of people who like to cook, it’s my way of loving.

And so, over Christmas, I kept busy in the kitchen – I made those ginger-molasses cookies, a pot of minestrone, tofu bowls, the vegetarian version of this lasagna, garlic scrambled eggs, two pumpkin pies (which were a disaster, but nevermind), orange zest cranberry sauce, Anthony Bourdain’s porc au lait and hasselback potatoes, a cranberry-ginger upside-down cake, lemon roast chicken and parsnip purée, leek soup and sandwiches, chicken pot pie, tomato jam, and a bunch of salads for when everyone had reached their point of saturation with meat and starch.

With the last couple of days before heading back to work, I’ve been using the post-holiday down time to prep for the weeks to come. (which, looking at that freezing rain hammering down out there, turns out was the right decision.) Part of that prep has been to make stuff that can be tossed in the freezer for busy nights – tomato sauce, eggplant curry, fennel soup – as well as things that are good candidates for work-day snacks.

Which brings me to almond rosemary crisps.

I’ve had them bookmarked for a while now, but having never got a chance to make them, they ended up in my mañana, mañana pile (I suspect you have one too?). But then, a couple of days ago, I dug up the recipe after seeing the pile of dried fruit and nuts – the ones that were meant for holiday baking – languishing on the kitchen counter.

And that, dear friends, was the beginning of the end, because now I can’t stop stuffing my face with them.

Four days into January and they’ve quickly become my favourite thing of 2015. They’re earthy and salty and sweet, and the currants sort of caramelise in the oven, becoming a nice and chewy counterpart to the cracker’s crunch. They’re wispy and delicate and have a Scandinavian vibe about them, in that elegant, (but rustic), delicious (but healthy) kind of way. They’re super simple, but really, really good. And with cheese? Omagad.

I encourage you to make them. No, I implore you to make them. Now. And all through 2015.

—–

On a final note: when it’s all said and done, I do realise how lucky we were to have those short bursts of time together as a family. I’m grateful for playing Tombola on Christmas Eve with grandma, for Frandi’s German mulled wine, for mom’s perfect Christmas tree, for the Scott and Bailey marathon with my ragazzo, for being able to stay in pyjamas all day, for Christmas morning waffles, and for Uncle Pete and Aunt Barb’s incredible turkey dinner. None of us might’ve been in the best shape, but we still managed to pull it together. Sometimes the shake up helps you realise how lucky you actually are.

Thanks for checking in, dear readers. I am, as always, grateful to have you in my life. Here’s to high-jacked Christmases, recovery, love, family, friends and, last but not least, food. Happy 2015 to you and yours. x

Baked crackers - detail

By the way – if you’re worried that making crackers is fussy work, it’s really not. The process is pretty straightforward – combine the wet and dry ingredients, pour into a baking tin, bake, chill, slice, bake again. The end result makes you wonder why you’ve never made crackers before. (and why the heck you’ve spent so much money on Raincoast Crisps.)

Almond Rosemary Crisps (makes about 60) – adapted from Fig and Honey

  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 1/8 cup brown sugar
  • 1/8 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup currants, soaked in warm water till softened and drained
  • 1/4 cup raw almonds, halved
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/8 cup whole flax seeds
  • 1 tbsp rosemary, chopped

Additional notes:
– the recipe can easily we doubled or tripled (which might be a good idea. They disappear at the speed of light)
– feel free to switch it up: sesame seeds and anise seeds are good alternatives to the flax seeds; raisins are a good replacement for the currants

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 2 mini-loaf tins with a light oil (sunflower, grapeseed or coconut oil)

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the centre and add in the almond milk, brown sugar and honey. Fold through until all the flour is incorporated into the liquid. Next add in all of the fruit, nuts, seeds and rosemary and fold until just evenly distributed. Pour batter into the mini-loaf tins and place in the oven.

Loaf batter

Bake for about 25 minutes until the tops are golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.

Par-baked loaf

Transfer to a cooling rack. Once cooled, transfer loaves to the freezer and leave for about 1 hour.

After the loaves have chilled, preheat the oven to 275°F. Remove the loaves from the freezer and slice as thinly as possible, with a sharp chef’s knife (works better than a serrated knife).

Par-baked crackers

Place the slices in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for a further 25-30 minutes until crisp and golden brown, flipping over once halfway.

Baked crackers

Once cooled, the crackers can be stored in an airtight tin. They can be eaten as-is, but pair up really well with cheese – anything from sharp cheddar to Gruyère to chèvre and beyond.

Crackers with cheese

Farewell nights

What do you do the night before New Year’s Eve, a mere few hours before your man catches his flight for a two-month contract across the country? You settle into the evening with a pair of gin gimlets, some Peter, Paul & Mary and a bowl of feel-good food. (plus a few choice scenes from The Canyons for good measure.)

Hope you’re spending this New Year’s Day with the people you love and the things that make you happiest. See you back here soon, dear readers.

xx

Tofu Bowl Prep Tofu Bowls

Coconut Tofu Bowls (serves 2, plus leftovers) – adapted from Sprouted Kitchen

  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 12 oz. package firm tofu, drained
  • 2 tsp. red chili paste (such as sambal oelek)
  • 1 Tbsp. lime juice
  • 2 tsp. rice wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh grated ginger
  • 3 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1 Tbsp. coconut oil
  • 2 Tbsp. sesame oil
  • 2 cups broccoli, florets and stems sliced thin
  • 2 large carrots, julienned
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onions
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3/4 cup coconut milk
  • 2 Tbsp. soy sauce, to taste
  • sesame seeds, for garnish
  • 1 avocado, for garnish

Directions
Rinse the rice and cook it (Saveur’s method is my favourite). While the rice is cooking, cut the tofu into cubes and set it on a clean dish towel to drain. In a large bowl, combine sesame oil, chile paste, lime juice, vinegar, ginger, garlic, pinch of salt and stir to mix. Add the tofu and stir everything to coat. Set aside to marinate for 20-30 minutes.

Warm the coconut oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Use a large spoon to scoop out the tofu – leaving some of the marinade behind – and toss into the hot pan, sautéing for about 5 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove tofu from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining marinade to the pan, then add the broccoli and carrot until the broccoli gets a little crisp around the edges; add the coconut milk and cook until bubbling. Stir in the greens onions, cilantro, tofu and toss to combine.

Serve each bowl with a scoop of brown rice, a sprinkling of sesame seeds and a few avocado slices.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 35 other followers