May Long Weekend, Part 2: Making Wine

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Wine making is something that most of us are content to leave to the experts. It seems like it’s probably a hard thing to do, and, besides, where is a person supposed to grow grapes when they live in an apartment in Canada? Plus, the idea that delicious wine can be made outside of a European (or American, or French, or Australian, etc) vineyard is likely to raise skeptical eyebrows. At least that was my reaction when Keith proposed we snap up a Groupon offering a discounted price on a batch of hand crafted wine. When he first brought it up, I could only think of the bad home made table wine I drank with an Italian ex-boyfriend several years ago. But, Keith assured me, this would be a much different and better experience. Not only would the wine taste great, but it would be so cheap! At $4 a bottle, this wine would be a steal even if it didn’t taste any better than a $10 bottle from the liquor store. And, so, it was decided: to The Wine Butler we would go!

The wine making process actually began several weeks ago, when we placed the order. We decided to make a batch of Italian Barolo, a variety I’d never tried before because it’s usually far out of my price range, and the first step is simply  to add yeast to the grape juice. According to the company’s website, adding the yeast to the grape juice ourselves eliminates the obligation to pay liquor taxes, which is what makes wine so expensive here in Canada. After “dropping the yeast,” as the process is called, we waited. And waited. And waited. Then, six weeks later, our wine was ready to bottle.

Wine warehouse

The bottling process itself was very quick and a lot of fun to do. Step 1: decant the wine into the bottles.

Bottling wine

I have to admit my lack of technical knowledge here, because I’m not exactly sure how this part works. Basically, though, the wine is siphoned from the large glass jug into the bottles. It also knows when to stop filling so that your bottles don’t overflow (like magic! Or something).

Once the bottles are filled, they are corked using a special pneumatic press.

Corking wine

(Yes, I look like I’ve been sitting in a car all day.)

This part of the process probably freaked me out the most because the corks are so huge compared to the tiny opening of the wine bottle, but it went off mostly without a hitch. The filled bottle is positioned on a spring-loaded platform under a metal chamber that holds the cork. Then, the door is closed and the cork is pressed into the wine bottle. Only one cork exploded on me (which was a bit scary) because one of the bottle openings was really narrow. With the help of the attendant, though, I eventually managed to stuff it in.

Finally, the tops were shrink wrapped using a special heating element (no picture–sorry!), the labels were applied, and we were all done!

Finished wine boxed

Now, I know the question that you’re dying to ask is: is this wine any good? And I can tell you with great confidence that it does taste really nice! It was at least as good as some of the better-tasting, lower priced wines I’ve gotten from the liquor store in the past, and it was definitely miles ahead of that super bad table wine I drank with my Italian ex-boyfriend all those years ago. It’s still a very young wine, so there will be lots of improvement in its flavour over the next few months and (hopefully) years. I’m very excited to see what it will be like!

So, that was my long weekend. Well, one day of my long weekend, anyway. Next week, I’ll share with you a recipe for roast chicken that is so good, you’ll cry with happiness at having mastered the perfect roast chicken. Plus, it pairs well with some good, hand crafted Barolo, if you happen to have any lying around….

May Long Weekend: Part 1

ImageIt’s a long weekend here in Canada (in celebration of Queen Victoria, a vestige of our colonial history that is now mostly an excuse for people to shake off the last remnants of winter cabin fever by drinking as much as possible) and, boy, what a weekend it’s been. If you’re Canadian or a follower of Jon Stewart on Twitter, you may have heard that the Mayor of my fair city is an alleged crack smoker. On top of that, recently appointed Canadian senators are involved in a spending scandal that seems to strike at the heart of parliamentary democracy in Canada. After such an exciting/exhausting news weekend, what’s a person to do except escape to the country?

And escape to the country we did! On Saturday, Keith and I rented a car and drove to the farmers market at St Jacobs. This market, and the village that hosts it, is located in central Ontario, home to the province’s Amish community, so it’s really common to see horse drawn buggies (and signs warning of horse drawn buggies) all over the place. The Amish also make incredible preserves, baked good and home crafts, which they sell at the market.

ImageThe market is now far, far larger than it was the first time I visited 8 years ago. As it’s become more of a tourist draw, the surrounding area has expanded to include an outlet mall, a Holiday Inn and a WalMart, among other things. I was incredibly disappointed to see the WalMart but, thankfully, the market itself remains mostly the same.

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The market’s vendors are crammed into two large buildings and scattered over a large parking lot. The inside of the main building is reserved mainly for local butchers, fishmongers, cheese shops and bakeries, and walking around inside will make you wish you were a millionaire with a bottomless stomach. There are so many beautiful and delicious things to eat and it’s so hard to decide what to get!

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The growing season starts a bit later in Canada than in other places, so there wasn’t much local produce to be had. But the few things that were available were absolutely gorgeous.

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(Live mushrooms!)

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In spite of the beauty and abundance of the market, my tolerance for large crowds is pretty low. Within a few hours, we had made our purchases and were ready to shuffle along to the next thing: bottling wine. Intrigued? If so, stay tuned for the next instalment of my May Long Weekend adventures!

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The Art of Indian Cooking

Masaledar Cholay

Two questions before I begin: First, do you like Indian food? Is it possible that you even love Indian food? If so, keep reading.

Next question: Are you sitting? Good. Because I’m about to share with you THE BEST Indian recipe ever. I know that’s a bold claim to make, but trust me on this. This is a dish you want to make.

Cooking tasty Indian food at home was a skill that had long eluded me. When I started taking food seriously, while I was working on my PhD, my goal was to learn how to make things that were as good, or better, than what I could get in a restaurant. It’s not that I was (or am) anti-restaurant–who doesn’t like it when other people prepare your food every now and then?–but as a graduate student living on a tight budget, I wanted to eat well without depriving myself or becoming homeless. So, I learned how to cook. With the help of experts in print and on the Internet, I’ve managed to navigate my way through many of the world’s cuisines, making complex, exotic and delicious food and, gradually, adding things to my ever-growing List of Things I Never Have to Pay For Again. But Indian food, along with sushi, remained stubbornly on the List of Things I Still Can’t Make At Home for much longer than I wanted it to.

The big problem, I realized after a while, was that the Indian cookbook I’d been using had really poor instructions. It would say things like “cook the onions until brown” without telling the me at what temperature to cook the onions or exactly how long it would take for them to get brown. This book had me overcooking lentils, using the wrong sized pots and pans, making more mistakes than I care to remember, and the food I ended up making was always, well, gross. So, I resigned myself to leaving it to the experts. Indian food was my Everest and there was nothing to be done about it… that is, until Sanjeev Kapoor came into my life.

When I first saw How to Cook Indian in a used bookstore last year, I’ll admit that I was skeptical. It’s a huge volume without a single picture to refer to, and I wasn’t convinced that this would be the thing to get me back to trying Indian cooking again. Then, I started reading the instructions and it became crystal clear that what I had in my hands was an absolute gem. This book is packed with useful information about equipment and pantry staples common to Indian cuisine, and the chapters are organized by course and by ingredient in a way that seems totally logical to me. But the real reason to buy this book is the recipes themselves. The ingredients are listed in the order you cook them in, making it easy to check back to see if you’ve gotten everything, and the cooking instructions  are clear, detailed and easy to follow.

And, did I mention that the recipes are delicious? Because they are. The first time I cooked from this book, Keith actually exclaimed (exclaimed!), “Oh my god, when did you learn to cook Indian!?” As I explained to him, the book is well written and the recipes are really easy to cook. Case in point: masaledar chholay. Lest you think this is your bog-standard chana masala, I urge you to think again. You might be tempted to dismiss this recipe as being too fussy, with too many ingredients and a lethal dose of garlic, but I can assure that it’s as easy as grinding a few things up and tossing everything together in a hot pan. It all starts with an aromatic paste of fresh ginger, many cloves of garlic and a couple of spicy chilis, panfried with deeply caramelized onions until the heady fragrance fills the kitchen. Lightly toasted and freshly ground spices are then added to the mix, followed by a heaping pile of fresh tomatoes, cooked chickpeas and some water, which reduces down to create a delicious gravy that demands to be soaked up with steamed rice or some naan.

This is not a dish that requires advanced preparation, good knife skills, or even very much patience. It really is dead simple to make, and it’s so good that you’ll never buy that boxed chana masala spice mix ever again. Even though I still don’t know how to make good sushi, it’s comforting to know that I can now add Indian food to the List of Things I Never Have to Pay For Again.

Masaledar Chholay, from Sanjeev Kapoor’s How to Cook Indian 

Serves 4

A 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled

8-10 cloves of garlic

2 green chilis, stemmed

2 Tbsp cumin seeds

6 Tbsp vegetable or other neutral tasting oil

3 large red onions, peeled and chopped (I used yellow onions)

1 Tbsp ground coriander seeds

1 tsp red chili powder

1 Tbsp dried pomegranate powder (optional)

4 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped

1.5 tsp salt, plus more to taste

560 g/2.5 cups cooked chickpeas (canned is fine)

2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

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1. Grind the ginger, garlic and chilis in a blender to form a paste. Set aside.

2. In a non-stick skillet over medium heat, dry roast the cumin seeds until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Grind into a powder with a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Set aside.

3. Place a large non-stick saucepan or skillet with high walls over medium heat and add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions and sauté until deeply browned but not burned. This could take as few as 5 minutes if your onions are on the drier side, but wetter onions will need at least 10 and up to 20 minutes to brown.

4. When the onions are browned, add the ginger-garlic-chili paste, stir well and sauté for 2 minutes. Then, add the dry spices, stir, and cook for another 1 or 2 minutes.

5. Next, add the chopped tomatoes and 1.5 tsp salt, and stir. Cook until the tomatoes slump and the oil rises to the top of the mix, about 8 minutes (I initially thought this was a weird instruction, but the oil really does rise to the top!).

6. Add the chickpeas, stir and cook for about 5 minutes. Then, add 3 cups of water and simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the sauce is somewhat thick.

7. Season to taste, serve over steamed rice and garnish with chopped cilantro.

And then it was spring…

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It seems like only yesterday I was complaining about snow and cold and winter dreariness.  No more! It is officially spring here in Toronto, and the park pictured above is where I spent the afternoon today. I can’t tell you how great it felt to be outside today. The window in my living room, next to my work space, looks out onto a chain link fence, so being able to sit in the grass in my bare feet felt indescribably lovely. From now on, I’m just going to pretend that this park is my back yard. What? A girl can dream, can’t she?

Much of the afternoon was spent just staring at the perfectly cloudless sky and the trees beginning to grow their leaves again, but, of course, I made room for some knitting.

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You guys, knitting outside is the best. thing. ever. Everything manages to look and feel better in the sun, don’t you agree? What I’m working on, by the way, is this sweater for my wonderful sister.  Maybe it’s the sunlight, maybe it’s the fresh air, but I am in love with this sweater. The pattern is both easy and interesting and I’m learning new techniques, too. This is my first bottom-up sweater and, for whatever reason, I’m finding the process far more enjoyable and rewarding than I’ve been finding top-down sweater construction. The body of the sweater is now finished and what you see here is the beginning of the first sleeve. I’m going to try to knit both at the same time on the same circular needle once I finish the cuffs. Intrigued? Me too. Stay tuned for the big reveal in the coming weeks!

And, with that, I’ll leave you for now. I hope your Saturday has been as beautiful and sun drenched as mine has been, and I’ll be back later in the week with another recipe. Image