Making Do

Image

The last two weeks have been filled with challenges. An already busy time at work has been made more complicated by falling sick with whatever illness has been going around the office. Then, as I was starting to feel like I was on the mend, Keith came home with his own office flu, which, because of our living arrangement, he had no choice but to share with me. It’s been a short (thanks to ColdFX) but intense bout of flu: it began on Friday afternoon with that scratchy throat sensation, mild enough that you can almost convince yourself that you’re really just thirsty and not actually getting sick again, and hit its peak with an intense fever all throughout Saturday that finally broke in the early morning hours of Sunday. Sleeplessness has peppered the last five days. Though I’m more or less over the worst of the flu, my cough still lingers, loud, hacking and wet, and the primary cause of my sleeplessness for the last 48 hours.

Worse than the first flu and the other flu, though, is the fact that my oven had been out of commission throughout this period. This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal on balance, but without an oven, my favorite meal of the day–breakfast–is nigh on impossible. No toast! No bread of any kind! Well, that’s not entirely true, and yes, I know I’m being dramatic. Because I can already hear some of you shaking your heads and saying, “why didn’t you just go buy some bread?”, well, I confess that I did. A reputedly good loaf of bread from a popular artisan chain (the incongruence of those two words together…). And, without naming names, let me just state for the record that the bread was not good. It was a perfectly serviceable loaf and I’m sure many would consider it tasty, but I’ve been spoiled by my own delicious sourdough. This disappointing purchased loaf made terrible toast. It was dry and brittle, like sawdust. No flavour to speak of. I’ll get over it, of course. My oven was fixed just yesterday and it seems to be working much better than it every has before. But it’ll be a few days more before I’ll be able to make myself any toast-worthy bread, and so I’ll need to keep on with my contingency breakfast for a few days longer. Thankfully, this contingency plan isn’t really such bad thing.

You see, before I loved toast, I loved oatmeal. I grew up eating it most winter days and, even though I didn’t really appreciate it much as a youngster, oatmeal became a place for me to get creative with food before I really cared about food as much as I do now. My early experiments with oatmeal were mostly limited to toppings and flavourings: strawberries and walnuts. Bananas and pecans. Raisins, peanut butter and grated orange peel. The goal, of course, was a tasty and satisfying breakfast, and these combinations certainly fit the bill. What I neglected to focus on with these frills, however, was the oatmeal itself. As I’ve discovered more recently, oatmeal, when treated right, can be a thing of beauty.

The oatmeal I’m talking about is April Bloomfield‘s recipe, which I came to discover via Luisa Weiss‘s blog, and it is, in a word, delicious. This recipe stands apart from other primarily because of three key components: first, the recipe uses a ratio of three parts liquid to one part oatmeal. As a lifelong two-parts-liquid-one-part-oatmeal maker, this new ratio was nothing short of a revelation. Second, this recipe calls for a combination of rolled and steel cut oats, and the result of this mix of oats and a higher ratio of liquid is nothing short of spectacular: the rolled oats soften and melt, seeming to disappear in the milky cooking liquidly, while the steel cut oats retain their texture and lend a satisfying toothsome quality to the dish. Finally, the salt. Salt in oatmeal! Salted oatmeal? Anyway, whatever. The point is: don’t skip the salt.

I love this oatmeal, and I love it plain. That’s not to say that I’m above dressing it up–it’s really tasty with a drizzle of maple syrup or topped with a spoonful of good jam or apple butter. But with a small pat of butter and a few minutes to really savour it, let’s just say that I don’t think I’ll have much of a problem going without toast for a few days more.

Porridge

From A Girl and Her Pig via The Wednesday Chef

Serves 1 (recipe is easily multiplied)

3/4 cup milk

3/4 cup water

1/4 cup rolled oats (not instant)

1/4 cup steel cut oats

1/2 – 3/4 tsp salt, to taste

Toppings, to taste

1. Heat the milk, water and salt over high heat to a simmer, making sure to keep an eye on the pot so that it doesn’t boil over (this can happen very quickly). When the liquid is simmering, add both types of oats and reduce the heat to medium, adjusting the heat as needed to maintain the simmer and stirring occasionally. Cooking time will be between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on your oatmeal and your cooktop.

2. When the steel cut oats have just cooked and the liquid has become thick from the melted rolled oats, remove from heat and taste for seasoning. Serve in a bowl and top it the way you like.

Hot Soup for Cold Days

Image

Hello.

I’m back.

How are you?

Oh, I’m well. I’ve been very busy. A lot of people seem to enjoy being busy, wearing their in-demand-ness on their sleeves like some kind of badge of honour. Me, I don’t really enjoy being busy all that much. I tend to feel overwhelmed when the competing demands of living a normal life, with a job and friends and family and hobbies and a blog they’d like to maintain, for instance, all come to a head. Since I last wrote here, I’ve had a vacation to New York with my sister (more on that later, I hope), started helping to organize a conference that I’m very excited about, knit about a million (actual count: 5) of the billion (actual count: 14) Christmas gifts I plan to make for friends and family, none of which I can show anyone until after Christmas, and have spent too many, but also not enough, hours transforming my home from a crowded curiosity shop to a living space I’m proud to call my home. None of this has been bad, per se, but now that things are starting to quiet down a bit, I feel the itch to get caught up on my blogging. You may not have missed me, dear readers, but I’ve definitely missed you.

Unfortunately, what’s been lost in all this busy-ness is time in the kitchen. I really, really miss cooking and I’m anxious to get back to it in a more serious way. So, to get back in the swing of things, I’m going to share a recipe for an amazing black bean soup that I first made in the summer. It was too hot back then to even think about sharing a soup recipe with you (I’m crazy, but not that crazy), but this soup is blog worthy alright.  I’ve thought about it often since that first time I made it and I’ve been waiting for the right time to share it with you. That time, I suppose, is now.

Thanks to those of you who have been checking in. I’ll be back here again soon… I promise!

Sopa de Frijol (Black Bean Soup)

Adapted from Saveur

Serves 8

½ cup canola oil

8 oz. dried black beans, soaked overnight

½ tsp. dried oregano

½ tsp. ground cumin

4 cloves garlic, peeled

2 medium white onions, each cut in half

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 plum tomatoes, cored

4 cups chicken stock

¼ cup crema or sour cream, plus extra for garnish

1 lime, cut into wedges

Fried tortilla strips to garnish (I omitted these)

1. Heat ¼ cup oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add beans, oregano, cumin, 3 cloves garlic, 2 onion halves and 5 cups water. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, covered and stirring occasionally, until beans are tender, about 2 hours. Remove from heat and purée with a hand blender until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and aside.

2. Arrange an oven rack close to broiler and heat broiler to high. Place remaining garlic, 1 onion half and the tomatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet and cook under the broiler until blackened all over, about 8 minutes for garlic and tomatoes and about 16 minutes for onion. Transfer to a food processor and purée until smooth.

3. Heat the remaining 1/4 cup of oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Finely chop the remaining onion half, add to the pot and cook until soft but not brown.  Add the tomato purée and cook, stirring constantly, until slightly reduced, about 3 minutes. Add the beans and stock and bring to a boil. Then, reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes. Purée the soup until very smooth, then stir in crema and season with salt and pepper. To serve, divide soup among serving bowls and top with a dollop of crema and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

Simplicity

ImageI thought long and hard about whether or not to write this post. Because, really, braised mushrooms? They seem far too simple, don’t they? And they’re not exactly photogenic, either. In truth, it can sometimes be hard to judge a food’s blog-worthiness, especially when the dish in question is as plain and unpretentious as the humble braised mushroom. But when I found myself making these twice in one week and then making plans to cook them again in a few more days, I knew I couldn’t keep these to myself. These mushrooms are so intensely meaty and savoury and mushroom-y. Which is really to say that they’re transcendently, mind-blowing-ly delicious.

Image

The key to these mushrooms, like many other good things, is low, slow heat. Caps down in a dry pan over a low flame, you could almost completely forget that you’re making braised mushrooms were it not for the intense mushroom smell that slowly and surely wafts out of the kitchen and straight up into your nostrils.

After 20 minutes or so–and, really, the longer, the better–you add a small amount of butter to the pan. As the butter foams and sizzles, thinly sliced garlic, a pinch of dried thyme and some salt are scattered over top. The whole thing is ready to eat when the garlic browns lightly and the dish becomes almost impossibly fragrant. And if the aroma of savoury, garlicky mushrooms doesn’t do it for you, just wait until you taste them. These mushrooms are, in a phrase, serious business.

Braised Mushrooms

Inspired by As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. Serve with pork, chicken, or just about any other thing that tastes great with mushrooms.

Serves 3-4 as a side; recipe is easily multiplied

2 lbs crimini mushrooms

1 Tbsp butter

1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced

1 small pinch dried thyme

salt, to taste

1. Place a large skillet over low heat.

2. Clean the mushrooms by wiping away any dirt with a dry paper towel (avoid using water, which sucks away the mushroom flavour). Trim the stems.

3. Place the mushrooms, caps down, the the dry skillet and leave them to cook slowly for at least 10 minutes and up to 25 minutes. As the mushrooms cook, they’ll begin releasing water and shrinking slightly. When the mushrooms have reached the desired brown-ness, flip them over so the caps face up and cook an addition 5 minutes over low heat.

4. Add the butter to the pan and let it melt. Then, add the garlic and cook until lightly golden. Season with thyme and salt, toss together and serve.

Working Lunch

Image

Tomorrow, I start my new job. It’s a “big girl” job in an office in downtown Toronto, which means a new, professional wardrobe (hooray!), a daily commute that will hopefully not be too much of a challenge, and a new work environment. I’m anticipating a period of transition as I navigate my way through the working world beyond the confines of my living room, my place of work, if you will, for the last eight years. I don’t think the 9-to-5 schedule will be hard to get used to because of all those times I forced myself to keep regular working hours even when it was so tempting to sleep in a little later, but I do expect to struggle with one aspect of the new job: lunch.

Yes, I intend to pack a lunch every day. Though it’s tempting to start spending money like it’s water running through my fingers (and, believe me, the wardrobe shopping spree last weekend kind of felt that way), I know I can’t be too careless about my finances. Sure, this is a good job with a nice starting salary. On the other hand, I’m coming out of 13 years of post secondary education (yes, you read that correctly), and mama’s got some student loan bills to pay, so that brand new bag is going to have to wait just a little bit longer. If all goes to plan, I can save myself a nice chunk of change by not eating out everyday.

So, what’s the big deal? My plan seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, maybe not. Mainly, I expect to be tired at the end of the work day. Like I said, I don’t think the schedule itself will be the problem, but a packed commute during rush hour–something I’ve never experienced before in my life–could wear me down pretty quickly. Despite my fears, though, I think I’ve found a solution in leftovers.

If you’ ve been following my blog for a while, you might remember me waxing poetic about the virtues of leftovers a few months ago. Now that my new job is beginning, I’m feeling a renewed respect for leftovers, especially the kind that tastes delicious when made fresh and are even better the next day. So, today, I want to share with you a leftover lunch that is bound to make it into my rotation several times this summer: poached squid and green bean salad.

Poached squid and bean salad components

This is a salad that already makes me swoon because of how surprising and delicious it is. The crunch of the almonds with the tender squid, snappy green beans and a touch of heat from tabasco creates a delightful and refreshing summer dinner. Moreover, it’s perfect for a leftover lunch for the following reasons: 1) it’s quick to make, which means that I can throw it together without too much of a struggle after a long, hard day, 3) it requires minimal cooking, which means that your kitchen won’t feel like the inside of a hot oven when you’re done preparing, and 3) it keeps well in the fridge. What’s not to like about that?

Poached Squid and Green Bean Salad

Recipe adapted from Barton Seaver’s For Cod or Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking. 

Serves 4 as a light dinner or 2 as an Elaine Benes-style “big salad.”

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup raw almonds, roughly chopped

salt

1 lb green beans, trimmed and snapped into 1-inch pieces

1 lb whole squid (frozen works well)

2 tbsp yogurt

Juice of one lemon

Tabasco sauce

1. Place the olive oil and chopped almonds in a small saucepan over low heat and cook until the almonds just begin to brown, about 5-10 minutes depending on your stove. Set aside to cool.

2. Bring a large pot of well salted water to a rolling boil. Drop the green beans in the pot for 30 seconds, then scoop them out with a slotted spoon and leave them to cool on a baking sheet, reserving the cooking water. Instead of shocking the beans with ice water, leave them to cool gradually. This reduces the cooking time, preserves the colour and gives them their characteristic snap.

3. Slice the squid bodies into thin rings and cut the tentacles into thin strips. Add the squid rings to the reserved green bean cooking water and cook over low heat, stirring every now and then, until the squid is white and stiffened, about 4 minutes. Drain and discard the cooking water and set aside.

4. Make the dressing by combining the oil and nuts, yogurt, lemon juice and a few generous splashes of Tabasco sauce. Season with a small pinch of salt.

5. Toss the ingredients together and serve immediately or chilled.

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

___________________________________

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.

Being Nice

Pan fried kale

I am, to the best of my knowledge, not a jerk. I strive to be mindful of others. I say “please” and “thank you,” even to the mean bus drivers. I try not to keep people waiting. I work hard to meet deadlines. I’m quick to offer help when a friend asks for it, and sometimes even when they don’t. After yesterday, though, I feel like it might be a while before I voluntarily help a stranger again. Yes, I know this makes me sound like a jerk, but hear me out…

My day started very quietly. I woke up after a full night’s rest, made a list of the things I wanted to accomplish and got down to work. My morning was extremely productive and, feeling good about everything I’d done, I decided to reward myself with a quick trip to the store and a nice, leisurely walk. Soon after I got outside, I encountered a woman in a wheelchair who was just sitting in the middle of the intersection, and she asked me to help her cross the street. Not being a jerk, I obliged.

Almost immediately, I regretted my decision to help this woman. Once she discovered we were going in more or less the same direction, she decided that what she really wanted was for me to take her to her destination. She worried that I would break the wheels of her wheelchair if I tried to get her on the sidewalk, so she insisted that I push her down the bike lane, against traffic. Then, she spotted a curb cut she liked (after I had already passed it, mind you), and bellowed at me to turn around. After ten minutes of being yelled at for going too slow and for not trying hard enough to make sure she wouldn’t fall out of her wheelchair, I’d had enough. I told her, politely, that I’d be leaving her at the corner once we got to the end of the street, which didn’t make her happy, but at least she didn’t yell at me for it.

I can’t say that I let this encounter ruin my day, but I did feel annoyed about it for longer than I should have, or at least longer than I wanted to. By the time I got to the store, my leisurely break was nearly over and I had to make a quick decision about dinner, which brings me to the lovely plate of food pictured in this post.

I know that everyone in the blogosphere is so over kale right now, but I’ve never been a very trendy person. If it’s easy to pull together and it tastes good, I’m all over it, and this braised kale is both simple to make and  extremely delicious.  Plus–I have no idea why–it really helped shake me out of my foul mood.  So, if you find yourself in a bad mood, for whatever reason, I have just the ticket: a steamy plate of garlicky braised kale. It’s a simple and incredibly versatile dish: serve it as a side next to chicken or fish, on top of pasta with some nice parmesan and a drizzle of lemon and olive oil, or as a main course, topped with a poached egg.

Braised Kale with Garlic

Serves 4 as a side or 2 as a small main course

1 large or two small bunches of kale (any type will do), roughly chopped

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp butter

2-4 cloves of garlic, slivered

Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Then, add the butter. When the butter has stopped foaming, add the kale and  cover with a lid or large plate until the kale starts to wilt, about 1-2 minutes.

2. After a few minutes and once the pile of kale has gotten smaller, clear a space in the pan and add the garlic. Cook for another 1-2 minutes until the garlic is fragrant and is beginning to look golden in places, being careful not to burn.

3. Stir the kale and the garlic together. Remove from the heat, season to taste and serve.