Making Do

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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

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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.

End-of-Summer Antidepressant

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Between you and me, I’m not all that upset about the end of summer. Sure, I enjoy a string of very hot days every now and then but, generally, I find Toronto’s heat and humidity really strength-sapping. The simplest everyday activities–cooking, walking, shopping–leave me obviously, embarrassingly sweaty and, until this week, my office has been completely without air conditioning. I’m telling you this not to beg for sympathy, but so that you can see (I hope) that I’m not being a hater for no reason. I just haven’t had much relief from the heat and, as such, I’m more than happy to see the other side of summer.

I understand that not everyone feels the same way I do about the summer, though. Some of you, I hear, love the summer. You look forward to it every year with great anticipation and, apparently, feel sad knowing that cooler weather is just around the corner. Well…. it’s my turn now, summer lovers! Maybe this will go without saying, but I’m a big fan of the fall.  For me, few things are better than the crisp air, the vibrant, changing leaves, the food, the sunsets, and the warm layers it feels okay to start wearing again (this is my first fall as a knitter, by the way, and I plan to make the most of this by cloaking myself in beautiful woolen goodies). Despite my excitement about the changing seasons, though, I am sympathetic to the plight of all of you summer lovers out there.  (I’m not a jerk, after all.)  So, in the spirit of goodwill between lovers of any and all seasons, I come with a peace offering:  a mild antidepressant in the form of a beautiful, date-studded banana bread.

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Okay, okay, I know that the internet doesn’t really need another version of banana bread. Everyone has their favorite and they’re no less deserving of your attention than mine is. But, here’s what: this is a really, really good cake. For one thing, there are far more bananas in this cake than there is flour, sugar and butter. Not only does this serve to put the banana front-and-centre, it also creates an incredibly moist cake, one that remains fresh for days and whose flavour most definitely improves with age. The dates scattered throughout the batter are like little brown sugar bombs, just sweet and substantial enough to lend a sort of caramelized note to the cake without being cloying. In fact, there is so much fruit in this cake that, with the right sort of imagination, you might be able to convince yourself that this cake is *actually* a piece of fruit and not a cake after all. Plus, the internet tells me that bananas are mood elevators, an honest-to-goodness and extremely tasty antidepressant! If that’s not reason enough to make this cake, I don’t know what is.

So, dear readers, join me in embracing the start of fall. Whatever it lacks in heat is more than made up in being able to turn the oven back on to bake this amazing cake!

Banana-Date Tea Cake

Adapted from Tartine by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson

Yield: 1 large loaf

Note: if you plan to use frozen bananas, make sure to bring them to room temperature. If the bananas are even a little bit cold, they will stiffen the butter and the texture of the cake will not be right.

Cake Batter

155 g All-purpose flour

2 tbsp Corn starch

1 tsp Ground cinnamon

2 tsp Baking powder

1 tsp Baking soda

3 Very ripe bananas, about 285 g

2 Large eggs

1.5 tsp Vanilla extract

1.5 tsp Salt

85g Unsalted butter at room temperature

90 g White sugar

60 g Brown sugar

115 g Lightly toasted walnuts (I omitted these)

225 g Pitted dates, coarsely chopped

Topping

1 Banana, sliced lengthwise in 4 pieces

2 Tbsp Brown sugar

1. Preheat your oven to 325˙F. Lightly grease a loaf pan and line with greaseproof paper. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients (except the sugar and salt) and mix well. Set aside. In a second bowl, peel and mash 3 bananas to a chunky puree. Add the eggs, vanilla and salt and stir until well combined. Set aside.

3. In a third mixing bowl, beat the butter until creamy, about two minutes. Slowly add the sugars and continue to beat until the mixture becomes fluffy. Slowly add the banana mixture and continue to beat until incorporated. Gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet mixture. Then, fold in the dates and nuts, if using.

4. Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan and smooth the surface. Top the cake with the sliced banana and brown sugar. Bake in your preheated oven for 1 hour, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool the loaf in the pan for 20 minutes, then remove and cool completely on a wire rack at room temperature.  Serve with butter and enjoy the start of fall.

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.

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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.

Egg Breakfast

Oeufs en cocotte

At breakfast, more than any other meal time, I am a creature of habit. When the weather is warm, I want nothing more than tea, toast with jam or peanut butter, and fruit. I sometimes swap my toast for oatmeal when the air turns cold but, mainly, I stick with my standard morning meal. Oh, sure, I’ve strayed from this formula before. I went through a pretty serious granola phase a few years ago, and I’ve been known to include a small pot of yogurt with breakfast. For the most part, though, I like to keep it simple: tea, toast, fruit, done.

When the weekend rolls around, though, I’m usually ready to cut loose. Pancakes! Muffins! Scones! I’ve even been known to devote an entire weekend’s work to a single morning of croissants (worth it, by the way, but not for every weekend). And, because I’m very lucky, I can usually look forward to a beautiful breakfast of over easy eggs with bacon and hash browns when I return from my Sunday morning spin class, once Keith rouses himself. When I’m making the eggs, though, I like to make ’em fancy.

Oeufs en cocotte raw

Enter les oeufs en cocotte, a quick, delicious and satisfyingly impressive egg dish. The process for making these couldn’t be simpler, too.  The ingredients–eggs, creme fraiche and smoked salmon–are thrown together haphazardly into a ramekin and baked in a bain marie for about the same amount of time as it takes to have a leisurely shower and get dressed. With some light seasoning and a small amount of garnish, the result is a restaurant-worthy dish that will have you feeling proud of yourself for skipping the lines and doing it yourself.

Using a bain marie might seem like a fussy and time consuming way to cook eggs, but it’s really no more time consuming than assembling the dish while boiling some water. It’s certainly not more challenging than greasing a frying pan, and it takes only a few minutes longer than frying or scrambling eggs. And, of course, the results speak for themselves. The egg whites stay tender, the salmon firms up a bit, and the deliciously runny yolks mix with the creme fraiche to make a sort of rich and tangy dipping sauce. It’s the perfect egg dish for dipping and scooping with toast. And you remember how much I love toast…

Les Oeufs en Cocotte

Serves 1; recipe is easily multiplied

2 eggs

1 tablespoon creme fraiche (substitute Greek yogurt or full fat sour cream if creme fraiche isn’t available)

1 slice cold smoked salmon

salt and pepper

1 tsp dill, roughly chopped

1.  Preheat the oven to ˚350 C. Boil a small pot of water and set aside.

2. Lightly grease a ramekin with a small amount of oil or butter. Line the bottom of the ramekin with the smoked salmon, then add the eggs, taking care not to break the yolks, and the creme fraiche.

3. Prepare the bain marie: place the ramekin in a larger oven safe container, like a cake pan, and add the boiled water (which shouldn’t be boiling anymore but should still be very hot) until it reaches about halfway up the sides of the ramekin.

4. Being careful not to spill any of the boiling water in the ramekin, place the bain marie in the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, depending on your oven. You’ll know they’re finished when the whites are just opaque and jiggle slightly when moved.

5. Season lightly with salt and pepper (not too much–the smoked salmon gives off plenty of seasoning). Garnish with dill and serve with buttered toast.

Working Lunch

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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.

Worth the Effort, or My Chicken Epiphany

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Well, that was a longer hiatus than I had intended. I hope you small cabal of readers will forgive me my absence over the last few weeks, which have been very busy and filled with good things. First, I graduated from my doctoral program last week! My Mom flew out from Edmonton to attend my convocation at York University (the only of my three convocations I’ve ever attended… I figured the last one would be important enough to make up for missing the previous two) and I am now, officially, Dr Sheena. Hooray! And, as if that wasn’t good enough, I’m happy to tell you that I finally got a full time job! Starting in July, I’ll be working a 9-to-5 office job in downtown Toronto, which means the end of underemployment for me! I was a bit worried that not working in academia might bum me out, but I can honestly say that I couldn’t be more thrilled to be starting this new chapter in my life so soon. My new boss seems great, the work seems interesting, and I will no longer have to support myself with part time jobs. What’s not to like about that? And, as a cherry on the sundae, my friend Margaret gifted me with her entire yarn stash and all of her knitting needles yesterday afternoon. Am I lucky, or what?

Anyway, now that my good news is out in the open, let’s focus on the task at hand: chicken. For most of my life, I’ve been of two minds when it comes to chicken: 1) Chicken is good for you; 2) Chicken is gross. While the former is definitely something to think about when making choices about what to eat, my decision to become a vegetarian at age 19 was primarily based on the latter opinion. For years, my distaste for chicken (and beef and pork) was the only reason I didn’t eat meat. And, because I didn’t see the point in lying about it, it was also the reason I gave when people asked why I’d become a vegetarian. As an adult woman living in North America in the twenty-first century, I thought this was a perfectly appropriate reason to be a vegetarian: I’m in charge of what I put in my body and there’s no reason for me to force myself to eat something I don’t like just because. Then I met a classmate who decided to clear it all up for me. My reason, he told me, was stupid. Not enjoying meat was not a good enough reason to give it up, he argued, so if I was going to be a vegetarian I’d better come up with something better than that. Then, as now, I brushed off his reasoning. What business is it of others what I eat? When it comes to food, I’m definitely something of a libertarian. I have never judged others for eating meat, so I expected others to keep their opinions about my vegetarianism to themselves.

All of this is now moot, of course, because I’ve eaten quite a lot of meat in the last year or so. I mean, it’s hard not to be tempted when you live within walking (and smelling) distance of the best Carolina-style barbecue north of the Carolinas. But there’s even more to it than that. Eating meat has given me more energy than I used to have, and it’s helped me lose enough weight that people have recently started commenting on how different I look despite not having changed anything about my fitness regime. Most importantly, though, and because my taste buds govern just about everything I make and eat, I’ve finally (finally!) begun to figure out how to cook meat so that it tastes great.

Surely I’m not alone in being intimidated by cooking meat and, especially, roasting a chicken. Anyone who’s grown up in North America has probably seen a Swiss Chalet commercial or two in their lifetime and, thanks to them, we all know what the ideal chicken should be: spit-roasted to perfection, with tender meat and crispy skin. But how, outside of a rotisserie, can a mere mortal achieve similar results in a crappy, apartment-sized oven for whom the description “seen better days” was most accurate more than a decade ago? Sure, you can cover the bird and preserve the juiciness of the meat at the expense of the crispy skin, which becomes flabby and insipid. Or, you can leave your bird uncovered and try not to choke on the resulting dry breast meat, which ends up tasting chalky and sucking all the moisture out of your mouth faster than you can drink a glass of water. As most of us omnivores probably share the opinion that flabby chicken skin and dry chicken breast has as much appeal as cleaning the bathroom, neither of these cooking options were going to work for me. So when I finally mustered up the courage to learn how to make the best goddamn roast chicken ever, I turned to Julia Child.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how great Julia Child is, and I’m certainly not going to get into the details of my girl crush on her, which developed primarily after reading her letters to Avis DeVoto. But I will say this: Julia Child is the most logical chef ever. Anyone who’s ever cooked from Mastering the Art of French Cooking has probably noticed the great attention to detail and orderliness of the book, with ingredients listed alongside detailed but accessible instructions about how to prepare them. On the subject of roasting chicken, Julia’s instructions are masterful. When it comes to timing, Julia employs a simple formula: 45 minutes + 7 minutes/lb. In other words, a 1lb chicken only needs about 45 minutes in a ˚350 F oven, and each additional pound beyond the first one will need about 7 minutes each. So, as an example, the nearly 8lb free-range Amish bird pictured above took about an hour and a half to roast. To avoid the dual problems of dry meat and flabby skin, Julia suggests an aggressive solution: frequent basting with butter and chicken drippings combined with occasionally turning the chicken in the roasting pan. The results are nothing  short of outstanding.

So, now, to explain the title of this post. Yes, this chicken is a lot of work compared to other methods of roasting chicken. The constant basting and turning might have you muttering bitterly to yourself under your breath, vowing that nothing in this world could be worth as much effort as you’re putting into your chicken at that very moment. I guarantee you won’t feel this way for long after you have your first bite, though. I’m even willing to bet that, after that first bite, you’ll ask yourself how soon is too soon to roast another chicken. And if, for some reason, you don’t feel this way about Julia Child’s roast chicken, I apologize in advance. In fact, I’d be happy to take that chicken off your hands…

Poulet Roti a la Paysanne Provençale

Recipe adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking  and Luisa Weiss’s My Berlin Kitchen

A confession: the first chicken I ever made that I thought was delicious came from blogger Luisa Weiss’s incredible memoir, My Berlin Kitchen (must read!). Her recipe for braised Provence-style chicken is really something else and was a great introduction to cooking chicken for someone who had never done it and was terrified of the process. I’ve channeled the spirit of Weiss’s dish and combined them with Child’s technique, with stunning results. 

2 tablespoons cold butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 ready-to-cook chicken of any size

1 teaspoon salt, divided

2-4 tablespoons softened butter (more butter for larger birds, less for smaller birds)

1 large or 2 small shallots, minced

4 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped

12-20 oil-cured black olives, pitted

2-4 sprigs of thyme

1. Preheat the oven to ˚425 F. Melt the cold butter and the olive oil together in a small saucepan. Set aside

2. Rinse the chicken inside and out in cold water, then dry thoroughly. Sprinkle 1/4 tsp salt inside the chicken, then smear 1 Tbsp of butter inside. Rub the outer skin with the remaining butter and place the chicken in a roasting pan, breasts up. Strew the minced shallots, chopped tomatoes, pitted olives and thyme sprigs around the chicken and set the uncovered chicken on the middle rack of the preheated oven.

3. Allow the chicken to brown lightly for 15 minutes, turning it on its left side after the first 5 minutes and then on its right side after the next five minutes (tongs and a flexible spatula will make this part easier). After each turn, baste the chicken with a few spoonfuls of the melted butter and oil. When the butter-oil mixture runs out, begin using the drippings from the roasting pan.

4. After the first 15 minutes, reduce the oven’s heat to ˚350 F and continue to baste every 10 minutes.

5. Halfway through the estimated roasting time (remember 45 minutes for the first pound and and extra 7 or so minutes for each pound after that), salt the chicken and turn it to its other side. Continue basting as before.

6. About 15 minutes before the end of the roasting time, salt the chicken again and turn one last time, breasts up. Continue basting as before.

7. To check for doneness, pay attention for the following: a sudden rain of splutters from the oven, a slight puffiness in the chicken breast, and the drumstick should feel looser in its socket. Prick the thickest part of the drumstick with a fork to see if the juices run clear yellow. If so, you’re done! If the juices are pink, test again in 10 minutes.

8. When done, remove the chicken to a platter and let the meat rest for 10 minutes before cutting. Then, serve and enjoy!

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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