Friday, July 27, 2007

My foray into stocks

I've tried making my own soup stock a few times before - usually on the rare occasion when I actually buy and cook a whole chicken - but I never managed to make a habit of it. Cooking with my sister, I'd see her stashing away bits and pieces in a jar in the fridge. These "stock options" as she calls them, would get thrown together in a big pot of simmering water at the end of the week, and become a delicious vegetable stock. Once you get into saving ends of things, the bits of veggies you'd otherwise throw out, it so easily becomes a part of your routine and the reward is delicious - always having on hand yummy stock to make soups, sauces, risottos...

I guess the timing was just right for me to get hooked. Last month, hanging out with my sister and her good influence coincided with a few weekly trips to the farmers market. I couldn't just throw out those beautiful fresh onion skins, or the pretty ends of those curly garlic scapes, could I? So into the stock options bowl they went, and a week later I was searching for a simple stock recipe that I could make without much effort while hanging out a home on a Saturday afternoon. The one with the shortest necessary simmer time turned out to be from Super Natural Cooking (previously). I took her basic method and then ignored the ingredient list, adding absolutely anything that seemed like a good idea to me on that particular day. This resulted in a super-flavourful, distinctive stock. If you want a more neutral stock, don't add things which have really strong flavours on their own. But that's the great thing about making stock - it's so flexible, and you can experiment with any type of flavours you want (a new twist each week!).

Quick and Easy Veggie Stock
[adapted from Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson]

2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, quartered
2 stalks celery, chopped into a few large chunks (optional)
2 carrots, snapped in half (optional)
salt and pepper,
fresh herbs, any kind you like
veggie scraps (here's what I've tried so far, but the possibilities are endless: ends of zucchini, peppers, bok choy, shitake mushroom stems, rosemary stalks, basil stems, onion and garlic skins, leftover fresh dill, ends of garlic scapes...)
10 cups water

1. Heat oil in a large pot. Saute onion, celery and carrots for 5 min or so. Add salt and pepper, water and all veggie scraps.

2. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 1/2 hour - 1 1/2 hours. I haven't been precise with the timing at all. Just simmer for as much time as you have, or until the stock is nice and flavourful.

3. Pour the stock through a strainer into a large bowl. Let it sit to cool for a while, then tuck it away in the freezer or fridge to be ready for when you're craving risotto!

This risotto we made with my first batch of stock was the best risotto ever! We kept it super simple, just started by sauteing onion and garlic and roasted a bunch of cherry tomatoes and zucchini while we cooked the ristotto, and tossed it all together in the end with a bunch of feta. The stock was packed with flavours of red onion, rosemary, and mushroom, so it added so much to this simple risotto. Enough to make weekly stock production a habit for me!

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Our first (official) wine tasting!

It was early June, and summer had unfortunately not arrived yet, but we were determined to have a summery sort of wine-tasting (it was this determination that had found us, hours before, in the middle of the pouring rain searching for 'Les Amis du Fromage,' but more on that later). The list sent out specified 'reds from France,' (which everyone very nicely agreed upon as Michelle and I are headed off to France soon) and 'under $20.' These two criteria were to prove more difficult than we had first thought.

Here is the list of wines we were to choose from, as provided (and described in detail) by Meg:

Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux, the South of France)
intense, heavy, blackcurranty, strong backbone

Cabernet Franc – aka Breton, Bouchy (the Loire Valley, Southwest France)
fruity, herbal, vegetal, spicy, plum, violet, strawberry, bell pepper

Gamay (Beaujolais, Burgundy/Bourgogne, the Loire Valley, Rhone Valley)
refreshing, light, candy-like cherry, raspberry, fragrant, tart

Grenache (South of France)
high-alcohol, sweet, peppery, hearty/juicy rose

Merlot (Bordeaux)
juicy, fruity, blackcurrant, black cherry, mint, herbaceous, lush mouthfeel

Pinot Noir (Burgundy/Bourgogne, the Loire Valley, Alsace)
"hauntingly beautiful with a seductive silky texture," sweet summer fruit, strawberry, truffles, game, decaying leaves (cool!)

Syrah (the Rhone Valley) *same grape as Shiraz
intense, rich, smokey, minerally, spicy, warmhearted, sweet-fruited, blackberry, raspberry

My wine to buy was Pinot Noir, and Michelle picked the Cabernet Sauvignon. And I have to say mine was much easier to find, as we were to discover. After questioning the staff of our third wine shop/liquor store, Michelle and I finally understood how Old World wines are more frequently a blend of several varietals than New World wines, and that the region of production (and sometimes even the village) is often more essential to Old World wines than varietal. This was true of Michelle's Cab Sauv, which was a blend of said varietal, Merlot and Gamay. My Pinot Noir was fairly easy to find, however (though there were about twenty Californian Pinot Noirs for every three French ones we found). Here are the wines we all ended up purchasing:

We all wrote down what we'd bought for reference purposes. Mine, as you can see, was a tiny bit more than $20 ... but Michelle's Mouton Cadet was less than $20, so it all worked out in the end. Sort of.

As there were six of us, we needed at least eighteen glasses in order to compare different wines simultaneously. We had a mismatched chorus of glasses arranged around Meg's table, which was covered in a sheet of white craft paper (which turned out to be pretty good for displaying the colour of red wine - and making notes on!). One after the other, we tried each of the six wines.

Did we figure anything out? Can we now tell which wines have more tannins, which have a lush mouthfeel, which are vegetal? I can only speak for myself, but, sadly, not yet. But I definitely feel there is something to be figured out from the comparison of flavour and colour. And we thought next time it might be a good idea to compare several bottles of the same varietal or region.

And all that waiting in the rain was worth it - Les Amis du Fromage turned out to be an amazing cheese shop, and it was stocked with many delicious-looking cheeses from around the world. And from around the sheep and goat! We must return! But meanwhile, here are some of the cheeses we chose (with help!) to pair with the various wines:

More wine and cheese, I say!

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Friday, July 13, 2007

The great "What was in my fridge on Saturday" salad

The phone call came around noon last Saturday: "So, are you going to the beach? We're just making some white bean and tuna salad and I think some watermelon juice too..." A Picnic? Yay! But wait, I don't have any food. Am I going to have to go to the grocery store, waste time in a line up on this perfect sunny day? This reluctance to make the 3-block trip to the store has lead to some of my best meals lately. There's such a thrill in thinking you can't possible make something with the few unrelated bits in the fridge, and then discovering that after a few minutes of staring into space and letting your mind run wild, you can!

On this particular day it was a ripe mango sitting on the counter + cucumber leftover from my trip to the farmer's market + half a jar of quinoa in the cupboard + thoughts of agave nectar floating around in my head ever since making white sangria a few weeks ago... Here's what it became:

Quinoa Summer Salad with Mango and Cucumber
1 cup quinoa
1/2 cup water

1 mango, diced
1/2 long English cucumber, diced
1/4 red onion, minced
1 cup shredded arugula
1 garlic scape, sliced as finely as possible

juice of 1 lime
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 1/2 tbsp agave nectar
1 serrano chile, with seeds, minced

* note: this makes a small-ish quantity – enough if it's one of many dishes at a picnic, but you may want to double it if it's more of a main dish

1. First, prepare the quinoa. Place the quinoa in a fine mesh sieve and rinse thoroughly with cold, running water. Bring water to boil in a pot, add the quinoa and salt and bring to a boil again. Cover and reduce heat to low for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest covered for 5 minutes. Strain off any excess liquid and spread the quinoa out on a try to cool.

2. Chop all of the other salad ingredients and combine with the cooled quinoa.

3. Whisk together the dressing ingredients, and pour over salad. Stir to coat.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Apple Pie + Mom = What baking's all about

There's always something a little mysterious about baking. Cooking is something you have to do every day (well, most of us do, anyway), and while that makes it no less magical, it makes it more familiar, and perhaps a little less daunting. Baking is less quotidien and more precise, involving more strictly-measured ingredients, cooking times and methods. Like a chemistry experiment. Or a magic potion (sorry, I'm on a six-book Harry Potter-thon before the final book comes out).

I lived the first years of my life in England, where I remember my mom would make pies from scratch, which is sort of a big deal now, when everyone picks up a pie from the supermarket rather than embark on the delicate and demanding journey that is pastry-making. But I think it was the pastry element that made it so magical to my little-kid eyes – the fingers-in-the-dough squishiness of it, and the delightful smell that pastry exudes – flour and richness and warmth.

I think there's a reason that we often introduce kids to the making of food through baking and not cooking. We don't usually ask kids to help us whip up a beef wellington or chop some veg for the stir-fry, but we quite happily put them in charge of doling out the chocolate chips and stirring the batter (and usually swiping some of it from the bowl with a finger!).

Back at 20 Meads Lane, in Seven Kings, Essex, England, Mom would be putting together the pie, and I would get the leftover bits that hung over the edges of the dish, the trimmed pastry that would be formed into a ball again and handed to me to do with as I wished. Frankly, you're not supposed to handle pastry too much. It's finnicky - it doesn't like your warm oily fingers, and if you work it too much it won't be as flaky as you want it to be.

But as a kid you don't care about that, you just like the tactileness of it all. We would shape the remaining pastry into little tart shells, and fill them with strawberry jam and lemon curd, which I remember being my Uncle David's favourite. I don't encounter quite so much lemon curd over here.

Good old Wiki says lemon curd is "a traditional British dessert topping and sandwich spread[!]. The basic ingredients are beaten egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and zest which are gently cooked together until thick and then allowed to cool, forming a soft, smooth, intensely flavoured spread. Some recipes also include egg whites and/or butter. In late 19th and early 20th century England, home made lemon curd was traditionally served with bread or scones at afternoon tea as an alternative to jam, and as a filling for cakes, small pastries and tarts."

I can only imagine Michelle's look of horror reading this description of several different kinds of cooked fruit. But as for lemon curd, and the little tarts I used to make, is it really that different from this? Here's 'the reveal' of the finished pie (well, the mock-reveal, in any case).

I'm so glad my Mom agreed to have another go at apple pie, just the two of us for old times' sake. We used Ina Garten's recipe, which (as you can imagine) was rich, but we think we would eschew the orange peel in the future, and just use the lemon. The combination of Crisco and butter was good, but there were perhaps too many cups of flour. We sliced lots of apples, and when I saw my mom heaping spoonful after spoonful in the pie I thought 'how is this going to work?,' but it did! It all baked down and produced a beautifully-rounded, golden-crisp apple pie.

Which we enjoyed with some vanilla ice cream and sunshine outside on the deck. Ah, the mystery that is baking.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Tacos & Guacamole...MMMmmmm!

When I was a kid, we used to make tacos from a box: hard shells with sauce from a package. I enjoyed them at the time but they are heavy and not nutritious. Since then, I have experienced the authentic flavours of real ingredients and except in moments of insanity I will never look back. Below you will find our recipe for delicious tacos and one for guacamole to be used as a topping or a dip. Enjoy!

In Vancouver, if you need a quick bite try: El Taco (Davie at Howe) which have hearty 1lb burritos and a rich deep-flavoured tortilla soup, Red Burrito (Commercial, Broadway, two on Robson) which have delicious mini tacos and your choice of salsas. If you are looking for a sit-down meal with far more choice and are willing to spend more, I would also recommend Lolita's on Davie with real ginger beer and yummy taquitos and Pepe's on Denman, they make a mean margarita. MMMMMMmmmmmmm!


Tortillas (small)
Ground beef (~500g regular or lean)
1 large onion
2-3 chipotle peppers (from a can)
Tomato, chopped
Lettuce, sliced in thin strips
Cheese, shredded (cheddar or goat or whatever
type you like/can eat)
Lime wedge, to squeeze on just before eating
Roasted red/orange peppers (under the broiler
for half an hour or so until skin blistered)
Salsa verde (from a can)
Guacamole (recipe below)
Sour cream (if desired)


1. Wrap the tortillas in foil and seal tightly.
2. Place in oven or toaster oven on 200-250F to warm through
3. When unwrapped they should be soft and pliable

Taco Meat

1. Begin sautéing the beef, then add the diced onion. Stir occasionally while cooking. If you are using regular beef, take out any excess fat that cooks out of the meat, before adding the chipotles.
2. Part way through cooking, add 2-3 chopped chipotle peppers and a tablespoon of the sauce.
3. While the meat is cooking, prepare the toppings.
4. Take one of the steamy tortillas, add meat, dress with your favourite toppings, roll up the bottom and sides and Enjoy!


2 ripe avocados
1 tomato, diced
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, freshly chopped
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 - 3/4teaspoon salt, to taste
2 cloves garlic, chopped

1. With a fork, mash the avocados in a bowl
2. Add all other ingredients and stir to combine
3. Taste to check salt, add more if necessary
4. If guacamole is not spreadable enough, add more lime juice and stir to desired consistency

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Where can you find the best dumplings in a city overrun with dumplings? Black Tuna!

Black Tuna is where we end up whenever it's a perfect sunny evening in the West End and we want a patio with a view of the beach and food that's 100 times better than Milestones (there was a whole crowd lined up there as we walked by after our delicious Black Tuna meal – what's going on?). We never seem to go to Black Tuna in the winter, but all year long I dream of their dumplings. They're just so cool! The spinach ones have actual spinach in the dough (above, mmmm) and the asparagus ones have a big stick of asparagus sticking out either end. And they're packed with fresh ginger, which is all I need to be happy.

Everything else at Black Tuna is wonderful too – all beautifully presented, fresh and simple, with tasty tasty sauces. Here's what we had last night:

Mackerel in spicy miso sauce
Every time we've been, they bring us this mackerel, with crispy skin and tangy sauce, "compliments of the chef." I guess that's their thing – I'm sure we're not special – but I've never really had much mackerel before and I love this mackerel.

Tuna tataki with ponzu
This tuna is so good, tender and creamy in the middle, lightly seared on the edges, drenched in citrusy ponzu.

Hot night roll with Thai peanut sauce
I'm not always a fan of crazy fusion "chef's special" sushi rolls, but come on, when it's called "Hot Night" how could anyone resist it? It has prawn tempura and crab inside, and tuna on top (the best part).

Sea bass with miso sauce
There are a few different sea bass dishes on the menu, with different sauces, and we seem to order one or another every time. They're all delicious, but this miso sauce especially inspires me to get cooking fish at home – that tub of miso shouldn't languish in the back of my fridge waiting for me to crave miso soup when I could be making something like this!

So, go eat at Black Tuna, and then go lie in the sun feeling lucky to have had such a great meal and to live in such a perfect city:

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