Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Finally, lamb with za'atar!

So, you may or may not have noticed, but we have a little list in the right column (waaaay down) titled Coming Soon to Wednesday Dinners! Which is great, except that soon hasn't really meant soon, so far. But last Wednesday, we finally fulfilled one of these promises and made lamb with a za'atar spice rub. Za'atar is a (Middle-Eastern) mix of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac, which we tossed with big chunks of lamb and a few splashes of olive oil, before threading the lamb chunks on skewers and broiling them. We ate these with a warm salad of chickpeas, yams, red peppers and portabello mushrooms, with a mint-orange-spice vinaigrette. Recipes for both follow, so you can try this easy-but-tasty, warm, and exotic meal on a Wednesday of your own.

Lamb with Za'atar Spice Rub
Serves 4

This is one of those recipes I first made years ago, whose origin I really can't remember. I have a hunch that it was one of the many things I picked up from a customer while working at South China Seas in the Granville Island market. Regulars were always coming in to say "I made the most amazing thing with lamb last night..." while buying more sumac, or sesame seeds. This is one of the reasons I abandoned vegetarianism, because I just had to try every single thing they raved about.

1/4 cup dried thyme (this used up my entire supply of thyme, but it was worth it!)
2 tbsp sumac
1 tbsp sesame seeds (we used raw, but some recipes I've seen call for toasted – experiment and see what you like best)
1/4 tsp sea salt

Cubed fresh lamb, enough to fill 8 skewers

1/4 cup olive oil

1. Mix the spices together, using a mortar and pestle if you have one. What tool you'll use will depend on how finely you'd like them ground. You can see from the photo above that ours were combined but still mostly whole. I've seen others recommend using a spice grinder to make the za'atar into a fine powder. So, once again, here's a chance to experiment and see what texture you prefer. I've found that I enjoy the unusual texture that the whole sesame seeds and thyme leaves provide, but now that I think about it, I'd like to try the powder version of this as well, to see if it melds the flavours in a different way. Anyways, moving on...

2. Toss the lamb chunks with the olive oil in a large bowl or container. Sprinkle on the za'atar and stir to coat. At this point, you can let it sit and marinate for a while if you like. Or, if you're in a hurry, go ahead and get it on to the skewers!

3. Thread lamb chunks onto skewers (if you're good, you'll remember to soak them in water first to avoid burnt wood – we weren't and all was still well) and place them on a broiling pan or cookie sheet. Broil for about 10 minutes or so (5 minutes on one side, flip over, 3-5 minutes on the second side). We enjoyed our lamb medium-rare – if you like it more well-done just leave it in there longer.
Alisha working magic with the mortar and pestle; the lamb as it comes out of the oven.
Warm Yam and Chickpea Salad with Orange-Spice Vinaigrette
My mom and I made this up a few weeks ago when I was visiting Victoria and we wanted something yummy to go with our spring minestrone. Since then, both her and I have made it again, so it's a keeper!

3 med-large yams, peeled and cut into large dice
1 red pepper, cut into large dice
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp salt

2 portabello mushrooms, stems removed
olive oil, salt, and pepper

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tbsp olive oil (whoa, is there enough olive oil in this recipe yet? More to come...)

1/3 red onion, minced
a large bunch of mint leaves, minced

juice of one orange
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp honey
1/3 – 1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp ras-el-hanout spice mixture*
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
salt and pepper to taste

* The ras-el-hanout I used was made by Salt Spring Island's Monsoon Coast and contains a mix of “aromatics such as mace, allspice, cardomom, cinnamon and nutmeg with three pungent peppers and the flowers of rose, lavender and Spanish saffron.” Yum!

1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees F. Pour olive oil and salt on a cookie sheet and place in hot oven for a couple of minutes. Remove from oven and toss yam and red pepper pieces in the pan to coat with oil. Roast for 30–45 minutes, stirring a few times, until the yams are soft in the centre and a tiny bit crispy on the outside. Try to use the biggest pan you have – if the veggies are crowded on the pan, they'll steam rather than roasting.

2. Once you get the yams and peppers in the oven, you can prep the mushrooms and put them in to roast at the same time. Place the whole mushroom caps upside down on a baking pan. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle on a bit of salt and pepper. Roast until they're tender and juicy (about 20 minutes).

3. Warm 1 tbsp of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add chick peas and toss to coat. Cook for 5-10 minutes, just until the chickpeas are warmed and softened a bit.

4. Whisk together dressing ingredients. Combine onions, mint, roasted veggies, and chick peas in a large bowl and pour dressing over. Stir well to coat. Eat warm.

Michelle dicing many many yams; the just-roasted veggies; Laura working on the dressing.

Time to hit the couch! Mmmmm.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Happy 100th Post to Us!

Hooray! You are currently reading the 100th WeDine post! What a milestone to have achieved together. Are you as happy as we are? Are you jumping up and down and dreaming of culinary adventures to come? We're so excited to have come this far in our blogging and in our cooking.

For two years, we've been sharing our love of food with you, and we're happy to say we're not going to stop now. On WeDine, we've documented our weekly Wednesday Dinners, where we meet, shop and then cook together (either having planned or spontaneously thought up the meal). We've also documented our other food experiences: home cooking, holiday food, restaurant trips, cookbook reviews, picnics, potlucks, cheese- and wine-tastings. Just thinking about all those flavours, we can't wait to make our next meal.

The WeDine 100 Challenge

Now that we've gained some experience in the kitchen, we are setting ourselves a new challenge to celebrate our 100th WeDine post! The challenge will be to try one hundred new things: new foods, new ingredients, new restaurants, new combinations, new techniques: it could be anything. The only criteria is that we haven't tried it before. We'll be your food explorers, bravely charting new territories, and reporting back here.

Keep track of our adventures by checking out our 100 Challenge List on the right-hand column, and watch it grow. If there's anything you'd love to see us try, leave us a note in the comments.

Good Cooking, Good Eating!
Yours in the kitchen,

Michelle, Meg, Alisha & Laura.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008


c5 (little c, big 5) is the new(ish) swish restaurant on the top floor of the extension to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Or just 'The Crystal' as it's called by most. c5 stands for 'Crystal Five,' as the restaurant is located at the top, on the fifth floor. Visit their website here. I think it gives a pretty good idea of their philosophy and look. Ben and I were intrigued by the space (and of course, the possibility of cuisine) on a previous visit, and so I resolved to take him there for his birthday. What a good sister I am!

Everything about the decor and feel of the restaurant said cutting edge and arty, which I suppose is appropriate for the newly redesigned ROM. Cooking at c5 is Ted Corrado, a youngish guy whom I'd heard a little of, mainly in connection with Rain, a restaurant on King Street that I used to walk past all the time (though sadly, never dined at) and that featured on the Food Network show Made to Order.

The Crystal really is impressive. Daniel Libeskind, the 'starchitect' who designed it, was apparently inspired to create its shape when viewing the mineral and gem collection of the ROM whilst there for a family wedding.

Liebskind scribbled his ideas for the extension on a napkin which the museum displayed while the project was still in the bidding phase – the public got to vote for their favourite. Having looked at his other work, however, I find the buildings (the Jewish Museum in Berlin, for example, or the Imperial War Museum in Manchester) remarkably similar to each other, which feels a little disappointing in terms of site-specific and institution-specific requirements. Ah well. It is a lovely space to eat in. Here's Ben and his first course, grilled octopus with garbanzo bean (chickpea) and black olive relish. It was delicious, not chewy at all, and extremely flavourful.

My first course was a charcuterie plate, featuring (from top left, clockwise) a foie 'bon-bon,' Berkshire pork pate, Niagara sopresata (sausage), cured trout, and a selection of olives, marinated tomatoes, brioche and melon. The plate was massive, and impressive, and the little savoury bites of the charcuterie were delightful.

My main was a duo (confit of leg and breast) of poussin (a very young chicken). That's a cilantro emulsion daubed in the middle of the two. Some of you may know that cilantro's my favourite herb ever, so that was an added bonus. The leg is resting gently on some shaved heirloom beets. And is that a little cilantro I see peeking out from between the two? Fantastic. Look at the sheer expanse and polished whiteness of that plate.

This is Ben's tower of strip loin, which was as tasty as it looks. Love that mash! He very nicely let me try some of his fig, too, which was sweet (of Ben, not the fig), as there wasn't that much to go around, as you can see. The beef was local, and came from the Cumbrae Farms group, whose website and gallery I found really interesting. I wonder whether it was the wagyu cattle or the red angus? It's great that the menu specified the origin of the beef (and of many other things – portions of my charcuterie, for example), a practice much more common these days.

For dessert, I chose a selection of violet-themed sweets (see photo in my previous entry) including a tiny cheesecake and a canelle of violet ice cream. Ben had a chocolate cake with blueberries and a tiny roll of ice cream you can just see on the top right of his dish.

c5 was a fantastic experience, all elements considered. The food was superb, and beautifully presented. The space was intriguing. Service was amazing, as one would expect, both unobtrusive and attentive. There was a line of servers by the pass, carefully watching to see whether their particular diners needed anything. Ben spotted various celebs (well, Canadian celebs, anyway) and one man sporting an Order of Canada pinned to his chest. I suppose if I had an Order of Canada, I'd wear it out to c5 too!

Here we are, post-dinner. Don't we look like we had a great time? Thanks for accompanying me, Ben – and Happy Birthday again!

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Roast Dinner on a Wednesday

This past Wednesday it was my turn to suggest something for dinner, and so I put two options to the other WeDine members, one of which was a whole roast chicken. And it was that option which was very clearly the winner, as all expressed a unanimous wish to eat roast chicken that very night! In another moment of food serendipity, Meg had been planning to make a roast chicken that weekend anyway, so it all worked out well.

We thought Donna Hay might be just the person to help us out with such a dinner classic, and so she was. She advised us to cook our (approximately) three-pound organic bird for (approximately) an hour. We cleaned and dried it, and prepared the caramelized onion stuffing that called for four white onions, sliced into rings and sauteed in butter till brown, three to four cups of breadcrumbs (we found we didn't need all of that), and a teaspoon or two of herbs. I think she called for dried, but we only had fresh thyme.

We stuffed all this into various cavities in the bird. It must be said, our knowledge of both chicken anatomy and disassemblage could do with a little refresher. Certainly a little course in how to bone a chicken would be useful. Having stuffed the chicken, we tied it up with a little kitchen (read: all-purpose) twine, placed it on the rack (conveniently acquired some Thanksgiving ago) and patted it down with some butter and salt. We cut a few roasting potatoes in half, judiciously applied a little olive oil and butter, and scattered them around the pan. They turned out really well, with very little effort, which is always pleasing!

The whole endeavour took a couple of hours, but not concentrated hours. The cooking time for the bird took about one and a quarter of those two hours. We tested the thigh with the meat thermometre at about an hour, but it needed a bit more time, so we reintroduced it to the oven. Meanwhile, we had put sliced carrots and brussels sprouts on to steam, and when they were done, we may have combined the carrots with some butter and sliced toasted almonds. Amandine!

The meal's elements were delicious together and the chicken cooked well and was really moist (even without the 2 cups of stock Donna recommends you pour into the bottom of the pan for a moister chicken. We forewent the stock in favour of a crispier skin). The stuffing didn't come together well – it wasn't meant to be moist, I suppose, but I feel we missed something there. Should it have been holding together? Perhaps readers have suggestions.

But overall it was fantastic! A great roast dinner for a Wednesday dinner.

Happy St. Patrick's Day everybody!

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Appetizer for a classy karaoke party

Can you call a karaoke party classy even if it involves a plastic Hannah Montana microphone and tequila shots? I'd like to argue yes, since this particular one also offered panko and pistachio crusted salmon, perfectly cooked asparagus and green beans, and cake served with berries and a lake of butterscotch sauce. My contribution to all this was an improvised kind of pizza, the result of having leftover fresh corn tortillas in the fridge and wanting something both easy to eat with one hand and tasty paired with the aforementioned tequila. Here it is:

Mini Mexican Pizzas
[inspired by the Pizza Verde recipe in the Rebar cookbook]
30 small corn tortillas (about 4" in diameter)
1 recipe Rebar cilantro pesto (see below)
1 lb oyster mushrooms
1 tbs olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
3 poblano chilis
handful of cherry tomatoes, diced
3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
salsa verde, to garnish (I often buy this canned – the Embassa brand is good)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Brush both sides of tortillas lightly with olive oil. Lay out on a cookie sheet (working in batches) and bake for about 5 minutes per side, or until golden and crispy. Set aside to cool. [Note: this step can be completed up to a day ahead of time. Store in an airtight bag or container until ready to use.]

2. Roast poblano peppers – placing the whole peppers directly on the oven rack – in a 350 degree oven for 15–20 minutes. This can be done at the same time as you bake the tortillas. Turn the peppers with tongs as they cook, until they are somewhat blackened on all sides. Remove and place in an airtight container or plastic bag. Let rest for at least 15 minutes, then peel skin off, discard seeds, and chop the peppers into smallish strips.

3. Slice the oyster mushrooms into bite-sized pieces (the smaller ones can be left whole, larger ones should be halved or quartered). Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-hight heat. Saute mushrooms for several minutes, then add the garlic and cook until mushrooms are soft and tasty. Deglaze the pan with the balsamic vinegar, cook until it evaporates, and season lightly with salt and pepper.

4. Just before serving, assemble the pizzas. Recruit a friend to help, so it's super quick and easy (thanks Alisha!). Spread each pizza with pesto, then scatter on pepper strips, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes, and top with feta. Bake in 350 degree oven for about 5 minutes, or until feta is slightly melty and everything is warmed. When serving, drizzle a bit of salsa verde on each pizza, or provide it in a dish for people to self-administer.

5. Eat repeatedly until you have enough energy to sing “Billie Jean” really badly while pretending to be a teen sensation.

Cilantro Pesto
[adapted slightly from the Rebar cookbook]
2 bunches cilantro, washed well and spun out in a salad spinner, thick stems removed
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1 jalepeno pepper, including seeds
2 garlic cloves
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1/4 cup grated romano cheese (could also use asiago or parmesan)
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup olive oil

Combine all ingredients except olive oil in a food processor and process for a minute or two, then slowly pour in olive oil with motor running. Process until it's smooth enough to spread on pizza.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Trip to Maple Bay, Day Two, Part One

Breakfast on Saturday: Fruity Pancakes and Bacon

The bright fall sunshine filtered into the rooms of the cabin at Maple Bay the following morning, finding us all variously sprawled out asleep, and eventually bringing us into wakefulness (some of us more quickly than others!). However, we had all chosen one meal each to be responsible for, and as the first watch was mine (that is, breakfast on Saturday), I had to be a bit more alert than I usually am on a Saturday morning.
As you can tell from this picture!

Hmm. Not exactly at my best first thing. But I quickly got into the spirit of things, whipping up two batches of pancake batter (one made with soy milk, of course, for those-to-whom-dairy-is-not-a-friend, and one with regular cow's milk). I used the lovely graphic green measuring spoons shown in the first picture, and those plastic pouring bowls also proved their worth in all our cooking. It was a well-equipped kitchen!

Then, of course, each batch (dairy and soy) had to be separated again into different flavours – I made various combinations of strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, banana and chocolate chip. That was a lot of pancake to keep track of!

The two cast-iron skillets at the cabin were fantastic. I've never owned a cast-iron pan before, but I can see why people do – the heat distribution was amazing, and the pancakes cooked so quickly (though the whole endeavour was quite a lengthy process – Alisha and Raisa found time for a walk to the beach before breakfast as all those pancakes accumulated!). Apparently they last for ages. And they're heavy! Good against intruders!

Raisa came through and constructed several essential cups of coffee in a pot on that free back burner while I kept the already-cooked pancakes in a warming oven until the first meal of the day was ready. Finally! A glug of syrup and a smattering of bacon (mm) completed the meal.

What was next? Well, after that fairly filling (!) breakfast we went for a little wander in the car to Duncan, as we'd heard about a farmers' market in town. Let me tell you these display baskets (and possibly, the matching gingham tablecloth and napkins) were what first attracted me to the lovely large bulbs of garlic contained within. They were deliciously fragrant. I bought two, which I later roasted whilst happily thinking of the cabin weekend.

But what kept me at that table was the cutest baby ever:

We had driven past a sign for a community garage sale on the way to the farmers' market, and thought we'd check it out. It turned out to be the largest rummage sale I'd ever seen, held in an elementary school – there were things for sale in the parking lot, things for sale in the gym, things for sale in the classrooms. It was massive! Some very nice guys were barbequeing hotdogs outside in the lot, but we were all still extremely full from breakfast, so we couldn't manage any! Plus there may have been some side frying in margarine. I'm a little unsure about margarine.

Inside the gymnasium, Michelle and I took part in a jellybean counting contest. Sadly, I must report that our jellybean-estimation skills were off, and neither of us won. The sale was amazing, though. We all won there: we found some extremely well-priced books, records, a magazine rack (5 cents! Marked down from 10!), some doilies and figurines, fabric and magazines. Food-related items that were purchased included a 5 cent cheese knife and an early James Barber cookbook that advocates a relaxing bath and a glass of alcohol in the midst of fixing a meal. That's our kind of cook!

Lunch on Saturday: Salad Rolls

Hence, upon arriving back at the cabin in time for lunch, Michelle opened a few bottles of Strongbow whilst Raisa and Meg pored over some shoes in a newly-acquired edition of the Globe & Mail. Raisa didn't tarry long, though, as she had lunch to make – some delicious salad rolls.

I don't think we've really discussed salad rolls at length before on WeDine, although apparently we did make them on June 21st, 2006, along with some lettuce wraps and spanakopita. What a meal that must have been! They are a delicious combination of (usually cold) ingredients, wrapped in a sheet of rice wrap and dipped into a savoury sauce. Here are some of the ingredients Raisa prepared: some cucumber, mango, cilantro (mm!) and cooked chicken.

Meanwhile, while Raisa was on lunch-watch, various activities took place. Alisha and Michelle drank some Strongbow and started on the crossword. Don't they look earnest?

Meg and I took our Strongbows down to the beachfront (which Alisha and Raisa had visited during my making of breakfast). Here I am, paddling happily with Strongbow in hand. James Barber would approve!

And here is Meg, who, having finished her Strongbow, found the courage to swing on this too-short length of rope that must have frayed at some point. Impressive!

Back at the cabin, I helped Raisa assemble some salad rolls. By this point she had cooked the vermicelli noodles and started soaking the rice wrappers, and assembly could begin. The wrappers (and the noodles) only take a little time to cook, making this whole meal fairly easy and quick to make.

What takes a little more time to make are the dipping sauces, of course. Raisa made two, a chili lime sauce and a peanut sauce, which were absolutely delicious. I may have swirled them together a little on my plate so that they formed one ultra-delicious sauce. Heathen! Here they look very pretty and separate.

And here is Raisa with the finished rolls! Don't they look fantastic? She also provided a lovely wine, a 2006 Australian traminer/riesling from New South Wales. Great accompaniment to salad rolls, I think. Though you may know by now that I have a distinct preference for fruity or sweeter white wines, so that's not as unbiased a response as it could be!

Phew! That's breakfast and lunch on Day Two. So, more to come in Part Two of Day Two! It's a journey in itself going through the meals we made at the cabin, but it's fantastic to relive the memories. I mean, don't you want to know what we are doing in this picture? I know I do!

Lots more to come, including delicious lamb and chocolate cake for dinner! Stay tuned.

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