Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Pizza to Remember

Direct from a long day spent in a canoe, Meg's sister, Tessa joined us at this week's Wednesday Dinner as our special guest.

We were all starving and had little energy to make an elaborate meal. We decided on healthy but quick pizzas made from available ingredients. Pizza worked out well as we had some additional dietary restrictions to creatively adapt to.

As a kid, I was introduced to english muffin pizzas - I thought these were my mother's ingenious invention - and I realized one food could be repurposed, transformed into something altogether different. I would never have connected the salty flavour of an english muffin with butter or peanut butter to the sweet, cheesy english muffin pizza. With all our experiences now at Wednesday Dinners, it's amazing one of my food epiphanies came from an english muffin.

*an aside*All those commercials claiming frozen pizza in a box can be mistaken for authentic pizzeria fare will only fool those who have never made their own pizza from scratch or those who have never made their own pizza from everyday ingredients. As long as we move past these frozen fake flavours into the the wonderful world of homemade pizza, we will all be okay.

Now on with our fabulous pizzas.

We chose to start with a greek pita base - these are the pocketless pitas, more of a thick flatbread. Naan was considered but was overruled due to too many competing flavours.

A sauce, we went non-traditional and made a basil pesto with toasted hazelnuts (as the store was pine-nut deficient). Coarsely blend two bunches of basil, 3 cloves of garlic with enough olive oil to make a paste, follow by a turn with the toasted (peeled) hazelnuts in the mortar and pestle. Pestle until the mixture is spreadable.

Toppings - you can never have too many and the beauty is, this gives options to everyone especially when people have dietary challenges. We chose a sundried tomato & herb turkey sausage (made in store - cut into bite size pieces and cooked at home), goat cheese, and vegetables - portabello mushrooms, zucchini, red onion, orange pepper (which were roasted in the oven for 40 min) and a fresh sliced tomato.

Everyone assembled their own dream pizza and we introduced them to a hot oven for a melding of flavours, crisping of pita and melting of cheese.

This is the best kind of pizza next to the from-scratch version. The possibilities for experiments are endless from basics - anchovies, artichokes, chiles, beans - to decadence - truffles, pine mushrooms, and kobe beef.

This meal is probably one of few places where can you feed 5 ravenous women for $40.

We were so ravenous in fact, we forgot to take a picture until eating was underway.

Let the experimenting begin!!!

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

My favourite food moments in children's literature

In a truly self-indulgent series of posts, I'm combining two of my favourite things in life: food and children's literature. I was recently thinking about one of my favourite foodie scenes in a Roald Dahl book (Fantastic Mr Fox) and I realized that food in children's books is all about adventure. It always leads somewhere exciting. What a lovely way to think of food.

So, without further ado, I present the first in a series of my top ten setting-off-on-an-adventure food moments in children's literature. Some are lengthy (sorry!), whilst some are just a little indicator of the magic of the book.

10. Grimble by Clement Freud

Grimble, a sort of obscure book (now out of print) originally from 1968 (I have the 1974 Puffin edition), is a children's book almost entirely about food. It is hilarious, as you can possibly tell from the above illustration (I think I may have done that to a pot once or twice!). The author, Clement Freud, is a well-known British radio personality and former MP, now known for his appearances on the BBC radio program 'Just a Minute,' and is the grandson of Sigmund Freud and the brother of Lucien Freud, the famous artist. Pretty impressive! The 1974 edition of Grimble is illustrated by the amazing Quentin Blake, whom most people associate with Roald Dahl's books.

The story of Grimble is a strange one: Grimble's delinquent and distracted parents have flown to Peru, leaving him to fend for himself for a week with an oven-full of sandwiches. Unfortunately, he melts the sandwiches together into a runny puddle on the first day, and thus has to go through a list left to him by his parents of emergency contacts, all of whom seem not to be home, but have left notes on various foods he can make himself. Thus begin Grimble's food adventures:

"This is a story about a boy called Grimble who was about ten. You may think it is silly to say someone is about ten, but Grimble had rather odd parents, who were very vague and seldom got anything completely right.

For instance, he did not have his birthday on a fixed day like other children: every now and then his father and mother would buy a cake, put some candles on top of it, and say, 'Congratulations Grimble. Today you are about seven,' or, 'Yesterday you were about eight and a half but the cake shop was closed.' Of course there were disadvantages to having parents like that – like being called Grimble which made everyone say, 'What is your real name?' and he had to say, 'My real name is Grimble.'

Grimble's father was something to do with going away, and his mother was a housewife by profession who liked to be with her husband whenever possible. Grimble went to school. Usually, when he left home in the morning, his parents were still asleep and there would be a note at the bottom of the stairs saying, enclosed please find ten p. for your breakfast. As 10p is not very nourishing he used to take the money to a shop and get a glass of ginger beer, some broken pieces of meringue and a slice of streaky bacon. And at school he got lunch; that was the orderly part of his life. Shepherd's pie or sausages and mashed potatoes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; and on Fridays, fish fingers. This was followed by chocolate spodge – which is a mixture between chocolate sponge and chocolate sludge, and does not taste of anything very much except custard – which the school cook poured over everything."

Eventually Grimble learns to cook all manner of foods, from Jamaican coconut tart to mayonnaise to trifle, from all manner of instructions – a railway signal book ("He opened The Signalman's Manual and looked under C, and it had a chapter on couplings, and one on coal for engines, and a long one on clockwork, and right at the bottom of the page there was a little heading Chocolate Sauce. He was really very lucky"); green ink on squashed-fly biscuit; and an army manual about eggs.

The book's eclectic characters, interesting descriptions of food and cookery ("He looked in the book under T. There were seven pages about tapioca and then a chapter on trifles. 'This is a good thing to eat,' said the book. 'My trifle is a mixture of fruit and cream and cake and jam and jelly and sugar and almonds and if you like custard, custard'") and general oddness make it very endearing.

A little of the wit of the book comes through in the back and front covers of the '74 edition:

I would heartily recommend Grimble (check it out on Amazon), and Grimble's various attempts to cook come in as number ten on my list of favourite food moments in children's literature! Nine more to come soon. Can you guess what they might be? Do share your own!

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Challenge 100: Oregano Pesto, or how to make the best prawns ever

This post has been burning a hole in my pocket for two whole weeks now. It was one of those meals that I wanted to post about as I was eating it, because I just couldn't believe how good it was. There I was sitting alone on the couch, saying “Oh my god, this is the best meal I've ever made” and no one was there to listen. Or take a bite and agree with me.

I can't take all the credit for its invention though. I was having one of my let‘s see what I can pull together from the fridge/cupboard/freezer moments, while talking to my brilliant sister. Pulling some fresh oregano out of the fridge, I asked her, “If you were making pesto with oregano, what would you put in it?” After a short discussion of nut-herb pairings (I only had pecans on hand, so that decision was easy) she said, “mexican spices – corriander, cumin, even some cinnamon!” Yes! So that's what I did. And it was freakin' amazing.

Oregano pesto
2 cloves garlic
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 dried chile
1 tbsp whole cumin seeds
1 tbsp whole corriander seeds
1/2 cup pecans
1/2 cup fresh oregano leaves
1/4 tsp salt
olive oil
1 tbsp brown sugar
Toast the whole spices in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant.

Throw everything (except the olive oil) together in the mortar and pestle, and mash it around until everything is well mixed and in smallish pieces. Drizzle in olive oil and continue to mix until it's the texture you like – I wanted it just mixed enough to coat prawns nicely, but still with some chunks for texture. The mortar and pestle is great for giving you control over the texture, but if you don't have one, a blender or food processor would work of course.

When I first tasted the pesto, it was a bit bitter, so that's where the brown sugar came in.

After making the pesto, I tossed the prawns with it until coated...

And then grilled them for a few minutes on each side. I have a Paderno grill pan that sits over two burners on the stove, and I absolutely love it. It's so easy and perfect for achieving that yummy grilled flavour sans patio or backyard. Aren't they beautiful?

So, you might have noticed that the pesto was missing cheese. The cheese wasn't really absent, it just found its way into the salad dressing instead. I wanted to serve the prawns atop greens, with feta, but wanted to do something different than my usual homemade salad dressing (some variation on a vinaigrette). I thought maybe a creamy feta dressing would meld everything together better and go well with the vaguely mexican flavour of the prawns. I threw the feta in the blender with shallots, white wine vinegar, a little honey, and water to thin it. It was great – creamy, but light and tangy. A perfect counterpoint to the spicy, complex taste of the pesto prawns.

Someday soon I'll try this dressing again and come up with a proper recipe for it. For now, experiment away! I'm telling ya, experimenting in the kitchen is so worth it. Look at the rewards! I probably would never have thought up this meal if it wasn't for this combination of ingredients showing up in my almost-bare kitchen at the same time, on a night when I was open to any and all possibilities. And it was so unbelievably good. Next time I make it, I'll be sure to repeat my drink pairing from that night as well – pomegranate juice and el jimador tequila. Even if you're eating alone on the couch, that one's sure to make you happy, I think.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wednesday at Home with Eggy Italian Salad

Last Wednesday, Jamie Oliver told us not to use factory-farmed eggs in our salad, so we heeded his advice and headed to Choices Market to pick up some free-range, organic eggs to go in the salad we were planning for dinner. I am quite enjoying Jamie's new cookbook (thank you, Michelle!) Jamie at Home. His most recent book, it chronicles a year in the life of his new home and garden in an Essex village, and his forays into planting and growing and rearing and collecting and cooking his own food – things like rhubarb and peas and eggs, of course.

The book is beautifully designed and illustrated, and is meant to emulate a journal (presumably kept by Jamie) with woodcut-style prints and handwritten text. These are mixed with lovely sunshiny photos and set type (woodtype-style, of course). The book is seasonal, and (luckily) starts with spring, so I consulted the four sections in spring – rhubarb, eggs, lamb and asparagus – and decided on a recipe involving eggs.

That's where I read about factory farming (and saw the corresponding episode on the television version of Jamie at Home) and decided to spend a little more on free-range eggs. In the episode, Jamie rescues some of the limp-looking chickens from a factory farm, bringing them to his little garden in Essex to live out their egg-laying days. It looks quite lovely there, and he has a full-time gardener (it's not that small a garden) who teaches him (and us) about planting and growing. The garden's high brick wall reminds me of my dad's when he used to live in Ongar, Essex (northeast of London). I used to climb that wall and survey the garden below, though I must admit it was a delightfully overgrown tangle, with not a chicken in sight.

The eggy contribution to the salad was a few thin crepes that were made simply, by whisking four eggs with a little water, and then spooning a quarter of the mixture into an 8- or 9-inch pan, swirling it around, and cooking for about a minute. They were set aside and covered with foil, but right before the salad-assembly, were cut into strips about a half-inch wide:

The salad was assembled thusly: on each plate, about 200 grams of prosciutto (it was meant to be bresaola, strips of thinly-sliced salted air-dried beef, but we didn't have time to visit a specialty shop where bresaola would be sold) were carefully arranged by Alisha. She had also sliced little crescent moons of fennel, which were immersed in ice water, and reserved the tops of the fennel.

The salad leaves (watercress, arugula and radicchio) had been cleaned, dried and chopped (where necessary) by Michelle, and mixed with the sliced fennel, a handful or so of grated romano cheese (substituted for parmesan), about six tablespoons of olive oil and lemon juice and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, Meg was putting together a garlicky loaf of bread for the oven, and I was making those egg crepes. The salad mixture was tossed and then arranged on the prosciutto, and topped with the egg strips, reserved fennel tops and some shavings of romano.

The salad was nothing if not flavourful, considering it had the peppery leaves of arugula, the salty prosciutto and the sharp romano, so I think the egg strips were a great addition to a salad that's fairly traditional in Italy (bresaola, arugula, parmesan) – to act as a sort of buffer, or a resting place for the palette. The ingredients combined really well, and I would certainly make this salad again, particularly in spring or summer.

We also had the garlic bread, of course, so by the end of the evening we were all breathing fire, and luckily Meg had a (little) antidote:

A mangosteen! There may have been only the one, but we divvied up its little sections and tried to identify its slightly unusual flavour. Its meat is white, and has the texture of a slightly more gelatinous lychee, and the flavour ... well, I'm still trying to pin it down. It was certainly fragrant! I shall have to try a few more to be sure. Hey, since I've never had a mangosteen before, does it count as a new thing for the 100 Challenge?

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Challenge 100: Rice Pudding!

The first new thing that I tried for the '100 Challenge' (see our hundredth post) was a simple concoction, but a much-needed one at the time: rice pudding!

It was comfort food when I made it, without a doubt – to comfort me against the fact that (ironically) I'd been consuming some not-very-nutritionally-sound foods that day. When I first thought of it, I remembered the swaddling soothingness of rice pudding being made for me ages ago. I thought I'd had it in England at some point, along with things like bread-and-butter pudding or treacle tart, but my mom told me that my bubbie (my mother's mother) quite liked to make it too, so perhaps that's where I first had it.

But I'd never made it for myself, so I consulted Bittman and his How to Cook Everything, always a good starting-point when looking for a basic recipe. Here is what he told me to do:

Rice Pudding

take 2 cups of water and bring it to a boil in a medium saucepan
stir in 1 cup of long- or short-grain rice (I used basmati, having it to hand)
and a dash of salt

cover and cook over low heat until almost all water is absorbed (~20 minutes)

uncover, pour in 2 cups milk (could easily be soy or almond or lactose-free) and cook, stirring until half the milk is absorbed
stir in 3/4 cup of sugar (or more to taste – I found it sufficient)
and continue to cook until the milk is absorbed and the rice soft

At the end of cooking, feel free to add any flavourings you prefer. My mom told me that my Bubbie liked cinnamon (or possibly nutmeg), but I added cardamom, one of my favourite spices.

Bittman suggests that you could add raisins or snipped dates, figs or other dried fruit (about halfway through cooking); use coconut milk instead of some or all of the milk (that sounds good!); add vanilla or orange blossom or rose water at end of cooking; finish with as you would a creme brulee, with a burnt crust of sugar (hmm...); add one teaspoon of minced lemon or orange zest in place of spices (tasty!); or garnish with a sprinkling of toasted sliced almonds or other nuts.

Mine was fairly plain in comparison, but delightful. That cardamom was perfect, and the whole concoction was supremely comforting.

I found out rice pudding has a variant in almost every country – there's the Chinese Babao fan (Eight treasure rice pudding), the black rice puddings of Thailand and Malaysia, Champorado in the Philippines (chocolate rice pudding!), Indian kheer, Pakistani firni (with cardamom and pistachio!), Persian shola-e-zard with saffron, arroz con leche finished with condensed milk from Spain and Latin America, budino di riso from Italy (with raisins and orange peel) and riisipuuro from Finland, often served with cinnamon or berries and served at Christmas with one whole almond in it. Whoever gets the almond is supposed to have good luck all year.

In England rice pudding is both loved and reviled – sometimes being seen as stodgy and traditional 'nursery food.' A.A. Milne wrote a poem about a little heroine, Mary Jane, who begins to throw tantrums after being repeatedly served the pudding for lunch, and Dickens wrote about being subjected to boiled mutton and rice pudding. But I had no previous dreadful experiences to associate it with, and found it very tasty and soothing. There was quite a lot of it, though, and despite the fact that it keeps for a few days in the fridge, I'd make a half-batch, unless you have a willing audience to share it with (Michelle's not a fan of rice pudding, I found out!).

Next time I may try all sorts of different flavourings. Apparently they put maple syrup in it in Vermont. To complete my musings about rice pudding, I include the following extract from one of my favourite plays, Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. It's set in 1809 and the present day, and in 1809, Thomasina is a teenage mathematical genius, coming up with ideas about chaos theory far ahead of her time, and talking about them with her tutor, Septimus:

Thomasina: When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you need stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this odd?

Septimus: No.

Thomasina: Well, I do. You cannot stir things apart.

Septimus: No more you can, time must needs run backward, and since it will not, we must stir our way onward mixing as we go, disorder out of disorder into disorder until pink is complete, unchanging and unchangeable, and we are done with it for ever. This is known as free will or self-determination.

Ah, the universe as seen in the microcosm of rice pudding!

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Friday, April 04, 2008

A Trip to Maple Bay, Day Two, Part Two

What to do after a delicious lunch made by Raisa's own fair hands (see post for the first part of day two here), and a couple of glasses of that Australian traminer/riesling (mm!) on a sunny autumn Saturday afternoon?

What to do? Why, swing on the cabin's hammock, of course:

That's the best kind of ruminative rumination – relaxing on a hammock. So far, two largish meals were happily weighing us down. Of course, we had to help that digestion along after a while, so we set off for the beach, pulling the kayak and portaging the canoe (every Canadian must portage at least once in their lifetime. It's the law) to the bay. We arrived, donned lifejackets, and had a great afternoon on the water.

It occurs to me at this point that perhaps some of you might want to know where we were on this lovely day, and that some of you might not know where Maple Bay is at all. So here's a little map of the spot, Vancouver Island on the left, the mainland and Vancouver on the right, and our journey marked with a dotted line. We left from Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver. When we were on the water I didn't know at the time that heading off from the bay in the canoe was taking us in the direction of Salt Spring Island. I wonder how long the journey would've been?

Thankfully all that paddling (though not all the way to Salt Spring!) added up to increased appetites, which was perfect, considering what Meg had in store for us.

Dinner on Saturday: Frenched lamb chops with a cilantro and sundried tomato pesto, glazed potatoes, and a cucumber, avocado and heirloom tomato salad. And of course, birthday cake!

Phew. Our appetites returned fully by the evening, which was lucky, as it was Meg's turn to cook – Alisha's birthday dinner, this time. But first, a drink. (Of course – Meg was cooking!). Here is evidence of our apple juice tasting – a taster between two types of juice (one purchased at the farmer's market, I believe) to decide which juice would better suit the applejack drink Meg was making.

The finished drink was comprised of apple juice (initially the farmer's market one), ginger ale and Jack Daniels, and finished with some apple slices for a garnish. We've made this again fairly recently, so obviously its simplicity and tastiness was a hit!

Drinks were handed out, and the beginnings of the (not so secret) chocolate birthday cake were started on. I think at one point everyone was helping make the birthday cake – even the birthday girl! There was a single small swirl of flour that went into the batter, but for the main part it was a flourless chocolate cake.

Meanwhile, Meg was reanimating the sundried tomatoes in some water and creating a glaze for the new potatoes – something involving some soy, tamarind, tomato paste and sesame seeds (perhaps she'll post the recipe later!). Once coated in their glaze, the potatoes were popped into the oven to roast.

Whilst into the blender went the sundried tomatoes (looking perkier), a whole lot of olive oil, and plenty of cilantro for the pesto. One moment there was a lot of cilantro, the next, a lot of pesto! I like the lone leaf on the side of the blender in the last picture – it tried to escape the carnage!

The 'frenched' lambchops (meaning that Meg had very nicely asked her butcher to trim the fat and bits of meat around the bones on the rack of lamb for aesthetic purposes) were then liberally coated in the delightfully green pesto, making for a nice contrast, and pan-fried on each side before having a dollop of goat cheese applied to the top. This was marvellous (hopefully recipe to follow too!) and I must admit to hunting for the ones that had the most goat cheese on them once they were put on the table!

In the living room, a rite of passage was occurring – as it was Alisha's birthday she was the happy recipient of a "Raisa Robe," a gorgeous gift made by Raisa for all of us (Michelle and Meg got theirs during this picnic, and I got mine during my birthday dinner (post to come!)). Each robe uses the same main material (the lovely waffle material) and has accents trimmed in an individually-chosen fabric, so they are uniting and unique at the same time! Here Alisha models hers:

Back in the kitchen it was the cake's turn to come out of the oven, and I started to decorate it (definitely a task the birthday girl wasn't to do). Meg and Alisha finished off the lamb, quite a task (but well worth it!)

Meg had made a delicious salad using heirloom tomatoes, sliced avocado and cucumber that was a hit and went well with the flavours of the lamb and potatoes (perhaps even more recipe to come – poor Meg!) and suddenly things were whizzing off to the table. Here are the finished potatoes and the finished lamb, beautifully plated:

We drank a very nice red with dinner, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was (quelle surprise!) so if someone with a better memory than me has an idea, please feel free to include it in the comments. It was a delicious dinner, and I really liked the lamb (I'm sometimes unsure about lamb). After dinner, it only remained for the birthday girl to blow out her candles.

Happy Birthday Alisha!

More to come soon – day three, frittatas, smoothies, French cidre and steak sandwiches in the sun!

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Occhi di Lupo con Bruschetta

Eyes of the Wolf with Peas, Mushrooms and Sausage & Bruschetta

As a kid and until recently, I have not been a pasta lover. Maybe it's too many heavy sauces or no name dried pasta I'm not sure. But if you need to be converted back to pasta, I advise 2 things 1) Try fresh pasta – there is nothing better and 2) make sauceless dishes – that's where all the flavour is. One of my favourite things about this dish (besides the tasty sausages) was how the peas got stuck inside the pastas and popped when you bit them. The pasta is a quick 2-pot meal and the bruschetta takes no time at all.

Pasta and Sauceless Sauce
1/2 cup olive oil, 1 lb Italian sausage, 1 cup mushrooms (sliced), 3/4 tsp sea salt, 3/4 tsp black pepper, 2 cups frozen peas, 1 lb dried pasta – choose a good quality one it makes a difference, 1/2 cup parmesan (grated)

Boil a large pot of water

Heat 2tbsp olive oil over high heat
Remove the sausage from the casings
Saute the sausage until golden brown breaking into small clumps ~ 5min
Set aside sausage, add 2 more tbsp of olive oil to pan

Add pasta to boiling water, we chose occhi di lupo (the eyes of the wolf!) though any small shape will do

Add mushrooms, 1/2 tsp of salt & pepper, saute until all liquid has evaporated ~8min
Add peas and saute ~2min
Return sausage to pan, heat through ~3min

Reserve 1 cup of cooking water, drain the pasta
Return the pasta to the pot

Over medium heat, add the meat mixture and enough of the water to moisten the mixture
Add the remaining olive oil, season to taste with salt and pepper
Remove from heat, add parmesan and toss

This recipe started out in Giada's cookbook (Everyday Italian) but was transformed after a number of the original ingredients weren't available (farfalle became occhi di lupo), weren't as tasty (turkey sausage became italian) or were allergy-causing for some (parmesan became romano). Also we added 2-3x the peas originally called for and it was worth it.


Cut up a baguette in 1 – 1.5 inch slices and brush with olive oil.
Put in oven, on broil to dry out the bread a bit.
Mixture – chop up 4 ripe tomatoes in small pieces and dice lots of garlic (6 cloves), mix with some olive oil , red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, chopped basil. It should look something like this:

Adapting the recipe to be your own is half the fun; the other half is figuring out what to do when things go wrong. All was well until the phrase "It's steamy in here, not smoky, right?" was uttered! This is what happens when you forget about the bread in the oven (the before).

But all was not lost, Meg went to work to salvage our overly blackened bread.

Happily, near disaster was turned into delicious (the after).

This meal was great! I am happy to report this serves about 10 portions, so some of us had seconds and all of us had lunch the next day. So if you are cooking solo or for a couple, keep this in mind or be sure to invite your hungry friends over to help with the cooking. One of the many advantages to Wednesday Dinners I enjoy most is sharing at least one meal a week with friends. Good Eating!

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