Summer Dinners – Arctic Char

This is going to be a lazy post; a quick and dirty one. See this as a public service announcement – a bit stern and to-the-point, but useful. I really do think your life – at least your culinary one – will be better for it.

The impetus for this post came in the form of a Bon Appétit recipe that I came across when looking for something to make with fish. “Mackerel with Cauliflower ‘Couscous’ and Tahini” was one of the first to pop up in my browser, and after glancing at the photo – filled with ruby-coloured pomegranate seeds, fresh herbs, and crispy, silvery mackerel – I knew I’d hit the money. The only issue was sourcing the ingredients – two of my regular fish mongers didn’t have mackerel that week, and the pomegranates at my green grocer were looking a little peaked (to be fair, they’re not exactly in season).

I took Bon Appétit‘s advice and substituted the mackerel for arctic char, a cold water fish that keeps its shape when cooked and whose skin crisps up nicely in the pan. As for a pomegranate seed replacement – I went digging in my crisper and found two beets – one striped, one not – and figured that, at least colour-wise, they might make an acceptable surrogate. I also had a few radishes leftover from the previous week’s market spoils, so I tossed a few in for good measure.

The result was better than I’d expected – the fish was tender, the cauliflower nicely roasted and browned in bits, the raw vegetables were crisp and pretty, and the tahini dressing united the whole thing, lending a silky, nutty hum to it all.

It’s a vibrant, crunchy, creamy dish that won’t make you feel like you’re bursting at the seams after you’ve downed the last forkful. Perfect for the heat. Perfect for summer.

Please dig in.

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Arctic Char with Pulsed Cauliflower, Quick-Pickled Beets and Tahini
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Serves 2, with leftovers

Ingredients

Tahini Sauce

  • 1 garlic clove finely grated
  • ¼ cup tahini
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt

(you will have leftover sauce, which is good – use it on salads and vegetables throughout the week)

Cauliflower and seeds

  • 3 Tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1 small head cauliflower, cored, cut into large florets
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • salt
  • 2 Tbsp raw pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tsp sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon nigella seeds (in Montreal, I buy mine here)

Quick-pickled beets

  • 2 small beets
  • juice of 1/2 lemon (or splash of white wine vinegar)
  • salt

Fish and Assembly

  • 1 filet of arctic char (or 1-2 whole mackerel, cleaned)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced, seeds removed
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1-2 radishes, thinly sliced

Directions

1) Make tahini sauce and the pickled beets: stir garlic, tahini, lemon juice, oil, and ¼ cup water in a small bowl; season with salt. Peel and dice the beets; put in a small mixing bowl and dress with the lemon juice (or vinegar) and season lightly with salt.

2) Cauliflower and seeds: heat 2 Tbsp. oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high. Working in batches if needed, cook cauliflower, tossing occasionally, until florets are browned in spots but still crunchy, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool. Reserve skillet.

3) Working in 2 batches, pulse cauliflower in a food processor until the size of rice grains. Transfer back to bowl, toss with lemon juice, and season with salt.

4) Cook pumpkin seeds and remaining 1 Tbsp. oil in reserved skillet over medium heat, stirring, until seeds are golden brown, about 1 minute. Season with salt. Toss in a small bowl with sesame and nigella seeds.

5) Mackerel and assembly: heat the 1 Tbsp of olive oil a pan on medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, but not smoking, place the fish in the pan, skin-side down; cook  2-4 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness. Remove from pan and let rest for a couple of minutes.

6) Spoon cauliflower onto plates. Remove fillets from fish and place, skin side up, on top. Top with seed mixture, pickled beets, cilantro, radish slices and a sprinkle of salt. Dress with tahini and serve.

Italy, condensed – Pt.1 – Roma

How do you distill the most important bits of a three-week trip, without lazily listing the highlights and making your audience feel like they’re forced to watch an endless stream of blurry slide-projector photos? I’ve been back home for nearly three weeks and have quickly slipped back into the daily routine, making the memories feel like they’ve piled up into one, big messy tangle, as opposed to a clean, chronological narrative. There are blips of recollections that contain everything from the scent of citrus fruit and diesel, to the sound of swallows and broken plates.

Where do you even start?

Without quite knowing how to come at this, I decided to rely on my travel journal – that flimsy, grey blotter that I dutifully towed alongside me every day, to jot down notes on park benches, in noisy tratorrie, and on bumpy buses. For better or worse, the journal seemed like a good way to introduce these places to you. There’s a lot more information, images and ideas from the trip still percolating in my brain, but it’ll take a bit more time to coax them into the proper channels (recipes! oh god, all the recipes!). So in the meantime, I’ve selected a few journal entries (tweaked for the sake of coherence), along with some photos to help flesh things out. There will  be a post on Rome, then Palermo (and surrounding areas), then one on the writing workshop with Rachel Roddy and Luisa Weiss at Case Vecchie (Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School) in Sicily.

I hope that these glimpses and echoes of stories will nip your wanderlust square on the bum and encourage you to explore more – be it geographical, cultural, gustatory, or in any way you see fit.

Baci, Julia x

—–

Italy Part 1 // Rome // 4.5 days

Testaccio, Rome
Friday, June 10th, 9:45pm
Tratorria Da Bucatino

Yelling. So much yelling. The Romans are having dinner and it’s as though each thought, each string of words is as important – if not more so – as the last. Their hands and shoulders move in gestural waves – broad movements in competition with their own voices for airspace. The spectacle is punctuated by peals of laughter, a roll of the eyes, or a fist coming down hard on the table to further prove a point. It’s like a playful exercise of sensory one upmanship, where the men – with presumably a fair amount of vino and/or grappa circulating through their veins – are definitely winning.

Da Bucatino is the kind of place that instantly draws you in, largely thanks to its one-part Godfather, one-part Twin Peaks mystique. There are several dining rooms, each connected by small doorways which the waiter guides me through until we reach a table in the centre of the room. It has a “riservato” sign on it, which he hastily removes and shoves into his pocket. He catches my eye and winks, Non l’ho visto, l’hai visto ? (“I didn’t see it, did you?”). I shake my head, “no”, wishing I had the words to compliment his impromptu magic trick.

After a quick glance at the menu (which is in both English and Italian, with a wine list bearing only two dubious-looking, albeit succint, descriptors: “red” or “white”), I can’t tell if this place is a total racket or one of Testaccio’s best kept secrets. After a little while, it becomes clear that it’s somewhere comfortably in the middle – not ultra-gimmicky, not sublime, but a lovely in-between. The neighbourhood tratorria, the kind of place you come to with your family or your friends on a Thursday night, to eat platefuls of gnocchi, veal coda, and stewed fagioli, all while getting nicely looped on a carafe of wine called “red”.

I order the pici alla gricia, hand-rolled pasta the size and shape of thick shoelaces, slicked in a savoury sauce of pan-fried pancetta, fresh baby artichokes and a dusting of sharp pecorino. The pici get twirled happily into clusters on my fork, until there isn’t a single slippery noodle left in the bowl. It’s the kind of simply-prepared, unfussy pasta dish that hits all the right buttons, especially for the weary traveller who’s had nothing to eat all day, save an in-flight, cellophane-wrapped slice of banana bread, an oily square of potato pizza and an apricot.

To avoid the dearth of vegetables that’s beginning to slink into my tourist diet, I also order a 6 Euro plate of stewed chicory with the pici, which the waiter is quick to clarify will only come after the pasta, “Dopo il primo piatto, okaaye?”, as per Italian dining customs. I try to act with blasé assurance, Sì, sì…perfetto, but secretly wish he’d bring it all to the table at one time so that I won’t be stuck eating a mound of chicory meant for 2-4 people, all on its own (and all on my own). When it comes – a large, conical pile of tangled greens, swimming in garlicky stewing juices – the undertaking seems larger than expected. I dig in, like an obedient child, forkful after forkful, until the mound slowly diminishes, using the bread from the bread basket to mop up as much of the leftover juices as I can. It’s really tasty; just far too much for one person.

Right around the time I start to feel like John Candy in the steak scene from The Great Outdoors, a new batch of patrons rolls in through the front doors. It’s 10:45pm. The waiter asks if I want a dolce; I clutch my chest, “No, grazie, non posso” and ask for the cheque instead.

After heading out – or perhaps more accurately, rolling out of Da Bucatino, I make my way down the block to Piazza Testaccio a block for a gulp of fresh air. The piazza is nearly empty, except for a family of four with two gangly kids out for a late-night stroll. I notice they have cones of gelato in their hands. My midriff – the one that, just moments ago, felt like it was bursting at the seams, the one that said, “No, grazie, non posso” when offered dessert by Mr. Magic-Trick waiter – is suddenly keen for a frozen slurry of milk, cream and sugar. Not too far away is a gelateria, glowing in a halo of neon lights.

As I make my way over, I start to wonder how many times I’ll be able to use the excuse “when in Rome” before I fall flat on the floor.

Piazza Testaccio

—–

Testaccio, Rome
Saturday, June 11th
Caffè Barberini, Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio, former Mattatoio al Testaccio

Breakfast starts with a cornetto and macchiato at Barberini, on Via Marmorata. In Italy, a lot of cornetti (the Italian interpretation of a croissant) are made with vegetable shortening, but Barberini is apparently one of the only places in the city that makes theirs with real butter. No mucking around.

This hot tip came from Natalie, when I mentioned I was heading out for breakfast near the apartment in Testaccio. She also said they made good coffee – which they do. Like most Italian coffee bars, the baristi are exclusively men, decked out in white button-up shirts (some also wear grey vests and bow-ties), expertly navigating the line between flirtation and professionalism with their female clients. Regulars breeze in at different intervals, greeting the barista with a quick salve! as they lean up against the bar. Seconds later, the barista slides their espresso toward them. They don’t even need to order; he knows them that well. They chit chat for a couple of minutes, the client knocks back the final sip of their espresso (there are about three total) and they wish eachother a buongiorno! goodbye.

I’ve been to Italy before; I’ve seen this dozens of times. But it’s a ritual that never fails to impress me with its simplicity – the two minutes spent chatting with your local barista while you sip your coffee, before heading off to work or running errands. To the Italians, there’s nothing precious about this routine – to them it’s just that – routine. And that, I suppose, is what makes it all that more alluring to the outsider.

Testaccio, Rome

Around lunchtime, Rachel takes me round the Testaccio market (Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio). Nuovo, because it opened in 2012, migrating from its original location in Piazza Testaccio, where it stood since the 1920s. The new building has the same squeaky-clean brightness that causes a lot of modern architecture stick out in older, urban settings, making it feel strangely anachronistic. Rachel tells me that the new market was initally met with a good dose of skepticism, mainly because of the squeaky-cleanness of the new structure and the additional walking distance from the more central square where it used to reside. I can empathise with Romans who are resistant to change when it comes to their markets; when I think of my own outdoor market back home – Marché Jean-Talon – I realise how apprehensive I am when changes are made to the stalls and producers (where the heck did my Madame Laitue go? Why have they replaced the produce stalls with bougie artisanal products?). I feel like the rug has been pulled from under me on those days. Some Romans probably do too. Because when something so important to your daily life gets shifted around like that, it can throw you for a loop (especially for all us octogenarians at heart).

As we move along the pathways of the market that connect each stall, Rachel points out her favourite produce man (one of the few remaining farmers at the market that sells the produce he actually grows himself), her fish monger (he might be the most vocal vendor there), and her bakery, Da Artenio, which makes these lovely little pizzette – small, oval-shaped pizzas no bigger than the size of an out-stretched hand, with simple toppings like tomato sauce, or sliced potato, or red onion. In provision of lunch later in the day, I order a half loaf of bread and a bag of ciambelline al vino e finnochio, circular biscuits made with wine and fennel seeds and a coating of sparkly sugar crystals. They’re meant for dessert, but I like to dunk these in wine or beer (like the Moretti that’s quietly chilling in the fridge back at the apartment).

After visiting the market, we stop for a quick espresso at a nearby tabbacchi. Rachel tells me it’s one of the last remaining tabacchi that also has an espresso bar. I wish I had a better photo to show you – one with a view from the inside, through the beaded curtains that dress the front door. Like the woman who runs it, this spot is an utter gem – time-worn, modest and lovely.

Testaccio, Rome

Adjacent to the Testaccio market is a series of buildings that used to house the neighbourhood’s slaughterhouse. After it shut down in the 1970s, the spaces have been restored and reappropriated by different institutes and collectives dedicated to art, culture, and education, the largest ones being the Macro Testaccio, University of Roma Tre, and Città dell’Altra Economia, the latter featuring a small bio-agricultural market on Sundays that sells fresh produce, cheese and small-batch food products. (It pained me to leave the market without one of those jaw-dropping wheels of cheese in hand, but I had to remind myself – four days. You’re only here for FOUR days.)

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From Città dell’Altra Economia, you can see Monte Testaccio (or Monte dei Cocci), a hill made almost entirely of fragments of discarded earthenware (amphorae) used by the ancient Romans to transport olive oil. It’s quite a fantastic sight – a carefully engineered, ancient garbage dump of sorts. If you look closely (squint, maybe), you can make out the pieces of broken pottery covering the hill:

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When we leave the old slaughterhouse district, it’s mid-afternoon and I realise I haven’t had any lunch. Rachel and I part ways and I head back to the apartment with my market spoils to cobble together something that will sustain me for the rest of the afternoon. In a couple of hours, I’ll be heading out again, this time for a long walk along the Tiber to Latteria Trastevere, to meet Natalie for pre-dinner drinks and salumi (i.e. aperitivo hour).

I can think of worse ways to spend a day.

Testaccio, RomeTestaccio, Rome

—–

Vatican City, Rome
Sunday, June 12th

I have to buy Nonna a rosary at Vatican City today. That was my mission when I left the apartment this morning.

I head out, smeared in sunscreen SPF 110; my skin is still a shade between “snow-capped” and “Canadian-ivory”, which doesn’t exactly help me blend in with the locals. I take it a step further by fashioning my trusty cotton scarf into a makeshift headscarf, to protect my scalp from the hot sun, which by 10 am is already beating down something fierce. (Anytime I try to channel Ava Gardner in Night of the Iguana, I end up looking more like Edie Beale in Grey Gardens. It’s inevitable.). Since I don’t have enough hair to achieve a regal-looking Nefertiti situation, I end up looking vaguely infirm. That, or bat-shit crazy, if you consider the oversized sunglasses that swallow half my face and the canvas bag I’ve decided to cart along – you know, the one that has the outline of a naked woman lounging solo on a shag rug, smoking a bong. Oh and did I mention I went bra-free too?

Way to make an impression there, tourista.

headscarf

Canvas bag

It’s safe to say that sartorial choices such as these will not make you go unnoticed in Vatican City. One positive offshoot is that it tends to ward off the souvenir hustlers, possibly because they don’t quite know what to make of you. If you’re travelling alone, and don’t mind staying alone, I highly recommend it.

(Sidenote: before my Catholic-raised mother has a heart-attack reading this, I should mention that when I was actually in Saint-Peter’s Square (I didn’t go inside the Basilica or the museums), I had the good sense to turn the canvas bag inside out and toss on a long-sleeved shirt.)

—–

Among the vendor stalls outside Peter’s Square, all of them strewn with various forms of religious paraphernalia, I was able to find a couple of things that Nonna might like, namely a plastified card emblazoned with a smiling Pope Francis and a silvery medallion, and a rosary – a simple one made of white beads, with its own nifty pewter case.

I like to imagine grandma keeping these tokens by her bedside, making her feel safe.

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1:25 pm

About a twenty-minute walk from Vatican City is Bonci Pizzarium – a pizza-by-the-slice counter discreetly located on a sidestreet across Cipro metro. Knowledge of their proximity wasn’t a fluke, or dumb luck; I’d planned these two excusions back-to-back after hearing from a handful of reliable sources (including two Roman-dwelling food pros I’d met – Katie Parla and Natalie Aldern Kennedy) that Pizzarium has some of the best pizza-by-the-slice (al taglio) in town.

I enter and take a ticket; with every rotation of the crowd, I get closer to the vitrine. Once it’s my turn, I’m face-to-face with large sheets of pizza splayed out with every topping imaginable. There is no menu; what you see is what you get. It’s buy-by-eye – roasted red pepper with pine nuts, tomato and anchovy, mortadella and marinated eggplant, zucchini, ricotta and almonds…

I settle on four types: potato and rosemary; headcheese (coppa), shaved celery and orange zest; chicory, ricotta, and nutmeg; and mushroom with caciocavallo. I collect my bounty and head to a standing banquette outside. The first few bites trigger contented grunts; the slice with the coppa garnered a couple of under-the-breath swear words. An American tourist standing next to me nudges his wife, “OMIGOD OMIGOD, have you tried this one?! This one might be the best”, only to repeat the same statement with each subsequent piece (they all win “best”).

His enthusiasm is warranted. It’s the kind of food that sparks deep-belly felicity; the kind of food that makes you happy to be alive.

Viva Bonci Pizzarium.

Bonci PizzariumBonci Pizzarium

—–

Rome // Conclusion

Four and a half days in this city hardly seems enough. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Some things I’ll miss and hope to re-visit again: the public fountains that double as drinking fountains, the banter between neighbours that echoes off the walls of interior courtyards, the screeching swallows, the clinkity-clank of noisy tratorrie, the smell of pizza bianca wafting from stone ovens, the homicidal scooter-drivers, the way the ancient bits of the city meld with the modern, laundry hanging from windows, 1 euro macchiati, aperitivi in the piazza, and, of course, having some of the most beautiful, fresh (and wildly inexpensive) food products right at my fingertips, every single day.

Ah, Roma – spero che ci rivediamo subito.

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Mal d’Italia

“We all have it in some way, that desire to return to an impossible elseware.”
– Adam Leith Gollner, Saveur, April 2016

I’ve been awake since 5:30 this morning. Not because I had to – or particularly wanted to – but because the butterflies in my stomach kept fluttering around, making it impossible to sleep in, the way I had intended. So I’m here, with you. Eyes half-mast and looking a little rough.

I hope you don’t mind.

The butterflies are equal parts nerves and excitement – in a few hours I’ll be on a plane crossing the Atlantic to spend three weeks in Italy. It’s a solo trip, one that, the more I think about it, was probably long overdue. The first few days will be in Rome, then one week in the fishing town of Sferracavallo in Sicily and then another week further inland, in Sclafani Bagni, where I’ll be taking a food writing workshop with two of my favourite writers – Rachel Roddy and Luisa Weiss. The workshop takes place at Case Vecchie, which houses the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school, nestled among the rugged fields and vineyards of the Sicilian countryside. If the online photos do it any justice, then yes – it might actually be paradise on earth.

Given that the workshop itself has been something I’ve had my eye on for awhile – it still seems a bit surreal that I’m actually going, even in the few short hours leading up to departure. I’ve never felt this wired – in both the good and adverse sense of the word – for any trip I’ve ever taken. It’s quite impressive as a feeling, part of it stemming from the anticipation, but also from things as banal as transit logistics (charting out an itinerary in Sicily has been tricky, with entire trainlines suddenly going out of order. It seems that David Lebovitz has even experienced the peculiarities of Sicilian transit), unexpected technical issues (my computer), as well as my (perhaps archaic and ill-advised) decision to use paper maps instead of GPS or Google maps. (This should be interesting.)

Most of all though, I think that the churning in my stomach comes from something a little more abstract than the kind of excitement I’ve had in the past when planning a vacation. And in that sense, it’s more charged, too. I recently read an article on Sicily in the April issue of Saveur, where Adam Leith Gollner talks about the feeling of mal d’Africa, the “heartsickness” for Africa that Sicilians have when they’ve been travelling away from home (North Africa having had such a remarkable impact on their food, culture, and architecture, that’s it’s inextricable from Sicilian life and sensibility). My mind went back to those words when I thought about the reasons I wanted to visit Italy again. Not because I consider it home necessarily, but because – being the product of a Canadian father and an Abruzzese mother – there’s part of me that will always be Italy. It sounds clichéed to lay it out like that, so plain and saccharine, but it’s true. There’s a sort of mal d’Italia that lives inside me.

In that way, Italy has often felt like a phantom limb. Its presence is there – in the minute details of gesture, of speech and of sensibility – when I share a joke with my grandmother in broken dialect, or lift a peach to my nose at the market, or place my hand on a stranger’s shoulder (and wonder if touching them was the acceptable thing to do, in the cool anonymity of urban North America). Italy is in there, all the time, in some way shape or form. And I suppose that travelling back to terra madre is my way of restoring the bits that I feel I’m beginning to lose or forget, as my grandmother slowly enters into her mid-nineties and I come to the realisation that she, in fact, has been the one thread that’s kept me connected to that sense of Italian-ness, that sense of patria, as she calls it. When she’s gone, I’ll have to find ways to reconnect to it when I can; I suppose this trip is part of laying that groundwork.

—–

There’s lots more that I’d like to tell you about – not the least of which is this workshop with Rachel and Luisa (a total dream). But aside from not having the wherewithal to get into that now, I should probably tie up a few more things before I go, like weighing my bags to make sure they meet the airline requirements.

As a parting gift, I’m leaving you with this photo of the seafood risotto that my boyfriend made me this past weekend, with celery, fennel, white wine, homemade fish stock and a handful of mussels, shrimp, and cod. He wanted to make something in the spirit of Sicily, and I think he succeeded. (even if we committed the ultimate act of Italian food sacrilege and added parmesan to it.)

See you here again soon – hopefully more well rested, a little less wired, and with a lot of good stories to tell.

Baci x

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Faking Fancy

You’re having friends over for dinner and you want to make something nice. But it’s a work night, a Thursday, so you’re already a bit bagged, and a little unmotivated, thinking about the Jenga tower of dishes that will invariably pile up in the sink if you start making something quote-unquote fancy.

This is when you need to pull a rabbit (or two) out of your hat to successfully fake your way to a meal fit for dinner guests – a meal that will involve minimal amounts of messing around in the kitchen, but will look and taste a little more special than the everday.

There are, of course, different ways you can do this. For starters, if you’re committed to the idea of using the oven, you can choose recipes that compliment eachother’s cooking time and temperature; that way, you can cook a couple of things at the same time, and even bake dessert at the end, with that still-warm oven. The other advantage is that you can slide whatever you’re making into the oven, let it work its magic, and go back to the things you were doing beforehand, like the multi-tasking mavrick you are.

We all have different shortcuts in the kitchen, which is nice, because it means that we can learn from eachother’s acumen – that mental Roladex of tips and tricks we’ve stockpiled over the years. Below you’ll find a few of my own back-pocket recipes (the rabbits up my sleeve, if you will) for when I’m having people over, but don’t want to fuss. It’s a simple potato and roast chicken dinner that can be served with a green salad or some steamed vegetables. The potatoes can be slipped into the oven about 30-40 minutes after the chicken. The dessert is easy too – no need to wrangle dough or batter, just toss some sugared apples onto some prepared puff pastry and watch it pouf up in the oven after the potatoes and chicken have come out.

All of it gives you more time to be with your guests, which, let’s be honest, is the most important part.

FAKING FANCY TIP NO.1 – RE-VAMPING THE HUMBLE POTATO

Potatoes, simply prepared, often come in two forms – boiled, or diced and roasted. Both of these options have virtues of their own, but there’s another variation on the potato that should be on everyone’s radar, and that, dear people, is the smashed potato. I first learned about smashed potatoes during a period in the mid-2000s when I binge-watched Laura Calder‘s French Food at Home, before food blogging and celebrity chef-dom had exploded and you could actually rely on The Food Network for quality programming (wow, can you hear the octogenarian coming through? Don’t get her started on styrofoam food packaging). The Food Network aside, Laura Calder is known in her own right for her pared-down, no-nonsense – and très, très français – approach to food, where the most important elements are quality of ingredients and method, as opposed to flashy additions or lengthy processes. Her smashed potatoes (she calls them “squished” potatoes) are simplicity incarnate, but the nice thing is that they are just the slightest bit different than a boiled or a roasted potato, because they’re in fact BOTH: you take some nice, small, waxy potatoes, skin-on, and let them cook in boiling water until just tender. Then you drain them, set them on a work surface and gently press each one with whatever sturdy kitchen equipment you have on hand (I like using the bottom of a cast iron pan), dress them with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt (I add fresh rosemary too), then lay them on a baking sheet and toss them into a hot oven for 30-40 minutes, turning once halway though. The beauty of the smashed potato is that you get a tender interior and these lacy, crispy edges. They also look more interesting than a in-tact boiled potato, sort of more lived-in and wild. And they are a treat to eat.

SMASHED BABY POTATOES WITH ROSEMARY – from Laura Calder

  • 2 lb baby potatoes
  • olive oil
  • flaky salt (such as Maldon)
  • freshly ground pepper
  • a couple spring of fresh rosemary

1) Scrub the potatoes and cook, unpeeled, in boiling salted water until tender. Drain. When cool enough to touch, gently squish them flat with whatever kitchen tool you see fit. Don’t let them explode, just flatten until the edges break a bit, but they are still in one piece. Toss with some olive oil, the rosemary sprigs, and season with salt and pepper.

2) Heat the oven to 400°F. Spread the potatoes on a baking sheet and bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until crisp outside, turning once halfway through.

(*I didn’t get a chance to capture the finished result, so you’ll have to use your imagination – but they come out crackly, crispy, dark golden on the outside. A bit knarly, but beautiful.)

Smashed Potatoes with Rosemary

Smashed Potatoes with Rosemary

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FAKING FANCY TIP no.2 – ELEVATING ROAST CHICKEN

Let’s be honest, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about roast chicken in and of itself. But if done right, roast chicken can be one of the most delicious things you’ll put on the table, especially if you employ a good, healthy dose of butter. Here too, you have different options. Molly Wizenburg has a recipe for Thomas Keller’s roast chicken where you slather it with melted butter after it’s cooked and serve it with Dijon mustard (which, though I’ve never tried it, actually sounds pretty wicked). My usual fall-back is smearing butter under the skin, along the breastbone, before cooking. For added flavour, I like to use compound butter – in other words, softened, unsalted butter that you mix with herbs, or zest, or other seasonings. The butter “insulates” the breast meat (which tends to get dry) from the heat of the oven, while permeating it with rich flavour. You don’t want to be using butter like this everyday (you’d be well on your way to a heart attack), but for occasions that are out of the ordinary – say, having friends over on a Thursday night – it’s a lovely way to make roast chicken a little more frilly.

Roast Chicken with Butter

WHOLE ROASTED CHICKEN WITH HERBED BUTTER

Ingredients

        • 1 whole, 1.5 kg (3-3.5 lbs) good-quality chicken (I like to get mine here when I can)
        • 1 lemon, pierced all over
        • 3-4 cloves of garlic, smashed, skin-on
        • a handful of fresh herbs – thyme, rosemary, tarragon, etc. – chopped
        • about 3 oz. butter, softened
        • salt and freshly ground pepper
        • 1/4 tsp paprika (for colour; optional)
        • kitchen twine

Directions

1) Take your chicken out of the fridge about 30 minutes before it goes into the oven.

2) Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Mix the chopped herbs with the softened butter, season with salt and pepper and stir to combine; set aside. In a small dish, mix some salt, freshly ground pepper and the paprika (if using). Prepare two lengths of kitchen twine to wrap the legs and the thighs.

3) Set aside a roasting pan big enough for your chicken. Blot the outside of the chicken with paper towel (removing excess moisture will help ensure a crispy skin). Season the chicken with the prepared salt, pepper and paprika. With the cavity of the chicken facing you, gently run your fingers under the skin along the breastbone, separating the skin from the meat. Then, gently stuff portions of herbed butter under the skin, spreading it evenly over the breast meat. Put the garlic cloves and lemon in the cavity of the chicken.

4) Tie the legs together snugly (this prevents the bird from drying out). If the lower half of the chicken looks like it’s still pretty loose, I sometimes tie a second piece of twine around the top of the thighs. Place the chicken in the preheated oven and roast for an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes (see note below*), basting a couple of times during cooking. Once the chicken is cooked, remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes before carving. Serve with the pan juices.

A note on cooking whole chicken: total cooking time will vary, depending on the actual size of your chicken, as well as the intensity of your oven. A good rule of thumb is to calculate 15 mins per pound at 400ºF, but I use a meat thermometer just to be sure – it should read 165ºF* when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh but not touching bone. (*A lot of thermometers and government sources will give 180ºF as the ideal internal tempertaure, but they are usually overly-cautious (resulting in over-cooked, dry meat). If you pull it out when it reaches 165ºF and then let it rest, covered, for about 10-15 minutes, you’ll be good to go. The juices should run clear, not pink, when you cut into it.)

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FAKING FANCY TIP no.3 – USING FROZEN PUFF PASTRY

When you’re having people over, it’s sometimes nice to have something sweet at the end of dinner, but making a cake or a pie or something along those lines can be more work than it’s worth – the careful combining, the chilling, the rolling, the aforementioned sink full of dishes. This is when frozen puff pastry becomes a trusty pal – once thawed, it’s at your service and ready to use. The best part is that the free-form styling of the outer edges means that you can very easily get away with calling it “rustic”. Adding a quick dusting of powdered sugar to your finished tart (or any dessert for that matter) will make it look like a snowy, Scandanavian dream. I highly recommend it.

Puff Pastry Apple Tart

Puff Pastry Apple Tart

SIMPLE APPLE TART

        • 1 sheet all-butter puff pastry* (about 450 g), thawed
        • 2-3 firm, medium apples (such as Empire or Gala) – cored, halved and thinly sliced
        • 1 Tbsp granulated sugar
        • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
        • 3 Tbsp butter, melted
        • 1 Tbsp rum
        • squeeze of lemon
        • 2 Tbsp powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)

*one of the luxuries of living in Montreal is that many of us are within a stone’s throw of a bakery, many of which sell prepared puff pastry. If you don’t have a bakery close-by, you should be able to find puff pastry in the frozen foods section of most grocery stores.)

Directions

1) Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat. In a bowl, add a sqeeze of lemon juice to the apple slices, then add both sugars, the melted butter, the rum, and gently combine; set aside.

2) On a lightly floured surface, unfold the puff pastry sheet. Roll it out a little bit (to about 1/2 inch thick). You should have a long rectangle about as long as a standard baking sheet (I don’t measure). Roll about 1 inch of the edges inward to form a border (or, if you prefer, you can lightly score a border along the inside of the rectangle, as this video demonstrates). Poke the inner rectangle all over with a fork to prevent air bubbles from forming while baking.

3) Layer the apple slices, overlapping them slightly. Bake for 25 minutes, until crust is golden brown, then transfer the pan to a wire rack. Once cool, dust with powdered sugar, the transfer tart to a cutting board for serving. Pairs well with vanilla ice cream (obviously).

A Bit of a Blur

There isn’t time for many words today – this post is going to be a bit of a blur – because in twelve minutes flat, I have to head out the door, hop on a Bixi, and get my sorry rump to yoga class (I like to at least pretend that I’m a fit, adult woman. Come to think of it, I also like to pretend that I’m an adult woman. As in, a grown-up; as in, a lady.)

Before I run down the stairs and start frantically biking until I’m out of breath, arriving at the studio like the wheezing, sweating, mess of a lady that I sometimes am, I wanted to quickly – very quickly! – share a recipe with you. (It seems that my top priority is making sure you are all well fed. We can discuss my poor judgment another time. Along with my poor use of punctuation/over-use of parentheses in this post.)

But right now – SPICED CHICKEN PATTIES IN LETTUCE CUPS! WITH DATE CONFIT! THEY’RE A REVELATION! MAKE THEM! (I don’t know why I’m using caps; these things practically sell themselves. Which I’m grateful for, because I should’ve already left the house.)

Eat well and be well, friends. Big love x

—–

Spiced Chicken Patties in Lettuce Cups, with Date Confit – adapted from Food Republic
Serves 4

Chicken Lettuce Cups

Ingredients

Patties

  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed*
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
  • 2 tsp Ras el hanout
  • 1 tsp curry
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne (optional)
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil

*economical alternative: I prefer buying a whole, good-quality chicken and taking it apart myself – using the different pieces for diffrent recipes and freezing anything I don’t use.

To serve

  • 16 small hearts of lettuce leaves
  • 1/2 English cucumber, quartered lengthwise, seeded and diced
  • 1 small red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 handful cilantro leaves

Date confit

  • 15 fresh dates, pitted and halved
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 Thai chili, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp light brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

For the date confit:
Put the dates in a bowl, cover with just-boiled water and leave for 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a skillet and fry the shallots on medium-low heat, covered, for 15-20 minutes until very soft.

Drain the dates and add them to the pan, squashing them with the back of a fork to break them down. Stir in 4 tablespoons water, the cinnamon, chili and cook for 5 minutes longer, or until it forms a thick jam consistency. Add more water if it is too thick. Stir in the pomegranate molasses and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon the confit into a serving bowl and leave to cool.

For the chicken patties:
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 100°F. Pulse the chicken in a food processor, then add the garlic, ginger and spices. Season with salt and pepper. Pulse again to combine. Form the chicken mixture into 16 equal balls, the size of golf balls. Flatten each one to make a little patty. (Note: you can freeze the uncooked patties on parchment paper, in one layer (I use a pizza tray), then transfer to freezer-proof container, with parchment between each patty to prevent sticking).

Heat two-thirds of the oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Fry the patties, in batches (don’t overcrowd the pan) for 3 minutes on each side. Just before they finish cooking on each side. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in the low oven while you cook the remaining patties, adding more oil when necessary.

For serving:
Put a chicken patty on top of each lettuce leaf, scatter a little cucumber, red onion and cilantro over and top with a spoonful of the date confit. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Chicken Lettuce Cups

A Complicated Love

When I was younger, I wasn’t much of a picky eater, but tomatoes – either in their raw form or cooked – proved problematic for a good portion of my childhood. The woman who ran our daycare, Sandra, used to make us a lunch of Campbell’s tomato soup and Kraft-singles grilled cheese, about once a week. It probably goes without saying that the grilled cheese was gobbled up with ease; the soup, however, was another story. I can still remember the tart, salty, faintly metallic canned-tomato flavour that would coat the back of my throat with every reluctant spoonful. That tomato soup was the bane of my five-year-old existence; it was like punishment in a bowl.

Then there was that trip to Italy, to visit family – when I was seven and my brother was five – and neither of us would eat pasta with tomato sauce; only with burro (butter). This was incomprehensible to our Italian relatives, who’d shake their heads, and with furrowed brow, ask, “Ma, non ti piace i pomodori?” (Don’t you like tomatoes?). Their question breathed equal parts bewilderment and despair, but would quickly melt into capitulation with a shrug of the shoulders, when they’d swirl a spoonful of butter into our pasta, as requested. To the dismay of our relatives, we spent that entire trip avoiding pomodori in every way, shape and form.

Fortunately, I’ve since mended by ways with tomatoes; they’re often in the recipes I make at home – from sugo di pomodoro, to lentil soup, to foccacia, to tomato salad. That said, I’d be lying if I said that our relationship was an uncomplicated one. Raw tomatoes are the ones that still, on occasion, send a shiver down my spine. We can blame both latent childhood sensibilities and the Canadian climate for that one: I grew up in a place where, for a good six months of the year, tomatoes were (and still are) flown in from exotic destinations, arriving in a grainy, hard, tasteless state, then flaunted in their raw form – in big, rough chunks – tossed into a plain green salad, or Greek-style, swimming alongside cucumber and slivers of red onion. Unless those tomatoes are vine-ripened under the hot, summer sun and served within a few miles of where they were grown, tasting like the rich, sweetly acidic fruit that they should be, they usually aren’t coming anywhere near my lips. Otherwise, it’s just a waste, because I will, without fail, pick around them.

To this day – most likely stemming from Sandra’s Campbell’s soup days – I also don’t have a particular affinity for tomato soup. That said (and since the criteria by which my brain accepts and rejects tomatoes is still a total enigma) there is one notable exception – and that is for the Moroccan soup harira, a tomato-based blend made with chickpeas, lentils and a handful of spices. It’s traditionally served during Ramadan as a nutrient-rich dish to break the daily fast, but I’m told that it’s served in different regions of Morocco, all year round. I first had harira at my friend Sophie’s house, when her husband, Hicham, cooked us dinner one night, a few short weeks after he’d come to Canada. We had it as a starter to lamb tagine with dates. A CD of gnawa music played in the background. We drank wine. He tried to teach me a few expressions in Arabic, though I only remember the words for ‘hello’, ‘no’, ‘look’ and ‘enough’. But the harira – oh man, I’ll always remember it – the one tomato soup that broke all the arbitrary rules of my aversion.

A note on the recipe: Most recipes incorporate meat (beef, lamb or chicken), broken up vermicelli noodles or rice, as well as a roux (called tadouira) of water and flour at the end of cooking to thicken it up a bit. The recipe below doesn’t have any of these things, but it’s a close approximation to Hicham’s harira, which is always filled with warm spices and creamy chickpeas, which he cooks from dried (not canned).

It’s a simple soup – but well-rounded, sustaining and comforting. Hope you like it.

Vegetarian Harira Soup

Makes 4-6 servings

Harira_prep

Ingredients

  • 100g lentils, rinsed and picked through
  • 150g cooked chickpeas
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste
  • handful fresh parsley, chopped
  • 400g ripe tomatoes, smashed
  • 700ml vegetable stock
  • salt and pepper, to season

Spices:

  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ginger powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne

To serve:

  • lemon
  • pita bread
  • fresh cilantro, chopped

Note: only add the salt at the end, otherwise the lentils won’t cook through.

Directions

1) Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Sauté the onion until browned. Add the garlic, spices, tomato paste and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the parsley, lentils, and smashed tomatoes (with their juices) and stir.

2) Stir in the vegetable stock and bring to a boil over high heat; reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 40 minutes. Add the cooked chickpeas and simmer for another 5 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper.

3) Ladle into bowls and top with chopped cilantro, a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice (the lemon is important – don’t skip it!). Serve with pita or flatbread.

Harira

 

Snack-Time Salvation

A little while ago, I started buying Bounty bars from the second-floor vending machine at work. It might have been a relatively infrequent excursion, but as any office worker knows, when you sit in front of a computer for several hours on end, you start to crave bad stuff – usually something with high-fructose corn syrup and palm oil – around 3pm. And when you don’t have access to something healthy and sustaining, you sometimes end up scouring your desk drawer for pocket change to plunk into an old vending machine for something that will satisfy your primal brain.

In my case (and to make matters worse), I also had an accomplice. My friend and office mate – we’ll protect her identity by calling her “M” – also loved Bounty bars and, like me, was really good at reducing her dissonance. We agreed that splitting a candy bar between us wasn’t as bad as eating the whole thing by ourselves, and if we didn’t read the spooky list of ingredients and enjoyed it alongside a cup of herbal tea, it didn’t seem like such an unsensible thing to do.

But then “M” went on an eight-month work transfer out of town, and I was still getting Bountry bars out of the machine. One a month became two, then three, then I realised that it had become an almost-weekly habit. No bueno.

The obvious solution was to come equipped to work with snacks. Good snacks. Snacks that would make my mom and your mom proud that they had raised well-adjusted, responsible adults. That’s when I came across a recipe, from French food writer Clotilde Dusoulier, for homemade energy bars. A mixture of dates, nuts, cinnamon and cocoa, they’re sweet and chocolately, and filled with things that aren’t palm oil or high-fructose corn syrup (they’re actually filled with vitamin A, fibre, iron, calcium, antioxidants, and potassium. Thank you, dates!).  I rolled mine in shredded coconut for the “Bounty bar effect”, but if you don’t have any in the pantry, they’re swell without it too.

Here’s to better snacking in front of our computers. Have a good week, everyone x

Date-Coconut Energy Bites

Date-Coconut Energy Bites – adapted from Chocolate and Zucchini

    • 50 grams date paste*, diced
    • 100 grams mixed, unsalted nuts (Brazil nuts, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts…)
    • 2 green cardamom pods, seeds only
    • 100 grams Medjool or fresh dates (about 4), pitted
    • 3 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
    • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
    • 1 Tbsp cacao nibs
    • 1/4 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut (for rolling)
    • a good pinch salt

*Date paste can be found at natural foods stores, or in North African or Middle Eastern shops. It comes as a solid block, so if it seems dry and hard, cut it into slices and soak for an hour in a little cold water to soften. Drain well before using (save the date water – you can freeze it too – to use in smoothies).

Directions

1) In a food processor, combine the diced date paste, nuts, and cardamom, and process in short pulses until the nuts are chopped to small bits and blended with the paste. Add the rest of the ingredients and process in short pulses until the mixture comes together.

2) Pour the shredded coconut into a plate; scoop a teaspoon of the date-nut into your hands and form into balls between your palms. Then roll them in the shredded coconut.

3) Lay the date-coconut balls in a airtight container, with parchment paper between each layer to prevent sticking. Transfer to the fridge to set for a few hours or preferably overnight. They will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for about a week.

Date-Coconut Energy Bites
Date-Coconut Energy Bites

Cast-Iron Love

It’s a thing of beauty, is it not? A cast-iron pot filled with slowly-braised meat, caramelised and falling off the bone, sitting snugly alongside bright veg and pillowy dumplings?  I’ll never tire of that sight – that hot mess, mingling together in a heavy-botoomed pan, like many gifts in one. It might be the extravagant use of meat (which we all know we should be eating less of), but this, to me, is big-time luxury food, regardless of how simple it is to make.

While it might seem late to be posting about braised anything one day shy of May, the weatherman seems to think there are a few more crisp, cool days ahead of us – at least in these parts (I swear I saw a snowflake yesterday) – and so I think there’s still some wiggle room for a few more dishes like these, the ones that require the slow, steady heat of the oven to reach their full potential.

I’m reminded that these are the dishes that make me feel gratified about rescuing that old, blaze-coloured Creuset from the family basement a few years ago, when no one wanted it – for lack of space, or to prioritize lighter, less cumbersome cookware. Over the years, and before its hibernation in the basement, it had become a well-used and well-loved beast, bearing a hefty scar – a deep, cinereal gash right across the lid – from an earlier incident involving a sharp plunge to the tile floor, back in the house I grew up in. Some might have thrown the thing away, but Dad, the industrious Anglo-Saxon that he is, worked his magic with the sodering iron and sealed it back together, to create something of a Franken-Creuset.

IMG_1445

Bequeathed with what is now considered a family heirloom, I try to find ways to use it whenever I can, and as often as I can. And each time, I marvel at how it turns unglamorous cuts of meat into ravishingly beautiful braised dishes that you want to mop up with bread until there’s nothing left on the plate. I’ve learnt to treat the Creuset with care, to pay attention to its scar, as a reminder to not do anything that would make any new ones.

It rewards me in kind, every time.

—–

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Adapted from The Complete Irish Pub Cookbook and Joe Beef for Food 52
Serves 4

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

For the Lamb

  • 2 lb (about 1 kg) lamb shoulder, bone-in*
  • Salt and pepper, to season
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 1 small leek, white + light green part cut into rings
  • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped into chunks
  • 3-4 small turnips, washed and quartered
  • 10 cloves garlic, smashed and skins removed
  • 10 sprigs thyme
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 cup beef stock (plus one cup to add at the end with the dumplings)
  • 1 cup frozen or very fresh shelled peas (to add at the end of cooking)

*depending on the size of your baking vessel, you can ask your butcher to cut the lamb shoulder in half.

For the Date-Mint Chutney

  • 1 cup pitted dates
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 cup jarred horseradish
  • 2 Tbsp fresh mint
  • 1/2 Tsbp Worcestershire sauce

For the Herb Dumplings

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp milk

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Directions

1) Preheat the oven to 375° F. MAKE THE LAMB: Season the lamb on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large ovenproof sauté pan over high heat. Add the lamb and sear for 3 or 4 minutes on each side, or until you get a nice golden crust. Transfer to a plate.

2) Reduce the heat to medium, throw in the onion, leek, turnip, carrot, and garlic, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until nicely browned. Add the thyme, nestle the lamb on top of the vegetables, and pour in the wine and the beef stock. Cover the pan, place in the oven, and braise for 4 hours, basting the lamb every 30 minutes or so with the pan juices. If the pan begins to dry out, add some water.

3) While the lamb is cooking, MAKE THE CHUTNEY: In a small pot, combine the dates and water, bring to a boil over high heat, and boil for about 10 minutes, or until soft. Reduce the heat to medium, add the vinegar, and cayenne, and stir well. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until the sugar is dissolved and the condiment has the consistency of jam. Remove from the heat, add the horseradish, mint, and Worcestershire sauce, and whisk until combined. Let cool before serving. (Leftover condiment can be stored in a tightly capped jar in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.)

4) MAKE THE DUMPLINGS (see instructions below)

5) About 20 minutes before the meat is ready, heat the remaining cup of stock in a saucepan; remove the lamb from the oven and arrange the dumplings around the meat, pouring over the hot stock; add the peas. Cover and return to the oven to cook about 15 minutes longer.

4) When the lamb is ready, transfer it to a warmed platter with the vegetables and dumplings. Serve the condimint on the side.

To make the dumplings

1) Heat a large saucepan of salted water. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Mix in the black pepper and fresh herbs. Rub in the butter untill the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. In a seperate bowl, beat together the egg and milk, then stir into the flour to make a soft, sticky dough.

2) With floured hands, divide the dough into 10-12 pieces and roll into balls. Once the water in the saucepan has reached a gentle boil, drop the dumplings, one by one, into the water; partially cover and cook for 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, gently remove the dumplings and set them in a colander to drain. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Method to the Madness

Today I bring to you a recipe from Mandy Lee’s site, Lady and Pups, one of my favourite places to procrastinate on the Web, especially when I should be doing more constructive things, like organising my taxes or folding laundry or emailing the landlady.

It’s easy to fall under the spell of Mandy’s moody photos and acerbic prose; her recipes too, which always sound absurdly good – in that no-holds-barred, debauched, lick-your-fingers-clean kind of way. Take a look at this recipe for hot rice noodles, or the one for this magnificent thing. Couldn’t you see yourself happily staining your face and all your clothes with either of those cradled in your hands?

Of course you can.

However –

If you’ve ever followed a Mandy Lee recipe, you’ll know that they’re not for the weak. They’re not from the dinner-in-minutes-Rachel-Ray school of cooking; they are from the school of hard knocks.(this is, after all, the woman who convinced me – through those moody photos and that acerbic prose – to make ramen soup from scratch with 30 cloves of peeled garlic). This aggressive caveat isn’t meant to dissuade you; I’m just saying that if you’re looking for an easy, breezy, work-week meal that you can throw together right after the pants come off and the wide-stretch leggings go on, this one’s not for you. In fact, it’s the antithesis of that. Making a Mandy Lee recipe is a commitment. There is usually a long list of ingredients and and even longer list of instructions, generally with bits in FULL CAPS so that you don’t screw anything up.

I just want to be clear about that.

Are you still there?

Good. I’m glad! Because like any worthwhile, long-term commitment, Mandy’s recipes will always reward you in spades. Her recipes might look insane, spanning longer than most newspaper articles. But there is a method to her madness.

Breathe deep and just trust it.

A note on the recipe: below is Mandy Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice (with a few small tweaks from me). What’s brilliant about this recipe is that 1) she has you cook the rice in the oven with chicken broth and coconut milk, infusing every grain with luscious, rich flavours; and 2) she has you cook the chicken ABOVE the rice, balanced on a baking rack (I used a metal cookie-cooling rack) over the baking dish. This means that, as the chicken cooks, it’s precious juices and fat drip down into the rice, making it even more delicious. The process itself is a sight to behold – I spent a good minute or so watching the magic happen through the oven door, completely entranced.

A few more liner notes:

1- Mandy Lee has the chicken marinate between 2-6 hours, so keep that in mind time-wise (I didn’t do this, because I’m notoriously bad at following recipes and I missed that piece of instruction. (And it was a Tuesday night. After work. Hahahaha let’s find MORE reasons to make a long day longer!). All said, it worked out fine without marination, but I imagine it would be even better had I followed her advice.)

2- There are three major components here: Consider prepping the chicken and the coconut sauce in advance – the chicken will have time to marinate and the sauce can easily be reheated as soon as you’re ready to use it.

3- Since you’re dealing with raw chicken, it’s best to get all your ingredients and appliances ready before you begin. For instance, not having the skewers ready when you’re done wrangling a raw, buttery chicken is not a pleasant experience. I speak from experience. Have everything ready at your fingertips and I promise that things will go much more smoothly. (This might be another reason why prepping the chicken in advance might be worth it – getting that part out of the way is half the work.)

4 – I re-worked the instructions a little so that it (hopefully) is a little easier to follow.

Ok. Have at it.

Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice – lightly adapted from Mandy Lee’s recipe on Lady and Pups, inspired by Zak Pelaccio’s recipe in “Eat With Your Hands

SPICY COCONUT SAUCE:

  • 1 ½ cup coconut milk (usually 1 can)
  • ½ lemongrass stalk, white part only
  • 2 small red chilis
  • 1 green onion
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar (I used this to replace the 2 tsp of yellow mustard in the original recipe, which happens to be the one condiment I never have on hand)
  • 2 tsp fish sauce
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp (14 grams) unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

TURMERIC BUTTER CHICKEN RICE:

  • 1 whole chicken (about 3 lbs)
  • 5 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 ½” ginger, cut into chunks
  • 3 small red chilis
  • 3 Tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 Tbsp (57 grams) unsalted butter
  • 2 cups jasmine rice
  • 1 ½ cup coconut milk (usually 1 can)
  • 1 ½ cup chicken stock
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, white part only, smashed and cut into segments
  • pinch of salt and black pepper to season

 

Mandy Lee's Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice

Directions

MAKE THE SPICY COCONUT SAUCE: In a food-processor, blend everything under “Spicy Coconut Sauce”, except for the butter and fresh cilantro, until puréed. Add the butter, then bring the mixture to a gentle boil, and cook for about 20 mins until reduced by 1/3. Take off the heat and add the fresh chopped cilantro. Set aside until needed.

MAKE THE TURMERIC BUTTER CHICKEN RICE:

Step 1 – prepping the chicken

1) Rinse and clean out the cavity of the chicken, then pat dry and set aside. In a food-processor, purée garlic, ginger, red chilis, fish sauce, ground turmeric, ground coriander and ground black pepper until smooth. Take out about 2 tbsp of this turmeric-mixture and set aside. Then add the butter to the rest of the mixture and run the processor again until evenly incorporated (this is your “turmeric butter”). Reserve 1 tbsp of the turmeric butter for cooking the rice.

Mandy Lee's Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice

2) With the remaining turmeric butter: Gently insert your hands in-between the flesh and skin of the chicken from the neck-opening at the top of the breasts, separating the two layers to make space for stuffing the turmeric butter. Work slowly and gently so you do not puncture the skin, and make sure you do it all the way to the back-thighs that are attached to the back-bone, evenly distributing under the skin of the whole chicken.

3) Place ½ of the smashed lemongrass stalk inside the cavity, then with toothpicks, sew/seal the skins around BOTH the opening of the cavity and the neck. Now, rub the reserved turmeric-mixture WITHOUT BUTTER, evenly over the whole chicken. Let marinate for anywhere from 2-6 hours.

Step 2 – prepping the rice/cooking the chicken and rice

4) Preheat the oven on 420F. Put the jasmine rice in a sieve, then rinse and gently swish under running water to remove excess starch. Drain well and set aside. In a large, shallow baking-dish (a shallow dish will allow the rice cook evenly), melt the reserved 1 tbsp of turmeric butter over medium-high heat, then cook the rice in it for about 3 mins. Add the coconut milk and chicken stock, then scatter the lemongrass on the top. Bring the liquid to a simmer and cook for 3 min without stirring.

5) Now, place a baking-rack over the baking-dish, and set the chicken on top, breast-side down first (this gives the thighs a head start and prevents the breasts from overcooking). Place the whole thing in the middle-rack of the oven and roast for 15 min, then gently turn the chicken over so the breast-side now faces up, and roast for another 30-35 min until the chicken is browned. Remove the baking-rack with the chicken on top, and let rest for 10 min. Leave the rice in the oven during this time so it can finish cooking.

Mandy Lee's Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice

Step 3 – serving the chicken and rice with the coconut sauce

6) Remove all the lemongrass from the rice. The best way to cut the chicken is with a scissors, and make sure that you do it right over the rice so it can catch all the precious juice/butter that comes out of the chicken. Remove the lemongrass from inside the cavity, then serve immediately with the spicy coconut sauce (reheated gently over low heat).

Mandy Lee's Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice

One for the pot, one for the cook

Cooking has been fairly perfunctory these days. I’ve lacked that that little kick, that jolt of inspiration I usually get when I see something new – a recipe, an article, a video – that makes me want to roll up my sleeves and get to it. This means that my stovetop has seen a a lot of greens and beans on rotation (roma beans with kale, lima beans with rapini, black eyed peas with spinach…you get the idea), in other words, a mix-and-match troupe of dishes so simple that you could make them even if you’d been lobotomized; I can stand there, mouth-breathing over a pan of frying shallots and beans, letting my mind drift off to wherever it may go, and have a (more or less) wholesome dinner ready within 4 and half minutes. To make it a little more well-rounded, I’ll maybe add a wedge of toast and some canned tuna. But not always.

These are not necessarily the most satisfying of meals – creatively, spiritually, aesthetically – but hey, they do the job.

It’s easy to fall into a cooking funk when your overall motivation feels floppy, sluggish, unharnessed. It usually starts when you catch yourself buying the identical set of groceries week in and week out, then replicating the same meals from the week before (hellooooo roast chicken #578). Greens and beans aside, my fall-back funk foods – aside from the usual bag of tortilla chips and full-fat yogurt (in which to dip them) – include the aforementioned chicken and some type of white fish, usually cod or halibut, which usually gets tossed into the oven with a layer of seasoned breadcrumbs I keep in the freezer, and a drizzle of olive oil. (hey mom, recognise this one?) Roast chicken and panko-crusted cod are great back-pocket dishes. They truly are. But after you’ve had them day in and day out, without so much as a flourish to distinguish them, they start to feel like punishment.

So, a little while ago, I gave myself a nudge to break the pattern. In allegiance to the funk (wow, what a phrase. James Brown, can you hear me?), I still bought a whole chicken and the requisite filet of cod. But this time I wanted – no, needed – to make them look, feel and taste like something outside the repertoire I’d started to cling to. I needed something that was more vibrant than softened pinto beans, lost in a tangle of wilted arugula; more jazzy than a plain, roasted chicken.

I’m happy to report that I found two recipes to lift me out of my cooking slump – the first being a fragrant, anise-clementine chicken recipe from Ottolenghi that is sticky, jammy, crispy and sweet, with a subtle tinge of liquorice flavour from the Pernod; the second being a dish of lemon-scented cod, studded with olives and poached in white wine, then topped with fresh parsley. Both are handsome and delicious and, while definitely an upgrade from beans and greens, they too could be made post-lobotomy if you had to. All you need to do is stick everything in a pan, anoint it with booze* and toss it in the oven. Thankfully, it figures out the rest on its own.

(*it might go without saying, but one of the perks of cooking with booze is that here is usually a little leftover as a “job-well-done” libation for the cook. You might want to bookmark that thought.)

Clementine Pernod Chicken

Pernod-Clementine Chicken – adapted from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem
Serves 4-6

Ingredients

    • 5 Tbsp Pernod (or Arak, or Ouzo)
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 3 Tbsp freshly squeezed orange (or clementine) juice
    • 3 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
    • 2 Tbsp grainy mustard
    • 3 Tbsp light brown sugar or honey
    • 1 tsp sea salt
    • freshly ground pepper
    • 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (thighs and drumsticks)
    • 4 clementines (washed but unpeeled) sliced thin
    • a few sprigs of thyme
    • 3 medium onions (and/or fennel bulbs) cut lengthwise and then into quarters
    • 2 tsp fennel seeds

Clementine Pernod Chicken

Directions

1) In a large mixing bowl, whisk together Pernod, oil, orange and lemon juices, mustard, brown sugar and salt. Season with pepper, to taste.

2) Place chicken skin side up in large roasting pan with clementine slices, thyme sprigs, onion pieces (and/or fennel wedges) and fennel seeds. Pour sauce over top and gently toss everything together with your hands. (alternately, you can prep in advance and marinate: place chicken with clementine slices, thyme sprigs, onion/fennel wedges, and fennel seeds in a large mixing bowl or ziplock bag. Turn several times to coat. Marinate chicken for several hours or overnight.)

3) Preheat oven to 475°F. After 30 minutes, turn the oven down to 400ºF and continue roasting until the skin is brown and crisp, about 20 to 25 minutes longer. Remove pan from the oven.

4) Transfer chicken and clementines and onion pieces with juices to a serving platter. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Pairs well with a crisp salad and a knob of bread to soak up the juices.

Clementine Pernod Chicken

—–

Slow-Baked Cod with Lemon, Olives and White Wine – adapted from Real Simple
Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 2 lb cod fillets (or halibut)
  • ¾ cup dry white wine
  • ½ cup Kalamata olives
  • zest from 1 lemon, cut into strips
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper, to season
  • ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
  • ¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Directions

Heat oven to 400° F.

Place the fish in a small roasting pan. Add the wine – it should reach about halfway up the sides of the fish. Scatter the olives and lemon zest around the fish. Drizzle with the oil and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.

Roast until the fish is cooked through and flakes easily with a fork, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with the parsley. Divide the fish among individual plates and spoon the olives and wine sauce over the top.

Cod with Lemon and OlivesCod with Lemon and OlivesCod with Lemon and Olives

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