Easy Cooking – Pulses

I come to you today with an extension to the previous post on “easy cooking” to talk about pulses. Yes, pulses – not the ones that emanate from the heart, but rather the kind that make up that sub-set of legumes* (pronounced ley-gooms by most anglophoneswhich includes beans, lentils and dried peas.

(*Language note: the original French word légume(s) – pronounced ley-gyume in both the plural and singular – is used by francophones to describe vegetables. Lentils, peas, etc. are known as légumineuses.)

It’s perhaps not the sexiest of subjects, but a worthwhile one. Not only has the UN declared 2016 The International Year of the Pulses but, ever since Ottolenghi‘s books hit the mainstream and sustainable eating has nearly become a water cooler topic, the humble bean, lentil and chickpea have become de rigeur in the food world. Thankfully, they’re delicious as they are hip, and since pulses have a long history with food cultures across each continent, the recipe repertoire is vast and versatile.

I’ve slid pulses under the banner of “easy cooking”, simply because once you’ve made a few batches, it’s easy to incorporate them into different meals for the week, without too much trouble. On any given Sunday, when the kitchen becomes my workhorse, at least three of the four burners of the stove are on, cooking beans and chickpeas. I’ll soak them under cold water the night before so that they’re plump and rehydrated the next day. Then they just have to cook – usually anywhere from 30-60 minutes, depending. Beans aren’t fussy. You bring them to a boil, lower the heat, let them bubble away on low until the timer goes off. No need to hover over the stove; you can more or less ignore them and tend to other things (Skyping, reading, lip-synching…) while they cook. Lentils are the same, except they don’t need soaking and are ready in even less time (20 minutes or so).

It goes without saying that you can use always canned beans and chickpeas in your recipes (there’s a supply stationed in my cupboard right now) (because none of us are 19th-century homesteaders that make everything from scratch, all the time), but if you have a little time, cooking beans from dried is a nice alternative – they retain a nice al dente bite and their flavour is a lot more neutral/natural than the canned versions.

If you’re new to cooking pulses, here are some practical tips to keep in mind:

BEANS:

  • most require pre-soaking before cooking; however certain beans, such as mung or adzuki, and split peas don’t require pre-soaking
  • they will not cook properly if you add salt to the boiling water (reserve salt and add when they’re almost done cooking, if using)
  • when cooking, add enough water to cover them by about an inch, bring to gentle boil, then leave the lid on but slightly ajar.
  • cooking time can range between 30-60 minutes, depending on the type of bean (see more info in the links below)

LENTILS:

  • do not require pre-soaking before cooking
  • need to be picked over and rinsed before cooking
  • will not cook properly if you add salt to the boiling water (reserve salt and add when they’re almost done cooking, if using)
  • cooking ratio: 2 parts water, 1 part lentils 
  • red lentils are not the same as green, brown of Puy lentils; they cook faster and become softer (read: mushier) than other lentils. Two of my favourite recipes for red lentils are for Turkish red lentil soup and coconut dhal.

CHICKPEAS:

  • require pre-soaking before cooking
  • should be rinsed after soaking
  • will not cook properly if you add salt to the boiling water (reserve salt and add when they’re almost done cooking, if using)
  • when cooking, add enough water to cover them by about an inch, bring to gentle boil, then leave the lid on but slightly ajar
  • take about 1 hour to cook

For more information, visit these sites:

Combinations: during the week, I like having a variety of cooked lentilsbeans and grains (quinoa, farro, brown rice) in separate containers in the fridge. That way, they’re ready to be thrown into soups, stews, salads, pasta, etc.

Freezing: whatever won’t get used up in the next couple of days can be packed and frozen. Lay the cooked beans flat in one layer (e.g. on a baking sheet), allow them to freeze, then transfer to freezer bags or containers before putting them back in the freezer. The pre-freezing in one layer will prevent them from sticking together (same goes for dumplings, meatballs, etc.)

Quantities: if you’re going to spend the time cooking beans, go all the way. The idea isn’t to make portions large enough to survive the apocalype (in other words, no more than you can consume within the next few weeks) (freezer burn is a real thing), but make enough to have a small stockpile in the fridge/freezer of the different pulses that you like. That way, you’ll only have to set aside that time to cook beans about once a month/month and a half.

Below are some of my favorite recipes that use pulses – one with brown lentils, one with mung beans, and the last with chickpeas. They might even become your new back-pocket recipes.

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Classic Lentil Soup – makes 6 servings; freezes well

Note: this recipe does not require any pre-planning (soaking/cooking). The lentils cook in the soup.

Classic Lentil Soup

Ingredients

  • 300 grams dried brown lentils
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 celery stick (about 1 cup), finely chopped (reserve some celery leaves for garnish)
  • 1 medium carrot (about one cup), finely chopped
  • 1 large yellow onion (about 1 ½ cups, finely chopped)
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, peel removed and smashed
  • 14 ounces diced tomatoes in juice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 6 cups water or vegetable broth
  • Salt to taste
  • Optional: olive oil and sherry vinegar for serving

Directions

1) Rinse and pick through the lentils (sometimes you can find tiny stones); set aside to drain.

2) Put a large casserole or soup pot on medium heat and add the 3 Tbsp olive oil. Once the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic and cook until soft and the onion is beginning to turn golden-brown, about 10 minutes. Add the bay leaves and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Then add the tomatoes with their juice, stir and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes.

3) Add the lentils and cover with the water (or broth). Cover and cook about 30-45 minutes over low-medium heat until the lentils are tender (check from time to time to see if you need to add a bit more water/broth). When they’re almost done cooking, add salt to taste.

4) Add salt to taste; serve with a drizzle of olive oil, a splash of sherry vinegar and some of the reserved celery leaves. When reheating any leftovers, add some water to loosen the lentils.

Classic Lentil Soup

Classic Lentil Soup

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Mung Bean and Carrot Salad with Feta – lightly adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi
Serves 4

Note: this recipe does not require any pre-soaking. Mung beans are ready to be cooked from dry.

Mung Bean and Carrot Salad

Ingredients

  • 140g dried green mung beans
  • 60ml olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp caraway seeds
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • ½ tsp dried chilli flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1cm batons
  • ½ tsp honey
  • small handful of fresh coriander, chopped
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 140g feta, crumbled

Mung Beans

Directions

1) Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil, add the beans and simmer for 20 minutes, until they are cooked but still retain a bite. Drain, shake well and transfer to a large bowl.

2) About three minutes before the beans are done, heat two tablespoons of oil in a small frying pan and add the seeds. Cook on medium heat, stirring often, until they start to pop – about three minutes – then pour, hot oil and all, over the beans, along with the vinegar, garlic, chilli and half a teaspoon of salt.

3) While the beans are cooking, lay the carrots in a pan large enough for them to form a shallow layer on the bottom. Pour over anough water to nearly submerge them, plus two tablespoons of oil and half a teaspoon each of honey and salt. Bring to a boil and keep on a high heat for eight minutes, by which time the water should have evaporated and the carrots become slightly caramelised but still crunchy. Drain some liquid, if needed.

4) Add the carrots to the bean bowl, along with the fresh coriander, and stir gently. Transfer to a shallow serving bowl, sprinkle over lemon zest, dot with feta and drizzle with olive oil.

Mung Bean and Carrot Salad

Mung Bean and Carrot Salad

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Spiced Eggplant with Chickpeas and Yogurt – adapted from Molly Wizenberg
Serves 6; freezes well

  • 3 large eggplants (about 3 ½ lb)
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 small jalapeño, seeded (or not) and finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 ½ Tbsp. minced fresh ginger
  • ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 3 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
  • ½ tsp. paprika
  • 1½ tsp curry powder
  • 1 cup cooked chickpeas (or canned)
  • ¾ cup chopped cilantro
  • ½ cup whole-milk plain yogurt
  • Salt, to taste
  • Garam masala, for serving

Directions

1) Preheat the oven to 450° F. Put the eggplants on a rimmed baking sheet, and pierce them all over with a knife. Bake for about 40-45 minutes, or until the skins are blackened and the flesh feels very soft when pressed. Let cool slightly, then slice them open lengthwise and, using a spoon, scrape the flesh from the skin into a large bowl. Mash the flesh coarsely and set aside (this part can be done a day ahead and refrigerated).

2) Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they begin to sizzle and pop, about 10 seconds. Add the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is soft and beginning to brown, about 8-10 minutes. Add the jalapeño, garlic, ginger, red pepper flakes, paprika, curry powder and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, and stir well. Cook until all the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes.

3) Add the eggplant, stir to combine, and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add the cooked chickpeas, and warm through. Reduce the heat to low, and stir in the cilantro, half of the yogurt, and salt.

Serve hot or warm, with remaining yogurt and sprinkled with garam masala. Partners well with basmati rice or naan bread.

(just so you know – this photo was taken in bad lighting, under a tungsten bulb; in real life, the colour is deeper richer, and less pink.)

Spiced Eggplant with Chickpeas and Yogurt

Easy Cooking – Garlic & Chili Pepper

I recently came across an article by Elizabeth Dunn, published last fall in The Atlantic called The Myth of ‘Easy’ Cooking. It’s basically critique of the “easy cooking” empire that has proliferated in recent years over every media platform known to man (newspapers, magazines, TV, online tutorials, books, blogs, vlogs…), touting super simple! stress-free! meals made faster than you can say Rachel Ray. Reading it from the perspective of someone who likes making things from scratch – to the point of actually seeking it out – I felt conflicted. On one hand, it felt transgressive to agree with someone that cast such a critical light on home cooking. (It is, after all, the backbone of this blog and the thing I’m most enthusiastic about when it comes to food); on the other hand, I felt that she had a point – one that not many food enthusiasts or people working in the field of food media (like herself) would be eager to lay bare so candidly.

She’s calling bullshit, and I like it.

Because I think that the crux of what she’s saying is true – “fast and easy” recipes in the world of modern home cookery are often presented as more straightforward and simple than they actually are. It’s become very fashionable to sell the idea that an entire meal – from starter to dessert – can be effortlessly whipped up in under twenty minutes. And this, after a heavy day at work, bookended by two frenzied commutes, plus the discovery that, while you were away, your bathroom flooded, or the fridge broke down, or that your child has inexplicably lodged a Lego block deep into their nasal cavity. (I don’t speak from parental experience, but I have it on good authority that kids do these kinds of things. Bless them.) All this to say that on a run-of-the-mill Tuesday night – even without anything out of the ordinary happening – you’re likely not jazzed about the idea of assembling Piri Piri chicken, with two-type mashed potatoes, arugula salad, and natas tarts for dessert (as boldly suggested on page 120 of Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes).

Elizabeth Dunn has, very articulately and succinctly, hit the nail on the head about how today’s cooking empire (the books, the shows, the magazine articles and all the rest of it) has hijacked the principle of “simple cooking”. Simple cooking isn’t tossing some iceberg lettuce with oil and vinegar anymore – it’s topping it with freshly roasted chicken, toasted nuts, homemade croutons and some esoteric dressing that requires three different oils. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of that salad; it’s just that on most weekdays, who’s making that whole thing from scratch?). So, in that sense, I agree with her – in making cooking a fashionable commodity, we’ve built this unrealistic, unattainable image of what simple cooking is supposed to represent; in falling under the spell of pretty pictures in gauzy magazines, we’ve lost sight of what real, simple, day-to-day cooking actually looks like.

In all this, it’s worth mentioning that “easy” cooking means something different for everyone. My time, energy, and money constraints are not identical to yours; same goes for our interest in cooking, which not only varies from person to person, but also from day to day. There are days when I’m full of vim and vigour and have no qualms about making a 3-course dinner from beginning to end. But then there are days when stove-top popcorn and a glass of fizzy water sounds like a reasonable dinner. (to the chagrin of every nutritionist out there.)

All that said, I still really do believe in the importance in making food at home – in whatever way, shape or form that comes to be. And so, in defense of home cooking, I will say this: easy can still stay easy. On days when I don’t feel like pulling together a meal, often I’ll give myself a little nudge, and – after thinking about how much that hip, third-wave, stone-oven pizza next door is going to cost me after tax and tip – I’m usually able to scrounge together something decent, without much time and effort.

In many ways, I have Nonna to thanks for this. She’s taught me a lot about simple cooking, including the holy trinity of olive oil, garlic, and peperoncini (red chili flakes). When combined with care, these three ingredients can elevate more or less anything in your fridge. Toss in an anchovy, and you’re well on your way to gold standard of peasant food.

Below you’ll find three recipes that incorporate olive oil, garlic and peperoncini (red chili flakes)- one for sautéed rapini, another for braised Savoy cabbage and the last, an improvised pasta dish with Romano beans. This is true easy cooking – no fireworks or esoteric ingredients. Just a couple of things from the crisper or freezer that you can toss together in between the time you get home and your child decides to see how far a Lego will go up their nose.

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RAPINI SAUTÉED IN GARLIC AND DRIED CHILI
(Rapini aglio e olio con peperoncini)

Having a little stockpile of cooked rapini in the freezer is one of the best gifts your past self can give your present self, on those days when all you can do is stare into the depths of fridge, mouth-breathing.These are some of my favourite ways to use this rapini:

• as-is, with a chunk of crusty bread to soak up the garlic oil
• swirled into pasta, with a generous dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano
• on top of polenta
• on top of pizza
• alongside roasted chicken, spicy sausage, or meatballs
• in a curry

Rapini

Makes about 3 cups

  • 1 bunch of rapini (broccoli rabe)
  • 3-4 large garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 tsp dried chili flakes (peperoncini)
  • 3 Tbsp good quality olive oil (or 1-2 Tbsp more, if you’re adding this rapini to pasta)
  • sea salt (or flaked salt, such as Maldon)

Directions

1) Put a large pot of water on to boil. Rinse the rapini under cold running water and pat dry with a dish towel.

Rapini

2) Trim the stems (if they look a little rough), then run a paring knife along the inside of the stem to make a cross-section at the bottom, like so (this will help the stems to cook evenly, along with the more delicate leaves):

3) Once the water has boiled, add the rapini and blanch for about 3 minutes. Remove from the boiling water and drain in a colander. Once cool enough to handle, gently squeeze out as much water as possible, then roughly chop the rapini into pieces (manageable enough the eat). (note: at this point you can freeze portions of the rapini that you aren’t using right away – just make sure to drain really well, then transfer to small freezer bags)

Rapini

4) Meanwhile, heat up the olive oil in a pan on medium heat. Once hot, add the sliced garlic and fry until just beginning to turn golden. Add the pepperoncini as fry for 10 seconds further. Add the blanched, chopped rapini and a good pinch of salt and cook for about another 5 minutes, stirring every so often. Check the seasoning, then serve as desired.

Rapini

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BRAISED CABBAGE WITH GARLIC AND DRIED CHILI
(Cavolo stufato)

Makes about 4 cups

  • 1/2 head of Savoy cabbage, centre rib removed and cut into 1″ slices
  • 3-4 large garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1/2 tsp dried chili flakes (pepperoncini)
  • 3 Tbsp good quality olive oil
  • 1 cup water or chicken stock
  • sea salt (or flaked salt, such as Maldon)

Garlic-Braised Cabbage

Directions:

1) Heat the olive oil in a pan on medium-high heat. Once hot, add the garlic and cook until golden (almost golden-brown). Add the chili flakes and stir, allowing them to flavour the oil (about 10 seconds).

2) Add the sliced cabbage and stir to combine. Season with salt. Cook for about 2 minutes, then add the water or stock.

3) Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and allow the cabbage to cook and break down (about 20-30 minutes). Serve with crusty bread, on pasta or with fish.

Garlic-Braised Cabbage

Garlic-Braised Cabbage

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SPAGHETTI WITH GARLIC & DRIED CHILI WITH ROMANO BEANS
(Spaghetti aglio e olio con fagioli)

Makes 2 servings

I like to cook big batches of beans and lentils all at one time, then either refrigerate them for the week, or freeze them (more on prepping pulses and legumes in an upcoming post). If freezing, lay the cooked beans in one layer on a baking sheet, freeze, then transfer to containers of freezer-proof bags (this prevents them from sticking together). They’ll keep for a couple of months. If you’re short on time, just used canned.

  • 200g spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup good quality olive oil
  • 3-4 large garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1/2 tsp dried chili flakes (peperoncini)
  • 1/2 cup cooked romano beans (or canned)
  • 1 anchovy filet
  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs (I used panko)
  • 1/3 cup Parmagiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
  • zest from 1/2 lemon
  • optional: pesto (I try to make some in the summer/early fall and freeze them in individual portions. More on that here.)

Spaghetti with garlic, dried chillis and romano beans

Directions

1) Boil the water for the spaghetti. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a pan on medium-high heat. Once hot, add the garlic and cook until golden (almost golden-brown). Add the chili flakes and stir, allowing them to flavour the oil (about 10 seconds).

2) Add the whole anchovy and stir; it will melt on its own. Add the beans, stir,and allow to cook for couple of minutes. Then add about 1/4 cup of water to help them break down a bit and form a sauce.

3) When the water comes to a rolling boil, add a small handful of coarse salt and then add the spaghetti; cook until al dente. (If the bean mixture looks a little dry, add some of the pasta water. The starch will help bring the it together.

4) While the beans are warming through and the pasta is cooking, set a dry pan on medium heat and toast the breadcrumbs, shaking the pan every so often to avoid burning them (2-3 minutes). Set aside.

5) Strain the pasta and then return to the pot. Add the garlic and bean mixture and stir to coat. Add the Parmigiano and stir to combine; serve in bowls, adding a little lemon zest, the toasted breadcrumbs and some additional Parmigiano to taste.

Spaghetti with garlic, dried chillis and romano beans

Party Patties

It feels strange to be writing a post about sandwiches, considering that I’m not what you’d call a “sandwich enthusiast”. Sandwiches are fine and all, but for me they usually function as a perfunctory filler – the thing I pick up at an airport before a flight, or at the work cafeteria when I’ve forgotten my lunch and the hot meal du jour looks dodgy. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to get exited about ham on rye or a floppy veggie wrap. Sandwiches have just never been my jam.

That said, I’m a big advocate of the falafel sandwich. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a falafel sandwich I didn’t like, even the cheap ones I used to inhale during my undergrad days (usually between classes or after late-night drinking excursions), that we’d buy from the dingy Lebanese take-out places around the downtown campus. The best ones had a crunchy exterior that gave way to a soft, crumbling chickpea interior. The ones slathered in garlicky tahini sauce, fresh parsley, bright pink pickled turnip, and wrapped in soft flatbread. Compared to what else was on offer around school – 99¢ pizza, McDonald’s, dubious-looking panini at the Coffee Depot – these falafel sandwiches were often a student’s best option for a cheap, quick, tasty bite.

Since then, and after a few attempts of my own, I’ve come to realize that while falafels are great take-out food, they can be tricky to make well at home. I suspect that it’s because the best ones are made with a deep-fryer (surprise, surprise…) and since I don’t actually have a deep fryer – which, for my overall health, not to mention exposed extremities, is probably a good thing – it means that I don’t ever really find myself trying to make falafel from scratch. Instead, I usually end up picking up one from that well-loved vegan spot in my neighbourhood, because it’s good and close-by and they can have that thing ordered, dressed and wrapped up in five minutes flat. But since I’m not made of money and can’t take on the role of La Panthère verte’s most valuable patron, I’ve been looking for alternatives I can make at home – where my pocketbook can stay clear from any cash registers and 8$ organic sandwiches.

In scouring the Internet for ways to use up the zucchini that were starting to wither away in the crisper drawer, I came across this recipe from Martha Stewart, which reminded me a little of falafel sandwiches (because of the chickpeas and the pita), but looked more home-kitchen friendly. (in truth, my eagerness to try the recipe may be chalked up to the fact that I mistakenly read it as “Zucchini Party Sandwiches” and my curiosity got the best of me. They weren’t in fact “party” sandwiches, but patty sandwiches – though, since making them, I would have no qualms calling them “party” sandwiches, given how colourful and flavourful they are.) (like a party in your mouth, har har…).

They’re something of a cross between a zucchini latke and a falafel – more toothsome than the former, less complicated than the latter. I tweaked Martha’s recipe slightly, using canola oil to fry them in (because, again – unlike Martha – I’m not made of money) and incorporating some curry powder, cayenne and a small amount of olive oil to the mixture for some added oumf. I highly recommend that you do the same, as the flavours mingle really well together; like people do, when the party goes from good to dancing-on-the-tables (!) great.

Have a good week, everybody x

Curried Zucchini-Chickpea Patty Sandwiches

Curried Zucchini-Chickpea Pa(r)tty Sandwiches – adapted from Martha Stewart
Serves 8 (a half-pita each)

Ingredients

  • 1 15.5-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup plain breadcrumbs (I used panko)
  • 1 medium zucchini, grated
  • 1 small red onion, grated
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 Tbsp curry powder
  • ¼ tsp cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil – for flavour
  • ¼ cup canola oil (or sunflower oil) – for frying

To serve:

  • 4 whole-wheat pitas, halved
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup fresh mint leaves
  • ½ cucumber, thinly sliced
  • A handful of lettuce leaves, and/or arugula and/or radicchio

Directions

1) Mash chickpeas in a bowl until more or less smooth (with a few nubs left in-tact). Stir in breadcrumbs, grated zucchini, onion, egg, curry, cayenne, salt and pepper. Form into eight 4-by-1/2-inch patties and set aside.

2) Put a pan on medium-high heat and warm the canola oil until hot, but not smoking. Fry the patties until golden and crisp, about 2 to 3 minutes per side.

3) Meanwhile, warm the halved pitas in the toaster on in a dry pan, just to warm through.

4) Stuff the pita halves with the cooked patties, some cucumber, lettuce, mint and yogurt.

Curried Zucchini-Chickpea Patty Sandwiches

Curried Zucchini-Chickpea Patty Sandwiches

One-Bowl Wonder

I have been dutifully plugging away at a post about “the myth of easy cooking” in the twenty minutes each morning before work, from the time I stumble out of bed (or tumble, depending) to the time I finish my coffee. But for some reason, the things (important, opinion-laden things!) I’d like to tell you just. aren’t. coming. There’s been a lot of typing, deleting, typing, deleting. So I’ve put that one aside for a little while, in the hopes that with a little time to percolate, the words might come more easily.

In the meantime, there’s the backlog of stuff I’ve wanted to share with you, one of them being the chocolate chip cookie recipe I recently discovered from Christina Tosi’s cookbook, Milk Bar Life: Recipes and Stories. If you haven’t heard of her, Tosi is the wonder-woman behind NYC’s Milkbar, the sister bakery of David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant empire. If you’ve seen her segments on The Mind of a Chef, you’ll know that she is a mensch in the world of sweets; if there is anyone I would trust with a recipe for cake or cookies or pie, it’s certainly this lady.

Now, chocolate chip cookies might seem fairly straightforward, but as any amateur baker can tell you, they can still be capricious little buggers. A slight imbalance in gluten, sugar and fat can turn them into a liquefied mess or make them as hard as stone (or, lord forbid, cakey, fluffy cookies). I always thought that the key to the perfect chocolate chip cookie was extensive chilling and the use of fancy gear (the stand-mixer being the most coveted piece of machinery), but it turns out I’ve (we’ve?) just been overthinking things. Tosi’s recipe doesn’t require any special gadgetry or preternatural baking skills; the whole thing is done the old-fashioned way – in one bowl, with a wooden spoon (and no overnight chilling). With this recipe, there is nothing esoteric or complex to contend with; there is simply no mucking about. 

What you end up with is the Platonic ideal of the chocolate chip cookie – chewy in the centre, golden and crispy around the edges, and a not-too-sweet, buttery flavour where chocolate reigns supreme. While I hesitate using superlatives when it comes to recipes, this might just be the perfect chocolate chip cookie.

I hope you’ll give it a whirl.

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Special mention: I’d like to thank my cousin Liza for the handmade, Roisin Fagen tea towel that serves as the saucy backdrop to these photos. Along with these cookies, it’s one of my new favourite things.

Chocolate Chip Cookies – lightly adapted from Milk Bar Life: Recipes and Stories by Christina Tosi
Makes about 15 cookies

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Before we get started…

  • The recipe calls for quite a bit of chocolate (a whole 12 ounces! This woman means business!), but it’s all part of the perfect balance, so don’t be tempted to skimp.
  • The only ingredient that is a bit novel is the non-fat milk powder, but you can find this at most run-of-the-mill grocery stores. The powder deepens the flavour and lends to their chewy texture, so best not to skip it. If you’re worried that the rest of the bag is going to slowly perish in your cupboard until next year’s spring cleaning, rest assured that you’ll be making these cookies more than once, and before you know it, you’ll have successfully chipped away at that bag of milk powder. These cookies freeze really well too, so tripling or quadrupling the recipe is not a bad idea either.
  • Instead of using dark chocolate chips, I used a mix of dark chocolate and white chocolate pastilles, which I chopped into pieces, because that’s what I had on hand.

Ingredients

    • ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and just warm to the touch
    • ¾ cup packed light brown sugar
    • ½ cup granulated sugar
    • 1 egg
    • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    • 1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
    • 2 tablespoons nonfat milk powder
    • 1 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt
    • ½ teaspoon baking powder
    • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
    • 12 ounces chcolate (I used a mix of 70% dark + white chocolate), roughly chopped

Instructions

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2) With a wooden spoon, mix the sugars together in a large bowl and add the melted butter. Stir vigorously for about a minute or more. Mix the egg and vanilla in the measuring cup you used for the sugar and add to the mixture. Stir until the mix has a glossy sheen, about one more minute.

3) Mix in the flour, milk powder, salt, baking powder, and baking soda until just combined. Stir in the chocolate chips and mix until evenly distributed.

4) Lightly form dough into balls about the size of a golf ball (or if you have a mini ice-cream scoop, you can use that for a more uniform result) and place on the baking sheet lined with parchment paper about 2 to 3 inches apart. Bake for 9-11 minutes or until golden brown around the edges but still soft in the middle. The cookies will fall as they cool. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Boyfriend’s General Tao

General Tao Chicken

What you see in this (badly-lit, somewhat blurry) photo is the pinkish glow from the Netflix “Fireplace For Your Home” radiating from the TV, in the company of a very boozy El Presidente cocktail and a plate of homemade General Tao that my man made for us on New Year’s Eve, while Aretha‘s Ten Years of Gold and the “Best of Neil Diamond” took turns on the LP player. Thankfully, what you don’t see in this photo is the oblong coffee stain that has taken up permanent residence on our living room rug, as well as my woeful attempt to sing along to Red Red Wine, swaying back and forth, like moms do when they listen to Gordon Lightfoot, or Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman, with their eyes closed, thinking back to the days of their high school dances.

Mom-jeans, here I come.

Obviously, this wasn’t the kind of blow-out NYE party that you see in movies, or in digital newsfeeds. There wasn’t any glittery confetti or streamers, party hats or noise makers; nor were there five dozen people crammed into a sweaty apartment, wailing the midnight countdown at the top of their lungs, while someone was being sick on the balcony.

But we did have prosecco. And there was some dressing up – I found a pair of dark suede heels and that black jumpsuit with the sheer neckline that I’d been saving. For good measure, I did my nails in something that goes by the name “Champagne Dream” and excavated my MAC lipstick called “Diva”. It was New Year’s after all. Party of two, notwithstanding.

We didn’t have anything planned except dinner – which we agreed should be something special. Or, at the very least, a step up from the Christmas leftovers we’d been stretching for a week. We thought about doing a roast, or cornish hens, but neither of those stuck. Then, my man suggested that he make General Tao Chicken from scratch (ding ding ding – we have a winner!). I was pleased in knowing that I would soon have a plate of that glossy, sticky, sweet concoction happily balanced on my knees, all without the effort of actually cooking, or ordering a disappointing hunk of lukewarm take-out, clad in its Styrofoam shell.

I can’t claim to know much about General Tao chicken. Is it Tao? Or Tso? Does it really have Chinese roots? Hunanese roots? Was it invented in Taiwan? Or New York? None of the above? I can only tell you that the sauce from this version comes to you courtesy of the 100% non-Chinese, Québécois-caucasian cooking personality, Ricardo Larrivée, with some adaptations from my 100% non-Chinese, Ontarian-caucasian boyfriend.

I can also tell you that it’s the Chinese-Canadian delicacy of your dreams. It’s exactly like the General Tao you order can off the menu at your local Szechuan restaurant, except better; since you’re choosing the chicken, the final result is worlds apart from the sub-par meat on offer for $7.95 at the local take-out place.

While I’m usually not a huge fan of making fried food at home (the trouble, the injury, the mess…), this is one of the few dishes involving frying whose homemade version is better than any other ones I’ve had in restaurants. Plus, it’s not likewas making it. He was. My job was to sip my cocktail, gaze at our (fake) fireplace and serenade him with Neil Diamond sing-alongs from the couch.

♫  Red, red wiiiiine… ♫

General Tao Chicken – sauce adapted from Ricardo Cuisine; batter from Food Retro; made with love by the boyfriend
Serves 4

Ingredients

Sauce + main ingredients:

  • 6 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 6 Tbsp chicken broth (or water)
  • 6 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 4 tsp cornstarch
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 2 tsp sambal oelek
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 Tbsp water
  • 2 lbs skinless and boneless chicken thighs, cut into large cubes
  • one green pepper, de-seeded and cut into thick slices (halved, then cut in three)
  • 1 Tbsp canola oil (to sauté the pepper)

Batter:

  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp white sugar
  • 1/2 cup + 2.5 Tbsp water

For Frying:

  • 1 litre canola oil
  • deep, heavy-bottomed pot (Dutch oven or wok)
  • frying/candy thermometer
  • paper towels

To serve:

  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced
  • cooked white rice (see note below)
  • steamed greens (bok choy, broccoli)

—–

Directions

1) Make soy mixture: in a small bowl, combine soy sauce, broth, vinegar, ginger, garlic, cornstarch, paprika, sambal oelek and sesame oil. Set aside.

2) Make the sauce: in a small saucepan, combine sugar and water. Bring to a boil and simmer until mixture is slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add soy mixture. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Keep sauce aside, off the heat.

3) Make the batter: In a bowl, season chicken pieces with salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, mix all the batter ingredients in a medium size bowl.  Add the cubed chicken and toss to coat.

4) Fry the chicken: Heat your cooking oil to a temperature of 37oF (use a frying/candy thermometer). Drop battered meat into the hot oil a few pieces at a time and fry in batches for 4-5 minutes, or until a deep golden brown and cooked through, making sure to always have about 3/4-inch of oil to fry the chicken (add oil as necessary). Break up pieces that stick together as soon as possible (chopsticks work well for this).  Drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining chicken. Discard oil.

Note: try to drop the meat into the oil one piece at a time, taking care not to overcrowd the pan.  If all the meat is tossed in at once, they could stick together, cook improperly, or the batter could become very greasy, as the temperature of the cooking oil would drop.

5) Pull everything together: warm 1 tablespoon of canola oil on medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the peppers and soften for about 3 minutes. Set aside on a plate. In the same skillet, heat the sauce. Then add the chicken and toss well to coat. Sprinkle with green onions and serve with white rice and steamed greens.

Note from boyfriend on rice:  THIS was the rice.  White.  And I rinsed like crazy.  Like Crazy. Until water runs clear.  It’s super important.

January’s Refrain

After the debauchery comes le détox.

I ate so much. It’s awful. Salads from now on.

This a common refrain in January, one that we seem to come across just about everywhere – magazine articles, ads, blogs, the Lifestyle section of newspapers, and even the water cooler at work. It seems that everyone is in “detox”* mode, eliminating and abstaining after The Great Big Binge; groaning, biting their lower lips and confessing about just how bad they’ve been.

Fifty Shades of Fruitcake.

(*I have very strong opinions about the word “detox” as it applies to diet, which is why I’m putting it in quotations. Unless it’s being used to describe the process of someone coming off hard drugs or being treated for mercury poisoning, the word “detox” is a unicorn word – pretty, but imaginary.)

I think it’s fascinating how much we link food to guilt. Ingredients are compartmentalized into strict categories of “good” and “bad”, so that when we’ve had a slice of cake we’ve been naughty, but if we drink nothing but juice for ten days straight, we’re suddenly very, very good. Schedule in that colonic and you’re well on your way to sainthood.

With the turn of the calendar on January 1st, there comes reflection, regret, and the goal of redemption. How do I undo all the bad things I’ve done? How do I wipe the slate clean? The terms detox, clean eating and carb-free – the Holy Trinity of Orthorexia – have cemented themselves into the language we use to talk about healthy eating, especially around the time everyone’s making resolutions they won’t keep. And frankly, it

drives

me

mental.

I can understand the desire for self-improvement. I can get behind the idea of not eating in excess and limiting the intake highly processed foods. But I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any favours by adopting attitudes of excessive food guilt; nor do I think that a handful of gummy bears is the difference between living a virtuous life or a debased one.

There was  an article I read recently about the French approach to food (we’re using wide-sweeping generalisations about the French here, but still…), making the argument that food and pleasure can and should co-exist. I think there’s something to be said for the this model of eating, which not only allows for pleasure, but encourages it. You want a piece of cheese? Have it. A glass of wine. Yes. You eat your vegetables too – not because you have to, but because they’re vibrant and exciting and delicious and they too will make you feel good.  I recognise that, especially in the last decade or so, the French have also adopted some of the same health trends as North Americans (after all, sans gluten shops have been popping up in Paris and both BBC Travel and The New York Times posted articles about the demise of the baguette in France), but I still think that the French take their food very seriously, in that it’s supposed to be enjoyed, savoured, appreciated, not admonished on the basis of calories or the fact that it doesn’t abide to the diet du jour.

Which brings me to galette des rois.

In January, while half of North America is suffering through Gwyneth-esque cleanses, the French are celebrating. In anticipation of the Epiphany, on January 6th, bakeries start to fill their vitrines with large, round cakes with scored tops called galette des rois – two layers of puff pastry, with crème d’amande (almond cream) in between. A fève (bean) is hidden inside the galette before baking and whomever gets the slice with the fève becomes “king” or “queen” for the day and gets to wear a nifty paper crown. Many bakeries in Montreal offer them through the month of January, but on a whim, I decided to try making one this year (with mixed results, see more below).

It’s celebratory food. It’s January food. It’s the food that we cherish because it’s special and because we don’t eat it everyday. And for those reasons, it’s meant to be enjoyed with gusto, not the guilt we’ve been trained to carry with us each time we raise a forkful of cake to our mouths.

So, I invite you – to pull up a chair, a plate, and dig in.

Galette des rois (serves 8) – from Clotilde Dusoulier’s site Chocolate and Zucchini

Note: in true French fashion, these measurements are in grams, allowing for more accuracy. If you don’t already have a kitchen scale, consider buying one – they come in different price ranges. I bought an electric one for 20$ a few years ago and it’s one of the best kitchen gadgets I own.

  • 500 grams (17 2/3 ounces) all-butter puff pastry, thawed if frozen
    For the crème d’amande:
  • 125 grams unsalted butter, softened
  • 125 grams granulated sugar
  • 130 grams almond flour (i.e. almond meal or finely ground
    almonds)
  • 8 grams corn starch
  • a good pinch sea salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon rum (or Grand Marnier)
    For the eggwash and glaze:
  • 1 egg yolk
    Accessories:
  • 1 porcelain trinket or dried bean
  • 1 paper crown

Galette des rois

Directions*:

(*what you see below might seem like a daunting list of directions, but I promise – especially since you’re using bought puff pastry – it’s a pretty simple recipe.)

1) Prepare the crème d’amande: Beat the butter until creamy, but avoid incorporating air into it. In a separate bowl, combine the sugar, almonds, corn starch, and salt. Stir with a whisk to remove any lumps. Add to the almond mixture to the creamed butter and mix until smooth. Add the rum, then the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between each addition. Cover and refrigerate for an hour or overnight.

2) Roll out the puff pastry: Divide the puff pastry in 2 equal pieces, and roll each one out to form a rough circle a little larger than 12 inches in diameter. Use a sharp knife and an upturned plate of the right dimension to cut a neat 12-inch circle out of one, and a slightly larger one with the other, adding about 1/4 inch all around the edge of the plate.

3) Assemble the galette: Place the smaller of the two circles on a piece of parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. In a small bowl, combine the egg yolk with a tablespoon water (or milk, if you have it handy) until smooth. Using a pastry brush, brush the outer rim of the dough lightly with the eggwash by a width of about 1 inch. Make sure not to wet the actual edge of the dough, or it will impede its rise. Pour the crème d’amande in the center and spread it out inside the eggwash ring with a spatula. Place a porcelain fève, a dried bean, or the trinket of your choice in the crème d’amande. Press it down gently to bury it. Transfer the second round of dough precisely on top of the first, smooth it out gently over the crème d’amande to remove any air pockets, and press it down all around the sides to seal.

4) Score the galette: Using the back of the tip of your knife (i.e. the dull side), draw a decorative pattern on top of the galette, using just enough pressure to score the dough without piercing it (skip to 7:30 of this video for an example of scoring design) (I free-styled it!). Brush the top of the galette lightly with the egg wash: again, make sure it doesn’t drip over the edges, or the egg wash will seal the layers of the puff pastry in this spot and it won’t rise as well. Using the tip of your knife, pierce 5 holes in the top dough – one in the centre, and four around the sides – to ensure an even rise. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper (or silicone baking sheet, like a Silpat) and refrigerate for 1 hour. (Alternatively, you can place the galette in the freezer at this point, on the baking sheet, and bake it the next day).

Galette des rois

Galette des rois

5) Bake the galette: Preheat the oven to 360°F; if the galette was in the freezer, take it out while the oven preheats. Insert the galette in the middle of the oven and bake for 30 minutes (35 if it was frozen), until puffy and golden brown. Place on a rack to cool completely and serve at room temperature (or, if you prefer, rewarm slightly in the oven before serving).

***WORD TO THE WISE: don’t attempt to slice the sides of the puff pastry after you’ve laid one layer on top of the other, as I did (I tried to make a more symetrical circle). Doing so will cause the crème d’amande to spill out in a dramatic fashion…

Galette des rois

That said, most things are fixable, especially when it comes to “rustic” home cooking…

(and it turns out that the baked filling is delicious on its own.)

Galette des rois

100th

We began the New Year by discovering a smattering of mold, a constellation of green and black across a metre of bubbled paint, on our living room wall, right behind the couch.

Yey, a new year! A fresh start! With some health-compromising fungus! Cool!

I’m trying not to see it as a bad omen, a bad start to the year; trying not to think about the fact that this nagging cough from my cold has hung on longer than usual; trying not to think about the cost of a dehumidifier in the days after the financial haemorrhage that is Christmas; trying not to be annoyed that our landlady’s solution to the humidity is to Pfft, just turn up the heat!, which only makes things worse by turning our place into a sauna any time we cook, hang laundry and shower within the same 48 hours (partly because our apartment wasn’t outfitted with a bathroom fan, nor a kitchen fan.)

But I’m trying – really hard – not to think about any of that, right after my man bleaches down the wall and sets up the rotating space heater, and I recount the time someone I knew had to be operated on because he had fungus growing under his cheeks, in his sinus cavity. La la la.

To distract myself, I’m writing this post, which WordPress tells me is my 100th. They even sent me a notification with an image of a miniature trophy and an exclamation mark. So I guess that means we should celebrate? You, me and this 100th batch of words? Let’s forget about fungus. Let’s instead turn our attention to tacos. Because in an ideal world, I think most celebrations would start with tacos. Don’t you?

I’ve actually been hanging onto this recipe for a few weeks now, from early December, when we had a bunch of people over for a two-cake, Planter’s punch, tacos-with-all-the-fixings-fiesta for my man’s birthday. It seemed fitting seeing that at the same time last year, we were in Tulum, beach combing, laying under palm trees, speaking broken (very broken) Spanish, and eating our weight in tacos.

We were partial to one thatch-roofed taqueria/bar right off the beach called La Eufemia; what they offered was straightforward, cheap, and more authentic than the Italian and Asian-fusion stuff the guys down the road were shilling. So it became a bit of a daily ritual – 2 Coronas and three or four tacos each, then a walk on the beach, or along the tiki torch-lined road. Simple, but perfect.

Tulum

TulumTulum

The fish tacos (pictured above) might have been La Eufemia‘s crowning glory, but their al pastor were pretty great too – pork shoulder rubbed in a mix of chiles, then slowly grilled until tender, served on tortillas with chopped onion, pineapple, and cilantro. We wanted to re-create something at home along the same lines, but without a grill or rotisserie, char-grilling the meat didn’t seem feasible. The other option was to slice the meat, then grill it, but seemed like a sure-fire way to dry it out. So instead, we left the pork shoulder intact, marinated it overnight (in the traditional al pastor spices), slow-cooked it, then once it was out of the oven, pulled the whole thing apart with two forks, and served it with fresh cilantro, onion and the pineapple it had been cooked with. The whole thing was smoky and sweet, tender and caramelised. We had leftovers for the better part of the week, but we didn’t complain because each time we put one together, it was like a little party, a fiesta, a miniature escape…

(…like the one this blog post gave me from that fuzzy, fungal surprise we found behind the couch. Thanks for bearing with me. Now you will be rewarded with tacos.)

Slow-Cooked Pork Tacos – marinade from Food & Wine
Serves 8

Notes:
1- this recipe easily doubles if you’re cooking for a crowd
2- the pork needs to marinate overnight, so plan accordingly

011

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more for brushing
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 4 fresh guajillo chiles—stemmed, seeded and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1/3 cup pineapple juice
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons chipotle in adobo, chopped (original recipe calls for achiote paste, but I wasn’t able to find any)
  • Sea salt
  • 2 pounds boneless, whole pork shoulder
  • 1/2 medium pineapple, peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
  • 1 medium red onion, sliced crosswise 1/2 inch thick
  • Warm corn tortillas, chopped cilantro, thinly sliced red onion, lime wedges for serving*

*Other (possibly inauthentic al pastor toppings): queso (or feta), shredded red cabbage, quick-pickled radishes, chipotle powder

DIRECTIONS

1) Preheat the oven to 325°F

2) In a medium saucepan, heat the 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the garlic and cook over moderately high heat, turning occasionally, until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Stir in the oregano, cumin, pepper and cloves and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the chiles and cook, stirring, until blistered in spots, about 30 seconds. Add the pineapple juice, vinegar and achiote paste and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes.

3) Transfer the chile mixture to a blender and purée until smooth. Season with salt. Scrape the marinade into a large, sturdy plastic bag. Add the pork and turn to coat. Set the bag in a small baking dish and refrigerate overnight.

4) Preheat a grill pan. Brush the pineapple and onion with oil. Grill over medium-high heat, turning once, until lightly charred and softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a roasting pan.

5) Remove the pork from the marinade. In the same pan used for the pineapple, grill the whole pork shoulder over medium-high heat until browned on all sides. Transfer to the roasting pan, nestling it among the pineapple and onion wedges. Pour remaining marinade from bag on top. Cover loosely with foil and bake in the preheated oven for approximately 3 hours (let the pork cook undisturbed for 2 hours, then begin checking it every half hour. The pork is done when it is fork-tender, in other words, when it easily falls apart.)

6) Shred pork with two forks; season with salt. Serve with warm corn tortillas, chopped cilantro, sliced red onion and lime wedges (and/or any other toppings of your choice).

Tacos al Pastor

Tacos al Pastor

Tacos al Pastor

Real Christmas

“I can’t believe it’s already over.” – Mom, on the drive home after Christmas dinner

This holiday is charged with so much expectation, emotion and excitement that when it’s over and done – after only a few short days of feasting, hugging and imbibing – it’s hard to believe it ever really happened. Christmas sometimes feels like one big blur of flour and sugar, sloppy two-cheeked kisses, chest colds, Burl Ives, and glitter (bits of which we’ll be finding in our apartment til March.)

The funny thing is, despite the rushing around, the prep, the chaos, the outbursts, the kitchen meltdowns, the set-up, the clean-up, the mountains of dishes, I can’t imagine having it any other way. It’s bacchanal, it’s over-the-top, it’s insane. But it’s Christmas. Not the idyllic, gilded Christmases of the glossy magazines, or of Martha Stewart, or of people we come across on the Internet with seemingly perfect lives. It’s real. It’s messy. It’s exhausting. It’s emotional. But in between the messy bits comes lots of love and togetherness, laughter and gratitude. When we lost power on Christmas Eve – right before the seven-fish dinner was ready for the oven – we managed to pretend we weren’t worried, ignoring the three dozen shrimp quietly defrosting on the counter, opting instead to drink bubbly and eat crackers, while my (ever-optimistic, buoyant) brother shucked oysters by lamplight.

Things certainly could have been worse.

Oysters

When the power came back on, about an hour later, everyone cheered and kissed and toasted. It was like the final scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. Dinner was back on schedule, the wine flowed freely, and soon enough, the twelve of us gathered around the table for a feast fit for kings.
Christmas Eve Dinner

Once the last fork was laid down and the plates were cleared, Nonna pulled out her reading glasses, mom plated cookies and After Eights and we played Tombola, calling out the numbers in English, Italian, German, and French, so that everyone around the table could put their chips on the right spot. It didn’t feel good beating Grandma at Tombola three times in a row (it just instigated a fit of guilt-ridden, nervous laughter), but it did help me forget about my chest cold, as did learning – on Christmas Eve, no less – that the number 11 in German is both spelled and pronounced “elf”.

Tombola

Family time aside, the thing I relished most this Christmas – the thing that ended up being the most restorative part of this whole holiday – was the baking. Not because the results were particularly successful (deflated meringues, chewy crackers, and lacklustre cioffe were among the flops), but because I had the chance to do most of it on my own – quietly and leisurely, in crumpled pyjamas. With the year winding down, I came to realise just how much that time on my own – especially in the kitchen – has been (was, is)  a subtle luxury. When I used to hear food people say that baking was “meditative”, I’d roll my eyes, thinking Ugh, how cheesy… But it turns out they were right. When you bake on your own, it’s just you, the dough, and nothing else. The rest of it – the distractions and concerns, decisions and regrets – can stay suspended for awhile.

Somewhere between batches of madeleines and biscotti, shortbread cut-outs and these ginger cookies, I found that respite from an unquiet mind can come from nothing more than a little butter, sugar, flour and a rolling pin.

Who knew.

Here’s to making room for doing more of the things we love in the coming year. Wishing you all a bright and welcoming 2016 and looking forward to having you here again soon xx

—–

Orange Spice Madeleines – adapted from Port and Fin
Makes 16

Orange Spice Madeleines

Ingredients

  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • ⅔ cup sugar
  • 1 cup + 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup + 1 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 large navel orange, zest
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • ¼ tsp ground cardamom

Directions

1) Melt the butter in a saucepan until it comes lightly browned and has a nutty fragrance (careful not to over-brown it – butter tends to burn rather easily). Set aside to cool slightly.

2) In a medium bowl, mix one cup of the flour, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom and set aside.

3) In a separate bowl, whisk the two eggs with the vanilla and salt until the eggs are frothy.

4) Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and, with a spatula, stir until just combined. Take care not to over-stir.

5) Add the cooled melted butter and the orange zest and stir. It may take a minute for the butter to blend into the mixture. Again, take extra care not to over-mix.

6) Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator to rest at least one hour and up to overnight.

7) Prepare a madeleine tin by brushing the moulds with the extra tablespoon of butter and lightly dusting them with flour, tapping off any excess. Place the pans in the freezer for at least an hour.

8) Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the batter from the refrigerator and the pan from the freezer. Fill each mould with approximately one tablespoon of batter.

9) Bake the madeleines for 10-15 minutes until the edges are browning and the middle is puffed up slightly. Using your forefinger, press lightly on the center hump – the madeleines are finished baking when they spring back at your touch. Remove the madeleines from the oven and let cool for 2 minutes. Then gently loosen the madeleines from their moulds and arrange onto a cooling rack. Dust with icing sugar (optional) and serve.

Orange Spice Madeleines

Orange Spice Madeleines

—–

Hazelnut Biscotti with Orange Zest – from Canadian Living’s Christmas
Makes about 24

Hazelnut Biscotti

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 cup whole hazelnuts, skin-on, toasted* 
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup butter, melted
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 tsp grated orange rind
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup dark chocolate, melted, for drizzling (optional)

*to toast hazelnuts, simply lay them out on a baking sheet and bake at 300°F for about 6-8 minutes, or until fragrant.

Directions

1) To measure flour accurately, lightly spoon flour into dry measure, without tapping, until cup is heaping; level off with blunt edge of knife. In large bowl, combine flour, baking powder and toasted hazelnuts.

2) In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla, almond extract and grated orange rind; stir into flour mixture until soft sticky dough forms. Transfer to lightly floured surface; form into smooth ball.

Hazelnut Biscotti

3) Divide dough in half, roll each into 12-inch long log. Transfer to ungreased baking sheet.

4) Brush tops with egg white; bake in 350°F oven for 20 minutes.

5) Remove from oven and let cool on pan on rack for 5 minutes. Transfer each log to cutting board; cut diagonally into 3/4-inch thick slices.

6) Stand cookies upright on baking sheet; bake for 20 to 25 minutes longer or until golden. Transfer to rack and let cool.

7) If you choose to add a drizzle of chocolate to your biscotti: wait until they’ve cooled; then collect a teaspoon of the melted chocolate in a teaspoon and sway it back and forth over the biscotti. Allow the chocolate to set at room temperature before storing.

Note: Biscotti can be stored in airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

—–

Hazelnut Shortbread – adapted from Bakers Royale
Makes about 40 cookies

 

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 12 Tbsp unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups toasted hazelnut, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup coarse sugar
  • 8 oz. dark chocolate (for dipping)

Directions

To prepare and refrigerate the dough:

1) Sift flour and salt into a bowl; set aside. With a hand beater, cream the butter on medium-low speed until smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Add in the sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

2) Add in the egg and vanilla, beat until blended. Reduce the mixer speed low and in the dry ingredients in three additions. Turn off the beater and fold in the nuts with a wooden spoon or spatula.

3) Portion the dough in half and shape each half into 15x3x1 inch rectangular logs. Press coarse sugar into each side. Cover with plastic wrap and push both ends with your hand toward the centre to tighten the dough. Chill prepared dough for at least 3 hours.

When ready to bake:

4) Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove chilled dough and slice cookies to ½ inch thickness. Place each cookie 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

5) Bake until cookies are lightly browned, about 18-20 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

6) Melt chocolate on the stove-top by making a bain-marie; stir occasionally. Dip one corner of cookie into melted chocolate and place on parchment paper to set. (you can also sprinkle a bit of flaked salt over the chocolate before it sets.) Serve or store in an airtight container for up to one week.

Hazelnut ShortbreadHazelnut ShortbreadHazelnut ShortbreadHazelnut Shortbread

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Toasted Almond Meringues – from mom’s repertoire

Makes about 40

But first, a few notes on meringue…

Theoretically, meringue is supposed to be simple – whip egg whites into soft peaks, add sugar, whip into stiff peaks, bake. But in practice, there are a few key things to keep in mind: 1) if the weather is humid, your egg whites might not rise enough, causing the meringue to deflate and become chewy. 2) It’s important that the equipment you’re using be extremely clean (bowl, beaters). Any trace of grease or fat (say, from a stray egg yolk that makes it into the bowl) can compromise the results. 3) Overbeating can also be a problem, causing the meringue to become more like taffy in consistency. (If you’re looking for more tips, Martha’s actually got some good ones here .)

This time around, my meringues deflated when they were pulled from the oven (see final photo below), on account of the fact that I made them on an unseasonably balmy/humid day and probably overbeat them. To see what these meringues should actually look like, you can find some photos here from my mom’s archive.

To all you meringue newbies – I hope none of this scares you off making meringue. With practice, you start to get a sense of its quirks and soon you’ll be able to whip some up with your eyes closed. At that point you’ll discover that pulling a perfect batch of meringues from the oven can be obscenely satisfying…

Toasted Almond Meringues

Ingredients

  • 2 egg whites (or 1/4 cup thawed eggs whites)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 1 cup sliced almonds, toasted*

*to toast the sliced almonds, simply lay them out on a baking sheet and bake at 300°F for about 4-5 minutes, or until golden.

Directions

Preheat the oven to 300º F .

In a bowl, beat egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks start to form. Gradually add the the brown sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold in the vanilla, almond extract and sliced almonds.

Spoon teaspoonfuls onto a cookie tray which has been lined with parchment paper. Bake in a 300º F oven for 30 minutes. Remove from baking sheet and allow to cool on a metal rack.

Note: these meringues will appear a little more “toasted” than regular meringue – that’s ok. It’s because it calls for brown sugar instead of white.

Sugo di pomodoro

In the kitchen, there aren’t many things for which grandma, Nonna, has any steadfast rules. Tomato sauce, however, is one noteworthy exception. Here is an abridged, translated version of a recent conversation we had over the phone:

“Nonna, I made your sauce yesterday. Era buonissimo.
“Did you put in the leek? And a bit of carrot? And celery?”
Sì. Of course. Certo.
“But not too much of each?”
“No, not too much of each.”
“And the butter? Il burro. Did you remember to put it in?”
“Yes, Nonna.”
“Ok, hai fatto beneBrava. Good girl.”

I’ve made Nonna’s tomato sauce a hundred times over. Maybe even more, considering it was one of the very first things I learned to cook. Like all her recipes, the ones that I’ve been able to replicate with ease are like badges, tangible mementos of a culinary heritage – hers, mine, ours. It turns out that when you have Italian roots – even if it only makes up half of you – tomato sauce isn’t really just tomato sauce. It’s a birthright. You have to take special care to preserve it; to share it, but to safeguard it too.

Variations of sugo di pomodoro differ across Italy and across families – some might add aromatics, like basil; others sometimes add salt or a bit of sugar. It’s one of those great backbone recipes that’s slightly different from household to household. I think the key to Nonna’s recipe is poco poco, or “just a little bit”. You want just a little bit of leek, of onion, of carrot, of celery. These ingredients make up your base, your sofrito (or mirepoix in French); if you go overboard with any of them, the flavour won’t be balanced. That said, trust your judgement and your tastebuds – if you feel it needs more or less of anything, adjust it. As simple as it may be, this recipe gets better with practice. Keep making it, over and over, until you love it and think Nonna would too.

Nonna’s Tomato Sauce (sugo di pomodoro della Nonna)

Tomato Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 small carrot, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
  • 1 small celery stalk, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
  • 1/2 small leek (white part only), chopped (about 1/3 cup)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 heaped Tbsp tomato paste
  • 800ml-1 L* canned or jarred tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
  • olive oil (about 1/4 cup)
  • a knob of butter

*a large standard can of tomatoes is usually 796ml; we use homemade jarred tomatoes, each Mason jar containing 1L.

Notes! 

  1. Unlike a lot of recipes out there, Nonna doesn’t add salt, sugar, pepper, chili flakes or aromatics to her tomato sauce. This isn’t bolognese, so no meat either.
  2. You might have leftover chopped vegetables (i.e one small carrot be a little more that 1/4 cup); you can freeze any leftovers for stock or double the recipe.
  3. The sauce will be more flavourful if you allow it to simmer for an hour or so. (Grandpa used to start his sauce at about 10am to serve at lunchtime, but he was hardcore about sauce-making.)
  4. You can also use this sauce to cook meatballs the old-fashioned way; see recipe here.

Tomato Sauce

Directions

1) Heat olive oil and butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, on medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot (but not smoking), add the onion and sauté until softened. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute. Then add the leek, carrot, celery and sauté together until everything is softened and the onion and garlic are golden to golden-brown. Add the tomato paste and sauté for another minute or so.

2) Add the tomatoes and stir to combine; reduce the heat to medium-low and allow to simmer, half-covered, for 30 minutes to an hour (depending on how much time you have). Remember to stir occasionally.

3) Remove sauce from the heat; blitz with a hand-blender until smooth, or leave as-is if you prefer a more rustic sauce. Serve on pasta, gnocchi, polenta, or pizza with a good sprinkling of parmesan. Alternately, you can freeze the sauce for up to 4 months.

Tomato Sauce

Tomato Sauce

 

 

Care Package

A friend of mine had a little boy just a over two weeks ago now – a beautiful little chicken of a baby, with soft cheeks, delicate fingers and the requisite new-baby smell. He is definitely a sight to behold, with his miniature yawns and peach-fuzz hair. Regardless of a few nicks from his sharp newborn nails – and a few surprise vibrations from his diaper – he charmed me through and through, in that way that babies are preternaturally good at, without even trying.

With the mini baby boom happening in my circle of friends right now, the one thing I’ve come to understand is just how precious the resources of time and energy are to new moms and dads. Squeezing in a shower or running an errand are rare opportunities that are seized with an acute sense appreciation, if not urgency. Other activities, namely, making a full meal, are easily relegated to the back-burner (sorry for the pun). I’ve heard that a banana and a box of crackers will suffice when you’ve been on four-hour sleep cycles – at best! – and have a little person who needs you in a way that no one else has before.

Knowing that my friend and her husband were busy acclimatising to their new unit of three (diapers, feedings, and all the rest of it), I thought I should come equipped with couple of homemade treats – things that could be frozen or eaten as-is, without any prep, aside from a quick re-heating. In fact, it’s also the kind of food any non-parent would want in the fridge or freezer on those frantically busy days when they don’t have one more ounce to give.

Parent or non-parent, this soup and this cake are my virtual gifts to you. Enjoy xx

Turkish Lentil Soup – makes 4-6 servings

Turkish Red Lentil Soup

  • 225 grams red lentils (approx 1 1/8 cups)
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced in half lengthwise
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1.5 litres vegetable stock (plus 1-2 cups more, as needed)
  • 1 small piece ginger, grated
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp curry powder
  • 1-2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • Fresh mint (or cilantro) and lemon to serve
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

1) Set the vegetable stock in a pot on medium heat to warm up.

2) Heat the olive oil in a large pot, and sauté the vegetables with the garlic cloves, for about 10 minutes. Add tomato paste, spices and grated ginger, and cook for a few more minutes. Add lentils, washed and drained, and cover with hot vegetable stock.

3) Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer with the lid on for about 30 or 40 minutes, until the lentils begin to fall apart. Add more stock if they look a bit dry (just remember it should be a soup-like consistency). Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

4) Set aside two or three ladles of soup, and puree the rest in a blender (optional).

5) Serve with chopped fresh mint (or cilantro) and lemon juice. Do not skip this – it’s what makes all the difference!

Turkish Red Lentil Soup

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Date-Walnut Banana Cake with Coconut
Lightly adapted from Lunch Lady’s Black Gold Banana Cake
Makes one 9x5x3″ loaf

  • 4 medium overripe bananas
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used 1 cup white +1/2 cup whole-wheat)
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup raw caster sugar
  • 2/3 cup coconut oil, melted
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup Medjool dates, chopped
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

Date-Walnut Banana Cake

Directions

1) Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
2) Place the overripe bananas into a mixing bowl and beat until puréed. Add the vanilla, coconut oil, and sugar, and beat again until combined.
3) Fold in the flour, raising agents, salt, and walnuts until thoroughly combined.
4) Fold in the chopped Medjool dates and shredded coconut; pour the batter into a loaf tin lined with parchment paper.
5) Bake for 45 mins to an hour, or until skewer comes out clean, cool on wire rack.

Date-Walnut Banana Cake

Date-Walnut Banana Cake

Date-Walnut Banana Cake

Date-Walnut Banana Cake