Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Surreal Loaf

Oh dear. What have we here?

It looks like Salvador Dali baked a loaf of bread.

It's as if this loaf of bread is wearing a military beret.

It's a loaf of bread with the 'scene' hair of an emo kid.

I found this Country Loaf recipe in my "Best Of Chef At Home" cookbook. It promised the most delicious loaf of bread with time acting as the magic element rather than athletic kneading. I'd awoken the other morning, after the dough's lengthy overnight rise, with dreams of that impossibly enchanting 'fresh bread' baking smell, thick slices just cut, still steaming, slashes of butter melting on top.

I've never been a confident baker. Everything I make has the taste of 'amateur.' But the idea of making bread has long been a culinary daydream of mine. When I think of bread making, I have these impossibly romantic images of Italian kitchens, high up on the hillsides, flooded with melted-butter sun. You can see flour particles dancing in the beams of light that stream through the open shutter windows while some dark eyed Italian goddess kneads the dough, calmly, expertly, on the sort of harvest table I covet, fantasizing about Giancarlo in the next village as her husband tends the olive groves.

Yet the experience I had, in my kitchen in downtown Toronto, wasn't quite so cinematic. Nervous and flour-spattered, I consulted the rather simple recipe obsessively. Michael Smith said to knead the dough for 'moments' after the overnight rise; Was he equating moments with minutes? Or seconds? I spent the entirety of the second rise pondering my possible mistakes.

When Almost Husband and I were in Brugges last year, we stayed at this gorgeous bed and breakfast, where the landlady baked fresh breads and rolls every morning. Using only the most natural ingredients and getting her flour directly from a local grain miller, I fancied her to be something of an expert in the art of bread making. I asked her one morning what secrets she could part with to making a good bread. Her response was not the one I was expecting. There were no assertions of following recipes with a scientific precision. She simply experimented. "Some days, I get it wrong, " she said. "You just have to try different things and not be scared to experiment."

So maybe, then, all this time, I've had the wrong idea. Maybe focusing on "doing it right" won't actually yield a delicious bread. Maybe the expectation - 'if you follow the rules, everything will turn out perfectly' - isn't realistic enough a principle to embrace in baking.

By the time the dough completed it's second rise and Demonic Oven was ready to work its voodoo, I could tell this wouldn't be a beautiful loaf. It had waterfall-ed over the side of the too small pan, and the dough seemed a bit too light and airy.

So I ended up with a ridiculous looking loaf. And I had to laugh. Because as someone who is at times fixated on reaching perfection, this was as far from it as I could get. This loaf was a big "F**k you" to my perfectionism. And in a way, this loaf was a representation of myself. A little unbalanced. Gritty, at times. And with a story underneath that explains all the hopefully delightful flaws.

So bread making, it would seem, isn't simply about yielding bread. It's analogous with life itself.

Country Loaf, via Michael Smith's "Best Of Chef At Home":

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup of any multi-grain mix (I used Red River Cereal)
1/2 heaping tsp dry active yeast
2 tsp salt
2 1/4 cups warm water


1. In large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the warm water and stir with the handle of a wooden spoon until a moist dough forms. Continue stirring vigorously until all the loose flour is incorporated into the dough, 1-2 minutes.

2. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for 12-14 hours. The dough should double in size and bubble.

3. Dust the dough lightly and oil your hands a bit, to gather the dough from the outside edges to the middle. Knock it down into a loose ball. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for a few moments until a tight ball forms. Put the ball back in the bowl and lightly coat it with a splash of oil, turning to evenly cover.

4. Gently roll the dough into a thick log that fits end to end in a lightly oiled 9" x 5" (2L) loaf pan and, without covering, rest it a second time. In 2-3 hours, it will again double in size. At this time, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F, and when the dough is ready, bake for approx. 45 minutes. Allow to cool completely before slicing (not that I did.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kitchen Bitching and Penance Pasta

This is not the meal I was going to post about.

The day before this pasta came to be, Almost Husband and I decided to make dinner together. He was going to barbeque burgers and I was going to try making an approximation of the home fries we used to eat at the Fran's at Yonge and Eglinton (that no longer exists) back in our high school days.

Oh Fran's. I remember sitting in those booths, having those intense relationship conversations that teenagers have, many of them beginning with "We need to talk" and ending with a dramatic exit, aching heart and tear-stained face. Oh Fran's. Where I famously tried to impress Almost Husband with my knowledge of world history and embarrassingly stated that Lenin was the Russian equivalent to Hitler. I believe I had Lenin confused with Stalin, as he pointed out, and even then, I didn't really know what I was talking about. I'd read one Dostoevsky book, which I found criminally long winded, and suddenly I was an expert on Russian politics. Cringe.

Anyways, I decided to make chicken burgers for myself, because I haven't fully crossed over to the red meat camp. It may never happen, actually, but I keep fronting like it will. I found an intriguing recipe in Bon Appetit magazine that seemed easy enough. Almost Husband said his burgers would take no time at all on the barbeque, and could he help me with the potatoes? So I said yes, and turned my back, and let him peel and wash the potatoes while I fussed with the ground chicken.

"How do you want them cut?" he asked me. I turned around. "Oh, " I said, "maybe a little bit smaller than - this big?" I used my fingers to illustrate. I went back to my burgers, which were not very well explained in the magazine. Every so often, I'd look over to his work space to see how the potatoes were progressing. I don't know what possessed me, maybe tiredness, maybe PMS or stress from job searching, but
I'm not lying when I tell you that I harped on just about every single thing he did with those potatoes. For example:

*He boiled them for too long. I informed him he was incorrect in his assumption that one can never boil potatoes for too long. "They'll get mushy, and then I won't be able to roll them in the flour!" He may have internally eye-rolled, I'll never know, but he took them off the heat anyway and offered to finish preparing them.

*Instead of rolling the individual potato cubes into the flour, then egg, then breadcrumb mixture, he used his hands and sort of mushed everything all about in the flour. "No, No NO!" I said, "You're manhandling them too much!" We often joke about his freakish strength and I sometimes teasingly call him Lenny from 'Of Mice And Men' when he's handling delicate things. This time, neither of us were laughing. He silently obliged me and used a fork.

*He ran out of breadcrumbs. Not his fault. At all. He asked me if I could make some more. I marched over, took his fork from him and said "Here, let me." Then, a silence, ripe with irritation. And with that, he was dismissed from my kitchen. He apologized for messing up the potatoes, made a heartbreakingly sad face at me and slunk out of the kitchen.

I felt awful. And it hit me, as I joylessly shaped chicken patties in my hands: Maybe I am incapable of sharing my kitchen. Maybe I can't cook with other people, because I want to do it all myself, accepting all the blame for a failure and all the glory for a success. I sat down for a minute. He was only trying to help me and I'd talked to him like some paddle-wielding eastern European schoolmarm.

Well. I got what I deserved. The potatoes were disgusting and my chicken burger had been pan fried within an inch of its life, charred and tasteless. Our hibachi, on its last legs, made a mess of his burgers. I'd already apologized by this point, but it was too late; we were both ravenous with only crappy food to sate us. We were officially in a Bad Mood.

So the next day, after Almost Husband had absolved me from my Kitchen Fascist guilt, I decided that with the remaining uncooked burgers, I'd change my kitchen karma and make a different meal out of them altogether.
I grabbed the last of the Swiss Chard and leeks out of the fridge, threw some things together in a pan and hoped for the best. I ended up with a lovely pasta dinner for myself, which I ate cheerily, curled up with Almost Husband on the couch.

I don't know if being a nice person has much to do with making good food; I imagine cooking with Martha would be a terrifying experience, and I've seldom worked at restaurants with chefs I would describe as pleasant or sweet. But for me, being a bitch in the kitchen kind of takes away from the love of food and the joy of preparing it.

And that, surely, is the best part to share with someone else, isn't it?

Penance Pasta, by Monika:

Pasta, enough for two people, cooked according to package instructions
1tbsp olive oil
1 glug of dry white wine
1 small onion, finely diced
about 1/2 cup of leeks, washed and finely chopped (I only used these because I had leftovers on hand, they aren't necessary)
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil
1/2-1 tsp red pepper flakes (or to your taste - I used a lot)
1/4-1/2 lb ground chicken
salt and pepper (easy on the salt, generous on the pepper)
1/3 bunch of Swiss Chard, rinsed and cut into ribbons
1-1 1/2 cup marinara sauce (I used store-bought)
A pile of grated Parmesan cheese
breadcrumbs (optional)


1. Cook pasta according to package. Set aside.

2. In pan, heat up oil and wine. Add diced onion and leeks if using, and cook till softened, about 3-5 minutes, stirring often. Add the oregano, 1 tbsp of the chopped fresh basil and red pepper flakes, stir around for 1 minute, then add the ground chicken and stir till no longer pink. Add the Swiss Chard and cook till it's wilted and softening, about 5-7 minutes.

3. Add the marinara sauce and cook till heated. Add the pasta to the pan and get everything well coated. Season again with salt and pepper, spoon into bowl and top with some of the remaining basil, a generous sprinkle of Parmesan, and a spoonful of breadcrumbs - I like the little bit of crunch they give.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Strata + Frittata = Strattata

When I was a teenager, they had this wine commercial that showed a bunch of 30-something yuppies on a cottage getaway, "disconnecting" from the craziness of urban life. One woman even threw her cell phone in the lake to demonstrate her commitment to cutting loose as her friends looked at each other with incredulous admiration.
Untethered by technology and the demands of being Important People, they probably ate BBQ on the deck of their rented lodge and discussed the merits of gentrification or perhaps weighed in on the 'Filipino nanny vs. European Au pair' debate. And thus with this group of upwardly mobile friends, we were ushered into their Zinfandel Years, with the belief that this could well be us.

I bought into this ideal; not the yuppiness or the waste of a perfectly good cellphone that, frankly, you may need in case you run into a bear. No, I bought into the idea that in my early 30's, I'd have some things figured out. I'd have a well-paying job and a home and maybe a couple of kids. I'd be okay with all my character flaws, accepting of my body, educated and well-rounded. I wouldn't be contemplating minimum wage jobs again, or the soundness of incurring further student loan debt instead of being crippled by my incomplete college diploma. Zinfandel Years? These are more like my Wonder Years - I'm still waiting to come of age, and beginning to suspect that it may never happen.

Being unemployed right now, I have a lot of time to mull these things over...

How fitting then, to make an uncertain meal for such uncertain times. I had no idea how it would turn out. I loosely followed the principles of the frittata and the strata, reckoning the only real difference is perhaps the inclusion of torn up bread. I used whatever ingredients I had on hand; some leftover scallions, swiss chard, mushrooms and chicken sausage, as well as a hunk of old bread that had gone pretty stale.

There were some mishaps, like using a springform pan which then leaked into Demonic Oven and replaced the lovely baking smell with a burnt, charring smell that smoked up the kitchen and made my eyes water. And the chicken sausages I used were so goddamn salty, I probably would opt for a lower-sodium option, or would leave them out altogether next time. But overall, this ended up as another check on my Awesome list, and was even delightful the next day. And the day after that, eaten cold (is that gross?)

As for the big life questions, well, they likely won't be answered soon. But that's okay. In my teens, I never figured I'd marry my high school sweetheart. Nor did I reckon I'd ever think I was pretty enough or clever enough, which I do now, and if I'm not exactly accomplished, well at least I'm capable, which is actually just as good. If I could have foreseen who I'd become in my thirties, what would happen to my mother, or how grace and family could arise from the ashes of that crying shame, I wouldn't have believed it. I wouldn't have believed we'd get through it. So okay, maybe I'm not where I thought I would be at the tender age of 32.

But I'm starting to think I'm headed somewhere even better.

Monika's Recipe for Strattata: (I am using approximations as I didn't really measure anything)

1 tbsp Olive oil
A large splash of dry white wine
3 scallions/green onions, sliced once lengthwise, then finely chopped
2 pinches of dried oregano, rubbed between fingers when adding to pan
2 pinches of dried basil, rubbed between fingers when adding to pan
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (adjust amount to your liking)

a package of white or cremini mushrooms, sliced (1 lb? I'm not sure)
Half a bunch of Swiss Chard, washed, dried and cut into bite size pieces
2 chicken sausages (optional; could use regular sausage or cooked chicken pieces or leave out)
2 tbsp cream cheese or goat cheese, softened
1-1 1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
lots of fresh ground pepper
5 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4-1/2 loaf of stale bread, torn into medium sized pieces


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook the sausages in a pan over medium heat; once cooked through, cut into smallish pieces.

2. Get a medium/large sized round pan or casserole dish and grease it; set aside. Heat the oil and white wine in a large skillet and add the green onions, red pepper flakes, oregano and basil, stirring constantly till softened and fragrant, about 3-5 minutes. Careful that you don't burn the onions. Then add the mushrooms and swiss chard and cook down till soft and the extra moisture has cooked off. Add the cooked sausages and a hearty dose of fresh ground pepper and set aside.

3. In the microwave, heat the cream cheese or goat cheese till well softened. Put it in a large bowl and add the buttermilk, stirring well to incorporate them into each other (there will still be lumps, don't worry.) Add the lightly beaten eggs and the Parmesan cheese and mix well by hand till sort of a loose custard.

4. In the greased pan/dish, put the bread pieces in the bottom. Pour in the cooked veggies and sausage mixture, spreading evenly over the bread. Then pour over the egg mixture and put it in the oven, baking for about 30-35 minutes, or until set. Put it under the broiler for a minute or two to brown the top. Let it cool for 5 minutes, then slice and eat!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Another Kitchen Confessional, and Asian Salmon Patties

My mother had a very exciting, glamourous life, in my opinion. She had several career changes before finding her calling as a photographer, including a long stint working for the Israeli embassy, both in Israel and in Washington. In the photo above (wasn't she beautiful!) she is seated next to Yitzhak Rabin, who would later become prime minister. (And even later, in 1995, assassinated.)

But my mother's working life first began when she became a microbiologist (My grandmother once told me that my mother had worked on cancer research.) And while her scientific career at some point came to an end, her training and knowledge in the area of bacteria was revisited often in her lifetime, particularly as a parent.

The spectres of Bad Bacteria/ Fear Of Food Poisoning loomed large in the lives of my sister and I. Food that was stored longer than 3 days in the fridge was deemed "unsafe", hands had to be washed the second we got in the door from being outside. It took me two decades before I was able to eat food outside my home that contained mayonnaise - I was convinced no one but us knew how to store it properly. My mother wasn't a germophobe, in fact the manner with which she schooled us in Bad Bacteria was done lovingly and in a rather matter-of-fact sort of way.

And yet, and I say this with love in my heart, what happened to me and my sister is that we became uncommonly, and dare I say unhealthily aware of the dangers of Bad Bacteria/Fear Of Food Poisoning. Now adults, we will frequently call each other to question the safety of foodstuffs that maybe were left out of the fridge longer than the recommended two hours or ponder whether that week-old, half empty jar of applesauce is still good. And each time, after we've exhausted our cautious speculations, we quote back to each other our mother's Food Safety philosophy:

"If you're not sure, throw it out."

As you can imagine, a lot of food is thrown out. What can I say? If you have to ask, you're clearly not sure, right? So out it goes. Almost Husband thinks I'm certifiable. I am not allowed to throw out his questionable foodstuffs. He is not afflicted with The Fear.

Anyways, the other day, when I'd bookmarked Martha's Asian Salmon Patties, I took some salmon fillets out of the freezer and left them in the fridge to thaw overnight, only I didn't cook them the next day. And so, two days later, there it was. The panic. Was the fish okay to use? Had I let it languish too long? People can get really sick eating bad fish, and I'm not one of those people who can distinguish between an 'ocean-fresh' fish smell and a 'fishy' fish smell. It's fish, people. It all smells fishy to me. And can I just tell you how many times I washed my hands when preparing the raw patties? Forget about it! Ridiculous!

Side note: I'm unclear as to why these patties are called Asian. Is it because they're salmon, and everyone thinks all Asian people eat is fish? Is it because there's ginger in them? Because if eating fish and ginger is the criteria, well, I believe I might be Asian too.

I paired them with Sweet Potato fries, which I've tried to make a bunch of times and they never turn out crispy. So this time, I made a bit of a marinade that included cornstarch, which I remember reading somewhere encouraged crispiness. I have to say these were the best sweet potato fries I've ever made. I think the cornstarch did actually help.

I had one of those rare, mystical kitchen experiences when preparing all this - I just knew everything would taste extremely awesome. Even the lime-tinged dipping sauce I made was awesome. I know the final picture, taken without the gorgeous natural light of early evening doesn't do it justice. But I will be making this meal again and again. While taking extreme care to wash my hands repeatedly and decontaminate my work surfaces.

My mother would be proud.

Asian Salmon Patties, Martha Stewart "Fresh Flavour Fast", with a few changes by me:

1 lb skinless, boneless salmon fillets, finely chopped (you can use fresh, I used frozen)
3 green onions, finely chopped
1/3 cup (or thereabouts) of leeks, rinsed well and finely chopped
2 tbsp ginger, finely chopped
1/2-3/4 tsp of red pepper flakes, depending on your heat tolerance
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
Lime wedges for serving


1. In large bowl, gently combine salmon, onions, leeks, ginger, red pepper flakes, egg, 1 tsp salt and however much pepper you like. Form the mixture into 8 patties, about 1" thick (my portion made 9 patties) packing each firmly. Freeze or refrigerate (I refrigerated because you can't re-freeze thawed fish) patties till just firm, about 20 minutes or so.

2. Heat some oil in a pan over medium heat. Cook the salmon patties, in batches if needed, till browned on both sides and cooked all the way through. Fish should be opaque. Eat immediately, dousing generously with lime juice.

Lime-Tinged dipping sauce a la Me:
(this is enough for one person)

1 big spoonful of plain yogurt
1 big spoonful of mayo
finely chopped zest and the juice of 1/2 a lime
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (or more, to your taste)
Fresh ground pepper and salt to taste

1. Combine everything till well mixed.

Oven-Baked Sweet Potato Fries a la Me: (this is enough for one person)

1 sweet potato, halved lengthwise and then sliced into smaller slivers (approx. 1/2" thick)
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp cornstarch
1-2 tbsp olive oil
Fresh ground pepper and coarse salt


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (Demonic Oven operated at 350 degrees) In a small bowl or jar, mix the cumin, chili powder, cornstarch, olive oil and pepper, stirring vigorously till well combined.

2. In a large bowl, combine the sweet potato with the marinade mixture and stir till the potato slices are well coated. Lay them out in a single layer on a baking sheet or roasting pan and sprinkle more ground pepper and some coarse salt over them. Bake for 40 minutes, taking them out at the halfway mark to turn them over and sprinkle with more pepper before returning them to the oven.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

'A Lesson In Patience' Tart

Can I tell you something that might blow your mind? I can't eat garlic. You may have noticed the auspicious absence of it from any of my cooking endeavors, because my stomach will not allow it to be processed gently. I know. Really, I know what stinking hard luck it is, because garlic is in just about everything; it's a flavour powerhouse. And there's really nothing that can compare to it or substitute for it.

That being said, my new favourite things are green onions and leeks. Powerhouses in their own way, I find if I use enough of them, I don't really miss the distinctive layer of garlic. And they're soooo pretty to look at, especially you, cut-up leeks!

I'd kind of made this resolution recently to work my way through my cookbooks one at a time, because I keep buying them and they sit attractively on their display shelf and I use food blog recipes instead, which makes little to no sense. So I took down one of my Martha's ("Fresh Flavour Fast") which Almost Husband sweetly bought for me, and stumbled upon this recipe for a goat cheese and leek tart. How fortuitous! Just the day before, a bunch of leeks had somehow found their way into my grocery basket! I had pretty much everything I needed, so I rolled up my sleeves, put on a radio play I found on the BBC radio 4 website and set to work. I of course used more cheese than was called for. There are things I just can't seem to use in moderation. Cheese is one of them.

The recipe for the Basic Pie Crust looked really promising; Martha made it sound so easy to make. And there were, like, 4 ingredients. But the commandment "Do Not Overmix" sort of frightened me - in my limited experience with dough making, you only ever really find out after the fact that you pounded the bejesus out of it, rendering a pastry as tough as boot leather.

So I kind of went to the opposite extreme, and barely touched it once I'd pulsed the ingredients to the desired consistency. And after I'd been mincing around with it for a while, I started to panic that I was working it too much anyways, while it wasn't actually even coming together in any sort of semblance of a dough. So I bashed it around a bit more and chilled it, only nowhere does it say in the cookbook that you have to let it come to room temperature after chilling, otherwise you can't roll it out. (In hindsight, this is actually pure common sense. But oh well.)

After what felt like hours (but was probably less than one hour total) I finally got the dough thawed and rolled out, spread the cheese mixture over it and covered it in leeks. It looked pretty great. I felt hopeful again. I popped it in Demonic Oven who, as per usual, singed/burnt the tops of the leeks just to stick it to me, but it didn't matter because the tart still looked rustically charming. And tasted amazing.

Go forth and make this.

Goat Cheese-Leek Tart, via Martha Stewart's 'Fresh Flavour Fast':

1 bunch of leeks, white and green parts only, thinly sliced into half-moons, about 2 cups, washed well and dried (trim the root ends and dark leafy tops, halve the leeks lengthwise, then thinly slice crosswise into half-moons. Wash well in several changes of cold water to remove any hidden grit, dry on paper towel)
1 tbsp olive oil
coarse salt and fresh ground pepper
6 ounces of fresh goat cheese, softened
2 ounces of cream cheese, softened
2 tbsp milk
3 large egg yolks
1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme (or 1/4 tsp dried - I used 1/2 tsp dried)
1 tbsp water
1 Basic Pie Crust (see below) or store-bought refrigerated dough for 9" pie
All purpose flour for dusting


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In bowl, toss leeks with oil and season with the salt and pepper.

2. Whisk together goat cheese, cream cheese, milk, 2 egg yolks and thyme; season with salt and pepper. In another bowl, lightly beat remaining egg yolk with the water, for egg wash.

3. Roll out dough to a 13" round - about 1/8" thickness, on a lightly floured work surface (or unroll store bought dough) Place on a baking sheet. Spread goat cheese mixture on crust, leaving a 2" border. Sprinkle leeks evenly on top. Fold edge of dough over filling, pinching folds together to seal. Brush dough with egg wash.

4. Bake, rotating sheet halfway through, until crust is golden brown and filling is browned in spots, about 1 hour. (In Demonic Oven, this took me about 45-50 minutes) Let cool completely, then cut into wedges.

Basic Pie Dough:

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (whoops, I used salted butter, but just left out the 1/2 tsp salt called for)
2-4 tbsp ice water


1. In a food processor, briefly pulse flour, salt and sugar to combine. Add butter; pulse till mixture resembles coarse meal with a few pea-sized pieces of butter remaining. Add 2 tbsp ice water, pulse till dough is crumbly but holds together when squeezed (if necessary, add up to 2 tbsp more water) Do not overmix!

2. Turn out dough onto large piece of plastic wrap. Fold plastic wrap over dough and press to shape into a 1" thick disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour (or up to 3 days) or freeze for up to 3 months.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

It's Not A Computer Bag

You know what I'm not good at? Opening presents in front of people, particularly the people who gifted me the present. It always feels like a performance is necessary. I tend to overdo it and act like the present is the most awesome thing I've ever seen and how did they know I wanted it? I can't help myself. When I see the gifter's face light up with the delight at having found the right present, it sort of pushes me to keep going, further and further, till I'm pushing the limits of psychotic glee.

Almost Husband knows I do this. In fact, he's seen me do it so many times that now, when he gives me a present, he has to check with me;

"Wait - do you really like it? Or are you doing that thing where you act like you love it but you secretly hate it?"

It was a somewhat pivotal moment in our mutual gift-giving, the time he gave me a computer bag. I was in school at the time, just bordering on dropping out, and I had this crummy laptop that I took to school with me once, maybe twice, only to realize it refused to link up to the school's free WiFi. So I stopped taking it with me. Besides which, it was a school. Every room had computers. Almost Husband didn't know these details. He knew I'd taken the computer to school and assumed I'd been frustrated by the inconvenience of carrying it, and so, on my Christmas/Birthday celebration (they're very near each other) he gave me a computer bag.

"Oh...oh. (deep breath) Okay," I said when I opened the wrapped parcel. Words failed me. It was, without a doubt, the most practical gift he'd ever given me. I knew he was looking at me expectantly, hopefully. But I just...couldn't. I couldn't hide the look on my face, equal parts 'oh no' and 'oh shit'. I felt terrible, he felt terrible. I struggled to do my 'I love it' routine, but it was too late. He knew. I dropped out of college a few months later, and the bag lived behind my bookcase collecting dust, only to be donated to the Goodwill this past January, when we moved.

Ever since, Almost Husband's been nervous when getting me anything. Even when I drop bomb-like hints, he's nervous. I'd traumatized him. So this past Christmas/Birthday, he got me a slow cooker, which I'd been wanting/hinting at for months. When I opened it, I didn't have to act; I was genuinely delighted. I ordered some cookbooks on Amazon specifically for slow cookers; I made sure to tell him every chance I got that I loved it and couldn't wait to use it, I made sure he overheard me telling friends he'd gotten me the best gift ever. I needed to move past the Bag. Still, he was guarded, unsure. We were knee deep in the process of moving, so I decided to keep it in the box for convenience. We moved. We unpacked. The slow cooker stayed in its cupboard under the counter. A couple of months passed. And then, Almost Husband happened upon it a couple of weeks ago when getting out its neighbour, the rice cooker.

"Oh no, " he said, making a heartbreakingly worried face, "Did I get you another Computer Bag?"

And so, in an effort to put to rest his sweet worry, I finally dug out the slow cooker and one of my cookbooks and made the most delicious and healthy recipe for Indian Spiced Beans. I probably overdid my displays of enthusiasm with bubbly proclamations of ease and convenience. I reminded myself of that horrible infomercial for one of those micro-food processors where an older couple is making "Salsa In Seconds!!!" for their odd assortment of relatives ('Chubby Oaf Son-In-Law', 'Wide-Eyed With Disbelief Grandma' etc.)

After the quick prep and the four hours of gurgling and bubbling and simmering that happened in that wondrous machine, I ended up with 4 quarts of awesome that I've been eating every day since.

So maybe now we can finally put the Computer Bag behind us.

Indian Spiced Beans, via 125 Best Vegetarian Slow Cooker Recipes by Judith Finlayson:

2 tsp each cumin and coriander seeds (I used already ground cumin and coriander)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cups finely chopped onions
1 tbsp each minced garlic and ginger root
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cracked black peppercorns
1/2 tsp cardamom
2 bay leaves (I skipped these)
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes, including juice
1 cup vegetable stock
3 cups black beans or red kidney beans, rinsed and drained (I used a combination of both)
I bunch of kale or other dark leafy green, rinsed and coarsely chopped (not in original recipe)
1 cup plain yogurt (optional)
cilantro to garnish (optional)


1. If using cumin and coriander seeds instead of ground, toast them in a large skillet till fragrant. Careful not to burn them! Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder and coarsely grind. Set aside.

2. In same skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger root, cumin and coriander, turmeric, salt, peppercorns and cardamom and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add bay leaves, tomatoes and juice, vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Place beans in the slow cooker and cover with the tomato mixture. This is when I added the kale too.

3. Cover and cook on Low for 8-10 hours, or High for 4-5 hours, until beans are tender. Stir in yogurt and cilantro for garnish, if using. Serve alone, or on a mountain of the cooked grain of your choice (I used couscous cooked in vegetable stock)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Simple Pizza.

You know, sometimes, I don't feel like writing a huge preamble to a recipe. Sometimes, the thought of creating a story based on a memory related to food feels formulaic and not at all what I want to write about.

I'd rather tell you about the other afternoon, when I was preparing to make this pizza in an effort to catch an hour or two of silence, away from the wedding planning, away from the emailing and the phone ringing and the dog mooching and the cat being a total dink. How on that afternoon, I put on Vivaldi's violin concerto in D Major, and it took my breath away. I pulled a chair up right in front of the stereo speakers and closed my eyes and felt something like elation, a funny, soaring kind of feeling in my stomach. The sunlight filled the kitchen and I had one of those transcendent moments that was absolutely perfect in its simplicity.

What better food to be making than a sort of Margherita Pizza? Could anything be simpler than thawing a ball of frozen herbed dough I'd made a little while ago and topping it with broken-down tomatoes tinged with balsamic vinegar and some mozzarella and basil?

I listened to the rest of the cd and got my ingredients ready, blissfully absorbed in what I was doing. I readied it for baking, covered it and put it in the fridge. Almost Husband came home an hour or so later with a bottle of wine, poured me a glass and a beer for himself, and we sat on our deck and talked, soaking in the dusk. I want to remember days like these, where nothing really happens, there's no real drama, but everything is bathed in a golden calm, and I recognize that I am as close to touching happiness as I'll ever get.

Simple Pizza Dough via Everybody Likes Sandwiches:

1 envelope active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour (I tend to use a mix of all purpose and whole wheat flour)
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp assorted dried herbs (I used oregano and basil, but I'm sure lots of different ones will work)
1/2 tsp salt
cornmeal (I've never used this, but I'm sure it's lovely)


1. In large bowl, combine yeast with 1 cup of the warm water. Stir in flour, salt and olive oil and mix with wooden spoon till sticky dough starts to form. Add the rest of the warm water and shape the dough into a ball with your hands - you may need to flour your hands a bit if the dough is too sticky to handle with ease. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes. Get in there! Get it nice and elastic.

2. Oil up another bowl and place the dough inside. Cover it with plastic wrap and set it in a warmish place and allow to sit for 2 hours. It should double in size. If using, sprinkle some cornmeal on your work surface along with a bit of flour and set the dough on top of it. Cut the dough in half - this recipe makes enough for 2 pizzas. You can either use both doughs now or do what I do and freeze the other half - it freezes really well and just needs to be thawed in the fridge for a few hours. You can also keep it covered in the oiled bowl in the fridge for a couple of days if you want to make another pizza during the week.

3. If you have a rolling pin, I'm sure that would make life a lot easier, but I've never had one, so I've just stretched out the dough to about a 1/2 inch thickness, placed it on a greased baking sheet and then added my toppings. Bake at 350-400 degrees for about 15-20 minutes, keeping an eye on it so the crust doesn't burn. Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then cut and devour!

Margherita Pizza, sort of...

A bunch of small tomatoes - I used organic grape tomatoes, about 10-12., washed and chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano
A generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp or more of dried red pepper flakes, depending on how spicy you like it
salt and pepper to taste
A bunch of fresh basil, ripped into small pieces
About half a ball of mozzarella (1/2 cup?) cut into small cubes
1/2 cup whole milk mozzarella, cut into cubes


1. Preheat oven to 350-400 degrees. In frying pan, heat up the olive oil on medium setting. Add the chopped tomatoes and oregano and cook till they are softened and breaking down, about 5-10 minutes. Add drizzle of balsamic and cook further for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add the pepper flakes and salt and pepper and set aside.

2. Combine the cheese cubes and the basil in a bowl. Place the cheese and basil mixture over the readied pizza dough. Add the tomato mixture over top, allowing for some of the cheese to peek through. Bake for about 15-20 minutes. Once cooked, allow to cool for about 5 minutes. Garnish with additional basil leaves.