Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Are We There Yet? And A Carrot Salad

My new issue of 'Whole Living' magazine, formerly known as 'Body + Soul' came in the mail yesterday. I made myself some tea, ate a slice of the banana bread I'd made in the morning, and flipped through it, feasting on the gorgeous photography and of course, those seductively simple recipes.

The odd thing is that what I love about the magazine is also what kind of bothers me about it. The cool, crisp, balanced lifestyle, the endless tips on being greener, happier, more organized, more present in your daily life are all things I crave and aspire to. I want to learn about the best ways to keep fresh herbs thriving in my sunny windowsill, and how to curb my rampant addiction to sugar. I'd love to tone my core without crunches and be able to meditate. And I am entirely humbled by people who dedicate their sense of goodness and justice to making the world a healthier, lovelier, more sustainable place. But here's my question, the one that's been lingering in my head for days now:

When are we ever good enough, just as we are? Do we constantly have to chase our better selves?

Isn't it even a little bit okay to be flawed, shy, unbalanced, stressed? When do I get to feel okay about myself for not being able to afford the organic vegetables and the humanely raised eggs, for shopping on that rare occasion at Walmart or for getting it spectacularly wrong sometimes when I'm angry? Do I have to be everything, have everything? Maybe I'm alone in this, but I feel like sometimes the dreams of having and of wanting and of being are all the more moving and glorious than the tangibles that embody them.

In pursuit of some clarity, I cleaned out my fridge of leftover scraps, some too old to be salvaged. I wanted to see empty space in there; the visual clutter was bothering me. I happened upon these multi-coloured carrots I'd got with my last Good Food Box, and their prettiness inspired me - a salad idea formed in my mind. I peeled them and chopped the ends off; their magical insides revealed:

I sliced them up as thin as I could make them;

I chopped up a lonesome little half of a jalapeno I'd found with the Nigella mezzluna my sister had given me as a present for no other reason than because she thought I'd get lots of use out of it. She is the best, gentlest, kindest person on earth and I will think of her each and every time I use it. Me and my now-unharmed fingertips are forever in her debt.

I zested some orange, lemon and lime and delighted in their abstract, colourful tangle:

All the ingredients went in a bowl and got mixed up with a heap of cooled couscous, left just warm enough to soften the carrots a little:

The dressing was made and poured over everything. I put it in the fridge and left all the flavours to mingle for a while. Husband came home and called me sweet names. We sat out in the brilliant late-afternoon sun chatting, and in the conversational pauses, I dreamed of trees swaying in the breeze, crowded gardens grown lush and wild, a chill on my skin, the dimpled cheeks of my true love.
I didn't need to open my eyes though. Because it was all real and it was all around me.

Carrot Salad, by Moni:

1-2 cups cooked couscous, mostly cooled
3 large carrots, multi-coloured if you can find them, thinly sliced
3 green onions, finely chopped
1/2 a jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
zest of 1/2 an orange and lemon, finely chopped
zest of 1 lime, finely chopped
1/2 tsp chili flakes
juice of 1/2 an orange and lemon
juice of 1 lime
2 tbsp olive oil
splash of white balsamic vinegar
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste


1. Prepare about 1 cup of couscous as per package instructions (I use a 1:2 ratio of couscous to water)

2. Combine in a large bowl the chopped carrots, green onions, jalapeno, zest of the lime, orange and lemon and the chili flakes. Set aside.

3. Make the dressing by combining the lemon, lime and orange juices, the oil and vinegar, the cayenne and chili powders and salt and pepper to taste.

4. Pour the couscous ( I used about 1 1/2 cups cooked - put in as much or little as you like) into the veggie bowl and stir till well combined. Pour dressing over it, stir till everything is coated and set aside for 30 minutes or longer.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

ConFusion Cuisine, And A Naanwich.

I'd like to think I err on the side of being a starry-eyed, dreamy sort of person. I've got a relatively romantic world view and somehow, I've managed to hold on to some of my childhood assumptions about life; that people are inherently good, nature is worth gazing at appreciatively, and love is just about all you need, next to a steady paycheck.

But there is a pragmatic side to me as well that often launches spitballs at the Romantic Me. Pragmatic Me can see that the world, for all its sherbet-coloured sunsets and Jane Goodalls, is still filled with bad ideas and volatile combinations. Like Iran and uranium stockpiling. G20 protesters and a legitimate space for protesting. Cocaine and just about anyone. Keanu Reeves and a dramatic script.

And who could forget about this travesty - the Sneaker-Heel:

(Side note: I'm sorry if any of you have a pair of these and feel attractive and whimsical in them. I don't want to take that away from you.)

But I understand why mistakes are made. Because figuring out magical combinations is just so hard and subject to grave errors in judgement! It's why pencils come with erasers. It's why marriages have pre-nuptial agreements. And it's why cooks, amateur and professional alike, have compost bins. But what do you do when you're cursed with a roaming, reckless, creative nature? How do you limit yourself to the confines of a recipe?

Well, you turn to fusion cooking. While controversial for its cultural appropriation and its toying with the idea of regional authenticity, fusion cooking can be the saving grace of new, overstimulated cooks like myself. It provides a 'politically correct-free' zone in which to play with international cuisines. And make the many mistakes that need to be made before one feels truly competent in the kitchen, as long as you're unafraid to make them.

Since purchasing my Madhur Jaffrey cookbook, I'd been wanting to make some naan bread. I read and re-read the recipe; for so few ingredients, it sure seemed like a complicated process. But I'd bookmarked it and I was feeling adventurous enough, so I rolled up my sleeves, forgot to put on my apron, and set to work.

The recipe called for hand kneading. But why would I do that when I have my trusty KitchenAid Stand Mixer in Cobalt Blue? It also called for a rather intensive session with a skillet; I decided instead to use the barbeque to grill the naans. Already, I feared I'd compromised authenticity. But I stopped really caring, after I'd dusted all the flour off my shirt and shorts and stood out in the thunderstorm, grilling and praying that the lightning wouldn't use my metal barbeque flipper as a conductor. It was working, my way.

But after the success of grilling the naans, here was a new challenge. What do I do with them? I didn't actually feel like making a curry or anything remotely Spice Trail-ish to go with them. I spent a long time worrying about my food matching abilities. So long, in fact, that I started getting irritably hungry. So I took a leap. I cut up some deliciously ripe avocado;

And added it to a bowl of chopped green pepper and green onions, with a heap of mint and cilantro and a smoky, spicy vinaigrette.

I cooked up some chicken bacon and cut a few slices of old cheddar;

Then I grilled the whole thing in my George Forman. And my naanwich was born.

Who cares if its cultural origins are blurred!?! Isn't food one of the loveliest ways to bridge the racial and regional divides between us, within our multicultural societies? Whatever the answers, this was without a doubt one of the most sublime-tasting risks I've ever taken in the kitchen.
Several piles of napkins later, (it was rather messy to eat - the sign of a great sandwich) I settled into my reading chair with a book and mused that I knew of far more winning combinations than faulty ones. A mug of coffee taken with the dawn. Chocolate and peanut butter. A glass of wine on the back deck and my husband. A rainy night with a duvet and a foreign film. My mother and father - a love that has spanned time and tragedy.

Pragmatic Me was humbled, and momentarily ceased with the spitballs.

Naan Bread, from Madhur Jaffrey's cookbook 'From Curries To Kebabs; Recipes From The Indian Spice Trail':

About 5 cups of all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp plain yogurt
1 cup milk
1 egg
1 tbsp melted butter, plus more melted butter or oil for brushing the bread prior to grilling
1 cup water

Directions: (Using stand mixer - this can also be made with a wooden spoon and a strong arm)

1. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl.

2. Put the sugar and yogurt in the mixing bowl and beat. Add the milk and 1 cup of water and continue beating. Now beat in about 2 cups of flour, a little at a time - if using a stand mixer, change the whisk attachment to the dough hook. Beat thoroughly, to encourage gluten to work (about a hundred strokes, if using a wooden spoon) The batter should be a little pasty. Add the egg and 1 tbsp melted butter and continue beating. Now slowly add another 2-3 cups of flour, still continuing to beat. By the end of this, you should have a very elastic dough - if not, add a bit more flour till you do.

3. Empty the dough onto a floured board and knead briefly with oiled hands. Divide the dough into 8 balls. Dust a baking tray (I had to use several) with flour and place the dough balls on it, spaced well apart. Press down on each ball to flatten, cover in plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes or longer.

4. If using a barbeque, heat it up and get a cookie sheet or a cooling rack and place on top of the grill. Close the lid and let it get really hot.

5. Get the dough balls and shape them into longer flatbread shapes - you may need to flour your hands; they'll be sticky. Brush melted butter on one side and place it, butter side down, on the cooling rack or cookie sheet. Do this with as many as you can fit on at one time. Cook them till bubbles start forming on top of the naans; then brush with more butter and flip over, cooking till firm. At this stage, you can place them directly on the grill of the barbeque for char marks. Once all of them have been cooked, keep them warm in some foil till ready to serve.

Moni's Naanwich filling: (enough for 2 naanwiches)

1/2 ripe avocado, chopped
1/2 green pepper, chopped finely
2 green onions, chopped finely
a heap of fresh mint, finely chopped
a heap of fresh cilantro, finely chopped
zest of 1 lime, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste


1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
juice of 1 lime
splash of white balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp chili flakes

Directions: Combine all the vegetables in one bowl. Assemble the dressing, whisk till well combined, then pour over veggies till well coated.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Paging Dr. Google, And Tacos Du Poisson

It's almost a relief that my computer is dying. Because this computer, along with the search engine that found me my dog, my Husband and my apartment, has also enabled me to circumvent the normal channels most people take when they have a health concern. You know, like going to see their doctor.

What I do is I make appointments to go see my doctor. Then I Google my symptoms, find conditions that match these symptoms, alarm myself with the usually terminal prognosis and decide that if I'm going to die, I don't want to know about it. So I cancel the appointment.

The flip side to this rather silly practice is that I allow myself to live like a hedonist for a day or two; after all, a health scare reminds you how fragile life really is, and how you're supposed to live each day like it's your last. Although if I'm honest, that's a bit too 'Bucket List' a life philosophy for me. A bit too "Oprah called, she said to dance like nobody's watching." Am I right?

Instead, I prefer to drink and enjoy the drama in other people's lives. This weekend, after cancelling my doctor's appointment, I treated myself to Bon Appetit and some face time with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton's stormy, fromage-filled romance. ( Hahaha, I just realized their celebrity couple name would be LizArd.)

To go along with my magazines, I decided to make myself a cocktail. I wanted to give it a pithy name, like The Bland Blond, channeling an imaginary socialite famous for Daddy's money, who fears calories, black people and clothes from Smart Set. However, I'm not a mixologist, and the drink actually was really bland. The more stuff I kept adding to it to 'improve' it, the worse it tasted. It ended up a sickly-sweet pink mess.

So I switched to beer.

Bolstered by liquid courage, I decided to use our new barbeque to cook the lovely piece of rainbow trout I'd bought to go along with the latest incarnation of potato salad I'd made the night before. This was a big deal for me, as I've always been afraid to light barbeques. In my head, I push a button and the whole thing explodes. Blame stories like this. Or this. Anyways, Husband had given me a tutorial, so I felt sort of confident enough. I got my fish ready in it's foil packet.

I used limes, onions and scallions and bathed it in olive oil and lime juice, with a hearty dose of fresh ground pepper and salt. The barbeque ignition went off without explosion. And while the fish cooked away, I sat in the kitchen and read, listening to the birds chirp and looking up every now and then to marvel at the magic hour of dusk creeping in on tiptoe.

The fish came out perfectly. How is it that fish looks as lovely cooked as it does raw?

I ate the whole thing, along with a huge pile of potato salad. I wondered if this was technically a meal sized for two people. It tasted so fresh, so good, I didn't much care.

The next day, one of my dear friends was coming over for dinner. I had planned on making a large vat of sangria, fish tacos and berry custard tarts. I Googled a recipe for buttermilk custard for the tart filling, found one that sounded simple enough and made it. Oh dear. Moni, you really must learn to read and follow recipes. The 'custard' was more like a pudding and once topped with berries and baked, it turned into a hard, mean ball of rubber. As I struggled to pry the tart failures out of the baking pan, a couple of blueberries jumped out, suicidally, onto the floor. I guess they knew the tarts were awful too.

I stuffed them back in for the photo. We must all suffer for our arts.

I'd mentioned to Husband that I was planning on making fish tacos. And what I got as a response was decidedly...adolescent.

Him: "Tee hee! Say it again!"
Me: "Fish Tacos?"
Him, barely able to contain glee: "Do you know what "fish tacos" mean?"
Me, suspicious, bracing myself: "Nooooo...what does it mean?"

And he told me. For my sophisticated readers, I'll spare you the verbatim answer. Suffice it to say, it was something rather crude, and I will hereafter refer to this dish as Tacos Du Poisson to avoid the now-permanent disturbing word association.

I got the recipe from Martha's 'Great Food Fast' cookbook, and made a few changes, as per usual. I assembled the ingredients and oohed and aahed over my little army of green...

I cooked up the fish, but I must stress here that if you can, use fresh fish. I used frozen, and it just doesn't cook up the same; too watery. We ate our dinner outside and talked and got tipsy on the boozy fruit in the sangria. And when she went home, I tidied up and got into bed with a book, waiting up for Husband to get home from working a late shift. After a pretty awful week, a weekend of sun, good food and friends was just what the doctor would have ordered.

Had I kept my appointment.

Tacos Du Poisson, from Martha Stewart's 'Great Food Fast' Cookbook:

1/4 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
2 tbsp lime juice
zest of 1 lime, finely chopped (my addition)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 small red cabbage, thinly shredded (I used iceberg lettuce instead)
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 jalapeno chili, halved lengthwise, seeded and one half minced
2 tbsp olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon (my addition)
1/2 - 1 tsp chili flakes, or to your liking (my addition)
1 pound tilapia fillets, or other firm white fish, cut into strips
6 inch flour tortillas
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, torn or chopped coarsely


1. In large bowl, combine the sour cream/yogurt, lime juice and zest, salt and pepper. Set aside half of the mixture and toss the scallions, minced jalapeno and lettuce, or cabbage if using, with the rest. Season again with salt and pepper.

2. In large non-stick skillet, heat the oil, lemon juice and remaining jalapeno half over medium-high heat. Season the fish on both sides with salt, pepper and chili flakes, and cook the fish until golden brown on both sides; about 5-8 minutes. Discard the jalapeno.

3. Meanwhile, warm the tortillas in the oven. To make the tacos, fill with tortillas with the slaw, fish and fresh cilantro. Set under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the tortillas. Drizzle with the reserved sour cream/yogurt mixture and eat!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Recession Fever and The Reviled Vegetable Bowl

Question: Who goes to a vintage clothing shop and gets more excited about the used cookbooks than the clothing?

Um...Hopefully more people than just myself?

Last week, a friend and I went out to browse the vintage shops along Bloor and Lansdowne. We went to Vintage 69, a multi-level collective of preloved goodies with a gorgeous, airy and bright feel to it. We made our way upstairs and I eyed several pretty sundresses that I knew wouldn't fit me. I didn't try them on; I figured it was better to picture myself in them, in my mind, rather than actually disappointing myself in 3D.

We got to chatting with the saleslady, who was obviously very keen to make a sale. I noticed a purse hanging up; it had a lovely embroidery which had caught my eye.

"Oh," she said, noticing my interest, "that's a vintage Fendi. My friend got it for me, and she doesn't do knock-offs, that's the real thing. I'll give it to you for $40."

I took it into the other room to look at it carefully. Now, I'm no expert in bags, in fact, up until I was in my early 20's, I used an old, stained liquor store tote as a 'purse'. So maybe I'm wrong here, but I'm
pretty sure Fendi didn't go through a 'pleather' period. The stitching inside was coming out and I felt in my gut that if I were in the presence of a vintage Fendi, if I was about to be gifted with the kind of shopping horseshoe our sartorial urban legends thrive on, I'd know, right?

Anyways, I DID find this fantastic cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey, who is a renowned author of Indian and Far East cuisine. Score. We then went to eat at Nazareth, an Ethiopian restaurant that is one of the hidden gems of Bloorcourt Village. It more than lived up to its reputation for incredibly tasty food, served in massive quantities for very few dollars.

And speaking of massive quantities, guess what I got in my CSA food box yesterday? And guess for how much? No, seriously, guess, because you won't believe that this horn-a-plenty of fruit and veggies only costs me $12 every two weeks. I still, after almost a year of getting a food box, cannot believe that such a system exists, where I pay my $12 and get a heap of local-grown food bought directly from the farmers. It's like a produce Costco with a conscience.

If I seem obsessed with money and not spending large amounts of it, it's because I am. I have no job, no prospects and the one freelance job I was doing went atomic on me last night. Husband is having to pay for just about everything right now, and honestly, I will never be comfortable with that. I had read all about the recession and understood that it happened to 'other people'. I just didn't think it would reach me too. But here I am, contemplating the fact that I'm not owed anything by life, not job stability or even decent wages. And I'm going to have to just suck it up.

So, in my efforts to not waste either money or food, I decided to use up the cauliflower that was sitting in my fridge. I found a recipe for Cauliflower Bhaji in my new, used cookbook. It's a funny vegetable. Everyone seems to hate it. In fact, I did a Google search using the words 'Cauliflower' and 'Hate' together, and it came up with over 2 million hits. There is even a "Cauliflower Haters" Facebook group. Crazy.

Well, for such a widely despised vegetable, it sure is pretty. I cut it up and threw it into the colander for a rinse, and the stalks turned this incandescent sort of green, like it had stored up the daylight and was glowing just for me.

And finally! A use for the insanely hot dried chilies I'd bought a big bag of, thinking I could crush them with mortar and pestle and use them instead of ready-made chili flakes! Only to realize they're so hot, it's instantaneous evacuation of your nasal cavities and vaporizing of your taste buds! Get me some milk, please! Quick!

It was a really easy recipe to follow, and without a picture of the finished product prepared by the talented Jaffrey to daunt me, there was no pressure, no expectation of the end result. Oh sweet Lord, it was good. Yes, it was really spicy - there is, after all, 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper and 2 Insane-o dried chilies; if you make this yourself, you may want to adjust the amounts. But it was also incredibly tasty and, served on some basmati rice, or with a naan bread (my next project from the cookbook) and tzatziki or baba ganoush, it is just the thing to warm the belly and sweat out your recession blues.

Cauliflower Bhaji, with a couple of add-ins by me, by Madhur Jaffrey a la From Curries To Kebabs:

1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cardamon (my addition)
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp mustard powder (my addition due to lack of mustard seeds)
3/4 tsp salt
3 tbsp corn, peanut or olive oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds (I didn't have them, so I used fennel seeds instead)
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
2 whole dried hot red chilies
1-inch piece of ginger, first cut into thin slices, then stacked and cut into thin slivers
1 cauliflower head, cut into smallish florets, about 1 1/2 inches wide.
1/2 cup peeled and finely chopped tomatoes
1/2 peas (my addition)


1. Combine the coriander, cumin, turmeric, cardamon, cayenne, mustard powder (if using) and salt in a bowl. Add 4 tbsp water and mix. Set aside.

2. Pour the oil into a large pot or pan with a lid and set over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the mustard seeds (if using) cumin seeds and chilies. Once the seeds start to pop, which doesn't take long, put in the ginger, stir and then the cauliflower. Fry the cauliflower till it starts browning, stirring continuously, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the spice paste; cover and let simmer over low heat for about 5-10 minutes.

3. Stir in the tomatoes and peas, replace the lid and cook for another 6-10 minutes, or until cauliflower is tender. Serve with a large dollop of plain yogurt and salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, June 14, 2010

'Tempest In A Teapot' Potato Salad

Ceiling Status: Still in pre-operative damage; repair as yet unscheduled.
Mental Status: In critical condition.
Marital Status: Stable, resting comfortably.
Hangover Status: Obliterated.

I'm not much of a drinker. My first serious experience with alcohol was not with a training drink like a wine cooler or a Bacardi Breezer. It was with about ten fingers of whisky poured into a pop bottle, with some coke thrown in for colour; a drink prepared specially for me by my friends on my 16th birthday. It ended in a comically awful fashion (see: vomiting on pool table while in use; falling down a flight of stairs and passing out; waking up in hospital with mother standing by bedside, a look of acute disappointment on her face.) The few other times I've drank with abandon have ended in migraines that debilitate me for a whole day. It's taken me a few years, but now I'm quite sure that uncontrolled drinking and I are incompatible bed mates and we tend to stay away from one another.

But yesterday I awoke, after a lovely night of food and (too much) wine with friends, feeling like a hangover storm had settled inside me. I'd come down with that unwinning combination of headache, stomach upset and moodiness. I tried to fight it; I drank some dark coffee, made a pile of buttered toast, pet my dog, but nothing would help. Added to this, our upstairs neighbour, affectionately nicknamed Clompy McClomp, on account of her rather heavy footfall, had her overseas boyfriend staying with her, a man whom we discerned, through their conversations falling from the hole in our ceiling,
to be abundant in boobery and lacking in smarts.

And so me and my storm got into a fight with Husband. It was a doozy. There were lots of hand gestures, some not polite. There was yelling and curse words. There was even an unfortunate bout of 'ugly crying' - mine, not his. Are you familiar with the ugly cry? Basically, it's the exact opposite of a television actress cry. Picture January Jones as Betty Draper, crying. Lovely, right? Tears glistening down milky white skin, a faint tremble of the chin. You want to go to her with a Kleenex box and stroke her back. With an ugly cry, your audience, no matter how angry they are at you, wants to look away. Perhaps out of mercy. Perhaps out of self-preservation. No one wants an ugly cry branded in their memory.

Dawson! What are you doing here?

But unlike the fights of our youth, where break-ups were threatened and it felt like the sky was caving in, we managed to sort it out and put things right; one of the innumerable perks of getting older and faintly wiser. We'd decided to salvage our Sunday by having dinner together and watching the original version of The Italian Job.

Oh, have you met our newest addition to the house? Another treasure, thanks to the wedding...

I'd decided to make a potato salad; Husband was in charge of christening the new barbeque with burgers. I still had some asparagus, green beans and green onions to finish, so I chopped them up:

And threw them together with some baby red and white potatoes:

And I added some oil and dried rosemary and basil, then roasted the bejeesus out of them.

We ate our dinner on the deck under a grey Toronto sky, exhausted and hungry. The new barbeque worked like a dream, and we wolfed down our burgers in relative silence. My potato salad was the most delicious, most hangover-curing thing I could have wished for. It wasn't too saucy, no one flavour overpowered the others. It was damn awesome. After the movie (Exciting! Action-packed!) was over, we crawled into bed and curled up together, survivors of the storm. And just like that, everything was right with the world again.

Tempest In A Teapot Potato Salad, by Monika:

A smallish bunch of asparagus, cut into two-inch pieces
3 green onions, cut into two-inch pieces
A large handful of green beans, cut into two-inch pieces
Approximately 10 each of baby red and baby white potatoes, cut into halves and thirds (depending on size)
2-3 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
a healthy pinch of dried basil and dried rosemary
1 ripe avocado, chopped into smallish cubes
Several pickles or gherkins, cut into smallish pieces
A handful of fresh oregano, chopped finely
juice of 1/2 a lemon
3 tbsp grainy Dijon mustard (mine had horseradish in it; highly recommended)
1 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp white balsamic or white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Toss chopped asparagus, green beans and green onions in a large bowl with olive oil, salt and pepper, dried basil and rosemary. Roast till potatoes are cooked; approx. 35-40 minutes. Place on fresh baking sheet and lay out to cool to room temperature.

2. In a small bowl, combine the Dijon mustard, mayonnaise and vinegar and whisk till well blended. Place the now-cooled vegetables into serving bowl, add the pickles, fresh oregano and avocado and squeeze lemon juice over the top. (this will help keep the avocado from browning as well) Pour the dressing over it all and stir gently with wooden spoon till well coated. Serve and season with salt and pepper to your taste.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Comfort Cooking While The Heavens Open

This is a photo of our living room ceiling, in it's current state. We've had a few torrential downpours and winds over the past few weeks, and as a result, part of our roof was ripped off and our ceiling leaked. A lot. We didn't use a bucket to collect the water; we used a 40 gallon ice box, which had to be emptied several times a night. Just so you get the idea.

This is a photo of a man standing outside my kitchen window as I puttered around making my morning coffee. At 7 am. I am presuming he is one of the roofers, otherwise, holy f**k, POLICE, there's a MAN on my neighbour's roof looking into my kitchen!

Can I be candid with you? I've been going through a bit of a rough patch. Newly married, I'd returned from the honeymoon like a woman reborn. Two weeks of bliss had erased all the worries and cares from my mind, and I'd convinced myself that I could maintain that state of relaxation, here, in the city. How foolish of me. Because the fact remains that I still urgently need to find a job, and after three months of not being able to, of the constant rejections, I'm actually a little bit blue about the whole thing. I find myself wishing my blog would be discovered, like a gawky teen at the mall, so I could write for a living. Or I could find work being one of the members of those crisp-looking families in the Ikea catalogue; I feel I could be happy living in the Swedish calm of an Ektorp living room, even if only for a few false minutes.

With all this going on and living in what feels like an approximation of a crack den (hyperbole alert); with all the furniture turned over and the ceiling opened up like the surgery patient in the game 'Operation', my head and my heart feel chaotic. I haven't been writing or doing stained glass; laundry's been piling up. I've felt like eating beans on toast or anything that can be microwaved, made from a box or otherwise conjured up instantly, as if by magic or voodoo. I have simply not felt like cooking. For the past two days, I've been feasting on the kindness of our landlords; a large piece of 'Apologies For The Inconvenience' cake, and last night, an 'Apology, Part 2' cream cheese and lox bagel. I might be able to milk this situation for a four course meal if I'm clever with the doe eyes...

But this morning, with the roof being ripped off with a sound akin to God unleashing Hell's chariots from their fiery depths over my head, I decided I wanted - no, needed, to do some comfort cooking. With the dog and cat cowering in terror in the bedroom, it looked like I'd have the kitchen all to myself this morning. I decided upon some Cranberry-Pistachio scones for breakfast with my coffee. I found a basic recipe here and put them together. I used a little trick I'd read in my Best Of Chef At Home cookbook, and used a stick of frozen butter, which I then grated for an even dispersion of the butter in the dough. Genius.

The scones, once cooled slightly were divine. I don't know if this is because freshly baked anything tastes good out of the oven, but I'd put just the right amount of pistachios and cranberries in and the texture was a sublime cross between bread and a croissant.

On a baking high, I scanned my cookbooks and magazines for inspiration and decided to make an asparagus and green onion tart with a goat cheese custard filling for dinner. I used Martha's basic pastry crust, which came together easily once I ignored the rather confusing instructions and did it my way. I let the crust chill in the fridge and reckoned I needed a break from all the construction overhead, so I leashed up my dog and went for a walk. As she sniffed and peed happily, I fretted over money while counting my blessings. I wondered what my mother would tell me to do. I marvelled at the green-gold glow of all the leaves, backlit by the sun. I thought about Husband and warmed inside. I wished for a new sofa. I felt bittersweet.

Later, back at home, I poured myself a glass of wine and set to chopping my vegetables and making the filling. It took me forever; I wasn't as organized as I usually am, but I didn't really care; I was too busy taking in the prettiness of my ingredients.

Lovely, sunny, lemony curlicues...

A small heap of oregano for good measure

Finally, it came together and went in the oven. What came out was even better than I'd hoped for.

I cut myself a large slice of tart and made a salad, which I ate up in mere minutes; it was that kind of good . The roofers had gone home; the noise finally stopped. And I believed that just as surely as there were days like these, where I felt fragile and unsettled, there would be jobs and fixed ceilings and renewed optimism. And the spaces in between happiness wouldn't seem quite so laboured. Or long.

Cranberry Pistachio Scones, via Joy Of Baking:

2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup white sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
Zest of one orange, finely chopped
1 stick (1/2 cup) of frozen butter, grated on the larger side of a box grater
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients and stir till well mixed. Add the grated butter and mix with a wooden spoon, separating any clumps.

2. Add the buttermilk and vanilla and stir till just combined and a dough is forming. Be careful not to over-mix, don't worry if you don't get all the dry ingredients wet yet. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead gently till you can form a circle, approximately 1" in thickness. Cut into 6-8 pieces (I cut 6) and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Brush tops with a bit of buttermilk and bake for 20 or so minutes, or until tops are lightly golden. Allow to cool slightly before eating.

Asparagus-Scallion Tart, adapted from and inspired by several recipes, all Martha Stewart publications:

1 Basic Pastry Crust - see below for recipe
8-10 stalks of asparagus, cut into two inch pieces
4-5 scallions, cut into two inch pieces
1/3 cup buttermilk
3 eggs
2/3 cup goat cheese
zest of one lemon, finely chopped
A handful of fresh oregano leaves, washed and chopped roughly


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a skillet, heat up some olive oil and add the asparagus with some salt and pepper. Saute till softened, about 10 minutes or so. Set aside.

2. In blender, combine the buttermilk, eggs, goat cheese and lemon zest and pulse till well combined. Throw in the oregano and pulse till combined. Set aside.

3. Sprinkle the scallions and asparagus over the pastry crust. Pour the buttermilk mixture over top till everything is covered. (You may have a bit left over) Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the custard is set; keep checking it! Brown the top under the broiler for 1-2 minutes, watching closely that it doesn't burn. Once done, allow to cool for 10 minutes, then cut to serve.

Martha Stewart's Basic Pastry Crust, with my instructions:

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1 stick of unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3 tbsp ice water


1. In food processor, combine the flour, salt and sugar. Pulse to mix. Add the butter pieces and pulse till the mixture looks crumbly with pea-sized bits in it.

2. Add the water and pulse till it looks like it's coming together; this takes only a few seconds or so, don't overdo it!

3. Turn mixture out into a springform pan or pie dish and gently pat down the crumbs into the bottom of the pan and up the sides a bit. Using a fork, prick two or three steam vents in the bottom. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes, up to several hours.

4. Before using the crust, you'll want to pre-bake it in a 350 degree F oven for about 10-15 minutes, or until it turns a light golden brown. It's a good idea to weigh down the raw crust with some dried beans or something of similar heft so the bottom doesn't rise up when baking and crack. After the pre-bake, you're ready to add the filling!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

'Thailand From A Distance' Bowl.

I've always had a rather active imagination. I credit this in part to my parents, who didn't allow my sister and I to watch television during the school week. Books were the lifeblood of my entertainment, and as such, I developed the spot in my brain that coaxes strong visual images out of words into a lean, high-performance muscle. I could picture just about anything with dazzling technicolour clarity, and stranger still, I could place myself, physically and emotionally, in the midst of whatever fairytale was playing behind my eyes. And for a long time, that was all I needed.

Until I started seeing movies.

I'm absolute crap at remembering plots. Husband seem to have this elephantine ability to remember specific lines from just about any movie, and will quote these lines freely for months on end.( I lived with recitations of various 'Anchorman' gems for a loooong time: "The human torch was denied a bank loan.
") But me, I remember characters, looks and gestures, colours, the way the movie made me feel. I don't just absorb a compelling story. I inhabit it.

Remember seeing 'Pretty Woman' for the first time? Did you not kind of want to be a hooker, even just for an hour or so? If it meant making out with Richard Gere (before his Buddhism and all that gerbil-and-bum nonsense) well yes, I DID want to be a hooker for an hour or so. Also, I wanted to be a mermaid after watching 'Splash' (side note: as a child forced to have short hair for much of her young life, Daryl Hannah's hair was the follicular Holy Grail) and the white girl in 'Dances With Wolves' who grew up with the Sioux people of the Dakotas, and Watts in 'Some Kind Of Wonderful' because I loved Eric Stoltz in the 80's.

But there's also a bit of a downside to this kind of immersion in a film. When I saw those brief, few illegal seconds of 'Poltergeist' through half-covered eyes (we weren't allowed to watch scary movies either) I couldn't look into a mirror for days. 'Silence Of The Lambs' made lotion disturbing. And 'Brokedown Palace', a based-on-a-true-story movie about an accidental drug smuggling into Thailand and its extremely unforgiving penal system, smothered any enthusiasm I may have kindled for future travel plans to mainland Southeast Asia.

I am, of course, hyperbolizing. But my Pan Asian cultural exploration has, for the time being, been limited to the regional cuisines. I don't know that I've ever had authentic Thai food. I've suffered through several take-out mounds of greasy Pad Thai, but the exploration stopped there. Which is terrible, because the flavours that populate traditional Thai cuisine positively sing to me . Mangoes, lemongrass, chilies, cilantro, kaffir limes; the contrasts of sour and sweet and spicy and fresh are so enticing and seemingly error-proof. So a recipe
that incorporated some of these elements, like the one I found in a Martha Stewart Everyday Food magazine, was a sure thing. Which was important considering my best friend and the very person who got me into cooking was coming over for dinner.

The salad was supposed to have a base of green mango, but I could only find ripe ones at the market, so that's what I used. I added heaps of mint and cilantro, lime juice and zest, chicken pieces that had been stewing in a spicy lime-and-chili-spice-mix marinade prior to pan frying.

Hello, naked limes...they look like little sea creatures, don't they?

The meal turned out fragrant, light and tasty, each ingredient playing out its part to perfection, from the creaminess of the avocado, to the crunch of the peanuts sprinkled on top. And no imagination was needed to be transported, for a few minutes or hours, to a place where the wine was chilled and the company was dear.

Because I was already there.

My Adaptation of Martha Stewart Everyday Food Green Mango Salad:

2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into smallish cubes (about 1 inch)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp chili spice mix (see below)
A small knob of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2-3 green onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh lime juice, plus more to taste
2 tbsp fish sauce, plus more to taste (Holy Sodium, Batman! I used soy sauce instead)
1 tsp sugar, plus more to taste
2 green or ripe mangoes, peeled, sliced and cut into thin strips
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, roughly torn
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
1 ripe avocado, chopped in smallish cubes
2 tbsp chopped peanuts
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Chili Spice Mix, via Closet Cooking:

1 tbsp chili powder
1/2 tsp paprika (hot)
1//4 tsp cayenne
2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp garlic powder (I didn't use this)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

Mix everything well.


1. Put chopped chicken in medium bowl with 2 tbsp vegetable oil, 2 tbsp of spice mix and juice and zest of 1 lime. Cover and let sit in fridge for 15 minutes and up to 1 hour.

2. In large bowl, combine the lime juice, fish sauce or soy sauce and sugar and mix till sugar is dissolved. Add sliced mangoes, cilantro and mint and toss to coat.

3. Heat up a small bit of vegetable oil over medium heat. Add ginger and green onions and stir constantly till softened, about 5 minutes. Add the marinated chicken and cook till meat is lightly browned and no longer pink inside, about 10 minutes. Let meat cool to room temperature.

4. When ready to eat, place mango-cilantro-mint mixture in a bowl, on top of some cut up romaine lettuce if desired. Then add chicken cubes, avocado, peanuts and chili flakes and dig in!