Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fresh Cut Cook Makes Fresh Start...At Small Packages!

Where have I been, you ask? In the land of limbo, between having a computer and having that computer die on me. It's been nice, taking a break from blogging and the endless photographing of meals and the pressure to post on a semi-regular basis.

And in that time, my lovely husband bought me a new computer, and I decided to start a new blog, with a new name, and the aim to include even more bits of my life, like my crafty, creative side, or keeping track of books, music and movies I'm loving.

I've called my new blog 'Small Packages', because that's how all the good things come, right? So hopefully, you'll follow me there...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Oh Canada, And A Coconut-Noodle Soup

When I was younger, I went to a private school for a few years. My parents thought I'd have a better education, but I feel that it may have retarded me socially, having had no contact with boys the first four years of my scholastic life. We belonged to the lesser-known "Not Poor But Not Rich" income bracket, which was mystifying and mind-boggling to those of my peers who had everything: maids, nannies, drivers, cooks (but rarely actual parents.)

At one of my birthday parties, held in our lovely, cozy home that had been purchased for a song, gutted and entirely rebuilt by my father and grandfather, one of my little classmates entered the house, looked around with an imperious air and said "But where is the rest of your house?" My parents forever after joked about the location of the 'east wing.'

Besides God and money, the school was incredibly proud of its diversity, and liked celebrating its multiculturalism. One day, we were told we'd be having an "International Cuisine" lunch, where everyone was to bring a food item or dish that was native to their cultural heritage. I was in something of a quandary; like many born and raised Canadians, I was just 'white,' not really any one ethnicity more than another.

Something of a European mongrel, I had more countries in my blood than the United Nations. My father's side of the family had Irish and Scottish ancestry, but that was about 5 or 6 generations ago. And my mother was something of an ethnic mystery to me. Born in Romania to Hungarian parents, she actually grew up in Israel and identified herself as Israeli, until she came to Canada. Then she was a Canadian, and if you asked her about her unusual accent, you'd be treated with a rather cold stare. "I am from here," she would say. "I am Canadian."

For a fourth-grader, this was a bit too complex a cultural minefield to navigate. I was Canadian. But what food is particularly Canadian? Back bacon? Maple syrup? I didn't know.

And so I brought Shredded Wheat cereal. Yes. I did.

Because the wheat was grown in Canada, it said so on the box, and you surely cannot fault a fourth-grader for being so literal. So amidst the samosas and spring rolls and shock-value haggis lay my wax papered packet of Shredded Wheat, totally unpalatable without the softening effect of hot water, the creamy coolness of milk and the sweetening effect of a 1/2 inch of brown sugar on top.

Years later, I am still stymied by what constitutes our national cuisine. I find myself cooking meals that are Mediterranean or Southeast Asian-inspired, but perhaps with my clumsy Canadian touch to them - not too spicy, not too exotic, ever so slightly inauthentic. Like this Vietnamese-style soup I made/modified and have virtually no decent photographs of. I found the recipe in Fine Cooking a few months ago and clipped it out for future use. It was so ridiculously tasty, you must try and make it for yourself.

As far as cultural identity goes, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe it boils down to where you were born. Maybe it's where your parents were born, or their parents before them. But given the lives my mother and father lived across the world from each other during the war; dramatic, colourful, often tragic lives that eventually intersected here, in Toronto, Ontario, where they started their family and found love and great happiness, maybe where you're from is the wrong question.

Maybe it's all about where you end up.

Coconut Noodle Soup, From Fine Cooking Magazine May Issue (?) 2010, adapted by me.

2 14 oz cans coconut milk
1 tbsp red curry paste
6 cups lower-salt chicken broth
3 stalks lemongrass, lightly smashed
8 1/4 inch slices of fresh ginger
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
2 cups oyster mushrooms (you can use any mushrooms; I used oyster and cremini) trimmed and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
1 cup chopped tomato
1 cup baby corn (optional but delicious)
Vermicelli noodles, soaked in room temperature water for 30-60 minutes in a large pot.
Fresh cilantro

*The original recipe calls for tea-smoked shrimp and instructs you on the whole process; I think you can find it on their website if you're interested.


1. In a 4 quart pot, simmer 1/2 cup coconut milk over medium heat, stirring often till it reduces by half and thickens, about 1-2 minutes. Whisk in the curry paste until dissolved, about 1 minute. Add the remaining coconut milk, chicken broth, lemongrass and ginger. Raise the heat to medium high, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.

2. Strain out the lemongrass stalks and ginger pieces. Stir in the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and a bit of salt. Season to taste. Add the mushrooms, tomato and baby corn, and cook for another 10 minutes, till the mushrooms have softened.

3. To assemble, bring the soaked vermicelli noodles to a boil for a couple of minutes, then drain well. Add noodles to bowls first, then pour soup over top, and garnish with fresh cilantro.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Let's Do Lunch Again And Again, And A Spinach-Blue Cheese-Leek Tart

It's a funny thing, but when you get married or otherwise commit yourself to another human being because of love, you not only commit to their lovable habits, but also the ones that kind of drive you nuts. I've always been wary of being "that" women - you know; the one who screeches at her husband like a fishwife, nagging incessantly about trivial things like socks on the floor, porn watching, not being a mind-reader. So by and large, I don't screech. But there are a few things Husband does that I find confounding and on occasion, incredibly irksome.

1. The fan.

I don't know if he's always needed it, but in order to go to sleep, we have to turn on a big fan because the whooshing noise comforts him. I say 'we.' It's somehow my job to turn it on before climbing into bed because he always goes to bed before me. Sometimes I'll forget on purpose because I like listening to the city as it goes to sleep, but he'll actually wake up and ask if I can turn on the fan. He does this thing where he pretends he's dying and makes his voice all dry and weak and makes me promise to turn it on. He never tires of it.

2. The Encyclo-dictionary.

Oh. My. Lanta. The number of times we debate something, no matter how inane, whether it's the pronunciation of 'archipelago', or the what year Koko, the signing gorilla, was born, and he says to me, eyebrows raised with disbelief "Are you sure?" and then wields that yellow-paged, leather-bound juggernaut of know-it-all-itis at me, just to prove me wrong...

3. The piles.

Piles. Everywhere. Piles of comic books, piles of unopened mail. Piles of clothes. And the very special one we call the 'melted Cameron' pile, because it is quite literally a pile composed of pants, underpants and shirt, stacked Russian nesting doll-style and piled next to his side of the bed, so in the morning, he just needs to put on the shirt and step back into the underpants and pants and poof! He's ready for the day.

But I don't screech. I don't want to be a fishwife, and really, these aren't such big issues. Besides, I'm not perfect. There are things about me that must just drive him mental. Like the Purple Bathrobe which I live in when I'm at home. I know he's sick of seeing it. Or my pea-sized bladder on driving trips. I'm willing to bet that drives him absolutely bonkers.

Wow. You know what? I couldn't think of anything else that I do that annoys him. It was really hard even just coming up with the bathrobe and the bladder. Maybe I'm not as annoying as I think he thinks I can be?

(Or maybe he's just holding it all in.)

Because I do plenty of things that annoy myself. I worry incessantly about dumb things. I read too much celebrity gossip. And I seem to be incapable of making food that doesn't belong on a lunch/brunch menu. Muffins, scones, loaves. Savory tarts and quiches. Pizzas and salads. I'm obsessed. And this meal I made the other day is no exception. I can't help myself.

When I saw these leeks;

And bathed the spinach in a Christmas-light reflected pool in the sink;

And baked a rustic-looking crust that practically begged me to make a blue-cheese custardy filling to go along with the spinach and leeks, resulting in this;

well, I guess I just have to accept that adventure is not what I'm looking for in cooking. And I think I'm okay with that. I may never try to master Julia Child. I probably won't make handmade pasta. There is a very good chance that I'll never get past the brunch/lunch menu.

But as long as I am still dazzled by the humble beauty you'll find in vegetables if you look closely; as long as I am seduced by the fatty magic of cheese and am able to produce food that tastes really good, good enough for me to take a minute to absorb that I made it that way, well, I reckon I'm probably doing things just right.

And if ever I'm in doubt, all I need to do is check the Encyclo-Dictionary.

Spinach-Blue Cheese-Leek Tart (pastry from Everyday Food November 2010 issue)

1 bunch of spinach, well rinsed and squeezed dry

1 leek, split lengthwise, then cut into 1/4 pieces, rinsed well

1/4 cup white wine

2 tbsp olive oil

1/3 cup blue cheese, crumbled

1/3 cup cream (I used half and half, but you can use buttermilk or 2% milk as well)

3 eggs


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heat olive oil and white wine over medium heat in pan. Add the spinach and wilt it; then add the leeks. Cook till everything is soft and fragrant and the wine has mostly been cooked off. Set aside.

2. In a blender or food processor, combine the blue cheese, cream and eggs and puree till well mixed.

3. Put the veggies in the pre-baked pie crust (see below for recipe) and then pour the cheese mixture over top. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until the middle of the tart is set.


In a food processor, pulse 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour and 1/2 tsp coarse salt to combine. Add 1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces; pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal with a few pea sized pieces of butter remaining. Sprinkle with 2 tbsp ice water, pulse until dough is crumbly but holds together when squeezed. (I had to add two more tbsp of water to achieve this) Form dough into a 1 inch thick circle, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm; 1 hour (or up to 3 days).

When ready to use, thaw to room temperature and roll it out to fit an 8-9 inch pie pan. Pre-bake to prevent sogginess at 350 degrees F for about 20 minutes or till lightly golden. Use a fork to pierce the bottom to create steam holes, and weigh down the crust with beans or pie weights to prevent the crust from puffing up.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Technical Difficulties - Please Stand By

If you're wondering where I am, well, I'm still here. I'm just computerless at the moment, save for the precious minutes I steal on Husband's computer. My piece of crap Dell (never, ever buy a Dell computer) has been slowly dying on me; first the sound went, and now I can't even open Internet Explorer.
Sigh. We're working on it. I'll have a post up in the next few days, so check back! I miss you!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Better Luck Next Time, And A George Hamilton Loaf

Blame my mother-in-law. And my brother-in-law. If it weren't for these two making so much amazing food over the Thanksgiving weekend, I'd have had a new post up by now. If they hadn't sent me home with enough Tupperwared leftovers to feed me for a week, I'd be cooking up a storm.

And with all the pumpkin pie, carrots, sweet potatoes and squash I've eaten lately, I'm think I'm in serious danger of turning into George Hamilton.

(He's this shade of orange because of all the beta carotene he gets, right?

Thanksgiving was lovely, it really was. I enjoyed seeing my family and in-laws, my adorable nieces and nephews, and there was more wonderful food than you could imagine. There is still an entire pumpkin pie sitting in my fridge, and for some reason, I decided this morning to bake a pumpkin loaf. Clearly, I am not in my right mind.

I am attributing my wrong-mindedness to stress. Readers, I am stressed. Like, really, really stressed. I hate my job with a capital HATE. Yesterday was Tuesday, so in accordance with the 'Friendliness To Monika' schedule, I was due for some kind words or at least a bit less hostility than the usual Monday-Wednesday-Thursday variety from Grumpy Co-Worker and Veterinarian.

"Unless..." Husband speculated, "unless because of Monday being a holiday, then Tuesday is the new Monday this week?"

Fark. And don't you know it, he was right. Tuesday was the new Monday, and I came home angry and sobbing.

Maybe I'm being greedy. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe you can't have it all, at the same time; a wonderful family, some great friends, an awesome husband AND a job that isn't awful? Perhaps the life I'm living right now is balanced - good and bad, happy and crazy-making?

After all, I know there are so many people out there stuck in jobs they hate. And they stay, because they have families to feed, or because there simply aren't any other jobs out there. Or because, worst of all, they don't think they deserve anything better...

So I decided to bake a pumpkin spice loaf. Because when I'm not in my right mind, baking, with all its directions and processes and structure, makes me feel normal and calm.

I opened the tin of pumpkin puree because I am not one of those people who will roast their own pumpkin. I'm just not. And here is what happens every single time I use the can opener, regardless of the what's in the can...

Big, you're descended from desert hunters. How do you not smell that this isn't meat? Stop looking at me like that.

I used my favourite thing ever, Chatsworth honey, made by real Ontarian bees, in place of some of the white sugar that was called for,

I mixed all the wet ingredients,

I added it to the dry ingredients and 50 minutes later, out came a delicious, tender/not dry/m-word loaf that is not overly sweet like cake, but spicy and would be lovely with a drizzle of maple syrup or cinnamon butter.

As I sat in the basement lunchroom at work, eating my slices of pumpkin loaf and happy to be away from the misery upstairs, I decided that I'd reached my wall of endurance and would start looking for a new job. Because I don't have a family to feed just yet. And I do believe there is a better job out there for me.

And best of all, I actually believe that I deserve to be happy.

George Hamilton Loaf, aka Pumpkin Spice Loaf, adapted from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook:

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/4 cup honey
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, beaten


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Sift together the flours, salt, sugar, baking soda and pumpkin pie spice.

2. In separate bowl, whisk the honey, pumpkin puree, veg oil and eggs till combined. Add to the dry ingredients and mix till just combined. Pour into a buttered loaf pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, till tester knife comes out clean.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kitchen Scraps, And A 'Just Make Me' Broccoli Salad

You know, for all those times I think deep, profoundly interesting things, there are perhaps an equivalent, or maybe even greater number of blanks being fired aimlessly in my think-box.

Like how much I hate our low-flow toilet. No matter how many times I flush the cat droppings down the toilet, one little renegade nugget always bobs back up into the bowl. Every time.

Or like how my bangs are at that stage where I need to make a definitive decision: Do I suffer the agony of growing them out and having hair in my eyes for the next 4 months, or do I cut them short again? Is there too much real estate on my forehead to not have bangs? Are foreheads the new nipple?

Pumpkin curry - is that something?

It sounds like our coat rack is threatening to break away from the wall under the weight of our 17 different kinds of jackets, sweaters, windbreakers and raincoats. The weather has been so all over the place, neither of us know how to dress when we leave the hous..........

Oh. WOW. Did that put
you to sleep too?

I'm sorry. You're totally getting my 'D' material. I'm tired, and it's been a difficult work week, which, if you've been following this blog lately, will elicit the question "When isn't it a difficult work week?" I don't mean to make it sound all bad. There are definite pluses. Like the 7 cats I work around all day; for example, there's Pickle, my attention-starved lunchroom companion, or Diesel, the whopping 32-pounder who thinks he's a dog and looks quite like an ottoman. For a few hours a day, I am almost a cat person.

Or wearing scrubs to work, which leads people on the subway to believe I am someone with medical training, toiling weird hours in the most noble of vocations, when in actual fact, I am but a glorified cockblocker between you and the appointment you
really wanted with your medical professional. (wow. Tired Moni is a bit crude. Apologies.)

But the other night, just before we closed the clinic, I was called upon to perform beyond my basic receptionist skills. A woman came in with her dead cat who'd just been hit by a car. She was beside herself with grief. I'd never seen a dead pet before, and it looked just like it was sleeping. I didn't know what to say; I was so scared of saying the wrong thing. There are so many cliched responses to grief, but they are inoffensive and safe and still show support, so you use them. But somehow, I felt it was worth the risk to be a bit more personal.

So we talked, about our pets, about our husbands, about life. And I feel like in some tiny way, maybe I helped. I didn't make her tragedy less tragic. But considering how pet death is a regular part of my workplace, causing me to have nervous stomach aches every day, I think the risk paid off. Because what resulted wasn't client-receptionist platitudes. It was just two people, a dead cat, and a very human connection.

And the thing is, in that moment when that inner voice that you've been harbouring since childhood is begging you to run fast and far, telling you, a depressive with a terminally ill parent, that you're not fit to deal with any more grief and sadness; it's too much to bear - well, that's when something truly extraordinary happens. That's when you realize that you're not falling apart like you thought you would. You are coping, enduring. And maybe even with a little bit of grace too.

So I haven't much to offer in the way of a challenging meal. This is a simple thing I threw together so as not to waste food sitting in my fridge, and it turned out incredibly delicious. I'd make this over and over again, no joke, and the possibilities for adaptation are endless. So Just Make This, and have a fantastic Thanksgiving weekend, if you're in Canada. I, for one, have a great many things to be thankful for.

And I'll probably think a great deal about them, in between all those aimlessly fired blanks.

Roasted Broccoli-Potato-Sausage Salad With Maple-Chili Vinaigrette:

1 large head of broccoli, cut into smallish florets
3 large potatoes, cubed
3 sausages; I used spicy pork sausage, but you can use any kind, even veggie ones.
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp chili powder


2 tbsp maple syrup (table syrup is just fine)
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp sambal oelek, or other spicy chili sauce


1. Preheat oven to 350-400 degrees F. In a large bowl combine the chopped broccoli and potatoes with the olive oil and chili pepper and put in roasting pan. Roast till soft, about 40 minutes.

2. While the veggies are roasting, cook up your sausages. Make the dressing too, just combine all the ingredients in a small mason jar and shake well till combined (or just use a fork to whisk)

3. When veggies are ready, place in a serving bowl with the cooked sausage, cut into 1/2 inch pieces, and cool for about 10 minutes. Add the vinaigrette and stir to coat everything. Serve immediately with some lovely, grainy bread and butter!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Will Never Wear Hemp Pants, And Accidentally Ethical Salmon Cakes

I never thought I would be the sort of person to purchase a $7 tin of salmon. I've walked past these tins before in the grocery store and as I'd reach past them to get to my $1.09 mercury-laden, Thailand-produced, environmentally cruel tuna, I would think to myself "What kind of sucker buys this stuff?"

And now I am one of them.

My sister has been swearing up and down that this brand of canned fish is really worth the extra money. And I, now working and having some coins in my pocket, was itching to make some salmon cakes and decided to quell my curiosity. So I went to the bulk food/health store at the end of my street to buy a tin.

My choice of store was deliberate. Because the place I could most readily buy this type of salmon, a local, independent, family-owned grocery store, is one of my least favourite places to shop. I am sure I am a terrible person because of this. This grocery store places an emphasis on local produce, on environmentally sustainable food, on organic and fair trade and free range. And yet, I can't stand shopping there because of a specific type of shopper they attract. I call them the Middle Class Eco-Worriers.

These are people who splash their political beliefs all over their bodies. They wear their bike helmets in the store as they shop, so that you can be sure they didn't drive there; their carbon footprint is immaculate. They debate the superior health merits of alpaca milk versus common goats milk with the other parents in the Alternative Milks aisle; 'If you read the nutritional analysis, it's practically cow's milk!' they exclaim. Their kids wear garments made from reconstituted plastic bags woven under equitable circumstances by women in developing nations. They have bumper stickers on their hybrid vehicles that read "My other car is a bike", or "We support war resisters."

My bumper sticker, if we had a car that didn't blow up on the highway for the third time this past weekend, would read "Does my fat ass make my fat ass look fat in these jeans?"

Of course, I am exaggerating; these are truly decent people. They love their families and the environment and have figured out how to take up activism in their daily lives. But there is something smug, something unattainable about this kind of lifestyle, like only people with money can make a truly significant dent on the environmental crisis. What about people like me, who can't afford solar panels or free-range eggs? Who shop at Wal-Mart in those glasses with the fake nose and mustache attached, so no one will recognize me and look down on me?

So I went to the bulk/health food store instead, so I wouldn't have to deal with my Apathy guilt. And I bought my $7 tin of salmon, not because it was environmentally sustainable but because my sister said it tasted really great. I took it home, gave a little bit of the juice in the can to my cat, and put the salmon in a bowl. I flaked it, added some breadcrumbs, green onion and cayenne pepper;

Then I cracked an egg into the bowl, added a few generous dashes of sambal oelek sauce and mushed everything together with my hands, forming a few patties;

Which I then fried in some oil and listened to them sizzle and pop until golden brown;

And I ate them up so fast, I totally forgot to take pictures of the finished product. I couldn't help myself. They were so amazing; really spicy, with that lovely smoked flavour peaking through; crisp and hot. I truly outdid myself.

And I attempted to make peace with myself and my way of life. Maybe my version of activism is a bit more muted, more personal. I try to focus more on being a good person to the people who are immediately in my life; family, friends, clients at my work, the old lady on the bus who needs a seat. I'll donate $50 to the latest tsunami or hurricane relief effort, even though I feel like it's a drop in a bucket with a very large hole. And I'll keep buying the occasional $7 tin of salmon, if it means those salmon got to enjoy their short-lived freedom before making their way to the smokehouse.

And I'll hope that for now, it is enough.

Accidentally Ethical Salmon Cakes:

1 can salmon, preferably smoked, flaked
2 green onions, finely chopped
3/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (more or less, to your taste)
2-3 large dashes of sambal oelek sauce
1 egg


1. In medium size bowl, combine the flaked salmon, green onions, breadcrumbs, cayenne pepper, sambal oelek sauce and egg. Mash together with hands to form patties.

2. Heat oil over medium-high temperature; fry patties till golden brown on both sides; about 7-10 minutes total. Drain on paper towels if you like and serve immediately!