I don’t care that there is more cloudy weather on the way – today I am basking in thoughts of tulips by the armful, fresh rhubarb, and my favourite ham recipe, that last hailing from one of my carefully-hoarded collection of Gourmet magazine back issues.
I have much to say on the subject of that ham, and today is far too nice a day to be proselytizing on its virtues – but stay tuned, because I intend to include it as part of this weekend’s feasting and I will tell you all about it.
In the meantime, I thought I’d share this soup with you. I made it this past weekend and it did a great deal to restore my mood, which lately has been veering back and forth between glum and utterly uncheerful.
Its flavours are bright and bracing, the perfect tonic on a cloudy day, and it’s also hearty enough that it kept us all going through a bit of a trying afternoon. Kept us going, and more importantly, looking forward – to nothing but blue skies, from now on.
Lentil Soup for a Cloudy Day
I kept the spice on the mild (family-friendly) side here, but you’d do well to ramp it up a bit if there are not small children dining in your midst.
1/4c olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 – 1 tsp red curry paste (or to taste)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 tsp tumeric
1/2c red lentils, rinsed and drained
3c chicken stock
1 798ml can whole organic tomatoes
1c coconut milk
4 cooked sausages, sliced (I used curried chicken sausages from a local butcher)
fresh cilantro, for garnish
In a large soup pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and potatoes and saute until onions are translucent. Add curry paste, garlic, and tumeric and cook, stirring, 2-3 more minutes. Add lentils, stock, and tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat. Simmer until potatoes and lentils are tender, about 20 minutes.
Puree soup in batches using a food processor; alternately, get out the old immersion blender (we have one that I’m pretty sure was given to my husband by an ex-girlfriend – oh, the scandal!) and blast the soup until smooth.
Return soup to the stove over medium heat. Add coconut milk and sausages and heat gently, stirring occasionally, until soup is piping hot and sausages are heated through.
Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve.
Serves 4 for lunch, with leftovers.
When faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, I can think of nothing that offers more solace than food – and the more indulgent, the better.
(I recently read a magazine article on the merits of shopping, written by the wonderful Lynn Crosbie. She made reference to an era when, instead of going out and buying things, women would get together to eat bourbon-soaked waffles and watch bad T.V. I’m pretty sure she was joking, but at this moment in time, a waffle soaked in bourbon? Nirvana.)
So it was that after an epically trying day not long ago, I found myself scouring the cupboards for a snack that might improve things. I was aiming for something chocolatey and sweet, but filling – so I wouldn’t have to think about eating again for a while.
Mindful of my nursing baby, I was also hoping for something that wasn’t completely devoid of nutritional value. I settled on baking some gluten-free brownies from my new favourite cookbook.
While I was waiting and waiting and waiting for them to bake (my one complaint about the gluten-free baked goods is that they require a little more patience than their wheaty sisters), and to atone in advance for the overindulgence that was imminent, I made some granola.
This is the granola that I have been eating since I was a child, and it never fails to transport me to a kinder and gentler time.
Gwenn’s Crunchy Granola
This is basically a template. I don’t think even my mom, whose recipe it is, ever makes it exactly according to these specifications, so go with whatever is in the cupboard that suits your taste.
1c wheat germ
1 1/2c unsweetened coconut
1/2c dark brown sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1/4c sesame seeds
1/2c raw sunflower seeds
1/2c raw cashews
1/2c natural almonds
1/2c vegetable oil
1 tbsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine first nine ingredients in a very large bowl, and mix well.
In a large glass measuring cup or similar jug, whisk together water, oil, and vanilla.
Pour liquid ingredients into oatmeal mixture and mix well – I use my hands for this part, but a wooden spoon would work too.
Divide evenly between two large rimmed baking sheets and bake 30-40 minutes, stirring granola about halfway through cooking time.
Cool completely in pans before transferring to an airtight container.
Makes about 12 cups.
Not only did it encompass everything that makes me happy in a food (butter, wine, starch, meat, cheese); making it was a process that I found thoroughly enjoyable, especially if I had friends around. The risotto dinner routine from those days goes something like this:
Heat broth. Pour a glass of wine for everyone. Start the butter, the onion, the rice. Start talking. Splash some wine into the pan. Splash some wine into the glasses. Ladle broth into the rice, and start stirring. More wine, more gossip, more broth, more stirring.
Eventually everyone sits down, flushed from the steam and the stirring and the wine. The conversation doesn’t really slow down, because another advantage of risotto is that it is completely uncomplicated to eat.
These days, while I still love the uncomplicatedness of eating risotto, still love the wine and the conversation, the risotto dinner routine has had to evolve somewhat.
It may seem hard to imagine, but I have discovered (necessity being the mother of invention) that a really creamy, delectable and soul-satisfying risotto can still be had without my standing over the stove for half an hour and coaxing it into being.
Friends, I have given up the stirring.
And it has changed my life.
Risotto for a New Reality
By some miracle, my daughter, who has an aversion to vegetables and doesn’t like her food to be mixed together, devours this dish. I also buy my squash already diced, and my pancetta already cubed, which adds considerably to the ease of making it on a weeknight (well, any night really) and thus also to its soul-satisfying cred.
2c arborio rice
1/4c olive oil
2c (450g) diced butternut squash
1/4c white wine (optional – if not using, increase broth to 5 1/2c)
5 1/4c chicken broth
150g diced pancetta
2c frozen peas
1/2c grated parmesan
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a deep, heavy-bottomed skillet with a tight-fitting lid, combine rice, oil, squash wine, and 5 cups broth over medium-high heat. Stir once, bring to a boil, then clamp the lid on and transfer to the oven. Cook 25-35 minutes (I find it takes a little longer if you’re using frozen squash), until rice is al dente and broth is mostly absorbed.
While rice is in the oven, cook pancetta cubes in a small heavy skillet until crispy. Drain on paper towel and set aside.
Return rice to stovetop over medium heat. Stir rice well, scraping up any crispy bits that may be stuck to the bottom of the pan; stir in pancetta, peas, and remaining 1/4 cup broth. Cook until peas are just tender, maybe 2-3 minutes. Beat in grated parmesan.
Serve immediately, with a generous grating of black pepper.
Still, March so far has been such a month of highs and lows, cheers one moment and tears the next, that it seemed more reasonable to let everyone get their hands into the photo (and into the cake) than not.
I made it twice this week – yes, it’s that good! And it’s that easy! – and would have gone for a third, even if just for the photo op, but the rest of my life has been encroaching on my time in the kitchen lately.
I should have reason to make one more celebratory cake in the very near future, though, and when I do, this will be the one.
Easy Does It Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Nigella Lawson
The ingredients in the original recipe for this are measured by weight, which I recognize is not easy for everyone, so I’ve included approximate traditional measurements as well for everything but the icing sugar, which I find easier to eyeball anyway. In an ideal world, all of the ingredients would be at room temperature before you started, but please don’t let that be the deal-breaker.
200g (1 1/2c) all purpose flour
200g (1c plus 2 tbsp) sugar
40g (1/2c) cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
175g (3/4c) unsalted butter
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2/3c sour cream
75g (1/4c plus1-2 tbsp) unsalted butter
175g (6 oz.) best-quality dark chocolate
300g icing sugar
1 tbsp liquid honey
1/2c sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans and line their bottoms with parchment.
Place all of the cake ingredients in the food processor (seriously!) and process until a smooth, thick batter is formed. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake in the middle of the oven about 25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool cakes 10 minutes in their pans and then invert onto a rack to cook completely.
When cakes have cooled, make the icing:
Combine butter and chocolate in a large bowl and set over a pan of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.
Place the icing sugar (I usually eyeball, just over half of a 500g bag to start with the intention of adding more if needed) in the bowl of the food processor and pulse a few times to get rid of any lumps.
Add honey, sour cream, and vanilla to cooled chocolate mixture and beat with a spatula until smooth.
With processor running, add chocolate mixture to icing sugar. Icing should be glossy and spreadable, but thick enough that it will not drip off the cake. If you find you need more icing sugar, add it by tablespoonsful until desired consistency is reached.
Place one cooled cake on a cake plate, up (rounded) side down. Spread about a third of the icing onto the bottom cake, then top with second cake, this one right side up. Spread remaining icing over the top and sides of the cake.
Decorate however you see fit, or not at all.
It was like finding buried treasure or reading a diary, all of these food-related memories linking me instantly to the moments when they were created; and, as is so often the case with this kind of thing, reading them left me in a bittersweet mood, nostalgic for some aspects of my old life, and fiercely grateful for who I am and where I am now.
I am not the only one in my circle of friends who has a move planned in the not-too-distant future, so I know I am not alone in my looking backwards with mixed emotions while contemplating a leap forward into the unknown.
We’re all trepidatious, optimistic, and sad. We all want to embrace what’s coming wholeheartedly, but are reluctant to leave behind the joy of the here and now.
We’ve all done it before, and we will all do it again.
This recipe is one of the treasures that I carry with me move after move.
It was a go-to dinner during a phase in my life when several dear friends and I were utterly heartbroken yet managed to eat incredibly well. It isn’t much to look at, but it’s the kind of dish that you have to serve and get out of the way so as not to be trampled by people scrapping for seconds; and, although I am not a savoury breakfast person, I have been known on a certain kind of morning to eat this by the spoonful, straight from the pan.
“Pork and Beans”
adapted from Nathalie Senecal
5 tbsp vegetable oil
10 cloves garlic, minced
500 g lean ground pork
1 tsp Thai green curry paste, or to taste
350 g green beans, chopped
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp brown sugar
3 tbsp fish sauce
1c water or coconut milk
Heat oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until golden.
Add pork and curry paste and cook, stirring, until pork is no longer pink.
Add beans, paprika, sugar, fish sauce and water or coconut milk. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until beans are cooked and much of water is absorbed, 8-10 minutes or so.
Serve with steamed jasmine rice.
I know you don’t know me that well yet, but you may have already guessed at my level of enthusiasm for such an endeavor – I mean really, I’ve only just begun to welcome dairy back into my daily life, and now we’re giving up wheat? Need I remind you that wheat, not unlike butter, factors prominently in practically everything that is delicious in my diet?
Thankfully I am not the beer drinker in my family, so all is not lost.
Still, I do adore baking (as a noun as well as a verb) and I have not had very many experiences with gluten-free baked goods that I would describe as palatable, let alone tasty.
At least I hadn’t before yesterday.
The above is a photo of my first ever attempt at gluten-free baking, and it was nothing short of spectacular. Honestly. Not heavy and crumbly, not dry, not a tiny little sorry excuse for a loaf, but a lovely, treaty, moist, tasty banana bread. I am paying the highest possible compliment when I say that it didn’t taste healthy at all.
The recipe came from the BabyCakes cookbook. The book’s author, Erin McKenna, is a little militant in her insistence that you follow her directions to the letter, which was a bit of a challenge for me as I have a pathological need to fiddle with recipes. So I did fiddle with this one, but barely at all.
And I’m lucky I got that photo when I did, because minutes later the plate was empty.
I wouldn’t call our foray into the world of the gluten-free a full-on conversion just yet, but if we ever do turn our backs on wheat entirely, baking like this will definitely ease the withdrawl pangs.
Banana Chocolate Chip Bread
adapted from BabyCakes
Where we live, it is cool enough that my coconut oil was solid in its container, so I warmed it in a saucepan set over low heat before using. Also, Erin McKenna insists that ALL ingredients must be measured using dry ingredient measuring cups (not the glass ones with the spouts), so that’s what I did.
2 c Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free All-Purpose Baking Flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp xanthan gum
1 tsp salt (optional – I didn’t use any)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 c coconut oil, plus more for the pan
2/3 c agave nectar
2/3 c milk (Babycakes calls for rice milk, but I used regular old skim milk, because that’s what I had)
1 tsp vanilla
3 mashed organic bananas (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 c chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Using coconut oil, lightly grease a loaf pan – mine is an old Pyrex one, measuring 8.5″ X 5.5″ X 2.5″.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, xantham gum, salt (if using) and cinnamon.
In a large glass measuring cup or jug, whisk together coconut oil, agave nectar, milk, and vanilla. Add to dry ingredients and stir until batter is smooth. Gently fold in bananas and chocolate chips until they are evenly distributed throughout the batter.
Pour batter into prepared pan and bake in the centre of the oven for 55-60 minutes, turning pan 180 degrees halfway through cooking time. If the top of the loaf begins to darken before the middle is cooked (as happened to me), cover loosely with foil for the remainder of the cooking time.
Bread is cooked when a tester inserted into the centre comes out mostly clean.
Cool 20 minutes in pan, then run a knife around the edge of the bread and gently invert onto a cutting board. Lift the pan away, and then re-invert the bread onto another board. Cool completely before storing, or cut and serve warm.
I went to a friend’s house this past weekend to enjoy a rare afternoon’s gossip and glass (or two) of wine, unfettered by the requirements of my family (who were, all three of them, safely ensconced at our house just across the street). I had a marvelous time, greedily making my way through several truffled olives and more than my share of a luscious cheese fondue; and when I got home, I made a thrilling discovery:
Dairy does not seem to be the problem it once was for my nursing baby.
I was, besides being thrilled, also a little relieved – had things gone the other direction, and my reckless cheese-eating resulted in hours of pain (for the baby) and misery (for the rest of us), I’d be too busy feeling like a terrible mother to blithely blog about it.
But as I was also very, very grateful for the opportunity to start eating butter again, I cooked this simple dish almost immediately. The broccoli component is enough to make you (well, me anyway) feel okay about the rest of the ingredients; eaten with brown rice, it could almost be considered virtuous.
Broccoli Bagna Cauda
2 small heads organic broccoli, separated into florets
4 tbsp olive oil, divided
salt and pepper
1/4 c unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 anchovy fillets, minced
a large splash of white wine
a generous squeeze of lemon juice
1/3 c toasted pine nuts
scant 1/4 c freshly grated parmesan
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Toss broccoli florets with 2 tbsp olive oil and the salt and pepper, and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast about 20 minutes, until broccoli is quite tender and beginning to brown.
In a large skillet, melt remaining 2 tbsp olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add garlic and anchovies and saute until garlic is colouring slightly, about 2-3 minutes; add wine and lemon juice and simmer a few minutes.
Transfer broccoli to the skillet and cook a few more minutes, tossing the broccoli and letting the sauce reduce a little. Add pine nuts.
Sprinkle parmesan over top and serve.
Serves 2 as a main course (with rice), or 4 as a side dish.