Archive for May, 2010

Now You’re Cooking With Gas

52 Loaves

During the past few years, baking bread has become more than just a part time obsession.

So, when I saw that William Alexander had a new book out called 52 Loaves, which was all about his year long quest to create the perfect loaf of artisanal bread, the story immediately resonated with me.  I too have been trying to perfect the art and craft of bread baking for quite some time now, (though I’ve never restricted myself to just one kind of bread) so the idea of such an undertaking was entertaining to me.

I’ve been meaning to read his other book The $64 Tomato since I first heard about it 2 years ago, but my Chapters wishlist is one of those things that only balloons as time goes by, yet despite buying several hundred dollars worth at a time the list never shortens.  Having just finished 52 Loaves and generally clicking with his writing style, I’ll be sure to jump his book about my other all-consuming passion (gardening) to the top of the list soon.

52 Loaves chronicles a year in the life of Alexander and his family, as he attempts to recreate a delicious peasant bread he consumed at a restaurant with his wife once.  What begins with the planting of a small field of wheat on his property, quickly escalates into so much more.  Week after week the fleeting memory of the ephemeral loaf haunts him, as the leaden, close-crumbed replicas he churns out in the beginning bear no resemblance to his ideal.  But as months pass, he educates himself further, reaching out to a yeast factory, several famous author/bakers and a growing number of books, culminating in a typical pilgrimage to France, though his is slightly unconventional as he ends up baking in a centuries old monastery, and also teaching the brother monks how to bake again.

Throughout the book hilarity often ensues, as Alexander writes about conventions, lectures, state fairs and a half-assed attempt to build a backyard wood fired oven that he was promised could be completed in a day.  He narrates the story with dry wit and charm, all the while causing the reader to wonder if he’s about to go mad.  One thing I particularly liked about the book was that he agreed with my analysis about the no knead technique, and after attempting it he wasn’t overly impressed either.  By the end of the book, you’re still not sure if he’s found what he’s looking for, but nonetheless he’s amassed scads of knowledge along the way.


Wonderous Nature

Baby Asparagus

Growing up, I didn’t have much access to gardens, other than the occasional tomato plant that my mom would keep in her front yard, desperately trying to coax a few succulent red orbs out of the tiny patch allotted on her front step.  Like me, she didn’t have much of a green thumb, so more often than not the plants ended up shrivelling and dying instead.  For years I was convinced I had a black thumb because I killed so many houseplants, but once I started vegetable gardening, I finally found my niche.

As such, I (like most young urbanites, I imagine) have very little in the way of a frame of reference when it comes to what plants should look like when they grow.  I may have laughed astonishingly when they showed those children on Jamie’s Food Revolution who didn’t know the difference between potatoes, tomatoes, etc, but it didn’t occur to me until recently how hypocritical that was.

Last year when I grew artichokes on the roof, I had no idea what the plants would look like once they flourished.  Years ago when I first started gardening I wasn’t sure what seeds were a 1:1 ratio to their edible growth, and which ones would grow into bushes.  Carrots, beets, artichokes and potatoes were all in the past planted without the knowledge of whether I was going to produce a meagre or bountiful harvest because I just didn’t understand gardening.  The moral of the story here is that everyone can be ignorant about something occasionally, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re dumb.  As someone who grew up in the city, and mostly in apartments to boot, I just never had access to outdoor spaces where I would ever be exposed to living, growing things, so how could I know better?

Which is why when I decided to order asparagus crowns from Vesey’s back in January, I had no clue how many would suffice for our garden on the roof.  Compound that with the fact that I didn’t even know whether a crown would produce 1 stalk of asparagus or 20, and you’ll understand why I opted to purchase 12 crowns.  Amazing even to me, but in 29 years I had never seen a real, live asparagus plant in person before.  Of course, I’d heard all about how they grew like weeds so I was prepared for rapid shoots, yet I still didn’t expect what came next.

As you can see from the photo above, each crown is producing stalks which in turn are diverging into numerous branches.  Honestly, I never knew.  And I’d bet good money that scads of other city dwellers would feel the same way too (if they weren’t worried about how stupid they might sound, that is).


The Custom BBQ Rub: Take Two

The Rub

Last year during grilling season we discussed the extent of my stupidity when it comes to writing shit down.

And last year I also failed to experiment with recreating the magical spice blend because I was so distraught over the whole ridiculous matter.

But, this year I decided it was high time to jump back on the horse and try again.  And because occasionally I do learn from my mistakes, I also took the liberty of writing it all down.

It’s not quite the same, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.  A sniff test next to a sample of the original does come closer than anything else I imagined, though after re-reading some other posts from last year I’m convinced there is no celery seed but ajowan instead, and that the thyme should really be epazote.  I added a few new things to the blend this time too, like the chicory and roasted paprika and I think they may account for the variance.

Foodie’s BBQ Rub (The Second)


Just Think Of The Glass As Half Full

Veggie Heads

I’m not going to lie.

When I first decided to try this whole eating more vegetarian meals thing, I was more than a little concerned about whether I would actually be able to pull it off.

As a life long meat eater, I’ve had a tendency to look at the vegetarian option as the deprivational meal, rather than something that might be delicious in its own right.  Of course, that kind of thinking is deleterious to the cause and doesn’t do anyone any good because you’re defeated before you even begin.

Nearly 2 months in, I’ve changed my tune substantially.  Rather than trying to come up with meals that I wouldn’t mind eating if I omitted the meat, I’ve instead turned to ones that I already know I’ll enjoy that (hey, wait a sec) also happen to be meat free.  We’ve done creamy polenta, Trinidadian doubles, homemade pastas, veggie burgers, pizzas and more.  And the more I do it, the more Meatless Monday ideas pop into my head.  For instance, risotto is meatless as long as you cook it in a vegetarian broth.  Homemade noodles and cheese laced with sriracha can be, too.  Perogies are generally meat-free.  A grilled veg and cheese panini can do the job as well.  And the list goes on and on.

So, on this Monday, or the next Monday or any Monday really, why don’t you give the meatless lifestyle a try?  You’re not scared, are you?


The Garbagepail Garden Shall Rise Again


A few weeks ago (some time around Mother’s day I think) I took my 1 pound box of mixed potato species and Carman sunchokes and planted them in last year’s winningest idea for a planter; the garbage can!

Only this time, I remembered to drill holes in the bottom because the gross bog of rainwater that was left in the bin after all this spring weather really did not need to be repeated next year.  As you can see, the warm, almost summery weather we’ve been having lately has had quite the effect on my potatoes.  In only 2 short weeks I’ve gotten sproutlings that are already several inches tall.  I’d say this bodes well for an even better harvest than last year, which I didn’t start until much later in June.

The Beginnings Of A Salad Bowl

Also growing on the roof are some shoots that will soon make it into my salad bowl.

Beet Sprouts


And I Killed Some Prawns, Just To Watch Them Die

See The Whites Of Their Eyes

As someone who developed a fairly serious allergy to most varieties of shellfish during the past few years (severe enough that I now carry an epi-pen) I don’t often consume much in the way of shellfish.

But last year, after eating smoked prawns at The Black Hoof, I fell head over heels in love with one of the few crustaceans I’m still capable of eating.  BC spot prawns are generally sold fresh (read: alive) and are only available for a few brief months each year, starting in May and usually stretching through to July or August.  I can’t quite explain it, but there is something so much more creamy, sweet and delicately briny about spot prawns than any other shellfish I’ve ever sampled before.  Being that they also don’t induce anaphylaxis in me doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve tried in vain to find them frozen on several occasions, only to come up empty handed.  A few weeks ago when I searched for them at the St Lawrence Market, 2 out of 3 fishmongers had no idea what I was even asking for and the third outright said they didn’t carry them.  Faced with being at a loss for a second season in a row, I half-heartedly reached out to the obsessives on Chowhound who were surprisingly adept at pinpointing several places in the GTA that could help a sister out (I’ve had mixed success with reaching out for help on Chowhound, so I honestly wasn’t expecting much).  Most of the suggestions were out of the way for this non-driver, in the burbs of Scarborough and such, but one happened to be right downtown.  The T&T Supermarket on Cherry St even had spot prawns advertised in their circular, so I emphatically coerced the Everyman into letting me take my practice drive for the day over to said grocery store.

Once we got there, we found a large tank at the back of the store teeming with the vibrant pink beauties.  The tank was overcrowded though, so the spot prawns didn’t seem as lively as I had expected them to be, though they were certainly still alive.  Asking for 2 pounds, the fishmonger deftly scooped them out of the tank with a net, which set the previously docile prawns to wildly thrashing about.  Once bagged and tagged, I didn’t waste much time before exiting the store and returning home.  Live stuff generally doesn’t stay alive for long when trapped in a small plastic bag.  As a last ditch effort at giving me the finger, the spikiness of the prawns managed to pierce a hole in their bag unbeknownst to me and leak seawater all over the floor mat of my car.  Note to future intrepid purchasers of live prawns – always place them into a cooler or some other hard bottomed storing device when travelling, so as not to suffer the same fate, unless you enjoy washing floor mats for fun.

At home, I had no concept of how to prepare live prawns, and after turning to the internet I was faced with the realization that I had to rip off their heads.  The picture above is what was left of the prawn heads once I accomplished that task; an experience I found more than a little chilling since they were still moving about.


We Is Like Peas And Carrots


For Meatless Monday, I thought it would be fun to try meatless pizzas for a dinner that would be vegetarian without feeling spartan or limiting.

When the Everyman and I used to live at our old house, we did pizza nights all the time because we had a grocery store in the bottom of our building with hot and cold running toppings at our fingertips.  We still occasionally make homemade pizza, but prepping dough tends to require advance planning, so it’s generally not as often as either of us would like to.  Yet every time we do, I kick myself for not thinking to do it more often because aside from dough time it’s a quick, easy dinner that’s adaptable to any variety of tastes and styles.

Yesterday I was on the ball (both literally and figuratively) and mixed up a batch of dough before leaving for work, so by the time we got home all that was required was to warm the dough to room temperature, preheat the pizza stones and determine what would make for a tasty veggie combo.  After discussing just that on the drive home, it sounded like a more prudent idea would be to make 2 individual pizzas suited to our unique tastes rather than trying to compromise on 1 larger veggie pizza.  While the Everyman ran out for some last minute extra cheese, I assembled a toppings bar for us to build our ideal pizzas.

My pizza (above) is like me; complex, off-beat and unique.  It begins with a blend of pesto and blue cheese forming a tangy green base, then it’s scattered with asparagus tips, smushed figs and bocconcini.  A shower of mozzarella shreds, cracked pepper and oregano finish it off.  It wasn’t until after the pizza was done that I realized I’d accidentally left off the shiitake mushrooms I re-hydrated.  No matter.  This pizza was a thin crust marvel, and though non-traditional, it struck just the right balance between savoury and sweet for me.



I Dream Of Bread-y

Cheddar Onion Buns

There’s been much baking going on around these parts lately, and between it and spring gardening I haven’t had much time for anything else.

That being said, I thought it would be fun to show you what sort of yummy stuff has been baking up around here.

Above, we have a gooey delicious tray of cheddar onion buns.  It might not look like it right now, but that tray is bursting at the seams with 36 tasty buns.


Next, an airy dome of brioche-like bread called pandoro with a light, lemony flavour and a delicate, tight crumb.


Bastardized Pasta

Cavatelli or Capunti

For a long time now I’ve had a growing fascination with Italian cuisine, namely pasta in particular.

I constantly marvel at the innumerable shapes and sizes of pastas that Italy has created, and the myriad uses they have unique to each one.  For at least 6 months I’ve wanted to take a course that would teach me more about the intricacies of a subject I know precious little about, but as far as I can tell, such a course does not exist.  It’s unsurprising really, as I’ve noticed that Italians generally tend to be quite cagey when it comes to passing on their culinary know how to non-familial brethren.  If you are lucky enough to gain mentorship, I bet you sure as hell had to prove yourself first.  I’ve not yet found a person who thinks I’m worthy of what is to most a cultural birthright and so I continue on, on my own.  Perhaps when I make it to Italy one day I will track down a willing nonna who will share all her secrets with me.  One can always dream!

Barring any sort of official instruction, I’ve been messing around with pasta dough on my own more and more lately.  I’ve been meaning to buy the Encyclopedia Of Pasta ever since it came out, but my local bookseller never has it in stock and it’s definitely the kind of tome I want to page through before I buy it, just so I can make sure it’s really what I’m after.

In the meantime, I’ve been perfecting my stamped and ribbon pastas on and off for the past few months, so last night I thought I’d try something completely different.  Using Ruhlman’s pasta ratio I prepared 4 servings of dough in the morning and left them to rest in the fridge all day.  When I arrived home I started the basics of a red meat sauce on the stove by combining half a jar of my home canned tomato sauce with a lingering hothouse tomato, 4 grated zucchinis and half a pound of ground beef.  While the sauce simmered, I split the dough in half and began rolling out long, snaky tubes.  Snipping them down into 1 inch lengths, I rolled them a bit longer and thinner between my palms, then used a bench scraper to gently drag the dough nubs across the surface of the table until it formed either cavatelli or capunti.  I can’t say with certainty which one I made because so many pastas are so nuanced that they have only the faintest whisper of difference between them.  In this case, I think what I made is capunti, because I’m pretty sure cavatelli is usually made with a ricotta enriched dough.  As you can see from the above photo, some turned out rather well while others are an embarrassment to real pasta.  For a first attempt though I thought they were magical, and once they floated to the top of the briny, boiling water, I tossed them in a meaty tomato sauce and allowed the whole to soak in a little bit.

Like fingerprints, they’re all a little different, but definitely not quite perfect just yet.  The fun part about experimenting with pasta (or anything, really) is that in the end you can just eat your mistakes.


Do Me A Fava, Will Ya?

The Raw Shit

When I was at the market this past weekend, 2 of the other luxuries of spring that I came across were fresh fava beans and fiddleheads.

To the best of my knowledge I’ve never eaten a fresh fava bean before; I’m actually trying to grow purple favas on the roof, but in the meantime these seemed like an acceptable substitute to test drive.  And we all know how much I love fiddleheads, so of course I had to buy some of those too.  Is there anything that signifies spring more than these dainty and curly ferns?

But soon after I paid for the goods, the question became what to do with such delicate beauties?

The asparagus bounty was easy enough to tackle, and in a move I’m not necessarily proud of (yet wouldn’t do any differently if I had to do it over) the Everyman and I consumed 4 pounds of the stuff in less than 72 hours.  In case you’re wondering, that’s a heck of a lot of asparagus salad.  It was only a pound that went into this dish, courtesy of our most recent Meatless Monday.

Over a gentle simmer I combined milk, veggie stock and water in a pot.  Then I added a cup and a half of polenta and began the furious stir.  As it approached a bubblingly critical mass, I briefly stopped churning and grated a few ounces of mixed cheeses (pecorino pepato, 1608, manchego and mozzarella) into a pile that was then incorporated into the polenta.  Allowing it to cool and firm up slightly, I sautéed a pound of asparagus with some fiddleheads, fava beans and a few sliced mini red peppers for colour.


First Meals Of Spring

Figgy Deliciousness

Every year for Mother’s Day, the Everyman and I go to a brunch buffet with all of his extended family at his grandfather’s golf club in the K-W.

And every year, we come home from these smörgåsbords of deliciousness full of so much good food to the point of illness, as does most everyone else in the family.

Of course, this year was no different, and even I gorged myself on buttery soft rare roast beef, oodles of chilled shrimp and mounds of pea and asparagus salad.  Generally, after these events if we end up eating dinner, it’s bound to be something light.

Several hours after the feasting, the only thing I felt up to was the gentle taste of spring.  Luckily for me I’d made a stop at the St. Lawrence Market on Saturday, and picked up 4 pounds of asparagus and a few pints of figs, among other things.  Sautéing a few pounds of stalks in a beurre noisette until they bloomed a vibrant green, they were then tossed with salt, pepper, halved figs, parmagiano shavings and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.  If you wanted to add some more protein to it, you could always wend a few slivers of prosciutto around the spears, but personally, I love it just the way it is.

Vive le printemps!


Shrinking Violets Need Not Apply

Stinkin' Pizza

On the drive to work the other day, I was catching up on my feed reading with my iPhone (as passengers are wont to do) and came across a post on Mark Bittman’s new slog (that’s salon/blog to the newbs) about a dare he threw down to Ed Schneider to make a ramp pizza.

At the precise moment I was reading it, the Everyman happened to ask me what I was reading about, but when I told him he seemed non-plussed (though I was extremely intrigued) so I knew I’d have to file this one away for some future solo supper.  Of course, ramp season only lasts for so long, so I knew it would have to be sooner rather than later.

Several days later an opportunity presented itself, so the morning of I mixed up a batch of plain pizza dough using my handy dandy Bittman app.  That night, I started by following Ed’s general instructions by separating ramp leaves from the bulbs and sautéing them individually in a little beurre noisette.  I had rummaged around in our fridge and freezer for other things to put on the pizza and came across some errant artichoke pesto cubes, so once the ramps were cooked I melted the pesto into them too.  To finish the stinky, vegetal sauce I thwacked in a dollop of creme fraiche, then set to work trying to spread the mess onto half a ball of pizza dough.  Once it was mostly dressed, I showered it profusely with shredded mozzarella and tried to artfully snap the pie off my pizza peel with a flick of the wrist.  Let’s just say that part’s a work in progress.

A good while later the dough had reached my desired degree of doneness in the meekness of a 500* oven, and the ramp greens had acquired occasional spots of char as I had hoped for, so I fished it out and set to work cutting and munching it.

It would certainly have been better if I’d had a blazing hot pizza oven that could cook a proper pie in closer to 2 minutes than the 20 or so this one took, but otherwise, the flavours worked astonishingly well together.  Make no mistake though, this is not a pie for people who are on the fence about ramps, because even with the pesto and creme fraiche to temper them this is clearly a dish where their funky, pungent flavour is the primary star.


Soma-mbulatory Persuasion

Cocoa Beanie And Friends

Last weekend, the Everyman and I had the opportunity to dip into Soma Chocolatemaker before catching Glengarry Glen Ross at Soulpepper.

Now, I fully admit that the Distillery District is one of those areas of Toronto I don’t spend nearly enough time in, especially considering the sheer number of artisans packed into its demure acreage.  But, now that we have semi-regular tickets at Soulpepper and I’m spending my Saturday afternoons in the general vicinity, I’m sure passing through the cobbled arches will become much more common.

On our latest trip, aside from picking up a few items for a housewarming gift (FYI the tumbled green Iranian raisins are awesome, apparently) I decided to help myself to a few products for personal consumption.  Chief amongst these was the barberry Soma tube; an 18 inch long truffle bar that’s meant for sharing, but that I’ve only begrudgingly allowed the Everyman to nibble once.  The bar comes sealed in a folded cardboard tube that contains some of the most mind-bendingly complex chocolate accents I’ve ever tasted.  I chose it for its nut free countenance, which is speckled with barberries (natch), handmade toffee, roasted cacao nibs and feuilletine.  And though I’ve barely worked my way through a third of it, I’m already planning when I can return to the store to procure more of this limited edition deliciousness.  I also used my purse to smuggle tumbled espresso beans, a few bags of varied cacao nibs and a shiny packaged microbatch chocolate bar from the prying eyes of the theatre coat check clerk once we were done.

On top of that, Soma even carries whole cacao pods too, so of course I couldn’t resist buying a few of those either.  I have absolutely no clue what I’m going to do with them yet (having already used straight cacao nibs to make my own homemade chocolate liqueur) but in the meantime whilst I figure it out, I’m just hoping our cats don’t abscond with them.

I wasn’t convinced of the awesomeness of Soma on my first visit a while back, but after greedily hoarding that barberry bar, I’m definitely a believer.