Saturday, January 17, 2015

Staying In

I was in Vancouver for a conference last weekend, and by the time I got home and got over my jet lag, it was already Friday and we hadn't eaten a single meal at home all week. I pulled myself together enough to make spaghetti and meatballs for Friday night dinner (despite the temptations of pizza, which are great), and it was exactly right to be able to sit on the sofa watching the new season of The Fall with bowls in our laps and sauce on our chins. But this morning, I wanted eggs something fierce despite the fact that I knew we were out of eggs, and I made Alexis promise that we'd go out for breakfast just as soon as I'd had a cup of coffee. And wouldn't you know it--when I went to get the milk from the fridge, as if by magic, there were a dozen eggs on the shelf. I'd asked him to buy some and completely forgotten.

And so I got to do exactly what I wanted after so much travel and restaurant food--make breakfast in my very own kitchen and eat it in the sunshiny dining room with my feet in my new husband's lap. I started with nothing more than a few glugs of sunflower oil in a big frying pan and a couple of handfuls of little white potatoes, diced. As they sizzled and started to get a little golden around the edges, I decided to add in the white parts of a good bunch of green onions, plus some diced shiitake mushrooms (they were what I had), some kosher salt (more than you think you need), and a fat pinch of chili powder. Once the potatoes and mushrooms were really golden, the potatoes crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside and the onions sweet, I pushed them all to one side of the pan and sprinkled on a small handful of grated sharp cheddar. While it melted, I cracked a few eggs into the other side of the pan and let them sizzle. I toasted some bread, sliced a big juicy orange, and made some more coffee while the eggs were finishing. With the addition of lots of butter and jam to the toast, and some finely sliced green onion to the potatoes, breakfast was done.

It was pretty perfect, and it reminded me of exactly why it is I like cooking and feeding people, even if it's just the two of us. Even if it's just me. More of this, please.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies

I turned 31 last week. Years beginning in three have been good to me so far. I was born old--being young never felt quite right, as I imagine it doesn't for many of us who are introverted, unathletic, and fond of quiet pleasures--and finally being a grown-up (of sorts) suits me down to the ground. I love the feeling that my mental and actual age match up. I love being in charge of my own life. I love having traded acne for dry skin. I even love my greying temples. But even though I have a house and a pet and a partner and all those trappings of adulthood, I've never grown out of my deep and abiding love for the foods of my childhood, and I never will. Cream of wheat. Soft boiled eggs with toast soldiers. Smoked oysters on saltines lightly spread with mayonnaise. My Dad's chicken Marsala (or seitan Marsala, nowadays). Tetley tea. Waffle and ice cream sandwiches. Frozen yogurt swirled with Smarties and strawberries. Chocolate chip cookies. When it came time for my birthday, I didn't want cake. I wanted chocolate chip cookies. (Alexis, whose birthday is tomorrow, wants croissants--his childhood food).

I've eaten a lot of chocolate chip cookies in my day. If we're really being honest, I've also eaten a lot of raw cookie dough. Je ne regrette rien. My memories of high school are indelibly stained, if you'll permit a little metaphorical synaesthesia, with the scent of really terrible chocolate chip cookies baking in the cafeteria. The dough came in huge plastic buckets, and the cookies it baked into were pale and mushy-soft and greasy and addictive. We would eat them by the stack from oil-stained white paper bakery bags, still hot from the oven, and chased with a carton of chocolate milk. Usually said cookie feast would happen at 8:30 in the morning, while sitting on the floor in the hallway or the chaplain's office that we used as a hangout, dressed in kilts, tights (knee socks on warmer days), and crested sweaters over white button-downs, with pajama bottoms over our tights. I miss those days--and the ability to eat cookies for breakfast and french fries for lunch without guilt--but definitely not the cookies.

The recipe that dominated my childhood was the one on the back of the Chipits bag. It's basically identical to Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies, for my American friends. They're good cookies--faintly crisp on the bottom, soft and gooey in the centre, and easy as pie--a little creaming, a little stirring, little baking. (Aside: pie is not all that easy. Easy as what, then? Easy as a summer morning.) They were one of the first things I learned how to bake on my own. We'd eat them at sleepovers--the bodies of small girls flung willy-nilly down on sleeping bags laid on the brown shag carpet of the basement floor, the struggle to stay awake for fear of missing a piece of vital gossip or a whispered confidence, the contented smile upon waking and seeing your friends vulnerable and sweetly sleeping. And Dad's pancakes, stacks of them. Or we'd munch while watching movies as a family--curled on a cushion at Mom or Dad's feet while they sat on the sofa, shunted there by lack of room or sitting there by choice on days when familial contact felt just too deeply uncool. Or we'd bring them to school for bake sales and class celebrations--were they there on the last day of class when I slow-danced to Aerosmith with Noel in our portable? I hope they were.

But as good as they were--and are--good cookies are not great. All that white flour and inexpensive chocolate makes for fairly bland baking, and texturally, they're hard to time in the oven so that there's the right balance between crisp edges and squidgy centre. I'm not a teenager any more, game to down sugar in whatever form it takes. I want my cookie calories to count. So, with my own kitchen and horizons that expanded beyond the back of the chocolate chip package--when I took control in the kitchen, one of my favourite things about being a grown-up--I went searching for a replacement. Chocolate chip cookies, just a little more grown up. Really great chocolate chip cookies. And I found them, like so many great things (this bread, my favourite way to make polenta, which is in the microwave) in the New York Times.

Like Jim Lahey's bread, the New York Times chocolate chip cookie recipe achieved cult status seemingly overnight. Billed as the very best in chocolate chip cookies, the recipe came accompanied by a breakdown of the baking chemistry that makes them extraordinary--the flat oval feves, the very specific size, the cold dough that goes straight into the oven. Like Lahey's bread, the major secret to their sublimity is time. What works for bread--a long overnight rise--works for cookies: a long rest in the fridge to age the dough and let all of the ingredients mingle happily. It's no surprise that I, a huge fan of long-rise refrigerator bread baking a la Lahey and Peter Reinhart, would be attracted to these cookies. But being the persnicketly grown up that I am, and able to do whatever I want with a recipe, perfection be damned, I couldn't leave the recipe alone. They might have been Jacques Torres' perfect chocolate chip cookies, but they weren't mine. So here's what I did:

Firstly, I swapped out half of the white flour for whole wheat. Kim Boyce's 100% whole wheat chocolate chip cookies from Good to the Grain are another cult favourite, and I love the nutty bite whole wheat flour gives to my old standby.  It also makes me feel better about baking ginormous cookies, and never being able to stop at just one. Being a PhD student and not exactly rolling in dough (unless we're talking actual bread), I wasn't prepared to buy 1 1/4 pounds of pricey Valrohna feves, the flat oval chocolate disks the original recipe calls for. Besides, using that much chocolate made for a cookie that was more chocolate than dough, and I like a bit more balance. I cut the chocolate down to a pound, and for a nice bit of textural variety used half best-quality chocolate chips, and half slivered 70% chocolate from a thin bar. You get thin strata of gooey chocolate layered throughout the dough, but the nice resistant bite of whole chips too. And finally, I changed the shaping method a bit. I don't know if the New York Times bakers have super heavy-duty cookie scoops that us mere mortals don't, and superhuman biceps to go along with them, but there was no way I was going to be able to scoop dough cold from the fridge. It was solid. So I did the smart thing, and shaped the cookies--smaller than the full-sized ice cream scoops the original insists you use, because I like more cookies, because that means more to share--before aging the dough. The nice thing about doing it this way is that you can refrigerate the dough you want to bake straight away (i.e. in 24-36 hours, oh the torture), and freeze the rest. The frozen dough can go straight onto a cookie sheet and into the freezer; straight out of the freezer, they take 20 minutes on the dot to bake, which is a very reasonable amount of time to wait for what I consider my perfect chocolate chip cookie.

Oh, and what perfection they are: crisp, nutty, caramelized edges (the result of that brilliant aging); a squidgy, buttery centre; rich, melty chocolate; and the perfect hint of salty to balance the sweet, especially when you get crazy and dust the tops with a bit of smoked salt before they go in the oven. With cookies like these, who needs cake?

Here's to 31--I'm liking you already.


Makes about 32 palm-sized cookies

10 ounces (2 1/2 sticks) salted butter, at cool room temperature
10 ounces light brown sugar
8 ounces granulated sugar
3 large eggs, at cool room temperature
2 teaspoons best-quality vanilla extract
8 1/2 ounces all purpose or 00 flour (I keep it around for pasta making, but it works wonderfully in baked goods too)
8 1/2 ounces whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons flaky sea salt
250 grams best-quality bitter-sweet chocolate chips (I use Callebaut)
250 grams best-quality dark chocolate (at least 70%) from a thin bar, slivered
Extra flaky sea salt (or fleur de sel, or smoked salt) for sprinkling

In a mixer (using the paddle attachment) or by hand, cream together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. 

Add the eggs one at a time, making sure each is fully incorporated before adding the next. Mix in the vanilla. 

If using the mixer, switch to the dough hook. Add the dry ingredients, except for the chocolate and extra salt, and mix just until combined. You'll probably have to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times--make sure that you also get the dry spot that tends to linger at the very bottom of the bowl. The dough will be fairly stiff. Add the chocolate, and mix on low power just until it is evenly incorporated.

Using a medium cookie scoop, scoop large balls of dough, so that the scoop is somewhat overflowing--they should be about the size of an oversized ping-pong ball. Use your hands to shape them into neat spheres, then place them on a parchment or silicone lined sheet pan, leaving a generous space around each cookie so that they have room to spread.  Six cookies per sheet is about right.

Refrigerate the dough you want to use soon; freeze the rest for later directly on the baking sheet (you can transfer the frozen dough to a freezer bag once it`s hard). Let the dough age in the fridge for at lest 24 hours; 36 is better, and it can hang out in there for up to 72, which is especially handy if you want to bake batches over several days. 

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle the tops with a bit of flaky sea salt or smoked salt; press it in so it doesn't fall off. Bake the refrigerated cookies for 16-18 minutes, the frozen ones for 20--until the edges just begin to turn golden, but the cookies are still soft. 

Cool on the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to a rack and cool for a few more. They're best when they're still warm, but they're good even the next day. And really good dipped in milk.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

April Bloomfield's Porridge

Food52's The Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks was one of my favourite reads last month. Despite there being thousands of new cookbooks on the market, you hear about the great ones pretty quickly, and it was exciting seeing books that I'd bought or read about vying for the top spot. And almost as good as the books themselves were the reviews--Stanley Tucci! Byrant Gumbel! (Believe me, that one also took me by suprise.) But it didn't surprise me at all that The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook was in the final bracket--Deb is a phenom, no doubt about it. April Bloomfield's A Girl and Her Pig did catch me unawares, probably because I am the last person to even open a book with a dead pig on the front. That poor little piglet took The Piglet, and it made me sad that this fantastic book was of no use to vegetarian me. 

Boy, was I wrong. 

I still haven't cracked the cover of A Girl and Her Pig. I might, sometime. But what happened was this: the book won, and people started talking about porridge. Not pork belly, or marrow, or whatever other nose-to-tail creation I'm assuming Bloomfield's book contains. Good ol' oatmeal. As a Canadian girl who comes almost entirely from Scottish-British-Irish stock, I am a huge oatmeal fan. Indeed, I eat it for breakfast almost every day--raisins, apple, and cinnamon in winter; berries and pineapple in summer. I carry it with me when I travel so that I'm never without a proper breakfast, whatever the vagaries of hotel dining may be. Alexis, whose half-Scottish-half-French heritage is most easily discernible at breakfast, is perhaps even more devoted than I am--he has eaten porridge for at least one meal a day, every day, for the entirety of our relationship, except for the two weeks we spent in France last summer when all he ate was buttered baguette and croissants. His porridge is always the same: old-fashioned oats cooked with cinnamon and topped with blueberries, pineapple, banana, ground flax, and kefir. Porridge is even a verb in our house: porridge, v. def: to congeal in the manner of cooked oats. So when people like Adam started mentioning April's porridge, I got very curious. Lucky for me, Luisa did too, and I got my greedy hands on the recipe without having to face that poor little piglet. 

Having made, and eaten (and made and eaten) April's porridge, I'm even more torn about her book. A cookbook is worth its salt if it contains even one genius recipe, and this one certainly does--but what if there are more, that I'm missing? On the other hand, this one recipe is so perfect that to ask for any more seems greedy. I know that you're thinking: but we're talking about porridge here, right? Yes. Oats. Glorious, nutty, creamy, hearty, soothing, mouth-filling, belly-filling oats. They are indeed something to get excited about. 

There are a few secrets to this recipe, some of them April's, one of them mine, that make this the most glorious bowl of hot mush that I've eaten in many a year. The first one's mine: toast the oats. Fire up your pot and give those oats a chance at soaking up some heat before you get on with the rest of the recipe. If you want to get really crazy, toast them in some butter. If you're one of those people who isn't hungry in the morning, this will change your mind. The second secret is salt, and plenty of it. April's original recipe calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons of coarse salt, which I found more than a bit too salty. But with 3/4 of a teaspoon of flaky sea salt in the mix, these oats balance right on the edge of salty-sweet once you've topped them with some fruit or maple syrup, and that's an edge I love to walk first thing in the morning. It seems like there are as many salts as there are cooks, each with their own level of salinity, so play around until you hit the sweet spot. The third secret is to use two kinds of oats--old-fashioned rolled oats, and steel-cut. Take a bite of this porridge and you get tender-chewy steel-cut oats bound by a creamy blanket of rolled oats that have soaked up all the good milk and salt and slumped into satisfied submission. It's a positively dreamy combination. The milk is the last secret, because we Scots (at least in my family) have been frugal porridge makers all our lives and used just water. Milk makes all the difference. What kind, not so much. I've made this with whole milk, and it was predictably great, but it was surprisingly fantastic with almond milk too, so that what I've been sticking with. To play up the nuttiness of that version, I add a good whack of ground flaxseeds too. 

They make me feel better about all of the maple syrup.

So excuse me while I go put on another pot of these, and apologize to The Piglet, and the piglet. Seems I was wrong to judge a book by its cover. Still:

I do think it should be called A Girl and Her Porridge. 

While the original recipe states that this porridge must be eaten immediately, I find it reheats just fine. Put it back in the pot over medium-low heat, add a generous splash of water, and start stirring/mashing until the lumps smooth out. Keep adding water, a little at a time, until the porridge is hot and creamy once more. Alternatively, spoon your cold and claggy serving into a bowl, add a generous splash of water, microwave for two minutes, and then stir back to life. This means that for people in a rush in the morning, this recipe doesn't have to be saved just for weekends when you've got 25 minutes to spend on oatmeal.


Adapted from A Girl and Her Pig via The Wednesday Chef

Serves 2-3

1 1/4 cups almond milk (or another dairy or non-dairy milk)
2 cups water
3/4 - 1 1/2 teaspoons flaky sea salt (start at the bottom of the range and increase if desired)
1/2 cup steel-cut oats
1/2 cup large-flake (also often called old-fashioned) oats
1/4 cup ground flax seed
Toppings of your choice: maple syrup, brown sugar, raisins, extra milk, fresh fruit, pears or apples sauteed in a bit of butter, cinnamon, toasted walnuts

Over medium-high heat, toast the oats in a medium pot until fragrant and slightly browned, about 5 minutes. Pour the oats into a bowl and put the pot back on the heat. 

Raise the heat to high and bring the milk, water and salt to a simmer, keeping an eye on it so that it doesn't boil over. When the mixture starts to simmer, add both oats and the flax seeds, stir to combine and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the oats at a steady simmer, adjusting the heat as necessary and stirring occasionally. At 20 minutes, the steel-cut oats will be just cooked and the rolled oats will have melted into the porridge.

Taste for salt, add more if needed, then divide into bowls and add the toppings to taste. Eat immediately. Alternately, transfer to a heat-resistant container with a lid, let cool to room temperature, and refrigerate. Reheat, using the instructions in the note above.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Sick Cook's Food Cure

I've been felled by a nasty bout of bronchitis and stuck in bed since Friday. All desire to cook has deserted me, as has almost all desire to eat. Great for my waistline, but not for much else. Except, perhaps, for making food lists. I love hearing about what other people love to eat: when they're sick, when they're craving something, when they're dying. One of my favourite parts of Nigella Lawson's Feast, one of my top food books of all time, is the "Last Meals" section where she describes the final meals of American death-row inmates (morbid, but fascinating), and then lists the meals she would want as her own last. When I met her a couple of years ago, I asked her if her own had changed in the intervening time: it had, since she used to want steak and now all she wants is potatoes, every which way. A woman after my own heart. I'm not, thankfully, dying, so today's list is the things I can't do without when I'm under the weather. To you, they might seem eccentric. To me, they're essential and, as these kinds of lists always are, totally personal: based on the things that my mother liked to eat and to feed me, as hers did before her, and on the things I'll probably give my own kids. So what's on your list? Tell me: I'm all ears, between the coughs.

1. Ice-cold apple juice. Does anything feel better on a sore throat? My dad handed me a bottle after some dental surgery I had as a teenager, and it might've been the anaesthetic, but it's still one of the best things I've ever tasted.

2. Scrambled eggs. Eggs are my ultimate comfort food, and there's no texture more comforting, and as undemanding, as softly scrambled. No toast. Just golden silkiness.

3. Builder's tea made with honey. Recipe: get your biggest mug, and spoon in a good dollop of unpasteurized honey. Add one Tetley tea bag. Fill with boiled water, top with a generous splash of milk. Imperative: leave the bag in. It should be strong enough, as the Irish say, to dance a jig on. Stir, blow, drink. Honey is now being recognized as possibly just as effective as conventional cough suppressants, and it's supposed to have positive effects on the immune system too. I mostly love it because it tastes great.

4. Sapporo-style miso ramen with stir-fried veggies. Miso ramen is my vegetarian alternative to chicken noodle soup: soothing and nourishing miso broth, oodles of ramen noodles, and heaps of finely-julienned veggies. It's undemanding, uncomplicated, and easy to swallow. Delicious, too.

5. Vanilla coconut-milk ice cream. We're normally big into cherry and maple-walnut ice cream around here, but my sick-lady tastebuds steer toward the uncomplicated simplicity of plain ol' vanilla, spiked with coconut. Creamy, cold, and coconutty? That'll make anyone feel better.

6. Homemade chocolate pudding. Hey, it's got calcium and protein--it's practically health food. My recipe is very similar to this one, but I use more cocoa (about 6 tablespoons), less sugar (1/2 cup of brown), and add a bit of instant coffee to perk up the chocolate flavour. I also strain it at the end, because who wants lumps? Not me.

7. Whole-wheat saltines. My mother used to carry around sleeves of saltines to stave off morning sickness, and they're still the first thing I test my stomach with when I'm not feeling well myself. When I am well, I love them dunked in soup, but even better smeared with peanut butter.

image via carbonnyc, creative commons

Monday, March 4, 2013

Pecan-Coconut Bars with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

I'm in a couple of different writing groups right now. One I coordinate for a bunch of people who won a fancy-pants dissertation completion scholarship at my university, which has become part of my job with our Faculty of Graduate Studies. The other part of my job I describe as helping the faculty set up the Office of Helping PhDs Figure Out What to Do When They're Done. Lots of us have no idea what we want to do, so it's pretty nice to feel like I'm helping out my comrades in a really useful way. The other writing group is a bunch of fellow PhDs from my program, all of us in the dissertation writing stage. We hang out, workshop our chapters, and eat. It's a Friday afternoon ritual that I relish. And I relish, just as much, my Friday morning's making of the things we eat. I, too, want to make the world a better place with cookies. To help people work harder and longer because they're not working hungry. I love Maggie Gyllenhaal's character in Stranger Than Fiction, probably because she reminds me of me. And because she makes me hungry for apricot ricotta croissants.

Baking can be a tricky thing for me, at least baking the sweet stuff. I have about thismuch self-control when it comes to baked deliciousness. What was going to be lunch suddenly becomes two brownies and a salad. Most of the time, I'm happy to go along with the mantra of "everything in moderation, including moderation," but I also relish a healthy sense of balance. Baking for the people in my writing groups largely solves my problem, because it gives me a captive audience to feed--and a whole slew of taste-testers. I can make whatever my little heart desires, because between my writing buddies and Alexis, there is a perfectly moderate amount of baked goodness left over for me. (Having more people to feed is also the only reason I ever occasionally desire an office job. Otherwise, I'm perfectly contented with the fabulous tag team of Melissa & Moose at home alone. We do great things, he and I, and we also have some pretty scintillating conversations. He's currently trying to wrap his head around what a sardine is. It's adorable. As is he.)

This week's creation is a perfect example of the things I'm not allowed to bake when there's no one else to eat them, because they're just too good. They start with a crisp and buttery shortbread base, which is disproportionately easy compared to how lovely it tastes: just butter, flour, and sugar, rubbed together between the pads of your fingers until crumbly and then pressed into a square cake tin. Have you ever had an old-fashioned German chocolate cake--American style, from the South, the kind with the gooey pecan-coconut filling that doubles as frosting? Yeah, that's the golden layer in the middle. Crunchy pecans and chewy coconut swathed in brown sugar and vanilla-scented caramel. And if that wasn't good enough--because we could stop there, and leave these as an ever-so-delicious riff on butter-tart bars--the whole thing is topped off with a thick layer of white chocolate-cream cheese frosting, brightened with a hint of lemon. It's the frosting that makes these really, absolutely insane, that made at least a couple of people I fed them to moan with pleasure after a bite. I did a fair bit of moaning myself, starting with the moment I gave myself permission to lick the frosting bowl. These babies are voluptuous and positively sexy, especially for a square, which is the baked-good equivalent of a pocket protector. I know that white chocolate is one of those polarizing things, like cilantro, or olives, or the great vodka-gin martini debate. Forget about what you think you think about white chocolate. Here, it just disappears into the slight tang of fluffy cream cheese and richness of butter; it gives the topping the firmness and sturdiness that it needs, but you don't taste it. I promise. You just taste the best cream cheese frosting you've ever had.

Oh, and did I mention that they're terribly easy? Go forth and feed your friends. You'll be famous in no time.


I made these this time around in an 8x8-inch cake pan, but I'm going to hunt down a 9-inch one for next time--I think these would be even better if all the layers were a little thinner.

Adapted from Laura Calder's Dinner Chez Moi

1 cup flour
2 tablespoons lightly-packed brown suga
1/2 cup salted butter, softened

1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
1 cup lightly-packed brown sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut
2 tablespoons flour
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt

4oz (half a package) cream cheese (regular or light), softened
1/2 cup salted butter, at room temperature
6 ounces white chocolate, melted until completely smooth
1/4 cup icing sugar
Juice of half a lemon

Heat the oven to 325F. Line an 8- or 9-inch square cake pan with a piece of foil large enough to overhang the sides and be used as handles later. In a medium bowl, rub the butter into the sugar and flour to make fine crumbs about the size of rolled oats. Press evenly into the cake pan--make sure you get right into the corners--and bake until lightly golden and the centre no longer looks soft, 15-18 minutes.

Meanwhile, add the filling ingredients together in the order listed, so that the eggs are on top. Puncture the yolks with your spatula, then stir together the filling ingredients until everything is evenly amalgamated. When the base comes out of the oven, spread the filling over the top--again, get it right into the corners; I use a little offset spatula for this and the frosting--return to the oven, and bake until set, about 25 minutes.

Cool in the pan for five minutes, then use the foil to remove the whole thing to a rack. Allow to cool completely on the rack before peeling off the foil.

For the icing, beat the cream cheese and butter--I used my electric hand mixer, but you can totally do it by hand, or in the Kitchen Aid--until smooth and fluffy. Then beat in the melted chocolate until smooth. Gradually beat in the icing sugar, and lastly the lemon juice. Spread the icing over the cooled filling, and chill the whole pan of squares. With a hot, dry knife, cut into 16 or 25 squares. I think they taste best cold, but they're good at room temperature too.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

{Food on Film} Romantics Anonymous (Les Emotifs Anonymes)

It's French. It's adorable. It's incredibly honest about the all-too-human fears and uncertainties, particularly about love, that most of us try desperately to hide. And it's two main characters are chocolatiers. Need I say more?

(Oh, and keep your eyes open for the scene that takes place at the chocolate festival in Roanne. For chocolate lovers, it's an "I want to go to there" moment.)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Beluga Lentil Salad with Beets and Preserved Meyer Lemon

It's a strange time of year. We still have inches of snow on the ground, but I'm never quite sure if I should be wearing winter boots or rain boots. We were supposed to get a few flurries yesterday morning, but ended up getting quite a bit of snow--and yet I went running wearing at least a layer less than I usually do, and had everything completely unzipped by the time we finished, the sun was so warm. A couple of weeks ago, I was running in a t-shirt. But no matter how much sun we get or how mild the temperatures are, I know better than to get lulled into thinking winter might end early around here; it's a rare birthday for me when we don't get at least a little snow, and that's not until the first week of April.

Still, it's hard not to want to jump feet first into spring. After the inevitable glorying in all things rich and sweet that happens over Christmas and Valentine's Day, and with the advent of Lent (if you're into that sort of thing--I'm not much one for giving things up, unless it's things like self-criticism or trying to keep using hairpins that have no spring left in them), it seems like it should be time to shift gears and embrace all that is green and zingy and fresh and light. It's light out until 5:30! This is big news!

But then I step out the door and realize that I do still need my toque, that my favourite furry mittens can't make their way to the off-season box just yet. And I'm not all that sad about it. As much as I'm looking forward to endless bunches of asparagus dipped in egg yolk or aioli, fava beans coming out of my ears, and my first go at making strawberry jam, I'm not ready to give up my trays of roasted root vegetables, my rich gratins, my soupy braises and thick soups. At least, not quite yet. Which is why this recipe is something of a compromise. It starts out with those good winter staples that we eat day in and day out--roasted vegetables (this time, beets) and beluga lentils cooked with onions and bay leaf. But then--oh, yes--it goes in a totally different direction. Rather than banking down the deep and quiet flavours of beets and belugas with more ingredients that speak strongly of winter, it goes in quite the other direction. One that is positively punchy--salty-sour preserved Meyer lemon, crisp red pepper, and masses of fresh basil. Everything, from beet to basil, gets tied together with a bright dressing made with the pulp of said lemons, the best olive oil, a splash of tarragon vinegar, and some good salt and pepper. And it just sings.

If you don't already have a jar of preserved lemons steeping in the back of your fridge, I'd urge you to put one there. You don't have to make them yourself--they're easy enough to buy--but when "making" consists of a little cutting, some spooning of salt, some squishing, and a shake or two, it seems silly not to.  Like all citrus fruits, lemons are properly a winter thing--especially the short-seasoned Meyer lemons, which I used--but with their evocation of summertime lemonade stands and sunshine, they really do scream spring. And preserved lemons are useful for flinging into all sorts of things--salads like this, a long-simmered tagine, a dip for vegetables or a spread for sandwiches, a vast pan of sauteed greens or fennel--when flavours need "bringing up" or the dish needs a bit of light. They're the sequins of cooking--just what you need when what you need is a little bit of flash, a little bit of sparkle.

And with golden squares of lemon sparking against the dark background of lentil and beet, this salad manages to walk the line between winter and spring, hearty and light, earthy and bright, instead of being stolid and starchy. The beets are roasted, but not to oblivion, so they're sweet but not soft--just the bit of crunch this needs. The three registers of herbaceousness here also work to round everything out--the bay leaf plays the bass note, grounding everything, the basil makes everything fresh and green, and the tarragon vinegar sharpens the focus. Meyer lemons have a strong hit of rosemary in their fragrance and flavour, which makes them even an even more perfect partner for this herby trio. Another time, I'll try this with mint, and/or dill; fennel tops and celery leaves are other strong contenders.

This salad is substantial and filling, but it also hints of lighter days to come--days when lunchtime salads will be eaten on a picnic blanket, not at your desk. It's the kind of food I'll be turning to time and again as the planet slowly turns and we wait for spring. Because I'm not ready to give up my winter favourites just yet, but I'm also ready to start tiptoeing through the tulips into spring.


Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Preserved Lemons

Meyer lemons, or small organic lemons
Flaky salt
Lemon juice (optional)
A clean and resealable glass jar

Eyeball how many lemons will fit into your jar, and scrub them well. Cut them into quarters, from top to bottom, almost all of the way through. Stuff each lemon with a generous tablespoon of salt, and pack into the jar, pressing down. Leave on the counter overnight. If the lemons haven't released enough juice by that time to completely cover themselves, top up the jar with lemon juice. Refrigerate, shaking occasionally, for at least a month before using.


5 beets, about one pound
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup beluga lentils
½ small onion, finely diced
2 bay leaves
1 preserved lemon or 2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/2 red pepper, finely diced
Lemon Vinaigrette (recipe below)
1 cup chopped basil

Preheat oven to 350F. Peel the beets and cut them into 1/4 inch cubes. Toss the beets with the oil, season with salt and pepper, and bake on a sheet pan until tender, about 35 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Meanwhile, put the lentils in a pan with water to cover, add the onion, bay leaves, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until tender but still a little firm, about 25  minutes. Drain well.

Cut the preserved lemon into quarters and scrape off the soft pulp. Chop the pulp finely and reserve for the dressing. Finely chop the remaining skin. (Or just zest your lemon.)

Toss the lentils with the roasted beets and the vinaigrette, the preserved lemon or lemon zest, red pepper, and basil. Taste for seasoning, garnish with extra basil, and serve immediately at room temperature; alternatively, chill and serve later.

Lemon Vinaigrette

1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar
The pulp of one preserved lemonFreshly ground pepper
1 shallot, finely diced
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or to taste
Flaky salt (optional; the lemon pulp might be salty enough)

Combine the first four ingredients in a small bowl and let stand for 15 minutes. Then whisk in the oil and season with pepper to taste. Taste for the correct the balance, adding more oil or salt if needed.