February 26, 2009

A start

I think this all started with cookbooks. I didn’t cook. Well, not much. And not much well. But I found myself wandering through the cookbook section of a local bookstore making new friends in print – and staying there - for about 15 years now.

Mollie Katzen was one of the first to come home with me. I was enchanted by her drawings and the printing and then the recipes in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. I knew nothing of the Moosewood gang. I didn’t even notice the book didn’t have a single piece of flesh in it. It was filled with vegetarian dishes.

I made pesto for the first time because of her. Without a food processor. And for that matter without a mortar and pestle. I improvised with the bottom of a glass and a shallow bowl. And after that, I bought a food processor. And pesto took seconds, not hours...

(Which, come to think of it, I also lost in the “custody battle” to someone who doesn’t know a food processor from a wooden spoon – and who thought a kitchen was wherever the microwave was.)

But the sense of wonder in putting those ingredients together, like alchemy, was powerful. And the perfume of the basil…it was good.

It all came together in Lasagna al Pesto. I made it over and over. And then I moved on to try other things – a roast…then a turkey…was there no end to this magic called cooking? And the lasagna, like all new trends, faded from my consciousness.

Last fall we headed to Calypso again – a group of women who come together once a year at a friend’s cottage. Many of us only see each other that weekend. And apart from catching up with each other’s lives, and our host’s penchant for making us set goals, and uncorking many bottles, we eat.

Our friend Wendy was thinking of lasagna for the Friday night arrival dinner. And somewhere from the back of my addled mind came “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest”. So I shared it with her…and she shared the lasagna with us. And brought it back to life for me. It was a good weekend.

My self-assigned goal by the way, was to collect the recipes from our years of dinners at Calypso…this is my start.

Lasagna al Pesto – adapted from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest

1 lb. fresh spinach
1 cup minced onion
3 tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper
½ cup grated paremesan
1 cup of pesto
2 lbs (4 cups) ricotta cheese
¼ cup toasted sunflower seeds
20-24 green lasagna noodles (I have used plain and green, and mixed them too)
1 lb mozzarella cheese, in thin slices

Clean and stem the spinach. Chop it finely.
Saute the onions in 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a heavy skillet until they’re soft not brown. Add salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Stir the spinach into the onions. Transfer to a large bowl.

Add half the grated parmesan, the pesto, the ricotta, and the sunflower seeds. Grind in some black pepper. Mix.

If you are using dried noodles, boil them about 2 minutes, then rinse them under cold water, and drizzle them with the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil.

Place a layer of noodles in the bottom of an oiled 9x13 inch pan. Spread 1/3 of the filling onto the noodles. Place 1/3 of the mozzarella over that. another layer of noodles, another 1/3 of filling, another 1/3 of the mozzarella, more noodles, the remaining filling, remaining mozzarella, and one final layer of noodles, the remaining parmesan. And then drizzle the top with olive oil.

Cover with foil and bake for 35-40 minutes.

February 22, 2009

Simple and Rich

The classic things are the most simple, right? Not simplistic, simple. Clean. Thought through. Simplicity arrived at through complexity, until it's clear. Concentrated, a reduction of ideas to their essence.

I've been watching the new TED talks at ted.com - including Elizabeth Gilbert's struggle with her craft. And the soaring optimism of Jose Abreu, and El Sistema which puts a musical instrument in the hands of every Venezuelan child over the last 25 years, and has created a whole nation of music. And then a friend loaned me her copy of David Sedaris' "When You are Engulfed in Flames", whom I love and mostly because he makes complex observations so simply. And through me runs this quote that I've quoted before and can't get away from..."Simplicity is not a goal, but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself, as one approaches the real meaning of things." Constantin Brancusi, the Romanian sculptor and a leader in modernist sculpture.

I have a theory. And I came to this theory wandering through the Tate Modern in London. My appreciation of art (and I am completely untrained in art), my opinion of it, is inversely proportional to the explanation next to it. In other words, the longer the text has to be to tell me what the artist "means" to "say", the longer my eye roll. I usually walk away completely irritated, whispering to the muse that helped that artist, "get over yourself." As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her TED talk, some people can have muses that are, frankly, lame.

Cooking can give you the same blast of poetry or frustration - and I most admire the food that delivers beautiful taste, balance with as little fuss as possible.

Last night, as the snow and the temperature fell again, and as we gathered round our table to pull together the warmth and humour and stories of our companions, I made something simple. Tomato sauce. It is so simple. So rich. And it doesn't take hours to simmer. Probably the best tomato sauce I have ever made...and I have made tomato sauce every week for the last number of years. I am sold on this one.

It comes from Cook's Illustrated - which I adore for their addiction to the how and why of cooking - oh, and their beautiful cover art. It comes from their 2006 issue, but I found it online when I watched them make it on their video series. I gave it a try and it was great. Then I made it again yesterday for our friends. I watched them get up from the table and get seconds, and the pot was empty when we started washing the dishes. So much for leftovers to get through this recession.

Marinara Sauce - adapted from Cook's Illustrated

2 - 28oz cans of whole tomatoes, with juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped finely
2 medium garlic cloves, minced finely
1/2 tsp dried oregano (I used a tad more)
1/3 cup of dry red wine (I used a merlot we had kicking around)
3 tbsp fresh basil chopped
salt, pepper and sugar to taste (add this toward the end, once you've determined what the tomatoes need)

Pour the tomatoes into a strainer over a large bowl. Let drain for five minutes or so. Using your hands, pull out the stem and core of the tomatoes. Set aside 3/4 cup of the tomatoes. Also set aside 2 1/2 cups of the liquid.

Heat olive oil in a skillet until shimmering and cook the onion until brown on the edges - about 6-8 mins. Then add the garlic and oregano and cook for about 30 seconds - until the garlic is hitting your nose.

Add the strained tomatoes and cook over medium high until all the liquid has disappeared and the tomatoes are creating a fond, sticking to the bottom of the pan slightly. This is the core of the issue here...the concentration of these tomatoes is unbelievable. This takes about 10-12 mins. Keep an eye, and keep stirring every so often.

Add the wine and stir while it thickens for about a minute, scraping up the bits off the bottom. Then add the tomato juice you reserved earlier. Bring it to a simmer and let cook for about 8-10 minutes. I turned off the sauce at this point to wait for our friends to arrive.

The recipe calls for pulling out the food processor. But when I was getting ready to serve and had the pasta boiling away, I reheated the sauce, added the fresh tomatoes I had reserved from before and just mashed them in with my trusty manual potato masher. The fresh tomatoes add a lovely texture and lightness. Add the fresh basil (nice as a garnish on top as well).

This is the time to test for salt, pepper and sugar.

Serve over pasta - we grated a little fresh parmesan on top...and whammo...it all disappeared.

February 12, 2009

The way to my heart

I think it was the shrimp. Or the homemade curry powder. Or maybe the champagne. Then again, it could have been the homemade naan. Well, maybe the champagne and the wine. Actually it was the whole nine yards (metres for my Canadians)…the whole effort. Steve got an A – and a wife out of that dinner. Food and wine and love…

It’s that time of year that imposes romance on us. But the only people I know who feel Valentine’s Day are those who are single – it’s like a fork in the eye – an entire industry that earns billions of dollars making a segment of our population feel excluded. I know that’s how I felt about it when I was single. I was indignant.

Now that I’m turning into an old married woman – deeply and lucky in love – I think of Valentine’s and it becomes about food. Food has been a serious part of this very serious relationship I’m in – which has me laughing everyday…sickening really.

Steve is an adventurous cook/experimenter. He has needed to try making many different things since we’ve been together – potato chips, various breads, baguettes and most infamously pretzels…and now that his intestines have revolted against wheat, he has mastered the art of the gluten-free chocolate chip cookie. There’s a bowl of them in the kitchen tempting me…

But I knew life had shifted – the ground had cracked open and I was on the other side of a new life – when Steve drove up on his BMW motorbike with dinner packed in the panniers on the back. It takes some thought to have a dinner that can be transported in briefcase-looking boxes.

We were friends. He was making me dinner for my birthday. It was simply two friends getting together on a Friday night after work. Oh, and we’d been flirting for the past couple of weeks on email. I’ve written about the lost email before.

I thought I’d share the recipes that were part of bringing us together…Steve made the dinner because I had travelled through India not long before. A couple of days later, we went over to his apartment. It looked like a flour bomb had been accidentally set off, not just in the kitchen but everywhere. And on the dining room table was a book called Complete Indian Cooking. He’d bought it to make my birthday dinner. And he didn’t and still doesn’t like Indian food (I’m sorry to say). But he did end up liking me pretty good - we were engaged five weeks later.

Talk about a way to a girl’s heart…it always comes down to bread.

– recipes adapted from the utilitarian-ly named Complete Indian Cooking – and all this without a tandoor

3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
½ oz. fresh yeast
5/8 cup warm milk
5/8 cup plain yogurt
ghee or vegetable oil for greasing
½ cup butter
2 tbsp poppy seeds

Sift the flour into a large bowl and stir in the sugar, salt, and baking soda. Dissolve the yeast in the milk and stir in the yogurt. Mix thoroughly with the flour to form a dough.

Knead the dough until it is smooth, and then place in a bowl covered with a clean cloth and leave it to rise in a warm place for about four hours.

Divide the risen dough into 12 equal-sized portions and roll them into balls. On a lightly floured surface, flatten the balls into oblong shapes, using both hands and slapping the naan from one hand to the other. Now that sounds like fun.

Grease a griddle or heavy-bottom skillet lightly with ghee or vegetable oil and heat it until it is very hot. Cook the naan on one side only, a few at a time. Remove and spread the raw side with butter and poppy seeds. Cook under a preheated hot broiler until browned. Serve hot.

Shrimp and Spinach Rice

2 cups basmati rice
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric
4 tbsp butter
2 tbsp oil
2 onions sliced
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1-2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp ground coriander
2 lbs spinach, washed, trimmed, and chopped
1 lb cooked, peeled shrimp

Wash the basmati rice thoroughly. (I love washing rice - I run my fingers through it and around it while the water runs and it always feels like a quiet, important thing to do) Cook according to the directions. I usually put the rice in a pot, add water until it's about 1" above the rice and put it on to boil. Once boiling, I immediately turn the heat to low. Leave for 15 minutes. Turn off heat then without lifting lid and let sit on the stove for at least five minutes.

Stir in butter.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the onions, garlic and ginger. Fry for five minutes until golden. Stir in the chili powder, coriander, and the remaining 1 tsp of salt, and fry for a few seconds.

Add the spinach and cook, stirring constantly, until softened. Stir in the shrimp and remove from heat.

Layer the spinach mixture with the buttered rice in an ovenproof casserole dish beginning and ending with the spinach. Cover tightly with a lid and then cook in a preheated oven at 350 degrees F (175 C) for 30 minutes. Serve immediately. Unless you're on a motorbike.

Now of course you need the Raita. I make this for all sorts of dishes - and eat the leftovers with a big spoon.

3 1/2 oz of thinly sliced cucumber
1/ 1/2 cups plain yogurt
6 green onions, thinly sliced
1 fresh green chili, seeded and finely chopped

Put the cucumber in a colander, sprinkle with salt and let it drain for 30 mins. Pat dry.

I know raita is traditionally pretty runny, but I prefer to thicken the yogurt first. It's simple (and if you're stuck without sour cream for something, this works in a pinch). Line a sieve or colander with cheesecloth. Use paper towel if you don't keep cheesecloth handy. Pour the yogurt into the sieve and allow to drain for a while. Pour away the liquid. And when you're happy with the thickness of the yogurt, pour it back into bowl and mix with the cucumber, green onions and chile (optional). Keep it in the fridge until you need it. You can vary what you put in it...I love it with finely chopped garlic...but the longer you let it sit, the more you'd better love garlic.

The picture of the tandoor oven and naan bread above comes from wikipedia