October 18, 2008

Mountains and Turkey

Fresh Mountain air. A rushing river. Sunny fall days. A little town I’ve never seen. Soaking in a hot tub. Good food. And family to share it all with.

What more could you ask for on Thanksgiving?

J and I went to Jasper last weekend with his brother and his fiancée, Clément and Julia. It was only my second time seeing the Rockies and J’s first. They’re pretty damn impressive – quite a change from our home landscape of flat, red dirt and rolling ocean.

As usual, one of my primary concerns for the outing was, What are we going to eat? With this in mind I packed a few things for the car – apples, tortilla chips and some buffalo jerky. Yes, that’s right … buffalo jerky. When J was in Grande Prairie a few weeks ago singing with his choir, he was billeted with a family who has a buffalo farm. He got to see the buffalo, eat some fresh buffalo, and they gave him a HUGE package of buffalo jerky to take home with him.

I’m not the biggest fan of buffalo jerky, or jerky in general. I find it way too salty. So that means that we still have part of that package of jerky left, sitting wrapped in its brown paper on the top of our kitchen shelf. And we’ve been trying to foist it off on our houseguests for weeks. So we thought we’d see if Clément and Julia wanted any.

Clément decided to try some first thing after we got on the road … and Julia was not impressed. The smell of buffalo jerky at 9:30 in the morning was disgusting, she said. I have to admit, it has a very strong smell and kind of hits you in the nose.

We stopped for lunch in a little town called Hinton at a cafeteria-style diner called Lew’s. It reminded us all of a Charlottetown establishment, Sam’s. Burgers, chicken burgers, fish and chips, poutine, chicken fingers and fries … your classic diner fare. The meal was unfancy but satisfying.

(We later realised, in Jasper, that the restaurant is actually called L & W’s, not Lew’s. The ampersand looked a lot like a curling, capital E. We continued to call it Lew’s for old time’s sake.)

When you drive to Jasper, you get to the entrance of the national park before you get to the town. We stopped at Maligne Canyon to go hiking. The hike started at the very top of the canyon, and when you look down over the bridges, the rushing water is about 60 feet below. The rock walls are narrow and dramatic, lined with moss and lichen.

The further down we went, the wider the canyon got. And the colder and fresher the air felt. It reminded me of walking past the entrance to an underground parking garage in the summertime, and feeling the cool blast of air coming out. When we got to the bottom, we walked down to the river’s banks and stared up the rock wall to the trees towering against the sun, high, high above. I stuck my hands into the river and it was cold as ice.

It was only when we got near to the bottom of the canyon that we realised we had to turn around and go all the way back up to get back to the car. We had thought the path was a loop, but we were clearly wrong. I didn’t mind. It felt good to be out of the city and getting some exercise.

We drove into Jasper afterward to look for a hotel. It’s a cute little town with winding streets lined with gift shops and cafes. It veers toward kitsch but thankfully doesn’t quite make it. It still felt like a rustic sort of place where people from all over the world come to ski, hike, and drink lots of beer. We saw a few people walking around with huge backpacks with things like ukuleles strapped to them.

We ended up at Earl’s for supper after trying two other restaurants that didn’t look promising. Earl’s is a high-class chain restaurant out here on the Prairies. It was busy, but while we waited at the bar for a table we amused ourselves by trying to figure out what kinds of drinks the bartenders were making.

Our sushi appetizer was tasty, but there was too much rice and not enough shrimp filling. But my main dish, a roasted beet salad, was delicious. The beets were served on a bed of spinach with a sweet balsamic dressing. Scattered around them were pieces of juicy fresh figs, pine nuts, and goat cheese. All of the ingredients complemented each other perfectly with lots of different tastes and texture.

Of course we couldn’t resist dessert … we were on vacation! J had pumpkin pie and Julia and I split the profiteroles. I always thought these pastry desserts were filled with ice cream, so maybe this was an unorthodox version since they were filled with whipped cream, and the ice cream and chocolate sauce were on the side. Nonetheless they were the perfect sweet finisher to the meal.

(They reminded me that I really want to make a profiterole recipe from Gourmet magazine sometime … I saw it on the cover of one of last Spring’s issues and have been secretly pining for them ever since. And now the magazine is sitting on our bookshelf right near the front door where I put my keys, and every time I leave the apartment I see the picture and drool.)

The next morning we enjoyed the hot tub at our hotel, then went on another short walk at a beautiful lake behind the town, where the mountain views are spectacular. Before leaving town we stopped in at a café on the main street called The Other Paw Bakery and Café. We ate some deliciously cute sandwiches (mine was called The Jack Sprat and J’s Chicken Little … awww). All of their baked goods looked unbelievable, especially the large sticky buns. But we had to save room for our trip to the candy store down the street.

There, we had our pick of elk hooves, dear hooves, bear droppings and more. I chose a dear hoof, which was caramel and cashews dipped in dark chocolate. It was a little too sweet and I couldn’t even finish it. Next time I’ll get the sticky bun.

Our one-night trip to Jasper was the perfect length, and I hope J and I can go back there sometime to see more.

On Monday, we went over to Clément and Julia’s place for Thanksgiving dinner. When we arrived, the turkey had been cooking for four hours already and their apartment was deliciously fragrant. It turned out the only turkey they could find on Sunday that wasn’t frozen was twenty pounds … and it was only the four of us. It looked like turkey leftovers would be on the menu for a while.

For the next few hours we cooked and chatted. J made an apple walnut cake, and I chopped potatoes and carrots. Julia kept checking on the turkey. After five hours it still wasn’t done! Not that we’re exactly turkey experts…but the juices were still running pink. And the disposable aluminum roasting pan Julia had bought developed a hole. Thankfully, we discovered that soon enough so that it didn’t drip all over the oven.

Finally the juices ran clear, my carrots and potatoes were cooked, the gravy and stuffing were ready. The cake was baking in the oven and we all sat down to eat. Somehow my mashed potatoes were a bit of a dud. This is one of my all-time favourite foods and I usually pride myself on how well I make them, so I was not happy. I just didn’t cook the potatoes long enough, even though it seemed like they were on the stove for ages. So there were a few hard lumps. But with enough butter and milk they still tasted pretty good.

The turkey, gravy and stuffing were all great, but the star of the meal was definitely the braised carrots. Go Deborah Madison Go! It’s very easy: I put some chopped carrots in a big skillet with some butter and water, a little sugar, and salt and pepper, and cooked them until the liquid reduced and got syrupy and the carrots got browned. Then I tossed them with a little chopped parsley for colour. So simple, and so good.

As usual at any holiday meal, I ate one plateful too many and felt sick. Yech. It was a great treat to just be able to sit down after dinner and watch TV (I can’t believe it but I actually miss having a TV). A little later I managed to squeeze out a little space in my stomach for a slice of the apple cake.

This was another Nigella recipe and it turned out great. A crunchy, brown crust and soft crumb, stuffed with apples, raisins and walnuts. It’s actually kind of like fruit cake, and so I’m surprised I like it since I always thought I hated fruitcake. It went down especially well with vanilla ice cream.

Before we went home, Clément finished carving the turkey so we could take some leftovers home. As he got down to the carcass, he let out a yell. We all looked over. He had discovered the plastic bag of turkey guts still inside!

Despite all of our turkey troubles, J and I ate delicious turkey sandwiches for the next week. He likes his with mayonnaise and a crisp piece of lettuce. I prefer mine with just untoasted bread, turkey and a nice thick layer of cranberry sauce.

Happy late Thanksgiving!

Apple and Walnut Cake from How To Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

I decided to make this cake because we had half a bottle of walnut oil that had been sitting in our cupboard for about a year back home before we toted it out West and I thought it should finally be used. That having been said, Nigella herself says you shouldn’t bother buying walnut oil (quite expensive) to make it, and that olive oil works fine.

The batter will be quite stiff – but don’t worry. Just spread it as best you can in the pan and it will rise up beautifully.

Also, if you don’t have self-rising cake flour, substitute all-purpose flour and add ½ teaspoon baking powder and ½ teaspoon baking soda for each cup.

Scant ½ cup raisins

6 tablespoons or 3 ounces rum or water

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons walnut oil or olive oil

¾ cup sugar

2 large eggs

2 ¼ cups self-rising cake flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

½ teaspoon cream of tartar (I didn’t use any since it was so astronomically expensive at the store)

½ teaspoon salt

1 pound tart eating apples, peeled, cored, and cut into small cubes

Zest of one lemon

Scant ¾ cup walnuts, optional

8-inch or 9-inch springform pan, buttered and floured.

Put the raisins and the rum or water into a saucepan and bring to a boil, then remove from the heat, letting the raisins plump up aromatically. Preheat the oven to 350.

Beat the oil and sugar together in a bowl, and add the eggs one at a time, beating until it looks like a light mayonnaise. I’d use an electric mixer of some sort here. Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture, folding with a metal spoon. Then stir in the apples, lemon zest, drained raisins, and walnuts if using. Smooth what will be a fairly stiff batter into the pan and bake for 1 hour, poking into it with a cake tester or toothpick to check if it’s done.

Let the cake stand for 10 minutes in the pan on a wire rack, then turn it out and leave it to cool. Let cool completely, or eat it “with the warm breath of the oven still faintly upon it”, as Nigella says. Best with vanilla ice cream.

Braised Carrots from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

1 1/2 pounds carrots, scrubbed or peeled

2 tablespoons butter

Salt and freshly milled pepper

2 teaspoons sugar or honey

3 or 4 thyme sprigs

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Slice the carrots into rounds, ovals, or a roll cut. Heat the butter in a wide skillet. Add the carrots, ½ teaspoon salt, a little pepper, the sugar, and thyme. Add water to come to the top of the carrots. Bring to a boil, then cover the pan and simmer until the carrots are tender, 10 to 20 minutes, depending on how they were cut. Uncover the pan, raise the heat, and reduce the liquid until it’s syrupy. (If you didn’t have enough liquid, or it cooked away too fast, add more while the carrots are cooking.) Continue cooking the carrots until they begin to brown. Check the seasonings and toss with the parsley.

October 14, 2008

Fall Mishmash

Can you believe we’ve been in Edmonton for more than six weeks? And that it’s been more than a month that you’ve been reading about my culinary adventures?

Crazy. Although the time has flown by, it also feels like we’ve been out West a lot longer than that. It’s hard to believe how quickly we settled into our new lives.

I guess we have settled in some ways, and not as much in others. I’ve grown used to the routine of going to the market down the street every Saturday, but it still feels weird to have a real job. I’m used to looking out the window to our view of tall office buildings and the edge of pyramid-shaped city hall, but I also miss being near the ocean.

We’re really happy in Edmonton. I guess it’s just the bigger life changes that take longer to adjust to. I’ve found myself thinking more and more lately about very adult things like saving up for a house, paying taxes, having kids, what kind of career I really want … it’s strange to have these thoughts, since in many ways I still feel like a kid myself.

Whenever I start thinking too seriously about things like this, my mind usually drifts back to food. I think about all the great recipes I want to make, and I feel much more comforted.

So, amid all of our recent activity, here are some of the dishes I’ve been whipping up in the kitchen that haven’t been posted yet (recipes below):

Lemony couscous with chickpeas

This is a winner of a dish. If you like chickpeas and lemon, you’ll love it. Since they’re two of my favourite foods, it was made for me. It’s also a cinch to make, so it’s easy for a potluck if you need to bring something vegetarian. I’ve made it several times and it always turns out well. This time I only used scallions instead of fresh herbs, but it’s excellent with the herbs as well.

Provencal Winter Squash Gratin

The perfect dish for autumn. Good ol’ Deborah Madison once again. I looked through the winter squash recipes in her cookbook for a recent potluck and settled on this one since I wanted something with no cheese in it. It is delicious and very simple. The end result is perfectly caramelized on the outside and deliciously soft on the inside, with plenty of garlic flavour. Our potluck guests certainly enjoyed it.

More Sandwiches

The sandwich train is still rolling. And will be for at least five or six more weeks. Can you believe it? At this rate, I will still be making supper from this book when my firstborn is trying to raise money for college.

The sandwiches, however, continue to please. Highlights have included Grilled Onions on Toast with Romesco Sauce, Fried Green Tomato Sandwich, Mozzarella with Olive Paste and Roasted Peppers, Open-Faced Sandwich with Blue Cheese, Pears, and Roasted Nuts (J missed that one and he’s lucky cause he hates blue cheese), and Grilled Cheddar on Rye with Onion. As you can tell they are all over the map. We are still in the cheese sandwich section, but this week is all grilled cheese. Classic and comfy, found in kitchens all over North America. I’m even making tomato soup to go with them. Aw, shucks.

Braised Chard with Cilantro

I learned how to like cooked greens a few summers ago when J and I started getting bags of produce from a community supported agriculture farm once a week. During June and into July, some weeks would be almost all greens with a few garlic scapes thrown in. I couldn’t avoid them, so I cooked them and started to enjoy them.

I could go on and on about this recipe for chard. After I first ate it I was constantly craving the leftovers in the fridge. With only a few simple ingredients, it’s rich and soft and I’m already dreaming about pairing it with some white beans and maybe a side of cornbread. Yuuuummmm….

Fried Egg Cookies

We had half a jar of lemon curd in the fridge that had been sitting there since we moved here. (We were so obsessed with the stuff that we bought some at the Charlottetown market to take with us to Alberta). I was trying to find a way to use it, so I flipped through Nigella Lawson’s books and found this recipe, which I remembered reading before. (Yes, I have a habit of reading cookbooks, especially the pretty photo-filled kind like Nigella’s all are.) The cookies were not very hard to make, although the roll-them-into-balls part always seems like one step too many to me. And maybe it’s because I chilled the dough overnight and didn’t let it soften enough, but it was quite stiff and didn’t flatten very well when I had to make a thumbprint in the tops for the lemon curd to go in.

All in all these were a disappointment. They tasted good but I would prefer them on a cookie platter where I could eat them with some other kinds of cookies. I expected them to be more buttery and crunchy, kind of like shortbread, but they were really crumbly and kind of dry. Perhaps a keeper for the Christmas cookie swap, but not otherwise.

Lemony Couscous with Chickpeas from Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers

Serves 4 to 6

Time: 20 minutes

1 ½ cups couscous

½ teaspoon salt

2 ½ cups boiling water

2 lemons

¼ cup olive oil

1 14-ounce can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1 cup chopped black olives (I’ve made it many times without these and it is still delicious)

One or more:

2 tablespoons minced fresh dill

½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley

½ cup finely chopped scallions

½ cup minced fresh mint

½ cup chopped toasted almonds

Put the couscous and salt in a bowl and pour the boiling water over it. Cover and set aside for 10 minutes, until the water is absorbed. Grate the lemon peels and juice the lemons. Stir together the lemon zest, ¼ cup of juice, and the olive oil.

Fluff the couscous with a fork, separating any lumps. Add the chickpeas, olives, the lemon and oil mixture, and the herbs and toss well. Add more salt to taste. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Top with the toasted almonds just before serving.

Provencal Winter Squash Gratin from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Serves 4 to 6

2 to 2 ½ pounds butternut squash

5 garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ cup chopped parsley

Salt and freshly milled pepper

3 tablespoons flour

Extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 325 and oil a shallow earthenware baking dish (I just used glass). Peel the squash and cut it into even-sized cubes, from 1/3 inch to 1 inch. Toss it with the garlic, parsley, and a bit of salt and pepper. Add the flour and toss again until the pieces are coated lightly, letting the excess fall to the bottom. Pile the squash into the dish and drizzle oil generously over the top. Bake, uncovered, until the squash is browned and tender when pierced with a knife, about 2 hours. When served, the individual pieces will collapse into a puree.

Braised Chard with Cilantro

Serves 4

Don’t be put off by the long cooking time – in the end the flavour goes far beyond what’s possible with a cursory blanching. A few spoonfuls suffice for a serving, or you can use this effectively as a seasoning for rice or lentils.

2 large bunches chard, about 2 pounds, leaves sliced into 1-inch-wide ribbons

1 ½ cups of the chard stems, trimmed and diced

1 onion, finely diced

½ cup chopped cilantro

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon paprika

1 garlic clove pounded with 1 teaspoon salt (use a mortar and pestle if you have one, if not you could probably just add these ingredients separately)

Salt and freshly milled pepper

Place all the ingredients in a wide, heavy pot with a few pinches salt. Add ½ cup water, cover tightly, and cook over low heat for 45 minutes. Check once or twice to make sure there’s enough moisture. If anything is sticking, add a few tablespoons water. When done, taste for salt and season with pepper. The chard should be silky and very fragrant.

Fried Green Tomato Sandwich

I don’t usually see green tomatoes in the grocery store, but I bought these at the market here. By the time I made the sandwich they had turned a pale pink, but it worked well anyway.

For two sandwiches, slice 2 large green tomatoes (we found one was plenty) about ¼ inch thick. Dip them into cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper, then fry them in a thin layer of vegetable oil over medium-high heat on both sides until golden and tender but not mushy. Toast 2 sourdough rolls or squares of foccacia, halved (we just used two crusty sandwich rolls), then spread with garlic mayonnaise (or just use regular). Add thinly sliced feta or fresh mozzarella, the tomatoes, and a final layer of greens, such as watercress, arugula, or a few large basil leaves (we just used regular lettuce). Top with the second slice of bread, then cut in half and serve.

Just make sure you use a nice firm bread and toast it, because man oh man this is one messy sandwich. It drips all over the place.

Grilled Cheddar on Rye with Onion

Use light or dark rye bread and a good aged cheddar. Slice a small tomato into rounds and a small onion into thin wedges. Saute the onion in 2 teaspoons olive oil until golden, about 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Build the sandwich this way: bread, a thin covering of cheese, the tomato, onion, another covering of cheese, and a second slice of bread. Cook in a frying pan over moderate heat on both sides in butter or olive oil, until the cheese is melted and the bread is golden.

Lemon Gems (her kids call them Fried Egg Cookies)

from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess

1/2 cup vegetable shortening

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 Tbsp lemon juice
zest of one lemon
1/4 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
scant 1/4 cup ground almonds
2 Tbsp cornstarch
6-7 Tbsp lemon curd

2 baking sheets, lined with parchment paper

Preheat oven to 350F. In a large bowl, beat the shortening, butter, and sugar together, then add the egg yolk, lemon juice, zest, & salt. Gently fold in the flour in two additions, then the ground almonds and cornstarch. Take care not to be too heavy-handed, as rigorous blending will make the dough very sticky. It veers towards that anyway, so when all's combined, put the dough in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour.

Form into balls the size of cherry tomatoes and place the balls 1 inch apart on your prepared baking sheets. Make an indentation with your thumb in each biscuit, and then cook for 20-25 minutes. They should appear golden and firm.

As soon as they come out of the oven, fill each cookie with a scant 1/2 teaspoon of lemon curd.

When they're all filled, transfer them to wire racks to cool.

Makes about 40.