February 23, 2009

Lobster in Winter

I have a fuzzy memory of sitting on my father’s lap when I was about four or five, eating tender morsels of lobster swimming in melted butter out of a little glass bowl.

Skip forward about ten years. In my teens, lobster didn’t really interest me. I think it was a texture thing. I thought it was too rubbery, not soft and flaky like fish. Sometimes my sister and I would pick the tips of the claws out of their shells and eat them. I now realize that this is probably the least desirable part of the entire lobster – it’s woody and flavourless. I really only saw lobster as a vehicle for melted garlic butter (oh, are we seeing a pattern here?).

I’m not sure what clicked for me a few years later. When I was 18, I suddenly realized that the rubbery stuff I had ignored was actually delicious. I went to Cuba that Christmas and ate spiny lobster, which was a bit different but also tasted marvellous.

One of my Dad’s best friends was a lobster fisherman named Kenny. Every year Kenny would give us about ten pounds of lobster, or maybe it was more. It was usually a lot of lobster, and it was free. In PEI, lobster is king, and everyone eats it, but getting it for free is pretty damn great.

The usual lobster dinner on PEI, served at lobster suppers in church halls all across the province, is a boiled lobster, served cold, with potato salad, coleslaw and a dinner roll. It’s rare that lobster is served hot, though I actually prefer it that way. My parents sometimes ate it cold with mayonnaise. I found this absolutely disgusting.

J’s family also loves lobster. They always eat it on Mother’s Day, and then again during the summer at least once or twice (there are two lobster seasons on PEI – one in May and one in August).

So when we moved out to land-locked Edmonton, I kind of thought I could kiss my lobster-eating days goodbye for a while, at least until my next summer trip home. I figured that even if I tried to get lobster here, it would never measure up and would just leave me disappointed.

So I was kind of surprised when J’s brother called us last weekend and said he and wife were going to pick up some lobster and come on over.

“Really? Lobster?” I thought. “But it’s January. And it’s Edmonton.”

Well, I was the one feeling foolish a few hours later, as we were all digging into delicious Nova Scotia lobster, shells flying and nutcrackers cracking. It turns out the Nova Scotia lobster season lasts all year. This catch was as good as any lobster I’ve had on PEI in recent memory, and an amazing treat during the winter. We sat around the table “mmm”-ing so much that it became a joke. 

But as much as we love the stuff, we didn’t want to just eat lobster for dinner, so J and I made a roast chicken. The evening turned into a drawn-out feast. I realize that eating Nova Scotia lobster doesn’t say much for our eat-local goals, but we were willing to make an exception. And we tried to even things out by cooking a local chicken with local potatoes, carrots and apples.


Lobster was the first course. Roast chicken came next, succulent and juicy, and the roasted vegetables and apples were caramelized and flavourful with chicken juice. This is the easiest and best way to roast a chicken that we have so far discovered. Everything cooks at the same time (we snuck the veggies back into the oven for a few minutes to get crispier while the chicken rested) and turns out beautifully.


(We bought red potatoes at the market that turned out to be a gorgeous pinky-purply shade inside…surprise!)

Finally, we gorged on chocolate cake (the rest of Claire’s birthday cake) and vanilla ice cream.

Far from home, far from the sea, it was a reminder of summer and beaches and salt water. Of good food cooked among friends. Of the way life should be. 

Roast Chicken with Vegetables
Adapted from Jamie’s Italy by Jamie Oliver

1 free-range chicken
olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves of garlic
6 bay leaves
potatoes and carrots, or any other root vegetables
white wine
one or two apples, if you have any

Preheat the oven to 375. Rub the chicken with oil, season it with salt and pepper, and stuff the cavity with the garlic and bay leaves. 

Chop the potatoes into quarters and the carrots into rough chunks. Drizzle them with olive oil and put them into a large roasting pan. Place the chicken in the pan, breast side down, on top of the vegetables. Roast for 1 and a half hours. (Putting the chicken in upside down doesn’t make for as glorious a presentation as the other way around, but it makes the meat deliciously juicy because the fat from the back drips down through the meat.)

About halfway through roasting, add some cored and chopped apples, garlic, and any herbs you may have, such as sage, rosemary, or thyme, to the pan. Baste the chicken with some white wine, lemon juice, or water.

Remove the chicken from the pan when the juices run clear. If the vegetables aren’t quite tender enough, put them back into the oven while you carve the chicken.

Serves four hungry people. Even people who have already eaten lobster.

February 14, 2009

Birthday cake for my sister


I’ll never forget the time my sister Claire and I decided to cook supper for our parents as a gift.

We had a cookbook called Kids’ Cooking Around the World, and we chose a recipe for pork spare ribs. I think I was around nine, so Claire must have been 11. We made rice and a vegetable to go along with the ribs. Up until then, our cooking experience had mainly been limited to scrambled eggs, and we had a  hard time getting all the parts of the meal to be ready at the same time.

After leaving the kitchen full of dirty dishes, we proudly carried our meal out to the dining room table. Our parents were polite and admiring, but when they bit into the spare ribs there was a silence.

“I don’t know if you cooked these long enough, girls,” said Dad.

The spare ribs were still kind of raw, and I remember my Mom explaining that pork was one of those meats you had to make sure to cook all the way through, or it wasn’t safe to eat. The spare ribs were returned to the oven. I don’t think either of us attempted to cook meat again until many years later.

We were whiz kid bakers, though. One of our favourite recipes was Nanny’s Hot Milk Cake, copied out in my mother’s neat handwriting onto a sheet of paper that was kept in a sheer plastic protector. It was easy (except for the part where you had to warm the milk and make sure it didn’t boil) and delicious every time.

Well, except once. After mixing up the cake batter, we both noticed it had a strange smell. We took it to my Mom to see what could have happened. She told us we must have used rum extract instead of vanilla. I think that batter got thrown in the garbage. What a shame – it probably would have tasted good.

Claire and I have been best friends our whole lives. Even as kids we rarely fought. I’ve realized with time how incredibly rare that is, and how lucky we were. We were also culinary partners from a young age. We still have a photo of the two of us when we were very young, grinning into the camera from behind cookie sheets topped with raw balls of ginger cookie dough. Our much older brother, who taught us how to make the cookies, snapped the picture. There was also one Christmas morning when Claire and I sneaked into our brother’s room early and jumped on top of him, reminding him he had promised to get up with us and make cinnamon buns.

The fact that Claire’s birthday was on Valentine’s Day made it extra special, but I was never jealous. I had a summer birthday: the best kind of all. My Mom often made a heart-shaped cake for Claire, and one year we made a huge, four-layer chocolate cake with whipped cream between the layers. She always had fun parties with treat bags full of Valentine candy, and presents wrapped in red, pink and white wrapping paper.

Over the years, we each learned more about cooking as we left home and were forced to make our own food. We relied on the Moosewood cookbooks and tried to get by on a student budget. When Claire moved to England for grad school, our culinary paths started to diverge. She became vegetarian, then vegan, and has been ever since. Gone are her days of pork ribs and Nanny’s Hot Milk Cake. Instead, she learned how to cook tofu, turn nutritional yeast into a grilled “cheese” sandwich, the role of agave syrup in baking, and how food and politics go together.  When we visited each other, and on holidays, we always cooked together, and she taught me a lot of her new knowledge.

For a while, Claire sold vegan cookies, brownies, and cupcakes for some of Halifax’s cafes. She and a friend cooked vegan brunches out of people’s homes and charged five dollars a person. She published a zine called T.O.F.U. about vegan activism and cooking, and a Vegan Dining Guide to Halifax.

This past fall, she began her biggest food adventure to date. She went to San Francisco for six weeks and trained at Millennium Restaurant to learn how to be a chef.

Despite the long hours and the gruelling pace, she loved it. She worked the cold line, making desserts and salads, learned how to plate, and found out how a restaurant kitchen works. Our conversations were all about food. She told me about a chipotle ketchup she had made, and described a bean dish that was baked and served in a paper wrapping. At the end of her stay, the chef told her she did just as well as most of the culinary school students they take. And she hasn’t had a day of culinary school.

claire whisking
Since she got home from San Francisco she’s been constantly experimenting with food, inventing new recipes and building a base of them. Her goal is to open up a high-end vegan restaurant in Halifax.

Claire and I both inherited our love of cooking from our father. He taught us to always enjoy food and to appreciate it when it’s good. Ours was a childhood filled with barbecues, fresh seafood, and decadent family dinners every Sunday.

Dad died too young, and before either of us could thank him for how much he taught us about good eating. Claire may not cook much roast turkey or lobster today, but I like to think that Dad’s spirit is with her in the kitchen. I know it’ll be there the day she dons her chef’s hat and starts cooking for paying customers. Dad wasn’t a huge fan of veganism (that’s an understatement), but he would have eaten in Claire’s restaurant with pride and pleasure.

In honour of your birthday, sis, I baked my favourite chocolate cake, which also happens to be vegan. I’m sure you’ll be enjoying many fine desserts and delicacies today. You deserve them.


Best-ever Vegan Chocolate Cake
from Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts

1 ½ cups unbleached white flour
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup cold water or coffee
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Chocolate Glaze (optional)
½ pound semi-sweet chocolate
¾ cup hot water
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375º.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, soda, salt, and sugar in a bowl. In a glass measuring cup, measure and mix together the oil, cold water or coffee, and vanilla. Pour the liquid ingredients into an 8-inch or 9-inch round or square baking pan and mix the batter with a fork or a small whisk. When the batter is smooth, add the vinegar and stir quickly. There will be pale swirls in the batter as the baking soda and vinegar react. Stir just until the vinegar is evenly distributed throughout the batter.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes and set aside to cool.

To make the optional glaze, melt the chocolate in a double boiler, microwave oven, or reset the oven to 300º and melt the chocolate in the oven for about 15 minutes in a small ovenproof bowl or heavy skillet. Stir the hot water and vanilla into the melted chocolate until smooth. Spoon the glaze over the cooled cake. Refrigerate the glazed cake for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Or you could just decorate prettily with icing sugar or cocoa.

February 9, 2009

The Little Meat-Filled Kitchen


Things have changed around here recently.

The freezer is nearly full. Our weekly menu, written out on a white board hung on our fridge, looks decidedly different. More than one cookbook is in rotation. And sometimes, when I get home from work, I’m greeted at the door by the smell of roasting meat.

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing this post. The changes in our food life have felt so monumental that I wasn’t sure how to express them here, in this space that is solely dedicated to that life. I started this blog for many reasons, but one was to document my cooking from the Deborah Madison book. When we decided to start cooking meat, that plan clearly was dropped. And I was scared. What about the little red kitchen? Could it still continue with as much purpose, as much integrity?


I quickly realized, though, that this blog is what I make it. Deborah Madison or no, it could still be fun and engaging, interesting and personal.

Then I started to get excited. I had loved going through Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone systematically, but I occasionally felt stifled, as though I couldn’t make what I really wanted and be spontaneous in the kitchen. Now I could cook recipes from other cookbooks! And from my favourite food blogs!

Our reason for the Big Change came when J was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’ve read it as well, and she talks a lot about vegetarianism and whether it makes sense, especially in a local diet. It got J thinking (he’s always been more of a meat-eater than me anyway).

We decided to start cooking meat, and this quickly led to a decision to try to eat as much local food as we possibly can. We were already partly doing this, but by following VCFE so strictly, we constantly had to buy non-local ingredients, which sometimes bothered me.

Now the main ingredients in all of our meals come from the farmers’ market, and thus from farmers who live in Central and Northern Alberta.  It might not actually be the 100-mile diet, but I think it’s pretty close.

We are not rigid about this – at all. We still eat oil, sugar, flour, oats, tea, nuts, dried fruit, and a myriad of other things that are not local.  We will still buy convenience foods at the grocery store if we need them, or pick up a few onions if we are running low. But I think the important thing is the step we are taking.

We also both feel that this will make us better cooks. We’ve both wanted to be able to cook without recipes, to adapt, to make things up as we go along, but we haven’t done much of it. Now we can!  Now we go to the market and plan our menu as we buy our meats and vegetables.  We still look at recipes for ideas, and we still follow them a lot, but the freedom is there.

The other night J made a delicious roasted lamb loin with apples, garlic and wine. It was heavenly, and you wouldn’t believe how proud he was that he invented the whole thing himself. So get ready to hear more about his cooking adventures here too.


The first meat recipe I made by myself was the meatballs from the cover of the January Gourmet that I told you about a while ago. It was an ambitious start. The recipe isn’t hard, but it’s involved, and it took forEVer. Thawing, mixing, rolling, browning, simmering … so many ingredients and so many steps. But at the end of it I really felt like I had accomplished something, and we had four meals to save for weeks to come.


“Now I feel like a real housewife",” I said to J as I ladled the tomato sauce and meatballs into Ziploc freezer bags and carefully labelled them.  I was only half-kidding. There is something extremely satisfying about having a full freezer, as though I was Laura in Little House on the Prairie trying to get through the Long Winter. And it helped that the meatballs were delicious.


Don’t worry, I still love vegetables. A lot. And we plan on cutting down on our meat consumption in the summer, when there is a bigger variety of local veg and fruit to be had.

Also, next summer: It’s time to can! And dry things! And be a real pioneer woman. Stay tuned.