Off to see Montana’s Mermaids — a road trip to Great Falls

Oh my, I am way behind on blogging. I’m truly sorry. But, wow, what a whirlwind few months: busy summer, wedding in San Francisco (um, not mine, in case you were wondering) and then almost a month traveling through Italy, France and Morocco. Watch for posts on that soon — I promise. Until then, here’s a trip I took in the spring.

 

Jesus bought a round of shots as one of the mermaids swam by, her slightly diaphanous tail rippling in the aquamarine water. And that moment solidifies the oddness of the trip we’re on.

We have come to Great Falls partly for a chance to get out of town and do a little shopping. But mostly we have come for the Sip n’ Dip Lounge at the O’Haire Motor Inn – a tiki-themed bar where mermaids swim most nights as patrons sip their themed drinks.

Almost a decade ago, GQ named the Sip n’ Dip it’s top pick for bars worth flying for. It’s a distinction the bar remains proud of, noting it on its website.

I can’t remember who told me about the mermaids or when.

Mostly, I have associated Great Falls with a Target and being the site of one-time Lethbridge alderman Dar Heatherington’s faked disappearance from the Montana city, which grabbed international headlines. But somewhere along the way, the idea of seeing the mermaids swim at the Sip n’ Dip took root and was at the back of my mind when I’ve thought about heading stateside for a road trip and cross-border shopping. My friend, Kirsten, who flew out from Victoria for an extra long weekend, was game. So we booked our hotel online, made a six-hour playlist for the iPod (a key factor for song choice were ones we could belt out as we made the trip) and, passports in hand, headed for the border.

Any expectations I have are challenged as we get out of the taxi at the O’Haire Motor Inn on a rooftop parking lot in front of a non-descript door, surrounded by a handful of smokers.

The bored-looking bouncer checks our ID and wraps our wrists in bright yellow bands with Sip & Dip Lounge, Great Falls, MT, written on them. And then we push our way in.

Sip n' dip Lounge wristband

The ceiling is a faux thatched roof; pleather banquettes ring the edge of the small establishment filled with fake flowers and Christmas lights, mermaid-inspired plaques and statues. It all looks as if it hasn’t changed since the 1960s.

Sip n' Dip Lounge

It’s packed with patrons, sipping American beer and blue cocktails. Many have gathered around the pleather-padded seating area that encloses Piano Pat Spoonheim and her key-boards. She is as vintage as the decor.

We can barely spot her – her tiny stature, combined with the tall bar (and even taller guests) make it nearly impossible – but her voice carries through the bar.

Her rendition of Sweet Caroline gets the entire bar singing.

We push past the crowd and settle into two turquoise seats right at the main bar – prime seating in front of the two windows that look into the pool where a goggled mermaid finally swims by, long hair and colour-coordinated tail floating behind her.

She surfaces quickly for a catch of breath, then slips down again to wave and smile in the few seconds she has before needing more air. At last, a second one appears and for a minute or two they co-ordinate their appearances – one for each window.

Mermaids at the Sip n' Dip

A flutter of dollar bills, tips taped to the window in exchange for a smile and wave, obscures part of the view, but we are two of only a few actually watching the underwater act.

Mermaid at the Sip n' Dip

We order some drinks and I marvel briefly at the $3 price tag for a highball before moving onto one of the nautical-themed drinks, some of which are available in giant, keepsake fishbowls.

At the bartender’s suggestion, I pick the Marvellous Mai Tai: a four-shot, three-rum concoction with a hint of citrus. It leaves me feeling like the mermaids are not the only ones swimming.

And then Jesus strikes up a conversation, eventually offering to buy a round of shots.

Jesus, who goes more simply by the name Jay, moved to Great Falls from Texas, taking on odd jobs at a nearby ranch. He barely looks at the mermaids, but I watch the windows carefully for their brief but steady appearances, waving back when they wave, echoing their smiles.

I’m delighted when one finally swims through a hula hoop set up in the middle of the pool.

And, as we watch, the crowd thins and Jesus calls it a night.

The mermaids disappear from the swimming pool, taking their glowing balls and hoop. They reappear in human form in the bar, wet hair and all, to gently peel the dollar bills from the window and head home.

The next day we fulfil our second mission: shopping.

We hit the stores along the main drag: Target, the Ross and JC Penney at the Holiday Village mall, and the independent boutiques inside.

But we also head down-town where brick buildings house antique stores and other shops, including Candy Masterpiece, where we stop for chocolates, gummies and other candies. Their vanilla caramels are so good we stop again the next day as we are heading back. But not before lunch at the retro 5th Street Diner. The burger is average, but the milkshakes and soda floats are stellar.

Coke float

Burger and fries

Stools at the counter II

And then, with the iPod on and the sunroof open, we make the drive home.

Me and Kirsten at the Sip n' Dip

Kirsten and me at the Sip n’ Dip at closing time.

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Blackberry Gin & Tonic

It is unclear to me when I realized I liked gin.

I remember having some in high school – and we’re well past the statute of limitations on that incident, I’m sure – and not being entirely enamoured with the juniper flavour.

At some point between then and now, however, it’s become my preferred liquor. (Though, admittedly, the brand has changed in the intervening years.) Gin and tonics are now my preferred highball.

Although lime is traditional, I like mine with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Sometimes I add in some rhubarb bitters I found at a small shop in Portland, Ore. But even with these minor tweaks, the recipe is essentially the same.

Every favourite can benefit once in a while from a little change, however, so when I stumbled on this recipe for a Blackberry Gin and Tonic while cruising Serious Eats – an excellent online resource for recipes, cooking tips and, perhaps most important to me, reviews of hamburgers all over the U.S. – I bookmarked it immediately.

Blackberry Gin & Tonic I

The scorching heat over the past weekend that had me wilting in my apartment seemed like the perfect time to give it a try. Gin and tonics are a good way to beat the heat, in my opinion, and adding the juicy, sweet and tart summer flavour of blackberry only adds to that.

With my ice and wee clamshell case of some of the juiciest blackberries I’ve ever seen in the grocery store, I set to work.

While I do have a cocktail shaker and set, I don’t have a muddler – a long-handled, often wooden pestle used by bartenders to pound at fruit and herbs to release their flavours. I’m sure a real bartender would balk, but let me assure you that the back of a large spoon pressed against the inside of the cocktail shaker seemed to do a very nice job squeezing out that deep purple juice from the ripe berries.

A little squeeze of lime, some tonic and a large handful of ice then get all shaken up. (I love watching the shaker fog over from the cold as it’s shaken.)

The resulting liquid is berry bright in the glass, even after the tonic is added.

Blackberry Gin & Tonic IV
(P.S. How sweet are these glasses? My little sister has very good taste.)

It tastes of summer and refreshment and of a welcome change to my old favourite.

Blackberry Gin & Tonic III

Blackberry Gin and Tonic

This recipe comes from Serious Eats.

  • 6 ripe blackberries, plus 2 more for garnish
  • 1/2 oz fresh lime juice
  • 1 oz simple syrup (see Cook’s Note)
  • 1 1/2 oz gin
  • 2 to 3 oz tonic water

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the blackberries and lime juice. Fill with ice and add simple syrup and gin. Shake vigorously for about 10 seconds.

Fill a Collins glass with ice. Double strain into serving glass using a cocktail strainer and its strainer or a mini fine-mesh strainer to prevent the blackberry seeds from going into the glass. Add tonic water and stir gently. Garnish with a few blackberries on a skewer.

Cook’s Note: To make simple syrup, combine equal parts water and sugar in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring, until all the sugar is dissolved. Cool before using. It will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for up to five days.

Edited to add: At a friend’s request, I made these again the weekend this story first appeared in the Calgary Herald. It would be an understatement to say they went over well. This is, hands down, my new favourite summer drink.)

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Easy Butterscotch Sauce

When it comes to ice cream sundaes, there has never been any waffling for me. You can keep your hot fudge, I’ll take butterscotch (or caramel – since there doesn’t seem to be a difference in the ice cream world), please and thank you.

Butterscotch Sauce II

It’s not that I don’t like chocolate at other times. But there’s something about the combination of vanilla ice cream and the buttery richness of a warm butterscotch sauce that pleases me immensely.

It was a good thing I didn’t have a recipe for making it at home.

And then I did.

And that was a good and bad thing.

I stumbled onto a recipe for “Ridiculously Easy Butterscotch Sauce” on Smitten Kitchen one day and gave it a shot.

It’s nothing more complicated than melting some butter and then boiling it with cream and brown sugar and then rounding it out with a bit of vanilla and a pinch or two of flaky salt – which has a milder flavour to emphasize the salty-sweet flavours of a tasty butterscotch without being overtly salty.

It comes together frighteningly – I may even dare to say, dangerously – quickly. Even if you give it several minutes to cool down so it’s thicker and doesn’t melt your ice cream on contact.

And in 10 minutes, I was doing just that.

I did get a bit frustrated the first few times I made this, as mine never looked quite as thick as it did in Smitten Kitchen’s photos. But after scrolling down through the comments one day, I noticed a discussion about having it reach a certain temperature.

I’ve since learned (through trial, error and a bit of impatience) that it’s the 220 F (104 C) mark that seems to make the difference. And also that it has to boil for a lot longer than I would have guessed.

Some other things I’ve learned: don’t be like me and absent-mindedly use your finger to get that little drop off the end of the whisk or thermometer. And don’t be afraid to double the batch; you will thank yourself later.

It should last in the fridge for several days. But, to be honest, mine never sticks around that long.

Butterscotch Sauce

 

Easy Butterscotch Sauce

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

  • 1/4 cup (50 mL) butter
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) whipping cream pinch flaky salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla extract, or more to taste

In a pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the sugar, cream and salt and whisk until blended. Bring to a boil and cook for several minutes, whisking often. It will boil up, so watch carefully. Cook until it reaches a temperature of about 220°F (104°C), give or take a degree or two. Remove from heat and stir in 1 tsp of vanilla.

Let it cool slightly and taste, adding more vanilla or another pinch of salt to suit your tastes.

Store in the refrigerator. Reheat gently on the stove or in the microwave to make it pourable.

Makes about 3/4 cup.

This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald. For more recipe ideas, check out CalgaryHerald.com/food.

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Meanwhile, over at my day job

Recipes galore!

(But, full disclosure before we get any further, you’ll have to click through to read more and get the recipes. Think of it kind of like keeping church and state separate.)

Over at my day job, I’m a few months into a new column that has me keeping busy, but very happy.

It involves tackling some of the hundreds of cookbooks that come across my desk by reviewing them, cooking from them and photographing the results. My favourite part is the column name: Cooking the Books. (OK, reality check, my favourite part is getting paid to cook from cookbooks and take photos and eat the results. My life is pretty charmed these days.)

So far, I’ve made some pretty easy stuff and had some adventures with others, like Martha Stewart’s sticky buns, which made so much dough that I had no idea what to do with it all.

But good lord, were these tasty.
Sticky Buns II

Sticky Buns

Read the whole story and get the recipe over here.

Something A LOT easier were these refrigerator pickles from Ted Allen’s cookbook. You know him from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Chopped.

I’ve come to realize that I really love a good pickle. (Especially these ones that I make with my Teriyaki Trout.)
Refrigerator Pickles

Feel like getting in a pickle? You can get the story and recipe by clicking through.

Love her or hate her, I have to admit that I appreciate Rachael Ray’s love for burgers.

From her latest, The Book of Burger, I tried out a Satay Slider, topped with a cucumber-mint relish. It was good enough that I ignored the fact that I hate how she calls sandwiches, “sammies.”
Satay Slider

Check out my story and the recipe.

I completely fell in love with Nigel Slater’s Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard when it landed on my desk. It is just . . . gorgeous. The photographs, the writing, the fonts. Oh man, I love a beautiful font.

Beautiful Ts in this font

And the cover. Dreamy.

Nigel Slater's Ripe

I made his Blackberry Focaccia and it was heavenly.

Blackberry Focaccia

I have a not-so-secret love of southern food. Biscuits and gravy? Yes, please. Chicken and waffles? Order it up. And this, chicken-fried steak.
Chicken-fried Steak

Oh yes.

It didn’t look exactly like the photo in the cookbook, but I did not care.

Find the story and recipe here.

Probably one of the most hilarious ones so far (other than the dough fiasco of the sticky buns) was this one for Champagne-Strawberry Jell-O. Mostly because I was thinking to myself, “How on earth will the bubbles stay bubbly?” And then, I didn’t quite follow the instructions and they got over bubbled. Live and learn.
Strawberry Champagne Jell-O

Want to put some wiggle in your dessert? Head on over to check out the story.

Lastly, for the summer issue of HERS magazine, I blitzed up some Gazpacho. This is like salad in a soup bowl and as soon as it actually gets hot here, I’ll be whipping up another batch.
Gazpacho

As part of the Gazpacho package, you can watch me make it by clicking through. Warning, it will autoplay.

(And, if you really want to, you can check out videos of me making Lemon Bars and, *gasp*, a Souffle.)

I’ve got a few other posts in my back pocket, including some Szechuan Green Beans, Butterscotch Sauce and an easy, one-pan Roast Salmon. I promise to get them up in the next two weeks or so.

Promise.

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Rhubarb Snacking Cake

Oh blergh.

I’ll spare the apologies for not being a good blogger lately. Mostly, I really should be apologizing to my blog because I’ve been careless, letting our anniversary slip by (four years!) with not even a cheap greeting card or cake (which I usually make to celebrate this little milestone) to mark the occasion. (Actually, I think the real loser here is me since it also meant that I didn’t get to *eat* cake for my blog’s anniversary either. Fails all around.) As these things go, I suspect these means I’ll have to do something absolutely stupendous to make up for it. What that will be, I know not.

Until then, though, I’ve got a Rhubarb Snacking Cake for you all. (And, ahem, for myself, as I have certainly enjoyed a slice or two.)

Rhubarb Snacking Cake III

My back went out a couple of weeks ago. Annoying as hell, but I’m on the mend. I had to take a handful of days away from the office since being flat out on my front was about the only comfortable position I could find and I returned to find a massive bundle of rhubarb on my desk. As in, the stalks — some a good 5 centimetres or so in diameter — were at least two feet long and the entire bundle had been wrapped up using two plastic bags end-to-end and a good binding of tape. I was amused at how I had to hobble out to my car at the end of the day with this bundle, but mostly I was grateful because I do love rhubarb. (Pudding cakes, large crumb coffee cake, upside-down cake, anyone? Or, perhaps my favourite, how about a rhubarb-based cocktail? Yes, click through; they’re named after my grandmother!)

Fortuitously, I had just come across Smitten Kitchen’s latest, a so-called Rhubarb Snacking Cake that she had put together, loosely based on a Martha Stewart recipe, so I knew exactly what I was going to do with at least part of the rhubarb bundle.

It was my first baking project in a number of weeks and it felt great to be back in the kitchen, even if it meant stopping to take breaks to lay down on the floor in between.

This cake has a fabulous crumb and I like how it’s not very tall, which does make it very easy to eat by hand, which my friends and I did that afternoon while sitting out on a back deck drinking Gewurztraminer and soaking up some sun.

(And later, a glass or two of Pinot Noir.)

Pinot Noir afternoon

While I normally follow a recipe exactly the first time I make it, I did make a couple of changes this time around. Namely, I omitted the cinnamon in the crumb topping (although a fan of cinnamon, I don’t love it with rhubarb, I’ve decided) and adding a bit more butter since the crumb wasn’t exactly “crumb-ing” with the four tablespoons called for. Next time (and there will be a next time), I think I’ll cut back on the flour a bit as the crumbs still seemed a bit dry. I know our Canadian flour is a bit stronger than that of our southern neighbours, so that may be why it wasn’t quite dead on. (If you click over and look at Deb’s photos on her post, you’ll see her topping looks different.)

But, really, minor quibble in the great scheme of things.

It should also be no surprise, but I upped the amount of lemon zest and maybe splashed a bit more of the juice in with the chopped rhubarb. The recipe below reflects that, but if you’re not as much of a fan of lemon as I am, feel free to rein things back in.

Lastly, as going through the recipe again, I just realized I mucked it up, putting only 1/3 cup sugar in the topping and a full cup in the batter. I actually thought it was quite tasty this way since then the rhubarb layer more tart (but not alarmingly so). Below is the recipe as it should be, but feel free to do it the wrong (and yet still super delicious) way that I did it.

Sliced rhubarb

All Scraped Out

Rhubarb Snacking Cake from the Oven I

Rhubarb Snacking Cake from the Oven II

Rhubarb Snacking Cake II

Rhubarb Snacking Cake I

Rhubarb Snacking Cake

From Smitten Kitchen, as inspired by Martha Stewart Living.

Cake:

  • 1 1/4 pound rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch lengths on the diagonal
  • 1 1/3 cup  granulated sugar, divided
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/3 cup sour cream

Crumb:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour (though I might do a tablespoon or two less next time)
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon table salt
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Grease the bottom and sides of a 9×13-inch baking pan with butter or cooking spray, then line with parchment paper, extending it up two sides to make a sling.

Stir together rhubarb, lemon juice and 2/3 cup sugar, then set aside.

Beat the butter, remaining sugar and lemon zest until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl each time. In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Add one-third of the flour mixture to the batter, mixing on low until just combined. Add half of the sour cream and continue mixing on low, then add another third of the flour mixture, then the rest of the sour cream and finish with the rest of the flour. (I mixed the last addition until just barely combined, finishing it off with the spatula.

Scoop the batter into the pan and spread evenly. (Deb suggests using an offset spatula. I agree; it made it much easier to make the layer even and get it into the corners.) Top with rhubarb, spreading evenly.

For the crumb mixture, whisk together flour, brown sugar and salt, then mix in the melted butter with a fork. Scatter over the rhubarb.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes until a tester comes out clean of cake batter. Cool in the pan on a rack.

To serve, use the sling to lift the cake free from the pan and cut into squares.

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Sidecar

I love a good retro cocktail.

Sidecar III

Though, truth be told, some times I like just about any kind of cocktail. At Milk Tiger Lounge — where, let me tell you, they make a mean cocktail — I’m particularly prone to ordering the Champs-Élysées. Or, uh, several.

Ahem.

And sometimes I’ll order a Sidecar.

Sidecar IV

But, where the Champs-Élysées is made with ingredients I’m unlikely to ever have in my liquor cabinet — yellow chartreuse is a good example — those in the Sidecar are pretty standard: Cointreau, Cognac and lemon juice.

The thing I don’t usually have is, strangely, ice. My freezer sucks all the moisture out of it and leaves tiny, misshapen cubes with a disgusting aftertaste. So, I rarely make shaken cocktails at home, since it seems a bit silly to buy a giant bag of ice for a drink or two and then have it take up valuable space in my freezer. But I had friends over for dinner last weekend and I knew that gin and tonics would be in order and that would mean ice. And that meant some leftover ice. And that meant it was cocktail time.

Enter the Sidecar.

It’s tart, yet sweet, citrusy and smooth.

And it goes down dangerously easy. Please consider yourself warned.

Sidecar I

Sidecar II

Sidecar

  • 3/4 ounce Cointreau
  • 1 1/4 ounces Cognac
  • 3/4 ounce lemon juice
  • sugar and additional lemon juice for sugaring the rim

Rub the rim of the glass with lemon juice and then dip in sugar.

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, add the Cointreau, Cognac and lemon juice. Shake well and strain into prepared glass.

 

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Looking for the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes?

For anyone who may have caught me on Global Calgary this morning, first, thanks for watching. Second, if you’re looking for the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes recipe, just click here and enjoy!

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes I

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Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad

I love my cookbook collection. And I enjoy lazy weekend afternoons flipping through these books, searching for cooking projects and ideas.

Some I have flagged with Post-it Notes already – markers of past inspiration. Others I remember from past cooking adventures (successful and otherwise). And still more are like bumping into old friends.

It’s an instant reconnection to recipes I have loved, forgotten about and am instantly stumped as to why I don’t make them more often.

This salad falls into that last category.
Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad II

The fact that it’s a salad speaks volumes.

But there’s something about this combination of cooling cabbage and mint with heat from the chili, sour of lime and salty fish sauce – with slices of chicken to make it all a bit more robust – that has me making this each time I rediscover it in Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Bites.

Bonus: It’s easy to put together.

Double bonus: Cabbage is really, really cheap.

Although Lawson calls for white cabbage, I like to mix purple and green because the colours – against the bright orange carrot, the wisps of dark green mint and flecks of red chili – make it a dish that’s also tasty to the eyes.

Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad IV

The onions get soft and lose some of their bite by marinating in the dressing – a trick of Lawson’s that she also uses in her very fine recipe for Greek salad. They mellow as they sit in the lime juice and rice wine vinegar, taking on some of the slight sweetness of the bit of sugar as well.

As they sit, it’s quick to pull the rest of the salad together.

Some quick slicing of the cabbage, grating or julienning the carrot, as well as chopping up the chicken and you just about have enough time to tidy up before the onions are ready.

It’s a great way to use up leftover cooked chicken, though I have been known to cook some just to make this salad.

And, with all due respect to Lawson who says this will serve two to four people, I have been known to eat the entire thing. (Though, arguably, there are worse things to fill up on.)

I look forward to bumping into this recipe again.

Maybe I should flag it, so it won’t take quite as long.

Cabbage

Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad Dressing

Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad I

Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad III

Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad

Fish sauce is quite salty, so resist the urge to add any salt before the salad has been tossed well. The dressing doesn’t always look like it will coat all that cabbage and chicken, but it will.

  • 1 chili, preferably a hot Thai one, seeded and minced
  • 1 fat garlic clove, peeled and minced
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp (7 mL) rice vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp (22 mL) lime juice
  • 1 1/2 tbsp (22 mL) fish sauce
  • 1 1/2 tbsp (22 mL) vegetable oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely sliced black pepper
  • 7 oz (200 g) cabbage, shredded
  • 1 medium carrot, shredded, julienned or grated
  • 7 oz (200 g) cooked chicken breast, shredded or cut into fine strips
  • 1 bunch mint, about 1 oz/30 g

In a bowl, combine the chili, garlic, sugar, vinegar, lime juice, fish sauce, oil, onion and black pepper to taste.

Put to one side for half an hour. Then, in a big plate or bowl, mix the cabbage, carrot, chicken and mint. Pour over the onion-soused, chili-flecked dressing and toss very well – slowly and patiently – so that everything is combined and covered thinly. Taste to see if you need salt or pepper.

Serve on a flat plate with maybe a bit more mint chopped on top.

Serves 2 to 4.

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Spring Green Risotto

Last Saturday, I had drinks on a patio. Sunglasses were a necessity, as was a tall glass of something cold, and good conversation with friends.

All along 17th Avenue, patios were cracked open for the first warm weekend day in March. Tables were jammed with people laughing, drinking and turning their faces skyward to bask in the warm sun.

It’s as sure a sign of the changing seasons as the fact we had to put our clocks forward that night. (Though one is very much preferable to the other.)

It’s nearly spring.

But we’re not quite there yet.

After all, there are still patches of snow and, it being Calgary, we can be assured of one last blast of winter before spring truly arrives.

As I wait for those first green buds to appear, I find myself drawn to eating something that can at least remind me of spring. This Spring Green Risotto from the Barefoot Contessa is a good fit.

Spring Green Risotto I

The bright green of asparagus and peas, the bright flavour of lemon zest and juice are the tastes and sights of spring. The mascarpone (or, in my case, cream cheese as mascarpone was not to be found) brings a rich creaminess that’s a good last comfort-food hurrah as winter fades away.

Risotto is a bit fussier than other dishes because of the continual stirring, but I think it’s worth the effort. In my experience, you don’t have to be chained to the pot, constantly moving the grains of rice about. You just need to be nearby for frequent stirring.

(I’m sure someone is mentally scolding me right now for that statement, but if the thought of cooking a risotto has put you off because you believe it will be a major arm workout from stirring for 30 minutes non-stop, this is me suggesting you reconsider. No, you can’t walk away; yes, you can do light kitchen tidying at the same time. Or that’s what I did.)

The patience and frequent stirring is worth it. Especially with this recipe.

Spring Green Risotto III

Those little green peas popped with flavour, while the lemon juice made it bright and the cream cheese (see the recipe notes) added a smooth, creamy flavour without too much richness.

It’s enough to tide me over until spring finally does break through. Or at least until the next day warm enough for patio drinks.

Leeks and Arborio Rice

Spring Green Risotto II

Spring Green Risotto IV

Spring Green Risotto V

Spring Green Risotto

Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics. I omitted the 1 cup (250 mL) of chopped fennel, since I don’t like the flavour. Add it in with the leeks if you’re more of a fan. If you can’t find mascarpone (which I couldn’t – and didn’t want to go searching for in another store), spreadable cream cheese is a decent substitute. It’s less authentic, but was creamy and tangy enough. Using light cream cheese will also cut some of the calories.

  • 1 1/2 tbsp (22 mL) olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tbsp (22 mL) unsalted butter
  • 3 cups (750 mL) chopped leeks, white and light green parts only (about 2 leeks)
  • 1 1/2 cups (375 mL) arborio rice
  • 2/3 cup (150 mL) dry white wine
  • 4-5 cups (1 to 1.25 L) simmering chicken stock
  • 1 lb (500 g) asparagus, cut diagonally in 1 1/2-inch (4 cm) lengths
  • 10 oz (300 g) frozen peas, defrosted
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) freshly grated lemon zest (about 2 lemons)
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup (75 mL) mascarpone cheese
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
  • 3 tbsp (50 mL) minced fresh chives, plus extra for serving

Heat the olive oil and butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the leeks and saute for 5 to 7 minutes, until tender.

Add the rice and stir for a minute to coat with the leeks, oil and butter. Add the white wine and simmer over low heat, stirring often, until most of the wine is absorbed. Add the chicken stock, a soup ladleful or two at a time, stirring often.

Most of the stock should be absorbed before adding another ladleful. This should take between 25 and 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, blanch the asparagus in boiling salted water for a few minutes, until just tender. Drain and cool in ice water.

When the risotto has been cooking for about 20 minutes, drain the asparagus and add it to the risotto with the peas, lemon zest, 2 teaspoons (10 mL) salt and 1 teaspoon (5 mL) of pepper. Continue cooking and adding stock, stirring almost constantly, until the rice is tender but still firm.

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice and mascarpone.

When the risotto is done, remove from the heat and stir in the mascarpone mixture, plus the Parmesan and chives. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

Sprinkle with chives and more Parmesan to serve.

Serves 4 for dinner, 6 as an appetizer.

This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald. For recipe ideas and stories about food, check out the Herald’s food page.

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Pork Meatball Banh Mi

I had never even heard of a Vietnamese sub before I moved to Calgary.

But my introduction to banh mi came soon after I arrived, when I took that first bite of a sate beef version, topped with pickled carrots and various sauces, all nestled into a crusty baguette.

Pork Meatball Banh Mi

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was working a reporting shift at the Herald. We were working on a big story and there wasn’t much time to think about lunch, let alone leave the building to get it.

And that’s when a colleague said he was going on a Vietnamese sub run; did I want one?

Yes, yes, I did, though I had no idea what I was agreeing to.

The first few bites had me thankful for the perks of living in a new city.

Now I have my own favourite place to get subs from and I do so often enough that the girls behind the counter recognize me.

It’s that fabulous combination of spicy and sour, salty and sweet – the traditional flavours of Vietnamese cuisine, and others in Southeast Asia – that make these so appealing to me.

The chili heat of the beef, the sweet-sour of the pickled carrots, the slathering of rich mayonnaise, the crusty, chewy bread. It’s all the right flavours and textures coming together.

In the years since, I’ve eaten my fair share (and perhaps more), but never thought about making them at home until I stumbled upon a Bon Appetit recipe for a pork meatball version. It had all the things I was looking for with the benefit of using meatballs instead of slices of beef sate.

But, of course, I made a few adjustments.

I made my meatballs smaller, then jammed a lot of them in to make the sandwich really filling. Feel free to make them larger, though you’ll need to adjust the cooking time slightly. (Ground pork is cooked through when it reaches an internal temperature of 160F or 75C.)

The original recipe also calls for pan frying them first in some sesame oil before finishing them off in the oven. I was looking for something a little less fussy; cooking them in the oven completely left them slightly less golden, but gave me a chance to tidy up at the same time, which is a good thing in my books.

No Vietnamese sub I’ve seen has daikon on it, so I skipped that in favour of more pickled carrots.

The result: Flavourful meatballs, a spicy mayonnaise and a tangy tangle of carrots, topped with basil leaves, all wedged onto a chewy baguette I picked up from a bakery.

Heavenly. And I didn’t even have to work a Saturday shift to get it.

Pork Meatball Banh Mi

Pork Meatball Banh Mi

Pork Meatball Banh Mi

Adapted from Bon Appetit. Don’t be daunted by the list of ingredients and number of steps. Both the mayonnaise and the meatballs can be made a day ahead and kept in the fridge.

Hot Chili Mayo

  • 2/3 cup (150 mL) mayonnaise
  • 2 green onions, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) hot chili sauce (like sriracha)

Stir all ingredients together, cover and chill until assembling sandwiches.

Meatballs

  • 1 lb (500 g) ground pork
  • 1/4 cup (50 mL) finely chopped fresh basil
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 green onions, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) hot chili sauce (like sriracha)
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) sugar
  • 2 tsp (10 mL) corn starch
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) coarse kosher salt

Gently mix together all the ingredients in a large bowl. With moistened hands, roll scant tablespoonfuls of the mixture, forming them into 1-inch (2.5-cm) balls. Place on a rimmed baking sheet. (If doing the day before, line the baking sheet with plastic wrap, then cover the meatballs with more plastic and refrigerate.)

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Bake the meatballs until golden and cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Sandwiches

  • 1/4 cup (50 mL) unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup (50 mL) sugar
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) coarse kosher salt
  • 3 cups (750 mL) coarsely grated carrots
  • 4 10-inch (25-cm) baguettes (or 4 10-inch pieces of baguette, cut from 2 baguettes)
  • 16 basil leaves or cilantro sprigs
  • 1 cucumber (or 2 short ones), cut horizontally into 4 wedges thinly sliced jalapeno (optional)

In a bowl, mix together vinegar, sugar and salt. Add grated carrots and toss to combine. Set aside and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour, tossing occasionally.

To assemble sandwiches, slice the baguettes horizontally in half, and pull out some of the bread to make room for the filling. Spread hot chili mayo over each bread shell. Arrange 1/4 of the cooked meatballs, drained carrots, basil or cilantro, cucumber and jalapeno (if using) inside the bread.

Serves 4.

This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald. For more recipes and meal ideas, check out the Herald’s food page.

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Brownies with Sea Salt and Lime

Oh, hello!

Thanks for joining me here on my inaugural post on my NEW blog. While I should be a little ashamed (and I am a bit, to be honest) that it took me this long to get my own domain and I certainly should be (and am) irked that waiting this long meant a lot more hiccups in making ye olde switch from my WordPress version to this one, I’m just tickled that I finally broke down and did it. I own real estate! Internet real estate!

(Side note: I guess this is a good time to say that you may want to update your bookmarks.)

I’m still trying to work out some design kinks. Those classes in HTML that I took in my undergrad (read: a long time ago) haven’t really kept up with the times. But I figured it would be better to just get this thing live and try to fix as I went along rather than wait until it was perfect and have you all give up on ever seeing me post again. (Thanks to the kind person on Twitter who gently nudged me into getting things rolling again.) (Related: if anyone has a quick fix to get the blog’s tagline all on one line and to get the “What It’s All about” over to the left side of the page, I’d be totally grateful.)

And just a few weeks shy of my four-year (four year!) anniversary. Four amazing, heartwrenching, uh, fattening years. But tasty ones too. Of course, I’ll wax a little more poetic when I actually get there. After all, it’s not an anniversary without some cake. Or not in my world, at least.

So, stay tuned for that.

Today, though, I’ve got some really, really, really good brownies.

With lime.

And flakes of sea salt.

Like the margarita of brownies.

Brownies with Lime and Sea Salt

But, you know, without the booze. (Unlike these and these. Oh yeah.)

I had bookmarked them a while ago from the Kitchn, which is a fabulous resource for recipes and kitchen tips. And then kind of forgot about them — surprising considering my love of all things citrus.

But as I was getting ready for (après) ski weekend a few weeks ago, they popped back into my head. (Après) ski weekend is becoming an awesome tradition. We rent a house right at Kicking Horse, pack up lots of goodies to eat (and maybe a couple of bottles of wine, ahem) and then hang out for the weekend. The others ski and board, but the mountain is a bit advanced for me, so I just do the après part. All the hot tubbing, snacking, reading and laughing, none of the actual hurtling down a mountain. Good times!

These brownies totally delivered on all my expectations. They were darkly rich, slightly sweet with the tang of lime and kiss of sea salt.

The most unexpectedly amazing part of these were the chunks of unsweetened chocolate that you stir in before baking. After, they’re these little pockets of chocolate-y goodness and they taste as if they are dark or semi-sweet chocolate. The addition just takes these brownies over the edge.

Well, that and the lime, of course.

We didn’t manage to eat them all over the weekend. (No judgment; I had also packed some Bourbon Blondies and, of course, the Dark Chocolate Chunk Cookies. Plus, everyone brought lots of other delicious dishes for dinner and the world’s supply of chips. Did I mention it’s a very good weekend?) So I took the rest in to work where they were gobbled up.

And now that I know how good they are, I certainly won’t be waiting until the next (apres) ski weekend to make another batch.
Lime and Salt

Brown, green and red

A sprinkle of salt

Brownie with Lime and Sea Salt

Brownies with Sea Salt and Lime

Adapted ever so slightly from The Kitchn.

  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped coarsely
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup Dutch process cocoa powder
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 lime, juiced and zested
  • zest of 1 lime
  • 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
  • 3/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt

Preheat oven to 325F and line an 8×8-inch baking pan with parchment paper, leaving the paper extra-long and hanging over two sides.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and bittersweet chocolate over medium-low heat. Stir until smooth.

Remove pan from the heat and add the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, eggs, vanilla and kosher salt. Mix until combined. Then add lime juice and zest, as well as the finely chopped unsweetened chocolate. Stir to combine and pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle the sea salt on the top.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a tester comes out moist. It will not be perfectly clean, but it shouldn’t be sticky either. Allow pan to cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before removing brownies from pan. To remove the brownies, run a knife around the sides of the pan to help release the brownies, then lift out the parchment paper. Place the brownies on the paper back on the wire rack. Cool completely and cut into 2 inch squares.

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Meyer Lemon and Sea Salt Focaccia

I love all things lemon. Obviously.

And I have a fascination with Meyer lemons.

So, when I spotted a rather large clamshell package of them at Costco, I just couldn’t resist.

Meyer Lemons

So bright, so tempting. So many options.

A long time ago, I bookmarked a recipe over on The Kitchn (which is a fabulous site and well worth checking out, if you have not already) for a lemon and sea salt focaccia. Bread? Lemon? Flaky salt? Yes, that sounds like perfection.

And it did indeed sound like perfection.

I’m just not sure I loved the reality.

I thought a mandolin would get the lemons thin enough to top the focaccia, but the blade wasn’t sharp enough, so, in the end, I just used my extremely sharp paring knife. But I don’t think I got them quite as thin as they needed to be because even after baking they were a bit overpowering. I like the acidic bite of a lemon — maybe more than the average person — but the bites of lemon, even with the bread, were pretty sour.

That said, I loved the actual focaccia part of it. So, I’m going to keep this recipe around because the dough is so great.

Meyer Lemon Focaccia Dough

Meyer Lemon Focaccia I

Meyer Lemon Focaccia II

Meyer Lemon Focaccia III

Meyer Lemon and Sea Salt Focaccia

Adapted slightly from The Kitchn.

For the Dough

  • 1 envelope (2-1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
  • 6 tablespoons really good extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 4 cups bread flour, plus more for kneading
  • 2 teaspoons salt

To Assemble

  • Really good extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 Meyer lemons, washed and very thinly sliced into rounds
  • Flaked salt, like Maldon

For the dough, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water in a the bowl of a stand mixer. Stir in 1-1/4 cups water and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.

Add the flour and salt and, using the dough hook, mix until a ball of dough forms. Put 2 tablespoons of the oil into a large bowl. Roll dough around in bowl until coated with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm spot until it has doubled in size, about 2 hours.

Pour a thin film of oil into each of four 8-inch round cake pans. (Though I used a rimmed cookie sheet and spread the entire dough over it.) Quarter the dough and put one piece into each pan. Using your fingertips, spread dough out in each pan. The dough is elastic and will resist stretching. Let it relax for 5 minutes or so after you’ve stretched it as far as it will go. Eventually, it will cooperate and fill the pan.

Preheat the oven to 450°. Cover the pans with damp dishcloths and let the dough rest until it has swollen in the pans a bit, 30-60 minutes.

Uncover the pans. Sprinkle the dough with the rosemary (I didn’t have rosemary, so went without.) Using your fingertips, poke dimples into the dough in each pan, then liberally drizzle with oil so it pools in the hollows. Arrange just the thinnest rounds of lemon on top, drizzle with more oil, and sprinkle with sea salt. We like ours salty. Bake the focaccia until golden brown, 20-30 minutes. Drizzle with more oil when you pull the focaccia from the oven. Serve cut into wedges.

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Leftovers

In the last few months, I’ve shot photos for meals and food adventures here and there that haven’t made it in to any posts. Julie and I were joking that we should just do posts of these leftovers with no real preamble, just letting the photos speak for themselves.

So, yup, that’s what this is.

Enjoy!

Pasta Carbonara

Pasta Carbonara. (Recipe over here)

Pasta with tomatoes, peppers and wilted spinach

Penne with cherry tomatoes, roasted peppers and wilted spinach in a cream sauce.

Japa Dog

Oroshi dog, topped with freshly grated daikon from Japa Dog in Vancouver. My favourite part was chatting with the staff in Japanese.

Shio Ramen

Shio ramen from Hokkaido Ramen Santouka. Check out Andree’s review for more.

Charcuterie

Charcuterie from Cassis.

Steak and potatoes

Steak and potatoes from Cassis.

Strawberry Tart

Strawberry tart from Cassis.

Shrimp Po' Boy

Shrimp po’ boy from Big & Little’s in Chicago.

Lights at the Publican

Lights at Publican in Chicago.

Cinnamon Bun

Pecan sticky bun from Publican in Chicago.

Digging in

Digging in to the Pecan sticky bun at Publican in Chicago.

Kimchi Fried Rice

Kimchi fried rice for brunch at the Publican in Chicago.

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Vanilla Panna Cotta with Strawberries

Last January, I made several resolutions that I hoped to fulfil through the course of the year. A flood in my apartment, which led to several walls being torn out and weeks and weeks of workmen Humpty Dumpty-ing my home back together again killed any drive I had to enact the “entertain at least once a month” resolution. Or any of the myriad food-related resolutions I had, since my kitchen was barely navigable from all the belongings normally hidden away in the storage room.

And so, in the end, I fulfilled none.

This year, I’ve kept my resolutions equally simple:

  • Write more actual letters to people
  • Read more classics
  • Travel somewhere new
  • Drink more water
  • Make panna cotta
  • Join a new class
  • Increase my intake of fruit and vegetables

And so far, I’m off to an unexpectedly good start.

I’m partway through Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and have Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte on standby; I’ll be travelling to Morocco this fall; and I made panna cotta.

Panna cotta with strawberries II

This was a holdover from last year’s resolutions and I’m surprised it has taken me this long to finally cross it off my list. (Although, I do think part of my hesitation stemmed from knowing this is a very dangerous recipe to master.)

Panna cotta – literally “cooked cream” in Italian – is nothing more than sweetened cream (or a combination of cream, milk, buttermilk or yogurt) infused with any one of myriad flavours.

It’s infinitely adaptable; I’ve had everything from simple vanilla versions to ones flavoured with orange blossom water, topped with fruits or coulis or left unadorned to let the light flavour come through.

It’s silky, soothingly smooth and can be the perfect end to most meals.

And it is ridiculously easy. The hardest part of making this recipe was wading through the hundreds of versions that popped up after a straightforward Google search.

But, for the first time attempting it at home, I wanted something uncomplicated.

Nothing more than cream, vanilla, sugar and gelatin, topped with a few macerated strawberries for colour and flavour.

This version from food blogger and author David Lebovitz fit the bill.

Even making the panna cotta felt soothing: from scraping out the fragrant flecks of vanilla from their pods and stirring them into the cream that was gently heating on the stove, to pouring the liquid into ramekins and putting them to bed in the fridge for the night.

Only attempting to unmould them proved tricky. (If no one is worried about spectacular presentation – and who would be after taking one bite of this dessert? – I probably wouldn’t worry about bothering next time and would simply serve them in clear glasses or pretty coloured ramekins instead.)

But any frustrations stemming from their unwillingness to slide out on the first attempt evaporated with the first bite of panna cotta.

Sweet, light, brightened by diced strawberry and speckled with vanilla, it was everything I had hoped for.

If the rest of my resolutions turn out to be this easy, I just might get through all of them this year.

Unmolded panna cotta

Strawberry

Vanilla Beans

Panna cotta with strawberries I

Panna cotta with strawberries III

Vanilla Panna Cotta with Strawberries

This version is slightly adapted from David Lebovitz – namely the addition of macerated strawberries – who in turn adapted it from Judy Witts’s Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen. You can find gelatin, which is typically sold in boxes of packets, in the baking section of most grocery stores.

  • 4 cups (1 L) whipping cream (or half-and-half)
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or 2 tsp/10 mL vanilla extract)
  • 2 packets powdered gelatin (about 4 ½ tsp/22 mL)
  • 6 tbsp (100 mL) cold water
  • 2 cups (500 mL) strawberries, diced
  • 1-2 tbsp (15 to 25 mL) sugar (depending on the sweetness of the strawberries)

Heat the cream and sugar in a pot on the stove or in the microwave until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add them and the pod to the cream. Cover and let infuse for 30 minutes. Remove the pod and rewarm the mixture before continuing.

Lightly oil eight custard cups with a neutral-tasting oil, such as vegetable or safflower.

In a medium-sized bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water and let stand 5 to 10 minutes.

Pour the warm panna cotta mixture over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

Divide between the prepared cups, then chill until firm (at least two hours). Just before serving, mix together diced strawberries and sugar and let sit while unmolding the panna cotta.

To serve, run a sharp knife around the edge of each panna cotta and dip the ramekin in a dish of hot water to loosen. Unmould onto a serving plate and top with strawberry mixture.

Serves 8.

This first appeared in the Calgary Herald. For more recipe ideas and food stories, check out the Herald’s food page.

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Cream Biscuits with Sausage Gravy

If I believed in past lives, I’d swear I was a southern belle in one of mine. Give me a pitcher of sweet tea, porch swings, some fried chicken or chicken-fried steak and especially give me some Biscuits with Sausage Gravy.

Biscuits and Sausage Gravy II

I’ve been bookmarking recipes for biscuits and gravy on Delicious for a while now. In fact, when going through to clear out some old links (I mean, do I need 800 bookmarked recipes? No, I don’t think so.), I found a few I had forgotten about. I left one of them because it was different enough that I think I’d like to give it a go later.

Because this certainly won’t be the last time I cook up some biscuits and gravy.

Oh yeah.

So, instead of the usual biscuits, which involve cutting in butter to make them nice and flaky, this recipe only uses cream.

And they were a total revelation. Light and fluffy, cracking perfectly in half when pulled apart and with not an ounce of butter to be seen. Not that using butter in shortcakes or scones is difficult, since I discovered Nigella’s trick, but avoiding it all together certainly makes things go much faster.

The sausage gravy recipe was just as simple and straightforward. I think next time I may want something where I have a bit more control over the flavours. However, this was super tasty and it came together very quickly, which, if I was making this for a crowd would definitely put this recipe in the win column.

It’s easy to adjust the flavours just by changing up the type of sausage you use, which is also nice.

I’d call this a very good starter recipe, but I’m certainly not done exploring the world of biscuits and gravy.

Cream Biscuits

Cream Biscuits

Sausage Gravy

Biscuits and Sausage Gravy I

Cream Biscuits

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for the counter
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Stir in the cream (starting with about 1 1/4 cups and adding more if necessary) until a dough forms, about 30 seconds or so. Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured counter. Gather it together and squash it together (not quite kneading it) until smooth.

Shape it into a circle about into a circle about 3/4″ thick. Cut biscuits into rounds and place on parchment-lined backing sheet. Bake biscuits until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Sausage Gravy

  • 12 ounces bulk pork sausage
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat a medium pan over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook, stirring occasionally and breaking it up into little bits, until browned and cooked through, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Sprinkle the flour into the remaining fat in the pan and cook for about a minute. Whisk the flour mixture while slowly adding the milk. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes or so to let the gravy thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste, then stir in the sausage.

Serve the sausage gravy over the cream biscuits.

Serves 8 or fewer, depending on how hungry people are.

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Pickled Onions and Onion Jam

As a kid — like almost all kids, I imagine — I was resolutely against onions. No, not in any dishes, please and thank you. And I was totally convinced that I could tell when they were in something. Until my mum did a little experiment. With my eyes closed, she gave me a piece of cooked celery and a piece of sauteed onion to taste. If I could tell them apart, I won. And if I couldn’t, then I wasn’t allowed to complain about onions ever again.

I failed.

Even though it was a 50-50 shot.

Red Onion

Now, I find the whole thing amusing. These days, almost all of my favourite dishes start with sauteeing some diced onions in butter or olive oil or both. (Like this one or this one or this one. Huh. Think I have a pasta addiction? Yeah.)

Of course, they don’t have to just be the start of a dish.

A few months ago, over at my day job, I wrote a piece about saving the standard sandwich. I made some jazzed up mayo with lemon juice and a whole bunch of herbs and then I made onion jam. That was my first time making it and it was a revelation. Sweet and savoury, rich and that slight hit of vinegar. Dear god help me, I was eating it with a fork. Seriously. And I had just made some no-knead bread and I had a chunk of brie and for the next three days, that became my go-to snack. (That and the herb mayo on toast with thin slices of tomato. Drool.)

Onion Jam II

A few weeks ago, I made a little Mexican feast (guacamole — recipe coming — and slow-cooked pork and tortillas) and at the last second, I thought nothing could improve this delicious trifecta than a little zing from pickled onions. I did a quick surf around the web, found a recipe and whipped them up. It made those little tacos sing. Seriously.

And then, a few days ago, I bought two red onions for reasons that are entirely unclear to me. And so, with two red onions and two recipes that would transform those little purple globes into something amazing, (And that’s with me liking red onions to begin with.) I got cracking.

I made Pickled Onions and Onion Jam.

I didn’t have brie this time around, so I’ve been eating the onion jam with Monterey Jack. Less fancy, still tasty. And I don’t have homemade tortillas, slow-roasted pork and guacamole, but I do have toasted bagels and ripe avocados that I’ve just mashed on top before lacing on top a few forkfuls of pickled onions. So simple, so good.

Brine

Adding the red onion

Pickled Onions

One quick note on the pickled onions: I made them the first time without the fennel and the second time with. Since I don’t love fennel, I will probably leave it out from now on. But if you do actually like fennel, then go for it. Other recipes I found also called for allspice berries (don’t have any; trying really hard to stop buying ingredients for just one recipe) and dried chiles (don’t have any and didn’t really want that kick of heat.) So, in short, this is totally adaptable. This is how I did it this time around.

Pickled Onions

Adapted from several sources.

  • 3/4 cup white vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 5 peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 large red onion, peeled, and thinly sliced into rings

In a small, non-reactive saucepan, heat the vinegar, sugar, salt and spices until the mixture comes to a boil.  Add the onion slices and lower heat, simmering gently for about a minute.  Remove from heat and let cool. Transfer the onions and the liquid into a container and refrigerate.

Sauteed onions

Onion Jam

Onion Jam

  • 2 tablespoons (30 mL) olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons (30 mL) butter
  • 2 red onions, halved and sliced into 1/4-inch (1/2-cm) moons
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon (5 mL) fresh thyme
  • ¼ cup (60 mL) balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon (15 mL) sugar
  • pinch salt

In a saute pan, heat olive oil and butter over medium heat until melted.

Add onions and a pinch of salt (which helps to draw out the onions’ moisture) and garlic (if using); saute until onions are cooked and caramelized, about 15 minutes. Add sugar and thyme, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

Add vinegar. Simmer until it is thick and has a jam-like consistency, about 5 minutes. Remove garlic clove.

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Teriyaki Trout and Quick Japanese Pickles

When I’m nostalgic for Japan, there is one recipe I pull out.

Though, oddly, I didn’t find it in Japan nor use it when I was there.

Instead, this recipe for Teriyaki Trout was one I inherited from my family, who has been cooking it for years.

Teriyaki trout with quick pickles IV

Although only really a nod to a traditional teriyaki, it is my fallback recipe when I’m longing for the Land of the Rising Sun. There, I often made an authentic teriyaki salmon that I would serve with steamed rice and a selection of tsukemono (pickles).

But this tastes just as good and the ingredients are readily available, unlike the two types of soy and mirin that usually went into my marinade when I was overseas. (These can, of course, be found at Asian grocery stores, but this recipe is built on ingredients most people have readily available in their cupboards: soy, sugar and sherry.)

This is not the thick gloppy sauce you find on supermarket shelves. This is a thin marinade that infuses the fish with that salty-sweet teriyaki flavour.

A few cloves of smashed garlic perfume the marinade without overpowering the flavours. (And, bonus, they are easy to fish out when it’s time for the trout to go in the oven.)

In the beginning, my parents made this with salmon, as the original recipe calls for, but when the price of that got too dear, they started using steelhead trout. Now that’s what I grab as well.

Teriyaki trout with quick pickles II

My version is a photocopy of the original, with no notation of where it came from. Even the amount of fish called for is absent from the recipe.

But I’ve found the marinade is enough for about two pounds of fish. I prefer to do whole sides rather than individual fillets or steaks, though please use what you want.

Since it’s usually only me dining, I often make the full batch of marinade and divide it between two pieces of fish, throwing one into the freezer for dinner at a later date. I’ll pull it out in the morning and let it sit in the fridge. As it thaws, it continues to infuse the teriyaki flavour into the fish and by the time I get home from work, it’s ready to cook, which, some nights, is exactly the kind of meal I like to have around.

When I’m a little homesick for the rice paddies and stunted hills of the small town in Japan where I lived, I make this dish, serving it with rice and some steamed green vegetables. Sometimes, when I’m really feeling nostalgic, I also make quick pickles -thin slices of de-seeded cucumbers left to sit in a bath of rice vinegar, sugar and salt.

The tangy flavour is a nice balance to the rich fish.

Cucumbers

Sliced Cucumbers

Teriyaki trout with quick pickles

Teriyaki Trout

  • 2 pounds (1 kg) steelhead trout, side or steaks
  • 1 cup (250 mL) soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup (50 mL) sherry (drinking, not cooking)
  • 2 tablespoons (25 mL) sugar
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons (25 mL) grated ginger or ginger paste

Combine the soy, sherry, sugar, garlic and ginger in a bag or flat dish. Add the trout. Let marinate for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight.

Preheat oven to 450°F (230°C). Place fish in a casserole dish (if using steaks, grease the dish slightly so they can be easily removed) and bake until fish is cooked and flakes easily, about 12 to 20 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish.

Quick Japanese Pickles

The amount of salt and sugar can be easily adjusted for taste. I use Maldon flaked sea salt, which has a milder flavour. Sea salt can be easily substituted, but start with just 1 tsp (5 mL) and add more only if needed. The rice vinegar should be unseasoned.

  • 1 English cucumber (or 3-4 small cucumbers)
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon (15 mL) sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons (7 mL) flaked sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons (25 mL) water

Slice cucumbers in half and use a small spoon to scrape out seeds. Slice on a diagonal into ½-cm half-moons. Stir together vinegar, sugar, salt and water and mix until salt and sugar have dissolved. Add cucumber slices, tossing them with brine. Let rest in the fridge for at least an hour, tossing occasionally.

This originally ran in the Calgary Herald. For more recipes and food stories, head to the Calgary Herald’s Food page.

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Guinness Brownies

I first heard about Guinness Brownies through another blog, but forgot to bookmark it and couldn’t remember where I had seen it. I had sent the link to a friend who’s a fan of beer-based baking, but then thought it would be nice to just make them for her instead. A quick Google search brought up myriad other blog posts, including the one I had seen originally, as well as some other variations. After cruising through a bunch, I realized most of them were riffs on one standard recipe — one I liked much more than the recipe I had first come across.

Guinness Brownies II

Now, normally, I like to leave recipes alone for the first attempt, figuring I need to give it a chance to wow me before I make changes. But most of the versions I found called for white chocolate, which I loathe. And I knew it would cook out and be undetectable in the final brownie, but I still wasn’t keen on buying white chocolate just for this recipe. One other blogger had subbed in milk chocolate chips, which seemed like a good idea to me. I think the object here is chocolate-y sweetness and milk chocolate can certainly achieve that, with the bonus of being an ingredient I can use in other things.

Random rant: why do they sell baking chocolate squares in packages of 6 ounces? Most of the recipes I’ve come across call for 8 ounces, which means buying two packages and then letting the remaining four ounces sitting around in the cupboard (where, yes, I am likely to forget I have them and then go buy more. I really need a more organized baking cupboard).

Cracking a beer at 11 a.m. felt a bit funny, though it’s not my first time. (Those Guinness Cupcakes are also an excellent recipe, if you’re looking for something else to do with the dark Irish beer.) And I was a bit nervous about cooking it down. I’m not a huge beer fan and was afraid reducing it and intensifying the flavour would make it stand out far too much in the final brownies. Plus, it did seem a bit weird to cook beer.

But what do I know?

Not much apparently because these were fantastic. They were rich and dense, flavourful but not overly beer-y. A definite keeper.

Guinness

Guinness Brownie Batter

All Baked Up

Guinness Brownies I

Guinness Brownies III

Guinness Brownies

This is a hybrid recipe from a couple of sources, but I have to give Bitchin’ Camero a shout out because that is a seriously awesome blog name and Blondie’s Cakes for the smart idea of reducing the Guinness for additional flavour.

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted room temperature butter, cut into cubes
  • 8 ounces dark bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used 6 ounces of bittersweet and 2 of 70 per cent dark chocolate)
  • 3/4 cup milk chocolate chips
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 bottles Guinness beer, reduced to 1 1/4 cups
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • icing sugar for dusting (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, and salt until evenly combined. Set aside.

In a double boiler set over low heat, melt butter, bittersweet chocolate and milk chocolate chips. Remove from heat.

In a large mixing bowl, beat together eggs and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy. Pour in melted chocolate mixture and beat until combined.

Add flour-cocoa mixture and beat until just combined. Whisk in cooled Guinness and vanilla. (It will take a few minutes for the beer to incorporate. I used more of a folding technique with the whisk for the first minute or two to keep everything from slopping everywhere.)

Pour into prepared pan. Scatter over semi-sweet chips.

Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Note: mine only took 24 minutes; start checking at the 20-minute mark.

Let brownies cool. Dust with icing sugar if using and serve.

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Butter, onion, tomato sauce

My general approach to tomato sauce is simple: I wing it.

After years of watching my parents throw basic ingredients into a pot and letting it simmer for an hour or two to create a hearty and rich tomato sauce, and even more years of making it from scratch on my own – owing to a perhaps unnatural love of pasta – I don’t give too much thought to cooking up a decent red sauce.

I’m a big believer in the long-simmered sauce with a multitude of ingredients that all come together over a slow heat, melding and marrying into something that is so much greater as a whole than the sum of its parts.

But I can also turn around a very basic sauce in 15 minutes.

At the very least, my spaghetti sauce usually has garlic and diced onions, sauted in olive oil with a generous pinch of salt, canned plum tomatoes I roughly (and gently, using a butter knife) chop in my hand over the pot, fresh basil if I can get my hands on it, a little sprinkle of sugar if the whole mix is too acidic, and a Parmesan heel, which I stash in my freezer for just such occasions.

So, it takes an unusual tomato sauce recipe to catch my eye.

Like this one. It has three ingredients. (OK, four, if you count salt, which, in general, I don’t, since almost all recipes call for salt.)

Canned tomatoes. A yellow onion. Butter.

That’s it.

Butter, onion, tomato II

Marcella Hazan’s recipe for tomato sauce with butter and onion has made appearances over the years on various food blogs I follow.

Each time I saw it, I thought I really should remember to give that a try.

And then I’d forget about it until someone else posted their love of this simple yet rich dish.

This seemed like a great weeknight dinner recipe since there is minimal fuss. No chopping or dicing, sweating or sauteing.

You dump it all into the pot, let it come to a simmer, reduce the heat, and go about things. In this case, a little laundry, some tidying and things that allowed for a quick wander past the pot to give the tomatoes a stir and squish against the side with a wooden spoon.

At the end of 45 minutes, all it needed was a small pinch of salt and to be dolloped over a nest of noodles.

Some have suggested sprinkling on Parmesan, but I opted not to. The sauce is rich and tasty without adornment, which is sort of the beauty of it.

The butter adds an almost unidentifiable creaminess and mellows out the acidity of the tomatoes.

And, luckily, such an easy recipe is simple enough that in the future I can pretty much wing it.

Butter, onion, tomato

Cooked sauce

Spaghetti and Sauce I

Spaghetti and sauce II

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

This was adapted from Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by way of several food blogs. Since there are only three ingredients, I do recommend using San Marzano or San Marzano-style canned tomatoes, which are packed in tomato puree instead of water and have, therefore, a greater tomato flavour. You can find Marzano-style tomatoes in most grocery stores these days.

  • 1 28-oz (796-mL) can of whole tomatoes
  • 5 tbsp (75 mL) butter
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
  • 1 lb (500 g) spaghetti
  • salt to taste, if needed

Put the tomatoes, butter and onion in a pot over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, stir to combine, then reduce the heat to low or medium low – depending on how hot your element is; you’re looking for a slow but steady simmer – and cook for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, squishing the tomatoes against the side of the pot.

Cook pasta according to package instructions.

Remove sauce from heat, discard the onion and taste. Add salt if needed. Serve over cooked pasta.

This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald. For more recipes and meal ideas, head to the Calgary Herald’s food page.

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Bourbon Pecan Pie Brownies

The first time I had pecan pie was when I was 16 and visiting a friend in England for a month during summer holidays. There were visits to Stonehenge and London, trips on the train to Bath, but a lot of the time was spent hanging out in Bristol with her boyfriend and his friend, with whom I struck up a short summer romance.

It was not to last, but part of our brief courtship included an invitation to dinner at his family’s house. Details have likely been repressed due to all that teenage awkwardness, but one thing is clear in my mind: his mom made pecan pie.

It was delicious.

Since then I’ve been drawn to variations on the pecan pie. (Not, to be clear, in any way related to yearning for the boy who ended things in a long-distance call just a few weeks after I returned to Canada, but because I like the idea of this pie, the rich pecans and sweet goo filling.)

(And, as an aside, you can read a bit more about my short-lived summer romance in another pecan pie-related post here.)

But I can rarely get excited about making pastry.

And then I came across a recipe for Bourbon Pecan Pie Brownies.

Stacked and side view

Where a crust would be, instead a fudgy, chewy brownie and a pecan pie topping kicked up with some bourbon.

Seemed to me like two very fine things coming together to make an even finer thing.

I found it on a blog, but the recipe originated (and had been adapted from) an NBC Sunday Night Football Cookbook, the idea of which totally charms me.

I used to use the same brownie recipe every time I felt like a chocolate fix, until I found a recipe for Rocky Road Brownies, which used no leavening. The resulting brownies were dense and fudgy and a revelation.

They are, unsurprisingly, rich — two sweet desserts combined into one. And the bourbon retains some of heady kick, so be warned.

The original recipe says it makes 16 bars; I’d suggest cutting smaller.

After all, you can always eat two.

Cocoa, butter and sugar

Scraped Clean

Chopped pecans

Top layer batter

Top layer on

Solo brownie

Stack of brownies

Bourbon Pecan Pie Brownies

The original recipe calls for the two layers to bake in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes to set the pecan pie layer. Don’t be afraid to go longer; mine were in for 45 minutes before the centre had set.

For the brownies:

  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) flour
  • 1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
  • 3/4 cup (175 mL) cocoa powder
  • 1 ¼ cup (300 mL) sugar
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) butter
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs

Preheat oven to 325F (160C). In a small bowl, beat together eggs and vanilla, then set aside. In a double boiler set over boiling water, combine butter, cocoa, sugar and salt. Mix as the butter melts until everything is combined. Remove from heat and whisk in egg and vanilla mixture.

Add flour and stir until combined. Pour into 8 by 8-inch (20 by 20 cm) baking dish. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely.

For the pecan pie layer:

  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) corn syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp (1 mL) cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup (50 mL) butter, melted
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) bourbon
  • 2 cups (500 mL) chopped pecans

Beat together corn syrup and sugar until smooth. Add eggs, vanilla and cinnamon, and beat. Add butter and bourbon and beat again until thoroughly combined. Stir in pecans and pour the mixture over the brownie layer. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.

Let cool completely, then refrigerate for at least two hours before serving.

This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald. For more food-related articles and recipes, check out the Herald’s food page.

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