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A few weeks ago I got canned in high style, and it hit me right in the kitchen. I turned to two things to get through the early days spent absorbing strange news: a couple of old, easy (already-blogged-about) recipes that I knew wouldn’t fail me the way something else just had, and mostly takeout. This left me with nothing to post.

The trend continued. I focused on staring out the kitchen window to see what message the branches were scraping into the air for me. (You’d be surprised how pleasant such a pastime is.) Then, on the weekend, I came to this line in the New York Times Book Review: “When we find ourselves coping with pain, the kitchen can become our therapist.” The line woke me up, for I had a word to share with the reviewer: “Mika Brzezinski, completely untrue!”

The job situation had spleened me; my mind and hands weren’t gravitating to the chopping board; they were elsewhere. They were suddenly required for making innumerable lists, plotting the straightest route to get the hell out of publishing and into…forensics? Dentistry?

Therapy was letting Wayne cook, for crying out loud. It was eating Thai soup and cold rolls every other night. It was weird tinned suppers and distracted, hardscrabble lunches of veggie-salami sandwiches. (Have you seen that stuff?)

And while I agree, Brzezinski, that eating is a great balm, cooking takes creativity and effort and gumption. And all of those forces had to be gathered and pointed at a new plan.

In any case, after a week or two, I started to recognize myself in the lists I was making. The first hint of a storyline began to emerge, and a timeline. A workback – beloved workback! – has started to take shape, and it has made me feel more like myself again.

Or at least enough so to realize I need a kick start in the kitchen, if this blog – and supper itself – is to carry on. I enlisted the help of three cookbooks from the library and started with the lightest one first. It was a bit of a novelty selection, called the What Can I Bring? Cookbook, a ’50s-meets-aughts feed-a-crowd potluck cookbook – perfect recipes for the wake of an old magazine hack.

While the baby slept, I howled over “Cowboy caviar” (a cross between salsa and guacamole, with beans), “Can’t Eat Just One spinach balls” (the ingredients include a box of stuffing mix, and I will certainly not knock this till I’ve tried it) and “Ladies’ lunch tomato aspic” (whoa).

But there were delish-sounding dishes, too, that I would definitely try the next time I have to cook for a crowd: “Mindy’s [love the Mindy’s] grilled figs with honey, walnuts, and crumbled Stilton,” “BLT canapés” and “Ricotta-filled bresaola with arugula and parmesan shavings” – which show pretty good range for a potluck manual. These funny recipes started to made me hungry for the kitchen again.

I moved on to The New Lighthearted Cookbook, but – travesty! – next to no photographs. Very naughty, Anne Lindsay. Straight back to the library you go.

And there I found the winner in an unexpected place: the blow-dried, manicured domain of Giada deLaurentiis, in her cookbook called Giada’s Kitchen: New Italian Favourites.

With her super-plucked brows and jersey tank tops, Giada always struck me as kind of tediously high-maintenance, so I tended to avoid her. But after one flip-through of this excellent book, I was in full repentance for the unfair judgment. I wanted to cook and eat almost everything in it. I grabbed hold of a piece of cardboard in the recycling bin and started stuffing every other page with a placeholder.

I wanted:

Spicy Parmesan Greens with Kale

Artichoke Gratinata

Asparagus Lasagna (not a tomato in it)

Swiss Chard and Sweet Pea Manicotti

Roasted Halibut with Grapefruit Fennel Salsa

Cornmeal and Rosemary Cake with Balsamic Syrup (weird. But how could you not want to try a taste?)

Polenta-crusted Shrimp

Pizza Pot Pies

Hazelnut Crunch Cake with Mascarpone and Chocolate (how can I describe the tantalizing picture. It’s Libeskind meets a Scorcese wedding: dark chocolate layer cake, intersected with indomitable stripes of creamy white icing, impaled all over with towering shards of hazelnut brittle. Heart racing. Scanning the calendar for birthdays. I need to make this for someone, stat.)

Yesterday, I tried my hand at Rigatoni with Vegetable Bolognese.

To start, GDL instructed me to chop the veg in the Cuisinart. Fantastic. In went garlic, carrots, red pepper and onion, pulsed until chunky in just a few seconds:

I sautéed them in a pan with olive oil, then added thyme, oregano, pepper and salt (lots of it . Nicely done, Giada). It cooked quickly, in little more than 5 minutes.

Then in went tomato paste and chopped fresh mushrooms.

Once the mushrooms had softened, I added stock and red wine

and reduced the whole (already) fragrant lot of it till it was intense and flavourful.

I knew then when I stuck my spoon in it that this pasta was going to be spectacular. (And I’d even forgotten to buy the dried mushrooms this recipe calls for in addition to the fresh. Surely they would have added even more depth to the overall flavour. My stupid Frills doesn’t carry them, so I substituted bouillon for the missing liquid.)

I turned the sauce off and waited for Wayne to get home to finish it. It wasn’t until then, a couple of hours later, when I stirred in half a cup of mascarpone, that I realized this was that rare thing – a pasta so good I would consider serving it to my parents.

Look at the mascarpone, melting in there like a giant scoop of ice cream:

I whipped up a five-minute cucumber salad, and Wayne threw some asparagus under the broiler while I put the baby to bed.

Then we tossed the rigatoni with the creamy sauce

and fell into a pasta reverie/coma.

I can tell you one thing those branches scratched into the air outside the kitchen window, a message from the future: The new me isn’t wasting another second of her life on whole-wheat pasta. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit.


Did you catch the story about the New York chef Daniel Angerer, who made cheese from his wife’s leftover breast milk? He fed it to her (without telling her what it was. Unacceptable! Though she liked it); he fed it to the New York magazine foodie Gael Greene with “apricot preserves and a sprinkle of paprika”; and he fed it to customers in the know at Klee Brasserie, with “figs and Hungarian pepper.”

Greene did not dig the texture. In her story about the experience on The Daily Beast, she called it “so off-putting. Strangely soft, bouncy, like panna cotta.”

The story caused a hubbub on the interweb. People (and the New York Department of Health) went crazy over the ew factor.

That’s where I have to say hey. I eat the wing of a chicken with gusto. A chicken’s wing, plucked of its feathers. Covered in skin. I eat that. My favourite cheddar, my organic yogourt, my maple ice cream comes from a cow’s teat. That cow in its fetid pen is how much less savoury than the cosmopolitan Mrs. Angerer?

The only reason anyone’s cringing over human ricotta is because our experience of breastmilk doesn’t override the basic facts of it – the way a Friday night with beers, Steve Malkmus and my crispy chicken wings overrides in tone and atmosphere (and taste!) any notion of a poultry farm.

I suppose there’s something unsettling in the way all this cheese-tasting conflates the sacred and the sexual: You think you know what a mother is all about; you think you know what type of woman it is whose breast you’d want to put your mouth on. Sure, they’re both givers, but that’s where the similarities end. Put them together and dinner is ruined.

Or is it just plain old Electra writ large – a case of “ma – get outta my face“?

Look: At the end of the day, Daniel Angerer went for it. He and his fearless palate took a giant step towards his wife and refused to let his experience of her override his curiosity. He went there. Which is more than I can say for me on a Friday night with my Malkmus and chicken wings. (To wit: See “Do I dare to eat a beef?) As for Mrs. Angerer’s personal ricotta: Not sure I want to buy it, or eat it – ever. But theoretically? Bring it on!

Jonathan Safran Foer’s new(ish) book is stalking me like a starving carnivore on high alert. It keeps finding me wherever I’m hiding – three times in as many days, in fact.

It’s called Eating Animals and apparently it describes how meat gets to the table in a manner so excruciating, it’s torture to read on, or to stop. (I’m quoting you liberally here, Jody.)

I don’t know if I can handle ingesting this book, or live with myself if I don’t. Meat is my big ugly holdout. I mean, here I am, blabbing about how processed veggie ground round is when – come on. Those soy beans are living the life of Hornby Island hippies on peyote compared to the source of my excellent chicken wings or the bacon on my layoff club.

Is meat-eating the most sublimated expression of my alpha self, or my death wish, or a tasty way of connecting with the aggression that seven years of ballet lessons curbed quite nicely, thank you very much? Whenever I salivate for beef stew, part of me wonders.

Have you heard about this book? Are you going to read it? My heart is racing at the thought of asking you to dare me to.

I still might not.

To be continued. (Most likely internally.)

God bless veggie ground round – the McDonald’s of non-meat grocery-store shopping.

It certainly has its uses. In a bolognese? Please! You’re talking to an Italian girl here. But in burritos and enchiladas and veggie chili, it’s a nice little hit of protein. Still, I do feel dirty when I toss it in the cart. I’m always looking for a whole-food alternative.

So I pounced when a friend sent me this recipe yesterday for vegetarian tacos with a lentil base. As you’ve heard, Wayne the pescatarian isn’t fussy on legumes. That means I find myself getting really sick of fish in these parts. So today: a challenge.

While Booboo pulled all the tupperware out of the tupperware cupboard, I chopped two onions (the recipe calls for one, but I wanted to add as much pow – and lentil coverup – as possible) and three cloves of garlic (calls for one. But who adds one clove of garlic to anything? Puritans). They got sautéed in my high-sided frying pan, and I salted the hell out of them to make them tasty for the naysayer.

Then in went the cumin, chili powder, oregano and a can of lentils (another substitute. I worried about cooking them from dried for Wayne, whose idea of a perfect bean is the black textureless paste of refried).

I mashed things up a bit with a potato masher, stirred in salsa (1/4 to 1/2 of what the recipe called for) and supper was done. It was 4:45 p.m. The sun was still shining. Wayne wasn’t even home from the passport office yet. There was still tupperware to be pulled from the tupperware cupboard! Score one for Marion Cunningham.

I turned off the lentils, turned up Booker T and arranged the accoutrements: fat slices of avocado, grated cheese for Wayne. I made a quick salad with the marinated onions you’ve heard me talk about, and crawled around on the floor, growling along with the baby, till Wayne came home. He met the lentils with silence.

Here is supper, sun still shining.

I never did buy taco shells, so we ate our tacos as burritos in wholegrain wraps. Amigos, they were tasty.

And yes, Wayne really liked them, too.

He said he would have liked them better if they’d been served with chopped tomatoes for juiciness and brightness to balance the depth of the lentils (and – well done, Wayne – the recipe actually calls for them, but I was out). He thought a fresh chopped salsa would also work – it’s something we used to make all the time, out of tomatoes, salt, pepper, a little olive oil, chopped green onion and cilantro.

Appraisal: success. Tasty, vegetarian, no special shopping – and low-maintenance. I haven’t eaten supper that early since 1992!

This recipe goes on the remember-to-make-after-returning-to-work-and-the-shit-hits-the-fan list – along with a similar recipe for just as quick enchiladas from Chatelaine, which are crazy-yummy and always satisfy my takeout craving. (When you click to it, you’ll see it’s a beef recipe that includes a veg substitution.)

And now over to you, Marion. Your favourite meatless Mexican mains for Wayne, please – for whom the Year of the Bean has only just begun.

I just heard tell from EB – an onion-, salt- and orange-lover – that my blood-orange salad was not divine. Merciful kingdom! Though it wasn’t the recipe: Her oranges were bland, she noted. Another reader, tee, said hers too were substandard, suffering from dryness.

It would be responsible of me not to issue a warning right this moment: If your blood oranges aren’t so good on their own that they make you keel over, lose your footing, and crack your head on the kitchen floor, please do not attempt that salad. It contains only two ingredients and, as with so much classic Italian cooking, if they aren’t the best you can find, you’ll taste it. The ingredient list tends to be short and discerning, and there’ll be nothing to hide behind.

Part of me wonders if my particular blood oranges were so damn fine because they were organic. Surely I’m not the only one who can taste the difference (or who lives and dies by the state of their fruit bowl).

Organic bananas are definitely sweeter and more banana-y than the regular ones. The strawberries – no contest. They’re like the Godhead’s dream of what strawberries taste like.

That said, while I wouldn’t make the blood-orange salad without superlative blood oranges, I can’t always buy organic everything, for reasons that don’t need explaining. If you too find yourself wondering where to draw the line, have a look at this cheat sheet from my favourite green expert, Gill Deacon. It reveals which fruit and veg land a spot among The Dirty Dozen (those whalloped by pesticides) and which ones are less heavily sprayed. It’s formatted darlingly to be wallet-sized, so you can keep it handy on shopping trips. Did you know, for instance, that lettuce is far more likely to be drowned in pesticide than tomatoes are? When I make a simple tomato sauce with nothing but tomato and onion, you know I’m buying organic. For a vat of chili in the middle of winter? Not so much.

So, no second-string blood oranges, though go ahead and fudge it with your avocado and your mango – or the tomater in your sloppy Joes for boring old non-Olympic hockey night (suckers!).

Coming up tomorrow: the great meatless taco experiment. Someone please tell the vegetarian I live with who doesn’t eat legumes (or read this blog) that he’s been warned, however obliquely.

He came storming into the kitchen this afternoon – you know who it was; it could only be Wayne, also known as the Lurker – on a vicious tear after feeling ruthlessly taunted by the food-related status updates of my friends on Facebook.

“They have chips and chili. They’re drinking beer.” Grumpy silence. “Nachos,” he added sadly. “Probably wings.”

It was Wayne at his lowest.

“I’m eating a pear, and my next snack is going to be what? Blood orange. And I’m watching the only hockey game I’ve ever watched in my life.”

That was the problem. We aren’t sporty, Wayne and me. I have often bragged that I married one of the only men in town who would never willingly watch a sporting event on television. Oh the fine bohemian times we’ve had when other suckers were glued to the endless loop of pucks and points and goals and penalties.

But the Olympics hooked us, and the big game drew us in today. Other people’s snacks, however, were just too much proof that we were game-day amateurs.

Wayne even confessed that, moments before faceoff, he considered heating up Indian curry paste and putting it on bread. The vengeful sports gods were  laughing at us; they’d been waiting for this day.

So I did what a good wife does. I dug past tupperwares and a bag of oats to the hidden back corner of the fridge and produced a surprise beer for the love of my life. It seemed to take the edge off. And then I suggested, “Popcorn.”

Wayne made a bowl of his signature corn, air-popped and drizzled with butter, salt and garlic, heated up on the stove in a little saucepan. Today he used garlic powder, but he usually crushes a few cloves of fresh garlic into the butter. Sometimes he adds cayenne for kick, or thyme if he’s in the mood.

We ate it quickly by the mittful while the baby sucked on my camera; it was the only way to distract him from the popcorn he couldn’t have and for us to take in the game with as little effort as possible.

That baby! He chewed on my little camera so voraciously, the display won’t work now. Takes after his folks. And surely a gold-medal appetite is something to celebrate.

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Words of Wayne

Look at what Wayne discovered on his breakfast plate (medium: banana string). It's the Playboy Banana. I ask you, Dr. Freud: How does he find this stuff? If he could have, he would have put it in his cherished Food Oddities mug, along with the treble-clef pretzel and the Bill Clinton potato chip.


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