Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ancient Grains

I've been eating a lot of quinoa lately. For a long time it was one of those things that I heard a lot about, but had never really tried. I figured it was like rice or couscous, and, well, I already had rice and couscous, why would I need something else? But there's something satisfying about quinoa that you don't quite get with rice or couscous. Maybe it's the slight crunch it offers, or the subtle nutty flavour it adds to a dish. Or maybe it's the protein.

One of the reasons I've been eating so much quinoa, aside from appeasing my curiosity and finding that I really like it, is that's very high in protein. This is always good news when you're a vegetarian, and even better when you find out that it's a complete protein. For those who don't know, a complete protein contains all the essential amino acids in the desired amounts for growth and health, etc., and so forth. If you know your protein sources, you'll know that most complete proteins come from animal sources, whether that be meat, eggs, milk, or what have you. Very few vegetables, grains, or legumes contain the correct proportions of amino acids to qualify. But quinoa is one of them. (So is soy, for anyone interested). On top of that it's high in iron, calcium, and fibre. 

And did I mention that it's low fat and gluten free?

Now that I've bored you with the science, let me bore you with a bit of history. Quinoa was one of the staple foods of the Inca of South America. It's especially suited for growth in that climate, with much of the quinoa we eat today coming from Peru. The Inca held quinoa as sacred and called it the "mother of all grains" or chisaya mama. It's still a staple food in a number of South American countries including Bolivia and Ecuador.

Like all my best-loved foods, quinoa is very versatile. It can be used as a side dish, in salads, and even in baked goods. It's also really easy to cook. I'm going to send you over to the Kitchn for cooking instructions, because not only is it the best set of instructions for cooking quinoa that I've come across, they also have a lot of information about quinoa and accompanying recipes.

The first recipe that got me hooked was this salad, containing the asparagus I promised you in my last post. 

Asparagus, Tomato, and Quinoa Salad

1 cup uncooked quinoa
1 bunch asparagus
1 cup halved cherry or grape tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
goat cheese


1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper

Cook the quinoa according the directions from the site linked above. I would recommend rinsing the quinoa first. It really does make a difference. As someone notorious for skipping steps, I would not recommend skipping that one.

Remove tough ends of the asparagus, blanch in boiling water for about 1 minute, and tranfer to an ice water bath to stop cooking. While that cools, whisk together dressing ingredients. 

Toss together cooled quinoa, asparagus (roughly chopped), tomatoes, and basil. Stir in dressing until evenly coated. 

And that's it. It keeps well in fridge. As you can see from the picture, I added chickpeas to mine to give it a little more substance as a meal. I also left out the basil, though that was more due to forgetfulness than anything else. I've made it a couple times without the dressing, and it's delicious either way. If you use soup stock to cook your quinoa it adds enough extra flavour to merit skipping the dressing. I also substituted diced red pepper for the cherry tomatoes, because try as I might, I really don't like tomatoes. 

This next dish was something I threw together one night for dinner. I had red pepper left over from the salad, as well as chickpeas, and a zucchini in the vegetable drawer. I sliced and halved the zucchini, chopped the red pepper, and sauteed them with some olive oil and rosemary.

Start the red pepper first, as it will take longer to cook, and add the chickpeas and quinoa to the skillet at the end to warm everything through.

And dinner is served. It would make an excellent side to meat or fish as well, if you want to add some animal protein to your meal. 

Of course you could use any vegetables you like, or black beans instead of chickpeas.

It's one of my new favourite things to eat, especially when I'm in a pinch for something quick. I like to make a pot of quinoa and keep it in the fridge so I can add whatever I want when I feel like it. 

Apparently the UN has declared 2013 the year of quinoa, whatever that means. So, you know, jump on the band wagon. It's pretty great over here. Delicious and nutritious.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Summer Vegetables

The last couple days have been absolutely gorgeous. It's my ideal weather really. Some may find it a little on the cool side, but I think it's perfect. Not so hot that it's unbearable, but it's warm. With a cool breeze if the sun starts to beat down a little too strongly. 

The best part about the warmer weather though is the fresh produce. Winter produce always tastes a little...boring. You can tell it came from far away. It doesn't have the fullness of flavour that comes from something that's in season. Most notable right now as far as seasonable vegetables are concerned is the asparagus. You can find it just about everywhere and I'd recommend getting it while it's in season. It really does taste so much better that way. 

And it's so easy to prepare: grill it on the barbecue, broil it with a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper or a squeeze of lemon juice, or blanch it and throw it over pasta, quinoa, lettuce. The possibilities are endless.

Now, I feel like all this talk of asparagus might be midleading. I'm not actually going to give you a recipe for asparagus (although I do have one that I'll share at a later date). This one actually involves red bell pepper and zucchini (one of my other favourite summer vegetables), though I mention asparagus because it would work just as well and I think you should try it.

I was rather tired one night and didn't want to put that much effort into my dinner. Honestly, that's me most nights and simple is always the best bet. I had a zucchini, half a red bell pepper, some goat's cheese, and black beans. I diced and sauteed what I needed of the vegetables, tossed the black beans in at the end to warm them up, and then threw the whole thing over spaghetti. I crumbled the goat's cheese on top and just like that I had dinner.

It was delicious. Fresh and filling and just what I needed that night. I've made several slightly different iterations of this recipe over the last two weeks, sometimes without the beans, sometimes with chickpeas; once over gnocchi instead of spaghetti and once with tomato sauce thrown into the mix. The point is: it's very versatile. Mushrooms would make a nice addition. You could throw in chicken or tofu if you want something a bit meatier than beans for protein.

About beans though. I've been throwing them over everything from pasta to salad to quinoa. I was never one to eat a lot of meat to begin with. I find cooking it a pain and frankly it's expensive. However, since going the more or less vegetarian route, since applying that label to my diet, I've been more conscious of getting my protein. And beans are a great way to do that. You can add them to almost everything and they are delicious. I would eat most of them right out of the can.

Anyway, I feel like this post might be a little disjointed. I apologize for that, my brain feels a little all over the place right now. The point of all this is that it's summer, and the weather is nice, and the produce is delicious right now. It's really easy to throw together a good meal when you have such fresh vegetables available to you. Dinner doesn't have to be complicated, it doesn't have to be fancy, but it should taste good while it does it's job of nourishing you. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Taste of India: Street Style

Well I did abandon this for a while didn't I? Sorry about that. I don't really have any reason for it. Just neglect and laziness. I've even been eating some pretty delicious things lately, I just haven't actually sat down to tell you about it. So let's start with something short and simple. With something I didn't actually cook.

I went to grab a bite to eat with my sister and her friend yesterday. We popped into this little Indian place on Yonge Street, just south of Bloor, called TKRE, which stand for The Kathi Roll Express. It hasn't been open for very long and it's one of those places that, from the outside, you could miss completely. 

You hit the order counter the moment you walk in, where everything is prepared for order in front of you. They even make the whole grain wraps - Indian-style flat bread called parathas - in store. Past the counter is a sizeable sit-down area colourfully decorated with logo-painted table-tops, graffiti laden backsplashes, and old Bollywood film posters. 

The gentleman at the counter, who I believe is also the owner, gave us a rundown of the menu and explained the concept behind the store. He was very enthusiastic about the food and more than willing to answer any questions we had. It's a rare thing to get such attentive service at what is essentially a take-out joint. You can tell that he cares and wants you to enjoy the food. He has based the menu on street food you'd find in various parts of India, namely Kolkata and Mumbai. The rolls are filled with anything from chicken to lamb to chickpeas, and then doused in a house-made hot sauce that has just enough kick to be called spicy, but not so much that I couldn't eat the whole thing. They come in two sizes, mumbo or jumbo, depending on the size of your appetite.

I purchased the Achari Paneer roll (paneer is an Indian pressed curd cheese), one of several vegetarian options, along with a mango lassi. My two dining companions ordered chicken and lamb respectively, onions held on the chicken roll. We then took a seat and waited while they cooked our food.

The mango lassi was one of the best drinks I've tasted in a while. Thick and smooth and pure mango, no filler flavours. It was more or less like drinking a mango and it was delicious. The roll was equally tasty. As I said above, it has a good kick of spice to it, and the paneer was perfectly cooked for optimum texture. I got the mumbo size, which was perfect for how hungry I was, though if you're looking for something more dinner-sized, you'd probably want to go for the jumbo. 

Overall it was a great experience and I'll definitely be going back. As someone who's been a vegetarian now for about nine months, I can attest that it's difficult to find vegetarian fast food (though, to be fair, Indian cuisine usually has vegetarian options). TKRE has numerous veggie dishes, including a couple that are vegan, which is really refreshing. I'm especially interested to try the chickpea roll and their chai tea (whose origins are Indian). I'm also keen to get another of those mango lassis. 

So if you're in the Yonge-Bloor area and looking for a quick bite to eat, something that's a little different, check out TKRE. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, December 21, 2012

And now for something a little different

This is not the kind of post I usually make. It’s certainly not the first post I intended to make after being absent for so long. So, sorry about that. But I think it needs to be said. It feels important. So here goes.

Since I was a child Christmas has been inextricably tied to Ottawa. More specifically it was tied to a house—my grandmother’s house. It’s been quite a few years now since we had Christmas there. She moved to downsize and that last Christmas there feels distant. Yet whenever I think of going to Ottawa for Christmas the first image that comes to my mind is that front hallway, bathed in warm light as my parents, my sister, and I came inside from a snowy night after a long drive from Toronto. For some reason that image is the strongest. That and the scent of fresh cookies or recently prepared dinner, and a smell that was unique to that place—a combination of my grandmother’s soap and perfume, and the mustiness of old books. A smell that still hasn't quite permeated the house she's in now.

When I was young it felt perfect. Christmas morning still held the magic of Santa-filled stockings and reindeer hoof prints in the snow on the deck. After breakfast the house would fill with the scent of roasting turkey, of stuffing, and onions cooking to perfection. The brightly lit tree would gradually shrink behind the growing mountain of gifts as family members arrived—so many of us that the dinner tables stretched from one end of the dining room to the middle of the living room. And we would all concede to wear the silly paper crowns from our Christmas crackers. 

The best part was always after dinner though—after the gifts, after dessert, after the scramble to snatch a brandy snap before they were all eaten. Somehow we would all end up in the living room, on the sofa, the armchair, the floor, the wooden wicker stools. That’s when the music would start. Whoever reached for their guitar first would lead us with Christmas carols, until we bored of those, and then moved on to songs unrelated to the holiday season—songs like ‘Paper Rosie’ and ‘Harvest Moon’ that now bizarrely recall Christmas whenever I hear them.

The last Christmas at that house felt like the end, like that house was the Mecca we arrived at every year and without it we’d ricochet in a hundred different directions, no longer sure of where we were supposed to be. I’d be lying if I said that Christmas has never been disappointing since we left. There were times I would wake up on Boxing Day and feel an aching loss because Christmas had fallen short, and in falling short almost ceased to exist. In the frenzied build up to the day I was holding every previous Christmas as a model for the present one. So if people bickered or snapped at one another, if there was palpable tension between certain family members, if we broke off after dinner into small groups that defied what I saw as our former unit, I felt robbed. 

I used to think it was that house, that being without it had somehow changed us. Until I realized that the changes to every subsequent Christmas were merely the symptoms of growing up; until I realized that it had nothing to do with the house and everything to do with the way we remember things—selfishly, imperfectly, yet with the conviction that our memories are accurate to the last detail. 

So I worry sometimes, about the pedestal we’ve put it on, this near-sacred holiday whose past burns so much more strongly than its present. I worry that we treat it with a reverence that will prevent us from ever being able to truly appreciate it as it happens. I wish we could always be aware that we have achieved something spectacular. So many families are broken and estranged, but here we are, every year, the lot of us. 

It’s not perfect. Some years people are absent, several of whom won’t come back, but I wouldn’t change any of it. Not for anything in the world. Because there’s a miracle there. In spite of it all—the arguments, the petty grudges, the harsh judgements brought against one another—we still gather every Christmas. And every Christmas there’s a moment, a moment when no one is bickering and maybe everyone’s smiling, when everything falls into place and embodies our hazy idealized memories. That is the moment that makes all the other bullshit worth it. Because we remember in that moment that we love each other and are nearly overwhelmed by all the reasons why. It is what drives us back to that place, not a house, but that place where we’re all together, and happy, and family in the truest most intimate sense of the word.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

More than just a pear

Dessert is one of those things we often reserve for special occasions. It's not really an every day thing, and if it is it usually involves milk and cookies or a bowl of ice cream. It's not that those two things aren't delicious, and they definitely function well as weekday dessert, but sometimes you need something a little different. Something more seasonal. Something with fruit. Maybe something poached.

This week in my produce box I received some gorgeous Bosc pears. My first instinct on beholding really firm pears is to poach them. Bosc pears hold their shape beautifully as the poaching liquid sweetens and softens them, spices them up a bit with whatever ingredients you choose. And I'd forgotten how simple they are to make.

I used David Lebovitz's comprehensive instructions for poaching pears, but I'll let you know which additions I used in the poaching syrup because they turned out perfectly. They even had my dad devouring them with enthusiasm and he's not usually one for dessert.

Along with the water and sugar I added a cinnamon stick, two anise stars, a teaspoon of cloves, three slices of fresh ginger, and about six allspice berries. The star anise rounds out the flavour by adding an element counter to the typical autumn spices, while the ginger added a gentle heat that just hovered on the edge of noticeable.

Once the pears were done I scooped them out with a slotted spoon and removed the spices so I could reduce the liquid to a syrup. It was all the pears needed, though they'd also pair well with spice cake or vanilla ice cream. I'm thinking a cardamom creme anglaise would also work. 

You can make these pears ahead of time and store them in the fridge in the poaching liquid. When you're ready to serve them you can reheat them in the liquid and then reduce the syrup. The pears will stay warm while the syrup reduces.

The best thing about these pears is how satisfying they are. They're sweet enough to indulge your dessert craving, but light enough to follow a large meal. And they're so easy. They offer maximum flavour with minimal effort. They're simple enough to serve after a weekday meal, but impressive enough to serve guests at a dinner party. And they are the perfect end to a crisp autumn day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Autumn acorns (squash, that is)

This week I'm going to talk to you about acorn squash. I'd meant to talk to you about it last week, but such is my life. Anyway. I used this recipe, from the website Sprouted Kitchen (which I've talked about in a previous post), and I'm happy to report it was a success. I'm looking forward to working my way through the rest of the recipes on that site (or possibly purchasing the book they now have out).

I used acorn squash because it was what I had, but really any orange winter squash will do. Please be warned that these are very hard to cut. I'll be honest, I was expecting it to be harder after the warnings from my mom requesting that I don't cut off my fingers, but I also have a very large, very sharp, mildly terrifying chef knife of the slasher flick variety. If you have one of those, you're in luck. 

I followed the recipe for roasting the squash exactly, though I probably should have let it go in the oven a bit longer. Next time. Make sure yours is very brown and caramelized around the edges.

As for the quinoa, true to form, I was missing half the ingredients required to follow the recipe exactly. Even truer to form, I wasn't about to go the store just for the sake of getting those ingredients. 

As it happens, my sister doesn't like shallots, so I'd be leaving those out anyway, and I had a slightly overripe Macintosh apple that substituted for the pear. I left out the basil entirely because I didn't even have it dried, and I used chard instead of spinach. It was still delicious.

The cardamom adds an interesting layer of flavour against the maple-glazed squash and holds up well to the apples and the tangy lemon dressing that the whole concoction is tossed in. I wish I could pin point what exactly it is about cardamom that I like so much, but I have trouble finding other flavours to compare it to. It's one of my favourite spices, though, and maybe that's why. It's unique and distinct, but subtle, unlike, say, cilantro.

That being said. Make sure you have some ground cardamom on you. You know. The kind that's already ground. To save yourself cracking open cardamom pods and attempting to crush the solid little seed-like insides. Definitely not my typical lazy chef route.   

Another note regarding my recipe alterations. The original calls for baby spinach and says not to add it until your quinoa has cooled a bit. I disregarded that instruction with the chard. Chard, like kale and full-grown spinach, benefits from being cooked so it's not as tough and the flavours mellow out a bit. So I mixed it in right off the bat letting the remnant heat from the quinoa wilt it. 

It turned out better than I expected, to be honest, what with all the changes I made, and what I really want to emphasize with this post is the wiggle room you have with recipes. Especially when it comes to cooking. 

Baking is more precise, and I wouldn't recommend playing with your flour, butter, sugar, and leavening ratios if you don't have a solid grounding in how they work together, but something like quinoa salad, or stir fry, or pasta sauce, is just begging to be played with. To be altered to your tastes. Yes, there are classic combinations. But more often than not you'll be able to find a suitable, similar replacement for an ingredient you don't have.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Simple little things

This week I got my first delivery of produce from Fresh City Farms. So far it's been great. The spinach has been a tasty accompaniment to scrambled eggs and starred alongside a vibrant red tomato in last night's bacon and tomato sandwich (bacon from Rowe Farms, of course). I have an acorn squash waiting to be doused in maple syrup for roasting, some rainbow carrots whose fate will also likely involve maple syrup (guess what my next food purchase will be), and kale that I will without a doubt turn into more kale chips.

However, the true star of this bundle of produce so far has been the grapes. I know. I was surprised too. I had been meandering through life only ever eating your standard issue red and green grapes. So when I saw the basket of purple Coronation grapes, the only interesting thing I noticed about them was that they resembled every depiction of grapes I've ever seen in still life paintings and portraits of Greek gods. 

Well. There is a reason Greek gods were eating them in such copious amounts. 

Okay, so actually they're a specifically Canadian grape related to the Concord grape, but they're easily the best grapes I've ever eaten. Suddenly I understand where the grape flavour in candy comes from. Only this version isn't drowned out by cloying sweetness. They have a pleasant tanginess and are bursting with juice. I've been grabbing a handful every time I go into the fridge. I just can't resist them.

So my suggestion to you is, go find some Ontario Coronation grapes. If you happen to like grapes, you won't be disappointed.

Alongside the grapes I also received a little bag of organic cranberries from Quebec. Since Thanksgiving is on Monday, I thought I'd give you this recipe for cranberry sauce. It is almost stupidly easy. As I was making it my sister wondered why everyone doesn't make their own cranberry sauce. She poses an interesting question.

It's actually so easy that I can't come up with any logical, satisfying reason why people buy canned cranberry sauce. At this point I think it's just something we assume comes in a can. It's how we know it, and maybe our grandparents still make it from scratch, but we're used to it being in a can, so that's how we buy it. However, since frozen cranberries are available year-round, you have no excuse once I give you this recipe. Are you ready for it?

The Easiest Cranberry Sauce

8 oz (about 2 cups) cranberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
zest of one orange (optional)

Throw it all in a pot, bring it to a boil, and turn down the heat to cook it for another 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it looks like cranberry sauce.

That's it. Seriously. That's it. You don't even have to do anything to the cranberries. The most difficult part of this is zesting the orange and I'm giving you full permission to skip that step if you want. It would easily double (or triple even if you have a giant family who can't get enough of their cranberry sauce), but this would probably be plenty for your average sized dinner of about eight people.

Since I got a few oranges with my delivery, the only thing not organic about this cranberry sauce is the sugar. Not too bad I'd say. And did I mention it's delicious? Bright and tangy, with just the right amount of underlying sweetness and the subtlest hint of citrus. I will never purchase cranberry sauce again as long as I live.

Hopefully you get a chance to try it this weekend. I promise it will only take about 15 minutes of your time. And lets face it, it earns some bragging rights, doesn't it? Homemade cranberry sauce. 

Anyway. Enjoy the weekend. Enjoy the weather. Enjoy the turkey feast. Happy Thanksgiving!