Saturday, July 28, 2012

Chocolate for lunch (and maybe breakfast too)

When I was a kid, one of my favourite sandwiches involved peanut butter and chocolate sprinkles. Yes. Chocolate sprinkles. But not the cheap candy ones you can get anywhere. I grew up with Dutch chocolate hagelslag, which have a richer chocolate flavour and are required to contain at least 35% cocoa to bear the name. Like just about everything in your life when you’re a kid, this seemed completely normal. I’d eat them on sandwiches, on toast, or on Dutch beschuit rusks (twice-baked, crunchy bread).  It wasn’t until I brought one of these sandwiches to school and was met by confused stares that I realized it wasn’t the norm for most people.

This is probably a good time to mention that I’m not even Dutch, a fact that only added to my classmates’ confusion. My grandfather worked for the Canadian government and as a result my mom’s family lived all over the world. The Netherlands happened to be one of those places and for one reason or another, those traditions stuck more than others. We snack on hagelslag and stroopwafels (thin waffle cookies pressed together with a syrupy center), receive chocolate letters in our stockings at Christmas, sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in Dutch, and those with underdeveloped taste buds devour double salt—dubbel zout—licorice. (I am not one of them. Imagine a black licorice jujube, but throw in a teaspoon of salt. Disgusting.) 

But back to the chocolate sprinkle sandwiches. In the Netherlands people eat hagelslag on bread for breakfast the way other people eat toast with jam. The website for De Ruijter, makers of fine hagelslag since 1860, will tell you that the average Dutch person consumes about 1 kilogram of chocolate hagelslag per year, that it’s the most popular condiment in the country, and that said country will eat more than 600 million chocolate hagelslag sandwiches a year. I would fit right in.

It seems to have developed out of nowhere, and for a country whose food culture was born of fishing and farming, it’s a bit of an anomaly. With meals heavy on pea soup, meat, potatoes, and the occasional cheese, the chocolate sprinkles look wildly out of place.

Yet with that in mind, another kind of sprinkle made of anise seeds coated in sugar (muisjes) appeared in Dutch tradition as early as the 17th century. Anise was believed to promote lactation, so muisjes were eaten to celebrate the birth of a child, and coloured pink and blue accordingly. Muisjes translates to mice and the name comes from the anise stem that sticks out of the tiny sugar ball like a tail. And, yes, they were eaten just as their chocolate counterparts—on a slice of bread or a beschuit. Who needs cigars when you have sprinkles on toast?

Whatever the origin, they still make a fantastic sandwich. I’ve eaten my fair share of muisjes as well, but the chocolate remains my favourite. There’s something that feels a bit naughty about eating chocolate sprinkles as part of a meal that isn’t dessert, something satisfying and playful. And maybe that’s the key to their origin. In a country with such practical staple foods, people wanted something a bit more fun.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An old standby

Today I'm going to tell you about couscous. It's easily one of my favourite things to eat. It's versatile, delicious, and--you guessed it--real easy. One of the greatest things about couscous, assuming you're using the instant variety typically found at your local grocery store, is it can be ready in less than ten minutes. 

Instant couscous is pre-steamed and dried and only requires boiling water. You pour 2/3 cup of couscous into every 1 cup of water, stir, cover, remove from heat, and let stand for five minutes. Voila! Couscous. Ready to eat once you fluff it with a fork.

Now couscous by itself, boiled in plain water, can be rather bland, but this is where its versatility comes in. You can cook it in vegetable stock, chicken stock, beef stock (any stock really), orange juice, and the list goes on. I think you could probably cook it in any potable liquid. It will take on the flavours it's cooked in.

Made of semolina, couscous is an important food in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya, where it is steamed, rather than boiled like the instant variety. In this case the vegetables and meat are cooked as a stew while the couscous sits in a steamer above it, absorbing the flavours. The pairing with meat and vegetables is common in the above countries, though in Egypt it is often served as dessert with sugar, cinnamon, raisins, nuts, and cream. It also makes a great salad.

Like I said: versatile.

Unfortunately I don't have any pictures for you today. The salad I made was eaten so quickly that by the time I remembered to take one, it was gone. This salad is perfect in the summer when it's too hot to really cook anything, and you're looking for something light. It's made with oranges which serves to add a tangy, refreshing quality to it.

I wish I had a more clear-cut recipe for you, but it's one of those things that I kind of just throw together with whatever I happen to have lying around. So I'll give you my best estimates, but just know that you should adjust them however you see fit. The dressing is more accurate.

Orange Couscous Salad

2/3 cup couscous, uncooked
1 cup chicken stock

1 can mandarin oranges or 1 fresh orange
1 or 2 large carrots, grated
1/2 cup slivered almonds
2/3 cup dried raisins or cranberries


1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp orange juice
1 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
1 tbsp water
1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp minced gingerroot
1/8 tsp ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste

Cook couscous according to directions on the box. If the ratios are different than what I listed above, use those ones.

Toss cooked couscous with oranges, grated carrots, almonds, and cranberries.

Whisk together all ingredients for dressing and add to salad. The recipe may provide more dressing than you need, so add a little at a time to ensure you don't drown your salad. It should coat it and add flavour, not turn it into soup. 

And that's it. Easier than pie. Change up any of the elements as you will. Try pine nuts or currants. Oftentimes I'm missing one of the ingredients above so I just make it without. It'll taste good anyway.

As for other recipes, there are plenty of them out there, so take a look around. It's great in place of rice or pasta with a meal. As for me I think I'd like to check out that Egyptian dessert couscous. I'll let you know if I find something worth sharing.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Cilantro Manifesto

There are few ingredients that receive hatred as vehement as that directed at cilantro. While many love it, there are those who would rejoice in its mass global extinction, would revel in watching it shrivel and burn to ashes. There’s even a blog dedicated to the loathing of cilantro ( And that is the real difference between hatred of cilantro and hatred of other oft-abhorred foods. People dislike Brussels sprouts, anchovies, and liver, but never as vocally and passionately as those who hate cilantro. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who love it. Very few people fall into the indifferent middle ground.

Cilantro has several aliases, one of them being Chinese parsley, and another being coriander, though the latter tends to refer to the milder seeds, which aren’t subject to the same level of aversion. This Mediterranean native is common in South American, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese cooking, and considered one of the most global herbs. It is found in a number of chutneys, curries, salads, and the ever-popular guacamole, bringing with it a distinct and citrusy flavour.

So why then, do people hate it so much? Why can you find negative comments on this herb as far back as 1600, lingering in the pages of English garden books and French farming books? What exactly inspired Julia Child’s desire to, as she put it, “throw it on the floor”?

One common complaint is that cilantro smells and tastes like soap. Or stinkbugs, depending on how disparaging the critical person wants to be. In fact, some of the aldehydes (organic compounds) that make up cilantro’s fragrance are the same as those found in soap and the odour given off by some bugs. Scent, apparently, has a lot to do with it, more than the actual flavour. And it may not be that cilantro-haters simply dislike the smell; it may be that they can’t smell certain aromas, so whatever makes people love it is simply not present to those who hate it. Some studies even suggest that people may be genetically predisposed to finding it repulsive. So despising cilantro could be as much a fluke as whether or not you can roll your tongue.

Personally, I love cilantro. I love its distinct, sharp flavour, the way it announces its presence in a dish and contributes to a complexity that more than justifies its inclusion. I know plenty of people who would disagree. Vehemently. This weird food divide isn't likely to change anytime soon, but at least there's some explanation as to why.

Check out this article that was in the New York Times if you want to read more.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Simple yet satisfying

As someone who loves food, I actually do a pretty terrible job of feeding myself sometimes. Cooking for one can be difficult, especially if you don't want to be eating the same meal four days in a row in the form of leftovers. More often than not I find myself eating pasta with butter and parmesan cheese with an apple on the side or soft boiled eggs with toast. Not that I don't enjoy eating those things, it's just not very exciting. 

So every once in a while, when I find myself with a bunch of asparagus or some nice summer tomatoes, I endeavor to make myself something a little more interesting. That something will inevitably still be fast and easy and conducive to a single serving, but there will be a few more flavours at work.

A few days ago I roasted some asparagus. It's my favourite way to eat it. If you're careful not to leave it in the oven too long it retains a lot of its satisfying crunch. And I love when the heads of the spears get a bit crispy. Plus it's so, so easy. Drizzle with some olive oil, a bit of balsamic vinegar, some lemon juice if you feel like it, sprinkle with salt and pepper, even throw in a bit of sliced garlic if you happen to have some lying around. Put it in the oven at 350F and roast for about 5 or 10 minutes depending on your oven and depending on how cooked you like your asparagus.

I cut it into smaller pieces and threw it over spaghetti (which you don't need to butter due to the oil from the asparagus). What really made it though was the sauce I topped it off with. It was a tangy mustard concoction that brightened the whole thing, lifting it out of its rather mundane status of pasta with vegetables and turning it into something that actually felt like a proper meal.

To make the sauce, combine 3 tbsp of Dijon mustard, 1/4 cup of honey, 3 tbsp of lemon juice, and 1 tbsp of olive oil. Whisk it together and voila! Sauce for your asparagus. It could be used just over the asparagus as a side dish, but it works really well as a pasta sauce if used sparingly. And it keeps well in the fridge for several days.

So next time you're in a bind trying to make yourself a meal that is quick and delicious, simple yet satisfying, look no further than roasted asparagus with mustard sauce. You're going to love it. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

The love of food

Gluttony is an ugly word. It even sounds heavy; clunky and stunted on the tongue. And, sloth aside, it's cousins--wrath, lust, avarice, envy, and pride--are decidedly more glamorous. They offer far more romantic options to aid in a tumbling from grace.

And yet. Is there much that is more pleasurable than a truly delicious meal? The kind that has you savouring every bite as long as possible, holding it in your mouth to make the flavour last. The kind that compels you to shut your eyes and groan. The kind that has you scraping up every last morsel long after you're sated. 

Well. It would seem that gluttony and lust have a tag team on human pleasure. We've even gone so far as to label particularly spectacular pictures of food as "food porn". We, as a species, love food.

Somehow, though, maybe because of gluttony's position as a deadly sin, maybe because the word "pleasure" is so often paired with the word "guilty", we've come to feel, well, guilt-ridden when we eat good food. We've bought into the false notion that healthy food can't be delicious food, that if we're enjoying it there must be something inherently wrong about it.

To be fair, I think that is well on it's way to changing. We're becoming more knowledgeable about what we eat and what makes it taste good. We no longer rely solely on salt as a flavour additive, we're developing a sound wariness of excess sugar, and I know an impressive number of people who fall to pieces over their love of certain vegetables. So we're getting there. 

And let's be honest, we're never going to stop loving food. This is a good thing. If we love food we're more open to trying new things, more willing to search out the next spectacular flavour, more excited when we find that dish that is both mouthwatering and genuinely healthful. 

Speaking of excited, while perusing Orangette today (the blog that inspired me to start this one), I stumbled across Sprouted Kitchen. This food blog is dedicated to better tasting wholesome food. And oh is it gorgeous. The photography is nothing short of stunning, making me lament my lack of a better camera. Canon PowerShot, you're not cutting it. 

Sometimes that many photographs is a mark of inferior content, but in this case it isn't. Sara Forte writes with a casual elegance that is at once entertaining and accessible. The recipe instructions are clear and she offers them up as one method of doing things rather than as hard and fast rules. 

Since I only just discovered this wonderful source of whole food recipes, I haven't had a chance to try any of them yet. These lemon pancakes might be where I dive in. They look incredible, and they're gluten-free. Even though I can eat gluten 'til the cows come home without adverse effects, I know a few people that can't, so I'm always excited when I come across a gluten-free recipe that looks promising. 

My point here, if there is one, is don't feel bad about eating. Food should be enjoyable, pleasure without it's guilty associate. And if you want to treat yourself to a slice of chocolate cake or a box of donuts, find someone to share it with. Spread the love and cut the calories in half. And maybe don't eat the entire box in one sitting.