Category Archives: Vegetarian

Avocado Buttermilk Dressing

Ohhhh just another recipe ok? This one is quick and easy. I am home nursing my little me, waiting for antibiotics to take effect;  a bit of an impromptu day of R&R allowing me some play time on my blog between naps! YAY!!!

What is this gorgeous electric green creamy liquid? It is  Avocado Buttermilk Dressing! It is really oooooohhhh and aaaaaahhhh worthy! This is a no non-sense recipe and super quick to execute  if you have everything on hand, such as a ripe avocado!!! Grab your favourite squisher/pulverizing tool: power blender, Nutribullet™, food processor, it don’t matter. Throw in the flesh of 1 avocado (peeled and stoned of course), ½ cup buttermilk (or: yogurt, kefir, nut milk, you get the drift), 2 tbsp good oil, 1 medium garlic clove, the juice of one juicy lime (use 2 if the limes are juice stingy), a handful of fresh cilantro, stems and all, plus salt and pepper. Crank the power on until smoooooothhhh. You can add water if it’s too thick to pour. Ta da! I will be smothering my shrimps and salad with this hot number. Or dipping my crudités in it. Or dropping by the spoonful over tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas… Olé!

Surprisingly enough, this dressing will keep about 5 days in the fridge without browning…

Avocado Buttermilk Dressing
Avocado Buttermilk Dressing

 

Zucchini “Noodles” with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Halloumi

Making “noodles” out of zucchinis is actually pretty easy. The only catch? You need the right tool called a Spiralizer. When I bought mine on impulse, I was worried it would become one of those gadgets that end up taking too much kitchen real estate space, collecting dust to finally end up in a garage sale somewhere… NOT! I love my Spiralizer and I use it more often than I thought I would. “Spiralized” vegetables are not just limited to make grain-free noodles; they can elevate salads to a new level! My White Turnip and Celery Leaves Salad is a family favourite: using the spiralizer to turn tender and sweet white turnips into a guest worthy salad!

Although the tool may feel awkward at first, it is super easy to operate and just as easy to clean. I recommend buying a good quality spiralizer: there is nothing more frustrating to have a tool that doesn’t perform because the built and the blades are cheap. Mine is German-made and I am very happy with it overall.

This recipe is super easy to make and should take less than an hour to complete. The instructions may seem long but only because I am trying to provide detailed step-by-step instructions on zucchini noodles making. I have tried several different ways to shorten the process, hoping to find a magical shortcut and skip the need to sweat the zucchinis. No can do: zucchinis have a high water content and unless you like watered down and soggy vegetables, going through the step of sweating zucchinis is a must. And although it may seem like a big job, it really is no «sweat» at all, pun intended!!! The zucchinis will loose a lot of volume after going through the sweating stage. So much so that it inspired me to try this on myself: I sprinkled tons of coarse salt all over my body and set myself to sweat for a while. Sadly, I didn’t reduce in volume at all. Darn! Okay, silliness aside: back to the business of sweating zucchinis, not people!!!  In order to have enough noodles to feed 4 as a side dish, 4 large zucchinis may do the trick but I recommend using 6.

What you need
4-6 medium to large size zucchinis
Coarse sea salt
2 cups cherry tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, minced
Olive oil
8 oz Halloumi cheese*, sliced ¼ inch thick
½ tsp sugar
Salt and pepper

Tools:
Spriralizer
Colander
Salad spinner (optional)
2 clean dish towels, cotton is best
1 baking sheet, lined with parchment or silicone matt
1 large frying pan

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Westmark Spiralizer

How to make it

  1. Preheat oven to 450°F. I use «Convect Roast» function and place the rack on the second row from the top.
  2. Using the spiralizer, turn all your zucchinis into long noodle like strands. If your spiralizer offers different sizes, use the smallest one11975285_10156025954200125_518589782_o.
  3. In batches, sprinkle the zucchini noodles with coarse salt all over. Place in a colander set over a deep bowl or dish to catch the water. Set aside12041214_10156025953930125_2054176187_o
  4. Meanwhile, slice the cherry tomatoes in 2 and spread on baking sheet. Sprinkle with the sugar, a bit of salt, pepper and about 2 tbsp of olive oil. Toss well to coat all the tomatoes with oil, spread evenly and place in oven. Roast until the tomatoes start to caramelize and the skins start to turn a nice deep brown. The tomatoes should render a fair bit of juice by then, which is a good thing. Over roasting the tomatoes will yield a beautifully intense paste that can be used for many things but not ideal for this particular recipe. Depending on the water content of the tomatoes, roasting can take from 20 to 40 minutes. I set my timer on and I start checking at the 20-minute mark and then in 5 minutes increments until I notice the tomatoes starting to yield some juice while having turned a nice caramelized colour. Remove from oven and set aside.
  5. Slice the Halloumi cheese in ¼ inch thick slices. Halloumi is salty and a little goes a long way. Using the frying pan over medium-high heat, fry in batches in a bit of olive oil until a deep golden crust forms. Flip and fry the other side. Set aside on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil.
  6. Time to tend to the zucchini noodles: rinse the noodles under cold running water to remove as much salt as possible. Shake as much of the water off as you possibly can. I use my salad spinner to spin off excess water. For best results, spin the zucchinis in 3 or 4 batches. Lay both tea towels one on top of the other and spread the zucchinis in the center, length wise. Roll the towels tightly, bring over the sink and squeeze the excess water out. It is surprising how much eater will come out.The zucchinis may flatten slightly but that is okay and this will not affect the end result. I recommend squeezing the zucchinis in 2 batches.
  7. At last, the quick and easy part! Now that all the pieces of the puzzle have been  aligned, it is time to assemble the dish. Return the frying pan to the stove top. Heat about 2 tbsp of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the zucchinis and toss quickly until slightly browned. Reduce heat to medium, add the cherry tomatoes, scrapping all the luscious juices from the bottom of the baking sheet. Add in the minced garlic toss together a few minutes until the garlic has cooked down and mellowed. Add the Halloumi, let heat up a minute or two, taste for seasoning and serve! This is seriously divine.

 

Now that you are a pro at making zucchini noodles, your mind is probably racing with all the possibilities right? Think pine nuts, basil, pesto, grilled shrimps, creamy Alfredo… Yup, zucchini noodles can take you there: the perfect vehicle to pasta everything minus the calories.

*What is Halloumi? It is a Middle Eastern cheese that is perfect for frying. It is squeaky, salty and does not melt when heated. It is very easy to find Halloumi in Ottawa: most grocery stores carry this cheese, usually in the deli section.

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Variation: yellow and green zucchini noodles with marinara sauce and fresh bocconcini

Reconnecting with Some Old Roots: Roasted Vegetable, Walnut and Cheese Rotini

As the price of fresh and out of season produce continues to soar here in Ottawa, I have been trying to be very creative cooking with good old roots. As much as I love our locally harvested root vegetables, I must admit that come this time of year, I crave (and often give in) to the tender greens that are shipped to us from faraway lands. However, with our poor Canadian dollar getting such a beating these days, it is really difficult to justify the cost of certain “luxury” vegetables. Especially those shipped to us from the United States. I still manage to sneak in zucchinis, cucumbers, celery and cherry tomatoes now and then but for the most part, roots and winter squash are the main plant contributions to our meals.

This pasta toss was a creative way to bring a breath of fresh air to the table while utilizing a nice variety of root vegetables. Like most pasta dishes, this one is easy to make. The toasted walnuts added a nice crunch to the dish. My King and my younger Prince are known carnivores yet they each enjoyed seconds of this dish. Knowing my men, when they pass on seconds, I know the meal was not a huge hit and I should simply forget the recipe ever existed. Reaching for a second helping definitely spells success in the «tasty» department!

This is a great way to clean out the fridge: I gathered a bunch of roots that were in the crisper, trying to use up what I had on hand. My mix of the moment consisted of squash, sweet potatoes, purple & yellow carrots, sunchokes and a purple radish like vegetable (an unfamiliar root that came with my farmer’s basket delivery). I also had about 5-6 cauliflower florets (I know, such luxury!!!). I could have added parsnips, turnips and beets as well. Bottom line is to use what you have on hand. As long as you can gather 8 cups of cubed vegetables, you are good to go. The recipe calls for toasted walnuts which can be replaced by your favourite nut or you can omit all together. That is the fun part of a recipe like this: what matters is the general idea, the rest is left to creativity!

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Roasted Vegetable, Walnut and Cheese Rotini

What you need:

  • 1 lb. rotini – any pasta will do (450-500g)
  • 8 cups assorted root vegetables, peeled and cut into cubes
  • ¼ cup oil*
  • 1 tsp each salt and sugar
  • A generous sprinkling of pepper
  • 1 package Boursin™ cheese* (approximately 1 cup)
  • 1 cup chopped or crumbled feta
  • 1 cup toasted walnuts
  • 1 to 1½ cup reserved pasta water
  • 2 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
  • ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper as needed

*oil: you may notice in the pictures the orange hue of the oil I used. It is organic cold extracted canola oil. I love to roast with this oil because the vegetables turn a beautiful shade of gold and it also has a light nutty taste. Use whatever neutral tasting oil you have on hand. Good choices are grape seed oil, avocado oil and sunflower oil

*Boursin™ cheese: it may not be available in your area. Boursin™ is a soft and creamy herb and garlic fresh cheese. You can substitute with any herb and garlic soft cheese or even ricotta. If using ricotta, I recommend adding 1-2 minced garlic cloves to the cheese.

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How to do it:

  1. Preheat oven to 450°F
  2. Peel and cut hardy vegetables in cubes. Aim to gather 8 cups of cut vegetables
  3. Toss with oil, salt, sugar & pepper and spread onto large baking sheetimage
  4. Roast in oven for 40 to 50 minutes, until the vegetables start to turn deep brown without burning. Remove from oven and set asideimage
  5. While the vegetables are roasting, set a large pot of salted water to boil. Then chop feta cheese, chop parsley and grate the parmesan cheese. Set these aside
  6. Spread walnuts on another baking sheet and add to the oven. The walnuts will take no time at all to toast because the oven is already set to such a high temperature. Maybe 5 minutes or so. Check the walnuts frequently: burnt walnuts taste very bitter. Once the walnuts start to turn golden brown, from the oven. Crumble or coarsely chop once cool enough to handle
  7. Cook pasta according to package instructions. Once the pasta is cooked,  reserve 2 cups of the cooking liquid before draining. Set aside then drain pasta well.
  8. Return the empty pot to the stove and turn heat off. Add the Boursin™ and 1 cup of the reserved water. Blend until the cheese has melted together with the water into a sauce. It will be thinner than you expect. Return the drained pasta to the pot, stir well to coat. Add extra water as needed. I used an additional half a cup of water: I found 1 cup was quickly absorbed and the pasta was a bit dry.
  9. Toss the vegetables, feta, walnuts and parmesan with the pasta, reserving a little of each ingredient to garnish. Transfer the pasta into a large serving bowl. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed. Add the reserved garnish. Sprinkle with parsley and a few more sprinkle so parmesan.

This dish is delicious piping hot and is equally delicious served cold, as leftovers for lunch for instance.image

Happy New Year Recipe – Freekeh Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

Resolutions, diets, cleanses, gym memberships… It is that season right? And by now, as mid-January quickly approaches, some of the lofty goals set for 2016 while under the influence of a great too many drinks on the Eve don’t seem to make so much sense anymore right? New Year Resolutions are often such epic and drastic plans of self-makeovers, they almost seem impossible to achieve. Especially without a solid plan of attack in place. Are your resolutions already simmering on a back burner? Or are you procrastinating jumping in? I personally find New Year’s Eve resolutions so… Hmmm… So restrictive? So absolute? So unforgiving? Almost like setting ourselves up for failure on improvements we want to see happen but have not yet been able to conquer… Personally, I am not fond on New Year’s Eve celebrations: I have always found the farewell to the past year very anticlimactic as we often decide to change the very things we wanted to change the previous year. And by the time December 31st rolls around, I am completely partied out. My stomach has a hard time handling yet another puff pastry, cheese-filled, cream-laced, bacon-wrapped, sugar-coated treat. So by the time the clock strikes midnight on the first day of the new year and I force down that glass of really good champagne, I am so saturated that I feel ready to make the biggest resolutions ever to go on a cleanse, eat only veggies, lose X number of pounds and exercise every day!!! Until the vapors dissipate… Thankfully, with age, and dare I say wisdom, I have come to accept that the same old, same old New Year resolutions are actually more a work in progress than an entirely new and clean slate. Therefore, I propose to change the word resolution to evolution!

If you are anything like me, your budget is pretty dry right now from spoiling every one you love but yourself and your belly is probably a little bloated. Instead of removing every «forbidden» food item from my list on January first, I simply decided to continue with my evolution by giving myself a break from spending money on stuff while giving myself some much needed TLC. It is quite an accomplishment for me to have been able to maintain a healthy body weight over the last 2 years. Yes, there have been a few set-backs but overall, I am very pleased to say that I currently have a good grasp over my food demons. Well, maybe not always a good grasp as the Tales of December Feasts can tell… But it has been easy to rein myself in once all the parties stopped. My skin tone is revealing stories of late nights, excellent wines paired with just as excellent cheeses! My sleep patterns are also wonky. But heck, it was worth it! And I will probably succumb to another several rounds of feasting come December next year!!! Since it took a full 10 days of gorging to start feeling the effects of the Holidays tables’ plentifulness and decadence, I was expecting it would take at least a full 10 days before the gut started to stop «vibrating», swooshing and acting weird. As I am writing this, I can say the «healing» has begun!

The biggest challenge I will face with my evolution in the upcoming year is making quality time for this blog. My biggest hurdle is the lack of creative energy after I tend to all the «have to do» activities of daily life… Work is busy, home life is busy and social activities are busy. Since I am a tad perfectionist, I find it difficult to simply write a short intro to any recipe I may want to share. It has held me back from posting on this blog. More often than none, I create recipes, lay out the ingredients, and take fabulous pictures with my blog in mind. As these activities take place, I am excited and gong-ho with writing a fabulous piece for the blog. And then, the demands of life set in:  creativity vanishes! Soooooo for 2016, I will try to rein in my obsessive need to write what I feel is the perfect story and instead, share a bit more of the good stuff: the FOOD!

Without further ado, I am presenting to you my first recipe of the year. It was inspired by a new cookbook I received for Christmas: Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. There is a recipe in the book for stuffed portobello mushroom caps. Typical me, I bought the caps without looking at the rest of the ingredients. And typical me, I had to improvise to fill the caps since I was missing half the ingredients!!! Cooking the mushroom caps in the oven before stuffing was the only part of the recipe I «poached» from the book. The end result was very, very good! And I must say that these mushroom caps tasted even better the next day. Both the King and I agreed that the flavours matured tremendously with time. I made enough that we were enjoying them again 4 days later and they were still excellent, if not better.

As part of a healthy way of life, I try to keep my intake of grains to a minimum and concentrate on the really weird ones I have absolutely no idea how to prepare. One even has the name Freekeh. Freaky eh?

Freekeh Stuffed Portobello Mushroom Caps

What you need:

  • 1 cup freekeh*, well rinsed
  • 6 large portobello mushrooms
  • 3 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 2 leeks, white and light green parts only, finely chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and grated
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 5-6 Swiss chard leaves*
  • 2 tbsp fresh tarragon, chopped
  • 2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1½ cup grated cheese such as Gruyere, Emmenthal, and Gouda…

*Freekeh is a popular Middle-Eastern grain. It is actually green wheat that has been roasted. It is a good source of fiber and protein. It can also be replaced with any other favourite grain such as bulgur, barley, rice, quinoa… When substituting the grain, select one that is slightly sticky when cooked: you need the filing to bind well in order to stay in the mushroom caps. Freekeh has a lovely mild flavour. Once cooked, it is very tender yet still yields a bit of a chewy texture.

*Swiss chard: to easily chop Swiss chard leaves, remove stems, lay each leaf flat piling them one on top of the other. Roll all the leaves in a tight cigar looking shape. Cut slices, the thickness depends on how large you want the slices to be. You can replace Swiss chard with any other leafy green of your choice.

How to do it:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F
  2. Rinse freekeh well under cold water. Place in a large saucepan with plenty of salted water, 3-4 cups. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a very gentle boil, cover and cook for 20 minutes or until Freekeh is tender. Drain and rinse under cold water until grain is cooled. Set aside
  3. While the freekeh is cooking, line a baking sheet with parchment paper
  4. Clean mushroom caps, removing stems. Remove gills by gently scraping the inside of the cap with a spoon.
  5. Brush the inside of the caps with one tbsp olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place mushroom, inside caps up, on baking sheet and bake in oven for 20-25 minutes
  6. In large saucepan on medium heat, add the other 2 tbsp of olive and the leeks. Sauté until the leeks are tender and start to caramelize slightly. Add carrots, thyme, garlic, 1 tsp salt and cook until carrots start to soften, 4-5 minutes. Add white wine and cook until almost all evaporated.
  7. Add the Swiss chard to the saucepan and stir until wilted. Add about half of the reserved Freekeh* to the vegetable mixture. Add the fresh tarragon and the parsley. Remove from heat, taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed.
  8. Assembly: leave the mushroom caps on the baking sheet. Drain any liquid that may have accumulated in the caps during the cooking process. Using a large spoon or ice cream scoop, divide the filling between each of the mushroom caps. Shape with hands to form little mounds. Flatten tops slightly. Top each mushroom cap with ¼ cup of cheese.imageimage
  9. Bake in oven for 20-25 minutes or until the cheese has melted and starts to brown a bit
  10. This dish also keeps well for a few days: make great leftovers for lunches.

Happy Evolution!

Tapping Onto My Wild Side: “feuilleté de poireaux et champignons sauvages”

Seems a recent photo of mushrooms piled high in a skillet while making a little leek and wild mushroom appy made many salivate after I shared it on Instagram and Facebook! I have received a few requests for the recipe… Normally, and if I hope to share or blog a recipe, I plan a little better, taking proper measurements and jotting everything down as I go. I turn on the OCD part of my personality. Hence the reason why I do not post recipes as often as I wish… This was not one of those times… It was more like letting loose and allowing all the unchained creativity flow right out of me like I often do. I find I use recipes more as a source of inspiration as opposed to following them to a T unless the recipe calls for a new technique, is about baking, taps onto a food group or recipes I am unfamiliar with or originate from other cultures and countries than my own. One of my favourite things to do is scan my fridge and pantry at the end of the grocery cycle and whip up something using what I have on hand. Some work beautifully and if I am in that mood, I will jot down the recipe for later use. Some concoctions turn out «Meh» but are good enough to feed the fam without anyone gagging too much. Ok, slight exaggeration here but I can honestly say that once in a blue moon, some meals bomb right out… Yup, even in my home LOL! You know you didn’t nail it when left overs linger in the fridge until they become science experiments.

This «feuilleté de poireaux et champignons sauvages» is exactly the type of food I can whip up directly from brain to plate without measuring anything. It is such a classic French inspired preparation… I must have watched my mom make something similar many times over the course of my life. Anything in puff pastry becomes a gourmet dish right??? And unless someone doesn’t like mushrooms, this one in particular is always a crowd pleaser. French restaurants and Bistros often offer something or another “en croûte”, “napoléon” or “feuilleté” to the delight of the diners. Since I “ad lib” this once from start to finish, I am sharing with you only in approximation ingredients measurements with the general order of prep but I warn you, this recipe is not precise. Now I have the utmost confidence in everyone and I am SURE most of you have enough kitchen skills to figure it out. I have added several photos which offer a pretty good idea of overall the quantities of each ingredient.

The Shrooms are in town!!! I selected an assortment of wild mushrooms since most are in season right now. You could make this using good old white button mushrooms as well. I also splurged on crème fraîche which is easy enough to find: Liberty™ makes one but if you can find an organic one, it is well worth the extra few $$$. No crème fraîche, no worries: heavy cream or whipping cream will do as well. This is NOT a calorie reduced appy. It is meant to be rich and sinfully delicious. You can substitute for low-fat everything but it won’t be the same.

You should have heard the Ooooohs and the Aaaaaahs at my dinner party…

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What you will need:

  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • About 1.5 to 2 cups of chopped leeks (white and light green part only)
  • 4 minced garlic cloves
  • A few sprigs of thyme
  • An assortment of mushrooms. I used several large chanterelles, a stryro flat of oyster mushrooms plus 3 other mushrooms I can’t remember the name but could pick out in a crowd if I had too, except picking my own in the real wild, that I wouldn’t trust LOL. Anyhow, one was a purple something and I heard it was rare although it was cheaper in price than the chanterelles. The others had Asian names but they were not shiitakes. Just have fun with the mushrooms and pick what is available and looks cool.
  • About 1/2 cup white wine
  • About 1 to 1.5 cups crème fraîche, plus a bit extra cream like half and half to loosen up if too thick
  • Salt, pepper, chopped parsley, fresh chives
  • Butter and olive oil, a generous dollop of each

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How to do it:

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  1. Quickly rinse mushrooms in water and lay them down on a thick kitchen towel. I don’t like to simply wipe the mushrooms as most chefs suggest: there is always grit that stays behind. The trick is to rinse quickly and not let the mushrooms soak in the water as they will absorb too much. Chop the mushrooms last to let the kitchen towel absorb most of the water.
  2. Chop everything ahead of time for a nice mise en place. Mushrooms should be left in big chunks or slices otherwise, they will be too blended. Mushroom lose a lot of volume during the cooking process
  3. In large skillet, melt butter and olive oil until it start to bubble a bit. Keep heat at medium.
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  5. Add shallots until soft then leeks, also until soft.
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  7. Add mushrooms, one kind at a time starting with the hardiest ones.
  8. Add garlic. Stir often. Add thyme, salt and pepper. Taste!
  9. Add wine and let reduce until liquid is nearly all evaporated. NB: You can make up to now and refrigerate until you are ready to serve your guests.
  10. Finishing touches just before serving: add crème fraîche and heat gently until it starts to bubble. Do not boil, just a gentle little froth of bubbles should appear on the edges. The preparation will thicken: loosen up if needed with cream, either half & half or heavy cream .
  11. Taste again but don’t eat it all right there and then, your guests are waiting hahaha! Add fresh parsley and chives.
  12. Serve on puff pastry shells which you would have baked prior. In this case, I bought frozen puff pastry sheets. I cut out rectangles which I lightly scored on top in a crisscrossed pattern and brushed some egg yolks on top. I baked them at 375°F for about 20 minutes, until they became golden brown. After they had cooled down, I used a thin blade knife to separate the bottom and the top. At service time, lay the bottom of the shell on a plate, spoon on a generous amount of leek and mushrooms then crown with the top shell. Lay a few strands of chives and serve as is or with a quick salad of tender greens tossed in oil and vinegar.

 Tips:
Puff pastry shells: make ahead and keep in a metal baking dish topped with foil. Slide into the oven until ready to serve. It will keep the humidity out. Reheat at 200°F 15 minutes before serving
Slide your plates in the oven at the same time: warm plates are a nice bonus for this type of appetizer.

Pickle, pickle on the wall, who is the crunchiest pickle of all?

Perfectly lined mason jars on kitchen shelves have long ago cast a spell on me. There is something really, really attractive about fresh produce trapped behind glass. Gently shake the jars and watch the spices dance around appetizingly colourful vegetables: like a culinary snow globe…. Delicatessens with walls lined with big jars of bright peppers of all shapes and colours don’t need much else to instantly make the store more attractive, even if this sooooo old school! I love walking in a deli or a «charcuterie» and seeing those beautiful shiny glass jars. I dare anyone  to say they don’t nearly die with envy whenever they see a pantry or a cold storage busting at the seams with the bounty of summer captured «en pots de verre». Well maybe not everyone has that same infatuation as I do but I personally think that jams, jellies, preserves, pickled vegetables, ketchups and relishes are simply gorgeous! And delicious!

I have to admit that I am a novice when it comes to home canning. Although I have always wanted to preserve summer in mason jars, life seems to have managed to get in the way every single year. Between vacation time, work, upkeep of our summer home and a slew of social events, I always seem to miss the «perfect for canning timeline» of our short local produce season. I have made jam sporadically through the years and I have also canned tomatoes, marinara sauce and even made chunky ketchups a few times. But hard core canning and pickling have been more of a bucket list kind of activity: something I really, really want to do but can’t seem to find the time. I should also mention that beyond the lack of time, there is also a bit of an intimidation factor when it comes to home preserving. What if I mess it up and poison my entire family with botulism? What if I spend loads of hours and money and in the end, the stuff I make ends up tasting weird, or too vinegary or simply blahhhhh? My mom-in-law, the Queen Mother, used to can and pickle a fair bit and although most of her canned goods were really good, her pickles were not my favourite. And she would make so many jars we were sort of «forced» into eating mushy and bland pickles. I know, it sounds really awful writing this down especially since the Queen Mother was an excellent cook. Sorry, my lovely mom-in-law for «dissing» you publicly but it seems we all have our strengths and weaknesses right? Your plum jam was AMAZING!

So I decided it was time to toss aside intimidation and start educating myself on the subject matter of canning and preserving. A few years ago, I purchased a book dedicated entirely to this; maybe it was time I read it?  And as if reading my mind, Bon Appetit Magazine featured an entire article on food preservation in one of the summer issues. Beyond those 2 sources, I perused through my many cookbooks, numerous websites and read several blogs. I discovered many things I was not aware of; the most important bit of information I read was about the actual process of canning using either the hot bath method or a pressure canner. I didn’t even know there was even such an animal as a pressure canner, geez Louise! I must live in the dark ages… Or I should have read my book a long time ago… I was always leery of canning items that contained meat products, always wondering how they would fare with an immersion in boiling water. Hot water bath canning was the only process I knew and my knowledge was minimal at best using this method. Last fall, I had tried to can a few jars of home made soup which resulted in a huge disaster… Thank goodness all the lids popped up because of fermentation otherwise I shudder at thinking what gastrointestinal illness I would have plague my family with eeekkkkk!

Beside my new acquired knowledge of basic canning equipment, I also educated myself on which foods can be preserved using the simple boiling water bath method and which foods have to go through the hotter process provided by a pressure canner. Basically, the rule of thumb is the following: acidic foods with a Ph of 4.5 or lower, foods preserved in vinegar and fruits preserved with sugar (jams) can be canned using the hot water bath method. A pressure canner must be used for all non-acidic foods as well as meats and meat containing preparations such as soups. Since I do not own (yet) a pressure canner, I started to investigate this product. However I do own a pressure cooker but according to all the literature I have read, pressure cookers are not recommended for this job. Something to do with the ability of the cooker to reach and keep steady a very specific temperature. Since my pressure cooker does not have a temperature gauge, I think best not to try it… I also learned that pressure canners and glass-top stoves are not a very good match. Hmmmm, I have a glass-top stove so I guess I currently have to eliminate canning any foods that are not acidic until I find another solution. Unless I do all my canning at the cottage where I still have a good old fashioned electric coil cook top? Might be a good temporary solution but since I plan on updating that old stove (gas is not an option at the cottage or at my house), I am not sure that I will have the correct stove to pursue this activity in the future. So pressure canning is out for now and good old fashioned «jars in a hot bath» is in.

Equipment and proper technique aside, the other intimidating factor is the taste! I do not come from a long line of canners… And I have really only dabbled in jams, jellies, syrups and tomatoes in the past. So again, I read through countless articles and recipes on the art of pickling. The conclusion I came to? Just do it!!! The bottom line is that pickled vegetables are not rocket science. For pickling, all you need is a good brine of water, vinegar, salt, sugar and spices in the right proportions. Got it with Bon Appétit, thank you! Got it as well in the Bernardin book on preserving, awesome! So brine, check! Time to select those farm fresh veggies, herbs and spices, check! Again, not a biggie problem: for pickles, dill, garlic and pickling spices will do the trick! For my first attempt, I was quantity cautious just in case I messed up with the flavours; I opted to buy a small amount of cucumbers. Well, if one can call a half a bushel a small amount! I rolled up my sleeves, put on my «big girl pants» and dove right in. I was surprised with the entire experience… I thought this activity would be far more time consuming than it was. I jarred that half bushel of pickles in about 2 hours. Add the scrubbing of the pickles and cleaning up after, the entire «ordeal» took a little less than 3 hours. And I had set the entire day aside to make these, sheeezzzz!

Armed with new found confidence, I hoped to dabble in more pickling fun in the weeks to come. My wish was answered just this past week. We hosted an appreciation party at the lake for our beloved cottage neighbours. Since over abundance seems to be my thing when hosting events, I was left with an insane amount of freshly picked corn… I decided to make corn relish. Even if I was at the cottage and even if my kitchen there is smaller than you can even imagine. I didn’t have the traditional pickling spices (pre-made mix,  mustard seeds or celery seeds) on hand. I had however coriander seeds, fennel seeds, garlic and fresh cilantro. I also had onions and yellow and orange peppers, as well as vinegar, sugar and salt. I was not too sure how everything would turn out but it was worth a try… It was. As a matter of fact, the corn relish turned out so wonderfully delicious, my King said it should definitely be added to my blog! I am such a good little Queen!!! I have listened to his request and you can find the recipe bellow as well. LOL!

So I can confidently say that my summer of pickling and preserving is off to a good start. So far, I have made jams (strawberry, mixed berries and blueberry/lemon), dill pickles, corn relish and basil pesto (pesto is in the freezer, not in a jar). I hope to make a few more things before the end of September but you know, sometimes, life simply gets in the way…

The Pickling Diaries

Before I continue forward, I wish to thank my trustworthy source for many basic details: thank you BA Magazine for that insight! Here are a few tips on how to proceed:

  • Choosing the right cucumbers does matter: Kirby cucumbers are the best: their thick skin and lower water content will deliver a crunchier pickle
  • Removing the stem edge of the cucumber is important: there is an enzyme in the stem that will change the texture of the pickles and make them loose their crunch
  • Cucumbers (or any other vegetables) should be very well scrubbed: Using a vegetable brush, scrub the cucumbers very well under running water
  • Dill weed: soak in a large bath of cold water, change the water 2-3 times to rid the herb of any soil residue and excessive pollen
  • Vegetables can be prepared one day before, kept whole and in an air tight container in the fridge. The dill weed as well. If stored any longer than a day, the colour vibrancy and crunch may be lost
  • Start with clean jars and only use brand new lids (the inside lid which has the little rubber seal). Metal rings can be reused several times. Discard any dented/rusted rings and chipped jars. Sterilization is not necessary: the canning process paired with the use of vinegar will destroy harmful bacteria
  • You will need: a very large and deep pot of boiling water (jars must be submersed in water), a few tea towels, a good sturdy funnel, kitchen tongs and a ladle
  • Good quality vinegar. Balsamic vinegar should not be used for pickling purposes.
  • Pickling salt that is void iodine or other anti-clumping agents. Salt should be the only ingredient on the box
  • Pickle jars that will go through the canning process will keep up to 12 months at room temperature. If the canning process is skipped, pickles will last up to 2 months in the refrigerator

Crunchy, Lovely, Home Made Dill Pickles

What you need

The brine: It’s a simple matter of proportion and I used Bon Appétit’s guidelines

1 cup vinegar
2 tbsp pickling salt
2 tsp sugar
up to 2 tbsp pickling spices (I think 1 tbsp is enough)
2 cups water

Pickle Mise

I used half distilled white vinegar and half apple cider vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is not recommended for this application. For half a bushel of cucumbers, I made 6 times the amount of the brine recipe above, using the same proportions. I was left with about 2 cups of brine, which I am now using as a base for vinaigrettes. No waste!!!

For dill pickles, I recommend fresh dill weed that is at the seeding/flowering stage as well as some of the younger type of dill that is greener: it yields a stronger dill taste. A few garlic cloves per jar is also a great addition. If you don’t have mixed pickling spices, you can make your own with mustard seeds, celery seeds, fennel seeds and  black peppercorns in equal proportion.

Mix all the ingredients together in a pot and bring to a boil, then keep on a simmer while you assemble the jars.

Starting with clean jars (I run them through the dishwasher first), place fresh dill weed fronds at the bottom with a few pieces of garlic. I used 2 cloves per jar: you can increase or decrease according to your affection for garlic. Pack in your pickles: they can be left whole, sliced or quartered, the cut will not affect the end result. For fun, I tried all three.

Pickles Assembly

Using a clean wide mouth funnel, fill the jars with the hot brine, enough to cover the cucumbers but leaving about 1/2 inch of clearance at the top. This will allow the preparation to expand slightly while in the hot boiling water without any of the brine spilling over. If the brine spills over, it may affect the air tight seal once the pickles cool off. Once your jars are filled, remove any air pockets by sliding a knife alongside the cucumber slices. Cover with the lids and secure with the metal ring.

At this stage, you have 2 options: you can simply place your jars in the refrigerator and let them «brine» for a few days or you can “can them” for longer storage.

If proceeding with canning: Place your jars in a large pot full of boiling water, completely submerged in the water. Keeping the water boiling, let the jars «cook» for 15 minutes. Once this step is completed, remove jars and place on a thick layer of dish cloths or on a wooden cutting board. To avoid cold shocking the glass which could cause it to crack and break, it is not recommended that the jars be placed directly on a cold surface such as stone counters when they are removed from the hot bath.

Let your jars cool completely. Within an hour or so, the top of the lids should «pop» and the small dot in the middle should pull inwards. If you can press on that dot after a few hours and it still bounces up and down, your seal did not happen and you may have to start the canning process again which may affect the final texture of the pickles.  I recommend instead that you keep the improperly sealed jars in the refrigerator instead.

By skipping the canning process, you save a lot of time. Keep in mind that refrigerator pickles will last about 2 months in the fridge (well, unless your pickle monsters eat them all before the time is up lol). Canned pickles will last up to 12 months without refrigeration, as long as the seal is not broken. Once a jar is opened, it should always be refrigerated. I opted for the canned version for 2 reasons: 1 – I want summer fresh pickles in the dead of winter and 2 – I only have one fridge. But I do have access to a small cold storage space which is perfect to keep my bounty.

Since I am a curious kind, I wanted to see what the difference was between the two ways of pickling. I made 2 jars of pickles using the refrigerator method while I proceeded with the canning process for the rest of my loot. I let both sit for a week before we were all able to taste test the pickles. It demanded quite a bit of willpower to wait that long… For one entire week, I had absolutely no idea what the pickles would taste like! At first, the uncooked pickles still boasted a deep green colour (as you can see in my featured picture) while the others had change slightly to a yellowy green colour reminiscent of store bought pickles. However, after one week in the refrigerator, the raw pickles took on that same yellow shade of green. It is the same principle as making ceviche: vinegar (or other acidic liquids such as lemon juice) «cook» foods without the use of heat.

The results? Both types of pickles taste really good. Both had retained a good crunch and both had been well infused with the wonderful flavours of the brine. Both the King and one of the Princes thought they were fantastic. I thought the spices may be a little overpowering so I will probably adjust to 1 or 1.5 tbsp of pickling spices instead of the 2 tbsp I used.

Happy Go Lucky with What I Have in the Pantry Corn Relish

image

This is certainly not the prettiest picture. The colours were amazing in the bowl. I got so involved and excited making this relish I completely forgot to take photos of the step-by-step process…

This relish is fresh and vibrant and slightly runny. It is not of jam consistency because the sugar is kept to a minimum as well as the cooking time in order to maintain the «freshly picked» taste of all the ingredients.

What you need

  • 8-9 ears of corn
  • 1 cup finely chopped onions
  • 2 medium or 3 small peppers: yellow, orange and/or red, finely chopped
  • 2 cups distilled white vinegar
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 generous tbsp each coriander and fennel seeds, slightly crushed
  • 2 tbsp grainy mustard (optional)
  • 2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

How to make it

  1. This is really too easy!
  2. In a large saucepan or cooking pot, combine the brine ingredients: vinegar, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, grainy mustard and turmeric. Bring to a boil and turn off heat. Set aside
  3. With a sharp knife, remove the kernels from the cobs and place in a large bowl. Add the chopped onions and peppers. Mix to combine
  4. Add the corn to the brine, mix well and bring back to a boil, cooking for only about 5 minutes. Add the cilantro. Let the entire mixture sit for about 15 minutes. taste and adjust the salt and the cilantro to your taste.
  5. Jar the relish and can using the hot water bath method as explained above

This relish is great on grilled meats, with sausages, fish and on top of burgers and hot dogs.

Mix with equal proportion of sour cream or mayonnaise and voilà! A new interesting dip for vegetables.

Parting words: I hope I have inspired you to dabble in home preserving. I am currently investigating how I can bring a pressure canner into my kitchen world without ruining my stove top. Once (and if) I figure that one out, I will definitely share my findings on this blog. Until then, happy canning everyone! I know what I will be doing in the next few weeks: I feel marinara sauce invading my cold storage room!!!

Judy’s Gift – Asparagus and Feta Pasta Salad

Being on vacation this week is blissful. Being on vacation this week without any plans at all is pretty sweet. Being on vacation this week with ample time to write and add to my blog is heaven! It is extremely rejuvenating to simply breath… To wake up with the sun, grab a coffee, read stuff I never take the time to read, in my PJs until late in the morning, now this is what I call a real vacation from life! I can even take the time to write without guilt: no chores really, no appointments, no meetings. I am hanging up my everyday life on the line to dry for a moment and doing the little fun things that never seem to fit in the agenda of that everyday life.

It’s a beautiful summer day here today in Canada’s National Capital. I will soon shut down my computer to go for a long walk and soak it all in, maybe even grab a little lunch. If the energy stays high, once I return from my promenade on the market and around Parliament Hill, I may take my bicycle for a ride along the Rideau Canal. It is that type of day: blue skies, warm sun, not too hot, not too cool, lovely breeze and zero humidity. Niiiiiiice! But before I go out and play tourist in my own hometown, I am diving into my blog sharing another little delicious morsel of life in my kitchen. Because I have the time!!!! Yay!

So I decided I would share a gift from Judy. Judy is my King’s cousin. A very lovely person I am happy to count as family… Judy is also an amazing cook. If you tell her, she will brush off her talent with genuine humility, stating that she is simply passionate about cooking. She is more than simply passionate: she is one of that «breed» of home cooks that «gets it». When we get together (sadly not as often as we should), we can talk hours on end about food, about how this ingredient works well paired with that ingredient, about this new technique, this perfectly balanced soup… And of course,  when we taste something the other has done that is purely genius, we share recipes. Like the King, Judy’s heritage is East European and she often dips into her knowledge of Old World cooking, concocting recipes intertwined with history, family as well New World living. A bit of modern mixed in with the old! I call it generational gastronomy: the legacy of mothers teaching their daughters the culinary secrets their own mothers had parted with, each one adapting the recipes slightly to suit their own needs, taste and ingredient availability. This may sound rather gender biased but the truth of the matter is that more often than none, generational cooking and family heirloom recipes are kept alive mostly by the women of a family… And so because of Judy’s extreme talent and knowledge in the kitchen, her secret stash of prized family recipes, her passion for all food related topics, I truly cherish the recipes so generously handed to me as true gifts!

Years ago, we had a family gathering potluck style and Judy brought along this amazing pasta salad. I fell head over heels in love with that salad. Moonstruck! Later on, this salad became a very popular menu item in my restaurant. I even landed a spot on a televised cooking competition with that recipe! Judy will tell you that the following recipe I am about to share is not exactly her original recipe because of course, I have tweaked it to make it my own. That is the nature of those who have a love affair with cooking: to get inspired by recipes and to freely adapt on a whim. However, there are very few variations to the original here: Judy’s ultimate salad was finished with thin slices of prosciutto and, if my memory serves me right, she used toasted pine nuts  instead of almonds. I removed the prosciutto from my recipe simply because the lemon’s acidity  altered the colour and texture of the ham rather quickly: to avoid this, when I do add  prosciutto to my salad, I add it at the last minute because it simply pairs sooooo well with the rest of the ingredients. Like with any recipe, to ad lib is the most fun: feta can be swapped for any cheese that can withstand being tossed around with vinaigrette. Asparagus can take the side road when not in season and be replaced with courgettes, green beans, sweet peas, in fact, any vegetable that enjoys the company of lemon juice and salty cheese! It is a simple and fresh alternative to the good old macaroni salad, perfect for a family BBQ, a picnic and can even become the main of a simple dinner when the outside temperature makes any cook shy away from working over a hot stove for any longer time than needed. . As a matter of fact, all ingredients can be prepared and tossed together ahead of time , adding the vinaigrette just before it is time to serve. Because it does not contain mayonnaise, it will tolerate picnic conditions quite well. Although the pasta will absorb a fair bit of the dressing after a while, it still keeps pretty good when refrigerated overnight becoming a great easy “grab and go” lunch on the next day.

I hope you enjoy Judy’s gift to me which I now pay forward to you!

Asparagus and Feta Pasta Salad

What you need

1 bunch (about 1lb/450g) asparagus trimmed and cut in 1 inch length
¾ cup slivered almonds, toasted
¾ cup crumbled feta
2 tbsp finely chopped green onions
1 lb (450g) pasta cooked al dente. I like to use farfalle because they hold their shape really well and the dressing lodges itself in the crinkled centers. fusilli, orchiette or rotini would be a great alternative
½ cup fresh chopped parsley

Vinaigrette

The zest and juice of one lemon, about ½ cup (125ml)
1 tbsp grainy mustard
1 cup (250ml) olive oil
1 tsp salt
Salt and pepper to taste

How to make it

  • Whisk together lemon zest & juice, mustard and salt and pepper. Add oil and shake well. Set aside
  • Set a large pot of water over stovetop and bring to a boil. Add 2 tsp of salt.
  • Cook pasta until al dente. Do not over cook as pasta: it will become soggy when the vinaigrette is added ahead of time if the pasta is overcooked
  • Add the asparagus to the pasta for the last few minutes of the recommended pasta cooking time. Again, do not overcook. About 3-5 minutes will do: 3 minutes for thin asparagus and 5 minutes for asparagus with very thick stalks. Check often to ensure asparagus are not overcooked. Immediately rinse and submerge pasta and asparagus in cold water. Let cool thoroughly and drain. If you are not comfortable gaging the asparagus cooking time by adding them to the pasta water, cook them separately. As per usual, I like to reduce the clean up time in the kitchen and this one pot cooking option works great for me.
  • In large bowl, toss asparagus, pasta, feta and green onions, using your fingers to toss well. Add enough vinaigrette to cover the salad. Adjust salt and pepper.
  • Toss in the toasted almonds and parsley and mix everything well
  • Optional last minutes toppers: fresh or crisp prosciutto, crisp bacon bits, shave parmesan flakes…

Time to unwrap the gift and enjoy!

A summer in Provence – The Quest for the Perfect Ratatouille

“As high as the sun was hanging in the sky it was still managing to drench with blinding luminosity and intense heat the entire world around me. I was crouched in the middle of the sand road under a tiny bit of shade provided by a tree branch, captivated by a huge black shiny beetle I had just found. I’d never seen anything like this bug in my entire life. Actually, I didn’t even know it was a beetle… Armed with a sturdy twig, I was trying to observe everything about this bug, flipping it, nudging it but staying far enough away as to ensure it wouldn’t jump on me. Its legs were thin and fuzzy jotting out crookedly from very hard black shell. I thought this bug was definitely the ugliest and the biggest one I had ever encountered in my entire seven years of existence. After a while, I lost interest in the ugly black bug and felt a bit of a tug in my stomach. It must be near lunchtime I thought. I straightened up and pushed off strands of damp long hair away from my face. I could feel the heat of the day catching up with me: my eyes were starting to feel the heaviness of the sun, begging me to succumb to a blissful afternoon slumber… But before the siesta, which I would resist as much as I could for fear of missing out on any minute of this gorgeous day, a healthy plateful of food may be in order, right this minute! As I made my way back to our campsite, I stopped again, just for a moment, closing my eyes to enjoy without distraction the eerie song of… What was it called again? Oh, yes, the cicada… What an intriguing sound: a crescendo of a pure single note, starting out clear and crisp, getting louder and louder for what seemed like an eternity, as if hanging to its chant until the very last little bit of breath was available only to die off abruptly in a raspy choke. Incessant. Starting again, and again, and again… Beautiful… I had seen pictures somewhere of this musical creature but I had yet to see one up close and personal. I guess the cicada was far more timid than that ugly bug that I had seen lazily crossing the road! Maybe the ugly bug was trying to compensate for its lack of musical talent by showing off its glossy black iridescent blue turquoise shell? Because even though this bug was ugly, its shell’s colour was pretty to look at. Come to think of it, the cicada was pretty ugly to look at as well but such a wonderful singer. It must be the right thing to do then, to show off your best attribute…
As I pondered the question of beauty and ugliness in insects, secretly wishing I would never find one in my bed or in my hair, I strutted back all the way to our campsite. There was no denying lunch was about to be served: my nostrils were instantly impregnated with a wonderfully intense aroma of garlic, tomatoes and herbs… I recognized it immediately: ratatouille! Oooo, I was starting to feel that hunger in the pit of my stomach as my mouth filled with anticipating saliva. I sure was hoping that this time, it was my mother, and not our campsite neighbour, who had been cooking all morning and who would serve me up a big bowl of that ratatouille…”

(The ratatouille recipe follows this text…)

My family lived in Lahr Germany from August 1969 to August 1972. My father was not in the military but had been hired by the Canadian Army as a teacher at the high school on the Canadian Base. In order to make the most out of our three years living in Germany, my parents purchased a Volkswagen Camper (also known as Westfalia) which gave us the freedom to gallivant pretty much anywhere in Europe, on a whim and on a trim budget. Weekend trips were customary and longer treks the norm during the summer months and extended school vacations. My sister and I loved, loved, loved that camper! My bunk was perched up high, in the rooftop bellow shaped pop-up tent: it was magical, my very own little space where I would spy on the outside world through the screened windows. In the era of flower power, our baby blue camper was joyfully decorated with those hippie style 60’s colorful flower stickers; we were definitely the cool family!

The summer of 1971 was one of the best and most life changing summers of my entire childhood. It was the summer my father landed a teaching contract at the University of Aix-en-Provence. My mom, my younger sister and I followed in tow for 6 blissful weeks of southern France living and my life has never been the same since. Provence is by far the area of France I would move to permanently. It has captured my heart in many ways: the sun drenched white washed stone homes adorned with red tile roofs, the endless undulating lavender fields, the white jagged edges of rocky mountain dotted with patches of tortuous weathered evergreens, the deep milky blue rivers flowing at the bottom of deep crevasse canyons, the pull to-be-lazy chant of the cicada… And the azure blue of my Mediterranean sea: yes, yes, yes! My sea because no other sea has ever captured my heart quite the way this beautiful big blue has! Oh how I long for a glimpse of my Mediterranean. Oh how I wish I was there again, and again, and again…

I vividly remember that amazing summer of 1971 in Aix-en-Provence. We settled our bohemian home in one of Aix’s campgrounds, close enough to the university where my father held tenure. While my father commuted to the university everyday on a little moped, my mom, sister and I took to the lazy days of campground living. When my father was off work on weekends or for a few days, we would go on exploring missions. I never tired of road trips… Eyes glued to the window, discovering unfamiliar scenery as the camper burned rubber on highways and small country roads. The rolling vistas were as good if not better than watching any movie or television show: Marseille, Toulon, Camargue, Château d’If, Grasses, Moustiers Ste-Marie, les Gorges du Verdon… Oh the irresistible sites of Provence, how I long to be enveloped by your charms again…

The beauty of Southern France’s landscape was not the only love affair I had with this part of the country. The fragrant Provençal dishes awoke my taste buds in a way few other cuisines ever had. As a child, I was rarely put off by food. Lucky for my parents and lucky for me… I was bold! From trying sea urchins freshly plucked from the Mediterranean to squid, fried smelts and winkles, my gastronomic discoveries fluttered from one delectable offering to the next. I dove into bouillabaisse like it was nobody’s business and savoured the sweet earthy flavours of Calisson d’Aix: diamond-shaped confiseries of melon and almond paste artfully nestled in paper-thin wafers. Pan Bagnat purchased seaside were the perfectly cool, refreshing sandwich to enjoy as the sun hit its zenith before begging everyone to lie down for a nice little siesta. Yes, the flavours of Provence have haunted my life and my kitchen ever since that blissful summer of 1971… Pizza Margherita, stuffed courgette flowers, gelato, salade Niçoise, pistou, tomatoes with basil… And ratatouille niçoise! That one dish standing majestically above all, oozing essence of Mediterranean fare. Yes. Simple. Humble. Ratatouille! Oh how I adore that rich vegetable stew! Years later, during the short Canadian summers, when all the stars line up properly and the produce is as sun-drenched here as it is in the gardens of le Midi de la France, I transport myself back to my beloved Provence by cooking up a big batch of ratatouille.

At the Aix campground, our next door neighbour often cooked huge batches of ratatouille using a pressure cooker set on a little Coleman style stove. Her ratatouille days were the most powerfully scented days I had ever experienced! Lunch traditionally being served in France as the big meal of the day, preparation often starts early on in the morning. Even though we were on a campground, our neighbour was no exception to the rule and got on to preparing her lunch as soon as the last bit of baguette dunked in café au lait had been devoured. Nearly every morning, she tantalized us with her perfumed concoctions. But none were as insanely amazing as when she made her ratatouille! When the steam vent of that pressure cooker started to whistle, the fragrance of everything Provençal permeated the air: eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs… OMG that smell still rocks my world! Oh that smell… I will always remember the aromatic steam escaping in angry short burst from the pressure cooker… Sadly, we never had the pleasure of tasting her infamous eggplant and courgette stew (she was not the socializing type…), but we sure ate it as often as we could in restaurants and from small charcuteries. It would come then as no surprise that my mother, upon our return from Aix, invested in her very own pressure cooker, a cocotte Seb… Need I say more? I think I was not the only one who fell under the spell of the ratatouille! Over the years, she attempted to recreate ratatouille numerous times, it never quite tasted like the one we devoured in Provence. As I grew older and started to dabble in the culinary arts myself, I tried, just like my mother, to cook up the ultimate ratatouille. Alas, the flavours never really quite pulled through… Nevertheless, at least once a summer, year after year, sun-kissed eggplants and tomatoes would cast a spell on me and I would try once again to unlock the secrets of the ever elusive taste of my childhood…

I must admit though that I have been blessed by life and even if I live a huge ocean away from Provence, I have had the opportunity to return to the land of Marcel Pagnol on several occasions, rekindling a passion as poignant in adulthood as it had been in childhood. I was 23 years old when I returned to Provence. Would you be surprised to read that I feasted several times on anything and everything that featured ratatouille? The first mouthful (and second and third…) was as explosively and as blissfully delicious as I had remembered. Why then couldn’t I recreate this back home? What was I doing wrong? Upon my return, and armed with new resolve, I vowed I would master the ratatouille if it killed me! I tried every recipe I could put my fingers on and still yet, I faced disappointment. Then one day, I unlocked the secret code: someone finally told me my problem lay with how I was handling the eggplant! Dear lord could it have been that simple? Really? All I really, really needed was to show this oddly textured vegetable a little bit extra tender loving care, by letting thick slices sweat off the bitterness with salt??? Eureka! Not only did this new-found trick permit me to finally master the best ratatouille I had ever made in my entire life, it also elevated any other eggplant dish to the next level. My Ottawa ratatouille finally tasted like Aix-en-Provence! In all my attempts and recipe searches, why on earth could I not have found one recipe, one cookbook offering the proper technique of preparing eggplant? That fact is beyond me… And to this day, eggplant based recipes seldom point out that this vegetable needs to be sliced then gently sprinkled with coarse salt and left to rest over a colander for a few hours. Only then will the bitterness dissipate, cook properly and expose its sweet silky texture. It is not complicated… It is not even labour intensive: all it needs is to sit for a bit while the salt works its magic. Simple. Easy. Life changing. Well, in the world of eggplant that is!!! Removing bitterness and excess moisture is not the only role salt plays: it also changes the texture slightly, allowing eggplants to brown better while absorbing less oil and rendering a flesh that is as smooth as silk.

The produce is bountiful again here in my little corner of the world. For such a short period… I am enveloped with nostalgia, trying to bring the Mediterranean back to me by capturing the flavours of Provence in my Canadian kitchen. And so yes, you have guessed it, I have been making big batches of sun drenched ratatouille! Ok, ok: this obsession of mine may border on insanity… Like seriously, it is really just a simple, silly eggplant and zucchini stew after all! Who writes a few thousand words on such a lackluster subject except for maybe a slightly lunatic cook like me? Well maybe lunatic, maybe even insane! But most definitely a nostalgic cook!!!Because writing this text has allowed me to put into simple words a very spectacular summer from a long time ago. It is a story that pops up in my head when my hands reach out for shiny aubergines, firm zucchini, perfectly ripe tomatoes, peppers and garlic… I know then that I won’t be just making a rustic ratatouille. Nope! It is far more than that… It will be like being magically transported to Provence, if only for a meal, to feel once again its intense sun, strident chants of the cicada and some incredibly sweet moments of my childhood…So excuse me for I must leave: there is a bottle of rosé chilling and a certain purple vegetable that has sweated just enough. And if I am lucky enough, I might toss a few boules just before supper…


Ratatouille «almost» Niçoise

  
I say almost because I have swapped the green peppers for red (in my household, not everyone can tolerate green peppers) and I omit the onions. Most recipes call for onions but I prefer the overall taste and texture without them. You may add 1 large sliced onions and swap the red peppers for green if you really want to stay authentic!

Reserve a few hours of «standing» time to let the eggplants sweat it off. Just like marinating meat: 3-4 hours is plenty.

Cooking each vegetable separately first is the key to a perfectly balanced stew…

What you need
1 large regular eggplant*
Coarse salt
4 medium zucchinis
1 large red pepper
5 large and very ripe tomatoes
5-6 cloves of garlic
A few twigs of fresh thyme
Your favourite olive oil
Fresh basil, freshly chopped for garnish (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
* swap with 2 medium or several mini ones.

How to make it

1. Cut the eggplant in 1/2 inch thick slices. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt on both sides. Arrange standing up un a colander. Set the colander on a deep dish to collect the juices. let sit for at least 3 hours and up to 6 (thicker slices require a bit longer sweating time). Once this step is completed, rinse each slice under cold water to remove all the salt and pat dry. Discard the accumulated liquid.

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2. Chop the eggplant, zucchini and pepper in approx. 3/4 inch pieces. Keeping all the vegetables separate.
3. Peel the tomatoes* and chop coarsely. Set aside including all the juices and seeds.
4. Add a few generous tbsp. of olive oil to a large and deep heavy bottom pot such as a heavy cooking pot or an enamel coated cast iron Dutch Oven. Place on stove top and set to medium-high heat. Add half the eggplant and sauté quickly until the edges start to brown. Transfer to a plate using a slotted spoon, shaking as much excess oil as possible. Repeat, in batches, with the zucchini and pepper, adding oil and reducing the heat as necessary. Proceed with the onions If you are using.

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5. Once all the vegetables have been browned and set aside, add a bit of extra olive oil and the tomatoes to the same pot. Bring to a quick boil the reduce heat to simmer a few minutes. At this point, you can add a splash of white wine, maybe a half a cup, to loosen up the sauce. I purposely omitted the wine in the ingredient list. It is not necessary but I find it adds a little «je ne sais quoi» which I really enjoy. You can use water instead if the tomatoes thicken a bit too much.
6. Add the minced garlic and the leaves from the thyme sprigs. Let cook for 5 minutes until the garlic has completely softened.
7. Now add all the vegetables to the tomato sauce. Stir gently to coat well. Bring to a soft boil then turn down heat to a gentle simmer. Let the ratatouille cook slowly, stirring occasionally. I usually let it simmer for about one hour to let all the flavours  develop really well. It can simmer longer… If it thickens too much, you can add a bit of water. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
8. If using, add the freshly cut basil just before serving

*Dunking the tomatoes in boiling water for about a minute then shocking in a cold water bath with help the skin peel of easily. Or, if you are anything like me and hate to dirty more pots than I need to, you can invest in a small serrated vegetable peeler especially make for delicate and thin skin produce such as tomatoes. This is what I use and I hardly ever use the boiling water method unless I have huge quantities of tomatoes to peel.

It tastes even better the next day! Hot or cold. It can be used as a side, with pasta, over meat, as a sandwich spread, stuffed in an omelet, on top of a Quiche…
It keeps well in the freezer too. Although for some odd reason, mine never makes it there!

Final note: having sold you on the virtues of sweating the eggplants, I must tell you that I apply this technique to the large common deep purple aubergines. For as long as I can remember, this was the only variety of eggplant we could find here in Ottawa. Now, the landscape of the produce world is changing rapidly and for the better in our markets. Many different types of eggplants have become increasingly accessible: small Italian, baby Italian, Japanese, speckled, light purple and even white eggplants… And like with any other vegetable, the taste and texture varies slightly from one to the other. Japanese eggplants and baby Italians have nearly zero bitterness, allowing cooks to chop and cook right away, happily leaving behind the sweating process. I still like to use the good old big bitter eggplant. I enjoy its transformation from bitter to sweet, at a fraction of the price! It is still the cheapest by far, often overlooked for the more «cook friendly» varieties… But let’s face it, don’t we all love the story of the ugly duckling that turned into a beautiful swan?

My Global Kitchen: Crispy and Cool Rice Vermicelli Salad!

If I were a purist, I would tell you that this salad is far from an authentic Vietnamese or Thai noodle salad. I would tell you that we, North Americans, tend to «Americanize» everything and that in the end, foods from other cultures served here are a pale comparison of the original ethnic dish at the source of inspiration. And if I was a purist, I would tell you that recipes like the one I am about to share do not respect the culture and flavour profile of the real deal rice noodle. I would even go as far as to say that we are imposters and we should show more respect to the authentic cuisines of the world… I mean, which Italian hasn’t chuckled in front of a plate of Italian Spaghetti and Meatballs on this side of the pond? How many French have wrinkled their nose at the site of a plate of escargots à l’ail smothered in mozzarella? I myself cannot stand the use of the name «poutine» when shredded cheese is used instead of cheese curds because that is how it is done in Quebec: only with cheese curds and hand cut fries can poutine be called poutine! Only then, it is really authentic and worthy of its name!!!

So recently, I have taken the time to reflect on this so-called bastardization of ethnic dishes and wonder if it is such a terrible thing after all… I have read articles that shame Moo Shoo Pork lovers (guilty: I adore Moo Shoo Pork), stating that this simile Chinese concoction is not even remotely close to the real heritage dishes of China. Those articles snub our love affair with foods that have been introduced under the name of another country’s culinary culture but when in fact, they have most surely been tweaked for good reasons: lack of readily available ethnic products, lack of authentic methods & tools, lack of technique training and entering a market that may be tentative to new tastes, flavours and sometimes “off the wall” ingredients. But other than using cultural names in vain to present these dishes and maybe unwillingly insulting the real “McCoy”, these counterfeit ethnic offerings may have done the Epi-Curious world an extreme favour.

Over decades, if not centuries, immigrants (and traveller’s alike) have brought their culinary art and tastes of their home country wherever they have set their roots. Conquistadors have managed to influence the cuisines of the colonies in order to bring some comfort in an otherwise very foreign land. Even our own food heritage gets tweaked with time: recipes passed down from generation to generation often get a bit of a facelift or are adapted to the taste of the hour… Ingredients availabilities and food brand names change, diets demand new adaptation and taste preferences dictate the need for variations.

Take for example the famous Vietnamese sandwich Bành Mì: how «authentically Vietnamese» would anyone consider liver pâté and baguette? However, culturally, Bành Mì is THE sandwich of Vietnam; its creation influenced by French colonization. I believe culinary influences from around the globe bring a wonderful array of flavours into our worlds. They make culinary explorations a lot of fun and give us permission to explore and play with ingredients that are unfamiliar. They make us dream of faraway lands and help us connect to humanity… While we adapt our foods to our needs, our regions and taste buds, it doesn’t mean that we disrespect the original recipe or the culture’s influence. On the contrary, it permits to open our edible concoction profile to infinite possibilities! I personally think this is really amazing… But out of respect to the purists out there, I present my Vermicelli Rice Noodle Salad without adding any culture/country influenced name. Let’s just say that this one is an Ottawa-prepared but Vietnam-inspired fusion salad! It is cool, refreshing and perfect for our city’s climate which is often plagued by thick, very hot and very humid summer temperature. Hmmm, I hear this Ottawa weather can resemble that of Vietnam tropical forest… I may be offering more authenticity than I thought… Nahhh, I think it would be too far a stretch to call my salad «Vietnamese Noodle Salad» just because we share a humid summer climate lol!!! I will stick to my original title.

ăn ngon miệng nhé (Bon appétit)

Salade de nouilles asiatiques(2)

Crispy and Cool Rice Vermicelli Salad

I literally tossed this one together using bits and pieces of fresh veggies left over from other meals… I managed to make enough salad to serve as a meal for 2 and a generous portion left over to bring for lunch. The vegetable proportions are approximate and you can certainly add you own variations with what you have on hand. In my case, I hand a handful of radishes, one half a red pepper, a couple of green onions and left over ready chopped cilantro as well as few more items including chopped lettuce. I am sure the dish would have been uplifted a notch had I had lemongrass, cucumbers and Thai basil: I will certainly keep that in mind for the next time. And since I always keep a bag of very fine rice vermicelli in my pantry, tossing this one together was extremely easy and quick… Making your own dressing adds such a depth of flavour to any salad however, if you are pressed for time or lacking ingredients, commercially prepared Asian dressings such as sesame or miso dressings will work wonderfully.

What you need:

For the dressing:

¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
⅛ cup soya sauce¹
2 tsp sugar or honey
2 tsp fish sauce (optional)
1 crushed garlic clove
1-2 tbsp freshly grated ginger
⅔ cups of a neutral tasting oil²
2 tbsp toasted sesame oil

In a shakeable container such as a Mason jar (I use recycled glass jars from store-bought dressings), with the exception of the oils, add all the ingredients and shake until well blended. Add the oils and shake again. This dressing will keep several weeks in the fridge.

¹ – I prefer Tamari or Japanese soya sauces because I find them lighter and less salty. I purchase organic soya sauces whenever I can
² – By choice, I now only use organic oils that have been pressed using cold extraction. Neutral oils, regardless of your food sources and convictions include: canola, grapeseed, sunflower, peanut and corn. I would not recommend olive oil with this recipe.
For the salad: (all vegetable portions are approximate)

⅔ package dry, fine rice vermicelli, usually available in most grocery stores or specialty Asian markets.
1 cup shredded carrots
8 small radishes, sliced
½ red pepper, thinly sliced
1 cup edamame
2 chopped green onions, white and green parts
1 package dried shiitake mushrooms (or fresh if you can find some)
2-3 cups of chopped lettuce
2-3 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
Lime quarters

Would also be yummy: cucumbers, bean sprouts, Thai basil, white turnip, micro greens etc…

Vermicelli rice noodles are super easy to cook. Simply soak them in a large bowl with boiling water until tender, anywhere between 5 to 10 minutes. I start checking the noodles after 5 minutes soaking time. Rinse under cold running water until completely cool and set aside to drain until all the other ingredients are ready. While the noodles are soaking, you can also reconstitute the dry mushrooms by soaking in hot tap water. They will roughly take the same amount of time to soften as the noodles. I like to use frozen organic edamame: they only take 3 minutes to cook in boiling water. Rinse until cool and set aside.
Assembly:

This is the easiest part: leaving the lime wedges and cilantro, toss everything else together in a large bowl. Add salad dressing to taste and blend well. To properly balance the flavours according to the quantity of noodles and vegetables in this particular recipe, I used half the salad dressing which means I have the other half all ready to go for another time!
Sprinkle with fresh cilantro and serve with lime wedges.
N.B. If you plan on saving some for lunch (or another meal), portion that meal BEFORE adding the dressing. Otherwise, most of your vegetables will get soggy…

Salade de nouilles asiatiques(3)

Tartelette aux Tomates – Because Food Always Sounds So Romantic in French

Sometimes I just feel like posting a recipe because it is so darn good! No stories attached and none required except maybe this recipe is a teeny bit better when local tomatoes are in season. Having friends over? It is a prefect and easy appetizer that pairs perfectly well with a chilled rosé.

  • 1 sheet of butter puff pastry*
  • Heaping ½ cup of soft goat cheese
  •  ¼ cup sour cream or crème fraîche
  • Fresh chopped chives
  • Small tomatoes: I used heirloom cherry tomatoes to add colour
  • Basil pesto (your own or from the store) or plain olive oil
  • Fresh basil for garnish

*Although I know how to make puff pastry, I do not go to the trouble of making my own. I purchase frozen puff pastry sheets made with butter only which yields satisfying results.

How to

  1. Oven at 400°F.
  2. Unroll puff pastry onto cookie sheet  leaving  the dough on the  parchment paper it comes with.
  3. Mix goat cheese with enough sour cream to make it spreadable without liquefying (the consistency of peanut butter).
  4. Add chives and some pepper if you like.
  5. Spread evenly across the dough, leaving just a bit of space around the edges.
  6. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the colour is similar to the one on the pictures.
  7. The edges should be golden brown. Remove from oven and set on serving platter.
  8. Add the tomatoes. Let cool and drizzle with pesto or oil. Add garnish.
  9. Serve warm or cold
Tartelette aux tomates
Tartelette aux tomates