Quiet hours

The best part about Saturday morning, at least for me, is being able to fully enjoy my two cups of coffee. I brew it strong -- a symptom of living in metropolis? -- sit down on the couch with some breakfast, a blanket and the online edition of The Globe and Mail and drink up. It's marvelous, especially coming off a seventeen-hour work day. Between visits to the library to pick up and return books, hunting around in Leslieville for a dining table (it's being delivered on Monday), meetings, phone calls, more meetings, watching movies -- The Social Network and Blue Valentine respectively, reading (Molly Stevens, where have you been all my life?), discovering the art of braising (see Molly Stevens), hitting the gym, serving and other miscellaneous tasks, come Saturday I'm plenty grateful for the few quiet hours I have all to myself. Yes, there's cleaning and food prep and grocery shopping to get to, but that time in the morning -- those few quiet hours -- are perfect.

This morning I'm particularly drained. But I'm spending time with a girlfriend of mine tonight and working all day tomorrow and it's the Oscars (!) -- a cocktail or two is a prerequisite for viewing, non? I'll pull it together in time. In the meantime, I want to give you this. It's a recipe by Amanda Hesser, included in Cooking for Mr. Latte. I loved it because it's one of those things that can easily take centre stage at the table, feeding both vegetarians and omnivores alike. And while Amanda calls for freshly shelled beans, I used canned to simply the steps and it worked just fine. Of course, dried beans are more delicious (and nutritious) and my preference, but I ran out of time (shocking.) Growing up, baked beans meant navy beans smothered in tomato sauce, possibly spiked with molasses. I used to be under the impression that my grandmother actually made beans from scratch (that I'm sorry to say I never cared for much), but it turns out her version of "homemade beans" is a giant can she tosses with canned pineapple and whatever else she happens to have on hand.

This Mediterranean-style baked bean dish is lovely. Amanda's recipe calls for 1/4lb of pancetta, but I omitted it. This dish is simple and fool-proof. Myself, I took it for lunch all week. If you're uncomfortable with cooking, mix two cans of beans with your favourite tomato sauce, slide the mixture into an ovenproof baking dish (such as Pyrex or Anchor) and top with half a cup of bread crumbs. Cook uncovered for about an hour and a half, until the bread crumbs are toasted and the beans are creamy. If you'd like to try making your own sauce, see below.

Romano Bean Gratin

Adapted from Amanda Hesser

Serves 4 meal-size portions or 6-8 side portions

There's a lot of room for variation on this. If you don't care for rosemary, try oregano. I imagine this would be nice with black olives and feta cheese, or with fresh basil in place of the thyme. If you'd like to make this dish omnivorous, try adding cooked ground turkey or chicken. I think it might even be nice with some goat's cheese and a heartier fish.

2 cans Romano beans, also called Cranberry or Bortolotti beans (or use alternative such as white navy or cannellini beans), about 3 cups cooked
Sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 garlic cloves, smashed with the back of the knife and minced
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary or 1/2 tsp, dried
1/2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
28oz diced tomatoes and juice
1/2-1/3 cup toasted bread crumbs (I made my own using a loaf of homemade brown rice bread)

Preheat oven to 300F.

Start on the tomato sauce. Heat oil over medium heat and add onions, cooking until they tenderize and turn translucent. Toss in garlic, rosemary, thyme and red pepper. Cook for a couple of minutes until fragrant and add tomatoes. Simmer for about twenty minutes until the flavours meld, but not until the sauce becomes pasty and thick. Remember that the sauce will continue to cook in the oven. Season generously with sea salt and pepper, and fold in the (rinsed and drained!) Romano beans (or whatever you are using.)

Coat a small casserole or gratin dish with olive oil and add the mixture. Top with 1/2 cup to 1/3 cup bread crumbs. Bake, uncovered, for seventy-five to ninety minutes, checking occasionally to ensure there is enough liquid in the dish. If not, add a little water or chicken stock as necessary. The length of time this recipe requires depends on the initial tenderness of the beans. If you're using beans cooked from dry, you may need to bake for a full two hours. Mine were fairly tender and it took about ninety minutes. The lovely thing about this is that it's difficult to overcook because you are baking at such a low temperature. Serve garnished with a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano if desired.


In the time of cabbage

As any good Windsorite can tell you, the weather in Southwestern Ontario is prone to flights of fancy. It floats to a lovely high of 10C one day and then descends into the gloomy trenches the next, hovering around -20C. And as a good, former Windsorite, I've developed a sizeable amount of patience over the years for fluctuating temperatures and seasonal disappointments. But like perishable food my patience has a best-before date, and as Valentine's Day came to a bitterly cold, windy close, I felt it expire. I want summer dresses and weekends spent at the beach listening to jazz and reading. Heck, I'd settle for a t-shirt and jeans and a walk through Trinity Bellwoods at this point. Are you there, spring? Its me, Sarah.

I like casseroles, soups and stews well enough. Miraculously, I haven't tired of them yet; I still have a full line-up of potential suitors begging for a trial run, including a dish of chic chickpeas cooked in dry white wine and lemon juice, served over mashed potatoes (or, I'm thinking, a creamy bed of polenta and steamed greens.) But yesterday I observed as Laura Calder made eggs en pipérade and readers, I dreamt and drooled over the thought of eggs cooking away in a savory tomato and pepper sauce accompanied by a side of soft baked homefries. But peppers and tomatoes aren't in season yet, so here I wait, awash in carrots, potatoes and onions.

But, as it turns out, there is cabbage. Yes, that homely, round vegetable most ignore or eat sparingly via coleslaw or as a vehicle for ground beef and rice. You might recognize it pickled, eaten atop bratwurst. As alone as I am in this camp -- and trust me when I say that the cabbage lover's world is a very, very lonely one -- I am a harsh defender of its versatility and deliciousness. Now, I don't care for boiled cabbage, and I don't know many who do. Frankly, it's bland and boring and loses all of its lovely texture. Braised or roasted cabbage is an entirely different story and one I like a great deal better than its clean-simmer-serve narrative. 

I was surprised to learn that cabbage is actually native to the Mediterranean region. Cato the Elder declared that "It is the cabbage that surpasses all other vegetables." Personally, I like its other names -- sea cabbage and wild cabbage -- much better, and I think if we started calling it Sea Cabbage of Greece it would rise in popularity by at least ten points within the week. In the interest of transparency I sometimes refer to it in my mind as Cah-bahge!!! (three exclamation marks!), a cross between sabotage and kaboom, which makes it sound like a deadly weapon. It gives me heart palpitations and provokes fainting in particularly impressionable foodies, so I'd say my pronounciation is quite fitting. Good cah-bahge may cause fatalities; consume at your own discretion. When I trained for a job at a grocery store many moons ago we were referred to the it as "sexy cabbage" because its corresponding number is 4069, and ever since I've considered it the bad boy of the vegetable world. Don't allow its ubiquity to deceive you.

As far as dangerous situations go, such was the case when I somehow found myself at lunch one Winterlicious day at Pangaea (pan-gee-ahh!!!), one of Toronto's (allegedly) best kept secrets. Frisée and light greens dressed with a mustard vinaigrette, served with half a perfectly crisp roasted pear, a small square of Stilton and candied walnuts. Well-seasoned duck confit, incredibly tender to the tooth, on a small pool of sour cherry jus and served with a side of apple braised cabbage. For dessert, a white teacup of drinking chocolate with homemade vanilla bean marshmallows. "It is what it says it is," said our server. "I know," I answered. "It's what I want." To my mind, it is easy to do fancy dishes; I take issue with the fact that the ingredients often overwhelm each other to such a degree that they are rendered unrecognizable or muddled. A simple hot chocolate is hard to pull off. Because there are so few ingredients it would be impossible to hide an ingredient of inferior quality; any eater with a solid palate will know immediately. Fortunately the hot chocolate was perhaps the best I've had in my life. I'm still thinking about it.

But if pushed, the cabbage took the lunch to new heights. Others pushed theirs off to the side, so I might be (gasp! again!) alone on this, but I adored it. It was buttery in texture and intensely flavourful, and lingered perfectly on my tongue alongside the melting duck meat. I had clearly underestimated its potential. Oh, I remember overhearing discussions over a good ol' fashioned girl's night in Florida about how cabbage cooked in a cast iron pan with bacon can take on almost mystical qualities, but it took really tasting cabbage in her Sunday best to get me up in arms. Err...his Sunday best. Whatever.

I don't often try to replicate restaurant dishes. If I've experienced a memorable meal, I'll return for it. But cabbage is easily made at home, and so I've gone and done it anyway, Sarah-style. It's not fresh peppers and tomatoes, nor is it Pangaea, but perhaps it is close enough. At least until next month when I begin to long for local asparagus and bright-tasting red currants. 

Savoy cabbage (see above) is the best varietal for cooking, but this recipe would be equally delicious with white winter cabbage. 

 Braised Cabbage with Apple and Carrot
Yields 6 - 8 side portions

1/2 - 3/4 of a Savoy cabbage, thinly sliced
1/2 cup pure apple cider, preferably with no sugar added
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 carrots, grated
1 medium sized apple (such as McIntosh), grated
3 tbsp unsalted butter
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400F.

In a large bowl, mix together cabbage, grated carrots and grated apple. Add to a large greased casserole dish (I use one by Anchor). It's okay if it overflows slightly, as the cabbage will cook down.

Heat the butter over medium heat until melted and slightly nutty smelling. Remove from heat and whisk in apple cider and white wine. Season the liquid generously with salt and pepper, and pour over cabbage mixture. 

Roast for about forty-five minutes, covered, removing once from the oven to mix. Roast for an additional fifteen minutes uncovered so the edges brown and crisp up. 

Serve warm.


A taste of the tropics

I don't know how to begin this other than to say, "I baked! Woo! Come and git it!", which could mean I desperately need to get out more often or I've been listening to entirely too much Gretchen Wilson lately. Next I'll bust into work muttering that I'm here for the party while rocking a pair of cowboy boots and a denim mini, and nobody wants that.

I wonder about myself too sometimes.

I don't remember when I first ate banana bread. I might as well have been in the womb. All I know is that everyone has a recipe for it, much like its more refined cousin, zucchini bread, and most people like it well enough. Growing up, I ate mine slathered with margarine. It was great for breakfast or a mid-day snack, and up until yesterday I hadn't had any in far too long.

Now listen: I am not, unlike some people, the biggest banana lover. I like bananas, sure -- whipped with milk, sliced into a cold bowl of cereal or with toast and peanut butter. But there they wallow away at the bottom of the fruit bowl whenever I buy them, their skins having turned as brown as paper lunchbags by Friday morning. I sense it's a bit of travesty to confess this, but there you have it.

Armed with a loaf pan and several flours, I went to work on adapting Joy's lovely recipe for healthy banana bread. I'm not sure what I expected, but what I got surpassed my expectations. The loaf is slightly sweet from the brown sugar, with tiny pockets of moistness from the dates and a crispness from the oats and coconut. This version is delicate and falls away in large pieces with a gentle nudge, but that's not a problem in my book. This bread is delicious -- a party in your mouth, perhaps, but you may need to double check with Gretchen on that one. As for me, it's about as close to a real, tropical vacation as I'm going to get right about now.

Banana Bread with Dates and Coconut
Adapted from Joy the Baker

Yields about 10-12 slices

1/4 cup pure cornstarch
1/3 cup quinoa flour
1/3 cup brown rice flour
1/3 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

3 tsp plain yogurt (not nonfat)
1 large egg, gently beaten
2 egg whites, beaten
3 large ripe bananas
1 cup uncooked rolled oats

1/2 cup roughly chopped dates (optional)
1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 350F and grease a standard-sized loaf pan (I always use unsalted butter for this.)

In a small bowl, mash the bananas until smooth and add in yogurt, egg and egg whites. Mix to combine.

In a larger bowl, combine all dry ingredients -- constarch, the flours, salt, baking soda, baking powder, oats, nd ground cinnamon -- and whisk to combine. Slowly add the wet ingredients and (you guessed it) continue to mix together. When the wet ingredients are well incorporated, add in the chopped dates and coconut. Stir again. Expect the mixture to be fairly thick. Pour into the loaf pan and bake for about 50 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean and the bread has almost doubled in size. Allow to cool in the pan for at least ten minutes, preferably longer, and remove. Let cool completely before slicing.



If I'm being honest, I have to admit that I don't always know what to write. Mostly it sounds self-absorbed. I want to tell you about my Saturday, how I walked southbound on University Ave. listening to Frank Sinatra, hot cup of strong coffee in hand. I want to tell you about how I smiled at the day that was miserable and overcast and, legend has it, birthed a sunny, bright, crisp afternoon. I'd like to go on about a lovely night when I ate Vietnamese take-out over a cheesy film and drank two large glasses of wine, or how I read about how Amanda Hesser fell in love with Tad Friend while tucked beneath my duvet. I roasted root vegetables with rosemary, sea salt and olive oil, I whipped up a batch of sriracha-laced hummus, I shook up a basic red wine vinaigrette, I made a pot of sunchoke-potato soup with chile oil, I made a browned-top baked oatmeal and cooked a cremini mushroom and bacon frittata loaded with fresh parsley. 

But most of all, I want to tell you about something I've been contemplating lately. One of the (many, many things) I love about Amanda Hesser and Melissa Clark is their utter candidness and honesty. It's beautiful, and so attractive. I thought the same of Laurie Colwin when I was reading Home Cooking. "People used to learn to cook by making dishes in their mother's or grandmother's repertoire. But now that cooking is no longer a necessity, very few people do this, which is probably why so many young people may never cook. Without a handful of recipes to start you off, cooking seems overwhelming. There are too many choices. Why begin with roasted chicken when you could make chicken satay or chicken curry? Why make chocolate pudding when you're used to the molten chocolate souffles that you get in restaurants?" Amanda asks in Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes. I'd never thought about it that way, but it's true.

While I grew up with a mother who had dinner on the table by 6pm every night and did indeed cook, I didn't grow up the way some others have -- dining in top Parisian restaurants, perfecting croissants and eating potato salad with homemade mayonnaise. For a long while there was Shake'N'Bake and Swanson's chicken pot pies and Domino's pizza on Friday night (to qualify, I'll mention that my parents both cook and both cook very well.) It was how I grew up and it made sense for my family. But at the same time, as someone who adores cooking from scratch, I had no real repertoire when I first started out. I still don't, not really. I try different recipes. I eat what I like. It's not uncommon for me to eat the same thing for dinner all week without thinking twice about it. But I'd like to think this is a good way to start -- being thrown into the ocean headfirst and trying, gracefully or not, to navigate the waves and ripples.

As Amanda says -- I speak about her as if I know her, I realize -- "when you make a dish again and again, altering it to your liking, it becomes an expression of your aesthetic, of your palate, of who you are. And when you serve that dish to guests, they come to understand you a litte better. This my mother, who is very practical, generous and a perfectionist, makes a superb roasted chicken with herbs tucked under the skin and lemons and onions neatly packed into its cavity, and crisp almond biscotti that look as if the nuts were arranged one by one. My sister Rhonda is indulgent and has a good sense of humor. One of her specialties is spaghetti with fried eggs."

I like the thought that my repertoire of dishes is an extension of myself. Of course this is easy to say given my affinity for anything kitchen related. But I think even throwing together a salad with some nuts and a good goat's cheese counts. I think of the dishes or foods I make most often -- linguine with tiny canned clams, lentil soups and stews, salads with multiple lettuces, granola, roasted chicken with lemon, garlic and rosemary. I made a batch of terrific latkes with aged white cheddar and homemade applesauce, and I love dipping my fingers into a big bowl of air-popped popcorn coated lightly in olive oil and dusted with salt and either smoked paprika or chili flakes.

Brown rice pasta with pesto is my go-to meal, perhaps because it seems perfectly refined to me when topped with a poached egg and is equal parts comfort food and sophistication. I enjoy eating cottage cheese right from the container, standing up, or having a baked lamb sausage with red grapes -- the way the skins split open is lovely. I don't know what these things say about me except that I must have a great deal of time on my hands, which is half true, I guess. However, I do like humble foods, simple foods, and I suppose that speaks to my upbringing and my former geographical landscape. At the same time, I like the best. Good, freshly picked, Ontario apples. A fruity extra-virgin olive oil and a grassy tasting one for different purposes. Delicious teas and fresh herbs. Some might say I'm obsessed with food and they would be correct, but I think of cooking and preparing foods in the same way I perceive fashion or home decor; I see these things as my soul's limbs, not self-defining exactly and not the be-all, end-all, but as a way to live in the world. I get to decide who I am and what I love.

If I'm being honest, I want to tell you that so much of what I know stems from the mistakes I made and the lessons I gleaned from those mistakes; this applies to just about everything. I didn't know my way around in the kitchen at all when I first started out, and I didn't know enough about my job when I started working, but I'd like to think that's okay. The most important thing I've taken away from Amanda -- oh, Amanda! -- is that people used to learn, which is to say they were taught. These days, we don't always have that luxury.

We don't start knowing everything: we learn piece by piece, picking up odds and ends as we go. And that's what cooking is to me, too -- seeing what's around, what scraps can be thrown together into something edible. Eventually you realize sweet potatoes, kale and eggs operate harmoniously together, that coriander was the missing ingredient in the lentil soup from one of your old haunts that you tried to re-create, that latkes are easier to make than you imagined.

Or suddenly you find yourself with an odds-and-ends kind of cookie, one that is a little bit dessert and a little bit refined and a little bit ladies-who-lunch. I don't know what that says about me, but I know I am quiet when I eat them. As anyone who knows me can attest to, this is no small thing.

When I cook these days, I imagine Amanda in my kitchen, tasting a basic vinaigrette I've emulsified in a glass jar, or biting into a bean taco and murmuring aloud, "More salt?" as she lets the flavours float on her tongue, tastebuds making the call.

These cookies are buttery but crumbly, flavourful yet restrained. When I handed them out to those looking for samples, one proclaimed they were very nice. I like them well myself, especially considering the dough freezes well -- excellent for those who live alone and don't want to be tempted with so many cookies. Full disclosure: I devoured seven of these (mini cookies) within a few hours, but since they contain that magical ingredient (begins with b, ends with utter) in addition to the buckwheat and quinoa flours....well, this cookie is practically a health food, non?

Buckwheat Cocao Nib Cookies
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg, who adapted this recipe from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert

1 1/4 cups quinoa flour
3/4 buckwheat flour
1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, brought to room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1.5 tbsp baking powder
1/3 cup cocao nibs*
1.5 tsp pure vanilla extract

Now, this is going to sound like a total cop-out, but Ms. Wizenberg does a much better job at detailing the method than I could ever hope to do. Please see her instuctions, adding the baking powder to the flours. I used quinoa flour in place of the all-purpose, but I can't see why you couldn't use brown rice, coconut flour or any other flour you like. The texture and flavour might alter slightly, so please take that into account.

Please see Molly's instructions here.

*I only had 1/4 cup of cacao nibs when I made these cookies, so I added in some finely chopped dark chocolate to make up a the full 1/3 cup. The cookies were no worse for wear, trust me.
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