Monthly Archives: March 2011

Curried Lentil Soup

Last night my friend Janelle requested a soup recipe so that she could have something hearty to eat during her long hospital shiftwork this week. I’m not envious of nurses for many reasons, particularly because they have to handle needles, catheters and are exposed to dangerously high levels of Jello. My poor stomach couldn’t handle the ever-changing meal schedule, week to week, of rotating shift workers. Even with the time change of one hour a few weeks ago, my stomach was left gurgling in confused exasperation for much too long.

During my cleanse a few weeks ago I made this delicious lentil soup twice within a matter of days. Lentil soup is one of my favourites – I love its consistency, colour and wonderful earthy flavours. I also feel very self-righteous when eating something as nutritionally rich as lentils. This is a spicier version of a basic lentil recipe, which gives a slight tingle to the esophagus on the way down. Not in a reach-for-the-pepto-bismal kind of way, but rather like the sensation of eating chicken tandoori; the subtle heat has an addictive quality and the curry powder nicely complements the lentils. You may want to double the batch to be safe, as it will go quickly.

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I-Can’t-Believe-its-Not-Pasta Spaghetti Squash Casserole

My parents are liars. I just found out that they used to feed me spaghetti squash when I was a kid under the guise of it being pasta. What trickery! All that I believed to be true in this world has been shaken and questioned. What other facts of my life, once the foundation of my existence, are also untrue? Was my dad’s famous Chicken Cacciatore really just cleverly disguised rutabaga? Was he really a boiler Engineer by day as we were all led to believe, or was he an international spy or arms dealer?

I don’t yet have children, but I wonder if I’ll perpetuate the same little white food lies in the name of tricking young, picky palates with healthy foods – a kind of veggie Trojan Horse to lower their irrational defences. I probably will, as I’ve been told we all fall prey to the same devices as our well-meaning parents. I forgive you, Mom. Had I known your were trying to feed me a vegetable, I would probably have feigned insult or nausea and fallen out of my high chair in disgust. I know my childhood diet of Lucky Charms cereal and Captain Highliner Fishsticks must have been difficult to overcome.

It’s easy to see how my unsuspecting brother and I could have been so easily duped. Spaghetti Squash is true to its name in that it really does pass for pasta. Italian children, likely possessing a more evolved appreciation for pasta, would probably smell the ruse a mile away and push their plates away with a haughty air – “Ma-ma, what eez zis sporcizia?!” (unfortunately, all my ethnic impersonations end up sounding Parisian).

When prepared right, the taste is uncanny and offers a healthy, low carb alternative to pasta. When cooked, its flesh falls away like strips of spaghetti.  Last weekend I witnessed this firsthand during a family visit to Saltspring Island, where my mom and I prepared this healthy squash casserole. No matter how you cook it though, you may still want to call it spaghetti if serving to kids. And don’t forget to hide the peas in the mashed potato, while you’re at it.

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Healthy Indian Chickpea Curry

I spent this weekend on Saltspring Island visiting my folks and playing with their new Suffolk lambs that were born last week. Lambs are very docile within the first few weeks, letting themselves be picked up and cuddled; but they’re voraciously hungry, nibbling on clothing, shoelaces, an extended finger, or the dog’s tail. Thankfully, my mom’s sheep are for wool only, not for serving with mint sauce. She would just as soon make a stew from her Golden Doodle than send her sheep down the Green Mile.

My sister has been sick for a few days, so my mom proposed a cooking marathon on Sunday to prepare some healthy food to bring over. Cooking there is always a pleasure, except when baking is involved; my mom’s Aga stove, with its many compartments of varying temperatures, perplexes me and thwarts any attempt to adhere to standard cooking times. She has an immense, well-lit kitchen with ample counter space and breath-taking ocean views. Every few hours a ferry will trod past, weaving in and out of the Gulf Islands, or a pair of eagles will careen in the wind as they eye up waterfowl.

Aga stove: each compartment is a different temperature which I still can't figure out

This healthy and tasty meal has loose ties to a recipe my mom found in the Flat Belly Diet book that’s she’s been carrying around like a holy text. She’s been on a fitness kick for the past few months and has been very proud of the results. The epitome of modest, when someone comes to visit she’ll say something like “Feel my arms,” as she flexes her biceps and scowls. “The beach is that way.”

We’ve added the yogourt here, for a healthier alternative to coconut milk, and the pineapple gives the dish a surprisingly sweet taste that compliments the heat of the curry. Enjoy!

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Stacked Mushroom Risotto with Spinach and Beets

Risotto was one of the first “adult” recipes I ever attempted during my  university years, back when even grilled cheese seemed ambitious. It’s not difficult to make by any means – in fact far from it – but it isn’t quick either. It requires constant stirring for a good 30 minutes, so if you plan to entertain your dinner guests with involved conversation, shadow puppets or pre-dinner juggling perhaps you should stick to rice or roasted potatoes as a side dish instead. I personally think it’s worth it and haven’t come across anyone yet who has passed up a plate of warm risotto topped with fresh Parmigiano Reggiano.

I had never even heard of risotto until being invited to a Slow Food experience at a friend’s house a few years ago. I’ve been known to eat like a prison inmate, purposefully focused on my food and quickly devouring, so I had my reservations about how I would cope with slow food. Unlike my misconceptions, slow food didn’t actually involve chewing each morsel for twenty minutes; but rather, sampling different dishes in different rooms over the course of five hours and pairing each dish with a glass of wine or aperitif. Or at least that was my friend’s take on it.

For Christmas one year I received a stacker cooking kit. It looks like a device that should have included Play Dough, though it is meant for food. It’s perfect for stacking veggies, rice – or in this case risotto  – into shapes, and for layering various food like geological strata on the plate. I had some spinach and beets in my fridge so thought these would be good test subjects for stacking with the risotto. The result: a tasty and colourful tower of Italian delight. Enjoy!

If you like risotto, you may also like my Beet Risotto or Heavenly Dark Chocolate Dessert Risotto

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Homemade Strawberry-Raspberry Jam

Jam is so easy and pleasurable to make that it’s a wonder why everyone doesn’t do it. The smell of strawberries cooking can transform a kitchen and for me it is reminiscent of childhood. It brings back a stream of happy, unrelated summertime memories: of lying listlessly in the dusty baseball field, knees scraped after a game; of running barefoot through an un-mowed lawn chasing my brother; of brachiating through tree branches like a simian; or of trading baseball cards, marbles and double-dare handshakes after spitting into our palms, which is really the only way this kind of handshake can be considered legit.

Store-bought jam is just jam; it is devoid of sentiment and symbolism. It is the one-night-stand of preserves. Homemade jam, on the other hand, carries with it a sort of precious timelessness. In this world of racy politics, recessions, earthquakes and grey hair, there is something almost medicinal in taking twenty minutes to stoop over the rolling boil of cooking berries and be swept back in time.

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Lebanese Cheese Pies – Fatayer bi Jeban

To the uninitiated, these cheeses pies – or fatayer (pronounced, “fat-eye-ah”) – look no more impressive than miniature pizzas without the pepperoni, though I assure you they are one of the most coveted foods to the members of my family. They are unparalleled in their taste and difficult to track down – a kind of Lebanese truffle. My mom and I have a frozen stash of fatayer that we hoard away in our freezers, as our stock doesn’t get replenished often. We moved from Montreal to the west coast, where there seems to be only 12 people of Lebanese descent, so finding a Lebanese restaurant nearby would be a miracle.

Food is one of the things my family misses most of Montreal. When my brother flies back for a visit, he spends more time in the shawarma shop than sleeping. When my mom or I visit, we arrange a rendez-vous with our fatayer supplier, a small hole-in-the-wall establishment run by middle eastern octogenarians who speak little English. We transport back several dozen fatayer in our suitcases, often the only souvenirs from our trip, that we then distribute and dole out to the other members of the family. My teeshirts smell like a middle eastern souq for a week, but it’s worth it.

My mom has been begging those old women for their fatayer recipe for years; though the only way they’ll give it up, they say, is if she stays with them to work. I can picture the old wrinkled hands busily kneading dough in the back room, the smell of anise and pita bread wafting out into the chilly streets, and the sound of a woman’s voice on the radio singing beautifully in Arabic. My mom declines, though with hesitation I can tell, and chooses to search for the recipe on her own instead. Maybe when she turns 80 she’ll reconsider and join these women with their melodic tongues and culinary prowess and immerse herself in a culture that has been absent from her world since she was a child.

My mom and I have come across this recipe for fatayer, though it isn’t quite how I remember my Sito making it. It is close enough, however, and still worthy of being stashed away in the freezer for a day when Montreal calls to me most.

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Seared Tuna with Mango-Lime Mojo

I’ve finally found my Mojo. No, not the Austin Powers kind, but the saucy citrusy kind that originates from Cuba. It’s pronounced “mo-ho”, not “mo-jo”, the libido giving force made popular by shag carpet-chested Mike Myers, so you shouldn’t get too many strange looks when you tell people what you had for dinner as long as you say it right. Mojo is a tangy sauce made of citrus, garlic and traditionally lots of oil; though I’ve made a healthier version here with less oil and a welcome addition using my favourite fruit, mango. I love mangoes; I eat them dried, candied, juiced, frozen, in sorbets, and have even had them freshly fallen from a tree. From the small house in rural Thailand where I lived one summer, I remember hearing periodic bangs on the corrugated roofs of neighbours, which marked the sound of ripe mangoes being shaken from the trees by hungry children with long wooden sticks, clamouring for dessert.

This sauce is a delightful accompaniment to grilled pork, prawns or fish. I picked up tuna flank from the grocer this afternoon and marinated it in herbs and oil before sauteeing it very briefly, slicing and then serving with a generous drizzling of mojo.

Mojo is actually short for Mojito, which is unrelated to the drink – though the drink would be a perfect, refreshing beverage for this meal.  Continue reading