Author Archives: gentlemangourmet

About gentlemangourmet

My name is Mike and even though I’m not always a gentleman, it’s safe to say I am in love with food. Like my more famous namesake, the kid on the cereal commercial from the early 80′s, I had an ability to eat just about anything and “like it.” I’ve become a tad more discerning since my toddler phase: I prefer Pinot Noir to the customary Shiraz my parents liked, I no longer eat parmesan cheese sprinkled from a container, and can pick out which ingredients I like or don’t in a recipe by smell alone. I blame my Lebanese heritage, my large Lebanese nose (all the better for smelling with) and exposure over the past few years to some exquisite ethnic cooking styles and cuisine, as well as to some stunning, inspiring cooks who are family or friends. I’ve included a lot of their favourite recipes on this site, as well as a few of my own that have become my staples over the years. I hope you find something here that you like. Happy cooking!

Mouth Watering Lemon Possett

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Lemon Possett is so easy to whip together, that only tossing a bag of Skittles at your guests could make for a simpler dessert. Take a bite of this deliciously light, lemon pudding and you would never guess that it only contains three ingredients: sugar, cream and lemon. 

Normally my go-to dessert is creme brûlée, if I’m in the mood to treat others with something fancy and elegant, but this zestier, unscorched cousin of the brûlée is quicker and sure-fire, without having to worry about finicky egg yolks or burning down the house with the kitchen blow torch. 

The secret to serving a possett is to keep it chilled until seconds before serving. Moments after biting into it, it will begin to melt, and if you leave room for conversation in between bites, you’ll be left with a ramequin full of lemony juice.  

The intense lemon flavour make this a very light dessert, perfect to pair with a dinner of seafood or chicken, or with heavier meals where maternity stretch pants are in order. So essentially, eat it anytime. 

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Baked Brie with Toasted Pecans

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We hosted a fondue night for friends last week and decided to try an appetizer of baked brie with toasted pecans, drizzled in warm maple syrup. Either of these on their own would easily make my list of top “stranded desert island” fare, but together they were a triad of decadence that did not last long on the plate.  

This is a quick and easy appetizer that offers a refreshing variation to the traditional Brie and baguette duo that many hosts foist upon their guests. Once you’ve tried a warm creamy Brie or Camembert, dressed in any fashion, your self restraint for second helpings will be nil, and you will forever turn your nose up at Brie that has not seen the inside of an oven. 

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Oven-Baked Apple Pancakes

Today marked the end of my short-lived backyard apple season as the last apple plopped to the soggy grass. My two, now bare, apple trees remind me of autumn family trips as a child to an orchard in Oka, Quebec. I remember climbing up the trunk of each apple tree, like a simian, and entangling myself in the upper branches elatedly. I loved the pull and twist of the fruit, with arms outstretched. I loved the quick polish of fruit on my grubby shirt sleeve, back before washing one’s fruit came in style, and the ultimate, mouth-watering crunch that followed. My brother and I would leave the orchard with belly aches from having gorged ourselves greedily on fruit, and would sneak past the gates with bulging pockets bursting at the seams, like those pirates in movies who stuff gold doubloons in every orifice as the ship is sinking.

I’ve been trying to find a use for the late-fallen apples from my two apple trees that didn’t fall early enough to make it into the now-fermenting batch of cider. This year’s harvest has been used in a couple of pies, a recent fruit crumble and enough homemade apple sauce to supply my local Costco.

I also stumbled upon a variation of traditional stove-top apple flapjacks which I had to try. Apparently German in its roots, this “oven pancake” gives the pancake a puffy, shell-like appearance that is both filling and slightly reminiscent of a distant Canadian cousin, the Beaver Tail – my favourite Quebec export after Maple Syrup, Poutine and Blanche de Chambly beer. Enjoy!

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Summertime: Peach, Plum and Apple Galette

What better way to follow a post on homemade ice cream than with this mouth-watering variant of fruit pie. I had a craving tonight for something sweet and summery, with a crumbly crust that melts on the tongue, so conceded to this rustic fruit tart.

While I don’t have a bad word to say about traditional pie, its near relative – the galette – is a delicious alternative. It’s a dessert that one doesn’t typically see at a potluck, say, or a dinner party, so if you’re looking to jazz things up a bit and get your friends clucking in excitement by your end of the table, a galette may just do the trick. Or a nacho sampler, if that fails. Aesthetics aside, a galette is also easier to make than pie, as it only requires one bottom crust, which folds free-form over the filling and is then baked.

As a filling, I used plums, peaches and granny smith apples, but you can create these tarts using any combination of fruits, I’m sure, including blueberries which have just come in season here in the Pacific Northwest. Be sure to serve the galette warm with a generous dollop of creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream and you’ll be guaranteed an invite again to the next potluck.

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Homemade French Vanilla Ice Cream

A few months ago I subscribed to a BBC Podcast called the Food Programme, which I now listen to regularly while driving or when I’m really hungry and no food is available. One episode which I particularly enjoyed, on the joys of homemade Ice Cream, made claims that all-natural ice cream was richer, creamier and more decadent than commercial brands. A new kitchen gadget I had to have and Christmas was so far away. Unable to wait that long, I picked up a hand-crankable Donvier ice cream maker from my local kitchen store, on sale for $50. A bargain, for sure, as I did the math on the money I would save by eating a lifetime supply of frozen desserts that could be concocted at home in 20 minutes or less.

Ice cream makers, whether electric or hand-cranked, should be an indispensable tool in your kitchen, as they can whip together more than just ice cream: there are literally thousands of recipes for sorbet (a water-based frozen dessert containing no milk or cream), sherbet (dairy-based dessert, usually lower in fat, but sweeter than ice cream), frozen yogurt, or gelato (intensely flavoured Italian ice cream of a softer consistency). If it is liquid and somewhat able to freeze, chances are it can be made into an ice cream. Guinness ice cream, anyone?

Yes, I know French Vanilla is plain and boring, to some, and perhaps indicative of my personality type or some deep-seated mistrust of my mother, if you put any stock in Ice Cream Psychoanalysis. Truth is, it’s been my favourite since I was younger and I enjoy sprinkling it with chocolate chips when I’m feeling a little crazy. Don’t try to read too much into it.

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Mediterranean Pan-Roasted Chicken

A colleague at work has just abandoned we cubicle rats for a month to vacation in the hot Italian sun. She has spent the past two weeks reminding others of this fact; and although I keenly do the same when it’s my turn to escape abroad, I’m no less aggrieved and envious when left behind. But why be jealous, really? Sure, Frommer’s says nice things about it; but Italy isn’t all Sistine chapels, olive-skinned supermodels, or linguine heavenly enough to make Julia Roberts swoon. And I’m sure that more people die on wobbly Vespas in Rome than of bee stings here in Canada. So there.

Ok, this isn’t working. I’m obviously in denial. Admittedly, Italy has been on my bucket list for a while, even if my mother tells me it was noisy, dirty and full of pigeons and creepy men who stare. That sounds pretty much like where I live now, or at least no worse. Give me the Vespas. Give me the green pastures, luscious grapes hanging heavily from the vine, warm bread dipped in olive oil, or an impassioned, heart-wrenching Italian aria. Heck, give me lice from sleeping on a dirty hammock, if it means getting to bask in the Mediterranean sun for even one afternoon.

Apparently I’m in need of a holiday and thankfully I have one approaching…though not to Italy. While waiting for my credit card travel points to slowly accumulate enough to cross an ocean, I’ll travel in the meantime by other means: Tonight I made this Italian-inspired dish with pan-roasted chicken, kalamata olives and roasted cherry tomatoes, I savoured a glass of red wine, and listed to Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino while yearning desperately for another continent.

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Broiled Salmon with Shiitake-Honey Glaze

After a long string of unrelated career choices in my early youth, including a detective (ages 8-10), a freelance spy/mercenary who resembled the comic book hero Punisher (ages 10-11), a professional baseball player/owner of baseball card store (age 11), a writer of paranormal fiction (age 12), I finally decided on horticulture (ages 13-18). I was obsessed with plants. I filled my dad’s house with so many potted plants that the windows would fog up. I couldn’t eat a fruit without planting its seeds, or enjoy an avocado without removing the pit and placing it in a glass of water to entice its roots to grow. Our kitchen looked like a mad science laboratory and windowsills became expensive real estate.

Looking back, it was a little eccentric that I spent several minutes each day breathing on each houseplant, to give them more air; or that I flipped yearningly through plant books while my friends were reading Batman comics or Playboys. I knew the Latin name for every potted plant and became irritatingly pedantic when visiting friends, if I came across a neglected or ill specimen. Nitrogen deficiency, I would say; or don’t give this guy a south facing window – shade is preferable; or, your fern needs watering (with a condemning scowl). I didn’t get invited out much.

During my last year of high school I was given a shiitake log by someone who knew of my love of growing things. These logs are pretty remarkable if you’ve never seen one before. It is a small log that has been coated, I’m guessing, by spores from this delicious fungi. After a few weeks sitting in a cool damp place, mushrooms begin to grow on and off for several months. I hadn’t really been a huge lover of fungi until then, but there is something wonderfully meaty and exotic with shiitake. Ranging anywhere from $4 to $8 a pound, I don’t often buy these expensive ingredients; although they are always a welcome treat in my kitchen, especially in this ginger-shiitake glaze paired with salmon which I know you’ll love.

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Panko-Crusted Risotto Balls Stuffed with Mozzarella and Peppers

If you’ve never been to Nelson, British Columbia then you have been missing some of the most awe-inspiring natural landscapes that the province offers, as well as some of the best restaurants this side of Montreal. In addition to its brush with fame in the 80’s as the filming location for Steve Martin’s Roxanne, the town also has an eclectic music and arts scene, decent skiing and an economy that is apparently fuelled principally by the sale of psychotropics. The highlight of my stay was stumbling upon a couple of hidden gem restaurants that intrigued me with the novelty of their meals. Two side dishes, in particular, sent me reeling at the table: Masala Poutine with fromage frais and flash-fried risotto balls in panko.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully to duplicate the masala poutine. Hailing from La Belle Province I have a predisposition for poutine and anything deep fried, just as I have an ingrained dislike, equally strong, for Quebec’s other well known export, Celine Dion. I picked up a mandoline to emulate the style of fries, but to no avail. I’ve also ruined two batches of masala sauce concoctions, none of which are worthy of the original. When I finally do get this close enough to post, remind me to tell you the story about the time we introduced poutine to Laos.

The risotto balls, on the other hand, have agreed with my efforts of experimentation. I’ve strayed from the original ones I sampled, but did still choose to enrobe them in panko, with a quick dip in the deep fryer for crunchiness. I’ve also added a little bit of white wine, for added flavour and acidity, and stuffed the balls with mozza and a fire roasted red pepper fresh from my BBQ. I made each ball a little larger than a golf ball; and although their size is diminutive, they are tremendously filling, beware.

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Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

With the hot spell these last few days, lingering on from the sunny weekend, I’ve been staring longingly from my office window with wistful thoughts of approaching summer: a beach towel spread on a grassy field with a Nabokov novel, wine tasting on a wisteria-scented verandah, or evening bonfires with buttery corn on the cob and cold beer.  I’m sure the productivity graph for most of my colleagues has shown a similar plunge. The weather in Victoria doesn’t stay agreeable for long this time of year, reassuringly for those with deadlines to meet, so undoubtedly this splendid sun-euphoria will be short-lived.

In the meantime, I’m going to induce an early summer any way that I can. I will play Beach Boys music and hop around the kitchen as I dry the dishes. I will wear my sandals, even when I can’t feel my toes in the cold of early morning. I’ve cleared out the wasp’s nest from inside my barbecue, unused through the wet winter, and have baptized it anew with a salmon fillet and sumptuous steak with melted blue cheese. I’ve knotted up my gums with my first corn on the cob of the season (imported from California, but corn nonetheless). I also picked up a basketful of inexpensive berries at the grocery store on the weekend. My reserves of jam are pretty well stocked, so when I saw pints of strawberries on sale, I knew that strawberry rhubarb pie beckoned instead, the quintessential summer treat. My unruly rhubarb plant has been giving me grief each time that I pass nearby with the mower, jabbing me irritatingly, so making this recipe was a good excuse to trim it a little.

Follow this simple Pie crust recipe for a no-fail two crust pie, or pick up one that is store bought if you want to save 10 minutes. But for the difference in taste and added crumbliness of homemade crust, I make my own from scratch every single time. Tonight, after the grilled steak and corn on the cob, why not turn on some Beach Boys and make room for dessert. Wouldn’t it be nice…

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Easy to Make Dark Chocolate Bowl

I was flipping through a cooking magazine the other day published by my favourite chef, Ricardo, a French Canadian cook with a penchant for preparing foods high in cholesterol, sugar and fat, or at least that’s the impression a reader would get from this one issue. The magazine features his take on all the (traditional) foods that I grew up with as a boy in Quebec, like hot chicken sandwiches smothered in gravy, poutine, mac and cheese, and chocolate donuts. As if this wasn’t incentive enough to pick up a copy, the remainder of the magazine paid homage to the splendours of chocolate and is replete with new and creative ways to rot teeth and keep dentists employed. One recipe in particular (if a recipe with a single ingredient even qualifies as a recipe) struck me as ingenious and I felt compelled to share it.

Those of you who work with me may already know I’m referring to a bowl made entirely of chocolate, like the one I brought in midweek to keep as far away as possible from my house. It is not as daunting as it appears and the method for creating it is so quick and easy that you’ll almost slap yourself after I reveal it. I feel like I’m giving away something esoteric, like a solution to the magic trick where a women gets sliced in half; but recipes, unlike David Copperfield secrets, are meant to be shared and enjoyed.

There are so many things one could do with the chocolate bowl, the least of which is devour it as is. They are also great to use for serving ice cream, cereal, or chocolate covered strawberries. I made the latter, as I had some melted chocolate leftover that I didn’t want to waste. I haven’t yet served hot soup in it, though I can pretty much guarantee your table cloth will need to be laundered. Enjoy!

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Kalamata Tapenade with Tomatoes and Spinach

A few summers ago, my friend Luke had been bragging about salmon recipes he was experimenting with, which included daubing the fish with old fashioned mustard, on one occasion, or black olive tapenade. I was determined to try the tapenade recipe to prove my superiority over an obviously talented cook. I searched the grocery store, near the hummus section, but the only product in stock was a small container with a price so exorbitant that I nearly gagged. I was chastised by an elderly woman watching me as she saw that I gave serious consideration to the purchase. She was shaking her head and probably thinking what morons young people are. I had nearly forked out a good sum of money for a mush of capers and olives that literally takes seconds to puree. The woman explained the basic recipe to me, as I took mental notes, then she continued on her way.

I used to think that tapenade came from Italy, as I erroneously attributed olives with the land of vino, the Pope mobile and the Sistine Chapel, but it is actually the French who first had the insight of mashing up capers and olives to serve on bread. Perhaps there was a shortage of jam that year.

Like Luke, I’ve used tapenade many times on my salmon and am never disappointed. It’s so easy that it doesn’t really even warrant writing the recipe down: basically, spread the tapenade on the uncooked salmon, like a thick paste, then cook the salmon as normal. I also suggest eating tapenade, as the French had originally intended, with a freshly baked baguette. For my own take on tapenade, I use additional ingredients for taste and colour, and pureed them quite finely; you may prefer a coarser texture, in which case puree very briefly.

 

Ingredients:

3 tbsp capers from a jar (don’t use the water that comes with the jar)

24 Kalamata olives, pits removed

1 Roma tomato

1 tbsp olive oil

1/4 cup fresh spinach leaves, washed and dried

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper

 

Puree all the ingredients in a food processor, in short bursts until the desired consistency is reached. If you want larger chunks of chopped olives and a coarser texture, add the olives last.

Black olive tapenade on salmon, with red quinoa salad and lemon butter brussel sprouts


Moroccan Beef Tagine with Honey and Raisins

Even before I had visited Marrakech, I had already tasted Moroccan tagine at a local Victoria restaurant and had become enamoured of the unmistakable, splendid tastes of this North African country. A trip to Morocco, however, will imbue any subsequent taste of its cuisine with rich and fond memories that greatly enhance each long-savoured bite.  When I now taste slow-cooked lamb or beef simmered in cinnamon, cumin and honey, or whenever I open up the lid of a hot tagine fresh from the oven, I imagine Marrakech – the magical, medieval city with its labrynthine alleys, with its fruit stalls and monumental date pyramids or its many wooden carts filled with fresh mint leaves, with its colourful tins of bulgur, lentils and dried beans, or its famous night market where each bodily sense of the observer is titillated.

Satisfying my olive craving

Night Market at Marrakech

I don’t eat a lot of beef at home, so tend to lean more towards cooking chicken tagine when in the mood for Moroccan. If I have the time, however, I thoroughly enjoy the robust taste of beef tagine cooked to slow perfection with raisins, honey and middle eastern spices. I remember once seeing this dish served with sauteed apples glazed with honey and cinnamon, to lend a pleasant tartness to the dish, so I’ve duplicated it here. I didn’t use a tagine to cook this dish, but you could have just as easily cooked this in a tagine in the oven or stovetop, instead of in a large saucepan.

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Homemade Kale Ravioli and Marinara Sauce

One Friday night a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to work under the tutelage of Bruce at his Saltspring Island restaurant. Although I tell people, tongue-in-cheek, that I used to be a chef in an Italian restaurant when I was younger, the truth is that I was just a lowly pizza cook, burning my forearms daily on the oven door and reeking of pepperoni for minimum wage and free pizza-by-the-slice. Since then, pizza has never held the same appeal. I was expecting a similar kind of hell at Bruce’s Kitchen, but was pleased to find a professionally run, familial kitchen where gourmet meals were prepared using only fresh and local ingredients. I’d expect nothing less from an eatery on Saltspring Island, a Gulf Island eden that is so sheltered from most western commercialism that the mere mention of an impending McDonald’s franchise would spur locals to chain themselves to bulldozers and burn clown effigies in protest.

Bruce takes pride in all aspects of his food, from farm to table as his slogan proclaims, and his attention to detail is astonishing; even the most basic condiment, such as mustard, mayo or vanilla extract, is made painstakingly from scratch by Bruce himself. For anyone ignorant of the sustenance that feeds them, they need only pass an afternoon in Bruce’s Kitchen watching its namesake chef hard at work.

I was there to help Bruce with his renowned Friday night dinners, for which menus were prepared using clever and creative themes that changed on a weekly basis. That night’s menu was of a children’s literary theme, drawing as its muse such works as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (hand-ground lamb meatballs stuffed with fire-roasted red peppers, served on a bed of creamy polenta), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (chocolate espresso mousse) and the classic Green Eggs and Ham (kale ravioli).

It was this last dish that I aimed to duplicate at home, it was so good. I have used my pasta maker previously to make ravioli, but the pasta turned out bland and misshapen by the time it landed on my plate. To remedy this, Bruce used a ravioli cutter or pastry crimper to properly shape the ravioli; so I took note and picked up my own afterwards. To liven up the taste and colour of the pasta, he mixed in chopped kale.  I couldn’t remember the exact recipe, a few weeks after the fact, but trial and error gave me a finished product that I was pleased with. Thanks for the inspiration, Bruce, and for your patience with my endless questions.

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Breaded Halibut Dijonnaise

Halibut season started a few weeks ago and I couldn’t resist picking up two exquisite pieces from the seafood counter to celebrate. I recently vowed to cut down on seafood posts as this was starting to feel like the Plenty of Fish online dating website. The reality however is that the majority of my meals contain something from the sea and these fillets were too nice to pass up.

I wanted to coat the halibut with crushed almonds, similar to the pistachio crusted salmon that I made a few weeks ago, but unable to read my own chickenscratch on the crumpled Post-It note, I forgot the almonds, so we improvised with bread crumbs. If you have almonds, I suggest using them crushed, otherwise it was still delicious with the bread crumbs.

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Homemade Doughnuts and Doughnut Holes

I wouldn’t be a true Canadian if I didn’t have a hankering for doughnuts. Between Tim Hortons and Dunkin Donuts, I was practically weaned on these caloric concoctions, and it was likely one of my first words. They are the ultimate comfort food, whether accompanying a hot cup of coffee and crossword puzzle on a lazy weekend morning, or savouring a bag-ful at an outdoor market in the summertime, fingers coated in cinnamon sugar. Mini carnival doughnuts are the most lethal and underestimated of the doughnut genus, as their diminutive size confounds the stomach –  the hand bypasses the brain on its way to grab another and the bag is empty before the brain finally catches wind of the ploy. When my mom sees a mini doughnut stand at the Saturday Saltspring Island Market, she’ll buy a dozen, quickly eat one, then shove the bag towards me with an emphatic “Get them away from me!”

After I made these at home one morning before work, I sampled one doughnut hole still warm, and immediately swallowed 3 more without chewing. My willpower is not strong enough. But who can resist a dessert that can also be eaten as breakfast? I wouldn’t recommend keeping leftovers at home, unless you’re planning on running a marathon in the days ahead. I brought a tupperware container to work and handed doughnuts out in meetings throughout the day, keeping them at the opposite end of the table from me. Enjoy!

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Mango and Coconut Sticky Rice

I first tasted this dish – known as Khao Niaow Ma Muang – in Kanchanaburi, a city in Thailand notable for its Bridge on the river Kwai, otherwise known as the Death Railway. Despite its murky past, where during World War II the Japanese forced Allied prisoners to build a railway from Thailand to Burma, the city is now very quaint: scenic river views, internet cafes, outdoor night markets and elephants that will pose for food or money.

It is most likely in Kanchanaburi that Sonia contracted Dengue Fever, though she wouldn’t know about it until a few days later once we had already left town. The mosquitos there were kamikaze-crazy and they marauded through the humid streets in thick swarms with an electric, infuriating hum. Oblivious to the impending “break bone fever” that was to come, Sonia and I both dined at a restaurant that resembled a tiki jungle hut,  where our guidebook recommended mango and sticky rice for dessert. Before then, I had never conceived of rice being eaten with mangos – and certainly not as a dessert. I haven’t tasted it again in a restaurant since returning home, though looking through photos of the trip recently a Pavlovian response ensued, which left me salivating and craving the sweet and salty sticky rice with a side of cool, freshly sliced mango. Enjoy!

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Angel Food Cake Jelly Roll


Finally, a dessert post! I’ve been told that there have been too many healthy recipes on this site recently and I have to agree; there hasn’t been a hint of chocolate in over a month and I’ve been getting the shakes from withdrawal. There is a long list of desserts that I’ve been dying to get to, including tiramisu, panna cotta with caramel sauce, deep-fried Mars bar and New York Style Cheesecake. I’m also always open to requests…

This jelly roll is sugary, yes, but made using Angel Food Cake, which is lighter and fluffier than a traditional Swiss roll; it practically eats itself. I love Angel Food Cake for the way it almost melts in the mouth and I would normally eat it in the summertime smothered in fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream. It’s not quite summer yet, though here in Victoria the lawnmowers are already whirring in activity, the daffodils are in full bloom and the cherry blossoms that line the streets are beginning to lose their petals in a florid flurry of pink.

I’ve included the basic recipe for Angel Food Cake, though if you are short on time and already feel like you’re being put to work enough by having to laboriously roll up the cake and daub it with jelly, then take a shortcut and pick up the angel food cake mix from the grocery store. Otherwise, it is easy enough to make from scratch. You can also buy store-bought jam or make your own; I used the homemade strawberry-raspberry jam I had made a few weeks ago. A tip, however: if you’re anticipating leftovers, the roll will soak up the moisture from the jam overnight and will likely be a bit soggy the next day – which is not ideal. It will taste much better within the first few hours of making.

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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


Shrove Tuesday Sole Amandine

Yes, another fish post. If you haven’t figured it out yet, red meat isn’t regularly featured at my house and I live on the West Coast where fresh seafood is in abundance.

My cleanse is now over, coinciding nicely with Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Tuesday to Christians and breakfast lovers – a worldwide pancake binge preceding the 40 days of Lent. I haven’t yet witnessed this on a global scale, although I imagine it looks similar to the free street-side pancake breakfast at the Calgary Stampede. This morning at work, we were spoiled with delicious mini pancakes smeared in butter and marmalade that someone brought in. I don’t celebrate Lent, and after a challenging single week of detox I don’t think I’d be very pleasant to be around on the 40th day.

I haven’t yet resorted to my old eating habits (i.e. 3 cups of coffee, baked goods, pasta and peanut butter straight from the jar) since coming off my cleanse. Wanting to gradually wean myself off the healthy regime of the past week so that my body doesn’t go into shock, I’ve decided on Sole Amandine for dinner, which is generally healthy…except for the buttery sauce in which it is practically poached. This is a French dish, so butter is to be expected in quantities quite ludicrous. I actually made Cod Amandine, as local fishermen apparently had a poor catch of sole this past week due to excessive waves – or so said the pimply teenager at the grocery store – but Sole Amandine sounds so much more melodic and intriguing.

If you celebrate Lent, good luck tomorrow…and we’ll see you in 40 days.  Continue reading


Curry Chicken and Flavoured Basmati Rice

I’ve been begging my friend Luke for a few months now to let me post some of his recipes. Although you might never guess it by hearing him talk excitedly about hockey or speaking in his gruff manner, Luke is one of the biggest foodies I know and the embodiment of the word “gourmet”. He cooks like a master chef and takes great pride in his kitchen, his ingredients and in the thoughtful presentation of his dishes. He is also one of the few people I know who makes an effort to properly pair his food with wines and he always asks for the freshest catch when selecting his fish, unlike normal people who normally don’t think twice.

When he phoned me up yesterday night to try some of his chicken curry dish that he had been sweating over for the afternoon, I knew better than to decline. He is a wonderful chef when it comes to regular meals, but with Indian food he has a remarkable skill. I’ll hand things off to Luke to share this flavourful, exotic recipe.

***

Hi all,

I’m not a chef by any means, but I do like to eat well, which to me means healthy, seasonal food cooked fresh — therefore I cook.  I am also tired of eating out at restaurants and suffering the consequences, both financial and gastro-intestinal.

After a recent trip to India, and in light of our recent cold weather, I find myself craving hearty, healthy dishes that instantly warm me and maybe even make me sweat a little. This particular recipe stems from a past relationship with a woman of Indian descent who, after my persistent begging and pleading, explained the general guidelines and instructions — because no such “recipe” exists — to create the flavours that never quite resemble her mom’s wonderful and traditional Saturday night meal. That being said, it is a close rendition that I am proud to make and I believe the taste exceeds that of any “authentic” Indian restaurant in my little city.

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Pistachio Crusted Salmon with Maple and Pesto

My Cuisinart food processor has been getting a lot of action lately. With it I’ve discovered the splendours of homemade marinades and sauces by wildly pulsing together ginger, garlic and lemon juice with other random ingredients lurking in the recesses of my fridge. Last night I made a zesty, Cuban-inspired mango mojo sauce with grilled tuna flank, by pureeing mango with lemon, orange juice and hot pepper – Muy bueno!

Tonight, I’m searching for inspiration from the sea once more with this dish. It combines some of my favourite ingredients: salmon, maple syrup, pesto and pistachios. The pistachios have been beckoning me from the bottom shelf of my cupboard for a few months and although I originally intended pairing them with halibut, I couldn’t resist the beautiful and fresh salmon fillets that were on sale yesterday. Enjoy!

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Curried Barley Salad with Apples and Pecans

Today I had an intervention with myself. Lately I’ve been feeling lethargic, unmotivated and frankly a little flabby, so I decided that tomorrow I will wipe clean the slate of my eating habits and detox with a 7-day cleanse. No more muffins during coffee break and no more sneaking handfuls of Hershey’s Kisses in the afternoon when I’m in need of a pick-me-up. I’ve given myself at least a day to prepare mentally for the challenge and to also finish off any remaining bacon, Fig Newtons or dark chocolate in my house so that my rumbling belly won’t be tempted in the days to come.

Tomorrow I will fill my fridge with green leafy things and stock up on essentials like yams, beets, quinoa and even the black wild rice that tastes like twigs. I will wash the grime from my unused water bottle and make an effort to actually drink from it throughout the day, instead of only using it to fill my iron or to water hard-to-reach houseplants.  I’ll freeze any leftover bread, as it will be forbidden fruit to me over the next 7 days, as will be my Monday morning emotional crutch and companion – coffee. I pity my poor coworkers on Monday.

The cleanse I bought is the ReCleanse Herbal Cleanse and Detox. It is probably very mild compared to others on the market and it’s suitable for someone like me who needs to consume enough calories in order not to throw a tantrum from low blood sugar whenever Microsoft Outlook acts up. It requires taking mild herbal pills, drinking enough water to substantially lower one’s productivity at work, and refraining from eating certain foods such as bread products, dairy (except natural plain yogourt), alcohol, coffee and refined sugars. I do this cleanse a few times a year, usually when the seasons change, and after seven days I feel stronger, happier and healthier. It usually also sets my eating patterns on the right course for another few months and saves me money from not splurging at the coffee shop across the street from work.

The secret to making it through till the seventh day is to always have healthy snacks at the ready. I’ve got such little food willpower that this is integral for me. To help get me through the first few days, tonight I made a delicious batch of curried barley salad with apples, cranberries and pecans.  It tastes fine warm, but even better as a cold lunch the next day. Enjoy!

Pearl Barley

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How to Make Peanut Butter

While I am typically not a huge fan of peanuts, unless I’m eating them off of a countertop with a pint of beer, I could live quite happily off peanut butter.

A friend of mine who is a chef at a local restaurant forbids bringing peanut butter into his house out of principle. I’ve seen him become red-faced and indignant at the mere mention of it, as he thinks it unsophisticated and barely passable for food, like Cheese Whiz or Twinkies. He may not be alone when it comes to this contentious legume and its creamy spread. Allergies have given peanuts such a bad rap that they are banned from schools and office buildings as if they were something illicit or leprous.  It’s true that they’re not as sexy as the macadamia or as versatile as the almond, and in assorted nut mixtures, they’re always picked last – the fat kid of nuts. But don’t be so quick to judge the lowly peanut.

I always carry a large, Costco-sized container of peanut butter in my cupboard. As a runner, I find it a quick, energy rich food for before or after a workout. As an oft-lazy weeknight cook, I’ll whip together a peanut butter jam sandwich, or will plop down on the couch after work, spoon in hand, and eat directly from the container as if it were a tub of Rocky Road ice cream.

Not from fiscal necessity, but rather out of curiosity, I wanted to see how easy it would be to make my own peanut butter at home.  I’m not  a huge fan of the crunchy, thick stuff they sell in health food stores, so I decided to dispense with the “all natural” and add a bit of sugar and oil for increased taste and added creaminess. The ingredient list is sparse: roasted peanuts, salt, oil and sugar, though if you prefer natural peanut butter perhaps leave out or reduce the last two ingredients.

I picked up a bag of peanuts at the grocery store tonight and felt a little self conscious, like I was buying a Playboy or tampons for a girlfriend. After all, no one buys peanuts anymore except old ladies with purple-dyed hair who feed squirrels in the park.

This recipe couldn’t be more satisfying and was well worth the arched-eyebrow look from the pale-faced cashier tonight. In less than 5 minutes I had a cup full of creamy peanut butter that cost pennies and tasted as good as anything store-bought. Kids, try this at home. Continue reading


Buttermilk Pancakes with Raspberry Syrup

I’ve never understood people who can start their day with nothing more in their bellies than a banana or slice of toast. I would be irritable from low blood sugar by 9 am and fainting by noon. Although typical Lumberjack breakfasts are too much for me, I do enjoy sitting down to a hearty breakfast washed down with a cup or two of coffee. Sunday breakfasts are sublime when the sun is shining warmly through the kitchen windows and the meal is accompanied by a crossword puzzle and a CBC broadcast in the background. My usual breakfast fare for the past few months has been blueberries, yogourt and granola, though occasionally on weekends – and in particular after a long run – I’ll risk messying the kitchen for a plateful of pancakes.

Pancakes remind me of childhood breakfasts, where my parents would whip together flapjacks from a box of Bisquick dry mix. Even now, when I visit my parents, my step dad will bring out blueberry or banana pancakes drizzled in maple syrup with a side of crispy bacon. At Christmas, we were allowed to open stockings first thing in the morning, though the holiday tradition required us to sit down for pancakes before we could actually start shredding through gift wrapping. Needless to say, we ate very quickly and our legs twitched with anticipation throughout the meal.

Pancakes are delicious when slathered in butter and syrup, but for something different try it with a homemade fruit syrup, such as raspberry or strawberry. Continue reading


Cranberry Tabouli with Pumpkin Seeds

I used to be very pretentious when it came to Lebanese food. If I went to a Greek or Middle Eastern restaurant and came across a dish that didn’t look the way my grandmother used to make it, I’d put on airs and make faces with every bite, like a fussy child. At a work potluck recently, someone brought in stuffed grape vine leaves filled with pork, instead of lamb, and I gave them the cold shoulder for nearly a week.

Tabouli has always been one of the greatest offenders, as there are countless variations on its preparation (and spelling), many of which sadly involve being too stingy on parsley. Grocery store tabouli is one culprit: it consists mainly of bulghur wheat and offers the same satisfaction as munching on kitty litter (I’m guessing). My preference is to throw in heaps of parsley, cucumber and tomato, and making a complete meal out of it. The trouble is that I’m sometimes too lazy to undertake the lengthy task of finely chopping 2 bunches of parsley. I own a food processor, but with tabouli is just feels like cheating.

This easy-to-make recipe is a far cry from my Sito’s tabouli, but requires much less preparation and chopping. Although taking liberties with the classic Middle Eastern salad – and hopefully not offending the omnipotent Tabouli Gods by doing so – I know you won’t be disappointed with this version. I’ve reduced the parsley amounts and replaced the other ingredients with roasted pumpkin seeds and cranberries for a pleasant tartness. I’ve still used bulghur wheat here, but it would taste equally good with couscous or quinoa instead. If my grandmother ever asks, this will be our little secret. Shh. Continue reading


Double Chocolate Chip Maple Cookies

I’ve tried and tasted dozens of chocolate chip cookie recipes over the years and licked my fair share of batter from a spatula or bowl, though this is the winner hands-down. It is chewy, betcha-can’t-eat-just-one-addictive and is guaranteed to make you crave a cold glass of milk.

I’ve modified the recipe from one found in my very first cookbook, a dog-eared copy of Betty Crocker that my mom bestowed upon me the year I moved out. The pages are yellow and stained from the splatter of ingredients. The best recipes can always be found hidden between pages that have stuck together over time. My mom’s endearing, hand-written message on the inside cover always makes me smile. How did she know that I would eventually grow to love cooking, at a time when all I could muster up from my repertoire was grilled cheese and Kraft Dinner? Thanks Mom.

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Valentine’s Day Butternut Squash Soup with Cumin and Thyme

I picked up butternut squash last week with the intention of making homemade squash ravioli, but recovering from a busy work week and a rainy Saturday, I opted for something a little less ambitious to prepare – Butternut Squash Soup. This tasty soup with its hint of cumin warms up the insides on a winter’s day and also makes for a quick, healthy lunch during the week ahead. No roast beef sandwiches for at least three days!

There are a lot of squash soup recipes available online, but I find the taste of most of these sometimes too bland for my liking. In the past I’ve added apple sauce to my soup, though here I’ve chosen to go with apple cider vinegar and carrots instead, for that same subtle sweetness. I also roasted the squash beforehand with oil, cumin, cayenne and fresh thyme, for extra flavour. If you’re like my mom and don’t like cumin you can substitute this with rosemary or sage.

My dad and younger brother picking pumpkins and squash last fall

Freshly-picked butternut squash

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Soft Maple Sugar Creams at a Quebec Reveillon

Whenever I think of maple sugar cream fudge, or sucre a la creme, I think of two things. First, of my mom guiltily sneaking samples from the fudge vendor at Saltspring’s Summer Market when my step dad isn’t looking. Being raised in Quebec, her favourite flavour is naturally maple. I also think of Quebec during the winter holidays, of the late night festivities during reveillon and of the doting French Canadian women who serve platter after platter of food and stare you down until your plate is wiped clean. The food is mouth-watering and worthy of a Lipitor commercial it is so artery-clogging. Sometimes, you’ll find a few unexpected menu items at these dinners, like Cheese Whiz served on hot dog buns or on white bread without crusts, or mini hot dogs in sauce. All in all, though, French Canadians serve up exquisite desserts that’ll leave you with a sugar high: you’ll get to splurge on homemade doughnuts and cakes drizzled in maple toffy and of course, my favourite, maple sugar cream.

If you haven’t yet had the privilege of being invited to a reveillon, I’ll describe one to you. Usually taking place around Christmas or New Year’s Eve, reveillon is an all-night, family-friendly house party with limitless food and alcohol, traditional music and plenty of cheek-kissing. When entering the person’s home and after the customary two-cheek kiss, the host will normally take one’s boots or footwear and toss them into the bathtub where they’ll sit with a dozen other pairs, likely the cleanest method of containing the slushy mess from outdoors. The newly arrived will make the tour of the room, exchanging pleasantries and many more cheek-kisses until their lips are well-chapped. Continue reading


How to Make Fortune Cookies


Gung Hay Fat Choy – Happy Chinese New Year everyone!

Although a great excuse to head down to your city’s Chinatown for some Dim Sum, Chinese New Year is also a celebration of the beginning of spring after a long dreary winter, and a time to get together with family and friends and then complain about the weather. Children are taught to be on their best behaviour,  particularly on the first day of the new year, as they are told that what happens that first day, whether in action or in thought, will decide the course of the year.  This is a nice and refreshing change from the typical North American tradition, where January 1st usually begins with a hangover and two Aspirin.

The great thing about the Chinese New Year is that it doesn’t carry with it the same burden or pressure for self improvement, with lists of resolutions and tiresome commitments. This means no new gym memberships. No vices to break. No need to stop swearing while I drive, to cease biting my nails, or to refrain from drinking directly from the milk carton. Already this is a holiday that I’m warming up to.

To celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, I cooked and ate my first rabbit ever. I also went snowboarding for the first time and stayed mostly on the bunny slopes, though admittedly the connection with the Chinese zodiac is a bit of a stretch.  In attempt to recognize the tradition at home, I decided to create my own fortune, by inserting prophetic pearls of wisdom inside homemade fortune cookies that looked close enough to the ones brought out on the bill tray at Don Mees. To carry on the tradition that was always used in my family, don’t forget to use the words “in bed” after reading your fortune aloud.

May the Year of the Rabbit bring you good fortune, happiness…and no gym memberships.

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Rascally Rabbit Pie

Or Wascally Wabbit Pie, if you can say it in an Elmer Fudd accent.

For over a week my friend Daniel and I had been putting our minds to a unique dish that we could cook up on our Sunday Night Test Kitchen and we both independently arrived at “rabbit”, which was an odd coincidence. Or maybe not. Last week was the start of Chinese New Year and also the Year of the Rabbit, which means that if you were born now you’d be moody, detached, self-assured and stubborn, or so I read. A Chinese-Canadian colleague assured me that eating a zodiac animal wouldn’t actually be offensive or sacrilegious, so we were safe to proceed with the meal without risking death threats from moody and detached newborns. Rabbit also seems a fitting choice for those of us who live in Victoria, where hospital grounds and university campuses are littered with so many Bambis and Thumpers that they resemble a Disney cartoon.  This has been of particular concern to the University of Victoria (a.k.a. Watership Down), afraid that the many rabbit warrens chiselled like refugee tunnels under the soccer field would give way during a game. The rabbits are also a huge distraction to students during exam time, with their cute antics and tennis-ball shaped babies. Instead of using the rabbits in the cafeteria as the mystery meat of the week, the University tackled this pest problem by shipping scores of bunnies to other locations, including a rabbit sanctuary in Texas.

In preparation for this meal, I didn’t sneak onto university grounds at night with carrots and a gym bag; instead I ordered two vaccuum-sealed, frozen rabbits from a farm in Quebec, which shipped to my local grocer here in British Columbia. They’re a little pricey (about $22 each), which is probably more than one might pay at the pet store for an actual living one.

The experience of eating rabbit was a little anticlimactic, although it tasted superb. I was expecting a taste that was gamey and new – a throwback to the meals our ancestors hunted and ate just a few generations ago. Instead, all I could think about was Hannibal Lector, comparing the taste to chicken. At dinner, Daniel recounted an anecdote about his grandmother growing up on a farm in rural Quebec. Her parents kept rabbits caged in the yard in order to feed the many hungry mouths when times were lean, although the children were lied to and told it was chicken. Apparently, even before Disney cartoons inculcated young minds into believing furry animals could sing showtunes and be our best friends, children still had an aversion to eating rabbit.

This recipe looks and tastes similar to chicken pot pie, although it’s made in a very traditional French Canadian way by baking the entire pot in the oven with a single pastry layer on top, instead of in double-crust pie form. Many pies, including my favourite Tourtiere or meat pie, were made this way in the 1800’s in Quebec. This meal is time intensive, but if you have 3 hours free with friends and have plenty of appetizers and wine handy, this will be enjoyable and unique to your guests. Bon Appetit! Continue reading


Mouth-Watering Apple Galette

I’ve made a lot of apple pies over the years, but tonight I felt like making Apple Galette – a slightly different variation of a classic dessert with a French twist. It tastes similar to apple pie and isn’t really any more time-consuming to prepare, though the galette’s presentation is much more elegant.

Whenever I think of apple pie, what comes to mind isn’t exactly Thanksgiving or holidays as one might expect. I’m usually brought back to the memory of two vociferous budgies I once owned and to an old friend from my days at the Royal London Wax Museum. I used to bake this friend apple pies in exchange for his frequent bird-sitting services whenever I went on vacation.

The year that I started working there, I had just finished reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and was intrigued by its Napoleonic villain, Count Fosco, whose eccentric habits included taming canaries and perching them on his shoulders to sing sweet songs in his ear. Young, misguided and easily impressionable, I thought that taming canaries would also be a sure-fire way to impress a prospective girlfriend I had invited for dinner that very weekend. I convinced myself how smitten she would be with my feathered menagerie of yellow friends and also with me as their modest but proud father/trainer; so I coaxed my roommate to drive me to the pet store that afternoon. Ignorant of birds and lacking a substantial budget, I ended up with two cacophonous budgies who squawked without pitch or melody all day long, much to the dismay of my neighbours, instead of ending up with the sweet-sounding canaries I had hoped for. The girl never did end up coming over and the only trick I was ever able to teach my budgies was to eat from my hand, a far cry from the Cinderella scene I had envisioned.

Whatever apple pie means to you, whether budgies, family dinners or the gratuitous scene from American Pie, try this apple dessert out instead as a break from the ordinary.

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Bacon-Wrapped Halibut With Sauteed Apples and Kale on Creamy Polenta

I was digging around some old photographs yesterday and came across a photo of a family halibut fishing trip from 3 years ago. It was the first time I had ever gone fishing, unless you count the time at Montreal’s Atwater Market when I was really young, where I hooked a trout from a tank with a toy rod.  The halibut experience was different, needless to say, and more thrilling than a plastic pool of water and a Bugs Bunny reel. I had never seen a halibut outside of a grocery seafood section, so was surprised and a little mortified when a massive, prehistoric-looking beast latched onto our line off of Vancouver Island. I felt like Quint from Jaws on board the Orca and the fish’s violent thrashing on the surface had me jokingly humming the dramatic “dah duh, dah duh,” much to the annoyance of others. It took two grown men (while I watched) to slowly reel the creature aboard.

From that fishing expedition I had nearly a year’s worth of frozen halibut. After six months, my appreciation for this “chicken of the sea” was waning from over-indulgance, so I started giving some away to friends or bringing large slabs of fish to BBQs. I haven’t caught any fish since, but my appreciation for halibut has been renewed.

Inspired by some delicious west coast catering from Bruce’s Kitchen restaurant at a Saltspring Island wedding last weekend, I decided to make this halibut dish served on a bed of kale, apples and polenta. I only recently discovered the wonders of kale and polenta, but plan to use these more regularly as a healthy and hearty side dish. Polenta is not fussy at all to make and is a nice replacement for the traditional mashed potato side dish. Continue reading


Portobello Mushrooms with Honey-Garlic Glaze

Portobello mushrooms are still foreign enough to me that I usually pass them by in the grocery store without much consideration, like kumquats or celeriac. I’m sure I’m not alone, as the cashier gave me a quizzical look when she peered in the brown paper bag at check out, unsure of its contents. I’m trying however to be bolder in the kitchen and to seek out new items in the produce section that would normally seem daunting. Fennel root and jicama, here I come!

Although portobellos have been strangers to my countertop in the past, I actually do like mushrooms; I eat them raw, toss them into risottos and stir fry’s and always admire the striking orange chanterelles in wicker baskets at fall markets, flecked with earth and dew. Portobellos (or Portabellas, if you prefer) are large, meaty and extremely versatile; and although they are reminiscent of the large toadstool from Alice in Wonderland, they are really just overgrown, brown crimini mushrooms in disguise.

I ate this dish for lunch, but it also makes for an excellent appetizer and visually-appealing side dish.  There’s a lot of garlic here – the recipe calls for an entire bulb –  but don’t cancel your evening plans just yet (although do make sure you have mouthwash on hand). The honey weakens the bite of the garlic, as well as adds such tremendous sweetness and flavour once cooked that the act of consuming it almost feels sinful. If I were a smoker, I would probably have lit up as soon I relinquished my fork…it was that pleasurable. Instead, I washed the dish down with a glass of our family’s home-made dessert Riesling wine, accompanied by a local Saltspring Camembert so fresh that it literally oozed with creaminess the moment I cut into it.

This recipe is so simple you’ll want to make it every week. The step that takes the longest is waiting for the oven to preheat to 500 degrees F. The ingredient quantities listed make enough glaze for 6 mushrooms, but I wouldn’t necessarily reduce quantities if you bought less than six mushrooms. I actually made more glaze than I needed and refrigerated the remainder; it can be used up to two weeks later for other delicious purposes, such as drizzling on vegetables (especially asparagus) before grilling or baking and also for marinating chicken.

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Mini Cinnamon Buns (Monkey Farts)

Okay, admittedly the name of this dessert requires some explanation to those that don’t know me from my childhood days in Montreal. When we were kids, my brother and I fell in love with a type of cinnamon bun that our friend’s mom used to placate us with. They were small, bite-sized cinnamon buns which she affectionately called Monkey Farts. My brother and I had coincidentally also coined this same term to the very hilarious sound that one makes when doing the one-armed chicken dance with one hand cupped under the arm pit of the flapping arm. What can I say, it was the 80’s and we were easily entertained. Needless to say, this food and its juvenile moniker were very appealing. Years passed and monkey farts, like other childhood memories, passed from my ageing consciousness…until when recently at a bake sale at work I tasted something nearly identical to my childhood treat. Heads turned when I yelled out “Monkey Farts” in a room full of suits.

This is probably one of the easiest and quickest cinnamon bun recipes you’ll try – you don’t need yeast and you don’t need to let the dough rise. Enjoy the recipe….and for good measure try doing the one-handed chicken dance around your kitchen with a mouthful of cinnamon bun. Continue reading


Homemade Tomato Soup with Pesto Grilled Cheese

There is something to be said for having comfort food to help get through the dreary and cold winter months. I’m not talking about Rocky Road ice cream or Oreos and a glass of milk, although that would probably work too. For me, what comes to mind is Campbell’s Tomato Soup and grilled cheese for dipping. Maybe it’s the rain or the lack of Vitamin D from Victoria’s cloudy climes, but I’ve been feeling particularly lazy and uninspired this past week and in desperate need of comfort food. I’m ashamed to admit that I had peanut butter and jam sandwiches for dinner three days last week and then bacon and eggs another time, which is very unlike me. So I’ve decided that something homey, healthy and relatively easy would be on the menu tonight to propel me through this next week on the right note.

Although tasty and inexpensive, Campbell’s soup was a little too easy tonight, so I tried to pull together something homemade that tasted close enough. I also love grilled cheese and have recently started putting a dab of pesto in the middle for some extra kick and have been experimenting with different cheeses to venture out of my Cheddar comfort zone. I didn’t have any regular pesto on hand, but at the back of the fridge was a jar of homemade pesto made from nettle plants that a friend from Saltspring Island had given me as a gift. For serving, call me crazy, but I get real enjoyment out of dipping my grilled cheese into the soup and then taking a bite of it when it’s warm and soggy. The perfect Sunday meal for eating while curled up on the couch in front of the TV. Continue reading


Healthy Peanut Butter Dog Treats

My friend Stasia and I were talking the other day about her family’s tabby cat, Mr. Bill, who sadly now requires twice daily injections to help with his Diabetes. This was strange to me, as I thought cats had no real worries in this world except Halloween firework pranks and quirky owners who knit them tiny socks and give them names like Blinky or Mr. Whiskers. This got me thinking about some of the other real or imaginary health consequences of not just domesticating animals into trained house pets, but subjecting them to our own injurious habits and lifestyles. Case in point: my brother’s voluptuous and wrinkled bulldog whose pastime is watching the Sopranos from his indented side of the couch while scratching his crotch. Who knows the countless ways that an unnatural lifestyle manifests itself in the health and psyche of animals, or of humans for that matter.

I was reading an article online talking about the growing popularity of prescribing antidepressants to house pets. The article mentions parrots and other highly social and intelligent birds as being particularly susceptible to depression and suicidal tendencies (as exhibited by the tearing out of its feathers, in case you were curious how a bird might try to do itself in). For dogs, antidepressants now come in beef or chicken flavours. Although controversial, the shuffling of our own psychological demons into the animal kingdom is not at all surprising, considering how much their lifestyles and hairdos are starting to resemble our own. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that somewhere in North America right now, a German Shepherd with a bouffant is eating its owner’s burger and fries, trying to fill an emotional hole from the loss of last night’s hockey game. I don’t feel so badly for cats, who are too aloof and lethargic to have even noticed that they’ve gradually traded in the arid savannahs of Africa for the expanse of couch or kitchen floor. Dogs on the other hand, are not often as fortunate; having to stagnate in living rooms for most of the day with not nearly enough fresh air and outdoor time. My mom’s dog, however, is one of the lucky few.

I’m spending the weekend on Saltspring Island for a wedding and also for some quality time with family. Part of the enjoyment of first pulling into the driveway at my mom’s house is having our Golden Doodle, Dylan, come prancing and bounding down the gravel path to greet me, pushing past the two baby doll sheep that graze in the front yard, barely looking up from the grass to take notice.  Dylan’s lucky enough to live on such a large property; and although he’s forced into monthly grooming and shampoo appointments to keep him from reeking like sewage from his daily meanderings in the pond, he is essentially a wild and care-free farm dog.

I made dog treats this morning for Dylan and although peanut butter isn’t naturally part of a dog’s diet, at least I know exactly what went into these biscuits and can pronounce the ingredients. He definitely did not complain and quickly snatched them from my hands. Continue reading


Dark Chocolate Dessert Risotto

I’ve had this recipe in mind since before Christmas, but have been waiting for the right moment and the right people to test it on. It’s based on a recipe that my friend Nathalie forwarded to me, though I’ve personalized it with several other ingredients, including beets to compensate for using less sugar and to give it a richer, darker colour, as well as some coconut milk and rum for additional flavours. So much for my resolution to eat better in the new year.

When my friends Daniel and Danielle invited me to Sunday dinner tonight, I knew it would be the perfect opportunity to bring this dessert. Daniel is one of the best cooks I know – each dinner party is always replete with bold, flavourful meals, good Italian wine and lots of laughs. But as he was making chicken tikka with some of his home-roasted and ground marsala spices, I knew that any accompanying dish I contributed to the evening would have to be worthy enough as a following act.

Don’t be scared off by the thought of eating rice for dessert – it’s like rice pudding, but with sinful chocolatey goodness. I guarantee this will be a hit!

Serves 6. Preparation and cook time: 30 minutes

Continue reading


Easy to Make Tuna Sushi Rolls

I don’t know what it’s like where you come from, but here in Victoria, British Columbia we have seen some strange health trends over the past few years (Vancouverites, I know you’ll agree): a cult-like obsession with yoga and form-fitting Lululemon pants, a substantial market of people who are willing to pay over $6 for a small loaf of organic bread containing enough seeds to keep the local bird population thriving through the winter…and then there is Sushimania, where the health-conscious pay through the nose for rice, seaweed and fish that the chef was too lazy to cook. Although I do enjoy things Japanese – the food, the tea ceremonies, the culture – and have voraciously read the novel Shogun, I have a difficult time paying such a hefty bill for something so inexpensive to make at home. I do that with coffee already and feel guilty enough.

A Japanese friend of mine showed me how to make very basic tuna sushi rolls which take under 30 minutes to prepare and only cost about $5 for enough rolls to plump up a roomful of hungry Victorians. There are many different ways to prepare Sushi, but this is one of the simplest rolls I’ve found, so it’s a good entry-level dish before attempting the preparation of eel, puffer fish or fish roe that pop in your mouth and set off the gag reflex.

Although sushi is relatively cheap to make, you’ll have to invest in a few inexpensive tools and ingredients that should last you a while: Continue reading


Fattoosh – Lebanese Herb and Toasted Pita Bread Salad

Ten days into 2011 and my resolve to eat healthier has not yet abandoned me completely, except for the short-lived Ferrero Rocher that I found in my jacket pocket this afternoon. In addition to starting a 21-day yoga challenge today to whip myself into shape, tonight I also decided to delve into my ancestry for a healthy and creative salad  – Fattoosh. I don’t normally get much satisfaction from eating salads; they are too light and unfilling, too limp and without personality, and they always leave me with dressing down my shirt – though this Levantine dish which sounds liked a sneeze makes other salads wilt in shame. The ingredient list for this salad reads very much like that for its close relative, tabouli (also recommended), except Fattoosh uses romaine lettuce, ground sumac for tartness and hardened pieces of pita bread crumbled in, originally conceived as a practical use for stale bread besides using it as a middle eastern frisbee.

Sumac is an ingredient that is hard to come by here in Victoria – at least I haven’t found it – though you may be in luck if you live near a middle eastern grocer. Sumac always makes me think about an ill-planned entrepreneurial endeavour from my high school days, when my best friend Jon and I ground up the fuzzy red berries from the sumac tree in my backyard, rolled them up in cigarette paper, and sold them to our grade 8 friends under the brand name “Smacs”. They tasted pleasantly sour and fruity when inhaled, though the trend never caught on with our peers. I wouldn’t advise trying this at home, but I do highly recommend that you add this spice to your kitchen collection for the purpose of cooking. If you can’t find it, I’ve added a variation to the recipe using lemon zest, which tastes close enough. Continue reading


Koosa – Stuffed Summer Squash


Like the stuffed grape vine leaves, the stuffed squash, Koosa, is another Lebanese favourite. My mother’s first vegetable garden this year on Saltspring Island was almost wholly devoted to growing this unique vegetable. The recipe can be done with regular-sized squash or zucchini, although this family recipe has always traditionally been done with small, pale green or summer squash.

Ingredients:

15 small squash (or other squash), hollowed
1 Lb. lean ground lamb or beef
1 cup rice
1 can of tomato juice (4-5 cups)
Juice from 2 lemons
1-2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground pepper, cinnamon and allspice Continue reading


Chicken Piccata with Capers

This afternoon I went for a long walk around the lake and by kilometre six I was so ravenous with hunger that all I could think about was Italian chicken piccata and a cold Perrier. Despite how the name sounds to those that speak the Romance Languages, this dish isn’t spicy or piquant at all – piccata actually refers to the way the meat is prepared: sauteed and served in a sauce of butter, lemon, spices and parsley. This dish can be made with chicken or veal, though my preference is the former; and it uses four of my favourite ingredients in the pan sauce that accompanies it: freshly-squeezed lemon juice, cilantro, wine and capers. When all four are used together in one recipe, the aroma makes me delirious and misty-eyed. It is really that good, I swear. The other great thing about this dish is the heavy whacking involved in the preparation of the meat, to flatten it out before dredging it in batter. A perfect way to blow off steam, pounding the cutlets can be done with either a meat tenderizer, rolling pin or heavy Ayn Rand novel. Continue reading


Blackened Halibut with Mango Salsa

I just returned home from a week-long trip to Quebec for the holidays where I had the opportunity to sample some fantastic French Canadian cuisine during reveillon (essentially an all-night celebration and buffet of artery-clogging treats), including tourtiere, maple fudge and home made doughnuts drizzled in a type of maple taffy. Coming back home 5 pounds heavier, I resolved to detox for at least a week on fruits, veggies and lots of fish.

While waiting for a seaplane back to Vancouver Island yesterday, I stood drooling at a Cajun halibut dish from a restaurant menu nearby, as I had skipped lunch on board the Air Canada flight from Montreal; and several hours later I found myself picking out the best looking halibut fillet from the seafood counter at the local grocer with this meal in mind.  It is visually appealing in its colour and packs a mouthful of sinus-clearing kick from the Cajun-style spices. Continue reading


Lebanese Chicken and Hashweh (beef and rice)

In the event that you ever need to determine whether or not a person is of Lebanese descent, say if you’re a diplomat, international spy or want to learn a new party trick, there is a litmus test that almost never lies. A Lebanese nose is usually distinctly-shaped; but if that fails, look them in the eye and ask the individual in question about the Seven Spices. No, this isn’t middle eastern code. It refers to a combination of spices that are found, or should be found, in every Lebanese kitchen. It is made up of equal parts black pepper, cinnamon, allspice, ground cloves, ground nutmeg, fenugreek and powdered ginger. One can find these pre-mixed at middle eastern grocers or, if you’re in a hurry and short on ingredients, try the Three Spice version: allspice, pepper and cinnamon, which tastes nearly as good. These spices are an integral part of the recipe below, which has been in my grandmother’s repertoire for 92 years (except for the Uncle Ben rice part, of course). Continue reading


Salmon Wellington with Dijon Cream

We eat a lot of salmon in our household – we’ve never been big red meat eaters and living on the West Coast of British Columbia provides ample access to fresh fish. This being said, we’ve started running out of creative ways to prepare salmon, bringing us to the brink of giving up on seafood out of boredom, for chicken which can be prepared in a variety of ways. This is pure culinary laziness on my part – as you’ll see from this easy recipe below which serves up salmon in a refreshingly different, restaurant-calibre way. Continue reading