Category Archives: Side Dishes

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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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


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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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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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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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