Category Archives: Vegetarian

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


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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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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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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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


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


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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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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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


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


Easy Tabouli Salad

Tabouli was one of the first salads I ever ate when I was young. My grandmother, or Sito in Lebanese, always had a heaping bowl of it ready-in-waiting whenever we dropped by, like her tin of Peek Frean cookies that never seemed to deplete in stock. At every holiday dinner or event at the house of a relative, tabouli was also featured on the menu. To a child, the salad represented a colourful and visually appealing ensemble of greens and reds; as an adult, it is a healthy and tasty alternative to other side dishes.

Every weekend I now make a bowl-ful of tabouli that lasts me for several lunches and dinners during the week; and although it’s probably getting old and tiresome, I typically bring tabouli to every potluck I’m invited to. It’s different that the usual potato salad or nanaimo bars that I used to bring, and is just so easy to make – 15 minutes…and voila!

Note that there are many different ways to make this salad – each time is usually different for me depending on what I have in the fridge. Continue reading


How to Make Pizza

One of my favourite things to cook when friends drop in for dinner is homemade pizza. Guests normally find it pretty entertaining to watch as I make the dough and then they each get to roll up their sleeves and earn some participation points while they add toppings to their own personal pizzas. Kids will enjoy this part as well. The fastest way is to pick up the already prepared pizza dough at the grocery store and merely add the sauce and toppings, but for what little additional work is required to make your own dough, I think it’s worth making it yourself and getting flour on your clothes – part of the fun! Continue reading


Yam and Peanut Butter Soup

Some people at work have taken to calling me Fido; not in a derogatory way (I think), but because I’m known on my floor as the guy who sniffs everyone’s food. People were disgusted at first, when in the lunch room I would hover my nose over their leftover curry dish or lasagna and inhale. They would push their plates away and say “I can’t eat this now!” But it’s not as invasive as sticking my finger in the dish at least. Most people, I’ve learned, don’t often appreciate their food with all their senses – or at least the smell and look, unless they’re listening to a bowl of Rice Krispies snap-crackle-popping. Taste is important, sure, but so is taking the time to savour the aroma of a meal before placing it on the tongue and sending it down the gullet. We do it with wine, so why not food? Anyways, I shouldn’t be telling you this – If you’re reading this it means you’re already a food convert.

Where I’m going with this is that one lunch hour a colleague removed from the microwave the most incredible smelling soup. I sat staring at her, leaning in with my nose and waiting for her to offer me a bite. Normally I don’t do this to people – my mother raised me better than that. But I was curious and perplexed by what was undoubtedly peanut butter in her soup and needed to know what the outcome of it was. I have a thing with peanut butter – I eat it on everything, but never before in soup. Needless to say, she shared a bite of the soup and the recipe below. Continue reading


Hummous

 

Ingredients:

2 cups canned garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained

1/3 cup or less to taste, tahini

1/4 cup lemon juice, fresh

1 tsp salt

2 cloves garlic

1/4 tsp cumin

1/4 tsp paprika

2 tbsp olive oil

Directions:

1. Add the tahini and the lemon juice to a small bowl and whisk until slightly foamy. This will help give the hummous a creamier consistency later on.

2 – 0ption 1: Add the tahini mixture with the garbanzo beans, half the olive oil, salt, cumin and garlic in a food processor. Blend until smooth. Transfer mixture to a serving bowl.

2 – option 2: I’ve thrown in this brief extra step, as an option. I find that hummous will turn out creamier if you first boil the canned chickpeas for 2 minutes, to soften them. You can add the garlic to the boiling water during this step. Drain, then add the chickpeas and garlic to the food processor with the remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. Serve.

3. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the garbanzo bean mixture. Sprinkle with paprika.

4. Serve with pita bread or home-made bagel crisps


Beet Risotto

I’m not sure how, but shockingly I made it through 29 years of my life without ever tasting a beet. The day that I had one was a revelation to my taste buds. There is not a week that goes by now when my fridge is not full of these wonderful, healthy treats. There are so many delicious ways of cooking beets, though this combination of the dark red, flavourful beet with another of my favourite foods – risotto – is a unique and mouth-watering side dish. It also calls for cooking with white wine, which is always a great excuse to indulge a little in a glass while cooking. Continue reading


How to Make Fresh Pasta by Hand

Cutting strips of pasta by hand - a little like zen sand art

Preparing fresh pasta by hand will likely be one of the more pleasurable cooking activities you’ll experience. Not only is this easy to make at home, but the fresh pasta will taste like it’s being served directly from a family kitchen in Italy. Molto Bene!

I’ve made pasta two different ways: by hand (more difficult and challenging to cut) and using a pasta machine (this is my preferred option, though you’ll need to pick up a machine – not to worry, Christmas is coming). If rolling and cutting by hand, the pasta will still taste great; it will usually just leave you with pasta strips that are thicker than you would get from a machine. Either way you make this though, this is much more impressive to dinner guests that emptying a store-bought package of pasta into a pot of boiling water.

Continue reading


Rice Pudding

When I found out that my step dad liked rice pudding, I believe I gave him a look of disbelief. This didn’t sound like something he would eat: he comes from an old-school British background and relies on typically bland food staples, like butter on toast or boiled vegetables – rice pudding seemed too far out of his comfort zone. Apparently though, rice pudding has a long-standing place on British dinner (or breakfast) plates from as far back as the Tudor period. In fact, a little Googling revealed that nearly every culture in the world has some variation of rice pudding in their diet. I had tasted the black rice porridge version in Thailand a few years ago, called Khao Niao Dam, without realizing what it was – and it was delicious. I’ve included this “worldly” rice pudding recipe for my step dad, who in my regard has now moved slightly up the foodie rungs.

Ingredients:

3/4 cup uncooked white rice

2 cups milk, divided, or cream

1/3 cup white sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1 egg, beaten

2/3 cup raisins

1 tbsp butter

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Directions:

1. In a medium saucepan bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil. Add rice and stir. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

2. In another saucepan, combine 1 1/2 cups cooked rice, 1 1/2 cups milk or cream, sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat until thick and creamy, 15-20 minutes.

3. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup milk, beaten egg and raisins. Cook 2 minutes more, stirring constantly.

4. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla. Serve warm.


Roasted Garlic

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

2. Peel away a few of the outer layers of the garlic bulb, leaving the skins of the individual cloves intact. Using a knife, cut off 1/4 inch off the top of cloves, exposing the individual cloves of garlic.

3. Place the garlic heads in a baking pan; Drizzle a couple teaspoons of olive oil over each bulb, using your fingers to coat. Cover with aluminum foil.

4. Bake at 400°F for 35 minutes or until the cloves feel soft.

 

Eat as is or serve warm with Brie cheese or as a spread. Not recommended for a date night!

 


Lentil Salad with Asiago Cheese

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups green or brown lentils, rinsed

2 green onions, sliced

1 large carrot, diced

1 sweet red pepper, chopped

1 stalk celery, diced

1/2 cup shredded Asiago cheese

2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

 

Dressing:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tsp Dijon mustard

1/2 tsp each dried oregano and salt

1/4 tsp pepper

 

Directions:

1. In saucepan, bring lentils and 3 cups water to boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

2. Add carrot and simmer until lentils are tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Drain and let cool.

3. Dressing: In large bowl, whisk oil, vinegar, mustard, oregano, salt and pepper. Add lentil mixture, onions, red pepper, celery, cheese and parsley; toss to coat.

 


Phad Thai

If you’ve never tasted Phad Thai – or Thai Noodles – before, then you’re life has been missing something vital and imperative. It is the quintessential Thai meal, if ever there was one; like bangers and mash to the British, sushi and sashimi to the Japanese, or Swedish meatballs to Ikea shoppers. Although the best place to sample this dish is fresh from a Bangkok street vendor in Thailand itself, probably for the equivalent of 50 cents, your local Thai restaurant will undoubtedly carry this dish too, though likely for 20 times the price. Better yet, dust off your kitchen wok,  hunt down some fish sauce and other easy to find ingredients and try your hand at this very simple meal. For a bit of extra burn of the esophagus and for a more authentic Thai feel, try adding the peppers. Continue reading


Mediterranean Omelette with Pesto

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I tend to get cranky by 8:30 am if I haven’t eaten. This wholesome and delicious omelette can normally get me by until noon, easily. This has been my weekend special for years now and it is still the best way I know to way up on a Sunday, coffee in hand, before sitting down to tackle a crossword. Pure bliss.

Ingredients:

2-3 eggs, beaten

2 tbsp water

1/2 cup chopped tomatoes

1/2 of an onion, diced

4-5 Kalamata olives, chopped

1/3 cup coarsely chopped mushrooms, any kind

1/4 cup soft cheese (I use La Vache qui Rit)

1-2 Tbsp pre-made pesto sauce

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Shredded Parmesan, to taste

Directions:

1. Heat oil in frying pan on medium heat until hot, then add onions and olives and stir for 2 minutes.

2. Add mushrooms and tomatoes and cook together for 2 more minutes.

3. Whisk together the eggs and 2 tbsp water for fluffiness, then pour into frying pan. In a circular motion, swirl the egg thinly and evenly to coat the contents of the frying pan. As eggs begin to firm (1 minute or so), drizzle with half of the pesto and then place cut up cheese onto the cooking omelette. Add salt and pepper.

4. When the eggs are firm enough, flip the omelette in half, folded, with the spatula (you may need to use 2 utensils at the same time, to make sure it stays together). When the egg is no longer runny, the omelette is ready.

5. Drizzle with remaining pesto and sprinkle with parmesan.


Rice and Artichoke Spring Salad

Of all the recipes on this site, this one is hands down the quickest and easiest. It is a side dish that I’ve been preparing for over ten years and that I keep coming back to, no matter how my tastes change or refine. Enjoy.

 

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time of rice: varies depending on the rice

(Serves 10 as a side dish)

 

Ingredients:

1 cup uncooked regular rice

4 green onions, chopped

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1 medium red bell pepper, chopped

1 can (10-14 ounces) artichoke hearts, drained and cut into half or quarter pieces

Lemon garlic vinaigrette (see below)

 

Lemon Garlic Vinaigrette

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tbsp lemon zest

Juice from 2 lemons

2/3 tsp salt

pepper to taste

1 tsp oregano

1 clove garlic, chopped finely

 

Directions:

1. Cook rice as directed. As it cooks, prepare the lemon garlic vinaigrette

2. Mix rice and remaining ingredients in large bowl, then toss with vinaigrette mixture. Cover and chill in the fridge for 2-3 hours before serving.


Mediterranean Pesto Fettuccine

Two summers ago when I was training for my first Marathon I became addicted to eating pasta. I was hungry all the time and needed constant carb-replenishment. It only took a week and a half of eating spaghetti, however, until I my body had enough and all of my white shirts had been stained with pasta sauce. I came up with this recipe in attempt to redeem pasta’s reputation at my dinner table; it is a lighter alternative to tomato-based sauces and will please the fussiest of eaters who normally wouldn’t eat a lot of vegetables. This has become one of my favourite dishes that I enjoy cooking up at least once a month. Continue reading


Southwest Tuna with Black Beans

Ingredients:

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 Anaheim chili, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tbsp grated lime peel

3 tbsp lime juice

1 medium tomato, chopped

2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained

2 cans white tuna, rinsed and drained.

Directions:

1. Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Cook onion and garlic about 2 minutes, stirring constantly until onion is softened.

2. Stir in remaining ingredients. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until hot.