April 28, 2005


I have two new kitchen toys: a small "ice cream" scoop with a bar-release, and a pasta fork.

Those of you who have heard me objecting to single-use items cluttering up the kitchen (knives, toaster and coffee-maker excluded on the grounds of sheer volume of usage) might be a little surprised, but I actually love gadgets. The magpie aspect of my personality likes things that are shiny, small, and nifty while the spartanist futilely rails about the lack of overall portability in my life.

It's not like I fall victim to as-seen-on-tv items like the perfect pancake or batter pro or butter dispenser products, and I don't think I own anything sold by Ron Popeil. I do have a hard time justifying single-use gadgets, though. I tend to think long and hard before adding something else to my kitchen hardware. Even the olive pitter, which I had on my Christmas wish list a couple of years ago, I felt silly about acquiring (although it's a sleek, beautifully crafted metallic device) and ended up justifying on the basis that it could pit not only olives, but also cherries. Two uses! To be fair, it's the same usage on different items, but that doesn't really matter, does it?

My rationale for the ice cream scoop was similar. All it does is scoop, really. But it can be used for ice cream, or cookie dough (ah, the memories of my first job in Vancouver, at Teddy Bear Donuts Cookie Factory!) or - as in the case of last Sunday - falafel. Totally justified! I've already used it for two of its potential uses.

The pasta fork was a little harder to grit my teeth and buy. It cost under three dollars, but it just looks ridiculous and I felt a little silly buying it. However, in the past few months I have been developing a master recipe for spicy soba, which are types of Japanese noodle that are susceptible to clagginess if drained in the classic colander method. Portioning the final dish, using forks, was a bit annoying, too. The pasta fork has solved this dilemma entirely. Works like a dream, actually. It may look a little silly, but I no longer find myself struggling with the noodles. As far as I know, this device only performs the one function. Can I give it points for being able to accommodate multiple types of noodle? Being useful to more than one cuisine?

Optimistic with my latest acquisitions, I have pinned a list to the fridge of all the gadgets that I am currently attempting to rationalize. I may need a bigger kitchen, if I succumb to them all.

April 25, 2005

Salad days, ahead of schedule

You can tell that Spring is finally here (apologies to those suffering under the blizzard in southern Ontario) for a whole host of reasons: half of the town have tucked away their leather coats into closets, brighter shades of green and pink and yellow (it's the new orange!) are showing up, the young, nattily-dressed men on the #22 bus into downtown have shaved their heads, and I'm making salad.

I'm very fond of salads, actually. My mother favoured huge leafy salads that she constructed individually right on each dinner plate (and covering at least half the plate, maybe more) in the summer, and cole slaw in the winter. It wasn't until I left home that I encountered things like tabbouleh, rice salads, lentil salads, pasta salads. I took to them rather fiercely.

After my lamby foray into Turkish and middle eastern cuisine this weekend (yesterday I experimented deliciously with baked falafel) I find myself with an interesting assortment of leftovers, which, individually do not constitute a meal, but together, and augmented a tad, will do just fine. Leftover slices of roast lamb with cacik and olives (!) and a few sliced tomatoes, feta and cucumbers can make very satisfactory sandwiches, stuffed into pita bread, as will the falafel. What I really needed to go with it was a salad.

The Shephard's Salad that went with the original lamb dinner was rather fun. Much like a Greek salad in that it consists primarily of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, and green peppers (and even more so since I added some cubed feta) it also featured lettuce (not to be found on any self-respecting Greek salad, thank you very much Eastern Coast!) sliced radishes, and was dressed with a combination of fresh lemon juice, olive oil, fresh sliced mint leaves and the all-important sumac, a woodsy-lemony flavoured spice. It was quite delicious, but having had it two days in a row, I am sort of looking for something else.

Lentil salad it is. There is, as it turns out, a Turkish version of green lentil salad lurking in the pages of The Sultan's Kitchen: a Turkish Cookbook. It is both similar to and quite different from the Ethiopian recipe "Azifa" that I like to make in the summer, being a combination of cooked, chilled green/brown lentils dressed with finely chopped vegetables and a simple vinaigrette. Whereas the African recipe has hot peppers, mustard, and red wine vinegar as its distinctive ingredients, the Turkish version is mellower, featuring more chopped mint, cilantro, sumac, and fresh lemon juice.

Lentil salads keep very well for a couple of days in the fridge, and lend themselves well to packed lunches - whether or not you have refrigeration available. They are also a fantastic source of both protien and vitamin-rich vegetables, and if you have a conservative hand with the olive oil, they can be healthily lean, too. In the summer, they are a favourite accompaniment (second, perhaps only to couscous salad) to grilled lamb burgers. Really, they make a great, easy side dish at any time, and I'm really looking forward to it tonight.

April 24, 2005


I didn't really intend to have a dinner party last night, it just worked out that way. Last week I picked up a de-boned half-leg of lamb at the supermarket, and plunked it into the freezer. Large pieces of lamb are always useful, whether one intends to roast them or dice them for stew/kebabs - always a good thing to have around. My plan was to try my hand at a rather attractive looking Turkish dish in one of my cookbooks, so I took it out of the freezer and started defrosting it on Friday.

The dish was quite simple, actually - it did require a shopping trip, as I did not have any pistachio nuts on hand, nor did my dwindling supply of dried apricots look up to the task. There was also the matter of the fresh mint - my garden mint is not yet sufficiently large to harvest, so I picked up a bag at the market.

The actual finished main dish was a boneless lamb half-leg roasted over a pilaf (or pilav, in Turkish) of long-grain rice cooked with garlic, onion, pistachio nuts, diced dried apriot and a good quantity of finely minced parsley and cilantro. The rice was carefully concealed under the meat so that the juices from the meat would soak down into the pilav and enrich the flavour. Once cooked, the meat was rested briefly and then sliced and served platter-style.

It was a simple enough dinner not to require over-thinking on my part. Cacik, the Turkish answer to Greek tzatziki, was simple to prepare, and the Shephard's Salad from The Sultan's Table by Oczan Ozan was the most sensible of side dishes (although I added feta... because I like feta and have been craving it lately). The lemon juice dressing went beautifully with the freshly chopped cucumber, tomatoes, radishes and peppers. A little pita bread from the market, and we were pretty much set.

It was my sneaky thought that, while I was at an afternoon event yesterday, I could casually invite a friend or two over for a casual little lamb dinner. In my usual spirit of testing recipes out on my friends, this seemed a most excellent plan, and mojito consumption in the afternoon made the whole thing sound just that much more fun. By the time the lamb came out of the oven, there were five of us, some of us a little tipsy, wine was being opened, and the cat was banished to "boarding school."

I forgot the olives. I don't know how, exactly, after making several mental notes on the order of how much I was looking forward to the olives, but I forgot them until the plates were cleared and I was putting out a plate of Turkish Delight and some fresh Iranian dates as a sort of dessert. I also forgot the napkins until prodded, but this is an ongoing mental lapse. If I don't set a fancy table with cloth napkins, I will completely and entirely forget that they might be necessary. Happens every time.

The lamb turned out exactly as I wanted it to, and everyone had kind things to say about the food in general. After dinner was done, more friends joined us for a glass of absinthe and to listen to a few cds. As far as unscheduled dinner parties go - I had a ton of fun.

Today, I'm going to eat the olives.

April 21, 2005

¡Viva Mexico!

Cinco de Mayo is fast approaching, which means that I'm craving Mexican food. The few good Mexican restaurants that I know of in this town will be packed on May 5 - often featuring misguided live mariachi-as-noise - so I'm contemplating putting together a potluck dinner. In 2004, we had a lot of fun with a St. Patrick's Day planned potluck, so I see no reason it shouldn't work for Cinco de Mayo.

Theme dinners on weeknights work best when more than one person is doing the cooking. I'm picturing a lovely pan of enchiladas in the oven, maybe a jicama salad, and a few Dos Equis Amber floating through my veins. Tortilla chips and salsa everywhere! Now I just need to persuade some participants...

Biggest obstacle? I need a larger kitchen table.

April 20, 2005

South African Red Wine

Last night was the 8th anniversary of my wine club. I really ought to know more about wine than I do, after eight years (although I did take a year off for health problems). We drank reds from South Africa, and were generally pleasantly surprised by the quality.

South African wines are often compared to Australian wines - both have that southern hemisphere hot-and-consistant weather going on, which means that there's one less variable to contend with as far as the wine making process goes. Most of the wines that we tried come from the Stellenbosch or Paarl districts in the Coastal Region near the coast on the Western Cape, where the average temperature is a pleasant 35 C - cooler than you would expect from its latitude. Check out the brief history of South African wines.

It is significant that around 75% of the red wine vineyards in South Africa are less than 10 years old. It takes time for a new vineyard to produce grapes that yield good wine, and many of their wines are just now reaching a level of quality that can make them contenders on the international market. The red wine varietals most often cultivated are shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, and pinotage (a local hybrid of pinot noir and cinsaut developed in 1925), but really there is a full gamut of reds produced there.

A particular quality that was noticed almost across the board in everything from the cabernets to the pinotages to the proprietary blends, was a distinct smokiness to the wines that is a characteristic that I haven't found in wines elsewhere. There was a slight hint of burning brush and barbeque that hit the palate like a surprise, as it wasn't really represented anywhere in the nose. The more sophisticated wines, such as the Saxenburg Private Collection 2000 Shiraz (Stellenbosch) had a smooth quality despite the smokiness, but the young, feisty and affordable Beyerskloof 2003 Pinotage had a strong smoky redolence with a lot of acids and a slightly acrid (but appealing) overtone of burnt coffee grounds and crushed black peppercorns. It made almost everyone at the table desperate for barbequed ribs.

The least interesting or appealing wine was the thin, smoky K.W.V. 2003 Roodeburg (Western Cape, Paarl) with a nose of dusty wood and a sour taste of oily, burnt wood. No surprise, it was the least expensive wine, with little to no information on the bottle regarding varietal.

Probably the best wine of the evening was the Warwick 2001 Three Cape Ladies Cape Blend (Stellenbosch), which was a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinotage. It had a minimal nose, but flavours of dark berries, a hint of gooseberry, and a delicate, balanced quality. However, it was the interesting, expensive De Toren 2002 Fusion V Private Cellar (Coastal Region) blend of five varietals with its nose of vanilla, chocolate, leather, nutmeg and gingerbread and flavours of tobacco, violets and plums that got the most exclamatory comments.

The cabernet sauvignons tended toward very classic nose or palate - green peppers, cedar, and a certain amount of dust. The shirazes were a divided between overripe (a quality often found in hot-weather shiraz and merlot) and the simple (but smooth).

The overall quality of the wines was higher than my previous - albeit limited - experiences with South African wine led me to anticipate. Some of the wines were in the magic zone of being quite drinkable and quite affordable, but the best of the wines were a wee bit overpriced for what you're getting. Still, more and more South African Wines are becoming available now, and as the wineries settle on which grapes they want to produce and develop their vines, it's well worth watching (and tasting) to see where they go from here.

Previous tasting:
Spanish Wines

April 19, 2005

Snap, Crackle, Fffffzzzzt!

Indoor electric grill + coffee maker + ancient house with wiring done by drunken monkeys = blown fuse. Well, and the breaker was tripped, too.

So, now I still don't know how long it takes to cook fat sausages on an indoor grill.

I was also interested to note that making the coffee took priority over rescuing the sausages, but that may have been a stress-related choice.

April 17, 2005

Rah, Rah, Rasputin!

За ваше здоровье!*

Friday night we took in a singular entertainment at Rasputin Restaurant on West Broadway. I've been there a few times, but not recently. Nothing had changed, however, except that I think the portion sizes have increased.

The reason to go to Rasputin - a slightly unnerving name for a restaurant, unless you take comfort in the notion that Grigori Rasputin survived at least one attempt at poisoning - is for the ambiance. Well, the food is good, too, and they have the best vodka selection I've seen in this town, but in what other restaurant do you get to listen to the owner belting out Russian folk songs, accompanied by two staff members playing the synthesizer and the triangular balalaika?

The service is friendly, occasionally edging on pushy, as the owner patrols the restaurant between sets. We were sharing a zakuski (appetizer) of pickles when he interrupted us to tell us that the enormous pickled whole tomatoes on the plate were "the very best." Naturally, we had to try those next. They were fantastic! I also suspect there may have been some vodka in the pickling process. I wonder if they make the pickles in-house, as certainly they were unlike any commerical pickles I've ever seen, even in shops that cater to Russians and the eastern European market.

I ordered the lamb shashlik - meat cooked on a "sword" that is in fact an enormously long metal skewer. The seasoning was simple and very complementary to the lamb, whose flavour came through beautifully. The meat was not overcooked, but still retained a steady pink colour inside. The portion size was astonishing - it almost seemed as though they had managed to get an entire lamb threaded onto the skewer. The lamb was served on a rice pilaf (plov) and accompanied by a large, multi-vegetabled salad. I couldn't finish it all.

Our host, working his garrulous way around the room, serenaded the newest waitress, Marina, by singing a folk song of the same name. She seemed greatly embarrassed, but went about her duties with an only slightly red-faced dignity. The owner made a point of announcing to the entire restaurant that "Tonight, we have very special guest, famous movie star, many many movies" but couldn't seem to place the actor's name. So, he asked us. Fortunately for all, we did recognise Michael Moriarty (Law and Order's Ben Stone) and were able to supply the missing information. Our host, suave as ever, made up for this by singing "a special song, just for Mr. Moriarty." He did not, however, appear to recognize Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor on Smallville) who managed to eat in peace.

The wall closest to the musicians is dominated by an enormous, heavily stylized painting of three Russian horsemen in medieval garb, clutching clubs and staring into the distance. Tatars, I would guess. The painting is carefully lit so that it can be enjoyed by the whole restaurant, and it is not the only painting of its kind - just the largest. Although, the huge, idealized painting of the Mad Monk himself looms just inside the doorway.

The music is loud enough during sets that conversation is difficult, if not impossible. Your best plan is to submit to the ambiance, enjoy the well-prepared food, and tap your toes to the catchy folk rhythms.

It was, all in all, a lovely evening.

*To your health!

April 13, 2005

Many Food Blogs and Two-Lentil Soup

There are an awful lot of food blogs out there. I didn't really look for them, before I started my own, so I had no idea the amount of information smog I was contributing to. I knew that blogging had become awfully popular, but I didn't realize how many amateur food writers there are out there. They range from the fascinating to the tedious to the downright ugly. Incoherent gibbering about restaurants to sly, sophisticated observations on cultural foibles. I've got my eye on a few of them, and may put up a link section in the future.

I made lentil soup for dinner tonight, as threatened. Most soups made with brown/green lentils suffer a little texturally, being a little too thin unless you purée at least half the finished amount. Since my decision to make soup was at least partially predicated on laziness, that sort of pre-empted any notions that would dirty up the food processor or blender. (Perhaps I need an immersion blender). I decided to go with two different lentil types, instead. Brown lentils and red lentils, to be precise.

I usually use red lentils to make Bengali Red Lentils a dish which is simmered for long enough that the lentils dissolve into a creamy mass. I decided that their tendency to self-purée could be put to good use in soup, as well, and I was right. I had mentally prepared myself for needing to get in there with the potato masher to squash them into compliance, if necessary, but it wasn't.

I was originally planning a very simple soup, just lentils and fresh vegetables, but one look in the fridge while fetching the carrots, celery and leek suggested otherwise. Countless little containers of things like mashed potato, diced ham, and a peeled yam (not to mention the red bell pepper that was languishing) and even a little leftover pizza sauce resulted in a thick, hearty but still healthy soup in the fine tradition of Heirloom Soup. Only enough leftover for lunch tomorrow, however.

I contemplated making biscuits to go with the soup, since they would be a fine match, and we were out of any other type of bread, but eventually decided on focaccia. Basically, I just used the herbed version of my pizza dough recipe, and allowed it to rise in the pan a little before spritzing with oil, sprinkling with salt, and baking for about 10 minutes. Dead easy, and healthier than the biscuits would have been.

April 10, 2005

Spring Cleaning, starting with vodka (Penne alla Vodka)

I should note, to start, that I'm using the vodka neither to make cleaning more fun (although it's a heck of an idea!) nor as an actual cleaning agent. The vodka became involved by dint of being a major player in a notorious little Italian-American pasta dish Penne Vodka which was my recipe o' the week - and not incidentally, dinner on Saturday night.

It's a simple dish. While you heat up the water to cook a pound of penne pasta, you simmer 4 cups of simple tomato sauce with a cup of vodka. By the time the penne hits the boiling, salted water, your sauce will have reduced slightly, and you add a cup of heavy cream. Just before the pasta is al dente, drop a half-cup of grated parmesan into the sauce, give it a stir, drain the penne, stir it into the sauce, and allow to simmer on low for a couple of minutes more to absorb some of the sauce and give you time to devour a salad. A little black pepper, and you're done.

A pound of pasta, generally speaking, will serve four people as a main course, which evens this out as a 1/4 cup of vodka, 1/4 cup of cream, and 1/8 cup parmesan per person. Not exactly light food, but neither is it of the heart-attack inducing alfredo sauce calibre. It tastes very rich, though. Rich enough, that in these early days of Spring, it makes you contemplate taking up jogging, or lettuce.

I've never been an advocate of starvation diets. I've been known to try a few cleansing programs, such as the cabbage soup cleanse, but with my - er, let's say "abbreviated" - innards, such haphazard approaches to eating can be quite detrimental. I am feeling inspired to eat a little more healthily, though. Fortunately, I have a giant bag of chicken burritos in the freezer, but that would get fairly dull after a few days. I am resolved to make an effort to cook dinners that leave me feeling energized instead of tired, though. Light, clean meals. Out come the lentil soups and the vegetarian dishes, for a dusting-off, scraping off of the barnacles, and refitting of the hull. Foods where there are no oils or other added fats, where the intrinsic nature of the ingredients is a little healthier. A week or two of that, and I should be able to fend off the next Cheezies attack.

Final pronouncement on Penne Vodka? Very tasty, a little rich, and a little monotone on its own; would make a fantastic side dish to chicken piccata, though.

April 08, 2005

Pizza pizza!

It’s probably some sort of sin to use delicious, expensive, Bleu d’Auvernge in this fashion, but I’m desperately craving a “buffalo wing” pizza. And, since I have a chicken breast in the fridge that could easily be sautéed up in a little hot sauce, and a lump of the Bleu leftover from Bunny Night, I think I know what I’m making for dinner.

Heck, I’ve even got celery to serve as sticks on the side. I suppose that, in keeping with the fancy cheese, I should use the most expensive hot sauce my collection offers, but I think I’ll go with the comparatively mild Red Devil, as the flavours should work together better.

April 07, 2005

Mid-week domestic frenzy

I fear that my plans for this evening might outstrip my available time and energy - they're certainly going to cut into my CSI watching time (which didn't used to be a factor, thank you Lisa). I'm forging ahead, though, because the freezer is bare. Well, not bare, exactly. It's just that I used up the last of the frozen burritos, and now cannot imagine wanting anything else for lunch.

In the spirit of adventure, and because the supermarket has a pretty good special on boneless, skinless chicken breast right now, I'm planning to incorporate a little diced chicken breast into the latest version. Of course, while I'm sitting at the table rolling and wrapping a dozen or so burritos (first in the tortilla, then in plastic wrap for freezing), I might as well have some other irons in the fire, so to speak. I've got a frozen chicken carcass waiting to become stock, and a head of none-too-frisky looking celery that is probably in desperate need of use, so I think I'll set that a-simmer before I start mixing my filling.

Making burritos in the evening has the added advantage of making dinner as a sort of by-product. Maybe I'll get a little crazy and add some of the prawns that I've got stashed in the freezer to the ones we'll be eating for dinner.

All this leaves the oven free, and I'm down to a mere couple of slices of Spiced Sweet Potato Bread in the freezer, so if I'm really organized I will be able to have a cake or pan of cookies or something merrily baking away while I attend other matters. I sort of have my doubts about that last one, there. It may depend on how frisky I'm feeling by the time I get home from the store.

Even if I only get the burritos done, I'll still be basking in the glory of accomplishment, and won't feel guilty about drinking in front of the tv for the rest of the night.

April 04, 2005


I must be on the mend - I'm ravenous this morning. This is the first time my appetite has truly kicked in since Tuesday, so I'm sort of relieved. And hungry!

Bunny dinner went fairly well - the parsnip pieces were perhaps a little on the small side and therefore cooked up a little spongy, but flavourful none-the-less. The sauce was slightly milder than usual, as I was using a different brand of Dijon than my beloved Maille, but was tasty, and yielded enough to double as a pasta sauce in leftover-land.

The hit of the evening was undoubtedly the raw milk brie de Meaux that I scored from Granville Island on Saturday. Rich, buttery, fragrant, and smooth, and unlike any other brie I've ever had. It took some careful unwrapping, as it was pretty soft, but patience is rewarded for such things.

April 03, 2005

Bunny night

I've been threatening to do this for some time, and tonight's the night: I'm cooking Lapin à la Dijon for dinner for a couple of friends.

I love doing dinner parties - casual ones, that is. I'm certain that if I were to attempt any sort of formal affair, my head would explode, but having a couple of folks over to dinner is an easy thing to do.

My menu is simple, and based on that of a French bistro: Rabbit in Dijon sauce, roasted asparagus, parmesan-roasted parsnips, and pommes persillade - parslied potatoes, for the non-French speaking. Nothing terribly daunting.

We will be starting with a chicken liver mousse, and finishing with a selection of French cheeses (including Palle's favourite Bleu D'Auvergne) with sliced pears, grapes, and fig-anise bread from Terra Breads.

The chicken liver mousse recipe is freakishly large. I had been intending to provide each person with their own little individual pots of mousse and heap a pile of sliced baguette in the centre of the table. If I do that, however, I will be faced with a daunting amount leftover, so I've opted for a large crock of mousse in the middle of the table, surrounded by baguette slices. If I manage to delay the rest of dinner long enough, perhaps it will all get eaten, but I would hate for my guests to be too full to try the bunny.

I tend to experiment on my dinner guests. It seems a swell time to drag out a recipe that I've been meaning to try, and tonight both the mousse and the parmesan parsnips fit the bill. The parsnip recipe comes with a solid nod from the Marquise, so I'm expecting it to be quite tasty - but if the nutty flavour of the parsnips isn't quite my guests' cup of tea, it will be a minor enough part of the dinner.

The bunnies came with their livers, so I have an extra treat up my sleeve. Pan-fried rabbit liver in butter with kosher salt. I should have enough for one little croustade each, an amuse-bouche if you will, to entertain my company while I rattle around with the asparagus. Wish me luck.

April 01, 2005

Unexpected Homer Simpson Moment

"What's happening to me? There's still food, But I don't want to eat it." - Homer Simpson, "Maximum Homerdrive"

This isn't a quote I ever thought would make it into my brain when faced with a plateful of brownies and rocky road bars. Unlike Homer, though, I haven't already eaten most of a cow to get to that state.

Brownies, people! Good ones. And all I can think is, eh... there's a lot of them.

Loss of appetite. Hm. I guess I'm still sick. Bummer.