Pesto Perfect

It’s August and I’m dipping fingers and bread into a bowl of freshly made pesto. The colour shimmers emerald green and licorice notes of sweet basil jump into my nostrils, the garlic-tinged oil making a smooth slide down my throat.

IMG_4022I want to eat it by the spoonful, but instead rush to store it before the colour and flavor are ruined by oxidization. So off it goes, portioned into small, glass jars covered by a thick layer of oil, lidded and refrigerated. I will slather it on warm toast, piling on sliced garden tomatoes and crisp bacon to make daily BLTs to be consumed with lascivious abandon. A teaspoon or two will find its way into homemade salad dressings, more will be drizzled over grilled shrimp and sometimes I’ll float a coin-sized island of it in the middle of a creamy cold cucumber soup or smear it on crostini with grilled veggies.

How was my life ever lived without pesto?

IMG_4007My first (hand-written) pesto recipe came from the finest Mediterranean-style cook I knew in the 80s. Lisa made her mom’s pesto and instructed me to freeze it in ice cube trays then toss the bright green cubes into pasta or minestrone soup. Lisa’s mother was a Greek culinary goddess, issuing out platters of moussaka and spanakopita in a single afternoon, then topping it off with her legendary finikia – soft, honey-infused oblong cookies covered in a crumble of crushed almonds. I found any excuse “to help” Lisa with her high school homework so long as we worked in her mother’s kitchen, drinking demitasses of muddy Turkish coffee and nibbling on the orange-scented finikia.

Coming from a culinary background more acquainted with Hamburger Helper and Sloppy Joes than pine nuts and olive oil, IMG_4019I naturally assumed pesto was a Greek thing, especially when Lisa sent me to her favourite food stores on the Danforth to purchase my supplies.

But a trip to Cinque Terre two decades later set me straight on the basil and pesto front. My husband Don and I had found a small room in a three-floor-walkup hotel in Vernazza, one of the five fishing villages that have made this spot along the Ligurian coast famous.

That, and the star item on every menu: “Trofie al Pesto”.

Don dove into his first steaming bowl and made a vow that he would eat none other, for the next three days. It was love at first pesto bite: handmade spirals of trofie pasta, cubes of potato and strands of crisp, green beans all covered in a voluptuous green blanket (no, duvet) of garlicky, oil-infused basil. There was not a trace of bitterness in this pesto and we were so happy with ourselves to be dining on the most local of all creations, “pesto Genovese” born a mere 100 km north in Genoa.

Don paid tribute every evening devouring a bowl then instantly dreaming of his next. He talked about it all day long as we hiked along the coast meandering our way from village to village, stopping for cappuccinos and photography, a glass of blood orange juice here, or a chilled glass of Limoncello there. All of it led up to dinner and another bowl of Trofie al Pesto.

I bought a few small jars of pesto Genovese and brought them home from Cinque Terre, IMG_4020yet none, dear reader, were as vibrant or as fresh as my homemade creations. Basil is currently at season’s peak. Whether you find it on the Danforth, at a farmer’s market or growing on your third-floor deck like a jungle, I bid you to pull out your food processor to create a delectable sea of green and make a toast to Don and his pesto.

Basil pesto

This is a very basic recipe that is open to modification. If you have a bumper basil crop as I did this year, you can triple it. If you want to mix it up a bit, substitute some of the basil with flat-leaf parsley, chives, arugula or baby kale. Add twice the oil if you like a less green, richer sauce. Even the pine nuts can be substituted with Macadamia nuts, blanched almonds or even tahini. Many cooks like to add   Parmigiano Reggiano but I like to hold off and serve it freshly grated over pasta that is tossed with pesto.

1 clove garlic

¼ cup pine nuts

4 cups packed basil leaves

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Pinch of salt

Toss garlic clove into the tube of a running food processor to mince finely. Pour in pine nuts and process until minced, about 30 seconds. Place basil leaves in the food processor bowl and pour over with oil. Process until emerald green and smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice between processing. Season with salt.

Becoming a San Francisco Baker, Part 2

By day two of Artisan Bread Baking Level III, I had a hunch: The cards just weren’t stacked in my team’s favour. Sure, we looked the part.Team 3 wore white chef’s coats buttoned to the collar with crisp, starched aprons secured at the waist. We clutched the same roll of formula-printouts in our hands as we entered the production facility. Just as the others, we plopped down our pens, smartphones and water bottles on our workbench and had access to the same high tech mixers and ovens. But there was no doubt about it: Team 3 lacked a certain, shall I say, je ne sais quoi.

Me and my mixer.

Me and my mixer.

Didier tried to be diplomatic but I know he knew what I knew, even before I knew it.

It was called experience.

The pros in our class knew exactly how to operate the second they stepped into the spotless bakery. But for us rookies, it was our first swing up at the bat in the big leagues.

Worse still, the real bakers knew that time was of the essence. They circled around the large room and took a mental log of where all the important stuff lived, like tubs and cylinders used to scale ingredients or hold fermenting dough. They instantly sourced out the Essential Four (flour, water, yeast and salt) and understood that all the water had to be cycled through a digital cooler then laboriously calibrated with a probe thermometer.IMG_2828_EDIT From the corner of my eye, I saw a flurry of activity, bakers racing by our workbench wielding tall, plastic stacks of containers, pulling bins-on-wheels full of flour and figuring out which scales worked and which didn’t.

But my team was just too busy standing still, staring at each other’s nametags and politely pointing at the pile of formulas and wondering which of us would lead our naïve flock.

It was Chef Jesus, of course.

But how would I possibly address this tall, broad-shouldered teammate who stood by my side, yet towered above me? Should I pronounce the name embroidered on his chef’s coat like Sunday school or offer up a Spanishy “Hey Seuss? When I mangled out the latter, a cringe swept over the Texan’s mug then Jesus Lugo calmly inhaled, looked me straight in the eye and said dead-pan, “That’s right, Madeleine.”

From then on, I knew our team had an inkling of a chance. Not only was Chef Jesus Lugo experienced, but an extremely patient man who just happened to be built like a Mack truck. A community college instructor from El Paso, Texas, Jesus took the bull by the horns and picked up (no, levitated) a 20-kilo pail full of poolish and deftly poured it into the VMI Phebus mixer near our workbench.

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L to R: Teammates Claudia Rezende and Gabrielle Thomas

Meanwhile, Claudia Rezende from Sao Paolo was scaling flour, reading glasses perched halfway down her nose, bouncing kid-like on her tiptoes in order to see the digital numbers flashing in front to her. She was giddy with joy to be standing in this facility in South San Francisco. Like I, she’d booked a room at a nearby airport motel and was titillated to be honing professional skills. But after less than a minute at the scale, Claudia stamped her foot angrily and swore something completely unsterile in Portuguese. One huge scoop of flour had just tipped the scale and the digital readout had gone blank.

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Scaled yeast in a container on top of scaled flour.

Bread is baked by weight not volume and bakers follow formulas, not recipes. On day two of the course, we would bake four different breads: semolina durIMG_3270_EDITum crowns, rustic filone, spelt bread and 100 % whole grain bread. Every bread formula was designed to produce 25-40 kilos of dough (enough to cover the surface of a bath tub like a big, fluffy pillow) and would bake off into 50-75 loaves.

Everything was weighed.

On average, every one of Didier’s formulas was based on 10 kilos of flour. I’ve watched Toronto bakers slash open humungous 10-kilo-bags of flour mix, dump the entire contents into a mammoth mixer, pour in litres of water by the pitcher-full then turn on the mixers’ timer and walk away.

Not us. At SFBI we were “in production” in a refined, complex, scientific and artisanal way. Thus, the semolina durum crowns we mixed up on Day Two required 10 kilos of hard, white bread flour but our job was to meticulously scale (baker-speak for weigh out) this flour into a large, plastic rectangular bin, haul and dump it into a mixing bowl the size of a jumbo exercise ball, then add two (not one!) pre-ferments: a whole wheat durum sponge and a durum semolina poolish that had been prepared the day before and left to ferment from sundown to sunrise.IMG_3035_EDIT

“The pre-ferment!” shouted out Didier in the classroom the day before, his pitch just shrill enough to wake anyone snoozing in the back. “This is our secret tool. We can add something, something so fantastic to the final dough with a pre-ferment. What do you think that is?” he asked, his tone rising on the last syllable and left hanging in the air. He stared at us expectantly for a long while until he couldn’t stand it anymore and teased up the air above us, pointing and waving his magic marker frantically.

“Uh, uh, more fermentation?” suggested someone as if risen out of a coma.

“Yes, so….?” he prodded and waited, the room growing loud with silence until he sang out “Flavor my friends, flaaaaaavorrrr!!!” he droned with religious fervor.

But of course.

To be continued

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Becoming a San Francisco Baker, Part 1

I am a happy baker but a very reluctant scientist. Certain that I could pump up one of my greatest passions with some technical muscle, I recently enrolled in the five-day Artisan III Advanced Bread course offered at the San Francisco Baking Institute.

I chose the course somewhat illogically. I wanted a challenge and knew that most of the scientific baking terms outlined in day one of the curriculum were an utter mystery to my blonde brain: IMG_2815_editwhether it was interpretative flour terminology like ash content or falling number or fermenting fundamentals like knowing your acetic acid from your lactic, the truth was it would all come in handy if I ever wanted to get totally serious about bread and open a bakery – which I don’t.

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Didier Rosada

But I like to dream that I might… and even our instructor, certified Master Baker Didier Rosada was prone to talking at length about romance and passion as any fine, French born and trained professional might when lapsing into a reverie about all things gastronomique.

Bread, despite its lowly origins and simple ingredients, had captivated 18 adult students enough to willingly sit behind cramped little desks in a fluorescent-lit-classroom for six long hours on that first day before we even came within a nose of inhaling the toasty, rich aromas of blistery crusts baking in the eight-deck, 200-loaf- capacity behemoth oven downstairs.

IMG_3246_editWe came from all corners of the world, we students of flour, water, yeast and salt, with a dozen different accents among us. Every so often, the instructor would speak of “yeast going dormant” or “dough conditioners” and questions in all different accents would pop up like mushrooms making for a broken telephone of misunderstanding interpreted in South African, New Zealand, Italian, Japanese or Brazilan-accented English.

Two bakery owners came from the far reaches of Johannesburg and Auckland to assess the week’s training, considering whether it was worth the expense to ship their staff to San Francisco for a week or two of bread school. Another two students, both recent San Francisco city college baking program grads, came for post-grad detailing while I belonged to the ‘serious home bakers’ faction which included a mother of teens from Sao Paolo, Brazil and a French history professor from Oklahoma. An exclusive Utah grocery chain sent two employees to finesse their ciabatta and baguette skills while Urth Caffé of Los Angeles dispatched two of their executive chefs.IMG_2954_edit

Big dollars were riding on many of the bread brains in the room and our leader, Didier often rolled his eyes upward in obeisance to the food gods as he rolled his r’s dramatically and proclaimed in his thick, French accent the defining hallmark of the course, “Production!” which is industry-speak for — well, baking.

Enter the contradiction. We were enrolled to learn artisanal techniques in an industrial, high tech environment. The institute is situated under the same roof as TMB Baking, a distributor of baking equipment from around the globe. Imagine an airport hangar divided into three separate bakeries (two used as bakery/classrooms, the other a commercial off-site bakery for SFBI’s two,

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downtown retail stores) beside an equally vast area housing bakery equipment stock. I liked to linger outside our second floor classroom, perch on the balcony and take in an eagle eyes’ view of the high-energy production facilities below.

“Only 20 % of baking in the USA is artisanal, “declared Didier on our first day, explaining that the remaining 80 percent is of the more commercial variety, namely pan loaves and bun production. Think baguette versus Wonderbread, ciabatta versus Kaiser rolls. IMG_3184_editArtisanal is based on traditional, Old World techniques compared to high quantity, fast and industrial modern bread baking. Yet, enter the word “production” and we are talking about large-scale baking of old school recipes.

After five hours of classroom science on the first day of the program, I was chomping at the bit to get my artisanal hands into flour and start production.   Didier pointed at me and four other students in the same row of desks and declared with his usual flourish: “You five are team Number 3!”

He then scribbled a haze of weights, team numbers and formulas on the white board and suddenly it was time to get out from under our school desks and into the production lab . I detected a certain hop and vigor in everyone’s descent down the stairs. In the next hour, we would prepare vats of rye and spelt polish, durum sponge and whole wheat levain that would ferment and bubble all night long until our return for Day Two.

To be continuedIMG_3042_edit

Stop right now, thank you very much

Lately I’ve been feeling out-of-touch with the trendsetters of Toronto’s vibrant food scene. But just a few nights ago, I spent several delicious hours updating my internal food app at The Stop Night Market. I even stood in line – despite my well-known personal aversion to this urban predilection.IMG_2660

I joined a thousand other ticket holders entering the vast, empty lot at 181 Sterling Road in Toronto’s west end and felt a gentle thrill as every line moved at a painless, carefree pace. It didn’t hurt that the evening was bathed in a warm, golden June light that put a glow on everything and everyone, including my neon yellow wristband – an all-you-can-eat ticket to sample from 47 unique food and beverage carts manned by many of Toronto’s food celebs from Momofuko Shoto to up-and-coming stars like Rasa, Branca, Dailo and Boralia .

I was ready to brave the mission alone but was happily joined by yoga-buddy, neighbour and CBC radio host Gill Deacon who tapped my shoulder hello and offered to cart-cruise with me. IMG_2655We ambled up to a counter and found ourselves spooning up esquites or messy mouthfuls of creamy, cheesy smoked white corn spiked with chillies and lime juice. Gabriela Ituarta of Maizal explained that we weren’t eating your average peaches ‘n cream corn but an heirloom white variety grown sustainably in the Kawarthas alongside blue, black and green corns.

Two carts away, the aroma of Hawthorne’s signature dish beckoned: crispy chicken skin tacosIMG_2702 piled high with braised chicken, carrot kimchi, flash-fried vermicelli and guacamole edamame (I dare you to say that three times). Gill and I kicked back our sliders in mere seconds, delighting in these unctuous, texturally divine creations.

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Crispy Chicken Skin Tacos

Next stop, Dailo and chef Nick Liu’s large, welcoming platter of locally produced smoked trout served on delicate betel leaves, covered in a toss of kaffir lime leaves, hot Thai peppers and coriander. Commonly used throughout Asia to wrap around highly addictive chewable betel nuts, these leaves are rarely found on the plate, yet they’re surprisingly sweet, tender and thin, providing the perfect vehicle for a sampler.

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Smoked trout on betel leaf with satay almond sauce and fried shallots

Unlike many of the Night Market offerings, Dailo’s betel leaf preparation was a one-bite morsel that suited my mission to taste widely yet wisely. Night market feeding is a bit like binging on Netflix. You don’t want to stop. The pull of eye candy is immense. Yet the overwhelm factor easily sets in. Besides, the host of the event, The Stop, is all about food consciousness.

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KanPai red rice, barbecue pork and lotus root

According to Kathe Rogers of The Stop, this two-night event raised $200,000 to help “fight hunger, build hope and inspire change” and sponsors such as Blue Goose (naturally raised beef, fish and chicken), Fiesta Farms, and Boulart (artisanal bread) donated raw materials to these restaurant teams that worked like mad to pump out 800 samples in a single evening.

Eavesdropping at the AGO cart, I could detect a slaphappy, Red Bull induced banter   among the half dozen chefs scrambling to keep the Pan American Tamale Stand operating smoothly. Yet despite the crowds and the unceasing need-to-feed, executive sous Chef Renée Bellefeuille had plenty of time to share recipes and enjoy accolades from fellow eaters.

IMG_2697“Do not eat the corn husk,” laughed one of the chefs as I dove into smoked chicken with caramelized onions, charred corn and queso rolled inside a steamed cornmeal cake that sky-rocketed from delicious to miraculous once doused with dollops of salsa verde , cherry tomato salsa and lime crema.

“Cholulu, don’t forget the cholulu. It’s my favourite,” said Renée, when she saw me lingering at the high-traffic condiment station.

IMG_2700_editShe also noticed that I took only one heavenly nibble of her dessert tamale with its rum soaked pineapple and caramel rivers of dulce de leche spooned over a sweet, steamy masa harina.

But pacing, my friends, is the only answer to a night market feast especially when the sun starts to set, samples get lost in the shadows and chefs lose their happy-to-serve-you mojo.

Hail to sales people.

Marketing Meredith at Libretto Pizzeria was still revved up enough at sunset to provide a full introduction to frittatina, or stuffed bucatini pasta that inexplicably transformed into square cubes once tossed into the deep-fryer! They emerge with a creamy hot interior of provolone and bechamel sauce beneath a lightly battered surface. Dunked into tomato sauce, these addictive creatures are a hallmark of Libretto’s newest resto concept, A3 on College Street.

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A3’s Frittatina

Learn something new every day.

And when you get to taste it all amid one thousand other happy campers, it is a win-win.

Thank you, The Stop.

 

The rub on spices

Decades ago, I warned Toronto Star readers in my “Taste of Asia” column to throw out any ground spices and herbs in their cupboards older than six months. I said they were past their prime. Defunct. Bad stuff.

No one likes a bossy food writer, so I tried to soften the tone and replace visions of global spice carnage with a gentle challenge: Close your eyes, open a random bottle and take a whiff.IMG_2593

“If you can’t smell anything, toss it,” I cajoled.

Well, I’m still on a spice rant after all these years. Commercially dried and ground spices and herbs lose most of their je ne sais quoi the moment they are harvested and processed, for it is at this juncture that their flavour-filled essential oils begin to degrade.

It gets worse.

When herbs and spices are ground into a powder, they are exposed to the ravages of oxidization and time… especially if they fall into obscurity in a deranged spice drawer like mine.

Luckily, mine underwent a radical makeover last week. I threw out all the wizened and yellowed dried red peppers, aroma-less ground powders of dubious distinction and the contents of any package, bottle or tin box that landed in said drawer prior to 2015 – with the exception of nutmeg.IMG_2545

I’m the proud owner of some relatively ancient nutmeg nuts, encased in shells and decorated with a fancy filament of mace. They come from Grenada and I began to horde them after several culinary visits to the Spice Island of the Caribbean. Alas, these nutmegs have broken all my self-imposed “Spice and Herb Guidelines”. They demonstrate incredible flavour once I hack off the shell with the blunt end of a knife and finely grate with my Cuisipro rasp.IMG_2586

The places this nutmeg goes! Sometimes it’s just a sprinkle over a Grenada-style rum punch. Or, a teaspoon into garam masala bound for a Punjabi-style curry. So alive are my nutmeg relics that a taster at my table recently detected a single smidgen slipped into a creamy, rich Yukon gold potato gratin.

Despite an undeniably close connection to the ever-popular nutmeg, mace is one loner of a spice. It boasts a well-known affinity with pumpkin, but just doesn’t seem to pop up on the recipe radar otherwise. You can imagine my glee, when I stumbled on a rub recipe calling for a whopping teaspoon of the stuff. I had some whole mace at my fingertips and was ready to put it through the grinder.

IMG_2545I simply peeled the lacy filaments off my whole nutmegs and placed them in my trusty spice blender that has continued to get revved up over all the cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom (green and black), peppercorns, hot peppers, coriander, all spice, fennel and fenugreek I have been feeding it for the past three decades.

In went the mace filaments and out came a surprisingly pumpkin-toned powder that tasted more pungent and citrusy than its soul-sister nutmeg. When I closed my eyes and did a side-by-side sniff of the two, it was difficult to tell them apart. No wonder McCormick spice’s web site suggests putting either one in many of the same destinations, be it custards, eggnog, spice-filled quick breads or dusted on steamed veggies like carrots or sugar snap peas.IMG_2546IMG_2550

Back to the rub, which I spotted in my beloved Joy of Cooking but as per usual, put my own riff on. I chose it not only for the mace, but all the roasted cumin and cracked peppercorns.

Admittedly, cumin is my favourite. Sometimes I grind it raw, but I’m more apt to first toast the seeds in a dry frying pan over medium heat until they start to smoke. (Dry-frying spices is a risky venture as there’s a fine line between browning and burning. It helps to keep a sample of raw cumin seeds nearby as you dry-fry, to offer a visual comparison.) I like to grind the cumin seeds while they’re hot so as to savour the hot cloud of nutty cumin smoke released when the lid comes off.

IMG_2554I used my Thai mortar and pestle to crack or coarsely grind the black peppercorns used in this rub. To add authenticity, I took my hulking mortar outside, placed it on my back deck and visualized the northern Thai town of Fang where I saw countless fine cooks squat and pound – a satisfying way to approach this kitchen tool and more effective than placing it on a kitchen counter.

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Last but not least, salt. If you like smoky flavours, check out Salish, an Alderwood smoked sea salt.

Smokey, toasty pork rub

Get out your spice grinder and have some fun concocting this gorgeous mixture. Whole nutmeg nuts can be found in Kensington or St Lawrence Market or Little India. Try this on grilled pork chops, baby back ribs or slow-cooked pork shoulder. Rub one tablespoon per pound just prior to cooking or better still, rub and refrigerate overnight.

½ cup sweet or smoked paprika

¼ cup ground roasted cumin

¼ cup packed brown sugar

¼ cup cracked/coarsely ground black peppers

2 tbsp hot cayenne powder

2 tbsp sea salt

1 tbsp chile guajillo molido (or any mild chile powder)IMG_2564

1 tbsp smoked salt

2 tsp mace

Makes 1 ½ cups

My mango mania

I met my first mango in Taiwan in 1980 and it was love at first bite.  Like so much for me in Asia then, a mango was terribly exotic and new. I was floored by its fresh, juicy, tropical taste and loved eating it “inside out”,  those luscious orange cubes popping out from a leathery,  inverted skin.thai20ice

Mango orchards covered much of Taiwan and small mountains of these fruits used to fill the markets during mango season. On a student budget, this was something I could afford to binge on, but my Chinese Auntie was appalled by my ravenous appetite.

“Too much yang,” she’d scold, wagging a finger. “This fruit is too yang. It’s  too hot!  It’s going to make you sick.”

It didn’t.

I know that Chinese notions of dietary, yin-yang balance are centuries old and very wise but when mango season comes to town, I open wide and gobble up.

IMG_1704Every spring in Toronto these yellow, kidney-shaped mangoes called Ataulfo and Alphonso start to appear and I can’t wait to peel off their skin and slice into their rich golden, fibreless skin. Deeply sweet and intoxicating, it’s no wonder Persians named it samarbehist or fruit from heaven.

I’m happy to eat it straight for breakfast, or slice it up and toss it into a fruit or green leafy salad. It goes into my Thai mango salad and stars in a salsa (recipe below). Sometimes I’ll cook up some coconut sticky rice and serve that adorned with thin slices of mango. Nothing beats it pureed into a mango lassi or strawberry smoothie.

Besides rocking in the taste department, mango is a nutritional powerhouse, ranked right up there in the top ten list of good-for-you fruits. It’s an excellent source of vitamin A, high in C and a source of fibre, vitamins E and B6. Moreover, it’s bursting with carotenoids (plant pigments) such as beta carotene and zeaxanthin, which protect against cancer, enhance immunity and help to prevent age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness.

Before Ataulfo and Alphonso entered the market, most consumers were familiar with Haden, Kent or Tommy Atkins mango. These are oblong or roundish, about the size of an adult hand, covered in green skin splashed with red and sometimes yellow patches. They usually weigh about twice that of the smaller yellow ones.

IMG_1711It’s good to know that colouring does not indicate ripeness in a mango. How it feels, does. A ripe mango should yield to slight pressure and have the feel of good leather. Sniff around the stem end. A ripe mango will emit an intense, flowery smell.

Two new varieties of mango have become available, the big green Keitt from the USA and the Pango Mango from Puerto Rico. Both are large meaty mangoes. The Keitt stays green, even when ripe.   And the newly developed green Pango Mango with its reddish blush has no fibre at all.

MANGO SALSA

Serves 4

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This salsa offers up a quartet of flavours: sweet, sour, salty and hot. It’s a cinch to make and, like most salsas, the flavours intensify if you let it sit in the fridge for a few hours before serving. Mango salsa is the perfect counterpoint to grilled poultry or fish, Tex-Mex dishes or even curry served on rice. Be sure to use fully ripe mangoes.

2 ripe mangoes, peeled and diced into 1/4-1/2-inch cubes

1/2 cup            chopped red onion

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/4 cup            chopped fresh coriander

Juice of 1 +1/2 limes

2 roasted sweet peppers   * optional

1 large dried hot pepper, dry-roasted

Salt

In a non-metallic mixing bowl, add the mangoes, red onion, garlic, fresh coriander and lime juice. Dice roasted red peppers if using and add to mixture. Chop dried chili pepper and add to salsa mixture. Salt to taste. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving for best results.

 Dry-roasting your dried chili peppers helps brings out richer flavours.   Plus, it’s simple to do. Either roast it in a dry frying pan at medium heat for a few minutes or until it turns dark brown, or roast it in your toaster oven. It’s easy to burn a dried red chili pepper, so watch it carefully.

Dress it up

My niece Katie loves salads. I think she likes to crunch through one every day, if not every lunch and dinner.

Last Sunday, I served her a mix of red and boston lettuces, frisée, sunflower sprouts, sliced mango, red peppers, and lots of chopped fresh coriander. IMG_6801

She liked it and gave me further compliment by asking, “What’s in the dressing, Aunt Maddy?”

I get asked that a lot and am shocked that more household fridges aren’t crowded with as many little jars of homemade vinaigrettes as mine – especially when you taste the difference between your own creation and some lousy, store-bought facsimile.

Here’s the basic template, which starts with an empty lidded jar.

Fill it with this:

IMG_77811 shallot, finely chopped

½ tsp Dijon mustard

1 tsp maple syrup

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Big pinch salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Screw on the lid and make sure it’s on tight so you can shake it like crazy (a.k.a. emulsify). Before you pour it on a salad, dip in a tasting spoon or a leaf of lettuce and taste it. Consider if you’ve got the balance right and add a little bit more oil, seasoning, sweetness or acid to find the exact flavour you are looking for.

Making vinaigrettes and salad dressings is a great place to flex your culinary muscles and develop your palette. The contents of your fridge and cupboards are your personal playground and it’s time to start romping through it, pouring, mixing and tasting.Flowerpetalsalad

Abide by a simple rule. Add one part souring agent (be it vinegar, citrus juice, pureed fruit, yogurt or even tamarind) to four parts oil. If it has too much pucker power, you can dilute it with more oil. Sometimes all it takes is a little sugar, honey or maple syrup to balance things out. While it is called a vinaigrette you don’t want it to taste too sour.

Watch out for lemon and lime juice. Both are potent additions compared to their milder cousins, grapefruit and orange.

Vinegars vary in acidity too. That’s why many salad lovers like the sweet, subtlety of balsamic over the bludgeon power of white or cider vinegar.

Leonardi Oro Nobile IMG_1817is a white balsamic produced using white grape must. It has a fruity, mildly acid aroma that will caress any vinaigrette into a work of art. I bought mine at Olive and Olives, a fine olive oil emporium that suddenly closed its Queen St East and Market St Toronto locations last month.

IMG_1816Another of my current favourites is a Portuguese red wine vinegar produced by Herdade do Esporao. I’ve found it at Metro stores.

Extra virgin olive oil is the first oil I turn to for my basic vinaigrette. It has a rich, definable flavour compared to canola, sunflower and safflower which offer a clean slate to build more flavours upon. If you’re making something fruity, like a raspberry or mango dressing, turn to these. Ditto for a spicy dressing with cayenne or chipotle.

Nut oils, like walnut or hazelnut, offer a rich deep flavour that can dominate so add just a little, say a quarter, to the overall oil content. Nut oils beautifully temper bitter greens like arugula or endive.

Shallots offer a great base, since their flavour sits halfway between onions and garlic, the latter which easily overwhelms a dressing.

IMG_1818I find herbs never add as much punch to a vinaigrette as I’d like and rather than pour over the greens gracefully, they clump. But I’d never say no to finely chopped chives, especially now, as they poke out of the spring soil and are as sweet as sin.

Make a vinaigrette this week. I hope Katie does.

A Vij’s attack

Who knew that a night at the movies would set off a torrent of onion, ginger and garlic chopping, a spice drawer purge and some of the most sumptuous curries I have ever created in my kitchen? I didn’t. But recently I paid an exorbitant $35 to watch a TIFF Food in Film movie called The Lunchbox and forgot all about my sticker shock once the reel began, reveling in the click-clack of Bombay trains coursing over tracks as thousands of freshly packed, hot tiffin boxes made their way to hungry civil servants, just in time for 1 pm lunch.

The Lunchbox charmed with a sweet, unexpected love story based on a lonely wife’s kitchen wizardry. As she dipped into spice baskets and seductively licked a smear of sauce off the palm of her hand, I too, longed to dive back into my kitchen and suffuse it with the perfume of cardamom and nutty richness of toasted cumin.

IMG_1594But after the last credits rolled and the lights turned on, out stepped CBC’s Matt Galloway and the owners of Vancouver’s Vij’s restaurant holding microphones, ready to discuss the film on the stage before us.

Galloway and Vikram Vij both gushed unabashed foodie enthusiasms saying their thoughts always centred around food, from morning to night, yet Vikram’s wife, Meeru Dhalwala said, “Sure I love food… and our lives revolve around it, but I get sick of it, too!”

Galloway and Vij’s heads both snapped in her direction.

“Don’t look so shocked,” she said. “I love my kids, too. And get sick of them, also,” she giggled.

I was instantly hooked. She talked about the blood, sweat and tears she put into the writing of her two cookbooks and why her restaurant kitchens are staffed by women only.IMG_1589

“We tried a male chef once. He had tons of experience but his ego got in the way. I really care about the ambience of my kitchens. It needs to be calm and creative when we are cooking- not full of yelling and fear.”

I figured anyone who had such a fine philosophy about food, children and kitchen ambience, was my kind of cook and I instantly nabbed a copy of Vij’s At Home.

I started with cauliflower, the lowly crucifer vegetable that plays a pivotal role in The Lunchbox and is generally adored by Indians. Aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) is a standard you’ll find in most cookbooks and Indian restaurants. I’ve made it many times and have always felt a little let down by the results. It takes a lot to push this plain white veggie with its sulfurous odor into the realm of “Ah ha!” but Meeru’s Spicy Cauliflower Steak does just that. Her culinary tricks include half a cup of oil (I cut that in half), a slow braise in a rich sauce and a goodly punch of whole cloves.

It didn’t hurt that I used one of the finest brands of pureed tomatoes: Mutti made IMG_1394in Parma, Italy. This passata (tomato puree) is sweet, luscious and has a Hindi-kind of ring to it.

The Vijs had mentioned on stage that they drink wine with every Indian meal they prepare and that their default – or other favourite cuisine – is Italian. The more I perused their cookbook, the more I sensed a Parma-Punjab fusion going on. Such as “Ground Fennel Seed Curry”, in which a rich marriage of fennel, tomato puree and cream creates the perfect sauce for fish, seafood or chicken. Among Indian cookery, this dish is super easy and fast. You decide whether to serve it plain (vegetarian) or drape it luxuriously over some protein. Serve on basmati rice or even linguine.

Ground Fennel Seed Curry:Photo courtesy of Vij's at Home

Ground Fennel Seed Curry: Photo courtesy of Vij’s at Home

Ground fennel seed curry

The difference between mediocre and fabulous Indian cooking lies squarely in the treatment of spices. Buy whole (except turmeric!) and grind in a coffee or spice grinder. Don’t store ground spices for longer than a month or two. BJ Supermarket (1449 Gerrard St East, near Coxwell) has every exotic spice you’ll ever want and more. Recipe adapted from Vij’s at Home (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010)

6 tbsp fennel seeds

1/3 -1/2 cup cooking oil

2 cups pureed tomatoes

1 tbsp (or less) salt

1 tsp turmeric

2 tbsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground fenugreek seeds

2-3 tsp crushed dried chilies

4 cups water

1 cup cream

Heat a 10-inch heavy-bottomed frying pan on high for 1 minute. Add fennel seeds, and stirring regularly, cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until slightly dark and fragrant. Pour roasted seeds onto a plate and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Grind the fennel seeds in a spice (or coffee) grinder. Set aside 2 Tbsp ground fennel seeds for this recipe. Store the remaining seeds in an airtight container in a dark cupboard or drawer for use in other dishes.

In a medium pot, heat oil on medium for 1 minute. Add ground fennel seeds and stir continuously for 30 seconds, or until fennel begins to foam lightly. Carefully and immediately add tomatoes, stirring well. Add salt, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek seeds and crushed dried chillies and sauté for 5 minutes, or until oil glistens.

Pour in water and cream. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

Gently poach fish fillets, shellfish or chicken pieces in this sauce until just done. Serve over basmati rice or pasta. Serves 6.

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Cod in fennel curry sauce and cauliflower steak.

Breaking bread

True confessions: I’m a little wired up about bread baking.  I do it weekly.  Sometimes daily.  The process never ceases to fascinate me. The day I stop being thrilled about a loaf of bread – before, during and after its creation – is a day not worth living for.

Once a new, gorgeous loaf is out of the oven and cool enough to touch, I have to photograph it.  I’ve been sharing much of this on Instagram and now it’s time to showcase some of my bread progeny here.

Green and black olives with thyme

Green and black olives with thyme

This is one of the first artisanal varieties I attempted back in the 90s when I baked just about every recipe in Amy’s Breads by Amy Scherber and Toy Kim Dupree. Amy owns a bakery in NYC and has come up with a brilliant sponge starter that offers an apt stepping stone to the next level up: the sourdough starter.

Olive bread is always a big hit, especially with my friend Danny who used to come to high school with olive sandwiches painstakingly created by her adoring mother who sliced olives off the pit and wedged them between two slices of buttered bread.  We thought Danny’s sandwiches were pretty weird back then. Little did we know she was a gourmet trendsetter.

Semolina and sesame loaves perched on bannetons

Semolina and sesame loaves perched on bannetons

I wanted to rise my loaves in bannetons like the French master bakers do, but I was too cheap to buy them.  Unavailable for purchase in Toronto, I found my first ones online at King Arthur Flour. All my American cookbooks had King Arthur Flour in their “Where to Shop” section but I choked when I saw the price: US$35 for a single basket! Fortunately, my mother was willing to fork over the big bucks when she found them on my birthday wish list.  I have treasured these light, airy baskets ever since.

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Here is a semolina sesame loaf that has spent the night in the refrigerator tucked inside a banneton, sealed within a large plastic bag. I dust (no, shower)  the banneton with rice flour before I turn a shaped loaf upside down and into it for the long, final rise.  The ridges of the reed basket form the circular pattern on top of the loaf which I flip on to a bread paddle lined with parchment. I simply cannot bake free form loaves without parchment paper. It works like a charm.

Roasted potato levain.

Roasted potato levain.

Photographing loaf after loaf can get a little monotonous.  I found a new backdrop with my living room couch! Ikea never looked so good.

My bread club has been doing communal bakes from the bible: Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. The first time I made the recipe (pictured below) I used a preferment with a pinch of instant yeast (as the recipe instructs) but a fellow baker suggested I forget the yeast and use a starter instead.  I’ve been toying with roasted Yukon gold potatoes, sage and even spelt in several adaptations for a couple of weeks.

As my sister once observed, “You just can’t leave well enough alone, can you?”

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Roasted potato bread, page 117, Bread by Hamelman.

It’s true, I can’t. This photo above is my first attempt at Roasted Potato Bread  and it looked and tasted amazing. The crust was a deep amber, the residual rice flour from the banneton added artistic flare and flecks of Yukon gold potatoes and sage peaked through the crumb. But I had to mess with it, because my inner bread critic thought that crumb was too tight.

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Mado’s roasted potato levain.

Here above is the glorious result of my second try when I broke from the recipe and used a tablespoon of my trusty starter to make the preferment into a levain. Getting too technical? None of this really matters unless you are a bread nerd. And my friends are willing to listen to me talk bread as long as they get some bread.

Like my friend Randy.

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Cinnamon raisin levain.

He will nod and listen and say, “Uh huh, uh huh,” for hours of a monotonous Mado monologue on bread. He hardly says a word until the end, when he slips in, “Have you ever thought of cinnamon raisin?”

Many loaves go in his direction.  And when there is a dry spell, he’ll text me to say hello, finishing off with, “Some say white bread gets a bad rap…” That’s Randy-speak for “I want.”

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Vermont sourdough (mostly white with a tad of rye).

And in this case, he got.

An ode to cheese bread

Long ago, when my kids were still in grade school and I rose early every weekday to make their lunches, cheese bread was The King. It was the kind of bread that didn’t need much more than a smear of butter. The sandwich filling didn’t really count. What counted was the bread itself and mine had big, hulking chunks of old, sharp cheddar cheese. It was the kind of bread that would grease up my kids’ hands as they anxiously clutched their gourmet sandwiches in a crowded lunchroom full of underage and drooling cheese bread-eating-wannabes.IMG_6187

It took me a while to get cheese bread down. My goal was Maria’s Mythic Cheese Bread: a soft, white marvel riddled with cheesy chunks the size of marbles. The crust was dark amber and rivers of melted cheese ran in streaks down its domed sides.

Maria was my grandparents’ cook and every summer she traveled up to Lake of Bays to their sprawling cottage to assume authority over the kitchen. When bread was in the making, she closed the kitchen down like Fort Knox. All windows and doors were clamped shut. But the kitchen’s one swinging door to the dining room was seductively lacking a lock. One day I thought I’d satisfy my eight-year-old curiosity and give it a little push.

“Oh no!” squealed Maria, her plump cheeks red and flustered. “The bread’s proofing!” she howled while snapping a tea towel like a whip in my direction.

A warm kitchen was Maria’s religious rite. If the bread failed to rise, it was obviously the fault of a no-good child who’d let loose a draft assaulting her dough. She did everything in her power to humidify and intensify the room’s heat, closing all the windows and doors, cranking up the heat in the empty stove and boiling endless kettles of water – all in the middle of summer. But our taste buds totally respected every iota of her madness, since Maria’s cheddar and chive loaf was pure alchemy.

Mine would be too, after a little tinkering.

IMG_1259Parmesan Chunk and Rosemary Sourdough

My bible was Great Breads by Martha Rose Shulman. This pivotal cookbook walked me page by page through the rites of bread making, eradicating my Maria-instilled terror of yeast. I learned to use little envelopes of Fleischmann’s yeast, pouring their contents into a small bowl of water with a pinch of sugar, waiting just a minute or two for the yeast to bubble up and tell me it was alive and ready to go. Then I’d measure the flour by spooning it from the bag and filling it above the edge of a dry measure cup, shaving off the excess with the edge of the spoon’s handle.

I could have used some help in the kneading department, for a cookbook was a lousy substitute for Maria’s strong hands and knowledge. I knew a little of its rhythm from quick peeks through the cracked door, but Maria always shooed me away. I had to learn it for myself, pushing and pulling what started as a crumbly, floury mass until it morphed into a flexible ball and eventually ballooned around my fingers. Every recipe warned against over-kneading and over-flouring the counter top and only through experience could I sense where that magical line was drawn. There were many of those lines, from the right kind of flour to the right amount of time.

I’ve been baking bread for 20 years now and still perplex over the many variables of baking, but the one that made Maria frantic, turns out to be the one I choose to ignore. Bread does not need a warm kitchen to rise, unless you want to make bread fast. Over the years, I’ve chosen to make my loaves slower and slower because they taste better that way.

But let’s get back to cheese bread and the magic of Maria’s loaf. Every single bite delivered a mouthful of cheese spiked with garden-fresh chive. My grandmother grew chives as high as hay at the cottage and an addictive, confetti of chives was doused over new potatoes, devilled eggs and chicken salad all summer long.

But chives in bread are difficult to calibrate. In fact, all herbs are. Too much, you wreck the bread. Too little, it’s lost and indiscernible. Maria knew exactly how much was right but it still eludes me, so I focus on the cheese, instead.

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Most bread recipes will tell you to knead grated cheese right into the dough. Once baked, it disappears into the crumb – lunch bag letdown!

I like to cube and coarsely grate it. If it’s a straight-yeast dough, I will roll it out into a rectangle, sprinkle it with a cup or two of cubed cheddar then roll it into a loaf. A liberal sprinkling of grated cheese goes on the top of the loaf just before it enters the oven and parchment paper is a must! If your baking pan isn’t lined with this true friend of baking, all that yummy cheese will melt and attach itself to the pan rather than the loaf.IMG_1819

Once my kids were growing into full-fledged cheese bread-aholics, Maria and my grandparents were no longer coming to the cottage. Those days were gone, but I dared to fill some mighty shoes and bake bread in the same kitchen, with the windows wide open and the floor scattered with sleeping dogs and crawling toddlers. I’d whip up a sponge starter in the morning in my KitchenAid mixer adding less than a teaspoon of instant yeast to the mixture. After an hour or two at room temperature, the surface would be riddled with holey bubbles, looking like its namesake. I’d toss cupfuls of white and whole wheat flour into the bowl and let the dough hook do what Maria never taught me: knead. Once the dough had proofed once, rising up into twice its size, I’d ask my eight-year-old niece, Jessie to perform one of her favourite tasks – punching down the dough. Then Jessie and I would roll out the dough and nestle it into two parchment-lined pans.

There was always a big smile on her little face and mine when we put the loaves into that oven, the same one Maria blessed with her baking 30 years earlier. We knew some magic was about to transpire when we closed the door. And no matter how many times we did this, we always sighed in utter amazement at the beauty and achievement of our cheesy loaves emerging from the oven knowing full well they’d be wolfed down in hours and we’d be doing it all over again, soon.

IMG_1825Seven-Hour Whole Wheat Cheese Bread
Makes 2 large sandwich loaves
For best results, use organic, hard flours for this bread.

In a large mixing bowl combine:
3 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups warm milk
1 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1 scant tsp instant yeast

Using the paddle attachment, mix on low for 1 minute until smooth. Leave in bowl (covered with plastic wrap) at room temperature until sponge has lots of small bubbles on surface, about 2 hrs. Add:
1 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats

Mix until it forms a shaggy mass and leave at room temperature for 15-30 min. Add:
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 ½- 1 ¾ cups whole wheat or white bread flour

Add flour by the ½ cup until it forms a ball. Mix at med-low speed about 6 minutes or until the bread starts to balloon around the dough hook.

Transfer to big plastic container or large bowl covered with plastic wrap. First rise 2 hours.

Divide dough in half. On a floured counter, roll one piece of dough into a 12 inch x 8 inch rectangle. Evenly scatter one cup of diced cheese on top. Roll up then shape into a loaf and place into a parchment-lined pan. Sprinkle over with half a cup grated cheese. Repeat for second loaf. OR make into cheese spiral buns by cutting one-inch thick slices from the cheese roll. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets, sprinkle over with grated cheese.

Second rise in loaf pans or as spiral buns: 45-60 minutes (or about ¾ inch over top of loaf pan). Cover lightly with oiled plastic wrap.
Preheat oven to 425 °F (30 minutes before baking)
For loaves, bake 15 minutes, reduce heat to 375°F and bake 40 minutes more or until bottom of loaves sound hollow when tapped.
For spiral buns bake at 375 F for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown. Continue reading