As we usher in the New Chinese Year today, let’s eat fish! Not only is fish a fine food to eat on Friday (especially if you’re Catholic) but if you’re speaking Mandarin, fish (鱼 yu) symbolizes prosperity, because yu is a homonym for surplus.
Steaming is a healthy and delicious way to cook fish creating a sumptuous sauce to spoon over rice. Moreover, steam heat is gentle yet fast. Cooking is done in 8-10 minutes. Once your fillets pass the flake-test, you can leave your fish covered in the steamer and it will stay warm while you set the table or finish stir-frying some Chinese greens like bok choy or gai lan.
Whenever I find leftover cooked vegetables in my fridge, I like to incorporate them into a salad. Squash pairs beautifully with baby kale and apple gives this crunch. Toasting the pecans and seeds makes it even better!
6 cups baby kale
1 cup chopped apple
1 cup roast squash (acorn, butternut or kabocha), broken into bite-size pieces
¼ cup dried cranberries
¼ cup olive oil
1 tbsp white balsamic vinegar
1 tsp honey
½ tsp lemon juice
½ tsp Dijon mustard
Freshly ground pepper
Sometimes it just has to go cardamom in my kitchen. I start dreaming about flavour swaps and find my hands magically clutching a baggie of army-green pods from that crazy mishmash called my spice drawer. I hold the bag and … sigh.
No, I start cussing, wondering aloud if I have the cooking mojo in me to ferret out their cache. Will my cold, stiff fingers find the fortitude to single out each and every one of these tiny seeds that bear an uncanny resemblance to mouse turds?
Cardamom pods aren’t like those happy, smiling pistachio nuts, each cracked and cooperative. These babies are sealed shut like an exotic, perfumed temptress.
Thus, they bring out the pounder in me.
I’ve tried crushing them under my chef’s knife like garlic cloves – but lo, they slide and slither. I’ve grabbed a sheet of wax paper and hammered a rolling pin over them a few times, to absolutely no avail, except for a heap of shredded wax paper.
Luckily, an adorable silver mortar and pestle comes to my rescue.
I throw a handful of pods in the bowl and happily clunk the silver pestle down until I hear crunch after satisfying crunch, splitting and cracking, dispersing their wealth.
The very first pod reaps a clump of tar-black seeds. I can hear my East Indian cooking teacher intoning “Only the black ones are good” as I crack open pod after pod that she’d obviously throw out. A sliver fuzzy membrane is scattered among my largely brown, verging on beige collection. I drop it all into my spice grinder and grimace, again, because fifteen minutes of finicky fine motor work hasn’t even covered my spice grinder’s blade!
Despite this ominous beginning, the seeds whirl into a satisfying silvery and soft powder that trails up into my waiting nostrils with an explosion of menthol and sweet, peppery perfume that is unmistakably cardamom.
Why don’t I just throw up a white flag and buy it ground?
Because I want flavour. Whole spices that are crushed or ground right before use, release essential oils full of oomph. And oomph is what I have planned for this special little biscotti packed with toasted almonds and pumpkin seeds, filled with organic flours, eggs, sugar and vanilla then made perfect thanks to cardamom in the batter. I finish each and every log of biscotti dough with a sparkle of cardamom sugar.
I really can’t live in a house without biscotti. They are my go-to cookie and a welcome gift to friends and family . Thanks to the double bake, they store for weeks, even months in a closed glass container and travel well on airplanes and road trips.
1 cup whole, raw almonds
½ cup pumpkin seeds
1 ¼ cup organic all purpose flour
1 ¼ cup organic soft whole wheat flour
1 1/4 cups organic granulated sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp salt
4 large eggs
3 tsp vanilla
The Finishing Touches:
1-3 tbsp flour (for rolling out logs)
½ tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp organic granulated
Preheat oven to 350 ° F.
To toast almonds, arrange on a baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Add pumpkin seeds to the sheet and bake another 5 minutes. Allow nuts and seeds to cool completely.
In a large bowl, combine flours, sugar, baking powder, cardamom and salt. Use a whisk to mix thoroughly.
Whisk eggs and vanilla in bowl of an electric mixer until frothy. Use the paddle attachment to mix in flour and sugar mixture. As soon as the dough clumps around the paddle, add toasted almonds and pumpkin seeds and mix until just combined.
Dust countertop with flour. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
Spoon out one quarter of the sticky dough, dust lightly with flour and working quickly, roll into a 8-10 inch log. Transfer log to baking sheet. Repeat 3 times.
In a small bowl, mix sugar and cardamom. Sprinkle over logs with pinched fingers.
Bake for 30 minutes or until biscotti logs are golden and firm. Completely cool logs on a rack for at least 30 min. Using a serrated knife, cut crosswise into 3/4 inch wide slices. Arrange cut side down on baking sheets and return to 350 oven for 10-15 minutes or until golden-brown and crisp.
I bought my first fava beans on the Danforth, years back when Fruit King still stood on the corner at Logan. They were big beans. You couldn’t really miss them when perusing the usual green grocer contenders, be it potatoes, carrots or spinach. But in this basket was a stranger. Unlike their skinny cousin, the humdrum green bean, fava beans were bulging, army-green giants with shiny, leathery skins and brown, pointy tips.
Eternally curious when it comes to fresh produce, I stood staring, incredulous at these five-inch-long, soft and spongy beans until I took a sharp elbow in my side from an elderly Italian woman dressed in black, head to toe.
No, it wasn’t an elbow, it was the corner of her shopping basket that she was in the process of shoving between herself and me as she stretched out one determined little hand towards the pile, ferreting out the greenest, plumpest ones.
“What are these?” I asked and she spat out “fava” like it was a revolting, dirty word. Then she stopped for an instant, looked up from her clutch of beans and examined my ignoramus face just long enough for me to instantly understand the meaning of “evil eye”.
I decided to move towards the spinach and declined fava that day.
Fast-forward to now. My fridge is full of Ziploc bags stuffed with freshly picked fava beans from my Cowichan Valley garden. These aren’t any, run-of-the-mill fava beans, these are organic beans from bean grower Sal Dominelli on Gabriola Island. He’s dubbed this fava variety “Exhibition Longpod Fava” and instructions on the seed packet called for sowing in “early spring”.
Owing to the carpet of snowbells under the magnolia and the clutch of daffodils ready to pop in our courtyard, I figured the cold wet soil of mid-February was ready to receive these seeds (dried, brown fava beans). Amid the fog and incessant rain, I tucked them one-by-one into the soil telling myself the heavy layer of wet, chestnut leaf mulch would keep them warm enough to germinate.
Two months later, the bean stalks were already 18 inches high and needed stakes. In March, they had white flowers with big black eyes.
In June, long, fat beans were growing up towards the sky. The phallic nature of my crop almost had me blushing. A hiking friend and fellow farmer sagely shared “they’re ready to pick when they drop down.”
Meanwhile, back in Toronto, my favourite wannabe-Italian, Randy of Scottish origin, had already tucked into fresh fava flown in from Italy that he’d purchased on the Danforth. Toronto was experiencing its usual lack of spring with a heat wave in late May.
“All day long, I can do this!” Randy enthused, sitting outside on his new deck, his mouth full of Pecorino cheese and freshly shucked fava, savoured with a “young Chianti, slightly chilled”.
My hiking friend shook her head and sighed when I told her of this flavour pairing.
“Anything tastes good with wine and pecorino,” she scoffed.
Randy, I explained, was a dedicated fava aficionado. Who else but this mangiacake would de-robe the fava, not once, but twice, before he ate it?
My fellow fava farmer wasn’t listening to any of this gibberish, knowing full well the work and time invested in simply growing these beans. Shucking fava from the pod was an add-on compared to the ease of bean brethren like snap or pole, who are ready to cook right off the vine.
Once shucked, the spongy fava casing reveals a loveable row of five to six, light-green-tinged beans each sweetly indented. I shucked out bowl after satisfying bowl full of beans and carted away bags full of fava shell refuse for the compost.
Scientist that I am, I measured my harvest. Ten cups! Was I up for Randy’s second peel out?
I gave a couple of beans a good try only to discover that the tight skin encasing each bean needed a small knife or long fingernail to remove it. Even still, I was nicking and separating the inner goodies. The process per bean, took the same amount of time as it did to simply shuck one pod and see five to six beans drop out.
It was, in the wise words of my engineer father, “A statistical nightmare!”
Unless you are Randy who awaits fava season with bated breath, ready to shuck all pods then tenderly hand-peel, each and every individual bean that comes his way. Last time we spoke, he cautioned me against over-cooking, too, suggesting that no fresh fava bean should be sautéed for more than a minute.
No wonder I reached for a glass of chianti when pondering culinary creations for the multitude of green orbs lingering in my fridge. I crowded Arborio rice with the, um, little buggers to create a risotto failure that even my carb-loving husband declined. I made a luscious Mexican black bean soup and finished it with a scattering of fava, cooked only a minute or two (following you-know-who’s recommendation). The fava beans bobbed in the soup like buoys and I watched my guests politely skim their soup spoons around them.
Finally, I had a fava epiphany, based on the cooking laws of terroir and desperation. My garden was spilling over with not just fava but an heirloom, purple streaked pole bean called Dragon Tongues. Wouldn’t they be perfect with the fresh pattypan squash I had pounced on at the Duncan farmers’ market that day? The cooking gods and I collaborated on a very fusion, very vegan dish that can be served hot over rice like a curry. Or it can be served French haute at room temperature, just like a Provencal ratatouille, tucked inside a lettuce leaf and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. C’est ca.
No matter what you do, be sure to serve with wine. While Randy’s go-to is Chianti, he also recommends two crisp Italian whites: Vermentino di Sardegna or Falanghina.
And if your larder isn’t plum-full of fava and dragon tongue pole beans, substitute fava with lima beans, and try yellow wax string beans instead of the heirloom variety. Raise a glass to Randy and remember that 2016 was the International Year of the Pulses.
If you are obsessed enough, consider pulling out the just-cooked fava beans and squeezing each one out of its jacket, returning the deep green fava hearts to your curry. (Use my name in vain if you burn your fingers.) Like most curries, this will taste best the day after you cook it. Leftovers freeze well.
2 tbsp organic canola or sunflower oil
½ large sweet onion, chopped
2 garlic, chopped
1 garlic scape, finely chopped *optional
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 tbsp finely chopped or grated fresh turmeric OR 1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander powder
1 cup tomato puree or passata (I like Mutti brand)
2 cups water
1 Poblano chile, membrane and seeds removed, thinly sliced
4 cups Dragon Tongue beans (topped, tailed and sliced in half. Julienne if really thick)
½ yellow bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces
½ orange bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces
2 cups fava beans
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp hot smoked paprika (I like La Chinata)
Fresh sage, sliced
Toasted pumpkin seeds
Heat oil in a large pot add onions, garlic, garlic scape, ginger and turmeric and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add cumin seeds and coriander powder and cook another minute. Add passata and water and bring to a boil. Add poblano chili strips, Dragon Tongue (or wax beans) and bell peppers. Cook, simmering uncovered for 5 minutes. Add fava beans and cook until tender. Season with salt and paprika. Serve hot or at room temperature garnished with sage and toasted pumpkin seeds.
The first time I tasted cumin in Chinese cooking was in Beijing with Ling. It was the year before the Summer Olympics and we were hard at work, travelling from one meal to the next, arduously food reporting for More magazine, analyzing and recording every delectable mouthful that came our way.
The Cumin Find was at lunch. It was a rustic Xi’an-style place, with small wooden tables, rickety seats and glass panes smudged with layers of steam and dirt. We had spent a hungry, stomach-growling hour crisscrossing alleys and laneways searching for this hideaway. Ling kept our search ignited with enticing tales of hand-pulled, perfectly chewy noodles swimming in vast bowls of rich, heavily spiced lamb broth.
A smiling, pudgy cook-owner wearing a white pillbox cap and apron plonked two steaming bowls down before us while yelling something over his shoulder in Shaanxi dialect. Ling and I shared knowing smiles. This place was the real deal.
We dug in, chopsticks on the right, ceramic soup spoon on the left to catch any remnants that fell from our eager lips. Steam clouded Ling’s glasses and I could have sworn I heard her purr after each mouthful. She tried to ignore me, but my questioning was incessant.
“What you talking about?” she blurted out between gulps.
“I want to know what’s in this. I’ve never tasted this spice in Chinese noodles before.”
“Oh” she said. “Ziran”
I heard ziran and figured she had said “Naturally.”
I let her pause and collect her thoughts. She was used to me asking a lot of questions on this trip, especially mid-bite. I waited. Ling continued to revel in the meal… she’d moved on to her roujiamo or Chinese hamburger. She gripped the clay-oven flatbread bun with both hands, inhaling its charcoal overtones. Stuffed with fat, soft morsels of grilled lamb, this Xi’an wheat flatbread bun is famous for soaking up loads of gravy without falling apart. I watched a dribble of lamb juice trickle down Ling’s chin and detected that purr, again.
“What is it?” I asked again.
“I told you,” she said. “Naturally.”
Despite the prospects of a cold lunch. Despite the look of irritation on Ling’s almost-always angelic face, I pressed on, asking her to write down the two characters that were pronounced zi and ran. Patiently, Ling wrote down the zi character on the palm of her left hand with her right index finger, making sure I was watching every stroke as she forged the invisible ink used by Chinese when pantomiming how to write a Chinese character. She wrote ran stroke by stroke evenslower this time, sensing all the ignorance painted in my blank stare.
She stopped her invisible writing and we both groaned. I hadn’t recognized any of the gibberish she had scrawled.
I knew how to write naturally in Chinese but this ziren– this ziren she’d just written on her palm – spelled out a spice that was unnaturally Chinese: cumin.
The Xi’an chef had tossed crushed, whole cumin seeds into a firey wok glistening with oil and loaded with garlic and dried, hot red peppers, elevating our simple bowl of hand-pulled noodles into a culinary epiphany for me. Cumin had seeped into the juicy lamb chunks, too, washing away any untoward mutton-ness and caressing it with a nutty, deeply Middle-Eastern allure.
I was hooked – even if the Chinese pronounced cumin like its homonym naturally.
Ling’s face was flushed. We had shared a tall bottle of Beijing beer to soothe the zing of all the hot dried red peppers flecked throughout the soup. I looked around. It seemed as if everyone in Beijing had apple-red cheeks during this cold, autumn spell. Just the day before, Ling and I had run outside the Temple of Heaven, trying to escape gusting winds that lashed against our skin like ice daggers. Our week in Beijing was to end tomorrow and Ling put down her chopsticks, wiped her chili-oil smudged lips and made a promise for Toronto.
“More ziren,” she smiled. “You love it!”
Eleven years later, I sit in her refitted and renovated kitchen and watch Ling cook in her wheelchair. She zips from one end to the next, pulling small packages of meat from the freezer, scooping Jasmine rice from a lower bin and standing on her one leg to reach for items above the counter. I have brought her a big bag of raw cumin seeds and she rolls her wheelchair before the stovetop range and turns the front burner on high. In minutes, the beige-green seeds in the dry, hot wok turn chocolate brown and the room fills with a smoky, nutty aroma. Deftly, Ling tips the contents of the hot wok on to a plate. With a wooden spoon, I guide the seeds into a coffee grinder.
Some seeds scatter and we say “Ai Ya!” in unison.
I hold the top of the grinder down firmly as the machine whirls the seeds into powder. When I lift it off, twirls and wisps of cuminy, smoky clouds twist in the air. Ling and I both poke our noses in the cloud and swoon. Naturally.
Last spring, I enjoyed many cooking sessions with Ling and her fine cook, Lina who hails from Hunan Province where they eat as many – if not more – hot chillies than they do in Sichuan. Whenever Ling purchases flank steak, she slices it up into small packages for the freezer. During the prep for a dish, Ling lets the meat defrost slightly until it’s easy to slice up sliver-thin, toss into a bowl and marinate for at least 10 min.
150 g/5.2 oz frozen flank steak
2 tsp corn starch
1 tbsp sherry/Shaoxing wine
1 tbsp light tamari
2 tsp roasted ground cumin
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 oblong shallots, thinly sliced
3 bell peppers (red, yellow and orange) thinly sliced
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp oil
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
3 garlic, chopped
½ tsp Ling’s fresh chili paste (see below)
1-2 tsp chili oil
1 tbsp Shao Xing Wine
Green onions, chopped
Slice defrosted flank steak as thinly as possible. Put in a bowl and marinate with corn starch, wine, tamari and cumin (while you chop the veggies or put on some steamed rice).
Heat wok on high, add oil and stir-fry shallot and bell peppers with a pinch of salt until tender (about 3 min). Transfer to a plate and reserve.
Without cleaning the wok, add another tablespoon oil, put beef into the wok and pat it down flat to the surface to sear for 1 minute without stirring. Once it is white around the edges, stir it until no longer red. Add stir-fried onions and bell peppers, fresh chili paste, chili oil and wine. Splash in some water if you want it saucier. Garnish with finely chopped green onions.
Ling’s Salted Red Chili Peppers
Thinly slice 20 fresh hot red peppers. Place about a third in a small glass bowl or mason jar, sprinkle heavily with salt, layer with another third, salt, and add the final layer, the salt. Add a few drops vodka. Mix with chopsticks and refrigerate. Beware, this is HOT.
When I tasted my first bran muffin at the corner of College and Bathurst at The Mars, it was a revelation. I was 19, wore a peasant skirt over Kodiak boots and rolled my own cigarettes with Drum tobacco. I thought myself street-wise but was anything but … Just incredibly curious and always, always hungry. Thus, that first ravenous bite into a Mars bran muffin – dark with molasses and dense like black forest cake – is pure gold in my food memory bank.
My boyfriend Bob was also a revelation. Nothing about him resembled where I came from. He hadn’t grown up in North Toronto or gone to Upper Canada College (like my brother, father or grandfather) but he sure knew enough about betting to pique my father’s gambling instincts and instill a gin rummy playing camaraderie between them.
One summer evening at a family cottage dinner, my stately grandmother innocently asked “And what is it that you do, my dear?” while passing Bob the gravy boat.
“I’m a bookie,” chirped Bob grinning like a cherub, thrilled to make this reveal. Nonnie promptly cleared her throat and my grandfather mumbled “Holy sailor” but no one else asked another word, quickly sweeping this unpleasant news under the nearest carpet.
But back to the muffin. The Mars muffin. It was big, filling and dotted with plump, fat raisins. They were served hot from the oven, sliced in half with a large pat of cold butter wedged inside and fully melted in seconds. Diners, breakfast eggs, take-out baklava and percolated coffee played large in my coming of culinary age. These gigantic muffins were new to diners in the 70s and customers would line up in front of the cash register hoping to leave with half a dozen of these towering –no, glistening – babies stuffed inside a Mars embossed, white cardboard box.
Near that same cash register, along the long, white Formica diner bar, were stools occupied by inner-city characters of dubious distinction. Bob seemed to know them all. They had nicknames like Baldy, Joe the Dipper or Car Fare. Some came “packing” and others had Mafia affiliations following them like shadows.
Bob, being Bob, liked to break away pieces of my W.A.S.P. veneer by unexpectedly pushing me in front of one of these cigar smoking men at the Mars saying, “Hey Dukey, meet my girlfriend Lynn. She’s a Haver-girl.” I seethed at these embarrassments… but they didn’t stop me from moving to New York with Bob a year later and attending an Ivy League college while he worked as a bouncer at Studio 54.
But back to the muffins. I made some today in my West coast kitchen as the rain pelted across a gray, foggy horizon in a day-long deluge. I searched through my baking boxes and pulled out a bag of wheat bran, which now looks oddly old school next to newer fibrous fads like chia, flax or hemp. I found some spelt which adds such friendly nuttiness to any baking equation.
I mixed the dry and wet ingredients in two separate bowls. Quick breads and muffins all like this preparatory segregation with just minimal combining prior to the bake. Crosby’s molasses is a necessary must if you want real tasting bran muffins. And remember to measure the oil in the measuring cup first as prep for the molasses, which will slide out of the measuring cup effortlessly if you do.
Unlike the Mars bran muffin, these ones are good for you: moist, satisfying and rich. I’m willing to place a double-or-nothing bet on Crisco as the trans-fat source of those yesteryear muffins. Yet still, I savour that muffin’s nostalgia and happily munched on all these memories when creating, baking and eating my latest version.