Category Archives: Veggies

Naturally cumin

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 even slower 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.

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Spicy Cumin Beef

 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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

A tale of two quiche

You’d think at my senior age, I’d know not to burn down my kitchen in the name of quiche.

It was a dilemma only I could manufacture. Six people were about to descend on my home for dinner. As per usual, I was running on octane, wrapping up meal prep at 60 miles an hour whilst two, deep-dish quiche peacefully baked in my oven. I remember sighing with relief as I settled the eggy creatures in my oven, calculating the expansive hour ahead. There was lots of time to get to the finish line.IMG_2765

My list was short (for me). Set the table and shake up a fresh salad dressing. Deal with a sink full of dirty dishes, wipe all the counters and set out appetizers. Whirling through the kitchen and across the dining room and back again is a dervish act I habitually spin in the nth hour.

But this time there was a catch: I smelt something.

When I peered into the oven to check on my half-baked quiche, a torrent of smoke billowed out. Oddly, butter was dripping off the crust and pooling on the oven floor, right beneath the red, hot, oven burners. I slammed shut the oven and rushed to open the sliding glass kitchen door to air out the smoke.  Mid-pull on the kitchen door, my ears were assaulted by the high-pitch scream of the smoke alarm. Instead of turning off the oven, I hit and slammed the alarm’s reset button three or four times. But it continued to wail.  I ripped the alarm right off the ceiling.

Pure manic panic flowed like a drug. I raced to my front door and commenced fanning the door back and forth like an Egyptian slave with a fig leaf – Cleopatra-style. Surely this would staunch the smoke, I prayed. Nearly hallucinating, I opened the oven again, my face assaulted by a newer, denser wall of smoke. I dipped my oven-gloved-hand into the grey mass to gently jiggle the quiche. Was it done?

IMG_2764Now who was I kidding?  Both me and my saner-self had seen the timer.  It was just 30 minutes into the one-hour bake. One jiggle of the pie sent yellow, eggy waves a coursing. Dinner for eight was doomed. If the quiche didn’t stay in the oven, despite the smoke and my concurrent mania, I’d have nothing to show for.

I was a professional, for God’s sake!

A slew of obscenities suddenly spewed from my mouth. I should have listened to my gut yesterday when I read that outlandish instruction: “Mix the pie dough by hand, pinching the fat to the size of hazelnuts with your fingertips.”

Every baker knows that hazelnuts are way too big. No wonder my rolled-out dough had huge yellow, (buttery) polka dots marring its surface like birth marks.

Like a novice, I had done what Bo Friberg deemed right on page 62 of “The Professional Pastry Chef”. I followed his Flaky Pie Dough and believed in him when he wrote “Unless you are making a large amount, always mix dough by hand.”

Wasn’t this a large amount? Aren’t these recipes for professionals, I kept wondering as I filled a huge bowl with a pound and a half of flour then laboriously broke and pinched over a pound of butter into it for half an hour to create four (count them, four) crusts.

Why had I forsaken cookbook author Bonnie Stern – with her pea-sized morsels and quick, food processor method – that had guided my pie-making career for decades?  Now a sparkling pool of fat was at the bottom of my oven, glistening ominously.

IMG_2771Despite better judgement, I continued to bake and smoke and bake, making a frenzied relay from front door to back, swinging doors madly until I saw The Flames.

At that instant, I bolted upstairs making my tenth worst decision of the day: I grabbed my plant mister. I was sliding down the stairs, arms flailing, calling out to the walls “Fire, Fire!”  when my stepdaughter Emma walked in the front door.

“The oven’s on fire!” I screamed, then yanked open the oven door, stupidly squirted water on an oil-based fire and closed the door. The flames still roared.

Resigned, I looked at Emma and said softly  “Call 911” in the calmest, most intelligent voice I’d procured in the past hour.

But no sooner did Emma reach into her purse and collect her phone did the bright orange flickering subside! Completely. We both stood staring in disbelief, waiting a whole, long minute until I opened the door, coughed through the haze and gingerly removed our dinner.

Emma opened windows. I flapped the front door.  And we laughed a smoky laugh.

IMG_2769The guests arrived 10 minutes later.  The table wasn’t set.  The salad and its dressing had to be made. The kitchen was a disaster zone: dishes, food, crumbs everywhere, not to mention the air drenched in smoke. I needed a valium but found a glass of wine instead.

“Tonight, we are dining on rare, smoked quiche,” I announced during the toast.

We dug into creamy, cheesy contents bordered by an ultra-buttery, uber-crisp crust. Not one person detected any je ne sais quoi. Several hummed about the leeks, noting their subtle sweetness.

I admit, maybe Smoky the Bear or Sparky the Fire Dog wouldn’t recommend my actions, but satiated and full, my dinner party was unanimous: those two stellar quiches were a lot better than no dinner (or house, or kitchen) at all.

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Quiche with leeks and goat cheese

  • Servings: 12, or two whole quiche
  • Print

Quiche is quick to prep (especially for visiting vegetarians) if you have a frozen crust tucked in your freezer.

2 tbsp butter

2 small leeks*, sliced

½ cup crumbled plain goat cheese OR 1 cup grated old cheddar or gruyere

4 large or extra-large eggs, beaten

¼ cup cream or whole milk

¼ tsp sea salt

Big pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Freshly ground black pepper

1 frozen, deep dish pie shell

Preheat oven 400F

In a large frying pan, heat butter at medium and sauté leeks until soft and fragrant. Remove from heat and allow to cool before sprinkling over the bottom of your frozen pie crust. Distribute cheese evenly on top. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, cream, salt, nutmeg and black pepper until frothy. Pour into pie shell, leaving at least half an inch between this liquid and the top of the crust (as the egg custard will expand and balloon over the edges if there is no headroom). Just in case, place the uncooked quiche on a baking sheet (to catch any spills)  before baking.

Bake 20-25 min or until golden brown and set. (If you see the quiche balloon or dome up during the last minutes of baking, remove from the oven immediately to prevent a split in the cooled custard.) Let it cool on a rack for 15 min before serving.

* No leeks? Substitute with ½ cup sliced shallots or onion.

 

Luxurious Lentils

I don’t think there is anything I make more regularly and with more satisfaction than soup. I never make a small pot, I always go big because soup is a mainstay of my diet and freezer. So is bread. One and one equals dinner or lunch, from season to season.

My friend Karen recently gave me a box full of pantry goodies.  She was cleaning out her gourmet cupboards for a move and decided she’d rather give me toys for my culinary sandbox  than put them in storage and out of usage for half a year.

“Mostly flavoured vinegars and lentils,” she droned, then spiced it up with “there’s a bottle of truffle oil, some wasabi and white Chinese fungus.”

It was the lentils that sung out for soup.

img_1202.jpgYet… lentils left to their own devices can create the most boring soup in the universe.

Under the spin of magic, lentils can also offer up mouthfuls of rich vegetarian Soup Bliss that is so complex, you’d want to shoot the writer who just wrote the last line’s blasphemy.

One such soup can be found in Myra Goodman’s delectable tome “Food to Live By: The Earthbound Farm’s Organic Cookbook”.  Her Mediterranean Lentil Soup is layered and rich, despite missing one of the most quintessential ingredients found in my soups: homemade chicken stock. To make matters more envious, this lentil soup reaches the finish line with nary a piece of bacon, prosciutto, ham, pancetta, sausage or speck.

I couldn’t do it. My copy of that cookbook was in the wrong city’s kitchen and none of its magical equation could be dredged up from the swamps of my memory.  Meanwhile, evil cooking gnats were hissing and spitting in the dark gutters of my hesitation, taunting with incantations of “You’ve got drab lentils, drab lentils!”

IMG_1194Thus, I gave my blonde curls a good shake and pulled out the bacon.

This in tribute to what I imagine was either a Spanish scam or one of Karen’s most luxurious food purchases ever.  Here was a bag containing just three cups of brown lentils with two, not one, $25 price stickers.  Highway robbery! I had to give these Mexican lentils the respect Karen’s wallet deserved, so I pulled out the big guns: a litre of freshly made chicken stock, simmered for 8 hrs on my backburner the day before.

I started chopping.

First, a quarter pound of PC Applewood smoked bacon which went into a large hot pot shimmering with olive oil. IMG_1198Next, a very crisp Walla Walla onion (love our Stateside produce from Washington), two stalks of celery, followed by a red and green bell pepper. Next, I cracked open a 796 ml can of no salt-added, organic “Terra Dolce” tomatoes that I bought – brand unknown – at Costco, gambling on a whole box that has delivered thrice the flavour for all its economy. Finally, in went a cup of Karen’s precious lentils washed and drained, followed by a litre of chicken stock.

Despite the bacon and homemade chicken stock, these lentils were heading perilously close to the oblivion of bland and comprehensive seasoning was in order.  I started by squeezing five cloves of roasted garlic into the brew, and chuckled with a witch’s glee as I rubbed two teaspoons of dried oregano from Karen’s box. No truthfully, I cackled, because Karen’s dried oregano is wickedly strong and full of oomph compared to the dross I had just given the sniff test from my spice cupboard.

Once I had dumped my old oregano stash into the compost pile, I was ready for more foraging through flavour-land (a.k.a. my spice drawer). IMG_1210A fat pinch of smoked paprika, a teaspoon of Club House ground cumin, one “DAN-D-PAK” hot, red dried pepper from Gerrard Chinatown, half a teaspoon of mild chile guajillo molido from Kensington Market, one chopped fresh green serrano pepper, half a cup of chopped fresh coriander and juice from half a lime. Because my stock is made without salt, I added a teaspoon of course Mediterranean sea salt from Italy, straight from Karen’s box (but without a price tag).

In less than half an hour, a scrumptious soup was born. Esta la vita!

 

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Karen’s Pantry Mexican Lentil Soup con Bacon

This is a spicy, full flavoured soup that brings lentils out of the pantry so they can live a little.

1 tbsp              olive oil

¼ lb.                PC Applewood smoked bacon, chopped into ½ inch slices

1                      large Walla Walla, Vidalia or Spanish onion, chopped

2                      stalks celery, chopped

1                      green bell pepper, chopped

1                      red bell pepper, chopped

1                      796 ml can tomatoes

4 cups              chicken stock

1                      cup small green lentils, washed and drained

5                      cloves roasted garlic (or 2 cloves, chopped)

2 tsp                dried oregano, rubbed

1 tsp                ground cumin

¼ tsp               smoked paprika

1                      hot dried red pepper, crushed

1                      fresh green serrano pepper, chopped

½ tsp               chile guajillo molido or mild chile powder

½ cup               fresh coriander, chopped

½                     lime, squeezed

1 tsp                sea salt * or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a large pot, add bacon and cook until golden and crispy.   Add onions, celery and peppers and sauté for five minutes or until fragrant. Add tomatoes, stock, lentils, oregano, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, dried hot pepper, fresh serrano pepper and chile powder.  Bring to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes or until lentils are tender soft. Season with fresh coriander, lime juice, salt and pepper. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swiss Chard Wonderfulness

IMG_7312My green thumb has always had a soft spot for Swiss chard. Forever, I grew luscious fields of these crinkly leafed greens, their yellow, red, pink or orange stalks sparkling like bright lights against the black soil.

Forever, that is, in my dreams!

IMG_7318For two wretched years, I watched Swiss chard not grow on my balcony garden. No matter how much I prayed when I tucked the seeds into the soil… No matter how sweet my gaze when I sprinkled water upon the seedlings… No matter, no matter, all I grew were stunted little dwarfs covered in a mysterious mildew.

Bleck.

So it came as a marvel that the veggie gods sang above my balcony this year and blessed me with a container so full of chard, I can cook at least two or three meals from the bounty.

IMG_7317Swiss chard tastes like spinach but differs slightly in the texture department. While spinach leaves cook down into a soft mass, one-tenth the original size, chard is more sturdy – but not nearly as tough as kale. Chard with red stalks will bleed crimson, just like its close cousin the beet green. Their earthy flavours bear similarity, too.

IMG_7320That’s why it doesn’t hurt to sweeten up a bunch in the pan. Toss in just a handful of dried apricots, raisins or currants and it will add currency to this green when serving it to Green Naysayers. Vidalia onions from Georgia are a spectacular addition, too. And toasting just a tablespoon of pine nuts in a dry frying pan at high for a couple of minutes adds the final finish to a recipe worth celebrating the harvest with.

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Swiss chard with apricots and pine nuts

2 tbsp                                     olive oil

1 clove garlic                          smashed

1 Vidalia onion                      thinly sliced

1 bunch Swiss chard            stalks chopped and leaves sliced into thirds

6 dried apricots                     sliced

2-3 tbsp                                 white wine, stock or water

½ -1 tsp                                 kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

¼ tsp                                      hot chili flakes  *optional

1 tbsp                                     pine nuts, toasted

Heat oil in a large frying pan at medium-high sauté garlic, onions and Swiss chard stalks until tender and golden, about 3 minutes. Add Swiss chard leaves, apricots and a tablespoon of wine, turn heat to high and cover pan immediately to wilt greens for 1 minute. Remove cover, toss greens with tongs add remaining wine, season with salt, ground pepper and chilli flakes, turning heat to medium and continue to cook until greens are tender. Serve garnished with pine nuts.

And the beet goes on

Every January, fresh vegetables finally get the attention they deserve. My beet buddies, whether they have billowing green leaves, long tapered roots or roly-poly bodies, are finally  back in vogue! All it took was the excess of the holidays to help nudge all those colours and shapes back into the healthy eating spotlight.IMG_9401 copy Continue reading

Digging Sweet Potatoes

Last week I put on my boots and jeans and boarded one of two, large tour buses heading for a sweet potato farm in Simcoe, Ontario. You’d think the author of a book on fresh produce might know that sweet potatoes grew in Ontario – but she didn’t. And you’d think that the farm we were about to visit might be run-of-the mill, but it sure wasn’t.IMG_4914 Continue reading