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Soul food

I’m going away on business for a few days, attending an industry conference. A few of our meals have been “sponsored” by various companies with which we collaborate — with each sponsor selecting the restaurant, and in some cases the menu, the group will experience.

Mulling over the list of events, I became naturally curious about those chosen. While searching for websites and reviews, I was struck by the diversity of venues that had been selected. They ran the spectrum, in terms of atmosphere, clientele and, of course, cuisine.

This range had me thinking. I started trying to find the connection between the company who sponsored the event, and the location they chose. In most cases, it seemed the companies had not only considered the reputation of the restaurant, but also how that reputation, clientele and cuisine would reflect and reinforce their own image. The deliberation behind the choices was evident.

So does this translate into our personal choice in establishments and into our own kitchens?

On a personal level, I think the same criteria rings true, but in a much more subconscious form. I think we’re all aware of the emotional connection we have with food; how we eat reflects our mental state, how we celebrate and how we placate.

More specifically though, the food we consider “home”, the food that resonates with us, are the specific dishes to which we feel some sort of connection. We respond to those flavours on a visceral level; the catalyst may be nostalgia, or simply an ingredient that seems to speak to an aspect of our personality.

When we choose to serve or share these meals to others we are, in effect, choosing the part of ourselves to present to them.

So what does all this rambling have to do with what I’m making for dinner? Well, I am making a bit of a special meal tonight (in honour of my little trip), to be shared with the person I adore most in the world.

Since I’d been thinking about the personality of our food, I took a long look at what I was planning to serve.

This salad is a fairly accurate representation of my philosophy on food and, to a degree, my idea of who I am.

It is uncluttered; favourite ingredients, treated with respect and presented with some sense of aesthetic. I’ll admit myself somewhat shallow, I respond to pretty things — as exhibited by my collection of not-at-all-practical-but-simply-gorgeous shoes. There are some fiddly-bits, and that quality is part of me. I appreciate a bit of a to do over an event, but I am not a fan of fussiness or construction without substance. Complexity does not need to be cumbersome. I tend to crave pure flavours and respond most strongly to that which is straightforward.

Hopefully on this plate, and in my life, I’ve achieved that.

I'll see you in a few days.

Fig, prosciutto and goat’s cheese salad with citrus vinaigrette
From The Best by Paul Merrett, Silvana Franco and Ben O’Donoghue, with a few adaptations

1/2 cup grated Parmesan
8 slices Prosciutto di Parma, roughly torn
4 black mission figs, quartered
80 grams chèvre (or more, if you’d like)
Two handfuls of mixed baby greens

Juice of 1/2 lemon, approximately 2 tablespoons
Zest of 1/2 lemon, finely grated
1-2 teaspoons rice wine or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon finely snipped chives
1-2 cloves garlic, finely minced (optional)
9 tablespoons olive oil, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 200º C (400ºF).

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or a silicone baking sheet. Spoon a heaped tablespoon of Parmesan onto sheet and lightly pat down. Repeat with remaining cheese, placing the four mounds approximately 1/2 inch apart.

Bake in oven for 3-5 minutes, until lightly toasted brown. Remove from oven and let stand for about 20 seconds then, using a spatula, place crisps across a cylinder (like a wine bottle or a rolling pin), to set into a curved shape. Allow to cool.

Whisk all the dressing ingredients together, adjust the seasoning to taste.

Toss the salad leaves with about 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette.

Place a crisp on each plate, and mound a small amount of the salad in the centre. Nestle in figs, fold the Prosciutto and crumble the chèvre over the leaves. Drizzle plate with remaining dressing.

Serves 4.

• Aged balsamic, or a balsamic reduction, is also a lovely addition to this salad.


Mother's Day, in the shade of raspberry

I have a bit of a confession to make – I compulsively freeze things. I’ve become a freezer pack rat.

It began last winter. When faced with cold, dark nights after work, I wanted comfort and ease. So I began planning ahead, doubling recipes for hearty casseroles and stews, tucking away my bounty into neatly packed containers and promptly sending them into the deep freeze. I felt terribly domestic, organized and prepared. Whenever I opened the freezer, greeted by my handiwork, I felt accomplished.

But then, it started taking over. Somehow the ease of being able to tuck away food for a later day spawned a neurotic compulsion in me. Now I not only freeze pre-made meals, but I’ve begun freezing leftovers. Not exactly leftovers, but the odds and ends we sometimes find ourselves in possession of, through the course of a recipe. Think egg yolks (whisked with a bit of water), stock cubes, and compound butters.

No matter the mouthful or morsel, the tiniest tidbit, I cannot throw things out. Into the freezer they go, packed and labeled, waiting patiently for their culinary rebirth.

At present, a quick survey of my freezer produced:

• Bones from two chickens. From various recipes, for the day I finally make stock.
• 1/2 can of tomato paste, frozen in cubes. I couldn’t find it in the tube, and I hate those little cans.
• Pan drippings from a roast. I wasn’t making gravy that day, but I couldn’t part with the drippings.
• 1/2 cup of sweet garlic marinade. The chicken did not need the drenching I had believed.
• 1/2 batch of pumpkin purée. Excess from pumpkin cheesecake last Thanksgiving.
• Eight of the aforementioned egg yolks. Leftovers from a birthday pavlova.
• Three blacker than black bananas. I always seem to buy too many, these are destined for banana bread.
• 1 1/2 cups of raspberry purée. For a birthday cheesecake, I went a little blender happy. I used it for the cake, and for Bellinis, but still had excess.

The raspberry purée has been invading my thoughts. I’ve been planning a Mother’s Day brunch, and wanted to see if I could somehow incorporate it into my menu. Its colour was calling me — somewhere between rubies and fuchsia, the purée seemed perfect for the festive occasion.

Feeling excited over the prospect of conjuring something from the depths of my freezer, I surveyed the purée’s bunkmates. Spying those ripe bananas brought about my solution — muffins.

Absolutely a breeze to make, these muffins are the perfect start to a day or a midmorning snack. The intense, almost caramel sweetness of the banana base is cut by tart, jeweled jammy-ness of the berries.

Truth be told, my muffins were a bit overdone on the bottom. I wasn’t paying attention and I unnecessarily greased the pan, leading to the toasty brown colour seen above. Though I was tempted to hide my shame, I decided better of it – for today is a day we celebrate those who inspired us, encouraged us, and loved us always, even if we almost burnt the muffins.

Happy Mother's Day.

Raspberry swirl banana muffins
An adaptation of the blueberry muffin recipe from Modern Classics, Book 2 by Donna Hay

1/2 cup raspberry purée
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups plain (all purpose) flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
2 eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup mashed ripe bananas, about three whole bananas

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring raspberry purée and sugar to a boil. Turn the temperature down and simmer the purée until it has reduced by half. Allow to cool.

Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F).

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt, stir in sugar.

In a separate bowl, whisk sour cream, eggs and oil, until smooth. Whisk in mashed bananas.

Stir the sour cream/banana mixture through the dry ingredients. Be careful not to overwork the batter – mix until just combined.

Spoon mixture into 12 x 1/2 cup capacity non-stick muffin tins until about two-thirds full. Spoon approximately one teaspoon of the reduced purée across the centre of each muffin. With the tip of a sharp knife or a skewer, draw the point through the raspberry, creating a marble effect.

Bake about 12 minutes, or until a skewer inserted through the centre comes out clean.

Makes 12.

• My raspberry purée was simply that – puréed raspberries. It was quite tart, so I added a bit of sugar in the reduction. You may skip this addition if you’d like.
• I like to under fill my muffin tins to make miniature versions. If you choose to do so, this recipe will make 18 of the size pictured.


A study in meteorological tolerance

It hailed yesterday.

I’m sure this might not seem odd to some of you — those who live in colder climes, those who seek out such weather, or those who live on top of a really tall, and perpetually snow capped, mountain. But to me, in Southern Ontario, where daffodils are proudly lifting their golden heads and blossoms are blooming, hail was not what I expected on the second day of May.

I should probably explain something. I don’t like cold. Yes, I know, Canada. I have no problem with winter, per se; I love having my hands wrapped around a mug of hot chocolate, I cannot get enough of the smell of evergreen and I wish I could capture the magic of the world under a blanket of snow. Furthermore, let me tell you, I am nothing short of adorable in a snappy parka and mitts combo. But, I hate the state of being cold.

Yesterday was a crisp and gorgeous day, with blue skies and that amazing smell of damp soil, all herbaceous and green. It was like the landscape was about to burst. But instead, the skies did. Not a little hail, but a veritable avalanche of hail (I may be exaggerating a bit). Either way, it was pinging off sidewalks, pinging off of windows and pinging off my not-at-all-suitable-for-this-sort-of-freak-weather spring jacket.

By the time I got home, my hair was matted and wet, my teeth were chattering and I was not amused in the least. And, I was cold. After some general pouting about the unfairness of it all, I found solace at the bottom of a bowl of miso soup and some green tea. The world started to slowly become right again.

Today has brought lower than seasonal temperatures, overcast skies and a 40% chance of rain. And yet, I’m somehow rejuvenated. The daffodils are still outside my window, market stalls are starting to fill with local produce, and spring doesn’t seem too far away. There must have been something magical in that miso. I’m completely prepared to wait.

But that won’t stop me from conjuring the season with food.

This salad simply tastes like spring. With bright and clear flavours, you can’t help but be happy when you eat it. Ever since delectable posts on the topic of asparagus started popping up with the crocuses, I have been nothing short of obsessed with roasting it. This recipe makes use of leftovers from a staple meal in our house: roasted potatoes, salmon and asparagus, with variations on aioli. I have now taken to purposely making too much salmon and asparagus, just to guarantee tomorrow’s lunch.

Spring salmon salad with roasted asparagus
My own creation, but inspired by the chickpea salad from Bistro by Laura Washburn

All quantities are simply guidelines — I usually make this salad with whatever I have on hand
3/4 cup diced zucchini
3/4 cup diced cucumber
1/2 cup diced roasted red pepper
1/2 cup diced roasted yellow pepper
1/3 cup julienned sundried tomatoes
1 tablespoon capers, chopped roughly (left whole if small)
Handful of snow peas, blanched and julienned
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, whole (simply picked from stems)
1/2 cup parsely leaves, whole (simply picked from stems)
5 roasted asparagus spears, cut into ½ inch lengths, approximately 1/2 cup
8 ounces roasted salmon filet

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small shallot, minced
Zest from 1/2 a lemon
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Combine all salad ingredients, except salmon, in bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk together rice wine vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper, shallot and lemon zest. Drizzle in oil, whisking constantly.

Pour as much vinaigrette as you’d like over the salad, tossing to coat.

Flake the salmon filet, add to salad and gently combine. If you toss too enthusiastically the salmon will continue to flake — I like to add the salmon last, so that I can preserve larger pieces.

• Omit capers and salmon from above recipe. Add one can of chickpeas and a 1/2 cup of crumbled feta to the salad instead. For the vinaigrette, replace the rice wine vinegar with red wine vinegar, and add 1 teaspoon minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon oregano and a 1/3 teaspoon of ground cumin.

• Omit capers and sundried tomatoes from above recipe. For the herbs use only cilantro and add in one finely sliced red chili. Replace the vinaigrette with one made with 2 tablespoons lime juice, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, a few drops of toasted sesame oil, 2 teaspoons fish sauce, 2 teaspoons hoisin sauce and 2 teaspoons Chinese chili-garlic sauce. Just before serving, sprinkle a tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds over entire salad.


Everything starts somewhere

Years ago, I was inspired by the foods of my family; the diverse offerings from around the globe that ended up at our table, the stack of cookbooks in the corner of our kitchen, the improvised meals on the run Mom packed for family trips. Back then, when it came to those cookbooks, I was drawn to the classic snobbery of fine dining. I would read them like novels, pouring over the notes with each recipe, memorizing details about Escoffier, imagining menus for the extremely elegant parties I would someday host.

Since then, my tastes have mellowed a bit. I’ll admit I’m still one to ignore my account balance when eating out in a new city, but simple home cooking, pared down flavours and unpretentious dining are my new personal aspirations. I still read cookbooks like novels, and treasure certain classic tomes, but the most food-splattered and dog eared are those that emphasize quality ingredients and simple preparations.

I’m at a culinary crossroads – a few years off from thirty, I’ve said goodbye to my parents’ table (except on Sundays), and a student diet of fast food and pasta has had its day. I am now at a point where I’m starting to establish the way I cook, the flavours that figure heavily in my palate, and the recipes that are slowly becoming my repertoire.

There is an anthology of Canadian Literature called “improved by cultivation”, and this thought has been tugging at my mind lately. I feel like I’m in that process — revisiting the comfort foods of my youth, learning the culinary traditions of the friends I love, and opening up my eyes to the world of food yet explored.

Thanks for the company.

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