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Entries in spring (11)


To make habit

What sort of bee is in May's bonnet? There must be something in there, because the first twelve days of this month have wooshed by in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it fashion usually reserved for the farmer's market on Saturday mornings when you're heading for the kind man who sells the really good tacos (that sell out!) and you know there's always line.

But May, come on, settle down.

I've been thinking about spring, or at least trying to, but you're all doom and gloom and rainy mornings following frosty nights. There was that windstorm that rushed around corners with a sound that was between a wail and a howl - high and sustained. It blustered its way through the leaves on our trees, sent branches to the ground, and made a right mess.

That was quite a show.

But May, you've almost reached middle age, it might be time to take it easy.

There's a garden to be sorted and windows in dire need of a wash, and this weekend I'd like to have lunch outside. We'll take it slow, I'm not demanding as much as I seem to be, we'll roast asparagus. It's a tentative step at the slower pace I'd like to make habit.

Blasted with the heat of a broiler, the asparagus goes kelly green in minutes and another minute after that it gets slightly shriveled and chestnutty at its ends. Out it comes and into, well under, the fire goes butter-laced breadcrumbs with lemon zest, chili and garlic. Heat meets fragrance and it all goes bright and big. The flavours open up while the crumbs get toasty, it's a win-win. Once they're done, but hot, you stir in Parmesan and parsley and the mixture meets up with the asparagus on the plate.

Crunch meets crisp, with savoury, peppery, cheesy breadcrumbs against a vegetable that is has crunch but is grassy and sweet. The combination is peppy and moreish, the bread swelling a bit and going soft where it lands in the collected juices of asparagus, olive oil, butter, and lemon. Will you look at that, instant vinaigrette at the bottom of your dish. Isn't that clever.

Another habit I might suggest is to serve these with a poached egg on top - the flowing yolk likes that vinaigrette quite a lot, and the melting silkiness of the white gets crusted with the crumbs to form a nubbly coat. It's a routine I can get behind.

So it is settled. This weekend, lunch is on the back deck. There are bumblebees about I see, portly and fuzzy looking fellows, I'm sure they'd be happy to have the company. They're charming in their roundness, yellow kumquats with wings, comical and endearing and not at all the sort to get under anyone's cap.

Roasted Asparagus with Toasted Breadcrumbs

Adapted from a recipe by Donna Hay. The breadcrumbs will be quite seasoned, and you want them so, so much the better to bolster the relatively mild asparagus.


2/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cleaned
Olive oil
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Lemon wedges, to serve

Preheat a broiler to high.

In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs with the butter, lemon zest, garlic and chili. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Stir to combined well so that all the breadcrumbs get slicked and spiced.

Toss the asparagus with enough olive oil to coat and season with salt and pepper. Spread onto a roasting pan and grill (broil), turning once, until bright green and tender, and beginning to brown here and there, around 4-5 minutes depending on the size of the spears. Remove from the oven and set aside on a serving dish, drizzle with a little extra olive oil, if you'd like.

If you can, turn the broiler down to low.

In the same pan, spread the breadcrumbs and toast under the broiler, turning often, until golden. Around 2-3 minutes. Stir the Parmesan and parsley into the crumbs and serve over the asparagus. Pass lemon wedges alongside, for extra zip.

Serves 4.



Bits and pieces and various meals

And once again, time has flown.

What seemed like the timid start to spring became a full-blown explosion with crocuses raising their delicate heads, forsythia adding its generous golden bloom to gardens and buds appearing on our lilac bushes out back. It has been a busy few weeks, filled with some family celebrations, some further preparations, and of course food.

Some of the things that have caught my eye and tempted our tastebuds recently:

• Cookies (below). For a recently birthday celebration, the honoree was given a batch of his favourite chocolate chip cookies. I have come to realize that these are now so ingrained in our family's palate that no other recipe will do.

• Pies (above). I was in the kitchen with pastry as I continued my search for the perfect pie crust. Still not there yet, but the testers are enjoying their job.

Heidi's Lazy Day Peanut Noodle Salad. An absolutely beautiful looking recipe, and one that tastes just as great. Pointed out to me by a dear friend, it will surely become a staple in our house - a great canvas for variation as well.

Heston Blumenthal's naan. I saw an episode of In Search of Perfection where Mr. Blumenthal made his version on Chicken Tikka Masala (it seems basically butter chicken but I have never had Chicken Tikka); he also included a recipe for homemade tandoor naan. While I did not attempt his MacGyver-worthy cooking rig, I used his recipe to prepare some rather impressive homemade flatbread. I simply heated a cast iron skillet under a hot broiler for about 20 minutes, then used that for my cooking surface. After two minutes or so we were rewarded with beautifully-browned naan, slightly crispy and with an open and airy interior. Gorgeous. My only complaint over the recipe is that it is never clearly stated how early one should remove the dough from the fridge before using; I do believe that mine needed to further warm up before use, but a hungry family took precedent over such concern.

• Trifle cake. Another birthday celebration warranted a truly special dessert created in honour of a truly special person. I combined four recipes from four sources to end up with a cake that offered the best a trifle had to offer; layers of Martha Stewarts's yellow cake sandwiched a variation on François Payard's pastry cream, homemade blackberry compote and a cream filling from Cook's Illustrated. The whole thing was then covered with a combination of the cream filling and a classic white buttercream for some added stability. The flavours were exactly what I was looking for, but now I need an excuse to make it again so I can perfect the proportions.

• Blackberries. Speaking of these beauties, we have just welcomed a few blackberry bushes to our yard. I am looking forward to a summer filled with desserts like this.

• Golden pepper jelly from Kurtz Orchards. I have been asked about my pregnancy cravings, and this has been one of them. Slathered on crusty homemade bread with slices of extra-old cheddar, it is like your classic combination of cheese and chutney - but with the volume turned up. I have also been craving one of these, but as smoked salmon is not recommended during pregnancy I will have to wait to satiate that particular want.

• Brunches. For all the possible mealtime invitation opportunities, brunch is my favourite to include friends and family. Though a relatively easy meal to prepare, there is something about a good brunch that feels particularly indulgent and immeasurably special. I have been eyeing either one of these beauties to add to my entertaining arsenal.

So that is just a look at a few of the things is happening around here, I hope that these last few weeks have been just as inspiring on your end.

Note: I feel I should sheepishly admit that the photos included here were never intended for publication, but were just some shots I had taken recently. Keeping a toddler's greedy little fingers out of frame prevented me from taking my usual time with them.


Rites of spring

Around this time two years ago, I was coming up with various uses for peas. Before that, I was all about asparagus. While the grass outside is only showing the barest shades of hopeful green, days of sun and warm breezes have put a definite sense of spring in my step. It is fitting then that this year I am embracing the warmth of recent days by serving both green vegetables.

This simple side can be served warm or at room temperature, offering up sweet and tender-crisp veggies tossed with a vinaigrette that can be called nothing short of enthusiastically herby. Served alongside a seared salmon filet this would make a lovely light supper for these glorious early days of the season.

Spring vegetables with green goddess pesto
While not wholly traditional pesto ingredients, the name refers mostly to the texture of the vinaigrette. The combination was inspired by the original Green Goddess Dressing.

2 shallots, cut in quarters OR 3 green onions, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves
1/3 cup fresh flat leaf parsley
2/3 cup mixed fresh herbs; whatever combination of chervil, dill, tarragon, lemon thyme and basil you prefer
1-2 anchovy filets, rinsed if salt packed
Zest and juice from half a lemon
About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (see note)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 pound asparagus, trimmed, cut into approximately 1 1/2" pieces, blanched
2 cups frozen or fresh petit pois, blanched

To make the vinaigrette; place the shallots, garlic, herbs, lemon zest, juice and anchovies into a blender or small food processor. Pulse to reduce the contents to a coarse purée. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil in slowly, scraping the sides down as needed. Season to taste.

In a medium sauté pan over medium-low heat, gently cook the pesto. Stir constantly for about 2 minutes, or until the edge (raw flavours) of the garlic and shallot are mellowed slightly. Toss through the blanched vegetables until just warmed through. Taste again for seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 4-6.

• The olive oil measurement is only a guide, adjust the amount to best suit your textural preference.
• If you do not mind the pungency of raw garlic and shallots, cooking the pesto can be skipped.
• For this, and many other similar preparations, I prefer to use an immersion blender and a container only slightly wider than the blender head (like a mason jar); this way, the ingredients are well chopped and fully blended.


There are no small parts, just small ingredients

While it is lovely when expectations are met, the greatest performances are sometimes those that are stumbled upon and steal the show entirely.

To more succinct in this particular case, stumbled upon means came home in our grocery bag.

I had intended to make something to satiate a craving for smoked salmon. I had decided upon a sandwich. I had thought I would thinly slice some red onion, sprinkle over some capers and be done with it.

But then the tomatoes arrived; Sean had gone to the store for provisions, and came back with some of the most gorgeous little beauties from the market. Golden yellow, sunset orange and robustly red, the pint of mixed varietals demanded the spotlight.

Their delicate scent courted centre-stage status; a paltry sandwich seemed too gauche for their charms. And so, the smoked salmon was relegated to the chorus line, providing the backdrop to a tomato salad-crowned tartine.

Like any good production, this light lunch offers a play of dramatic contrasts. Heavily silken folds of salmon are undercut with the twang of fresh chèvre and astringent lemon. Juicy tomatoes rendezvous with their long-time companion sweet basil, and take a tumble with saline capers and spiky, fiery red onion.

While I refrained from a standing ovation, an encore is surely deserved.

Smoked salmon and tomato salad tartine
Please forgive my lack of truly specific quantities; you can treat the list as if each item includes the modifier "or thereabouts". This is one of those dishes for which personal taste is paramount. Choose the proportions that work with your taste to best balance the salty, sour and sweet elements.


For the tomato salad
1 1/2 cups small tomatoes (cherry, grape, strawberry), cut into halves or quarters
1/3 cup small diced red onion
2-3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
Basil, cut into chiffonade
Fresh parsley, minced
Lemon zest
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sandwich
4 tablespoons cream cheese
4 tablespoons chèvre (unaged, fresh)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
4 slices country bread, or 2 slices halved if large
4-8 slices smoked salmon, depending on the size
Lemon juice, freshly squeezed

In a small bowl, combine the ingredients for the tomato salad. Toss gently and season with salt (judiciously) and pepper.

Combine the cream cheese, chèvre and Dijon mustard. Beat until fully-blended and light. Season with pepper.

Lightly toast bread slices under a preheated broiler.

Spread cheese mixture over bread. Top with sliced smoked salmon and a squeeze of lemon juice. Pile tomato salad over all and enjoy.

Makes 4 pieces.


Easter parade: portraits of a long weekend, part two

Buttery, sweet and absolutely the definition of indulgence; cinnamon spirals from the bakery at Springridge Farm.

Potato and egg tarts
My own recipe. Based upon baked eggs, crossed with a hash brown craving. Think of these as Pommes Anna for breakfast. See notes below for tips on the potato crust.

1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 large Yukon Gold potato
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh flat leaf parsley
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 medium shallot, minced
1 teaspoon minced garlic
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons cream (heavy or half and half)

Preheat oven to 450ºF (230ºC).

Melt butter in a small sauté pan. Set aside.

Using the slicer attachment to a food processor or a mandoline, slice the potatoes thinly. Transfer sliced potatoes to a large bowl of cold water. After letting them soak briefly, drain in a colander and then pat dry with kitchen towels.

On a baking sheet, brush the bottom and sides of two 4" non-stick round spring form pans, or ring moulds, with butter. Arrange the potato slices in a concentric circle to line the pans, beginning from the outside in to the centre (see note). Brush lightly with butter and season with salt and pepper.

Cover with a round of buttered aluminium foil and bake in the centre of a preheated oven for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through and the edges are lightly browned.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine together the herbs and Parmesan cheese. Set aside.

In the same sauté pan used for the melted butter, sweat the shallot and garlic over medium heat until translucent, about 10-12 minutes.

Divide the shallot mixture between the two pans. Carefully crack two eggs into each mould (you may want to use a separate small bowl to crack the eggs into first, then transfer them to ensure you do not break the yolks). Sprinkle over the herb and cheese mixture, spoon one teaspoon of cream over each and season well with salt and pepper.

Return to the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, until the whites are cooked and just set. The eggs will continue to cook after you take them out of the oven, so take this into account when looking for doneness.

Allow the eggs to sit for approximately 1 minute. For the springform, use the tip of a butter knife to loosen the tart from the sides of the pan. Release the spring and use a wide, offset spatula to remove from bottom. If using a ring mould lift entire tart (with ring) to serving plate with spatula, then remove the ring.

Serves 2, best eaten immediately.

• When cutting the potatoes, you will need them to be just slightly thicker than paper thin. The slices should be pliable, but still retrain their shape.
• Assemble the potato layer starting from the outside in; bend the slices to come up the side of the mould and form your concentric circle working towards the middle. Overlap each slice, and each circle, so that you have completely sealed crust. A bit of egg may still seep though; if the spaces are small this will bind the tart together rather than create a mess.
• Thin strips of ham or cooked turkey can be added to the shallot mixture. Alternatively, the cooked tart can be served with smoked trout or smoked salmon alongside.