There is often a solitude to writing. It's the delicate scratch of pen on paper, or the glowing hum of a computer screen, against all the noise and words rattling around my brain.  

Before I get to that stage of quiet chaos however, I talk out my ideas. Sometimes to others but also to myself, in the car, driving around alone on errands and whatnot. When I used to commute to work daily, the 45-minutes-each-direction trip was often when I did my best thinking. The length of the journey gave me enough time to work around the stumbling blocks in the way of what I was trying to say. Hearing the words somehow made them come across differently  — they were clearer, the thoughts fully realized. The only trouble with those drives is that 45 minutes worth of chatter was a lot to remember until I could get home record it all. What's more, is that I don't have those drives anymore. 

Now I reply on the former option as my preference, working through ideas in collaboration. Speaking thoughts out loud when there's actually someone to hear them makes you seem less eccentric, true, but also makes the process that much more enjoyable, and more fruitful. There's the opportunity to learn from another's perspective, and that usually leads to something better. That better happens most often when I shut up and listen. In some cases, it can lead to soup.

My friend Aran, currently nominated for both a James Beard Award and Saveur Best Food Blog Award, is a stylist, photographer and writer, and the creator of the site Canelle et Vanille . You've surely heard of her work, and probably her book as well, since Small Plates and Sweets was released late last year with much-deserved accolades. 

Aran is as giving as she is talented. And it is her generosity regarding not only her skill, but also her viewpoint, that sets her apart. Raised in the Basque Country, she grew up in her grandfather's pastry shop, and trained in culinary school. Later she moved to the United States, working in professional kitchens, and marrying. She now has two children, a boy and a girl. It was only relatively recently that Aran and her family began a gluten-free lifestyle, which inspired a new definition for her home cooking that she shared with her readers.

What that dietary change has brought is not a cold, prescriptive view on eating, and while the book is gluten free, it is not presented as a defining characteristic per se; rather her cooking style is rooted in a passionate desire to feed herself and others  soulful, satisfying food, food that happens to be without wheat. Many of her dishes are naturally or classically gluten free, like macarons or her beef stew, and those that aren't use the same, fairly common, alternative flours repeatedly, so that it isn't difficult to source the ingredients or slowly build up a gluten-free pantry. It all amounts to a gentle introduction to Aran's way of living, one absolutely in the realm of doable for day-to-day meals.

What's more, her recipes are drop-dead gorgeous, full of colour and texture. They are refined and feminine, just like her, yet with a welcoming charm. Her heritage informs many of her tastes; there is a marmitako (a Basque fish stew) flavoured heavily with paprika, a couple of Spanish tortillas, her grandmother's robust garlic soup, and a classic arroz con leche perked up with lemon zest. As you'd imagine with her upbringing and schooling, she excels at desserts, but her savoury dishes have are often scene stealers. 

The pea shoot pesto from her book is a particular example of that. It is straightforward, simple and lip-smackingly-good. Blended with almonds, and thick with Parmesan and olive oil, the pesto is intensely fresh; we've had it on soup, in an adapted take on her bocadillos, which my four-year-old declared "awesome" (page 111), and I had some on my eggs this morning alongside dollops of fresh ricotta. I honestly believe it could make cardboard taste good.

The soup into which we swirled that pesto was actually from the Winter chapter, even though the pesto was from Spring. (The book is divided into seasons, with sweet treats following the savoury small plates in each.) The soup was written with a different pesto, one spiky and sharp with dandelion greens. Our spring is dallying; there are blossoms, but still a need for cardigans and I'm drinking more hot tea than usual. It was because of these cold days that I found myself flipping between the two sections, vacillating between the wintry soup, a roasted leek and cauliflower one, and a creamy fennel and spinach from spring. I chose the former for my husband, and chose the pea pesto to acknowledge that it is, in fact, April. 

I am hoping that Aran won't mind me taking that liberty, as it was her that made me think of it in the first place. Throughout Small Plates and Sweet Treats  she mentions substitutions, and links recipes to others, in a chatty way that shows how her recipes are not meant to stand alone. As you spend time any time with the book, Aran's overarching skill with flavour combinations is obvious, and what's more is that it is harmonious. The chapters and dishes flow together seamlessly, making it easy to pick and choose based on whim, or interest, or fickle weather.

 Small Plates and Sweet Treats  is a gem. It inspires me to look at recipes in a new way, to cook outside my usual, and it is her brilliant use of a variety of grains and cereals that I've found myself incorporating into our routine, time and again. Aran imbues all her cooking with vibrancy, suggests pairings that had never occurred to me, and has particular opinions on something as simple as red beans, which makes me wonder if I have one too.

Hers is an inspiring voice, and one that I'm happy to have for company. 

Thanks for all the conversations, friend.  xo

 

ROASTED CAULIFLOWER + LEEK SOUP WITH PEA SHOOT + ALMOND PESTO

From the book Small Plates and Sweet Treats: My family's journey to gluten-free cooking (Little Brown and Company, 2012) by Aran Goyaga

This soup is aromatic, supple, and mild in a way that is soothing — not at all bland. It  has presence without demanding attention. Pea tendrils are the basis of the pesto, which is more than a garnish, rather an integral component as well. The raw, grassy shoots offset the mellow roasted vegetables, and the aroma of the fresh garlic in the sauce is brought out by the warmth of the soup. It makes for a bang up combination. As noted, this soup was originally served with a dandelion green and hazelnut pesto, and the pea shoot pesto was to dress ricotta gnocchi; for reference, the recipes appear on pages 99 and 156, respectively. 

The recipe here is as written in the book, with my notes following after. 

Serves 4 to 6

For the pea shoot and almond pesto

  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup (40 g) slivered almonds
  • 2 cups (60 g) pea shoots, tough stalks removed and chopped
  • 1 ounce (30 g) Parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil

For the roasted cauliflower and leek soup

  • 1 medium cauliflower (1 pound or 450 g), cut into small florets
  • 1/2 medium leek, cut into large rings
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 medium russet potato, peeled and diced
  • 3 cups (750 ml)  chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

 

METHOD

Make the pesto. Place the garlic and almonds in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the almonds are finely chopped. Add the pea shoots and process into a paste. Add the Parmesan, salt, and pepper. Pulse one more time. Add the olive oil in a slight stream while the processor is on and process until a smooth paste forms. Scrape down the sides and mix well. 

TIP: If pea shoots are not available, watercress or spinach would be a great substitute. The pesto can be made in advance. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 1 month.

Make the soup.  

  1. Preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Toss together the cauliflower, leek, onion, garlic, olive oil, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes or until golden.
  2. Transfer the roasted vegetables to a large pot. Add the diced potato, chicken stock, coconut milk, thyme leaves, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Bring the liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes or until all the vegetables are tender. 
  3. Purée the soup in a blender. Adjust the seasoning and serve with the pesto. 

 Notes:

A few small things that I'm divulging out of honesty, not out of any conceit that you must follow suit —

  • I used goat's milk instead of the coconut milk because we had some in the fridge. Its sharpness was lovely. 
  • The bunch of thyme I thought I had went missing, and so was left out. The pea shoot pesto packs such flavour, that the soup was still a knockout.
  • I garnished the soup with chili oil. 

 

 

 

 

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Excuse the announcement but, as there were some kind requests for one, I've added an email subscription feature to this site. You can click "subscribe" up there on the top bar, or right here.

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I've got to begin with thanks.

That last post, about my grandmother, was, well, I don't know what to say. It was a big one for me. To write, and to share. But oh, you guys are amazing. I could not have dreamed of a more comforting, hopeful, or supportive response, nor could I ask to be part of a better community. I cannot get over the generosity of your kindness. I was honoured to read your thoughts and anecdotes and I am working my way through the thread, sending personal replies, rather than commenting here. Until you hear from me directly, please take this as a thank you. Dessert is my preferred way of expressing gratitude lately. I hope there's no objection.

On this end, school's started. Not for just one lad around here, but, for the first time, two are off each day. There are bookbags leaning by the door, and snacks to pack, and matching drink bottles to fill. I spent one afternoon with a sharpie in hand, dutifully labelling the insides of shoes, and coats, and hats; in nice, clear, printing I wrote the names of their respective owners, the names of my children, staking small claims of childhood property in the big, new world they're now a part of.

There's been a lot of firsts. For them, and for my husband and me. There's been a few tears, even. Summer left overnight. There's wasn't the gentle receeding, the diffusion of one season to the next. With Labor Day, a switch was flipped, the needs of the next day changed, and we were expected to fall in line. 

There's been some stumbles, but we're keeping up. And for the times when we don't, we've had chocolate sauce. With the first day of long pants and long sleeves, there was a call for hot chocolate, and I used this sauce as its base. One morning (don't judge!) where there was unexpected sun, so there were coconut-chocolate milkshakes for two. And earlier today there was a 4-year-old-sized ice cream cone, topped with a spoonful of chocolate, apropos of nothing more than the fact we'd made it through Monday. Sometimes the smallest of victories call for the most fanfare.

(There was also an adult-sized sundae of vanilla ice cream, aforementioned chocolate sauce, preserved cherries, and toasty, roasted walnuts, which amounted to frosty trudge through the Black Forest — a trip you really should take.) 

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Chocolate sauce is something seperate from hot fudge; it is thinner, sharper, and less sweet. Chocolate sauce doesn't have its dense chew either. It coats a spoon, but runs off quick enough. It can be used cold, or at room temperture, or gently warmed. It is what I like to use for this cake, or ripple into an ice cream like this one, and if it's usefulness wasn't enough, this chocolate sauce takes less than five minutes to make. Seriously. It's the kind of go-to sweet something to keep stowed in the fridge door for emergency situations. Or Mondays. 

SIMPLE, QUICK CHOCOLATE SAUCE 

This recipe began with one from David Lebovitz; I've halved the overall quantites, added some ingredients and fiddled some others, because I'm evidently a difficult pupil. I can't help it, I like the character coffee brings to chocolate, and so can't seem have one without the other — in this sauce especially. 

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup white corn syrup, agave nectar or glucose
  • 6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon instant coffee granules, I use decaf
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 ounce bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the water, sugar, corn syrup, cocoa powder, instant coffee granules and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat. 

Once it's come to the simmer, remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate until melted. Set aside at room temperature for a few hours, it will thicken as it cools. Store, covered in the refrigerator, for up to 10 days.

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I have something to say, but I am unsure as to how I should feel about it. Should I be proud? Ashamed? A bit sheepish, maybe?

Luckily, I think we're all friends here, and I can be honest with you. Here goes.

We bought a deep fryer.

There, I said it. It's out in the open. There's no turning back now. We've stepped up from a deep-sided pot on the stove, we're in the big leagues now. We've gone Pro. We have purchased an appliance, a unitasker at that, designed for the sole purpose of deep-frying food. Scandalous!

What is it about the notion of a deep fryer that sends hands clutching for the proverbial pearls? I nary blink an eye at baking cake after cake, or cupcake or cookie, but speak of a deep fat thermometer and I feel as though my ladylike self should swoon at the thought.

I should, but I don't.

Instead, I am giddy. On Canada Day there were donuts. The day after, there were fries. Alas, even as I happily plunged the slivered fingerlings into the depths of the fryer, I could hear the imagined whispers of a hundred judgements.

"Sure, she started with fries. But they were just a gateway."

"Next thing you know there will be churros. Or maybe even beignets."

"From there it is a slippery slope into the hard stuff. Corndogs."

"Mark my words, shel'll be battering Twinkies within a month and buying bulk packs of chicken wings on the sly."

"You know, I wouldn't put it past her."

Not to worry, I can handle my deep-frying. I promise. So what if I get a bit of a thrill when I shake the chip basket? A little golden-fried perfection never hurt anyone. There are worse things I could do.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to get back to my fryer.

GARLIC FRIES WITH HORSERADISH AND MUSTARD MAYO

For the fries, prepare them how you like to - fat, thin, shoestring, chips, whatever (see below for links to recipes). Make enough for the size of your crowd or your appetite. This recipe is for about a standard quantity of fries for 4 people. Any leftover mayonnaise should be refrigerated immediately, and can be used as a sauce, a dip or sandwich spread.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, or a good squeeze, optional
  • 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
  • 2 teaspoons grainy Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon prepared English mustard
  • Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  • Fries (see above)
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon dried red chili flakes, optional
  • 1/2 cup fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • Kosher salt to taste

METHOD

Prepare the mayonnaise first. In a bowl, stir together the first five ingredients. Taste, and adjust for seasoning with kosher salt and freshly-cracked black pepper to taste. If the sauce is to thick, thin with additional lemon juice or some warm water. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavours to mellow and blend.

When the fries are hot and crisp, toss through with the minced garlic, dried red chili flakes (if using) and almost all of the parsley, reserving some for garnish. Season with kosher salt. Tumble the fries out onto a platter, with the mayonnaise alongside. Sprinkle with the reserved chopped parsley.

Recipes for French Fries:

Easier French Fries from Cook's Illustrated, cold oil fried (via their site, requires login). Sticky Crows likes this method, and has some step-by-step photos.

Twice-Cooked French Fries (via Epicurious)

Oven-Baked Fat Chips with Rosemary Salt by Jamie Oliver (via the Food Network)

Definitive Fries (from here, ages ago)

Notes:

• I used the Cook's Illustrated recipe for these, which use a technique also attributed to Joël Robuchon. You start your potatoes in cold oil, turn the heat to medium-high, then leave them be. Once they start turning golden, you stir the fries about a bit to prevent sticking, then cook until crisp. Details and specifics are available in through the links provided. I had feared that the fries would be greasy, poking at them suspiciously now and again, but they were surprisingly not so. According to the accompanying article, this method yields a result with less oil absorption than traditional double-fry methods.

• Homemade mayonnaise is my preference, but if you are at all unsure on the freshness of your eggs, your favourite store-bought brand is more than fine. If using homemade, less lemon juice might be needed, depending on the recipe.

Mark Bittman's tomato jam; wonderful to look at, tastes even better. Photos taken by my sister-in-law.

It was love at first sight. Or at least greed at first glance.

It was early. I was still in my pajamas and had only recently padded into the kitchen. Coffee in hand, I flicked open the newspaper and there it was. Across the countertop lay spread a photo so alluring, so beautiful, that my breath caught and I stopped mid sip.

Now what ever could have caught my rapt attention? What was the object of my early-morning desire, you ask?

Mark Bittman's Tomato Jam. (You know me well enough to know it would be about food.)

But seriously. Look at this. It is just a spoonful of gorgeousness. To call it red would be a disservice; it seems too plain. Scarlet doesn't cut it, brick doesn't even come close. Vermilion? Crimson? I cannot come up with an adjective that captures the particular hue of this luscious-looking stuff.

Attempts to describe aside, I did know one thing from the start. I wanted to try this jam. I needed to make it. And I needed to make it right away.

And so, I set about making a batch of tomato jam. Lucky for me, my dear Sean is used to the vagrancies of my behaviour and said not a word when I started mincing green chilies and ginger. After a minimal bit of chopping, stirring and grinding, on my stove sat a bubbling pot. Soon the smell of coffee met and mingled with scents of ripe tomatoes and grassy cumin, with an underlying warmth of cinnamon and clove.

The pot remained for the remainder of the coffee, and for the duration of breakfast. All the while deepening in colour and texture; what started out as bright and watery slowly turned darker, richer. In the end, I was left with a sticky sweet relish, heady with spice but with a good balance of acidity. It was complex without being overly complicated.

The jam was even better after it cooled overnight in the fridge. Akin to a chutney, it is an unexpected but delicious accompaniment to bread and cheese. I would offer more suggestions for its use, but I haven't gotten that far; I've just started exploring the possibilities.

I can tell you this though, this tomato jam looks good enough to eat. And its looks do not deceive.

TOMATO JAM

By Mark Bittman, as published in the New York Times (August 19, 2008) and in syndication.

Recipe and an associated video are both available online.

Notes:

  • I used a mix of tomatoes from our garden, all rather sweet in their own right. While I understand its role in setting the jam, I was still wary of the amount of sugar in the recipe - so I used a generous 3/4 of a cup and upped the tomatoes to a full 2 pounds.
  • For another savoury note I included 1 large garlic clove, grated.
  • Wanting enough heat to cut through the sweetness, I used two small green chilies instead of the jalapeño.
  • When I make this again I might include a bit of lime zest..
  • Most likely due to the reduced amount of sugar and additional tomatoes, my cooking time was closer to 2 hours to reach the consistency I was looking for.