It just so happens that two people, especially important people to me, are far away right now. One will be back soon enough, soon I'll be able to count down to their arrival on the fingers to one hand. But the other, well, for her return I would have to count all my fingers and my all toes many times over before the day comes that I can give her a proper hug.

That return feels every bit as far away as it is.

In the meantime, I'm keeping the wistful glances at the calendar at minimum by keeping occupied with the imagined agendas of that homecoming. I'm squirreling anecdotes and stories away in the back of my mind, ready and witty, for the conversations that we'll have.

This dearest friend is also with me in the kitchen, or at least her influence was, when I was making this baked ricotta today. Light but with a gentle creaminess, dotted with pretty green bits of herbs and zingy with lemon, it reminds me of so many meals we've shared over the years of our friendship. On a plate between us, a meal that doesn't mind if it's forgotten when the gossip gets really good.

You'll know this is for you when you read it, so I promise that when you're home I'll make it for you - don't worry, I'll leave out the chili. We'll eat it with garlic-scrubbed shingles of grilled bread, drink something sparkling and catch up.

It will be the best time. Keep safe until then. Hugs to you.

SAVOURY BAKED RICOTTA

In testing for doneness, the cheese should not be completely dry in the middle. Similar to baking a cheesecake, the ricotta will swell slightly and retain a lazy wobble when set. As it cools, it will firm up some more, so keep that in mind while baking. Individual rounds can be made in muffin tins, and are pretty platemates to a simple salad.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 garlic clove, a fat and juicy one is best
  • Olive oil for greasing the dish
  • 8 ounces fresh whole milk ricotta
  • 1/4 cup grated Grana Padano cheese
  • 3 tablespoons minced mixed fresh herbs, I used (in order of most to least) chives, parsley, thyme
  • Zest from half a lemon
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes or minced red chili (optional)
  • Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
  • 1 large egg white, lightly whisked

METHOD

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C). Cut the garlic clove in half horizontally and rub the cut sides against the interior of a 1-cup capacity ramekin. Use a pastry brush to lightly coat the inside of the dish with oil. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the ricotta, Grana Padano, herbs, lemon zest and chili (if using). Taste, then season with kosher salt and black pepper. Stir in the whisked egg white. Spoon the ricotta mixture into the prepared ramekin and place on a baking sheet.

Bake in the preheated oven until the cheese is puffed and almost set in the centre, and beginning to brown in spots, around 35 minutes depending on the dimensions of your ramekin. Remove from the oven and cool at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Serve either in the dish or run a knife around the edge of the cheese and invert onto a serving plate with crackers or bread alongside. And maybe some wine too. Surely one with bubbles. Best warm or at room temperature.

Makes 1 baked round, serving 4.

I am simply without the words to express my feelings for those who won't be coming home after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. My heart breaks for those left behind.

If you are able, please consider giving to aid organizations working to help rebuild. Yele Haiti, Médecins Sans Frontières , UNICEF and CARE and are just some of the many organizations working tirelessly on behalf of those who need it most right now.

Julie is also spearheading a project to bring together food bloggers to raise funds; I'll share more details as they come, but read the announcement of Blog Aid here.

The Canadian government has committed to matching Canadian donations, dollar for dollar, towards the relief effort and I hope we take full advantage of their promise.

I have come to embrace the fact that I'm a creature of habit. As such, I revel in my Pavlovian-impulse to make a beeline for a patio once the warm weather hits. In my mind, there is little better than some nibbles and sips under the sun during those muggy months of summertime. Conversation flows as evenings give way to starry nights that stretch on endlessly.

The only drawback to this tendency is that I only associate the al fresco lifestyle with restaurant dining. Save for a few backyard barbecues and poolside afternoons, I rarely eat outside at home - or at least, until recently.

It was most likely that coffee one morning, enjoyed on the back patio, that made me realize how much a simple change in environment altered the feel of the meal. All of a sudden, my morning cup seemed more of a treat than a ritual. It was as if I was on holiday, as my pace turned leisurely and I began to take notice of the trees above me and the birds all around.

Since then, we've been having our meals outdoors at every chance. Not just those meals prepared outside, but even those made in the kitchen are piled up onto a trays and taken to the patio, the deck or even to the porch step. Somehow, these meals feel an event; inherently festive as we all come together under a canopy of leaves.

Fitting for our verdant surroundings, this salad is full of vibrant colours and tastes. The red onion loses much of its harsh edge in a quick pickle of fragrant puckery vinegar, while jammy sundried tomatoes add another acidic but sweet note. They tumble together with meaty chickpeas and salty feta in a garlic vinaigrette, blanketed by a green shower of herbs. Twangy, sweet, creamy and satisfying, this is the sort of salad that is meant to be put in the middle of the table, allowing everyone to dive in.

Chickpea salad with sundried tomatoes, feta and a fistful of herbs
My own recipe. The fistful of herbs is literal; I head outside to our herb boxes and pick whatever needs pruning or strikes my fancy. Once I have a fistful, I know I have enough. One caveat, I have small hands.

Ingredients
1/4 large red onion, sliced wafer thin
2 tablespoons (30 ml) red wine vinegar
Salt
6 tablespoons (90 ml) olive oil
A good pinch, about 1/8 teaspoon, red chili flakes (optional)
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced wafer thin
8 sundried tomatoes, julienned
2 cups (500 ml) chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1 teaspoon (15 ml) English mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
Approximately 1/2 cup (125 ml) of mixed herbs; examples include parsely, lemon thyme, coriander/cilantro, basil, oregano and mint
5 ounces (150 g) goats milk feta cheese

In a small bowl, douse the red onion with the vinegar. Sprinkle over a good pinch of salt, then use your fingers to squish the mixture a bit - this will work the salt into the onions and expedite the breaking down of their acrid bite. Set aside.

In medium saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil, garlic and red chili flakes. If there is any sizzle at all, turn the heat to low. Once the oil is fragrant and the garlic turns translucent, turn off the heat. Add the sundried tomatoes and chickpeas at this point, allowing them to steep as the oil comes to room temperature. This step of bathing the chickpeas in the warm oil is wholly optional, but I feel it imparts more flavour into the beans.

Once the oil has cooled, remove the tomatoes and chickpeas from the saucepan and put them into a large bowl (keep the oil, set it aside). Do the same with the onions, adding them to the salad but reserving the vinegar.

In that vinegar bowl, whisk in the mustard, salt and pepper. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the steeped olive oil. Once the vinaigrette is emulsified and thick, coarsely chop the herbs and add to the bowl. Pour this dressing over the chickpeas and tomatoes. Toss to combine.

Crumble over the feta, then fold gently to distribute. Check for seasoning. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours for the flavours to combine. Can be served cold or at room temperature.

Serves 4-6.

Notes:

• Canned chickpeas are a convenient pantry staple, but dried beans (soaked, then cooked) will result in a better texture and are my preference.
• To make this a heartier meal, add chunks of grilled steak or chicken when combining the chickpeas and onions.
• Toss through some handfuls of arugula or other greens, then pile the salad onto slices of grilled bread for an appetizer.
• I have been toying with the idea of buzzing this salad in the food processor (with additional olive oil or maybe yogurt as needed) to make a spread. I'll report back on that - but if anyone tries it first, let me know.

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.

Ingredients

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.

Title with thanks to Judith Viorst.

Monday started out with me slipping in a mud puddle. Tuesday introduced impossible deadlines to be met – and was a day that did not seem to have enough hours in it. Wednesday, well, I forget Wednesday, I’m sure it happened but I have no recollection of it. I think it was so traumatic that I blocked it from my memory.Thursday brought misunderstandings of seemingly endless proportions. And now it is Friday, and it’s raining outside.

As you may guess, I’m in a bit of a mood.

It is times like these, when I am feeling overwhelmed, that I transform from a usually capable person into a somewhat dramatic, hopeless mess. And it is times like these that the smallest of favours are the grandest of gifts.

These adorable little tomatoes for example, a co-worker brought them to me from her garden – she is a kind and thoughtful lady who never thinks twice when given the opportunity to do something for another. Perfectly ripened, almost candy-like in their sweetness and utterly photogenic, I have had the pleasure of enjoying three miniature little harvests of tomatoes, my morning brightened by a little bag of these babies waiting on my desk in the morning.

Or this lovely green dish, a gift from my dear S in apology for setting fire to one of my roasting dishes (long story involving preheating the oven without remembering that he’d hidden dirty dishes in there earlier). Smooth and sleek with its feminine fluted edge, I love the weight and feel of the ceramic — and the colour is so utterly of him (as you may have noticed, I have a fondness for white serving ware).

So things may not be as dire as they seem. Last night, I surveyed the kitchen and came across some gorgeously crusty Calabrese bread, some herbs and my darling tomatoes. Remembering a recent sunny afternoon at the Taste of the Danforth food festival in Toronto, with the company of great friends and laughter all around, I was inspired to recreate the fabulously fresh bruschetta we’d had at Il Fornello.

The first bite of crusty bread, tangy soft cheese and luscious tomatoes, and I’d banished the gloom. Such a simple pleasure, coupled with a quiet evening, had a wonderfully restorative effect. I slept soundly, and woke this morning with a renewed sense of enthusiasm to face the work ahead.

That’s when I noticed the rain clouds.

Bruschetta with tomato salad and chèvre
Bruschetta, from the Italian bruscare (to roast over coals) technically refers only to the grilled bread. My apologies that I have not included amounts here, instead just the ingredients. But truly, when in a mood like the one I’ve been in, the last thing one wants is to stress over measuring spoons. Use the proportions that best suit your palate. This is supposed to be a dish that exemplifies the “path of least resistance” – the quickest way to pleasure with minimal effort.

Ingredients

Tomatoes, grape or cherry halved, or your favourite large variety cut into manageable bites
Red onion, finely minced
Garlic, finely minced or microplaned (optional)
Basil, in fine strips (chiffonade)
Parsley, finely minced
Salt and pepper
Red wine vinegar (optional)
Olive oil
Slices of Calabrese bread, or any other crusty bread you like
Garlic (left whole)
Chèvre

Preheat broiler.

Combine tomatoes, onion, garlic and herbs in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper and a scant splash of red wine vinegar. Pour over a good-quality olive oil, mixing gently to combine. Allow to sit at room temperature while you prepare the bruschetta.

Under a hot broiler, toast bread on one side until golden brown. Turn and toast the second side until just starting to turn colour. Remove from oven and, working quickly, rub the cut side of the whole garlic clove all over the lightly toasted side. Top with crumbled chèvre, and return to the broiler until the cheese is starting to melt.

Serve topped with tomato salad and a final drizzle of olive oil.

Notes:
• This recipe can be done on a barbeque, grilling the bread first over medium high heat. To melt the cheese, turn the grill down to medium heat and close the lid, checking after 2-3 minutes.