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.

As much as I espouse an easygoing approach to all things food related and try to promote creativity and substitutions whenever possible, I have to admit this tendency does not carry over to all aspects of my lifestyle – or even to all my views on things culinary. In fact, there are certain things about which I’m downright pernickety.

For instance, I adore having the right tool for a job. Even though I know that there are a million and one ways to zest a lemon, having the proper tool suited for the end result is a joy. A good chef's knife is your best friend. A well-shaped olive wood spoon makes stirring risotto a pleasure. The same holds true for servingware - you must admit that your gorgeous soba noodle soup is all the more stunning when served in a bowl shaped for optimal slurping. We have shelves in our basement devoted to my inability to say no to the “perfect” vessel.

I am a sucker for organization. Send me to a kitchen store, a craft store or even a stationer; I will happily troll the aisles for containers and caddies, labels and all things compartmentalized. I’ve actually spent time imaging all the things I could organize if I had the proper space and resources – oh how gorgeous my closets could be. I have even been known to have a moment of excitement over a new size of Tupperware. I can’t help it; it’s an obsession.

These two compulsions bring me to the granddaddy of them all — my love of lists. S has had to come to accept and respect my incessant hording of tiny slips of paper, each covered in cryptic notes and itemized records that usually only make sense to me. Maybe this harkens back to my childhood need to overachieve (gold stars were like ambrosia to me), but going through an orderly list and checking off items as they are completed gives me an incomparable sense of accomplishment.

I have lists for everything; for grocery lists, for errands, for Christmas presents, for correspondence, for books to read or topics to research … even the margins of my day planner are not safe from my scribbles.

I could go on, but I’m starting to scare myself.

As of late, I’ve been thinking about two lists in particular. One I’ve had for years, and is added to rather frequently. This list contains names like The French Laundry and Babbo, Fat Duck and El Bulli … and items referring to Chubby Hubby’s dear wife S and her gorgeous dumplings, finding the perfect baguette, and most recently an entry devoted to the idea of convincing Melissa and Clement that a macaron tasting tour of Paris with Michèle is exceedingly necessary. This list chronicles my food fantasies – dishes I want to try, places I long to visit and people I would adore the opportunity to meet.

The second list is much more tailored to my own little kitchen. This one details 50 or so items that make up my running tally of dishes I believe I should attempt to make at least once in my life, or recipes to master. Some are dishes I consider classics, while others are ones that have piqued my interest. Examples include:

8. Bake a quintessential yellow cake with chocolate frosting – think of what Wally and the Beave would have had with a cold glass of milk after school.
17. Make puff pastry and croissant dough from scratch.
21. Perfect my roast chicken recipe.
35. Invite Mom and Dad over for an Indian meal that knocks their socks off.
46. Make French fries at home, and decide once and for all where I stand on the “skinny frites vs. fat chips debate.”

This weekend I decided that #46 was due to be checked off my list. Not only would I tackle an age-old question of taste, but I would also continue my quest to conquer my innate fear of deep-frying. With a Saturday stretching before me, and an eager panel of tasters, I julienned and soaked, dried and fried (doubly, of course) and produced two batches of fries for their highly-scientific consideration. In the left corner, we have what I consider to be an example of the skinny frites tradition, destined for garlicky aiöli. In the other corner, we have the fat chip contender, the perfect partner to deep fried fish and the proper vehicle for gravy and cheese curds for Poutine.

After deliberation, the panel had two votes for skinny and one undecided. Both S and his dear father favoured the more assertively crispy fry, while I was still torn. I appreciated the snap of the exterior of the skinny fry, but could not totally discount the comfort of the baked-potato-reminiscent floury-ness of the chip style.

Each has its place at my table. I may be compulsive, but I can’t seem to play favourites. So #46 remains, but I still think these deserve a gold star.

Definitive fries  
I use a hybrid of tips, taken mostly from Tony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook and Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food. Both employ a double-fry method; first poaching the potatoes at a lower heat, then frying a second time at a higher heat to ensure a crispy exterior. The draining station detailed is that of Alton Brown – it keeps oil droplets from collecting on the grates of the draining rack and helps to prevent soggy fries.

4 large baking potatoes, russets are good
Oil for frying
Salt

For the skinny fries, peel the potatoes (if desired) and cut each one lengthwise into slices 1/3 inch thick. Cut the slices lengthwise into sticks 1/3 inch thick. For the fat chips, prepare as above but slice the potatoes into 1/2 batons. Soak the potatoes in bowls of ice water for at least 30 minutes (as long as overnight) to release the excess starch.

In a deep fat fryer or a heavy bottomed pot, preheat 3 inches of oil (or follow manufacturer’s recommendations) to 300ºF.

Rinse potatoes in a few courses of clean water. Drain, then lay them out on a kitchen towel or paper towel and pat dry. Removing excess moisture at this stage will help reduce the oil from splattering when the potatoes hit the fat.

Assemble your draining station. Take a baking rack and invert it so that the legs are pointing upwards. Place this on top of a few layers of newsprint.

Fry the potatoes, in small batches until translucent and just starting to turn pale gold (approximately 6-8 minutes for the skinny fries, 8-10 for the thick ones). Do not overload the oil, or the temperature will drop too quickly and the potatoes will be uneven. Cooking times will depend on the size of batch and how well you can maintain the oil temperature. Using a spider, basket or tongs remove the first batch to the draining rack. Proceed with remaining potatoes until done. Allow to stand for at least 10 minutes, or up to 2 hours.

When ready to serve, raise the heat of the oil to 375ºF.

Again working in batches, fry the potatoes until golden and crisp, about 2-3 minutes for the skinny and 3-4 for the thick. Remove to the draining rack (lined with fresh paper) for a moment to cool then transfer to a large bowl. Season liberally with salt and toss the fries to coat. Serve immediately.

Serves 4, generously.

Notes:
• A good sprinkling of Maldon salt was all the adornment we needed, but smoked paprika, finely minced garlic and parsley or cumin and turmeric all make great seasonings.
• The aiöli from Laura Washburn makes a perfect accompaniment.

 

Posted
Authortara

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.