It was Tuesday's dusk; the sun was on its way but hadn't quite left, and the night was at the door. That's when the rain arrived. Those last few glimmers of day hung in the wet air, and turned the raindrops to prisms and set our backyard aglow.

March rain is like the gentle hand of a parent on the shoulder of an eager child. It keeps us closer to home than we might like. It reminds us to please wait, only for a moment, to slow down and tread lightly as the world outside isn't ready just yet for our boisterous play.

Spring may be awake, but she still bears the imprint of her pillowcase upon her cheek. Soon she'll join us, in her finest dress in shades of sunbeam yellow.

In no time she will arrive, and our world will change. Spring is the most rambunctious of seasons, skipping across the landscape, with cascades of cherry blossoms tumbling from her hair and leaving trails of mossy green footprints.

In the blink of her eye, the Firsts of the season will be upon us. The first crocuses, drowsy headed and darling; the first evening walk when the breeze is mild and sweet; the first dinner eaten outdoors, preferably with strings of lights overhead.

And as we anticipate Spring's approach, we also mark the celebration of the Lasts of Winter. The last day to wear those woolen socks you loved in December but resent four months later; the last fire to crackle in the fireplace; the last of the Sunday roast suppers. Well maybe not the last, but at least the less frequent for those.

A habit of a meal for us, and for many; in our kitchen it is most usually the Zuni Café version, complete with the necessary bread salad.

It was during the stay of Mr. Winter that I ran into trouble, wanting rice not bread on a particular Sunday night. With that classic recipe as my inspiration, I served a brown rice salad rocky with almonds and tangy currants, with the spice of arugula there to light up everything. And while its bready predecessor has my lifelong devotion, I was pretty fond of how it turned out.

Now back to that night of that rain I mentioned to start. There was to be roast chicken for dinner. Without currants or arugula, I did have cranberries and parsley, and chose to build upon my previous improvisation. I included a pinch of ground coriander for good measure, bringing the subtle suggestion of grass and citrus beneath the direct flavours of clementine and fresh herbs. We were well fed.

In the end, the rain lasted the night, today we're again beneath its watery cloak, and tomorrow looks to be cold. But we have a date with warmer days penciled in our calendar.

It'll be soon enough, and we'll be ready.

BROWN RICE SALAD FOR A MARCH EVENING

You'll note that there aren't quantities for many ingredients, and there is a reason for that. I treated our dish much like a salad, dressed with a deconstructed vinaigrette. But, you can easily consider this more like a pilaf, seasoning it instead with a subtle hand and omitting the vinegar, leaving the flavours more mellow and round.

You might think that there is a lot of parsley, and it is. It is an ingredient here, not a garnish or an accent. I like the effect of the whole leaves for their juicy crunch, but chop them roughly if you prefer.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1/4 minced shallot
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • A good pinch of ground coriander seed
  • 1 cup brown rice, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup raw nuts, I like a mixture of flaked almonds and whole cashews
  • 1/4 cup dried currants or 1/3 cup dried sweetened cranberries
  • One clementine
  • Champagne vinegar, optional
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2-3/4 cup parsley leaves
  • Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste

METHOD

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until soft but without colour, around 3 minutes. Add the garlic, season with salt and ground coriander, and cook for 30 seconds more.

Add the rice, stirring to coat each grain with the butter. Toast for around 30 seconds, then add water and cook according to your rice's package instructions.

Meanwhile, toast the mixed nuts in a dry pan over medium heat, tossing often. When well-toasted and bronzed in places, remove from the pan to a bowl to cool. Set aside.

When the rice is done, pour into a serving bowl and fluff with a fork. Add the dried fruit to the bowl and grate over some of the zest from the clementine (do this when the rice is still quite hot, the heat of the rice plump the fruit and will diffuse the oils from the rind). Squeeze over some of the juice from the clementine, a splash of Champagne vinegar, if using, and a drizzle of olive oil. Fork through again. Season with salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste.

Can be served immediately, warm or at room temperature. Stir in most of the nuts and parsley right before serving, saving some for garnish.

Serves 4.

Notes:

• I think this is especially good with a brown and wild rice blend; the wild rice adds an extra chewiness I like.

Heidi has a wild rice salad that is served with goat's cheese, an idea I'll be borrowing in the future.

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I've stopped in with some chickpeas today, along with a recipe that has me acting like a crazy person.

How so? Well, let's read the ingredients. You will surely recognize the usual suspects, robust olive oil, our old friend garlic, aromatic leeks and of course the chickpeas. Then there's twangy lemon and woodsy rosemary, adding height and depth to the mix. Last, the salt. Can't forget that, the universal leveler, the thing that amplifies individual flavours while miraculously creating overall harmony.

But no pepper.

Who have I become? It's unlike me to bring Salt along without it's bosom buddy Pepper. And often I go one step further, with dried chili flakes, cayenne or Kashmiri chili thrown in for kicks. But in this case, (deep breath) I have decided I don't want pepper anywhere near this meal.

Let me give you some sense of this tumble of stewy leeks and chickpeas; they cook up in a way that is gratifyingly substantial, as is our need in these January days. But they are just cooked, without a trace of sludginess, still firm and springy-centered. Silken leeks curl around their goldeness, the pale jadeite strands are floral and sweet. The rosemary and lemon are noticed to be sure, but their forms are blurred at the edges, melting into and carrying forth the flavours of the others in equal measure.

The full effect is something akin to what it would be like to read the collected poems of e.e. cummings by spoon rather than by eye. While there is a variation in tone from bite to bite, there are no full stops or pesky uppercase letters to interrupt the rhythm we've got going here. Pepper would break up that essential mellowness, its wham! bang! personality, although a virtue elsewhere, would be too much for the delicate structure of this dish to bear.

We can't have that. So, I've banished the pepper. Scandalous behaviour, on my part.

Secondly, I'm mad for this stuff. Straight out of the pan it is terribly good, with some wilted bitter greens or steamed broccoli rabe nearby to swirl into the herby, lemony, garlic-infused olive oil left behind. Or, pour in few glugs of stock (chicken or vegetable, please) and suddenly there's soup. It can be eaten as is, with perhaps some Parmesan, or blitzed into a purée (but take the rosemary sprigs out before bringing out the heavy machinery).

Whatever way, in mine at least, hold the pepper.

CHICKPEAS WITH LEEKS AND LEMON

I was heavy-handed with the olive oil, as I knew I wanted that excess to dress the greens served alongside. For a lighter dish, or if your intended result is soup, reduce the oil to 2 tablespoons. Adding the rosemary back to the pan at the end gives a final hit of herbal steam. The twig, and the clove of garlic, can be removed before serving if desired.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large garlic clove, bruised but whole
  • 1 6-inch branch fresh rosemary, broken in two
  • 4 leeks, cleaned, trimmed and with the white and light green parts sliced in 1/4-inch rounds
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • 1/2 lemon

METHOD

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil, garlic and rosemary over medium heat. Once the garlic turns fragrant and the rosemary begins to sizzle, remove the rosemary but reserve for later.

 

Add the leeks to the pan, along with a good pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the leeks are soft and sweet but still brightly green, around 5 minutes. Tip in the chickpeas, and continue to cook for a 5 minutes more, at which point the chickpeas should have darkened slightly in colour.

Using a microplane or zester, add a few scrapes of lemon zest to the pan, along with a squeeze of lemon juice. Stir gently to combine. Check for seasoning, adding more juice, zest or salt as needed. Return the reserved rosemary sprigs to the pan, and enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Serves 4.

As a child of the 1980s, I have a deep affection for that era of roller skate - the ones with four wheels and the bright red, eraser-like stopper attached to the toe. I spent many an hour touring the neighbourhood in my skates, confident as can be.

Flash forward 20 years later and you can imagine my trepidation when my dear Sean strapped brand new rollerblades on me and assumed I would be steady on my feet. Facing the downhill slope of a rather steep hill, little did he expect the athletic debacle that would follow.

To make a long story short, I ricocheted off of a fence once or twice on my way down. Since then if faced with the slightest of declines, I am happy to veer off the road, sit myself down in the grass and watch the world roll by.

In this case I am all too happy to indulge my cowardice.

But one arena in which I have rarely shown fear has been the kitchen. Whether it was youthful exuberance or sheer naive ego, I would be hard pressed to remember a recipe that I have shied away from due to lack of experience. I will either place my confidence in quality of the recipe or in my own common sense, and then pray for the best.

That is not to say that errors have not been made; I could tell stories of some spectacular culinary failures that culminated in me laughing and crying all at once, as I reached for the phone to order takeout. But for whatever reason, these catastrophes have never fazed me. A simple shrug of the shoulder later, a wipe down of the counters and I am usually ready to tackle my next attempt.

It was with this touch of hubris that I made my first soufflé. Not smart enough to heed the many horror stories of fallen hopes, I happily whipped, folded and baked my way to airy perfection. Maybe it was assuredness that was the secret of my success. Maybe it was my assumption that all will be well was what made it so. Since that triumph, I have never looked back; both savoury and sweet offerings have graced our table. I have fallen in love with soufflés, with their luscious eggy density and slightly tender belly.

This corn and cheddar version has been a favourite since first taste. With a subtle background heat playing off of the sweetness of fresh corn, it is a wonderful balance of flavours for a light summer supper. The procedure is surprisingly simple and forgiving; stir the roux patiently, do not overwhip your egg whites, fold the batter gently. Bake until set without peeking in the oven, and your bravery will be rewarded with awe at the table. Who needs a greater ego-boost than that?

Sweet corn and white cheddar soufflé, with herbs and chili

Ingredients
Kernels from 2 ears of fresh corn
1 medium onion or 2 large shallots, cut into small dice
1 small red chili, finely minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing the ramekins
2 tablespoons plus 1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, separated
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup milk
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup grated aged white cheddar
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
2 teaspoons chopped basil
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro (coriander)

Preheat oven 375°F (190°C). Lightly grease four 3/4 cup capacity ramekins with butter, then coat with Parmesan.

In a sauté pan over medium heat, melt one tablespoon of the butter. Add the corn, onion and chili and cook, stirring, until the corn is tender and the onion is translucent. Remove the vegetables to a small bowl and set aside to cool.

In the same pan over medium low heat, melt the remaining butter. Whisk in the flour, cayenne and nutmeg, then cook this mixture for about 2 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly to combine. Continue to cook, for about 3 minutes, until the sauce is thick and smooth. Turn off the heat, whisk in egg yolks, cheddar, remaining Parmesan and herbs. Stir in the corn and vegetable mixture. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat the egg whites to stiff (but not dry) peaks. Using a spatula, fold one third of the egg whites into the soufflé base. Continue to fold each third in, only until just combined.

Divide the soufflé batter among the four prepared ramekins. Sprinkle with additional finely grated cheddar or Parmesan, if desired.

Gently place ramekins into a roasting pan or large casserole dish. Fill the pan with water from a recently-boiled kettle, until it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, until crowned and golden.

Serve immediately, makes 4.

Notes:

• For a more impressive crown to your soufflé, rather than one that will just coyly peek over the edge of the dish as seen here, use a slightly smaller ramekin.
• When folding in the egg whites, I usually let a few streaks of white to remain for my first two additions as I know those will dissipate with the last addition. This allowance will prevent you from overworking the batter and deflating the volume.

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.