tomorrow's lunch, today.

I listened to a story teller a few nights back. Not a man telling a story, but a man whose entire being and was occupied with the business of weaving his tale. 

His cadence was long and loping but deliberate, and it suited his southern drawl. The words meandered along the way to their destination, unhurried. If I squinted my eyes, it wasn't hard to imagine those words puffing out from his lips and into the air like smoke upon an exhale from a cigar.

The effect was entirely soothing, but so riveting was its interest that you could not help but hang onto every word. A hypnotist's lullaby. 

He was really good.

When he stopped, I wanted to linger there in his phrases. To climb inside and stay a while.  

Pulling me out of the blissful lethargy of his words was hunger. In this story, at the heart of it all, he used a sandwich as the embodiment of all he felt familiar. 

By the end of that story, he made a sandwich sound really, very good. 

He had been talking about New Orleans, and talking about po' boys. Talking about a sandwich that is messy, sloppy and soaked. He liked his with gravy, with the bread making valiant efforts to sop up as much as it could but failing, so that juice drips from that bump right where the heel of your palm ends and your wrist begins. A sandwich that requires your elbows on the table to provide proper purchase.

Without the necessary components of his ideal on hand, I turned to another, equally sodden sandwich to appease my yearning - pan bagnat. 

A speciality of Nice, pan bagnat is a pressed sandwich stuffed to its crust with the goodies of a Niçoise salad. From bottom up, I'll walk you through it.

It starts with good bread. You need a boule with a crust substantial enough to stand up to the richness and literal weight of the filling. In this version, it's spread with tapenade then covered in whole basil leaves. Tiles of hard boiled egg are arranged next, then chunks of oil-packed tuna dressed in an assertive vinaigrette. Sliced red onion and cucumber are last in the instructions, but I added mixed greens for substantial crunch (and again, all of these were bathed in the vinaigrette as well).

The whole thing is wrapped tight and pressed, with the layers evening out and settling in. I should say your sandwich will be prettier than mine; I was so eager  to share a slice with you that I hardly waited to snap the photo. Be patient. It needs that rest.

After a few hours the bread swells with the moisture and becomes softly chewy. Bite in, and there are layers of salt and acidity, of flavours and texture. The fatty blandness of the egg yolk melts into the seasoned tuna and rounds out the vinegar. The basil emerges from the murky depth of the tapenade, two big flavours in balance. The salad on top of it all is refreshing and palate clearing and gets the mouth ready for the next greedy bite.

And oh, a few bites in, you'll be able to move from two elbows to one firmly planted on the table. But, that said, keep this isn't a sandwich to be put down once you've begun eating. If you try, things will get complicated. Don't worry, now with the free hand you can grab a glass of cold, cold wine. 

You won't need much else. Maybe a napkin. And a good story, if you're lucky.

PAN BAGNAT

From Everyday Food: Fresh Flavor Fast(Random House Canada, 2010). I have just started cooking with this book, but for those who might be familiar with it's predecessor,Everyday Food: Great Food Fast, this title follows much the same style and feel. 

Recipe, via Martha Stewart. 

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In the woods I can see from my window, the ground looks patchwork brown and white; an Appaloosa's coat imposed onto the landscape. Much of the snow remains, but in those places where it has gone, it's revealed the rock and earth beneath.

I am enough of a realist to accept that this most likely won't be the last of the snow, that the earth might soon again be covered, and that spring is still a ways away for us. For today, that glimpse is enough.

Right now I'm content to think of sweaters and wool blankets. But soon, quite soon I think, I'll be longing for the day the snow melts for good. Anxious and fidgety for a trod through that wood in the time of almost spring. Before the shoots begin, when all is brown and filled with possibility.

A walk where each step of rubber-clad foot is followed by the echoed squelch of the mud beneath.

In my mind's eye I see broad-checked flannel and tins of pretty cookies for later. But first, a thermos full of soup to bring warmth to the enjoyable dampness that surrounds. And as of this moment, if I had to decide, it would be mushroom soup that we'd sip and spoon.

I made some yesterday, so even though that picnic upon the forest floor is weeks away, you can still get the general idea of the way I'm thinking.

It has an aroma dense with notes of growth and loam. (Loam is such a good word, stretched out and rounded like a yawn.) Both fresh and dried mushrooms are cooked in a pan with olive oil, butter, onion and garlic. After 20 minutes of cooking, the mushrooms have gone through stages of transformation; first pale and spongy, then wet and a soggy, then as that moisture evaporates the mushrooms turn deeply golden and their texture goes satisfyingly chewy.

A pour of Sherry to deglaze, it sputters and bubbles into a winey syrup that coats the vegetables in gloss. In goes the stock, and all's left to simmer for 20 minutes more. Whirred to a foaming, ethereal purée, the soup is done save for the indulgent dollop of mascarpone right at the end.

And with that, into the woods we go.

One last thing, I'd like to thank Stephanie Levy for asking me to be a part of her Artists Who Blog series. If you'd like to take a look at what we talked about, she's posted my interview on her site.

THE REAL MUSHROOM SOUP
 

From Jamie Oliver, the title's his, too.

Now mushroom soup depends greatly on the mushrooms itself; not only for flavour of course, but also for colour.

The bulk of the fresh mushrooms I used were the bark and black beauties, crimini and shiitakes, with only a handful each of ochre chanterelles and ivory oysters to counter that darkness. A mix favouring the paler varieties would result in a soup with looks more fawn than mouse.

That business on top there, there is purpose to that prettiness. A bit of herbs, croutons torn into buttery crumble, some sautéed mushrooms, together create the ideal counterpoint to the mellow earthiness of the soup; a freshness to the musky depth of its flavour and essential weight against the lightness of the emulsion. Mr. Oliver suggests a tranche of grilled bread instead of croutons, use whichever you like.

The only change I made to the recipe was the addition of Sherry when cooking the mushrooms, leaving out the lemon juice to finish.

Recipe

Untitled

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.

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.

Hello my dears, will you do me a favour? Preheat your oven to 400°F. While you're at it, start slicing some leeks while we catch up.

I was feeling pretty good about my preparedness for the coming holiday season this whole year-end business, that is, I was until a friend sweetly pointed out that as of today, there were a mere six days left until our merriment begins. How'd that happen?

Their math must be wrong. Let's see, 24-18 equals ... oh.

Shoot. No such luck. We're almost at the count-the-days-on-one-hand stage, people.

Before I go on, how are those leeks coming? All sliced? Take a second and put a skillet on to heat with a knob of butter in there. When that's melted, toss in your leeks and stir them around so that everybody's friendly.

Where was I? Yes, there's a lot going on. I'm particularly giddy to report that Menu for Hope is off to a rip-roaring start. We've just hit the $20,000 mark, with fingers crossed that the momentum continues through the second half of the campaign.

And we've got some happenings that should help in the momentum department, first off let me extend my thanks and welcome to the kind folks at EAT Magazine, who have donated another raffle item to our efforts. "Taste of British Columbia" brings together a variety of offerings from producers from this gorgeous province, including Untamed Feast’s delicious dried wild mushroom products (Forest Blend), locally grown roasted hazelnuts from Butler Hazelnut Farm, Vista d’Oro Farm’s Turkish Fig with Walnut Wine, a ½ lb. bag of Mile 0 Roasters Niagara Blend, Gathering Place’s Organic Rooibos Tea, and two chocolate bars from organicfair. To bid on their item, enter code CA12, when donating.

There are lots of new raffle items being added every day; be sure to keep checking the worldwide listing for the most up-to-date information.

Speaking of donations, we've got a brand spankin' new donation form for you; it lists all raffle items available worldwide, with a simple widget alongside that tallies your bids. To see it in all it's point-n-click glory, click here.

Oh! Back to the leeks. How are they doing? Are they all loopy and lithe yet? No? Okay, we've got a few more minutes to go.

More news. Remember way back in June when I said I'd be in the summer issue of UPPERCASE magazine? Well, Janine was kind enough to extend the invitation for me to write for them again. I'll be in the Winter issue, out in January 2010, talking about Maple Walnut Caramel. It's the recipe that started my recent walnut fixation.

While we're on the subject of UPPERCASE, a first look at the cover for the issue was recently available for subscribers to their newsletter. I'm sort of in love with it. I think you will be too.

The leeks should be looking about there by now - give them a poke with your spoon. They should be soft and sweet, still green and brightly fragrant. Good stuff, we're ready to go.

Now this is probably only exciting to me, but I've finally settled on what I'm making for the savoury portion of our Christmas breakfast. As you might have surmised, those scrummy leeks play a big part in the deliciousness to come this December 25th's a.m.

I have been looking for a partner to the Breakfast Bread from Donna Hay from years ago. A steadfast presence our menu that's focaccia in feel, but with a biscuit method for the base. A thick, spongy dough lays beneath a Christmassy landscape of wilted spinach and oven-dried tomatoes, with a crowning snowdrift of Gruyère to cover all. This is a bread that I start thinking about in the fall, when the last of the tomatoes are coming off the vine and I'm drying and preserving them in oil in eager anticipation of their winter debut.

Whatever arrives alongside that bread has to be a humdinger of a dish.

Enter the wonderful Lusia Weiss, with exactly what I was looking for. The Baked Eggs in Cream she introduced last week are, as she says, adorable. And boy are they tasty.

From the softly-set egg that is lush and dreamy, to the supple leeks hiding underneath the whiteness, it's ridiculously easy to get all swoony about this recipe. What's even more brilliant for my needs is that I can cook the leeks the night before, so they're ready and waiting come Christmas morn; crack an egg and spoon over some cream, in to the oven they go. En masse, everyone's taken care of.

If I'm being honest, the presentation of the individual ramekins was of specific appeal. Not only does this recipe allow you to cook for many with minimal fuss, it also allows for some greedy indulgence. A fleet of these little darlings on the table looks abundant and generous, but to each is own means that nobody has to share.

With all the support we've had for Menu for Hope, a moment of mine-all-mine gluttony can certainly be overlooked. You've all earned it.

CAMINO'S EGGS BAKED IN CREAM

A multiplied rendition of Camino's original, via The Wednesday Chef. Luisa's advises cooking the leeks longer than in the original recipe, and I am not one to argue. A cluster of oil-packed dried tomatoes nudged up against the yolk added an appreciated acidity.

INGREDIENTS

  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 4 leeks, cleaned and the white and light green parts sliced thinly
  • Salt
  • 2 sprigs thyme, leaves roughly chopped
  • 2 sprigs parsley, leaves roughly chopped
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half or coffee cream
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Grilled or toasted bread slices to serve

METHOD

With a rack set in the middle, preheat oven to 400°F (200°C).

In a small sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the leeks, along with a splash of water and a pinch of salt. Cook until the leeks are tender, around 10 minutes. Stir in the herbs. Divide the herbed leeks among four small dishes or ramekins, flattening the vegetables out slightly to make a nest for the eggs.

Crack one egg in the middle of each dish. Add enough cream to just over the white, then season with salt and the freshly-ground black pepper. Set the dishes on a baking sheet and bake in the oven until the white is set, between 8 to 12 minutes. Serve immediately, with the grilled bread.

Serves 4. Or really 2, as you'll want seconds. Trust.

Wednesday; before and after.

A Year of Mornings and simply breakfast.

I am an avid fan of both of these works. While there is, admittedly, something slightly voyeuristic about the intimate glimpses of the every day, what is truly charming is the quiet beauty in them. These unstructured vignettes of domesticity are peaceful, restrained, and somehow elegant all at once.

Inspired by their efforts, I am starting a little project. Outside of my regular columns, for a week I will post a photo (maybe more) of compositions that spontaneously come together; moments as I come upon them, meals as we serve them. No styling, all in a standard format, minimal (if any) post production. No fidgeting or fussing.

It is a bit of whimsy on my part, but I hope you enjoy the peek nonetheless.

Maria and Stephanie's current project; a year of evenings, is already well underway.

It is beautiful out.

No wait, let me say it again for those who feel differently about heat than I do. It is hot. It is humid, with clear sunshine interspersed with rather-impressive thunderstorms and torrential rain.

Now I'll admit, I am a lucky one; I am one of those sorts that lives for heat and revels in temperatures others may consider rather sweltering. Dry heat or sticky with humidity, I will always choose a day that is blistering over a day that is remotely cold.

I even take particular joy the dramatic tendencies of our climate. There is something wholly romantic about a midday thunderstorm. The day suddenly turns to dusk, the air heavy and thick with moisture; and afterwards, who cannot enjoy the green, green, green smell of wet grass and soaking leaves, and the reward of a cool breeze. Even as I write this, rain is pouring through trees alight with sunshine and I can hear not-so-distant peals of thunder.

But, even though I consider the weather to be lovely and sultry, I can see my loved ones virtually wilting as the days go on. And so I feel compelled to aid as only I know how - with food.

While I will admit my days have been busier as of late, what with the arrival of our newborn son and the constant entertainment that is his big brother, I have still managed to get back in the kitchen. Like the lovely familiarity of a tune you've hummed for a lifetime, getting back to cooking and baking has brought me the satisfaction of beloved habits. In this mood I have been looking over my cookbook collection, rediscovering old favourites that somehow seem new again.

With that in mind, I have brought together a few of my best-loved recipes I hope will keep you cool for the summer nights ahead.