Growing up, my best friend was right next door. It was one of those friendships where sleepovers were weekly, staying over for dinner was almost daily, and company was constant. We were lucky enough to live on a street where everyone knew everybody, where children ran freely from yard to yard wreaking havoc and laughter. It was a great place to live, with pool parties and backyard barbecues crowned with sparklers at the end.

Beyond the fun we had, my most vivid memory of these childhood friendships was the food. I think of those barbecues and I can taste the juice of sticky sweet watermelons, I think of strawberries picked from the bushes in the backyard, and of fingers stained a myriad of rainbow colours from Fun Dip.

But most of all I think about the kitchens - ours and the one next door. While our house was filled with the flavours of India and England, theirs was bursting with those of Italy. So as much as my Grandmother's shepherd's pie and my Mother's chicken curry figure largely in my remembrance of childhood, so do jars and jars of pickled red peppers, tender veal cutlets, and handmade breads for the holidays. The alchemy of homemade wine was a mystery to us. I was fascinated by the yearly ritual, and the enormous glass carafes that would take up residence in the basement. Oh goodness, and Nutella - that wonderful dark chocolate and hazelnut spread that is nothing short of ambrosia to a 6 year old.

As kids, we ate all meals at home, walking home from school at lunchtime. As far as I can recall, the business of meals was simply part of the daily ritual. I never had the impression that it was a bother, or that it was a chore (though it must have been, sometimes).

I cannot help but think that it was this assumption of good, fresh food that has shaped how I cook today. Even when tired or frustrated, it is not often that I am too tired to cook. I may be vexed about my day, but I am not vexed about the food. Sure, it may sometimes be simple, but the process of preparing food is integral to the routine of my day; I feel I have forgotten something without it.

I am thankful for those early influences, and that food and philosophy are remembered fondly - and often. As with most of us, I am sure, pasta has endured as a comfort food in our household. In its preparation, I sometimes stop to remember those meals from years ago, hoping I can come close to those tastes.

While this vegetable bolognese is far from traditional, and nothing I had as a child, it still brings me that sense of comforting nostalgia. Slowly stirred aromatic vegetables cooked until deeply flavoured and tender, then served with hot pasta and a snowfall of Paremsan - how memorable is that?

Vegetarian bolognese
My version was a combination of recipes; as I did not write down quantities as I cooked, I thought it best to simply provide the same guides I used. If anyone would like specifics, please feel free to contact me.

Sources:

Pappardelle with vegetable bolognese from Epicurious
Rigatoni with vegetable bolognese from Giada de Laurentiis

Specific changes and notes:

• Added 1/2 a large eggplant and 1 medium zucchini to the vegetables called for. As I prefer my mushrooms and eggplant to be well caramelized and golden, I cooked them separately from the rest first, then added them to the soffritto as per the recipe.
• 6 oil packed sundried tomatoes were puréed and added along with the tomato paste.
• The wine was replaced with vegetable broth and a splash of red wine vinegar.
• The photograph featured does not include marscarpone, as I intended to freeze a portion; the dairy is added just before serving, and I do believe the sauce needs a bit of richness at the finish. Full fat cream cheese can be used if mascarpone is unavailable.
• This sauce is particularly nice when thinned with a bit of pasta cooking water, then tossed through with your favourite medium tube pasta and chunks of fresh mozzarella.

While my husband does not share my love of cooking, I take great pleasure in the fact that he does share my love of food. With is combination of enthusiasm and appetite, he is a rewarding audience to cook for - appreciative and just a bit greedy.

While I was thrilled at recent gifts of cookbooks and foodie magazines, a part of me does think that my dear Sean was even more excited. After far too many days featuring the customary menus of the season, it was he that flipped through my new books, taking note of any particularly tempting ideas. Feeling a bit burnt out after the aforementioned feasts, I was all too happy to hand over the responsibility of culinary creativity (and the associated shopping trip) to my willing partner.

It is a strategy we have been known to employ, one that prevents me from falling into a routine of recipes and challenges me a bit to boot. I will admit to exercising executive privilege now and again, balancing Sean’s often-carnivorous tendencies with lighter fare or substituting ingredients I know are more suited to our tastes. The exercise keeps us both involved in the decision of what we eat, with Sean frequently, and pleasantly, surprising me with his choices.

Most recently, it was a recipe by Tyler Florence that piqued interest - fat noodles with buttered artichokes and crab. Looking at the requisite glossy photo presented alongside, the unctuous tangle of pasta and seafood immediately recalled Nigella Lawson's chili crab with linguine. Featured in the book Forever Summer and on the television series of the same name, hers is a recipe I have carried around in my mind for years. I vividly recall salivating over the sauce alone - luscious bits of pink crab meat specked fiery orange with chili. It was one that I have always intended to make, but have never found the occasion.

Not wanting to pass up the chance now, I combined the two recipes to best appease my (nagging) curiosity and to meet Sean’s request. The result was a triumph; rich enough to feel a bit special and celebratory, still fresh with bright lemon and peppery ribbons of green.

A harmonious beginning to a new year.

Linguine with crab and artichokes
My interpretation of recipes from Nigella Lawson and Tyler Florence. I had not intended to share this recipe, but after tasting it I decided it was worthy of a feature. My sincere apologies; some of the ingredient quantities are estimates as I did not weigh and measure as I cooked, as I usually do.

Ingredients
500 g linguine
1 large clove peeled garlic, or two if you are so inclined
2 teaspoons kosher salt
A good pinch, about a scant 1/4 teaspoon, dried chili flakes
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
275 ml jar of artichokes, drained and rinsed well, halved if large
250 g crab meat, preferably lump
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
A handful of fresh parsley, chopped
A couple of handfuls of baby arugula (rocket), or other greens
Pepper, to taste

Put a large pot of well-salted water to boil. Cook the pasta, according to package directions or to taste. As the pasta will continue to cook when you toss it with the warm sauce, I would advise cooking until just under al dente.

Meanwhile, in a small food processor or pestle and mortar, crush the garlic, salt and chili flakes into a smooth purée. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and olive oil. When just melted, add about 1/2 cup of the starchy pasta cooking liquid, along with the garlic purée. Continue to cook, stirring, until reduced by about 1/3. When thickened, add the artichokes and gently toss to coat.

With the heat on low, add the crab meat, lemon zest and juice and stir to combine. Tip in the cooked, drained pasta, turning so that the noodles are well-slicked with the buttery juices. Add the parsley and arugula, continuing to turn until the greens are slightly wilted. Check for seasoning, garnish with additional chili and fresh greens if desired, serve.

Serves 4 as a main course, 6-8 as a light lunch or entrée.

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.

Ah, the aftermath.

The one burden of being a part of a food-loving family is the inevitable post-feast hangover associated with high days and holidays. This weekend was no exception. The butter, the chocolate, the treats both sweet and savoury - the days flew by in a pastel haze of overabundance.

There is stilll a half litre of heavy cream in the fridge.

Not ready to deal with that just yet, a respite seems in order. As in the past, and like Molly it seems, I find my comfort in the bottom of a bowl of soup. Borrowing heavily from the Mediterranean pantry, this chorizo and lentil soup offers substance without excess, flavour without flamboyance.

I could use a nap.

Chorizo and lentil soup
My own recipe. The spiciness of the chorizo lends personality to the subtle lentils. A rustic meal in itself, hearty and satisfying. Goes brilliantly with an old movie, preferably one from the Thin Man series, and a comfy couch.

Ingredients
3/4 cup small French green lentils
2 cups veal or chicken stock
3-5 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for serving
2 fresh chorizo sausages, casings removed
1 cup medium diced celery (4 ribs or so)
1 cup medium diced carrots (2 large)
2 cups medium diced yellow onion (2 medium)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 19-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley
4-5 large basil leaves, cut into strips (chiffonade)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

Pick over the lentils and discard any misshapen ones or stones. Rinse and drain the lentils through several courses of water until free of any grit or sand.

In a saucepan over high heat, combine the lentils, stock, 3 cups of water, thyme and garlic. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered until the lentils are just tender, about 15-20 minutes. You will need to skim the surface occasionally for impurities.

Meanwhile, in a stockpot over medium heat, crumble in the chorizo into one tablespoon or so of olive oil. Cook until the sausage begins to render some of its fat. Add the celery, carrot and onion, tossing to coat in the paprika-stained oil. Season well with salt and pepper, and continue to cook, stirring often. When the vegetables are translucent and tender, after about 10 minutes, add the tomato paste and stir through. Cook for 2 minutes or until the tomato paste begins to darken.

Remove the garlic and thyme from the lentils. Add the lentils and their cooking liquid to the stockpot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the chickpeas, and additional water if necessary, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Check for seasoning.

Ladle into bowls and sprinkle over the chopped herbs. Serve with olive oil for drizzling and grated Parmesan and passed alongside.

Serves 4.

Notes:
• Omit the chorizo and stock for a vegetarian version; in this case, cut back on the tomato paste and add a medium can of crushed tomatoes for additional body to the broth.
• Cannellini beans can be used instead of the garbanzos (chick peas).
• Longaniza (or longganisa) is a fresh Chilean variety of chorizo. Cooked or cured sausage varieties can be substituted.
• A splash of red wine vinegar to finish will balance the richeness of sausage and creaminess of the lentils.

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I am a person who spends far too much time thinking about food.

Though this tendency could most likely be attributed to my simple greed, which I will not deny, I am also intrigued by the way that we relate to our food. I know I have said it before, and admired those who have said it more eloquently, but I am still fascinated by the way food can not only be a source of nutrition but also such a part of the way we live our lives.

Our meals can be a creative expression, a link to the past or an exploration of possibility. Or, we can eat to satiate the need to fuel the body.

I have been eavesdropping on an ongoing conversation regarding the place for shortcuts, take out and convenience food in the kitchen. The discussion touches upon the ever-increasing popularity of certain network television personalities and their accompanying “semi-homemade” philosophies.

Without taking a particular side of the table so to speak, I did stop to consider the food my family eats on a daily basis; outside of the grand food holidays and events, simply Monday to Friday sort of fare.

I have always eaten reasonably well. Lucky to have the luxury of a childhood in a family of cooks, convenience food and take out was the exception rather than the rule. In my early adulthood, I tried to get my 8-10 servings of vegetables per day, even if they were sometimes interspersed with a pint and burger at the local pub.

It was when I became pregnant that I really felt the impact of the food choices I made. I was suddenly responsible for more than just me and my waistline. With each bite, I realized what I was eating was what would sustain my child. What would help him develop, help him grow strong and nurture him before I could even hold him in my arms.

As you may well imagine, heavily-processed foods, caffeine, additives, nitrates and the like where not on the menu.

With Benjamin’s birth, a part of my Mummyhood has come to include the role of family nutritionist and meal provider. I know that I am the one that is, in large part, shaping the way he views food. The way he views how food is made. The way he views food as part of his life - as energy or as something more.

It is that something more that I think about most. I think about how somewhere along the way society developed this love-hate relationship with food. We love indulgence, yet hate the consequences; we move from extremes of decadence to extremes of denial.

In our day-to-day food is frequently regarded as an inconvenience; something that takes time from all the more important things that we have scheduled for ourselves.

I can only speak for myself. I can only say what works for me. I have chosen to make good food a priority. Not simply the act of eating, though I do believe in taking the time to eat as a family whenever possible, but also the act of shopping, preparing and discussing food. Nutrition, tradition, why we eat what we eat when we eat it - all of these are topics I hope to share with my son as I share them with my dear Sean now.

I want Benjamin to realize that sometimes things are worth effort or time, and that the proof is truly in the pudding. I hope he sees the beauty in a balanced life.

I will admit that there are frozen pizzas in my freezer. I will also admit that there are a stack of take out menus in a drawer somewhere. But I will also point out the recipe books, pots and pans and utensils that fill our cupboards.

I do not scorn convenience. Cooking may not be for everyone. But I will rally against the notion that cooking is nothing more than a chore. There is beauty in the process of making food, even when at its most basic. There is a poetry in it that tells you “this is worthwhile.”

I made this pasta as a quick dinner when my dear Sean was working late. Inspired by a love for spaghettti alla carbonara, all the elements of the original are here. Salty pork punctuating a tangle of creamy, egg-blanketed pasta. I have added chicken stock to the sauce for a fresher version suited for early spring. The mix of asaparagus and mushrooms also seem fitting for the season, and the crisped prosciutto is tender, yet still toothsome, among the pappardelle.

It should have taken about 10 minutes to come together, but again, priorities came into play. I stopped prepping once because of a potential altercation between Benjamin and Miss Billie the Cat (priority). I continued when Benjamin chose to dump his toys across the floor (not a priority). I paused again to kiss my husband hello (priority). Then I finished making dinner.

Far from Rockwellian, but we did manage for the three of us to end up around the dinner table; all eating the same meal, at the same time.

I, for one, felt truly nourished.

Creamy mushroom and asparagus pappardelle
Lighter than a traditional carbonara, but still retaining its charm, this pasta is a quick and satisfying weeknight meal.

Ingredients

4 slices prosciutto
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
150 g trimmed and cut asparagus spears
250 g cremini or brown mushrooms, cut into halves or quarters depending on size
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
175 g pappardelle
30 g grated parmesan cheese
Generous teaspoon thyme leaves
2 large eggs
1/3 cup mixture of chicken stock and cream, whatever ratio suits your taste

Cook the prosciutto under a preheated broiler for about 3 minutes, until crisp and lightly golden. Set aside.

In a frying pan over medium high heat, sauté shallots in the olive oil for about a minute, or until beginning to turn translucent. Add mushrooms and asparagus, season sparingly with salt and pepper and cook for 6 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Reduce the heat to low.

Meanwhile, cook pappardelle in a large pot of salted boiling water until just under al dente, or slightly less than package instructions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Add the pappardelle to the vegetable mixture, turning to combine. The pasta will darken as it absorbs the olive oil and juices from the vegetables. Crumble in prosciutto. Turn off heat.

Whisk together parmesan cheese, eggs, thyme leaves, cream and chicken stock in a small bowl.

Working quickly, add the egg mixture to the pappardelle and toss to coat. Continue to stir until the eggs are cooked and slightly thickened; the sauce will thoroughly cling to the noodles. Add the reserved pasta water as necessary until the desired consistency is achieved. Season with additional pepper.

Best eaten immediately. Serves 2 rather generously, or 3 when feeding one adult male with a hearty appetite, one adult female with a medium appetite and one greedy little toddler.

Notes:
• I used a ratio of about 3 parts stock to 1 part 10% cream. Use whatever amounts, and butterfat content cream, that suits you.
• Baby spinach can also be substituted for the asparagus. If you are lucky enough to come across fresh morels, they would be fantastic here.

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While there are is a place for purity and tradition, there are some moments (and foods) that will forgive a bit of artistic licence. In every life there are times when one must stand up for personal preference, give into craving and possibly bend a culinary rule or two to satiate the appetite. And what food presents the perfect canvas for such a creative expression? You need not look further than the not-so-humble pizza.

When my dear Sean and I first started setting up house, I quickly came to realise that not only did we have to become experts in the tactful delivery of “your lamp does not go with my couch,” and the art of paint selection, but we also had to be adept in the United Nations level-negotiation of what would grace the dinner table. The decision of what to eat would take greater diplomacy than interior design discussions ever would.

You see, while my dear Sean and I have similar palates, we there is a disparity to our cravings. Where I salivate over something decadent and chocolate, he will pick the apple pie. I truly dream about unctuous scrambled eggs, whereas Sean will be looking forward to pancakes. Neither finds the other's choices distasteful; we do like the same things, but we do not always want them at the same time.

Enter the great leveller - the pizza. Especially when made yourself, a pizza allows for your personal stamp; thin crust or thick, red sauce or white or none at all, meats or vegetables. It is the opportunity to create the perfect taste combination to suit, well, your tastes, no matter how capricious they might be.

This combination of salty ribbons of jamón and creamy ricotta, topped with a verdant tangle of peppery rocket, brings some of my cravings together. The citrus-spiked vinaigrette echoes the aromatic lemon thyme and cuts the richness of the cheeses. While I have provided a recipe, it is only a framework for your own creativity - I mean, who am I to say what the perfect slice to be?

Jamón and ricotta pizza with rocket salad
My own interpretation from many points of inspiration. This recipe makes four thin crust pizzas. If you prefer a doughier crust, make the bases smaller than directed. You will need to adjust the cooking time accordingly.

Ingredients

For the dough
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar (I heap this a bit)
1 cup lukewarm water
2 cups all purpose flour, plus extra
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
Cornmeal, for dusting

For the toppings and salad
240 g mozzarella, sliced thinly
240 g fresh ricotta cheese
8 slices of Jamón (serrano or ibérico) or Prosciutto di Parma
3 fresh lemon thyme sprigs
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Four handfuls of baby rocket (arugula) leaves
Juice from 1/2 lemon, approximately 2 scant tablespoons
1 1/2 teaspoons white wine vinegar (or thereabouts)
7-8 tablespoons olive oil, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a bowl, combine the yeast, sugar and water. Set aside in a warm spot for 5 minutes or until bubbles appear on the surface and you begin to smell a musty, yeasty aroma.

In another bowl, mix together the flour and salt. Make a well in the centre and pour in the yeast mixture and olive oil. Using your well-floured hands or a wooden spoon, slowly incorporate the flour into the wet ingredients until a dough is formed. Adjust the amount of flour until the dough comes together into a clean ball (see note).

Turn out the dough on a lightly-floured surface and knead for 5-8 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. To best test this, poke your finger into the ball of dough - if it springs back, it is ready. Divide the dough into four equal portions and lightly shape into balls. Either on the floured work surface or on a floured baking tray, cover the balls with a clean, damp tea towel and allow to rest for 30 minutes or until doubled in size.

On a floured surface, flatten a ball of the dough with your fingers, then roll it out into a 22 cm - 25 cm round (between 9”-10”). Dust a pizza peel or a piece of parchment paper with cornmeal then place the round on top. Repeat with remaining balls of dough.

Preheat the oven to 230°C (450°F). Place a pizza stone, unglazed tiles or an overturned sheet pan in the oven and allow to preheat for at least 30 minutes.

Brush pizza bases with olive oil, if desired. Top with mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. Roughly tear the jamón into long strips and lay them among the cheese. Sprinkle over the lemon thyme sprigs and season with pepper. For added flavour, finish with another drizzle of olive oil.

Bake on preheated stone or sheet pan for 8-10 minutes, or until the crust is crisp and golden.

Meanwhile, prepare the vinaigrette by whisking all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly. In a separate, medium sized bowl, toss the rocket with the amount of dressing you see fit. Personally, I like the dressing to be a bit scant; only glossing the leaves rather than weighing them down. If you have remaining vinaigrette, place in jar and store in the fridge - it should keep for a good week or so.

After the pizza is out of the oven and cooled a minute or so, top with the salad and serve immediately.

Makes 4 pizzas.

Notes:
• The dough sometimes requires up to an addtional 1/4 cup of flour to come together.
• I have chosen to add a slug of olive oil to the dough as I prefer my crust to have a bit of tooth but still tenderness. Omit this if you prefer a drier, cracker-llike crust.
• The slower the dough rises, the more improved the taste. While keeping my little swaddled dough babies out of drafts I do not put them in a particularly warm place either.
• I do not salt the pizza, as the dough has been well-seasoned and the tang of the vinaigrette will season the toppings enough.
• Alternatively, if you prefer a softer jamón: reserve the slices and bake as written with just the cheeses and lemon thyme. Top the pizza with the jamón once it is baked, then with the salad as directed.
• For a particularly bright tasting vinaigrette, include some finely grated lemon zest and some finely minced shallot.

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I have only just begun to wake up from my holiday-induced hibernation. Never mind the early arrival of darkness, the cosy fires and inviting couch; it has been a blanket of sugar, butter and cream that has kept me in this sedative state.

As others seem to agree, this post-festive season lull allows for a bit of sensory recuperation; an opportunity to recharge after an onslaught of tinsel, twinkling lights and sheer gluttony.

It is during times like these I tend to crave immediacy of flavours - I have no patience for subtlety. I want to dispel this midwinter fog with the brightness of summer-hot chilies, the unapologetically verdant hit of cilantro and the acidic tang of limes. Each flavour distinct, no long-simmered blending to cloud their impact.

While I would love to be able to say that I had the energy and the wherewithal to tackle an authentically Thai or Chinese preparation, it is January and I’m still feeling slightly delicate. So instead I turn to an old friend and standby; my Mother’s vaguely Asian chicken-corn soup.

A taste directly transcribed from my childhood, this soup made an appearance whenever we had home-made chicken stock on hand. Served in small white bowls with a fluted edge and a rim of gold, it always felt like a special occasion. It is astoundingly simple to make, forgiving in its quantities and with great allowance for improvisation. Borrowing from various cuisines, this dish delivers the clarity of flavours I so crave, with minimal fuss.

Mother’s vaguely Asian chicken-corn soup
My variation on her creation, with thanks.

Ingredients
2 cups (500 ml) chicken stock
1/2 cup (125 ml) water
2 green onions/scallions, finely sliced, with white and green parts separated
Ginger (see note)
1/2 cup of shredded cooked chicken
1 1/2 cups (375 ml) cream-style corn
Chili oil/chili sauce (optional)
Sesame oil
1/4 cup of roughly-torn cilantro leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
1-2 Thai bird chilies, with our without seeds, finely julienned
1 lime, cut into quarters

In a medium saucepan, over medium heat, combine stock, water, the white part of the green onion, ginger and garlic, if using. Bring to a simmer, and allow to steep for 5 minutes, until the broth is fragrant.

Add the shredded chicken, corn and chili sauce/oil, reduce the heat to medium-low and gently simmer for another 8-10 minutes.

Finish with the reserved green onion, a few drops of sesame oil and the cilantro leaves. Stir through to combine. Check for seasoning.

Serve with a sprinkling of julienned chili and a spritz of lime, if desired.

Serves 4.

Notes:
• Home-made chicken stock is my preference, but there are some excellent store-bought alternatives available. I would use a low-sodium variety.
• I’ve not included a quantity for the ginger, as it really depends on your taste and mood. When I am looking for assertiveness I will throw in a few 1 inch matchsticks, while I’ll simply grate in a hint when I want just a background earthy heat. Trust your own judgement.
• Canned cream-style corn is readily available (and another childhood favourite), but I highly recommend Alton Brown’s version, omitting the rosemary from his recipe.
• If you do not have chili sauce/oil on hand, I would add a few pieces of the julienned chili to the stock as it simmers, reserving some for garnish.
• My mother would always scramble an egg into the soup to finish - as one does with egg drop soup. She would bring the soup to a boil and then, in a thin, steady stream she would stir in the beaten egg.
• For a vegetarian variation, substitute the chicken stock with vegetable stock and omit the chicken. In this version, you could also use a can of baby corn instead, adding vegetable dumplings and/or Chinese greens.

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