When Jennifer proposed the theme of this month's Sugar High my thoughts, as one who knows me at all would surely assume, turned to yearnings for chocolate.

But, though happy in those thoughts, I began to consider that which I most longed for as of late. Not a food or flavour specifically, but more of a mood or moment - I'd been pining for the arrival of summertime.

Sure, the mercury has been on the rise and the trees are well dressed in their abundant leaves, but somehow it still has not felt summer enough. It was not those broad shouldered, blue-eyed lazy days of August, where the sun smiles so brightly that the world seems lit from within.

So how could I evoke this feeling through food?

In southern Ontario, the warming months bring bustle back to farmers markets. Roadside fruit stands seem to multiply exponentially overnight. Punnets, pints and bushels make their way back into our weekend lexicon as the harvests roll in.

And the harvest inextricably tied to the season? Berries. Luscious and bursting with a sweetness born of sunshine, the ripening of Ontario strawberries coincides perfectly with the official start of summer.

Classic in every way, this strawberry swirl ice cream embodies nostalgic thoughts of childhood holidays. This is the taste of evenings on the swingset at my favourite ice cream stand; white stripes of cream coating our arms to our elbows as we sat, sucking the icy bits of strawberry until they turned supple and soft again.

Here, I wanted a taste that was purely luxurious berries and cream, and so chose to go with a dense, velvety rich vanilla custard base punctuated with tart strawberries. The psychedelic tie dye effect of broad ribbons of reddest red against the creamy whiteness was the look I had wanted, but feel free to blend the strawberries further for a more feminine hue.

Strawberry swirl ice cream
My interpretation of a variety of sources, with thanks.

Ingredients
2 cups half and half (10%) cream
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
A pinch of salt
5 egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream (35%, whipping)
2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
2 cups fresh strawberries
1/8 -1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Prepare an ice bath using a large bowl full of ice and water. Have another bowl, one that will fit inside the first without becoming fully submerged, set aside.

In a heavy-based saucepan pour in the half and half. Using the back of a knife, scrape the seeds out of the bean and into the saucepan, add the pod as well. Season with salt. Over medium heat, bring this mixture to a simmer. Turn off the heat and allow the vanilla to infuse into the liquid for 30 minutes.

Turn the burner back on and bring the mixture back to a gentle simmer over medium-low.

In a bowl that can withstand heat, whisk together the egg yolks and 2/3 cup of sugar until it becomes pale yellow and fluffy. Whisking constantly, pour a thin, steady stream of the half and half into the yolk mixture. Once combined, pour the mixture back into the same saucepan and return to the heat. Using a wooden spoon, stir the custard constantly until thickened and coats the back of the spoon, anywhere from 6 to 10 minutes.

Using a medium-fine mesh sieve, strain the custard into the clean bowl set aside earlier. Immediately place this bowl into the ice bath. Stir occasionally until the custard comes to room temperature. The vanilla bean can be taken at this point, rinsed and set aside to dry on a kitchen towel. Once dry, it can be used to make vanilla sugar.

Once the custard has cooled, stir in the the heavy cream. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled (I like a good couple of hours).

Meanwhile, mash the strawberries with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and lemon juice. Set aside at room temperature to macerate.

When the custard is chilled, follow the manufacturer's instructions to churn the ice cream. Once the ice cream is ready, remove the machine's dasher and gently fold in the strawberries and their juices. Do not overmix. Transfer to a food storage container then tightly seal and freeze for at least 2 hours.

Makes 1 quart.

Notes:

• Decadent as this version is, richer versions feature as many as 6 egg yolks for the same amount of liquid and a higher ratio of heavy cream to half and half (or milk). Choose the one that best suits your taste.
• If there seems to be too much accumulated strawberry juice, hold some back to maintain the texture of the ice cream - you do not want it to become waterlogged (well, juicelogged).
• For a pink version, rather than the marbled result here, strain the accumulated juices from the strawberries into the cooled custard before pouring into the machine. Add the strawberries through the feed tube during the last 5 minutes of churning.

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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Authortara

When my brother and I were growing up, I do not remember having an option when it came to vegetables. Wait, I should clarify. It was not that there was a lack of variety in the vegetables placed before us, it was that we were never really given the option of trying them or not – we just did. We ate everything.

I’ll admit my Mother may be the better resource on this, but I do not remember there ever being a vegetable my brother or I would simply not eat (sure, there were ones that were not favourites). I recall being aghast when watching television and witnessing kid surreptitiously hide some Brussels sprouts in a napkin.

The thought had never dawned on me – I mean, why would anyone not want to eat a Brussels sprout? It was a completely foreign concept to my 7-year-old brain. Admittedly, our cocker spaniel did love corn, so he would have probably appreciated any scraps had we been willing to part with them.

We were lucky to be exposed to a wide array of vegetables, from a young age. We happily gobbled up steamed broccoli, curried cauliflower, peas in our aloo (potato) subsi, okra, spinach, beans of all sort, along with pulses and lentils. We even knew the three sides to one of our favourites — a vegetable that could be an aubergine when my grandmother was cooking, then transform itself into eggplant parmigiana at our neighbour’s house, and still be called baigan and brinjal when my Mom or Dad made Indian food.

My love for vegetables has carried me to adulthood, as I’ve expanded my repertoire to include new preparations and cooking methods. Nothing is better come springtime than roasted asparagus, more welcomed in summer than marinated salads, or more comforting in winter than braised leeks served alongside grilled meats.

S, on the other hand has not always been keen on our leafy and tuberous friends. Up until a few years ago, I could not even convince him that the noble onion was something that should pass his lips now and again. Luckily for me, a sojourn in some far-off lands opened up his culinary horizons and he is now my willing taste-tester. Though I’ll admit, I’ve not yet heard him say he ‘craved’ a vegetable – but I’m sure we’re on our way.

The many-named eggplant has been a perennial favourite, so when it came to deciding on what to make this past weekend, it was the obvious choice. Roasted in the oven, then used to top crunchy layers of puff pastry and a silky, rich filling of onions and herbed chèvre, the flavours were pronouncedly fall and the balance of textures exactly what I was looking for.

I sent one of these tarts to my parents this week; I hope they consider it a small thank you for all those years of ‘forcing’ me to eat my vegetables.

Roasted eggplant tart, with caramelized onions and chèvre

1 large globe eggplant
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed as per package instructions
2 small onions, halved and then sliced finely
100 g (3 oz) chèvre, softened and divided
100 g (3 oz) cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs (or more to taste), I used chives, parsley and thyme
5-10 cloves garlic, roasted and crushed into a paste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 425º F (220º C).

Slice eggplant into 1/2" rounds. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast for 12 minutes. Turn the slices and roast for another 12 minutes, until lightly golden and soft. Alternatively, you can sauté the slices over medium heat. Set aside.

Reduce oven temperature to 400ºF (200º C).

On a floured surface, roll out the puff pastry to16”by 10”, trim any edges to form a neat rectangle. With a paring knife, score a 1” border around the edge of the pastry. Place on baking sheet. Prick (dock) the interior of the rectangle all over with a fork, to prevent excessive rising. Bake for 15 minutes, or until an even pale golden brown. Depending on your oven, you may need to rotate the pan halfway through the baking. Set aside on rack to cool (do not remove from baking sheet).

Meanwhile in a small saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, sauté the onions along with 1 teaspoon of salt. After the onions have become translucent cover and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes or until caramelized. Remove from heat, uncover and allow to cool.

In a small bowl, blend together half the chèvre, all the cream cheese and the herbs. Depending on the type used, you may need to loosen the mixture with a teaspoon of olive oil. You are looking for a lightly whipped, spreadable consistency. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.

Being careful not to crush the pastry, spread the garlic paste over the crust. Top with the cheese mixture, followed by the caramelized onions. Arrange roasted eggplant over the onions and top with the reserved chèvre. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil, if desired.

Bake for 10 minutes, or until cheese starts to brown and the eggplant is warmed through. Can be eaten warm or at room temperature.

Serves 4.

Notes:
• For the ruffled effect shown with the puff pastry, I used a removable-bottomed tart pan with a fluted edge.
• Lemon zest and/or juice are welcome additions to the herbed cheese mixture.
• Any roasted vegetable would be excellent with this combination; tomatoes, zucchini or mushrooms are all suitable.
• Omit the chèvre and substitute an equal amount of a blue cheese for the filling.

Posted
Authortara

This is my entry for the "Childhood Memories Meme", fulfilling my obligation to both my dear friend Michele of Oswego Tea and the utterly creative Caryn of the engaging Delicious Delicious.

When I was tagged for this meme, I was surprisingly stumped for ideas. It was not because I was at a loss for material, because goodness knows my love of food started early on in life, but because I realized that I have taken for granted many of the flavours and culinary adventures that brought me to where I am today. In the end, this has been an interesting exercise, forcing me to take stock of those memories — and reminding me of how lucky I have been.

My father’s sandwiches
My father is a man of precision. He is a man that is always busy, always working and puzzling the best way to solve a problem or the next task at had. I have not always appreciated this drive (especially through my lazy teenage years), but the results were never a disappointment – whether it be a dollhouse, or a bridge for our backyard stream or his famous sandwiches. My father’s attention to detail was especially evident in the latter; he is known in our family as the designated sandwich maker, with staunch philosophies on fats (butter or mayonnaise), condiments (we had an armada of mustards in our fridge), proper seasoning (salt and cracked black pepper) not to mention breads, vegetables and accompaniments … the list went on and on, dependent on the time of year and the specific fillings in question. Every layer was pondered over, each addition placed just so, and in an order for optimal blending of flavours. Indeed, the phrase “this is the best sandwich ever” was an often-heard refrain around our house and through our extended family.

My brother and I still carry on his traditions, becoming sandwich-maker designates in our own homes and with our own burgeoning armies of mustard jars in the fridge. A few years ago, I beamed with pride when my father, fresh from the garden where he was working on a new project, sat at my parents’ kitchen table, leaned back and asked “Tara, can you make me a sandwich?”

Scalloped potatoes
I did not discover scalloped potatoes until I was probably around six or so. And when I first ate a spoonful of that creamy, buttery, wonderfully comforting mass, I was immediately lost. To me, they were culinary perfection; studded with chives and with a brown crust on top, this was elegance personified and so much more chic than boring old mashed potatoes. I was in such raptures that I seem to remember eating them for days straight afterwards - sitting with a soup bowl, filled to the brim with scalloped potatoes, a tablespoon in my hand and a grin on my face.

Burger King’s Bacon Double Cheeseburgers
I do not even like Burger King, but as a child this was the holy grail of hamburgers. Having an older brother, I was the typical thorn in his existence who wanted to do what he did, and eat what he ate. Easily swayed by the fanfare of mid-80s advertising, the advent of the Bacon Double Cheeseburger seemed a gastronomic epiphany. My brother, a bacon lover, was allowed to have them on the rare occasions we went out for food. I, on the other hand, was relegated to the children’s meal cheeseburger, which I deemed vastly inferior. In his charity (or I may have stolen a bite) I first tasted the ambrosia that was the grand burger. Ironically enough, my brother is now a vegetarian, and I do not believe I have had one since.

My mother’s stuffing
Growing up, festive occasions meant one thing, and one thing alone – my mother’s potato stuffing. In high school at a friend’s house for Thanksgiving, I was taken aback at the idea of bread stuffing. It had never occurred to me to have a different type of stuffing, because who would want anything other than the crusty, savoury delight of my childhood? With a mix of chunked and mashed potatoes, filled with onions, bacon, liver, and confidently seasoned, it was the highlight of the holiday table, the most coveted of the leftovers. As you may have guessed, I am a big fan of comfort food, and in my mind you cannot get more classic than this.

My grandmother’s scrambled eggs, pictured
It was through my maternal grandmother’s Anglo-Indian background that we were taught the merits of a hearty shepherd’s pie, the wonders of a proper roast with Yorkshire puddings and the melting lusciousness of ghee-soaked chapattis. Thoughts of her food inspire instant nostalgia, and her eggs are no exception. Stirred patiently over a low heat or a double boiler, they are closer to the texture of curdled cream than to their diner counterparts. She swears by the last-minute addition of butter, insisting it ensures a tender result.

My grandmother’s scrambled eggs
Truth be told, I have never measured an ingredient when making these eggs. These are just guidelines, but truly, this is a recipe that falls into the “pinch of this, a splash of that” category.

2 eggs
1/4 – 1/3 cup of milk (or cream, if preferred)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons butter, divided
1/4 cup of finely minced onion
2 teaspoons torn cilantro (or parsley, if preferred)

In a bowl, whisk together eggs, milk and salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a medium non-stick frying pan over medium heat melt one teaspoon of butter and sweat onion for about 2-3 minutes, until translucent and soft but without colour. Pour in eggs, swirling pan to distribute evenly. Cook for 30 seconds or so, until edges are starting to set. Using a silicone spatula or wooden spoon, pull edges of cooked egg towards the centre, forming curds. Continue stirring slowly, repeating process until the eggs are starting to set – it will resemble lumpy custard. At this point, beat in remaining 1 teaspoon butter and torn cilantro. Continue to stir, until eggs are almost finished, similar to the texture of a soft ricotta.

Serves 1.

Notes:
• If I'm feel patient, I'll cook over medium-low for more control.
• Snipped chives can also be used in place of the cilantro, or use a mix of whatever herbs you like.
• I adore these eggs on a grilled ciabatta bun (as pictured). The soft interior of the bread the perfect match for the soft eggs, and the crust provides the right amount of chewiness.

As this meme is getting a trifle old, I’m only going to tag three participants – who hopefully are still untagged.
Chubby Hubby
The Domestic Goddess
Delicious Days

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Authortara
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