Wednesday; before and after.
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.
Around this time two years ago, I was coming up with various uses for peas. Before that, I was all about asparagus. While the grass outside is only showing the barest shades of hopeful green, days of sun and warm breezes have put a definite sense of spring in my step. It is fitting then that this year I am embracing the warmth of recent days by serving both green vegetables.
This simple side can be served warm or at room temperature, offering up sweet and tender-crisp veggies tossed with a vinaigrette that can be called nothing short of enthusiastically herby. Served alongside a seared salmon filet this would make a lovely light supper for these glorious early days of the season.
Spring vegetables with green goddess pesto
While not wholly traditional pesto ingredients, the name refers mostly to the texture of the vinaigrette. The combination was inspired by the original Green Goddess Dressing.
2 shallots, cut in quarters OR 3 green onions, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves
1/3 cup fresh flat leaf parsley
2/3 cup mixed fresh herbs; whatever combination of chervil, dill, tarragon, lemon thyme and basil you prefer
1-2 anchovy filets, rinsed if salt packed
Zest and juice from half a lemon
About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (see note)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 pound asparagus, trimmed, cut into approximately 1 1/2" pieces, blanched
2 cups frozen or fresh petit pois, blanched
To make the vinaigrette; place the shallots, garlic, herbs, lemon zest, juice and anchovies into a blender or small food processor. Pulse to reduce the contents to a coarse purée. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil in slowly, scraping the sides down as needed. Season to taste.
In a medium sauté pan over medium-low heat, gently cook the pesto. Stir constantly for about 2 minutes, or until the edge (raw flavours) of the garlic and shallot are mellowed slightly. Toss through the blanched vegetables until just warmed through. Taste again for seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.
• The olive oil measurement is only a guide, adjust the amount to best suit your textural preference.
• If you do not mind the pungency of raw garlic and shallots, cooking the pesto can be skipped.
• For this, and many other similar preparations, I prefer to use an immersion blender and a container only slightly wider than the blender head (like a mason jar); this way, the ingredients are well chopped and fully blended.
I am stuck in a monochromatic palette; mounds of pristine snow and a bleached-out sky offer a pale landscape out my window. The much-appreciated sunshine is bright and clear, but with none of its summertime golden hue.
While still beautiful, late winter makes you work just that little bit harder to feel welcomed. Whether it be wardrobe choices (layers are key), weekend plans (more layers) or what to eat (layers of flavour), these last few months of the season seem to require more effort than those preceding.
Late fall brings excitement over the return of slow-cooked braises, the opportunity to fill the kitchen with heat and heady smells of herbs and spice. Winter follows with resplendent holiday celebrations, with tables groaning under grand feasts. But now, in the doldrums of early March, the mornings dawn gray and pale. The sun valiantly attempts to stay awake for dinner, but often fails.
It is amongst all these pallid hues that we must still attempt to eat our greens. Spring and summertime salads can be made seemingly without thought; all I need are some sparingly-dressed tender young lettuces, or some grilled asparagus or sugar-sweet tomatoes freshly plucked from the garden.
Late February and March are a bit more challenging. Hardy winter leaves are often rather unyielding in their assertiveness, and can require equally dominant accompaniments to temper their influence.
That is not to say that the effort is unrewarded; milk-coloured Belgian endive, paired with pungent Roquefort and pears is a wonderful balance of bitter, savoury and sweet. Juicy grapefruit segments are the classic counterpoint to aromatic slivers of shaved fennel. Or, as in here, the wild, barely-green curls of sharp frisée compliment salty Parmesan and a honeyed vinaigrette. The lively layers of texture and taste (almost) make one forget the winter lurking just outside the door.
Epilogue: I should mention that I started writing this post over the weekend, when we were blanketed under snow and dealing with temperatures in double-digit negative degrees Celsius. Mother Nature was evidently in a benevolent mood, as today the sky is positively robin's egg blue and we have been granted an absolutely balmy 15ºC. The snow has melted, and I even have some windows open.
Tomorrow is going to be -4ºC.
Salad of frisée, apples and Parmesan
My own simple creation. Candied nuts can be used instead of the roasted, and pear substituted for the apple. White balsamic vinegar, albeit untraditional, adds an interesting character to this vinaigrette. If unavailable, Champagne vinegar would be my recommended choice.
1 teaspoon grainy Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
2 1/4 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
12 pecan or walnut halves, unsalted
1 small head frisée, washed and dried, root end removed and roughly torn
1 small apple, gala or cameo preferred, thinly sliced
A few shavings of Parmesan cheese, to garnish
For the vinaigrette; in a small bowl whisk together the mustard, honey and white balsamic until combined. Whisking constantly, slowly add the olive oil until the vinaigrette becomes emulsified and thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a dry skillet over medium heat, lightly toast the nuts until fragrant. Remove from pan, set aside. In a bowl, toss together the frisée, apple and nuts. Pour over about half of the vinaigrette and toss gently. Check for seasoning.
Divide the salad between two serving plates, garnish with Parmesan shavings. Drizzle additional vinaigrette over the plates, reserving some to be served alongside if desired.
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.
1/4 large red onion, sliced wafer thin
2 tablespoons (30 ml) red wine vinegar
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.
• 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.
While it is lovely when expectations are met, the greatest performances are sometimes those that are stumbled upon and steal the show entirely.
To more succinct in this particular case, stumbled upon means came home in our grocery bag.
I had intended to make something to satiate a craving for smoked salmon. I had decided upon a sandwich. I had thought I would thinly slice some red onion, sprinkle over some capers and be done with it.
But then the tomatoes arrived; Sean had gone to the store for provisions, and came back with some of the most gorgeous little beauties from the market. Golden yellow, sunset orange and robustly red, the pint of mixed varietals demanded the spotlight.
Their delicate scent courted centre-stage status; a paltry sandwich seemed too gauche for their charms. And so, the smoked salmon was relegated to the chorus line, providing the backdrop to a tomato salad-crowned tartine.
Like any good production, this light lunch offers a play of dramatic contrasts. Heavily silken folds of salmon are undercut with the twang of fresh chèvre and astringent lemon. Juicy tomatoes rendezvous with their long-time companion sweet basil, and take a tumble with saline capers and spiky, fiery red onion.
While I refrained from a standing ovation, an encore is surely deserved.
Smoked salmon and tomato salad tartine
Please forgive my lack of truly specific quantities; you can treat the list as if each item includes the modifier "or thereabouts". This is one of those dishes for which personal taste is paramount. Choose the proportions that work with your taste to best balance the salty, sour and sweet elements.
For the tomato salad
1 1/2 cups small tomatoes (cherry, grape, strawberry), cut into halves or quarters
1/3 cup small diced red onion
2-3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
Basil, cut into chiffonade
Fresh parsley, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sandwich
4 tablespoons cream cheese
4 tablespoons chèvre (unaged, fresh)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
4 slices country bread, or 2 slices halved if large
4-8 slices smoked salmon, depending on the size
Lemon juice, freshly squeezed
In a small bowl, combine the ingredients for the tomato salad. Toss gently and season with salt (judiciously) and pepper.
Combine the cream cheese, chèvre and Dijon mustard. Beat until fully-blended and light. Season with pepper.
Lightly toast bread slices under a preheated broiler.
Spread cheese mixture over bread. Top with sliced smoked salmon and a squeeze of lemon juice. Pile tomato salad over all and enjoy.
Makes 4 pieces.