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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BROWN RICE SALAD FOR A MARCH EVENING

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

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

INGREDIENTS

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

METHOD

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

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

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

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

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

Serves 4.

Notes:

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

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

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.

Ingredients
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.

Serves 4-6.

Note:
• 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.

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.

It has only been in the last few years that my father started to foray into the kitchen (save for our childhood favourite of his French toast fingers). But since then, he has taken on the majority of culinary duties, exploring and expanding his repertoire of specialities to include his Thanksgiving turkey roulade, his mahogany-hued beef and broccoli stir fry, and his fabulously decadent caramel custard. But none of these can come close in fame to his true calling card; Indian food.

The French may have their mirepoix (onion, celery, carrot), and Creole cuisine may boast its trinity (onion, celery, green pepper), but in my father's pan there is but one triumvirate - onion, ginger and garlic.

In fact, it is the frequent refrain when I call to ask him for recipes; "start with onion, ginger, garlic ...." As soon as the three hit the heat the scent immediately brings me back to thoughts of my parents home. Slowly cooking on the stove, this fragrant tangle forms the basis of much of the Indian menu; the backbone flavour of many dishes, both meat based and vegetarian.

This succulent spread of sweet blackened eggplant and barely-caramelized onions is lifted by handfuls of grassy cilantro and spiky rings of green chili. Simple to make yet boundlessly versatile, it can be served as a vegetable offering in an Indian meal, combined with spiced ground meat (keema) for something more substantial, mixed with thick yogurt and topped with ground toasted cumin for a dip, or simply spread on griddled flatbread for a quick snack.

My father's eggplant spread
His own recipe

Ingredients
Canola oil or other neutral oil
1 medium eggplant (aubergine)
1 large onion, cut lengthways then into thin half moons
2 teaspoons ginger, grated (see note)
3 cloves garlic, grated
1 small green chili, sliced finely
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
salt to taste

Use a few drops of canola oil to lightly grease the skin of the eggplant. Over the dying coals of a charcoal fire, place the whole eggplant on the grill. Cook, turning occasionally, until the eggplant has shrivelled and blackened. The flesh should yield easily to pressure, and most of its moisture will have cooked away. Do not panic if the skin splits while cooking, this is perfectly fine. Remove from the heat and set the eggplant aside to cool.

In a medium saucepan, heat about 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions, ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring often, for about 10-15 minutes or until the onions are translucent and the garlic is sweet. Add the green chili and cilantro, cooking for 5 minutes more.

Using a spoon or your fingers, peel away the skin from the eggplant. Scoop the flesh into the pan with the aromatics, breaking it up and stirring to combine. Season lightly with salt. Increase the heat to medium and cook the eggplant for 10 more minutes, or until it begins to slightly darken in colour and any residual moisture has dissipated. Check for seasoning and serve.

Makes about 1 cup.

Notes:
• My parents store their ginger in the freezer; it keeps forever it seems and can be easily grated while frozen. The measurement in this recipe is using frozen ginger, and may vary if using fresh.
• Carefully remove the seeds and ribs (white pithy veins) from the green chili for those prefer less heat.

By all accounts I enjoy a good chat. It has always been that way; in fact, I do believe that somewhere I have an old progress report bearing the following glowing review: “Tara is a chatterbox. Sometimes distracts others.”

A distraction indeed; between instant messaging, e-mail and the telephone, rarely does a day go by without a good gab with a friend or family member.

Whatever the topic - sensational shoes, starlet shenanigans or all things sparkly - these chats are our chance to not only catch up, but also forget about the distance that is sometimes between us. Time differences and schedule conflicts fall away and all we are left with is common ground and usually a good laugh.

It was such a discussion that inspired our Sunday night this week. Across an ocean and over e-mail, a dear friend and I were considering an all- too-important issue; what to feed our grumbling bellies. Lucky for me, the hours separating us worked to my advantage - while I was still searching for supper ideas, Michèle’s was already tucked in the oven. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I decided I would follow her lead and recreate her menu on this side of the Atlantic.

To serve alongside our matching roasts Michèle had found a truly delicious-sounding recipe for roasted red onions over at Epicurious.com. She assured me that hers smelled fantastic roasting away. However, as I was already eager to use the pretty little yellow onions my father had given me, I suggested the substitution.

Looking ahead to the inevitable roast beef sandwich lunches, I wanted a final dish closer to a marmalade relish than a simple vegetable side, so I asked her opinion of adding some honey and swapping out the vinegar. The consultation continued; the minutiae of our preparations were covered from roast beef internal temperatures to ovens, from green beans to brussels sprouts and the questionable need for potatoes.

In the end, after countless messages back and forth, my family and I sat down to a meal that I did not feel I had prepared alone. I had made it with a friend.

And what was one of my first thoughts this morning? Talking to that friend to compare notes.

Oh Mrs. Kline, if only you knew - I have not improved in the least in all these years since Kindergarten. Thank goodness for that.

Jammy roasted onions
My own creation, of sorts. Inspired by Epicurious, adapted from collaborative conversations with Michèle. Makes a wonderful accompaniment to grilled or roasted meats and poultry; with the velvety sweetness of the onions offset by the resonant twang of balsamic.

Shown above in a sandwich of toasted ciabatta, rare roast beef, field greens and a homemade horseradish aïoli similar to Ina Garten’s horseradish sauce.

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 spring fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon honey
About 1 1/2 pounds (700 g) small onions
8-10 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
salt
pepper

Preheat oven to 450ºF (230ºC).

In a small saucepan, combine butter, olive oil and herbs. Warm slowly over low heat. Once the butter has completely melted and the herbs are fragrant, remove from the heat and stir in honey. Allow to cool.

Trim the roots of the onions, but leave intact; peel and slice into quarters lengthways.

In a roasting dish, toss the onions, garlic and herb oil mixture. Once well coated, drizzle over balsamic vinegar, season with salt and pepper, and toss again.

Cover with aluminum foil and roast in the middle position of the preheated oven. Every 20 minutes, peel back foil and turn onions with a broad spatula. After one hour, reduce oven temperature to 300ºF (150ºC). Roast for an additional 30-45 minutes, until done to your liking.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Serve warm or at room temperature. Will keep for about a week, refrigerated in a sealed container.

Notes:
• Shallots or cipollini onions can also be used; in this case, cut in half or leave whole.
• Use a roasting pan that just fits the onions and garlic in a single layer; too big of a pan and the balsamic and honey will burn, too small of a pan and the vegetables will steam rather than roast.
• For a sweeter, darker version, substitute an equal amount of dark brown sugar for the honey.
• For fans of strong flavours, these onions can be used to top crostini. Add Cambozola and broil for an over-the-top snack.

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Authortara
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