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

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 do not care what the calendar says. As far as I am concerned, the new year does not start until a good time after February 2nd - usually not until sometime towards the end of March. Truly, how can one feel that they are beginning anew when the world is still trapped under a blanket of snow?

I am a person wholly affected by my surroundings. As I have alluded to before I tend to have strong reactions to changes in the weather. And, like most I’m sure, I tend to eat in response to what’s going on outside my window.

With the grey days of early spring just settling upon us, I find myself eagerly awaiting the bourgeoning brightness of April and May. I have been keeping a steely eye on our neighbour’s lawn and our green grocer’s inventory to see the return of a green palette - in shades of grass, asparagus and pea shoots.

Sadly, I am a bit ahead of Mother Nature, who is still enjoying the last vestiges of her beauty sleep. Today dawned cloudy and cold, with a crisp, howling wind to greet us. It seemed somehow fitting that I turned to my freezer for comfort as I spied a bag of frozen petit pois (small, sweet peas). Even though my landscape is still drab and monochromatic, at least my bowl is filled with the promise of the months to come.

My apologies to any readers outside the Northern Hemisphere for this weather-centric post. Happy autumn to you all!

Spring Pea Soup
This creamy, yet fresh tasting soup is delicious served either hot or chilled. While I wanted a pure, unadulterated pea taste in this soup, herbs would be a natural partner. A few sprigs of mint, chives or flat-leafed parsley could be added while puréeing.

Ingredients
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon butter
2 shallots, finely minced
3/4 cup vegetable or chicken stock (low sodium if store bought)
1 1/4 cups petit pois (if frozen, defrosted)
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice/sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

In a small saucepan over medium low heat, melt the butter into the olive oil. When foaming has subsided, add the shallots. Season with salt and sweat the shallots until translucent, about 2 minutes.

Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the petit pois and cook until bright green and just tender. This depends on their size, but should only take a few moments.

Using an upright or immersion blender, purée the soup until very smooth. If using the upright blender, be careful about blending hot liquids - you might want to allow it to cool before attempting. Or, undo the centre of the lid to vent out the steam, covering the hole with a kitchen towel.

Add the lemon juice and cream (if using), season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with additional olive oil for garnish, if desired.

Serves 2 for a light lunch with a salad, or one who's feeling hungry.

Notes:
• You can play with the aromatics in this recipe. Leeks would be a fine substitution for the shallots.
• Added at the end, a dash of cream or an additional dab of butter to this soup adds a wonderful richness to the finish.

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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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I must admit, I’m feeling a bit burnt out.

Since the aforementioned conference ended Saturday afternoon, I’ve been in a waking-comatose state. It seems a few days of information-laden presentations, politicking, and incessant schedules, all topped off by being away from one’s own bed, takes a toll.

Truthfully, it made me a tad bit batty. In all seriousness, since my return I’ve done nothing of note. I’ve pottered around the house, did a bit of cooking, some cleaning and organizing, but no major projects, nothing truly productive, and I couldn’t be happier.

Being away made me realize how much I love my home and my city. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all of that, but I hadn’t realized how much I identify myself with my surroundings until this little sojourn. I am truly a homebody, and happy to admit it. While I love travel, I long for home.

Chubby Hubby has been asking the foods we’d travel the world for – and I could immediately volunteer a list of dishes. A slice of pizza from Lachine Arena Pizza in Lachine, the sweet potato and blue cheese fritters (no longer on the menu) at the Raincity Grill in Vancouver, the gravlax from Le Sélect in Toronto or a thali meal at Dasaprakash Hotel in Ooty.

With so much great food writing around, there is also an ever-lengthening list of places I would travel to try the food – places I’ve never been, and those to be revisited, with the hopes of following up on the fabulous food recommendations I read daily. In addition, there are specific home cooks for whom I would travel the globe, just to taste their creations (I’m ready to head to Heidelberg, Michele).

However, there are also meals I would come home for; anything cooked by members of my family, the roast beef sandwiches from our local German delicatessen, the homemade burgers from our “regular” pub, the ginger salad dressing from the sushi place in the city I grew up in … I could go on for days. These are the dishes I obsess over when I’m away – nothing tastes as good, nothing could satiate that yearning, but being home.

Case in point, my single-mindedness entertained a colleague at the conference – she, by the way, is a great girl and one of the nicest people I’ve met in our industry. One evening, on the way to dinner, I spontaneously started babbling about asparagus soup.

Not just any asparagus soup, but specifically the asparagus soup that was currently sitting in my freezer back home. I hadn't wanted to leave the asparagus in my fridge for the duration of my trip, and since I'd made this realization long after dinner, I made a batch of soup and froze it.

For the entire elevator ride I was detailing this soup, extolling its texture, its freshness, its absolute green colour; I was in a state. At dinner, fate would have it that there was asparagus soup on the menu. Yet, I eschewed the idea of ordering it, lest it taint (or overshadow) my thoughts of my soup at home. Clearly I was fixated. Luckily, my colleague found it more amusing than manic.

As you can assume, it was one of the first things I crammed into my greedy little mouth upon arriving back home. Next time, I’ll just bring a thermos.

Roasted asparagus soup
Inspired by a recipe by Roland Passot of La Folie on Epicurious, but it seems to be no longer available - this is my version..

Ingredients
1 lb. asparagus
Approximately 2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, minced
3/4 cup table (18%) cream
1 1/4 cup chicken stock
2 cups firmly packed chopped spinach (or one package frozen, chopped spinach, defrosted)

Preheat oven to 230°C (450°F).

Snap off ends of spears at natural breaking point, discard. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in oven for about 6-8 minutes, until the asparagus starts to turn a bright green. Shake the pan to turn the asparagus, roast for another 4 minutes or so. The asparagus should be just starting to blister in places. When cool enough to handle, chop the asparagus into 2 inch lengths.

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. When the butter just begins to foam, add the shallots and sauté until translucent and softened. Add the chopped asparagus and cook, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes. Stir in the cream and stock, and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes. Stir in chopped spinach, cook for 2 minutes more.

Transfer to the soup to a blender (working in batches if necessary), and purée until smooth. For a velvety texture, pass the soup through a fine-meshed sieve or chinois. You may skip this step if you’d like. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Serves two generously, can be served hot or cold.

Notes
• Instead of roasting, you could simply blanch the asparagus before sautéing.
• I've also made this soup with 1 cup 18% and 1 cup stock, just because the store sells the cream in 250ml/1 cup containers. This soup can be made with heavy cream instead, if you want a more luxurious version. When I want a “lighter” version, I substitute 1/4 cup of 2% milk and use only 1/2 cup of the 18% cream.
• If you use the frozen spinach, the soup will have a much more pronounced spinach flavour.
•This soup is lovely with a variety of garnishes — some options include; a seared scallop, crab, sautéed wild mushrooms with balsamic, chili oil drizzled popcorn (trust me), or use the same ingredients as in the panini to make a crostini to float on top.

Goat’s cheese and prosciuitto panini
My own creation, but really, it’s a grilled cheese sandwich.

Ingredients
2 slices prosciutto
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 thick slices of baguette, or your favourite bread
4 ounces herbed chèvre
Handful of baby greens

In a dry pan over medium heat, fry prosciutto until starting to crisp. Remove from pan, and drain on paper towels.

In the same pan, melt butter and olive oil.

Spread the chèvre over two slices of bread, top with prosciutto. Place remaining slices of bread on top. Grill sandwich in pan, pressing down with either a panini weight or with back of spatula. Cook for approximately 4 minutes on each side, or until bread is toasted and the chèvre is beginning to soften. Remove from heat, drain on paper towels if there is excess oil.

Open sandwiches and tuck in greens. Makes two.

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