Since my family stopped exchanging gifts at Christmas, food has taken on more importance. This is that one time of the year when you can rationalize buying those fancy Spanish sardines in olive oil, some of that aged-to-perfection, sliced-paper-thin jamón ibérico, that sublime, creamy raw goat cheese from France. Expensive yes, but hey, it’s Christmas.
Of course, it’s also a time for baking. This year I’m making Mexican Wedding Cakes, Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkle Cookies, Coconut Stars, and Pecan Sandies. (Notice that all those cookies contain nuts!) I’m also making this stollen, a recipe that comes from Leslie Snidal, my friend in Nova Scotia who makes it every Christmas, as her mother did. It is baked earlier in December, wrapped up well and frozen, then warmed in the oven on Christmas morning to be served with a cup of hot coffee well before the real breakfast preparations begin.
There was a time in my life when I lived with friends in an old farmhouse in the country, with chickens in the yard, a big vegetable garden, and lots of cats. During the week, we drove into the city for jobs or school, but come the weekend, we were back-to-the-landers in plaid shirts and work boots, often congregating in the big homey kitchen at some point in the day to cook a communal meal. A rosy picture, I know, but those are my memories. Our little hippie commune worked out pretty well for awhile.
We were all interested in healthy food, and made a lot of beans and brown rice. Unlike now, when new and wonderful cookbooks come out every day, there weren’t as many recipe books to choose from. I mostly remember the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, The Tasajara Bread Book, Diet for a Small Planet, and the Moosewood Cookbook, by Mollie Katzen. We cooked a lot from the Moosewood.
It seemed strange, in the past week, to be testing a recipe for sweet potatoes as DT became leader of the free world and Leonard Cohen bid us farewell. The world is a much more worrisome place this week, but we have to hold on to the life we believe in, no matter how mundane, and move forward. So there you go: sweet potatoes.
As you probably already know, these humble spuds are a super food, rich in vitamin A in the form of beta carotene. They are also a good source of vitamin C, manganese, copper, pantothenic acid, potassium, some of the B vitamins, and dietary fiber. Despite their sweetness, they are considered to be low on the glycemic index. So any which way we want to eat these tubers is a good idea.
The sky is grey, the wind is raw and damp, and it’s cold. Winter seems suddenly upon us. But with a little imagination, and the right food, you can transport yourself to a place far away, where the air is warm and fragrant, and soft breezes blow through the coconut palms.
That’s where this Coconut Fish Curry, from Meera Sodha’s Made in India, comes in. Straight out of Kerala, on the southwest coast of India, it is a delicate and luxurious dish, full of onions, ginger, garlic and a touch of heat, brightened with fresh tomato, and mellowed with rich and creamy coconut milk. Served with basmati rice, a sprinkling of cilantro, and a squirt of lime, it will make you forget that it snowed last night.
Well, here it is Thanksgiving already and plans are underway for a family get-together, not at the cottage on Lac Sam, in the Gatineau hills, where we often go for one last look at the lake and splendid fall colours, but here in the city, at my sister’s house, where a huge swing set has just been erected in the back yard for all the young ones to play on. (How’s that for an opening sentence?)
My contribution to our pot-luck feast is a vegetable dish to be determined, and a dessert. I did buy two small pie pumpkins a week ago thinking I’d make pies, but this being a busy time of year, when boilers need replacing, windows need washing, and the garden needs tidying, I’m considering alternatives. I’ll make something with those pumpkins when things settle down.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate since retiring from the workforce two years ago is the Ottawa Public Library, or the OPL. What a resource. What I most love is the option to reserve, to get in line for a particular publication. It may seem dispiriting to be number 143 in the line-up, but things move quickly and before you know it, the book is yours for three whole weeks. Free! It does happen that books become available all at once, in a big wave, and there’s no way you can read them all in the allotted time, but life is like that and you just get back in line again.
What books am I reading? I just started The Edge of the Empire: A Journey to Britannia, in which the author, Bronwen Riley, takes us on a trip from Rome to Hadrian’s Wall in the year 130 AD. Along the way we learn about the Roman Empire and what life was like in England way back then. I love reading about this. Previous to that, I got through a good chunk of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Fascinating, mind blowing in fact, but slow going in my case, and it came due before I finished it. This is one of those few books you need to own so you can properly absorb its contents.
I spent a glorious morning at our local farmers’ market last weekend, buying everything in sight, carrots, potatoes, garlic, corn, squash, beets. Everything looked gorgeous, freshly-picked and full of life. I especially couldn’t resist the tomatoes, plump, juicy, and vibrant red, cherry tomatoes in various shades and sizes, gnarly striped heirloom tomatoes, ordinary slicing tomatoes, and baskets of plum tomatoes for making sauce. Which is what we are doing today.
It will be a wonderful thing, three to four months from now, to dig into your freezer and pull out a container of home-made tomato sauce. Think of it a building block to great food, and imagine how good it will taste with meatballs, or in a spaghetti sauce, or a soup. You will thank yourself for the effort you make now, and with this recipe, from Sam Sifton at Cooking with the New York Times, it is not much effort at all.
Here on this side of the Atlantic, we know tahini best as an ingredient in hummus and baba ghanoush, or as a sauce for falafel and shawarma sandwiches. But in countries of the Middle East, the Mediterranean and beyond, this lovely stuff has been a staple for thousands of years, an indispensable ingredient in countless dishes savoury and sweet. They even put it on ice cream.
Just to refresh, tahini is pure sesame paste made from white sesame seeds that are soaked, then hulled, gently roasted, and ground to a silky smooth, creamy consistency. The paste, blended with garlic, lemon juice, salt and cumin, and thinned with a bit of water, becomes tahini sauce, also used in countless ways. The best sesame seeds come from the Humera region of Ethiopia, and the best tahini is emulsified in the jar, not separated with oil on the top and rock-hard sesame paste on the bottom.
It’s one of the many rituals of summer, like going for ice cream on a warm evening, or eating watermelon at a cottage. When bundles of local basil start appearing, it’s time to gather up the pine nuts, some new garlic and Parmigiano, and your best olive oil, and whizz it all together into a sauce. It’s a simple but wonderful thing.
Classic pesto originated in Liguria, the northern coastal region of Italy that includes the city of Genoa. It is traditionally prepared using a mortar and pestle, as the pounding is believed to bring out the full flavour of the basil. (The word “pesto” comes from the Italian verb pestare, to grind or crush.) It is also traditionally tossed with trenette, a long slender noodle, as well as cooked string beans and sliced small potatoes. This recipe, tweaked slightly from The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook by Nancy Harmon Jenkins, makes use of a food processor, which suits me just fine. And although her book includes the full recipe for Trenette al Pesto (with pasta, beans and potatoes), I’m giving you just the pesto recipe today.
My refrigerator is bursting at the seams. It’s summer, and after waiting so many months, locally-grown fruits and vegetables are finally ripening. I can’t help myself – it all tastes so much better than produce that’s been shipped in – so a trip to the farmers market requires a carry cart to lug it home in. Trouble is, I don’t know how we’re going to eat it all.
Let’s tally it up. Along with all the other stuff one keeps in one’s fridge, there’s a huge bundle of chard and another of basil, a bulging cauliflower, a bag of green beans, six pints of BC blueberries (on sale) and half a dozen ears of sweet corn. Meanwhile, taking up counter space, is a three-litre basket of ripe field tomatoes and another basket of ripe Niagara peaches.