Chard risotto with a soupçon of whining.

All the cool kids on the Food Internet are writing about cucumbers and zucchini today, but I’m all out of cucurbits and also incredibly uncool. Today we had chard – it’s been sitting in a vase beside a window for the past two days, getting brighter, bushier, more lovely. The trouble with buying produce at markets along my bus route home is that I have to carry the produce home on the bus where it inevitably wilts. A little bit of care and water upon arriving home does wonders, and in the meantime chard makes a very pretty centrepiece.

We had risotto, because today was unpleasant. The cat woke me up with claws, and I zoned out in the shower and forgot to shave my legs. I broke my favourite gold sandals around lunchtime and had to wander around the office shoeless, consummate professional that I always am, and then I noticed my hair had fallen apart after the fan behind my head flung everything into wild disarray and the concealer I’d dabbed on my monster pimple that morning had worn off and my mascara was running, so I looked just awesome – incredibly stable. You know you look special when everyone who comes to your office opens with “are you okay?”

I had to take the bus home wearing near-non-existent footwear, and quit on my “shoes” at my stop and walked home barefoot along a busy city street and I might have caught foot syphilis. These are first-world problems, but incredibly dramatic when one is focused entirely on herself.

So we ate comfort food, with my beautiful red chard, and Nick bought beer and pretended like I was a rational human being, and now everything is almost better. Thanks, risotto. Wine and cheese have never not helped me yet.

Chard risotto

(Serves four as a side-dish, two as a main course. Is easily multiplied.)

  • 3 to 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. butter, divided
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 lb. chard (about one bunch), stalks and leaves chopped separately
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 3/4 cup dry red wine
  • 1 tsp. white pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil, divided
  • Salt to taste, if needed

Heat stock until boiling, then reduce heat and maintain a gentle simmer.

In a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, heat oil and melt the first tablespoon of butter. Add onions, garlic, and the chopped chard stalks and cook for two to three minutes, until onions are translucent. Add rice to pan, stirring for about a minute, or until rice grains turn opaque.

Add leaves. It will look like your ratio of rice to greens is off. It will look this way for a long time, but it’ll all work itself out. Pour in wine, and scrape the bottom of the pan to ensure nothing has stuck. Add pepper and nutmeg. Cook until wine has been completely absorbed.

Add one cup of the warm chicken stock, stirring frequently until liquid is mostly absorbed. Repeat with an additional cup of stock, and then repeat again with one to two more cups as needed. Test your rice for tenderness – if it is al denté, great. If it isn’t, just pour in a little bit more stock, as needed, and let it absorb into the rice.

When rice is ready, stir in butter, Parmesan cheese, and one tablespoon of the basil. Adjust your seasonings, to taste. Serve hot, with additional Parmesan cheese and a light sprinkling of chopped fresh basil. The whole process takes about 30 minutes, but believe me, the stirring and the smells are therapeutic. Plus, who opens a bottle of wine to cook with and doesn’t dip in? Try 30 minutes of cooking with the bottle all to yourself, and tell me you don’t feel better about everything, even if you were fine to begin with.

Meringue held up my fruit and yogurt this morning, and thus Tuesday was vastly improved.

After a rather indulgent weekend I felt more than a little hard done by, repentantly enduring my hot whole grain cereal with almond milk on Monday morning. Usually that’s a breakfast I enjoy, but after the delights and feasting of Saturday and Sunday, it felt a little bit like punishment, or like the shakiest part of withdrawal. Sure, it was good for me. But there was no zing, no glorious gluttony high.

So last night, with the dry air suggesting the perfect time to whip egg whites into a glossy frenzy (not a drop of precipitation in all of July so far!), I made six brown sugar meringue shells, and this morning filled them with pink, local yogurt and juicy Okanagan cherries, and felt enough zing to last the week, and all of the high with none of the actual gluttony. One meringue shell is significantly fewer calories than a slice of toast, with none of the kneading and hardly any real effort to prepare.

If you care about that sort of thing.

Calories, I mean.

Which I do not.

The recipe is adapted from a recipe I posted in the fall, from Saveur (such a messily dressed pavlova), with the only difference being that I halved the recipe and used brown sugar instead of white. The recipe assumes you have a stand mixer; if you don’t, the time it takes to whip the whites will be a bit longer. I’ll let you know how you’ll know when the mixture’s done.

Brown sugar meringues

(Makes six)

  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 4 1/2 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 tsp. distilled white vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla

Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Whip egg whites and sugar until stiff peaks form, about 14 minutes using a stand mixer.

Meanwhile, make a slurry of the cornstarch, vinegar, and vanilla. When egg whites stand up on their own and do not fall when shaken, whisk in the slurry and beat for another five minutes, until peaks are smooth and shiny.

Using the top of a one-cup-size ramekin, trace six circles onto a sheet of parchment paper that is just a bit smaller than a baking sheet, leaving an inch between each circle. Turn the parchment over, and divide the meringue evenly between the six circles. It’s okay if there’s overlap. Gently press a dip into the centre of each one, building up the sides a bit so as to form a shallow bowl.

Place in the oven, and immediately reduce the temperature to 215ºF, and set the timer for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Do not open the door at any time. When the timer goes off, leave the meringues in the oven to cool overnight, or at least three hours. Remove the meringues to a sealed container and store in a warm, dry place. Do not refrigerate.Serve meringues with yogurt and fresh seasonal berries. If you’re using cherries, pit them the night before and stick them in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap. Feel good about breakfast.

I should mention that if you’re used to something heartier, this is not terribly filling – if you’re a bacon/eggs/toast enthusiast, use this one at brunch with lots of other things. But if you’re a fruit and yogurt fan, like I am, this will be plenty sufficient to get you through the morning.

Also, I told you I’d tell you about blueberry crisp. I haven’t forgotten. I just get distracted so easily.

A day of fantastic meats.

If yesterday was all about vegetables, today was its happy opposite. Today we binged hard on meat, and sat in the sun and sampled beers and wines and this Serbian plum brandy that had me reconsidering my Dutchman.

You see that photo up top? That’s smoked tur-duck-in-hen-quail-con, which is a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a Cornish hen stuffed with a quail stuffed with a piece of pork belly. And there was sausage stuffing off to the side, and cold beer to drink with it. Apparently it took a whole week to prepare.

It was moist, and succulent, and smoky, and since there are only 12 weeks until Thanksgiving, I’ve got to get on figuring out how to do this as soon as possible.

We ate a lot. So much so that Nick’s nap has stretched into its third hour. Dinner is likely still three hours away. We sampled ribs, and ceviche.

And we had skirt steak tacos topped with homemade radish kimchi and pickled cauliflower mayonnaise, but I accidentally ate it before I could take its picture. In other news, I will be kimchi-ing radishes as soon as this meat hangover subsides.

My favourite thing, aside from the bar, was the roast pork. It changed everything. I can’t really point to specifics, but I am quite certain that my life improved for the better after my first taste of the pork. After tasting everything, we had the option of buying plates of our favourite dishes – I went ahead and bought so much pork, and decided that in my next life I am coming back as a Serbian food critic, the kind who is paid in spit-roasted piggies.

And also baked goods. The kind that are stuffed with cheese.

It was all incredibly moving. And to finish the feast, there were even cookies baked over a fire pit. Which I also don’t have photos of, because I literally inhaled mine.

Here’s more info on the event, which I can only really describe in satisfied grunts – there are almost no words. I hope they have it again next year – it was a fundraiser for Growing Chefs! Chefs for Children’s Urban Agriculture, a very worthwhile cause. In the meantime, Grace and I are on a mission to become new BFFs with the host, the lady behind Swallow Tail Tours and the Swallow Tail Supper Club.

Happy!

And since it’s now been ages since I’ve offered a recipe, stay tuned. We’re talking blueberry crisp, up next.

Garden report: Of course you want to hear more about radishes!

Ordinarily, I would make a grand fuss out of accidentally deleting my last post, and perhaps I will later when it comes time to re-write it. Nothing can tarnish my sparkly mood right now, however. I HARVESTED MY FIRST RADISHES!

There were seven in total, but we ate the first two fresh out of the ground, cleaned with water from the hose. What peppery, delicious little things! If I wasn’t sold on gardening before, I am now. I like gratification you can eat.

The radishes are the first things to ripen. There will be carrots at some point, and the broccoli, beets, and cucumbers look promising. There is kale, and some chard (I think I weeded some early seedlings by accident).

Do you like my veggies and Nick’s Star Wars big-boy underpants? Which do you like more?

So, there you go. An update, as promised, on my glorious garden that now bears fruit. I’ll re-write the piccalilli post this week (grrr). For now, I have to go dip radishes in good salt and feel smug about my imminent self-sufficiency. Whee!

On the topic of picnics.

I meant to tell you about picnics last night, but somewhere in the hours between the time I dropped Grace off at home and then slumped into bed, I ate something mildly poisonous that left me almost certain I would die there on the bathroom floor, cat licking my face and who-knows-what stuck to it. I seem to have survived, which is kind of nice, so I took the day off because I still don’t feel or look particularly pleasant. I’m a little leery of the way the cat seems so intent on having her mouth (and teeth and tongue) on my face, so I will stay conscious as long as possible, and tell you about picnics today instead.

I had two picnics in four days last week, the first last Thursday at English Bay with take-out fish and chips, and the second yesterday, at a park beside Westham Island, with pink wine and everything you could possibly think of to eat.

I think that picnicking is what people are talking about when they’re trying to convince me that camping is fun. But how wonderful it is when you take it away from tents and the terror of being eaten by bears or mountain lions! A picnic is officially the most civilized thing you can do outdoors.

And never mind that on Thursday I was devastated at the tarragon that afflicted my tartar sauce (it tasted like potpourri), or that we’d opted to drive instead of bike and almost missed the last half-hour of Raincity Grill’s take-out operations. One of the intrinsic lessons of picnicking is that it doesn’t always go according to plan, which is something some of us need to become a lot more comfortable with. Funny how a spot of sunshine and a view of sparkles on the water can make even the worst tartar sauce, mislaid plan, or oversight be taken in stride.

Sunday’s effort was more coordinated, and full of flavour and style in a manner that is distinctly Grace’s. We sat on an elevated pier beside the water, watching birds and boats and feeling a little smug when another group of picnickers arrived, Tim Hortons’ sandwiches and bottled water in hand. While spontaneous take-out picnics can be fun, nothing trumps a fabulous spread paired beautifully with Spanish rosé and served on proper dishes.

I now know that food eaten in fresh air and above the water-level tastes better, and that sunshine does life-changing things to cold wine. These are important lessons, also intrinsic to picnicking, and how sad would it be to never have learned them? Of course, taking my word for it is cheating, and you must go out and discover (or rediscover) these facts for yourself.

There is no reason not to. You’ll need to prepare a bit ahead of time, unless you know of a good take-out window near the beach, and you’ll need an hour and a spot to sit on. Everything else is at your discretion, though I recommend Francis Lam’s ginger-scallion sauce on cold poached chicken, Smitten Kitchen’s mango slaw, some buns to pile both onto, and a selection of other treats – pickles, salads, watermelon (don’t forget the salt), baked goods – and, obviously, wine.

You can do this alone, but it’s better with friends. Four hours and optional napping is better than one hour, and more wine is better than none, but it’s like starting with the world’s easiest recipe and over time making it your own. My personal goal is to perfect the art of picnicking before the end of summer, which means at least seven more picnics (one for each remaining summer weekend), likely more.

If you live in Vancouver (or the valley, or Whistler or the island, or Seattle or Portland or anyplace in between here and there), where do you recommend we go? And what do you recommend we bring? It would be best if perfecting the art of picnicking was a group effort. Perhaps we should all go together?

Some talk about cherries.

On Friday evening I went with Grace to her mother’s house to pick cherries, which we did quite successfully last year, and which we were determined to do quite successfully once again.

This year, the cherries returned in abundance! I think we must have gotten to them a little later this year, because by the time we arrived the cherries on the main tree had darkened until they were almost black. They had a caramel taste to them, and they begged me to eat so many of them, and I did.

What squishy feelings come from eating too many cherries all at once.

They became jam, sort of, and a lovely dark sauce for steak, and a tart that sparkled like something much more valuable than the sum of graham crackers, cherries, sugar, and rum.

I even tried to paint one of them. Tried being the operative word, and maybe my evil beast of a high school art teacher was right – I don’t apply myself or seem to care, and all I’ll ever have is wasted potential, especially with this attitude.

But what did she know, anyway? I really, really care about cherries.

There aren’t really recipes for any of the dishes that wound up – there is for the jam, and it comes from David Liebovitz, and even he claims there’s no real recipe. Mine didn’t set, which is just as well, because now I have six jars of cherries in a rich rummy caramel, and that’s just fine. They will be lovely in ramekin-sized cobblers come Christmas.

And the steak. You ought to know all about this.

When you pan-fry a steak, right after you move it to a foil-covered plate to rest, while the pan’s still hot, dump a cup of cherries per person into it, let them melt into the meat juices, and when the pan looks dry, deglaze with a splash of balsamic vinegar. Add chili flakes if you feel like it. You’ll know when it’s done – the sauce will be sticky, not runny, and will smell fantastic.

And the tart. There’s nothing to the tart.

Macerate two pounds or so of cherries in about a half a cup of sugar  and a quarter cup of your favourite rum or bourbon, and give it 30 minutes, or 60 if you’ve got ’em. Bourbon’s better, but sometimes you’re out because it’s hot and you like bourbon and lemonade almost better than anything in the world, and my goodness your liver must be tough. Is it hard around the edges? Fine work. Really well done. What?

Right.

Tart. Take a tart pan. Pack it full of one cup graham cracker crumbs mixed with a quarter cup of melted butter and two tablespoons of brown sugar. Bake at 400°F for ten minutes. Remove from oven, and cool.

Fill with cherries. If you have a lot of liquid, thicken it on the stove with a bit of cornstarch. If you don’t, that’s fine too. I just poured it back over the cherries.

Serve immediately to salivating guests. Pile so much whipped cream on top.

Tomorrow I’m going to a blueberry festival at work and should have a flat or two to do something with, and then Grace and I are going on a pink wine picnic followed by berry picking on Sunday. So much excitement! I can’t wait to tell you all about it. But for now, think about cherries. I still am. If for no other reason than they’ve permanently grubbied my fingernails and I’m painfully self-conscious about it.

Meatless Monday, zucchini salsa, and a distressing case of not having anything to say but writing anyway.

I am right smack in the middle of a crippling bout of writer’s block. At work, I’ve just handed off my last contribution to a project that’s taken six months – it wraps up next week. I’m writing reports, strategizing communications, and generally doing serious, professional things, the kinds of things where I can’t just slip in an occurrence or two of “ass” just to amuse myself. It’s all very good stuff, of course, and I quite enjoy what I do. But periodically, professional writing (and editing even more so) can be draining, and all the liquor and free-writing exercises in the world can’t bring back the easy flow of writing when you have something to say.

I’d hoped that sitting down to write about salsa would trigger something. Instead, my head feels completely numb, as if it has run out of words and no longer cares to tell my face to hold my mouth shut. I am pretty sure MFK Fisher never sat slack-jawed and brain-dead waiting for something good to happen.

Fortunately, where the words sometimes disappear, the food is almost always reliable. At the end of a day measured in word-counts and tracked changes, there is the kitchen, and sometimes an ingredient or two to get excited about. Today we had a couple of little zucchini, some red potatoes, a red field tomato, and the fresh brown eggs of free-run chickens. Today, we had Spanish tortilla with zucchini salsa, and slumped onto the couch to let our weary minds wander.

There’s no real recipe for the tortilla – I watched Paul make it once. He lived in Spain so I believe he knows what he’s doing.

The gist of it is that you want to take a couple of tablespoons of oil, and sauté a diced onion until it turns translucent. Then you want to toss one-and-a-half to two pounds of thinly sliced rounds of potatoes (no more than a 1/4-inch, less is ideal) until coated in oil and onion bits. Pour a tiny bit of water into the pan – 1/3 cup  – then cover, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring every so often and scraping the bottom of the pan.

Then remove the potatoes and onion from the pan, cool each for ten minutes (spread out over paper towels and left until there’s no more steam), and heat the broiler. Wipe out the pan. Whisk together six eggs, some salt and pepper, and heat another tablespoon of oil in the pan. Mix potatoes into the eggs, pour the whole thing into the heated pan. Run a spatula along the sides (you don’t want this to stick) every so often, and when the sides are golden (five, six minutes), then shove it under the broiler until the centre sets and the top is golden. Another three minutes, maybe five.

Really, you can do this with anything. Slices of eggplant would be delicious. Zucchini, if it wasn’t already destined for salsa. Sweet potatoes, also good.

And top the whole thing with salsa. If it’s zucchini season and you have a few tender little ones in your crisper, make zucchini salsa (recipe below).

Zucchini salsa

  • 2 cups diced raw zucchini
  • 1 cup diced tomato
  • 1 cup diced red onion
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp. good olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Salt, to taste

Toss all ingredients together, and stick the whole thing in the fridge for about an hour. Toss again before serving. Serve with tortilla, as above (and also below), or with white fish, or chicken. If there are leftovers, sprinkle them over tortilla chips and cover with cheese to make nachos. Stuff it into tacos. The ingredients cut into larger chunks would make a nice salad.

I’m hoping the storm tonight carries enough electricity in the air to turn my head back on. Something has to, or tomorrow you might find me here, grappling with the basics of subject + verb + object in an embarrassing, futile attempt to regain any semblance of creativity and/or dignity. It is likely that I will turn to liquor, which would of course be completely out of character.