Garden report: We have so much chard, and the threat of too many cucumbers.


Finally, thunder and lightning! I thought the air pressure had changed, because I’ve had a few bad nights in a row now where I’ve woken up terrified, haunted by bad dreams of the worst kind. The cat is screwy too, and her schedule is off and now she’s madly in love with me at all the wrong hours of the night and early morning, and there is no telling her she’s wrong when she announces with claws that it’s time to wake up and play.

The neighbourhood dogs are barking more, there have been car accidents outside my window, and the power’s been failing in spots all over the city. We had a full moon, which maybe means something.

But anyway, there are big noises outside, and piercing light every so often, and we’re at home with a hoard of chard and the garden is getting summer storm water and all is right with the world. We planted more chard, and played in the dirt, and my cucumbers have begun to flower and are taking over everything and what are we going to do with it all when the plant bears fruit?!

I ended up sticking a whole bunch of chard in the freezer, because there’s just so much of it right now, but the rest I chopped into soup with white beans, some fresh from the ground little carrots, celery, and red Okanagan field tomatoes. And herbs, rosemary and parsley. Did you know if you sprinkle a few tablespoons of cornmeal into a soup, it thickens it just slightly which makes the whole soup seem even heartier? Definitely more stew-like, which is excellent if you don’t have a long time to let a pot of soup boil and reduce.

Anyway. This is shaping up to be a terrible garden report, and I haven’t even squealed or abused an exclamation point yet.

In case you were wondering, because it sort of seems that way, Nick does seem to do most of the labour-intensive garden work, while I stand around taking pictures.

I had never seen a chard root before, but isn’t this cool?

I don’t know why he lets me get away with all this slacking off, but I do have dirt under my fingernails and I did make the soup, so maybe it evens out in the end. So, there you go! You’re all caught up, and isn’t it exciting? Have a happy Friday!

Meatless Monday: Shepherd’s Pie, sans shepherd.

I think the thing I like best about Meatless Monday is that it comes at just the right time. Monday evening is when some of us need a hearty helping of veggies to undo some of the weekend’s damage; indeed, I spent the bulk of mine throwing back rich dishes and cocktails in between naps.

Today’s Meatless Monday dish is meaty in spite of itself. It’s filled with garlicky mushrooms, rosemary, leeks, and just enough red wine. It’s topped with potatoes whipped with eggs, cream, and olive oil. And then it’s baked until the potatoes are golden and the mushroom sauce has bubbled up around the sides. Use a variety of mushrooms, if possible; I used regular white mushrooms, a couple of fat portabellas, and a few oyster mushrooms, but feel free to use whatever’s available to you. Be sure to scrape the gills from the portabellas before cooking (if using), and chop these into cubes.

It’s rich and satisfying, fragrant and delicious; it’s the sort of thing you could serve to a ravenous meat-eater and he wouldn’t know there wasn’t a spot of beef in it. Even the cat was interested, and she won’t give a sniff to anything that isn’t 95% protein.

Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie

(Serves four to six.)

  • 2 lbs. Yukon Gold or other yellow-fleshed potatoes, diced
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/4 cup + 1 tbsp. heavy cream, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 shallot, minced (about 2 tbsp.)
  • 2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup finely chopped leek (white and light-green part only, about two medium leeks)
  • 2 1/2 lbs. mushrooms, assorted varieties if possible
  • 2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 2 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt to taste, if needed

Boil potatoes in a large pot of water until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and mash until almost no chunky bits remain, then whip in parmesan cheese, two tablespoons of olive oil, 1/4 cup of cream, and two eggs. Taste and add salt as needed; I chose not to add salt, as the parmesan lent sufficient seasoning. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil and the butter over medium-high heat until butter begins to bubble and foam. Stir in shallots and garlic, sautéeing for two minutes until translucent. Add leeks, and saute until shallots have melted down and no longer hold their round shape, about three minutes.

Meanwhile, again, chop mushrooms. It is not necessary that the mushrooms be of uniform size; different sizes will allow the mushrooms to achieve varying textures, which is ideal. Add mushrooms and rosemary to pan, stirring to coat in fat. Allow to sweat, but do not salt the mushrooms. It will take about five minutes, with occasional stirring, but the mushrooms will release their liquid and it will be awesome.

Once mushrooms have sweat and wilted, about five minutes, sprinkle flour over top of the mushrooms and mix until flour disappears. Add wine, soy sauce, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, pepper, and nutmeg. Reduce heat to medium and allow to thicken slightly, two to three more minutes. Stir in parsley and cream, and taste, adjusting seasonings as needed.

Remove mushrooms from heat and pour into a 1 1/2- to 2-quart casserole dish. Top with mashed potato mixture, spreading to cover completely.

Place in oven and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, until potatoes are golden on top and mushroom sauce is bubbling out from around the sides.

Serve hot from the oven. If you have leftovers, this dish is even better the second day, when the flavours, especially the rosemary, garlic, and pepper steep and meld together. Nick can’t wait for lunch tomorrow, and I am looking forward to the smell of this scenting my office. Yum!

PS – check out my recipe for Huevos Rancheros on the Meatless Monday website!

Get yogurt, make cheese.

Last night we went to Zakkushi on Main Street, which for us always means gluttony, depravity, and utter disbelief when the bill comes. The thing that’s great about izakayas is that you can graze all night long while pretty young waitresses bring you large pitcher after large pitcher of cold Japanese beer, but the trouble is that while those two-dollar skewers of meat don’t seem like anything in the first place, by the end of the night you stumble and yell your way out into the parking lot, your belly is swollen and your waistband is the cruelest thing you can think of, you have the meat sweats, and you don’t know how you’re going to find the money to buy groceries or eat for the rest of the week. This all means of course that I had tons of fun and regret nothing.

And when we got home late last night (or early this morning), I was exhausted. I whined to Nick that I never get to sleep in, because the cat loves me most at 6:00 in the morning. He reassured me that he would get up with her and feed her, and that I could sleep late, and that the remainder of the weekend would be flawless and spectacular.

This is what Nick looked like at 12:38 this afternoon. Molly Waffles takes her breakfast at 7:30.

Needless to say, I had to get up and feed the cat and clean the litter box and entertain myself for more hours than I care to mention.

Fortunately, yesterday I put a 750g container of all-natural, organic, 5% milk-fat yogurt into a bundle of cheesecloth and let it drain overnight, thanks to a recipe I discovered at GrongarBlog for yogurt cheese. 750g of yogurt (about three cups) produced a little over a cup of creamy cheese. My goodness, you guys. This just improved my whole life, and why the hell didn’t I think of this?!

The cheese that resulted was creamy, like softly crumbly cream cheese – I put the yogurt up to drain around 7:00 last night, and mashed it into a bowl around 10:00 this morning. I knew at once that I would have to trudge down to Granville Island to Siegel’s for bagels and to the smokery for fish. The effort and patience required to make the cheese was minimal, and the payoff was more than was deserved for so little involvement in the process.

I recommend making this today for tomorrow. Make sure you get good bagels and smoked fish. Watercress, red onions, and capers also help, as does fresh-squeezed orange juice and good enough white wine. More information about cheese-making is available at GrongarBlog, and while you’re there, browse around. Her feta is next on my list, and we’re in the process of trying to track down a cheese press to make that gouda.

Tonight my dad and I are going to see Stompin’ Tom Connors, arguably Canada’s finest and most awesome musician (Celine Dion? Rush? The Arcade Fire? Your argument is invalid). And tomorrow, ribs. I hope you also have a fantastic weekend, and that you get outside and have fun! But first, make cheese.

Meatless Monday: Fried tofu with plum sauce and some rambling.

You see those pretty things? I think they’re pluots. I bought them from a place that labeled them “dino egg plums,” which is why I bought them, but I’m pretty sure they’re pluots. I’ve misidentified produce before, however, so please correct me if I’m wrong. But that’s really not the point.

The point is that today was incredibly challenging, with the temperature of my office soaring to an inhumane degree (which is to say somewhere over 30°C), the servers at work having exploded leaving me with literally nothing to do, and with coming home to disappointment – though, I saw it coming.

A proposal I had submitted for a book was declined, which I sort of expected because it was not the book I was sure of three months after pitching the thing, but still. Allowing delusion to take the place of rational thought has always served me so well, and I had convinced myself that within a year I would be a famous food writer and then the Food Network would offer to throw Guy Fieri off a bridge and invite me to live with Ina Garten if I’d just give them a late-night cooking show on which they’d allow me to swear. But it’s okay. I wasn’t sure of the thing after the fact, and it’s not a cookbook that I really want to write. I have an idea though. I’ll keep you in the loop. I’ll try not to forget.

But anyway, it’s Meatless Monday, and I’d best not let the heat lead my mind to wander, because this beer is hitting me hard and in a few short paragraphs I could forsake the recipe entirely for an unsettling peek into my soul or for a photo I’d surely regret. My goodness, it’s hot. But dino egg plums. They are what’s really important.

Fried tofu with fresh plum sauce

(Serves four, with four large pieces of tofu per person.)

Plum sauce

(Makes about 2 cups)

  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 small sweet red pepper, such as Hungarian, finely chopped (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup)
  • 1 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 lb. plums, diced
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (adjust to taste – if you’ve got very sweet plums, dial it back; if they’re bitter little things, add more to your liking)
  • 2 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp. red chili flakes

Tofu

  • 2 350g blocks firm or medium-firm tofu (if you choose medium-firm, it will be softer but more like the agadeshi tofu you get in Japanese restaurants; if you go firmer than that, it’s heartier and denser – chewier, but Nick thinks more filling)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp. sriracha or other hot sauce
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch

In a small pot over medium-high heat, sauté onion, red pepper, ginger, and garlic in oil until all have begun to sweat and their smells have co-mingled.

Pour the sweaty mess into a blender or a food processor, add the plums, and set the thing to spinning until the fruits and veggies are puréed. Pour back into the pot.

Taste the sauce at this point, and add the sugar in carefully, a little less than is called for at first, adding more as needed. Stir in soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, and chili flakes, and allow to simmer over medium-low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, fill the bottom of a large, nonstick pan with oil, about a half-inch deep. Heat until shimmering.

Cube tofu, cutting into roughly 16 pieces. Whisk the egg, sriracha, and soy sauce thoroughly, and dredge the pieces in this. Place them in a large bowl filled with the cornstarch, and toss to coat.

Place cubes of tofu in the hot oil and cook until their one side has achieved a gently golden hue, two to three minutes. Turn and cook the other side for a similar amount of time.

Serve hot, with plum sauce, possibly with chopped scallions if you have them, or minced shiso leaf, which is more elusive but worth the search.

Oh! If you have leftover sauce, which you may because two cups is a lot of sauce, the sauce keeps well in a sealed jar in the fridge, and you can use it for all manner of things. It’s good as a dipping sauce, but it’s also nice with pork, or even with cheese and crackers.

Chocolate zucchini cake: It’s outrageous!

Sometime around the advent of cool fonts and colour printing, my mom brought home a recipe for something called “Outrageous Zucchini Cake,” and the recipe was fantastic (cinnamon! Chocolate! A fat-free variation!) but hand-written (by whom? I still don’t know) so I typed it up in magenta and cyan with MS Word’s “Party” font and thus the recipe was saved for a decade or more in a tattered binder that lives in my parents’ kitchen. It looked so pretty. It still sort of does. Which is why I absconded with it this past weekend.

The cake it produced was delicious, but I forgot about it because I moved out and didn’t take a copy with me, because even then I suspected that making and eating cakes all on my own would turn out to be a bad idea, fat-free variation or not.

I still remember how fat-free was appealing at 17. It is less so at 27.

I’ve revised the recipe, and it’s now somewhere in between really fattening and fat-free – that sane middle ground at which a cake can almost pass for healthy. Also I now rationalize my cake-baking by telling myself that there’s two of us now. I pretend as if Nick ever eats more than a single slice of cake, and it’s a lie I can live with.

“Outrageous” zucchini cake

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 cups grated zucchini
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose or whole-wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup cocoa
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup chopped semi-sweet chocolate or chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°F, and grease a 9″x13″ baking pan.

Beat butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, yogurt, vanilla, and zucchini, and beat until thoroughly combined.

In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Stir dry mixture into wet mixture, stirring to moisten.

Pour batter into baking pan, spreading batter to the edges and corners of the pan. Sprinkle evenly with chopped chocolate or chocolate chips, and bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Serve warm, with a tall glass of cold milk.

Meatless Monday: Huevos Rancheros in Purgatory.

In the spirit of Meatless Monday, we had a fancy sort-of-breakfast for dinner. It’s the fresh and hearty love-child of huevos rancheros and eggs in purgatory, and it’s something you could serve for any meal, whenever. You can make the sauce ahead of time – if you call it a sauce. It’s more like a quick, loose chili, or a Mexican-inspired marinara with corn.

Either way, it happened once by accident and turned out to be awesome, so I wanted to share it with you.

One of this dish’s best features is that comes together in 30 minutes, which is all the time I have for anything on a Monday night. And the most important thing about it is that you serve it over a tortilla, which, if you’re feeling sassy, you fold over, fill with cheese, and stick in the oven so that it warms up and the cheese melts. Nick isn’t fully sold on Meatless Mondays, but is willing to go along with any of my enthusiasms if cheese is involved. Serve with a slice of lime, a bit of plain yogurt or sour cream, and a sprinkle of cilantro.

Huevos rancheros in purgatory

(Serves two to four)

  • 2 tbsp. canola or olive oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen corn
  • 1 cup diced red pepper
  • 1 minced jalapeño pepper
  • 2 cups pureed tomatoes (three to four tomatoes, whizzed through a food processor or blender until smoothish; if it’s off-season, use canned crushed tomatoes)
  • 1 14 oz. can black or red beans
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. chili powder (bonus points if you use chipotle powder)
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (plus additional, for garnish)
  • 4 to 8 eggs
  • 1/4 cup crumbled queso fresco (or feta, or ricotta, or whatever you’ve got on hand)
  • 2 to 4 flour tortillas
  • 1/2 to 1 cup grated cheddar cheese (optional)

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Sauté onion in oil, in a large pan over medium-high heat, until translucent. Add garlic, corn, red pepper, and jalapeño, and cook until glistening, about three minutes.

Stir in tomato purée, beans, salt, chili powder, cumin, and oregano, and simmer for five minutes, until reduced and thickened slightly.

Remove from heat, and crack eggs over top. Sprinkle with queso fresco (or whathaveyou). If you’re in Vancouver, you can buy queso fresco and a variety of Mexican cheeses at Killarney Market over on 49th and Elliot.

Throw the pan into the oven, middle rack, and bake uncovered for 12 to 15 minutes, until whites are cooked and yolks are done to your liking. Serve over tortillas, sprinkled with cilantro.

If you opt to serve these over quesadillas, sprinkle 1/4 cup of grated cheese over half of each tortilla, fold over, place on a cookie sheet, and bake with your huevos for the last five or six minutes of their cooking time.

Enjoy! These are cheap, fresh, easy, fast, and really, really tasty. The corn and peppers are sweet, and the tomatoes lend a tart whoosh to things, and the beans make you forget there isn’t meat, in case the cheese wasn’t enough for you. The eggs are good because eggs are always good. And the cilantro makes it taste like Mexican Night without all the trouble and effort you always seem to have to go to on Mexican Night. Try it, and let me know how you like it!

Update: This recipe has since been posted over on the Meatless Monday website. Go check it out!

Garden report: A shaky little tour.

A wet and rainy weekend used to mean whining. Now, it means big, bushy green leaves, my favourite galoshes, and mucking about in the mud. An improvement, for sure! And because I wanted to show you all of the things, here’s a tour instead of a write-up. Sorry about the shakiness, blurriness, and the grammatical inconsistency of my spoken words (the plants are doing well, not “good” … ugh).

Also, as a bonus, here’s a falcon. He lives in the garden and is majestic.