Dutch macaroni.

Not to rush the end of summer (I would never!), but I’m getting pretty excited for fall dinners, leggings-based outfits, 60 per cent less boob sweat, and a little cookbook launch party I hope you’ll attend if you’re in Vancouver. (I hope we can get to Winnipeg, Toronto, and elsewhere – stay tuned! If your local bookstore, pannenkoekenhuis, or licorice parlour wants to talk boeterkoek and bitterballen, drop me a line!)

In the meantime, while the temperature has dropped slightly ahead of another summer heatwave, I’m in the mood for macaroni. This recipe, a family friendly Dutch weeknight dinner not unlike American Goulash or a fancy take on Hamburger Helper, is a one-pot weeknight staple for us; I use whole wheat macaroni in mine because no one here seems to notice and, you know, fibre.

Dutch macaroni

(Makes 6 to 8 servings.)

  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 6-oz can low-sodium or no-salt-added tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp grainy Dijon or Dutch mustard
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 14 oz dry macaroni
  • 4 cups low-sodium or homemade chicken stock
  • 4 oz shredded Edam cheese

In a large pot on medium, brown beef with salt in olive oil for about 5 minutes. Remove meat from pot and set aside. Drain off all but 2 tbsp grease.

Add onions, bell peppers, carrots, celery, and garlic, and sauté for about 4 minutes, until colors have brightened and vegetables are shiny. Stir in tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, pepper, smoked paprika, oregano, and basil, and coat vegetables.

Return beef to pot. Add macaroni, and stir well. Add chicken stock; liquid should just cover mixture. If not, add a cup or two of water.

Bring contents to a simmer, and cook 10–12 minutes, until macaroni is tender.

Add Edam and stir until melted. Serve immediately.


Dutch Feast is currently available for pre-order from Arsenal Pulp Press, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and other fine online retailers; order online to receive your copy this fall, or purchase it from your favourite local bookstore in November, 2017.

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EarthBites and Spaghetti alla Carbonara

atung

Last week, the folks from Rocky Mountain Flatbread, one of my favourite local pizza places (and a kid-friendly spot to boot!) invited me to sit in on a cooking class with Alex Tung, a Vancouver-based chef with international credentials and a flair for all things Italian. Given that it was a rainy Thursday and there were plates of pasta a chef would make for me while I watched, it didn’t take much convincing. Chef Tung made three dishes: a luscious pomodoro sauce over a fresh pasta he likened to Italian udon, a fregola dish with clams and fresh tomatoes, and Spaghettoni alla Carbonara, a version of which is described below.

The class was part of a fundraising initiative on behalf of EarthBites, a local program that teaches children in schools about food and nutrition. It’s an issue that’s timely and particularly pressing for urban kids who may not have access to gardens at home.

Every year, EarthBites goes into schools to teach thousands of kids how to grow and cook their own healthy meals. The children are instructed by a dedicated team of urban growers, nutritionists and entrepreneurs who are passionate about engaging children with the food they eat.

You can support EarthBites (and maybe learn something new!) by participating in one of their “watch and learn”-style cooking classes with local chefs, including Top Chef Canada contestant Dawn Doucette, and Chopped Canada winner Alana Peckham. Classes run through the fall; visit their website to learn more. I love getting a few chef-tested recipes to play with at home, so between that and the food and the cheffy banter, this was a winner for me.

To whet your palate, here’s a recipe for Spaghetti alla Carbonara from the class I took with Alex Tung (pictured above), an award-winning French-trained chef with a passion for Italian cooking. If you can’t find guanciale, available in Italian delis and specialty stores, use pancetta or bacon. If you can find smoked hog jowl, it’s comparable (but smoked, which guanciale is not), and generally a bit cheaper. In Vancouver, Buy Low Foods often has smoked hog jowl for around $3.50 per, which – at about a pound per piece – I generally can make work for two meals.

While we’re on the topic of kids and food, you might like to know that this dish was picky-eater approved. The kid practically inhaled it, and requested it for lunch the next day, even though he hates cheese and everything else that is savoury and delicious. Dear Alex, I love you.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

(Adapted from a recipe by Chef Alex Tung. Makes 4 servings.)

  • 1/2 lb. guanciale (or pancetta or bacon), diced
  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • 3 whole eggs plus 3 egg yolks
  • 1 cup finely grated pecorino romano cheese (slightly cheaper grana padano also works well here)
  • Salt and ground black pepper to taste

In a large pan over medium heat, cook diced guanciale until crispy and until fat has rendered, three to ten minutes depending on the size of your dice.

Meanwhile, heat a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Chef Tung insists that it must taste like sea water; he is right. Cook pasta according to package instructions, about seven to nine minutes until al dente. Between the salted pasta water, the pork and the cheese, it’s likely that you will not need to season the dish with any additional salt.

While your pork and pasta work their magic on your stove, beat eggs and egg yolks in a small bowl. Add cheese, and whisk to combine. Set aside.

If your guanciale cooks quicker than you expected, remove it from the heat but leave it in the pan to keep the rendered fat liquid.

When pasta is ready, scoop out about a cup of the cooking water. Drain the pasta, then return it to the pot but do not return the pot to the stove. Add the guanciale and its rendered fat (like, all of it), stir, then add the egg mixture, stirring well and quickly. Stir in the water, about a quarter of a cup at a time, until the pasta is coated in an satiny sauce.

Taste. Does it need salt? Add salt.

Scoop the pasta into bowls, then sprinkle liberally with black pepper. Serve immediately.

Learn more about school programs and adult cooking classes at earthbites.ca.


EarthBites_logo_header_200This post wasn’t exactly sponsored, but I did get to take the cooking class for free. No one told me what to say, but I think the assumption was that I would say something good? I don’t know. Maybe no one should ever assume that of me. I can be a real jerk.

Hunger Awareness Week: Whole grain pasta with chickpeas and caramelized tomato sauce.

A well-stocked pantry has saved my butt on more occasions than I can count. Being able to open a cupboard and see a few simple things that could equal dinner is something I don’t take for granted – it’s a reassuring thing, and a luxury for many. Whether it’s because payday is too far away or I’m just too lazy to get to the market over the weekend, pantry meals warm my home and filled my belly most weeks, and have for my whole life.

When choosing non-perishable items to donate to the food bank, try to select nutritious items to fill the pantries of those with diverse dietary needs.

  • Fifty per cent of food bank users are families, including children; consider donating kid-friendly items like granola bars, breakfast items like oatmeal or other hot cereals, sugar-free applesauce, or peanut- or gluten-free items for school lunches.
  • If 20 per cent of people who use the food bank are seniors, consider seniors’ health issues (diabetes, heart disease, hypertension): select low-sodium canned goods, low-sugar or sugar-free canned or pureed fruits, lean proteins including peanut butter and legumes, whole grain and gluten-free pastas, and high-fibre grains and cereals.
  • For families with babies and young children, consider donating baby food, infant formula, or diapers in a range of sizes (not just newborn). Nursing mums need nutrition too – fortified cereals, canned fish (especially sardines, salmon, herring and mackerel), low-sodium canned soups and stews, and parboiled grains can be beneficial, especially for parents who are pressed for time.

Pasta with caramelized tomato sauce and garlic.A pantry with a few staples you’ll use again and again can go a long way to making you feel secure. Today’s recipe is an easy one – it’s comprised of stuff you probably already have, and it’s hearty enough to feed a family of four to a comfortable degree of fullness. It’s kid-friendly, at least at my table. It’s also suitable for people with diabetes, and it reheats well for lunch at work the next day.

Whole wheat pasta with chickpeas and caramelized tomato sauce

(Makes four servings.)

  • 1 lb. whole-wheat or other whole-grain pasta, such as penne or rotini
  • 19-oz. (540 mL) can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1/2 tsp. red chili flakes (optional)
  • 5.5-oz. (128 mL) can low-sodium tomato paste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Parsley to garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and add pasta. Cook according to package instructions, about 11 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add onion, and cook for two minutes, until just translucent. Add chili flakes (if using) and garlic. Cook until onions and garlic have just turned golden, another three minutes. Add tomato paste. Stir constantly to keep the paste moving around the pan and cook until colour deepens and butter seems to have disappeared, four to six minutes.

Before draining the pasta, reserve about two cups of cooking water. Drain pasta, and add pasta and chickpeas to the pan. Stir, then add water half a cup at a time until sauce has loosened and coats the noodles thoroughly. Taste, adjusting seasonings as desired. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Gnocchi with kielbasa and caramelized corn.

gnocchi

There is so much choice when it comes to ingredients, and such a range of qualities and price points that it can be hard to know where to save your dollars and where to splurge. I sometimes get asked about this, but my answer is always pretty wishy-washy, as it’s one of those personal preference issues I can’t really call one way or the other. What matters to you? What do you notice when it’s not there? I buy both good and crappy vanilla, because the good stuff has its place but the crappy stuff can pass unnoticed, which makes the good stuff last longer.

You don’t need fancy ingredients to make good food. Most people can’t tell the difference between The Best and Good Enough anyway, the way most people will taste a wine and only know for certain whether it is white or red. They might think they can, and the truly gauche might say it out loud, but the reality is that a thoughtful meal comprised of modest ingredients is more than the sum of its sale-priced parts.

For the experienced cook, this is not news. But the novice cook, the young person who is just starting out and is perhaps swayed by pretty pictures in magazines or on Pinterest might be led to believe that there is no sense in doing something half-assed.

This is important: the only thing culinary you ever have to use your full ass for is eating. This is home-cooking; we are not cheffing around. The people you’re serving are already impressed that they didn’t have to make dinner. You can haul out the big guns, the good stuff, the meticulous technique and gourmet ingredients for special occasions – fancy company or holiday dinners or desserts – but when it comes to getting dinner on the table on a weeknight, half your ass will do.

The secret to good home-cooking is knowing where to take shortcuts, and where to spend your time.

If it’s corn season, highlight corn by gently caramelizing it with a finely chopped onion until your kitchen smells like butter and brown sugar; this is one of those gratifying things you can do while your small person tears around, suddenly naked, shouting the Rescue Bots theme song. If a package of gnocchi was on sale for a dollar, don’t bother hand-rolling fresh gnocchi; no one wants to do that on a weeknight anyway and you’re, like, what? Not supposed to ever have gnocchi? No. The shortcuts you take will emphasize the ingredients you lingered over, and everyone will love you for your efforts.

What follows is a recipe that takes full advantage of leisurely caramelizing and store-bought potato dumplings and the seasoning effects of Polish sausage. The great thing about this dish is that it kind of seems like something fancy, but if your people are like my people they won’t quite know why and you’ll somehow manage extra credit which you can use to excuse yourself from unsavoury tasks like scrubbing the cast iron or trying to wrestle a big-for-his-age three-year-old into the pajamas he would prefer not to wear.

Gnocchi with kielbasa and caramelized corn

(Makes 4 servings.)

  • 3 tbsp. grapeseed or other neutral-tasting oil, divided
  • 1/2 lb. kielbasa or farmer’s sausage, diced
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen (from two or three cobs if using fresh)
  • 3 tbsp. garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 lb. store-bought gnocchi
  • Smoked cheese, such as cheddar

Vinaigrette:

  • 2 tbsp. grapeseed or other neutral-tasting oil
  • 1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. minced fresh parsley
  • 1 tsp. grainy Dijon mustard
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

Heat one tablespoon of oil in a large pan over medium heat. Cook kielbasa for about two minutes, until lightly browned, then scoop from pan onto a plate lined with paper towel and set aside.

Depending on how fatty your kielbasa is, you may or may not have to add additional oil at this point. If the pan is looking dry, add additional oil as needed. Reduce heat to medium-low, and add onion. Cook, stirring often, until browned, about five minutes. Add corn, and stir often until the colour has deepened and the kernels have browned in places, about fifteen minutes. Add a small amount of water as needed to dissolve the layer forming on the bottom of the pan. Add garlic, salt and pepper, and cook until garlic has softened.

Make the vinaigrette by combining oil, vinegar, fresh parsley, mustard, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl or jar and stirring or shaking to combine. Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When the corn has turned colour and smells buttery and sweet, add gnocchi to the pot and cook according to package directions. Gnocchi will cook for about two minutes, most likely.

Reserve half a cup of the gnocchi cooking water, then drain. Add gnocchi to the pan with the corn. Add the sausage back. Deglaze the pan with the water, scraping the bottom of the pan and stirring to coat the gnocchi in the sauce that forms.

To serve, spoon vinaigrette over gnocchi and corn, and top with shaved or shredded smoked cheese. If you are not able to find smoked cheese, use an aged white cheddar.

(This is the soundtrack to my life right now. Just FYI.)

Blackberry frozen kefir

I keep thinking I’d like to take up embroidery (in the style of Judi Dench), because it seems like such a normal hobby to have. And because gut bacteria is starting to seem like a weird thing to dwell on and Nick thinks that “healthy poops for the whole world” is not a hobby, but the kind of thing I should talk to a mental health professional about. I think Nick is ungrateful.

Yes. Embroidery. That seems like something I could talk to people about. Because right now, I’m talking a lot about kefir and lacto-fermentation and gut flora and getting a lot more side-eye than even I’m used to. Every day, it seems, some study out of somewhere implicates intestinal bacteria in some seemingly unconnected disease or disorder, demonstrating that the relationship between our health and what we eat is increasingly complex.

A lot of nutrition information tries to sum up healthy eating in a few easily digestible tips and tricks. (Wink.) This is, I think, where phenomena like “super foods” come from – the idea that optimal nutrition is based on a simple formula, and if you just eat a carefully selected limited number of things, you will live forever. That’s a nice idea, and I can see why people are into it. Unfortunately, there is no simple one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. Your best shot at a healthy diet is a diet that includes a little bit of everything and nothing to excess. Which is great, because I don’t think I could live a lifestyle that excluded a reasonable amount of Taco Bell.

Our weird health kick is kefir, which I make because making yogurt involves too many steps. You just fill a jar with some kefir grains and milk, then strain off the grains and start all over again with new milk, either refrigerating the kefir for consumption or secondarily fermenting it with citrus peels for even better taste. We drink kefir because it makes our bellies feel nice and because it’s easily blended into things I can drink for breakfast, since I’m bad at wanting or remembering to eat breakfast. Some kefir and some frozen berries blended and poured into a tall glass is something I can consume in a rush while doing ten other things.

Kefir

Kefir and yogurt are both full of good bacteria, but kefir contains roughly three times the amount of probiotic cultures. Whether that matters for long term health is unclear, but in the short term, it can be helpful; this week Toddler’s had an ear infection, and the amoxicillin the doctor prescribed can be hard on little bodies. The pharmacist’s advice was to load Toddler up with probiotics, either in the form of yogurt or supplements. And so, the kefir was useful once again.

Of course, he was unlikely to take a shot of kefir … especially not when the amoxicillin was bubblegum flavoured. So we came up with this frozen yogurt/sorbet-like thing, and he declared “it’s perfect, mum!” and ate enough to keep his little gut happy.

Maybe embroidery would be more socially acceptable. But probiotic ice cream is worth telling people about. Healthy poops for the whole world, indeed!

If you make kefir, let it ferment twice. To do this, make the kefir first, then strain out the kefir grains and let the kefir continue to sit at room temperature for an additional 24 hours, either as it is or with a strip of orange or lemon peel.

You can buy kefir grains online, or at some natural health food stores. In Vancouver, you can get them at Homesteader’s Emporium. Or, if you’re lucky, you know my friend Grace and can get them for free after a lengthy conversation about your microbiome at dinner. (I’m a bit much to be around.)

Blackberry frozen kefir

  • 2 cups twice fermented kefir, store-bought plain kefir or plain 2% yogurt
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen (and defrosted) blackberries, mashed and then passed through a fine mesh sieve
  • 2/3 cup honey or cane sugar syrup
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Whisk kefir, blackberries, honey, and vanilla in a bowl until thoroughly combined. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes, then process through an ice cream machine as per the manufacturer’s instructions.

Freeze for at least one hour before serving. If freezing for more than four hours, let the dessert sit on the counter for ten minutes before serving.

Serve with an additional drizzle of honey, if desired.

Blackberry frozen kefir

Something to Read: Spoon Fed

30days

I’m still in a bit of a mood, as the pain after my wisdom teeth extraction remains ongoing. Tomorrow I have to leave the office for a bit to go back to the surgeon’s office to have him review his work. On my walk home from work today I simply couldn’t stand it any longer and found myself back in Dairy Queen for the second time in less than a week. I make a lot of excuses for my behaviour, but I stand by all of them.

spoonfed

Today’s book is Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life by Kim Severson, who is a writer for The New York Times. The book features stories about Severson’s interactions with eight cooks, all women, who play a pivotal role in Severson’s life (both in the kitchen and outside of it). My favourite part is the chapter on Marcella Hazan, who teaches Severson to Let go of expectations and you’ll be a lot happier.” And it features That Perfect Sauce.

“Can you recall the first grown-up recipe you really mastered? It’s likely not the first thing you ever made, the misshapen pancakes cooked at your father’s elbow or a batch of cookies crammed with too many M&Ms. And it is likely not the first few experiments when you left home, the ones you made to impress a date or because it was your turn in the kitchen at the shared house you lived in during college.

“That special dish usually comes once you are old enough to have someone to cook for and mature enough to understand the value in mastering a recipe so that its preparation is as routine as making a bed with fresh sheets, and the results as predictably nice.” (Page 219)

You can make it with fresh tomatoes, but the thing I like about Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce is that you can make it with dirt cheap Superstore No Name Brand canned tomatoes and it still turns out beautifully – not harsh or acidic, not ever. It’s so simple, and so wonderful, and you can gussy it up with meatballs or gnocchi or whatever, but you don’t even have to. I like Hazan’s sauce (from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking) over a bit of whole wheat pasta and a bit of shaved Parmesan, maybe a little buttered bread on the side for sopping. It’s perfect, beyond what you might expect.

If you’re serving other people, double the recipe. If you’re in a pissy mood because your teeth still hurt, have someone else make it for you. Thank that person. Repeatedly.

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

  • 1 28-ounce can of canned whole tomatoes
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
  • Salt

Put the tomatoes and their juices in a pot with the butter and the onion, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally. Taste, adding salt if you find it needs it.

Before serving, fish out the onion and discard it. Give the tomatoes a whiz with an immersion blender, or use a regular blender to smooth the sauce. Serve over pasta.

Crafty macaroni and cheese

Crafty macaroni and cheese.

Sometimes you just want to eat the food you grew up with, the kind of stuff that hearkens back to a time when cheese was powdered and that was okay. Remember when Parmesan cheese came in its own plastic shaker and was shelf-stable? I think it was made of nylon.

I have always loved macaroni and cheese, and for most of my life macaroni and cheese was something that came in a box. It never would have occurred to me to make it from scratch until a few years ago. When I moved out of my parents’ house and into my first “apartment” (translation: dank basement suite with limited natural light and a permanent damp smell), I was broke all the time and would maximize my calorie intake in the days before payday by cooking up a box of macaroni and cheese (remember when it cost less than a dollar?) and eating the whole thing super fast, then laying face-down on the couch, uncomfortable, to digest for the rest of the evening as though I were a snake that had just swallowed an antelope.

It was an attractive time.

It felt horrible, but it was oddly comforting. When I was a kid, even though we always had Costco cases of macaroni and cheese in the cupboard, it was a total treat, especially if you got it for dinner which almost never happened. I loved macaroni. And in my formative years, macaroni and cheese was always, ALWAYS orange.

Orange sauce.

When you make macaroni and cheese from scratch, it is mostly not orange, even when you use orange cheese. And while grown-up, from-scratch homemade white mac-and-cheese is extremely delicious, it is more like comfort food to me when it’s orange. But macaroni out of a box is the opposite of comfort food these days; when I eat it now, I feel … gross. But you know what’s orange? Carrots are! Also they are healthy, so you can pretend that’s why you’re using them.

Veggies.

This is a very simple dish, and I make it quite saucy so that I can add stuff if I feel like it – adding a 28 oz. can of hominy (drained and rinsed!) makes this kind of amazing – or so that I can plan ahead and have leftovers that reheat well. Add whatever you want – even chopped up hot dogs, if that’s what you like. I won’t judge. (How could I?)

Big pot of cheesy noodles.

Macaroni and cheese

(Serves four to six.)

  • 2 carrots
  • 1/2 onion
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 1/2 cups uncooked macaroni
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. yellow mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 2 1/2 cups shredded aged white cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
  • Salt

Over high heat, bring carrots, onion and garlic to a boil in about two cups of water with a bay leaf and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until carrots are soft, 15 to 2o minutes. Remove bay leaf, pour contents of pot into a blender, and blend. Set aside.

Cook macaroni in salted boiling water according to package instructions.

Meanwhile, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add flour and whisk to combine. Add mustard, whisking again, then add the carrot mixture. Add Worcestershire sauce, paprika and pepper and simmer – whisking occasionally – until thickened, four to six minutes. Add cheese, stirring to melt. Add cream, if you feel like it – not mandatory, but it gives the sauce a richer, silkier taste. Add any additions – such as hominy, cooked sausage, roasted veggies, or whatever. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed.

Add cooked macaroni, stir well to coat, and serve.

Also, if you live anywhere between West Van and Langley, enter this week’s giveaway! Not a ton of entrants, so your odds are good.