Making rainbow pasta at Project Space.

On East Georgia here in Vancouver, just up the block from Phnom Penh, a lot of little art spaces are starting to appear beside the lot of little restaurants I have long enjoyed. One of these is Project Space, a bookshop/art studio/everything-space run by the fabulous folks behind OCW Magazine, who have kindly published my words over the past five or six years.

For the past few days (and tomorrow), Project Space has been home to Summer School, a series of free classes hosted by artists Erin Jane Nelson and Ming Lin. So, because I’m there any time someone wants to combine art with something I can eat, today I went back to school.

The class was led by Ming Lin, who taught us to make rainbow pasta. Natural dyes are a passion of Lin’s, and food is an obvious medium for the exploration of these.

Making pasta is easy. For this class, we poured three cups of all-purpose flour into a pile on the table. We dug a well into the centre of the pile, and cracked an egg into it. We added salt, beat the egg gently in the well, then added about one tablespoon of puréed vegetables – either spinach, beet, or carrot. We’d then continue stirring, this time gradually folding flour into the the mix. When the dough began to form a ball, we’d pull it from the well and knead it, incorporating more flour until the dough was firm but pliable and no longer sticky. The dough went into the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes.

The same pile of flour lasted three rounds of this, and I ended up with three colourful balls of pasta dough, each time re-piling the flour, adding egg and salt, stirring, then adding a spoonful of purée.

After resting in the fridge, the dough was ready to be rolled. At this point, I’d recommend the use of a pasta roller, unless you have the upper-body strength of someone over the age of eight. I do not, but no machine was available, so I rolled my pasta out with an empty wine bottle. Though the idea is to get your sheet of dough as thin as possible, mine was thicker than if I had run it through a pasta machine, which made the boiled noodles thicker and chewier than I prefer. But that’s okay.

Some people trimmed their pasta into long strips. That’s how I did mine, as fresh strands of pasta tossed with browned butter and grated Grana Padano combine to form one of those perfect, simple dishes we ought to make more of. Others were more creative (and patient), and attempted to fold their pasta into bow-ties and penne.

Our teacher cut hers into tiny squares perfect for a pot of soup.

I ended up with a pile of purple and orange noodles, enough for two people to enjoy a small plate of pasta each. I boiled it for about three minutes, then tossed it in a pan with butter and cheese and chopped fresh chilies, and then scattered parsley over top.

Pasta-making was a pleasant diversion, and a reminder that a small amount of effort can yield delicious results. Why not dawdle over a bit of dough the next cloudy day and treat yourself to something simple and delicious? I hope it rains tomorrow, as I’d like to purée some chilies for a batch of dough and see what happens. What’s your perfect pasta? I’d love your tips and recipes. Bonus points for butter and cheese, obviously.

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Kasha varnishkes.

I like clutter. I like my visual field to be jam-packed with stuff that sparkles or is brightly coloured or that I can look at and instantly conjure some memory of some time or place, whether real or fictional – I’m beginning to wonder how many of the things I remember actually happened and how many I invented or just read. In the recklessly unencumbered pre-baby era, Nick and I would spend many of our weekends flitting from brunch to thrift stores and flea markets, picking through piles of junk to find what we believed to be treasures. I once joked to my friend Dan that it wouldn’t be a big deal for us to move cross-country, as everything we own could be replaced in thrift stores when we got there. He agreed, which should probably be kind of insulting. I mean, some of our stuff is from Ikea, so it’s not all junk … right?

Among the beer steins and vintage “art,” one of my favourite things to discover among the rubble was cookbooks, especially the kind from the 70s and 80s with their deliciously terrible food styling and orange-tinged photography. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t buy the 1987 edition of Vogue Entertaining when I saw it at the VGH Thrift Shop for $13 – the jellied salads! The all-brown buffet of “Indian food!” The palm fronds in crystal vases! (Side note: That this is one of my biggest regrets speaks either to a total lack of ambition or a history of unapologetically not giving a shit. I can’t decide which is worse.)

One of my favourite cookbook finds to date came from the Cloverdale Flea Market, where we spent one sunny afternoon searching for more beer steins, kitten art, and light-up statues of Jesus. In a pile in the back of one man’s trailer, I found a collection of six paperback books on “international cuisine,” which continues to delight all these years later. My favourite is the book on Jewish cookery, which does not contain a recipe for matzo ball soup, but which boasts recipes for both Cantonese Chicken and Chicken Chow Mein.

Not knowing a lot about Jewish food, this book has been my introduction to a cuisine that only seems to get airtime in December and April. And while I have yet to follow a recipe to the letter, a few recipes have been jumping-off points. One of these, for kasha varnishkes, is an excellent (if not beautiful) dish (“delicious and nourishing beige noodle mush” is a pretty accurate description) that uses pantry staples for a cheap starch alternative.

Buckwheat is one of those super-healthy things you’re supposed to eat to lower cholesterol. It’s high in fibre, it’s cheap, and it’s quite tasty. And it has diverse applications – Food52 has a compiled a pretty thorough list. You can find roasted buckwheat groats, also known as kasha, at natural foods stores and Eastern European delis and groceries. Kasha varnishkes are lightly sweet, thanks to the onion and apple, and are best served alongside sausages or roast meats and pickles, or with veggies for a full and hearty meal. You can use vegetable stock to make it vegetarian-friendly.

Kasha varnishkes

(Serves four as a side-dish.)

  • 6 tbsp. butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup roasted buckwheat groats
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/4 lb. small egg noodles, such as spaetzle
  • 2 cups chopped apple, diced to about 1/2″
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, melt two tablespoons of butter and stir in apples and onions. Cover, cook ten minutes, then remove lid and reduce heat to medium. Stir frequently for 20 to 30 minutes, until apples and onions have caramelized and shrunk down considerably.

Meanwhile, heat three tablespoons of butter in a pot over medium-high heat. In a bowl, stir buckwheat and egg until thoroughly combined. Pour into pot, stirring to keep groats from sticking together. Keep stirring until egg is cooked and appears dry. Add garlic, then chicken stock. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until liquid is absorbed and groats are fluffy, about 15 minutes.

In another pot, bring 2 1/2 cups of water to a rolling boil. Add noodles, and cook until just al denté (refer to cook time on package). Drain.

Stir cooked groats and drained pasta into the apple and onion mixture, add an additional tablespoon of butter, stirring to coat. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Stir in parsley, and serve immediately.

Roasted apricot with cottage cheese

In our early twenties, my friend Theresa and I shared a basement suite east of Commercial Drive and a tendency towards excess. It was a dark, damp little place last renovated in the early eighties by someone with a preference for shades of brown, but it was cheap and close enough to public transit and places we liked to go. The living room wall featured a cutout with a long fluorescent tube light at the top that was probably meant for displaying art, but it had a ledge just wide enough for a single liquor bottle, and long enough for maybe thirty.

We wheeled an old TV stand in next to the bar and stocked it with shakers and shot glasses and swizzle sticks and hula dancer figurines and felt pretty good about our lives. The kitchen had a place to hang stemware, and we filled it with our mismatched collection of cups and glasses. Every evening after work we’d have cocktails, the alcohol equivalent to swamp water, and we’d feel like fancy ladies as we sipped mango Malibu and peach schnapps out of plastic martini glasses.

But fancy cocktails weren’t our only bad habit. We were too similar to survive together for too long – though I suspect that if she’d never moved to Australia we’d still be together making bad choices in basement suites, probably sharing a set of kidneys – and one could easily convince the other that what anyone else would consider a bad idea was actually the best idea ever, like washing the kitchen floor with ammonia AND bleach (double the cleaning power!) or buying six Filet-o-Fish sandwiches with extra tartar sauce and a full slice of cheese at midnight because we were going to eat them anyway and it would save us another (inevitable) trip out and while we were at it maybe we needed apple pies too. We invented fourth meal but never thought to trademark it.

One of the ways we enabled each other to do incredibly self-destructive awesome things was by claiming that whatever we were doing was in the name of health. At the time, Theresa was a vegetarian except for fish and pepperoni, and I was just beginning to get really excited about fibre. Theresa would go on long runs, and I would go to boot camp because I was too lazy to exercise unless I paid for it and would only go out of guilt at having spent the money. Because we had our health in mind intermittently, sometimes we would stock up on healthy things, either at Costco or at our parents’ houses when one of our moms was cleaning out her pantry and wanted us to take crap away. One of our kicks was dried fruit, which made an excellent snack for a vegetarian and a fibre enthusiast.

Somehow we came to possess about a kilogram of dried apricots. One evening, in our pajama pants and holey sweatshirts with nothing to do and no desire to go out, we put on a movie and made the healthy choice to snack on dried fruit instead of Cheetos or Zesty Doritos, probably because one or the other of us had exercised and did not want to derail those efforts right away. Theresa brought out an opened zip-top bag of dried mango slices and a plastic bag of dried cranberries, and I found the apricots. Over the two hours the movie played, we ate the entire bag of dried apricots and most of the other fruit, which seemed like a good idea at the time because all that fruit fibre was bound to do good things for us.

Theresa is a scientist, but somehow she didn’t foresee what it might do to us. Over the next two or three days we both learned a valuable lesson, and that is that fibre is a finicky friend, and that very easily you can take the relationship too far.

I cried.

Years later, I still approach apricots with trepidation. I buy them only a handful at a time (and rarely dried), because there is safety only in a certain number, but all I know is that the number is low. And yet I still love them. I have never been good at knowing when to give up on a thing.

In the years between then and now, I have learned a little bit about balance. Maybe one apricot is okay. Maybe with a bit of protein, and a touch of sweetness. Maybe, like peach schnapps, apricots are not a meal but rather a snack that can be enjoyed in moderation.

Roasted apricot with cottage cheese

(Serves one.)

  • 1 or 2 apricots, halved
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • Pat of butter, dotted over cut sides
  • 1/2 cup cottage cheese
  • 8 roasted whole almonds, chopped
  • Honey, to taste

Heat oven to 300°F.

Place apricot in a small baking dish, sprinkle with cinnamon, and then dot with butter.

Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until soft and lightly browned.

Spoon cottage cheese into a bowl. Place roasted apricot halves over top, sprinkle with almonds, and drizzle with honey.

This is great for breakfast or for a snack before bed. If you don’t like cottage cheese, this is also quite pleasant with yogurt.

Rich, hearty meat sauce.

With the exception of a four-hour period last Friday during which I managed to score an excruciating, now-peeling sunburn from sitting on a patio during lunch, this part of the world has been slow to summer. Which is just as well, because I’ve recovered most of my appetite, and after Paris the taste I’m looking for is unctuous. Unctuous like long-roasted meat, and like the sauce around it, so rich with that slowly melted fat that coats your mouth and the inside of your belly, leaving you full and sleepy.

I went with Grace (and Claude, but that is a story for another time) to a restaurant in Paris called Bistroy Les Papilles where we were brought just such a dish. Three steaks of pork belly were served in a tomato sauce filled with navy beans, thyme, and fresh spring vegetables; the pork had been cooking long enough that most of the fat found itself in the sauce, so that the meal was deceptively rich. I succeeded in eating only a small plateful, though it was a satisfying plateful.

It’s not really possible during the week to cook a slab of pork belly until it melts down into and plumps several pounds of white beans, not when one has to go to a place of business and complete tasks each day – I do have a slow-cooker but it’s the kind that sets things on fire. It is possible to mimic that unctuousness on a weeknight at home; the secret is to use good-quality meat, a combination of pork fat and olive oil, and a cheaterly handful of minced mushrooms. Top with cheese.

This sauce is easy, but it’s not slimming. The point is comfort (as my point so often is), and this is one of those dishes you could serve to company some rainy night, even on the weekend. It’s layered, and tastes as though it cooked for much longer than it did. The cinnamon adds balance to the meatiness, so if you are unsure about it, just add a little bit and see what you think.

Meat sauce for pasta

(Serves eight.)

  • 6 strips bacon, chopped
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup celery, finely chopped
  • 1 cup carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 lbs. good quality ground meat (I like a combination of beef and venison or pork, but you could use just beef if that’s what you have)
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

Brown bacon in a large pot over medium-high heat. Remove from pot to a plate lined with paper towel using a slotted spoon.

Add olive oil, followed by the onion, celery, and carrots. If the veggies are cooking too quickly, reduce heat to medium, and cook until soft and lightly golden, about ten minutes. Remove from pot to a plate using a slotted spoon. If you reduce the heat, put it back before the meat goes in.

Add meat, mushrooms, and garlic, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. When meat has browned, add back vegetables and deglaze the pan with the wine. Add crushed tomatoes, oregano, pepper, basil, and cinnamon, and then beef stock. Stir to combine, and then taste. Depending on your bacon and stock, you may or may not need to add salt. Let simmer over medium-low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Before serving, add parsley. Serve over pasta with additional parsley for garnish, and a sprinkling of cheese.

For us, this is enough for dinner and leftovers, and for a bit to put in the freezer for dinner another night. It is better the next day. And if you live nearby, you will need it tomorrow because it will still be raining. If you are a cat, the birds will tease you relentlessly as they hide in the branches of the tree just outside your window. Right now we all need our share of meat sauce.

Peanutty soba noodles with kale.

This past week, I have been inexplicably drawn to purple vegetables. I’ve bought turnips rimmed with a violet blush, potatoes dark as over-dyed denim, two kinds of purple yams, and that jewel-hued bunch of kale. Maybe it’s that purple suggests nutrients I’ve been lacking – it’s been a long winter of dark leafy greens and sweet potatoes and chickpeas – or maybe it’s that I am so very tired of winter and am ready to just get on with spring already. Maybe it’s that everything seems so grey and cold and apocalyptic right now, and purple suggests whimsy, a decadence we couldn’t afford if it came in any other form. Whatever the reason, if it’s purple it’s getting stuffed into my shopping bag.

You don’t have to use purple kale here; green would be perfectly lovely and probably more aesthetically pleasing – the purple with the soba and the peanut butter got a little lost. Purple desire aside, I was willing to overlook a sub-par presentation because this came together in under 15 minutes; the longest part was waiting for the water to boil. Perfect for this Meatless Monday, or anytime it feels like March or the end of the world.

Peanutty soba noodles with kale

(Serves four)

  • 2 tbsp. peanut or vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 1 block medium-firm tofu
  • 1/2 lb. soba noodles
  • 1/2 lb. chopped fresh kale
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter (natural peanut butter is best because it’s runnier)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup sriracha
  • 2 tbsp. rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. sesame oil
  • 2 tsp. honey
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts

In a large pan, over medium-high heat, heat oil and add onion, garlic, and ginger. Cook until fragrant, about two minutes.

Pat tofu dry with a kitchen towel and cut into cubes. Add to the pan, tossing occasionally.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add soba noodles, and cook for three minutes.

Meanwhile, combine peanut butter, soy sauce, sriracha, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and honey in a bowl. Mix well, taste, and adjust seasonings as needed.

After three minutes, add kale to the pot. Cook an additional three minutes, then drain. Rinse with cold water and drain again.

Add noodles and kale to onion mixture, and pour sauce over top. Toss with 1/2 cup of the fresh cilantro. Divide between four plates, and garnish with remaining cilantro and chopped peanuts.

This would also be good with chopped scallions and fresh bean sprouts. We might have had those things if I wasn’t only buying purple stuff.

Rapini and sausage with white beans and orecchiette

When we found out that Nick has diabetes, we were  lucky in that we were already eating mostly pretty well, most of the time, cheese and butter and cream aside, and that we didn’t have to make significant dietary changes. I threw out one stale half-bag of poor-quality elbow macaroni that I might have bought at Walmart that dark year I was an intern and had to have three roommates in a basement suite where the front door only kind of locked and where when it rained the water ran into the suite right over the electrical panel. We weren’t going to eat it anyway.

The only thing I really miss now that Nick is restricted is having pasta as a default – not being able to serve up a big plate of refined white carbs when I don’t feel like putting in a real effort, which can happen a couple of times a week, means adapting to a new kind of laziness. And the difference between pasta and something like, say risotto or sushi, which is also white and low on the glycemic index, is that pasta tends to last a couple of meals so you get that good blood-sugar spike a couple of days in a row. Fine for me, shakes and comas for him.

He can still have a small amount of pasta, of course. What he can have is likely what would be considered a normal portion size. And when you get down to comparing labels and noting the varying levels of carbohydrates, the rice pastas and whole-wheat pastas and gluten-free pastas are all similarly bad news carbohydrate-wise; a plate of the whole-wheat stuff is going to affect Captain Diabetes the same way that a plate of the delicious semolina stuff will.

So we adapted. Instead of a big plate of pasta, we have a big plate of stuff with pasta in it if there isn’t enough time to devise a huge and clever feast, or if the idea of opening a cupboard is too daunting to even consider. Here is one of those meals. It calls for blanching, which may qualify as a step that’s too daunting, but it’s really nothing. I promise.

Rapini and sausage with white beans and orecchiette

(Serves four.)

  • 1 lb. rapini, chopped
  • 1 cup uncooked orecchiette pasta
  • 1 lb. spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 19 oz. can white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Drop chopped rapini in, and boil for two to three minutes until wilted and brightened in colour. Remove rapini from water, reserving liquid, and plunge into a large bowl of icy water. Set aside.

Return the pot to the heat and bring water back up to a boil.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Cook onions until translucent. Add garlic, then crumble sausage into the pan. Stir with a wooden spoon, breaking the meat up as you go. Add red pepper flakes and tomato paste and continue moving the meat around the pan.

When the water has come to a boil, add pasta and boil until al denté, about eight minutes.

Drain and then add rapini to the pan, stirring to coat in pan juices. As pasta finishes cooking, add beans and lemon zest and juice, then add pasta. Reserve some of the pasta water in case the pan becomes too dry.

Add parsley and cheese. Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve with additional cheese.

Yogurt cheese, smoked salmon, and canneloni.

Oh, this week! I don’t know where it’s gone, and I have two modes and two modes only these past seven days: frantic disorganization and head-bobbing lethargy, neither of which has proven to be particularly sustainable. My arthritis is flaring up again, this time with insistence, and Nick’s always talking about his diabetes, and I’m always telling him how much fibre is in things and we both feel 800-years-old.

Also, if the weird loop of incongruous music in my head is any indication, my internal DJ is totally high (when did that song from Aladdin get mashed up with The Beach Boys and why has either crossed my mind?), and I know we must have eaten something Monday and Tuesday, but I can’t figure out what it was. And the mountains are dark behind a scattered mist and the temperature has dropped and there are rumours of snow, even after I snapped photos of little white buds in a patch of dirt in front of a building around the corner just this past Saturday when we were running around having adventures in light jackets.


Anyway. I made yogurt cheese because the yogurt I like was on sale. (Given my current state of mind, that’s as good a transition as any.) I told you about yogurt cheese a long while back – it comes from this wonderful blog. At first it was a perfectly good spread for bagels, but now is so much more.

This would be best if you made it with hand-rolled sheets of fresh pasta. Second best is store-bought sheets of fresh pasta, which is what I used. Third would be those hard canneloni tubes you get in a box in the dry pasta aisle, but I have never been able to handle those without crushing them like so many taco shells. It’ll take about five sheets, each one cut in half so that it is roughly 4″x3″ (those Olivieri ones will work just fine).

And don’t just cheat and use ricotta. With the yogurt and the lemon and the salmon together, the filling is bright and flavourful. The night before you plan to make this, empty a large container of yogurt (750mL) into a strainer lined with cheesecloth. Tie up the edges, and hang it over the sink overnight (with a bowl underneath to catch  the whey, which is a fantastic addition to soups and bread). Instructions with photos are here. You’ll end up with a little over a cup, maybe a cup and a half, and it should be the consistency of crumbly cream cheese. Refrigerate the stuff until you’re ready to use it.

Smoked salmon canneloni with yogurt cheese

(Serves four.)

Pasta

  • 5 sheets fresh pasta, 8″x6″ (approximately)
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 leek, 1″ thick, white and light-green part only, chopped
  • 1 batch yogurt cheese (about 1 1/4 cup)
  • 1/2 cup smoked salmon, flaked and packed
  • Zest and juice of one lemon
  • 1/4 cup parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 egg, beaten

Sauce

  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup light cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Melt butter in a pan over medium-high heat. When bubbling, add leek and garlic. Cook for one minute, until garlic is fragrant and leek has brightened in colour. Remove from heat.

In a medium bowl, mush together yogurt cheese, smoked salmon, and lemon zest and juice. Use a fork – the best mushing is usually done with a fork. Pour buttery garlicky leeks into the bowl, and add parsley, salt, and pepper, stir, and taste. Adjust seasonings as needed. When you like what you’re tasting, stir in the egg. Set aside.

Ready pasta for rolling according to package instructions. For store-bought fresh pasta, you may need to soak it for a couple of minutes in cold water. Trim to about 4″x3″.

Bring light cream to just a simmer. Remove from heat. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic, and cook until translucent. Add crushed tomatoes. Once the tomatoes begin to burble and steam, reduce heat to medium and carefully stir in cream, slowly and in a steady stream, stirring until fully incorporated. Remove from heat.

Coat the bottom of a glass or enameled 9″x13″ baking dish with a thin layer of sauce.

Scoop 1/4 cup filling into the centre of each piece of pasta. Roll into loose cylinders, and place side by side into the pan. Once you have run out of room on the first layer, coat the tops with sauce, and continue laying rolls in a second layer. Coat the whole thing with remaining sauce, then cover with aluminum foil.

Bake covered for 35 minutes, then remove foil and cook uncovered for an additional 10 minutes. Serve sprinkled with fresh parsley.

I served the pasta over a bed of wilted chard, which turned out to be a nice way to balance the flavours of the dish, the earthiness of the greens tempering the acidity and smoke of the pasta. It would also go nicely with salad.