Swarni’s pork and cabbage

Yesterday was Guru Nanak’s birthday, which my friend Swarni told me about at work because she thought I’d like to take the kidlet and maybe Nick to visit a gurdwara, donate a dollar, and eat an Indian meal. This is a thing anyone can do, and Swarni says we can bring Tupperware for leftovers but the idea of being the greedy white lady with the Tupperwares mooching food from the Sikh temple kitchen is mortifying. She thinks I’m silly.

It was a quiet day at the office, and so we took a couple of extra coffee breaks and Swarni talked about her late father, and about her faith, which is a weird thing to discuss at the office but if you can get over things being weird and just listen, you can learn stuff. Anything you can learn without Google will make you better, I think, and if not better then at least a little wiser.

I want to learn everything, and am starting to understand how much less I have to talk to do that.

And so we talked, and we ate most of a box of Toffifee that Seti brought in, and then Swarni finally shared her recipe for pork and cabbage, a thing I’ve been begging her for but which she repeatedly waved me off about.

“It’s not much of anything,” she’d say. “My dad always made it, and he invented it.”

“Put it in your cookbook,” she said.

It’s not much of anything, and that’s why it’s so amazing. It’s just a few simple ingredients, and they’re cheap, and it doesn’t cook long, it’s got a depth of flavour you don’t always get in easy weeknight dishes. This one’s a keeper.

She said I could share the recipe with you. She says you can make it with chicken instead of pork, or with mushrooms and peas instead of cabbage, or with a can of puréed spinach. She says it’s best with bone-in pork chops, so you can pluck the bones out of the pot at the end of the meal for a nibble. I haven’t tried those other ways, but we do what Swarni says if we know what’s good for us.

I made this with the intent to pack the leftovers for lunches, and there were no leftovers. The little one gobbled his up, and Nick had two big helpings. I served it with brown rice, but white rice will do just fine. I was going to make raita, but got lazy. A few slices of apple made a perfect accompaniment.

Swarni’s pork and cabbage

(Makes 4 servings.)

  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 onion, trimmed, halved lengthwise, and sliced
  • 1 tsp. coarse salt
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 heaping tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste (look for a low- or no-sodium version)
  • 2 tsp. Madras (yellow) curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 lb. pork tenderloin, cubed
  • 1/2 tsp. garam masala
  • 1 lb. savoy cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
  • Cilantro

Add butter, onion and salt to a Dutch oven or other heavy pot and sauté over medium-high heat until onions have just begun to soften, about two minutes. Add garlic and ginger, cook for another minute, then add tomato paste and curry powder. Add half a cup of water. Stir to combine.

Add the pork to the pot, and stir to coat the pork in the spice-tomato mixture. Reduce heat to medium, cover the pot, and cook for 15 minutes.

Remove the lid, and add the garam masala. Cook for an additional two minutes.

Add the cabbage, stirring to coat in the sauce mixture until just wilted, another three or four minutes. You don’t want the cabbage to be limp and mushy – it should retain some of its toothiness and crunch.

Sprinkle with a handful of chopped fresh cilantro, and serve over rice.

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Taco fried rice.

The first time I ever heard about taco rice I didn’t have much information to go on other than “yeah, duh, that sounds amazing. I would like to have that now, please.”

As usual, I wasn’t entirely paying attention and when it came time to try making it for the first time, I missed a few essential details.

Taco rice is one of those magical, confusing dishes that results from a bunch of ideas all jumbled up and served on one plate. It’s origin is Japanese – Okinawan, specifically – with influence from a bunch of taco-craving American GIs based on the island. It came up in the most recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, and it was only then that I understood. Says Bourdain: “This unholy, greasy, starchy, probably really unhealthy delight, a booze-mop-turned-classic, caught on big time.”

Taco fried rice baseIn short, what I thought was taco rice was not taco rice at all. Taco rice is a layered thing – spiced, fried ground meat on top of white rice, with lettuce and tomatoes and cheese on top of that. Taco fried rice is unholy in its own way, the kind of thing you would make if you were drunk in your kitchen late at night, or if it was the 1950s. It’s exotic! Except it’s not.

It’s comfort food and you should be comfortable when you eat it.

So, here’s my misinterpretation of taco rice. What is authenticity anyway?

Taco fried rice

(Makes 4 servings.)

  • 3 tbsp. canola oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 celery stalks, halved lengthwise and then diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 cup corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 lb. ground pork
  • 1 tbsp. chili powder
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 2 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. rice vinegar
  • 3 cups cooked rice
  • 2 cups prepared salsa (either homemade or store-bought)
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

In a large pan or Dutch oven over medium heat, saute onion, celery, bell pepper, jalapeño pepper, and corn until colours have brightened, about two minutes. Add garlic and cook for another two minutes, stirring occasionally until veggies have just begun to soften.

Crumble the ground pork into the pan. Add chili powder, cumin, paprika, black pepper, coriander, and oregano to the pan, and stir, breaking up the pork with a wooden spoon as you go. Cook for about five minutes, until pork is cooked through and the pan appears dry on the bottom.

Add soy sauce and rice vinegar, and stir to combine. Add rice. Stir again.

Add salsa, and stir. Cook for another three minutes, until most of the liquid in the pan has disappeared. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Stir in cilantro and serve with accompaniments.

Taco fried rice with toppingsAccompaniments:

  • Shredded cabbage
  • Sliced tomatoes
  • Diced avocado
  • Thinly sliced jalapeño peppers
  • Shredded cheddar cheese
  • Hot sauce, such as Tapatio or Cholula

Slow-cooker cabbage rolls.

I love cabbage rolls, but for years have not made them for the same reason I never make lasagna; I hate the requirement to boil a pot of water and cook each leaf before I can even get started. It sucks and I always burn myself and so I make stuffed peppers or stuffed squash instead. But then one day my mother-in-law told me that “the Ukrainian ladies told me you just put the whole cabbage in the freezer and then defrost it so you don’t have to boil it.”

I don’t know who the Ukrainian ladies are or even if I remembered the context of her statement correctly, but let me tell you – it works.

Cabbage rolls steps

Cabbage rolls just got easier to make. I much prefer forethought to effort, if I have to choose one over the other, and anything that I can do to save myself time and that also makes it so I can eat more cabbage rolls is something I am going to do over and over again. I keep re-reading that sentence and I am not convinced it even made sense but I stand by it.

I don’t pre-cook any part of these because I don’t have time to even do laundry so I am not going to take a lot of unnecessary extra steps for a weeknight dinner now that The Voice is back and every episode is two hours long.

There you go. There.

Also, it’s getting chilly again and the Crock Pot is the ultimate defense against the cold; there is something wonderful about coming in from the rain to a home that already smells like dinner. I put everything into the pot the night before and then throw it in the fridge; I just pull the food out in the morning, turn the Crock Pot on and let it go all day so it’s almost like dinner is a freebie. FREE CABBAGE ROLLS. It all just feels so right.

Morning matters.

Slow-cooker cabbage rolls

  • 1 head of green cabbage, such as savoy or Taiwanese
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 cup packed fresh parsley
  • 1 lb. lean ground beef
  • 1 lb. ground pork
  • 1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. dried savoury
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cups beef stock

Okay. So. The night before you want to roll your cabbage rolls for the following night’s dinner, put the cabbage in your freezer. When you wake up the next morning, take the cabbage out of the freezer and put it in a colander in the sink and let it defrost. Your mileage here may vary – my apartment tends to be on the warm side, so mine defrosted just fine; if you are unsure whether you can get your cabbage defrosted in time, start even earlier, and just let it defrost in the fridge over a day or two.

Meanwhile, finely chop your onion, carrots, celery, garlic and parsley. You can do this in the food processor if you’re feeling kind of lazy. I was. Put everything in a bowl, then scoop half out and put it into a different bowl. Set aside.

Add your beef, pork, rice, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, salt, paprika, savoury, and pepper to the first bowl. Mix thoroughly. You can do this a day ahead as well, just cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to use.

In the other bowl, add the crushed tomatoes and the beef stock. Taste, and season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Again, feel free to make this ahead of time and set it aside.

When you’re ready to roll, pour about a cup of the sauce mixture into the bottom of the Crock Pot. Cut the core out of your cabbage and discard it. Peel the leaves off, and cut out the thick part of the centre rib. Place a few tablespoons of your meat mixture into the top of the leaf, then roll it up, folding the sides in as you go. Place each roll into the pot as you go, ladling sauce over top as you complete each layer.

I ended up with about 20 cabbage rolls, which is too many to eat all at once but they freeze very well.

When you’re finished, pour the remaining sauce over top, cover with the lid, then either refrigerate until you’re ready to make these (if you’re doing it the night before), or cook them right away. Set your slow cooker to low, and cook for ten hours.

Serve with pickles.

Cabbage rolls with pickles

Slow-cooker ham and white bean stew

Stew.

Patience is a virtue, but it isn’t one of mine. And so I am pacing, expectant, as a friend of mine is days, maybe even hours away from having a baby I feel like she’s been gestating for years. I keep wishing things would hurry along, because while I know people with babies, very few of those people live nearby. And when you have babies, you need other people around you to have them. People with babies need other people with babies because what we really need is a support group with wine.

The longer you have babies, the more you need wine. Mine is an accidental hurricane, a destructive force of nature seemingly bent on exploring and subsequently breaking all my things. That this is going to happen to someone I know is very comforting.

And so my friend is almost there, and because one only needs so many onesies, I had said I would make her freezer meals in lieu of a shower gift. So I have been plodding along, making a container of something here, and a pot of something there. Tonight I added one more to the freezer, a pot of ham and white bean stew, a creamy, savoury combination of leftovers and slow-cookery.

I left the stew in the Crock Pot to cook for ten hours today, and when I came home this place smelled like salty meat and garlic and herbs; using just a few bits and pieces, there was enough hearty stew for at least eight people, I’m sure of it. It’s not beautiful, but it’s delicious, and plenty soothing for someone with a newborn and the imminent danger of having all her favourite stuff smashed by a happy little Hulk.

Crock pot full of stew.

Ham and white bean stew

(Serves 6 to 8.)

  • 1 lb. small white beans, such as Great Northern or navy beans
  • 1 lb. cubed ham
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 6 cups stock (ideally homemade ham stock, but store-bought chicken stock will work too)
  • 1 tbsp. grainy mustard
  • 1 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • Juice of half a lemon, if needed
  • Salt to taste

The night before you plan to eat, cover one pound of white beans with an inch of water.

In the morning, drain and rinse your beans. Put them into a slow cooker, along with ham, onion, celery, pearl barley, stock, mustard, rosemary, and bay leaves. Stir, cover, set slow cooker to low, and cook for 10 hours.

Go to work, or about your day, or back to bed.

When you get home, stir in pepper, Parmesan, and parsley. Taste, and add lemon juice and salt as needed. Serve with bread. Feel virtuous.

Stew and toast.

Candied pork belly.

I’m going to tell you a secret.

When your friends have children and they can’t stop telling you how easy it is, and what a super duper joy babies are every day especially at 3:00 a.m., and how diapers aren’t really that big a deal, you should take their claims with a medium-sized grain of salt. Especially if those friends only know, like, a handful of people who have babies and most of them live outside the city which is too far to take public transportation for play-dates.

They want you to have your own kids and join them. I am shameless about it.

Babysitters are expensive, so it’s nice when you can convince a few people close by to procreate and trade free babysitting, or even just spend Saturday nights together, drinking red wine and sighing heavily over the cost of daycare. And it took a little while, but I got one! My friends Aimee and Evani are expecting their first miniature human burden! This is very exciting news, as they just moved ten minutes away and right across the street from the place that sells dosas for $5.99 on Mondays. We are going to do so much commiserating! I am going to eat all the curry pancakes!

In the meantime, it’s important for a pregnant lady to have brunch made for her once in awhile. So this past weekend, Aimee, Evani, and Vanessa – three lovely, funny ladies – and I plonked down at my dining room table and we ate until we could barely muster the energy to stand up and waddle to the couches afterward.

For Aimee, I candied some pork belly. And now we are never having mere bacon at brunch ever again.

I stole the brining and braising of the pork belly from the Momofuku cookbook. You can find the recipe for the pork belly buns online, but I highly recommend this cookbook. Everything I’ve made from it has been worth making again and again.

Candied pork belly

  • 2 1/2 pounds pork belly, skin removed (about one kilogram)
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup brown sugar, divided
  • 1/2 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt, divided
  • 1 cup apple cider or unsweetened apple juice
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

Whisk together four cups of water, 1/2 cup of brown sugar, and 1/2 cup of Kosher salt until mostly dissolved. Place in a large, sturdy zip-top bag or container with a lid, and pour the brine over top. Seal and let brine in the fridge for 24 hours.

Remove pork belly from brine, and place fat side up in a 9″x13″ baking dish. Preheat oven to 300°F. Pour apple cider or juice over pork belly, cover the whole thing with aluminum foil, and cook for 2 1/2 hours.

Remove from oven, cool completely, and stick back in the fridge for at least three hours but preferably overnight.

Remove chilled pork belly from fridge. Cut in half width-wise (with the grain of the meat) and then into length-wise slices  (across the grain of the meat) about 1/4-inch thick.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment or foil, and lay slices of pork belly evenly across the pan. Mix remaining brown sugar and salt with smoked paprika, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper. Sprinkle half of the mixture over the pork belly slices.

Turn on your oven’s broiler, and stick the pan right underneath. This part is going to require constant vigilance – it will take just a second to burn, so you need to pay attention. Watch the surface of the pork belly; what you want is for the sugar to melt and bubble. When it’s done that, take out the pan, flip your slices, and sprinkle the remaining sugar mixture over top; stick the pan back under the broiler and watch for the same sizzling.

Serve hot, with brunch foods.

Tamale pie with black beans and red peppers.

Nick’s birthday was last week, and to celebrate we went out to the Tiki Bar at the newly renovated Waldorf Hotel. It was snowing, so I drove so I could still wear cute shoes and eschew a warmer, frumpier coat in favour of something that went better with my outfit. For awhile, the outfit was perfectly acceptable, because on a night like that there’d have been no reason to go outside.

I don’t know what happened.

Somehow, Nick’s friends decided that The Waldorf wasn’t fun anymore, and because it was Nick’s birthday and I drove them, I went along with their new plan to go to some house party on Commercial Drive. We parked the car at his friends’ house, because they said the party was within walking distance – closer than possibly having to park somewhere out of the way, I was assured – and on a warmer night, it might have been. First we walked several blocks to Commercial Drive, and then we headed south. I wasn’t wearing socks inside my stilettos, and my coat only buttoned halfway.

It was a 25-minute walk, and the snow was already several inches thick on the ground. And while Nick’s veins had been warmed by tequila before we left the bar, mine had not. This caused a variety of predictable problems for us as we plodded along.

I remember telling Nick I was going to stab him in the face and leave him to bleed or freeze to death in the snow. A few minutes later, we got to where we were going.

There was a $10 cover for each person, and as we climbed the stairs to the house, I realized that I am far less open-minded than I thought I was. The unmistakable stink of incense wafted down from the front door to the first landing on the stairs up, and when we got inside, we were instructed to remove our shoes. A sign informed guests that there would be no alcohol permitted in the house or outside of it.

This was the sort of place where I would be inclined to drink heavily. In a room with a beaded doorway, a woman warbled poetry and played what I think was a sitar, but it might have been that someone was stepping repeatedly on a cat, or a herd of cats – there was no way to be certain without going into the room, and I am uncomfortable sharing my personal space with a lot of strangers. On the back porch, an erotic cuddle puddle seemed to be forming, and downstairs, there was a performance I’m pretty sure included interpretive dance. I was in hell.

So we left. And we walked, again, in the snow until I was sure my toes would blacken with frostbite and fall right off. When we finally got home, I crawled into my fleece footie pajamas and drank tea so hot it was still boiling in the mug. When I woke up the next morning, I noticed a scratch in my throat, and by Monday, the cold was going full-bore.

This week is for very thick socks, sensible outerwear, and comfort food. Tonight I made a big pan of tamale pie, which is essentially Shepherd’s Pie with cornmeal instead of potatoes. I used a base I adapted from Homesick Texan’s Mexican Chorizo recipe; what resulted was a huge dish of food, one that will last as long as I need soothing, which, given the chill still haunting my toes and the cold fogging up my brain, might be a long time.

Tamale pie

(Serves six.)

  • 1 onion, halved
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 7 oz. can chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
  • 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 lb. ground pork
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cups chopped red bell pepper
  • 1 19 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1 5.5 oz. can tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 cup butter, cold
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Chop one half of the onion, and place in a food processor or blender with garlic, chipotle peppers, vinegar, cumin, coriander, oregano, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and salt. Blend until smooth.

Place pork in a bowl, and pour the blended pepper mixture over top. Mush the meat and the liquid together with your hands until combined. Wash your hands.

Mince the other half of the onion, and heat it in olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add peppers, and saute until they’ve begun to sweat. Add meat, breaking it apart with a wooden spoon, and then add black beans, and both kinds of tomatoes. Simmer until liquid has reduced, about 10 minutes. Stir the mixture regularly while it simmers. Add cilantro, and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, bring four cups of salted water to a boil over high heat. Whisk cornmeal in, and reduce heat to medium, whisking frequently until thickened, three to five minutes. Remove from heat.

Stir in butter, then eggs. Keep the mixture moving as you add the eggs so that they don’t scramble and ruin everything. Add cheese.

Pour meaty mixture into a 9″x13″ baking dish. Pour the cornmeal mixture over top of the meaty, beany pepper mixture.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden on top and bubbling around the sides. Let rest five to 10 minutes before serving, so that the topping can set. Serve with sour cream or thick yogurt.

Choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne.

It’s our anniversary! Our second one, but Mondays are boring and also our laundry day, and for some reason I was awake at 4:00 this morning, so to celebrate we did a load of towels, had a nap, and Nick brought me orange flowers, and we went for sushi, which was delicious, though convenient.

But last night I wanted to do something kind of special, because we spent our first anniversary pushing Paul’s car across the border, which was as romantic as pushing a Honda Civic across the Canadian border in the dark and then standing under an orange street light for an hour waiting for a tow truck on the other side in November after frost has fallen and taking public transit back to the city can be.To make up for last year, this year I brought my A-game. Sometimes I like making food that takes all day, and I wanted to do something distinct to mark Sunday as separate from the rest of the weekend, during which we also celebrated Nick’s birthday. I invited Grace and Paul over to celebrate our anniversary with us, and we had so much food. Come to think of it, it makes sense now that I was up at 4:00 a.m.; there is only so much pork that one can cram into her maw and still expect to sleep through the night.

The recipe that follows is based on Jeffrey Steingarten’s recipe for Choucroute Garnie à L’Alsacienne, from his book The Man Who Ate Everything. Because I am paid considerably less than Mr. Steingarten and am routinely accosted by Nick over how much I spend on special-occasion meals (not much, by the way, but he feels that all the dollars I spend on fancy ingredients could be spent far more enjoyably on beer), there are some adjustments. Much as it saddens me, I simply do not have an elaborate collection of specialty meats on hand. One day. Perhaps with the next husband?

Choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne

(Serves six, generously)

  • 2 smoked pig’s feet
  • 3.5 lbs. sauerkraut
  • 2 lb. bratwurst
  • 1 lb. kielbasa
  • 2 lb. other sausage (such as pork and apple)
  • 1/2 lb. bacon
  • 3/4 cup gin
  • 2 tbsp. butter or duck fat
  • 2 lbs. onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 lbs. apples, grated
  • 1 1/2 cup dry Riesling (preferably from Alsace)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 25 black peppercorns
  • 1 1/2 tsp. caraway seeds
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 4 branches fresh thyme
  • 6 sprigs parsley
  • 1/4 cup minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. coarse salt

Place pig’s feet in a medium-size pot, and cover with water to about an inch above the feet. Simmer for one hour, then remove feet, and reduce until about two cups remain, an additional 15 minutes. Set aside.

Drain sauerkraut in a large strainer, squeezing out liquid periodically. Rinse, then continue to drain, about an hour.

Cook all three sausages and bacon. Set aside.

Simmer gin in a small pot until reduced by about two thirds. Set aside.

In a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat, melt butter, then cook onions until softened but not golden, about ten minutes. Add apples and sauerkraut. Stir to combine. Add gin reduction and bay leaves.

Add reserved stock, and Riesling, and two cups of cold water. In a piece of twice- or thrice-folded cheesecloth, combine peppercorns, caraway, cloves, thyme, and parsley. Tie tightly with kitchen twine and let sit in sauerkraut mixture.

Place meat on top of mixture, then scatter garlic over top, and then sprinkle salt over top. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium low. Cover, and simmer for 90 minutes, stirring approximately every 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 250°F. When choucroute has finished cooking, remove meat to a plate and let rest, covered in tin foil, in a warm oven. Let choucroute rest, covered and off the heat, for 30 minutes.

To serve, drain choucroute and place in the centre of a platter. Place meat on top, and scatter side dishes around, such as spaetzle or fried potatoes. Serve with sweet mustard, sour cream, and cornichons. To eat, ensure you are wearing something with an elastic waistband.