Water & Wood and Easy Apple Cake.

You know that feeling where you just want to run away from it all to someplace pretty but that also has a well-stocked liquor store and decent restaurants? It can’t just be me who fantasizes about living somewhere almost-remote but almost not, somewhere you can reach into the sand and pull out a fistful of clams in the morning for that night’s dinner, and then head into town for tandoori sockeye salmon and a nice cup of chai for lunch. Such a place exists, five hours away from where I live, and I think about it all the time.

The drawback to these almost-remote places is that the kind of work that I do (the work that pays my bills, anyway) doesn’t exactly exist outside of urban centres or university towns, or when it does, there is one position that never becomes vacant. This is why we are not there now, wandering shorelines up the coast with Base Camp Coffee in a travel mug, and are staring out apartment windows at the traffic on Broadway instead.

But when you can’t be somewhere, it’s a comforting thing to be able to cook the food of a place instead. Whenever I get an itch to be somewhere, I turn to cookbooks.

I have picked up a few regional cookbooks lately – Christine Hanlon’s Out of Old Manitoba Kitchens has been a delight to flip through – but one in particular, Water & Wood: Recipes from a Coastal Community, a project of the Powell River Public Library, has been making my feet itchy once again.  

The thing I like about Water & Wood is that it has that spiral-bound community cookbook feel, but it’s also very beautiful in its design and photography, so that while it feels very “of the place,” offering local history and divided into sections by categories of Ocean, Lakes & Rivers, Farms & Gardens, and Forest & Mountains, it is also the kind of book you could leave out on your coffee table and thumb through with a cup of tea in the evening. And while the recipes are from the community and have a very strong west-coast feel, they’re also a bit more modern than you might expect.

Water & Wood offers a good mix of vegan and gluten-free recipes – there’s a recipe for raw, vegan, gluten-free Nanaimo bars, which honestly could not be more British Columbian unless you were to make them and walk them over to your neighbourhood bike repair shop while wearing Gore-Tex and rain boots. A nod to the multiculturalism of the area, the book also features international flavours using local ingredients, like the asparagus goma-ae and the beef tongue bitterballen (there are a couple of Dutch recipes, from the Van Es family farm archives). More regional recipes like Foraged Salmon Berry Shoots & Fiddleheads, Bladderwrack Egg Drop Soup, or the Pan Roasted White Sturgeon with Fir Tip Butter may not be the kind of thing you have the ingredients to make in your own kitchen, but that’s okay – what you can’t make at home may have you making travel plans.

And best of all, sales of the book support the Powell River Public Library (PRPL). The PRPL serves the residents of the City of Powell River and the Tla’amin Nation and Regional District.

I’ve asked for permission to share a recipe from the book, a very simple apple cake that served me well for several days – this thing does not seem to go stale, and so I was able to make it breakfast for nearly an entire workweek! Maybe the only thing better than running away to Powell River is eating cake for breakfast every day.

Easy Apple Cake

(Makes one 8″ cake.)

  • 2 cups peeled and finely diced apple (about two medium apples)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil*
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped**
  • 1/2 cup raisins**

*I used grapeseed oil – any neutral oil will do.

**Raisins are bad and we keep running out of walnuts as I keep eating handfuls of them, so I subbed one cup of currants.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and line the bottom of an 8″ baking pan (square or round will do) with parchment and set aside.

Place apples in a large mixing bowl and add the sugar. Stir, then set aside for half an hour, or until the sugar becomes liquid.

Add beaten egg, oil and vanilla, and stir to combine.

In another bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients.

Add raisins and walnuts (or currants), and stir to combine.

Pour batter into your prepared baking pan, and bake 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a plate to serve.

To purchase a copy of Water & Wood, visit the PRPL website. (This is not a sponsored post, though they did send me a copy of the book.)

 

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Roasted pumpkin soup.

By Friday, I was coasting on fumes. There’s a phenomenon called “the let-down effect,” wherein after a period of stress, your body just sort of gives up and gives in. I find myself most productive under a certain amount of stress – I can go and go and go and make and think and do, but I have a hard time prioritizing, like, basic human needs and so by the end of this past particularly demanding season, I was dehydrated and overtired and on antibiotics and just sort of crashed. (I know that this is problematic, and that claiming stress is integral to my success or whatever is akin to perpetuating this un-ideal, but that’s a topic for another time.)

When I was finally feeling better, “carrot soup” was just the thing.

A better parent might be more upfront about things, but I am the tired wrangler of a very opinionated six-year-old. He thinks the soup is made of carrots, but it’s made of vegetables and he eats it, so I don’t correct him. He thinks he hates squash, and I’d rather he eat the soup he likes than take a stand against it, which he would, because he is as stubborn as a mule and his mother.

This is his favourite soup, and my go-to feel-better soup. It tastes a little bit Vietnamese, and it’s made with kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, which you can buy pretty cheaply almost anywhere in the fall and winter. I buy a few at a time and keep them on the porch; they’re fine for a couple of months if kept cool and dry. Kabocha squash tastes a bit sweeter than butternut squash, and is a great source of nutrients and fibre – roasting it brings out the sweetness, and is important to the flavour of this soup. You can roast it ahead of time if you like; it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days once cooked.

Tips

Coconut cream can be on the pricey side as it’s often stocked in the supermarket aisle where cocktail mixes are sold, but you can buy it fairly inexpensively at Trader Joe’s; I get mine for around two dollars a can at Fruiticana in Vancouver, but any Southeast Asian or Indian market will have cans of coconut cream at a reasonable price.

Serve with a wedge of fresh lime, your favourite hot sauce, a handful of chopped scallions, and a few dots of sesame oil, if you like. Bread with too much butter is also a nice accompaniment, but I feel like that, from me, may be a bit redundant by now.

Roasted pumpkin soup

(Makes four servings.)

  • 1 kabocha squash
  • 2 tbsp. olive or coconut oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed, white and light yellow inner parts only, thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 heaping tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 tsp. garam masala
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. fish sauce*
  • 13.5 oz/400mL can coconut cream
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil

*If you want to keep this vegetarian or vegan-friendly, substitute the fish sauce for a tablespoon of soy sauce.

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Adjust oven racks so that there’s one in the middle, and one one directly below. Place a sheet pan or baking dish on the lower rack. (This is an important step, especially if you’re the one who usually gets stuck cleaning the oven.)

Stab the squash around the top in four places, then turn it upside down and stab it four more times, until the knife cuts through the skin and just pierces the flesh.

Place the squash in the oven, and leave, undisturbed, for 45 minutes to an hour. A sticky, sap-like liquid should bubble from the cut marks, and it should smell a bit like roasted chestnuts. Set aside to cool. You can do this step up to three days in advance; wrap the cooled squash in a bit of foil or put it into a large zip-lock bag until you’re ready to use it.

Halve the cooled squash, and scoop out the seeds. Scrape the flesh from the skin, and set aside. Discard the skin, stem, and seeds.

In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, sauté onion, lemongrass, garlic and ginger until shimmering and fragrant, about three minutes. Add carrots, garam masala, turmeric, and pepper, and stir so that every chunky bit in the pot is coated in the spices.

Add chicken or vegetable stock and simmer until carrots are tender, ten to fifteen minutes.

Add squash, and remove the pot from the heat. Purée using a blender or immersion blender. If using a standard blender, blend in batches.

Return the pot to the heat. Add brown sugar, fish sauce, and coconut cream, stirring to melt coconut cream. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed – sometimes kabocha squash can benefit from a bit more salt, but the amount you need will depend on the saltiness of your broth.

When the soup returns to a simmer, stir in sesame oil and serve.

Overkill brownies.

I didn’t realize when I took this photo that there was a dry macaroni noodle in the shot, the sort of thing I’d usually try to notice and correct, and that remains in the frame partly because we were in a real big hurry to eat these brownies and my making everyone wait while I took photos was, I’ll admit, a little rude. I’ll crop it out for Instagram, but let the record show that these brownies are the kind of thing that inspire a sense of urgency.

And they are – as I have been told I am so many times – just “a bit much.” They’re show-offs, all fudgy and chewy, with a delicious secret buried beneath a smear of cream cheese frosting – nine whole, perfect Reese’s peanut butter cups. If you’re going to go to the trouble of making dessert for company, it should always be “a bit much,” or why bother? You can eat fruit and yogurt on your own time.

Overkill brownies

  • 1/2 lb. semisweet chocolate chips
  • 6 tbsp. butter + 2 tbsp. butter, cut into pieces, divided
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract, divided
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 9 Reese’s (or comparable) peanut butter cups (about three packages)
  • 4 oz. (1/2 package) cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 1/4 cup cocoa, sifted

Preheat oven to 325°F. Lightly grease an 8″x8″ baking pan, then line it with parchment paper.

Using a double boiler, a glass bowl over just-simmering water, or a microwave (three rounds of 30 seconds, stirring each time), gently melt chocolate chips and six tablespoons of butter, stirring occasionally until smooth.

Beat the sugar, salt, and one teaspoon of vanilla into the melted chocolate, then add eggs eggs one at a time, beating continuously. Add the flour and stir until just moistened; batter should pull away from the sides of the bowl.

Pour batter into your prepared pan. Press peanut butter cups into the batter (three even rows of three).

Bake 35 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out mostly clean. If in doubt, err on the side of under-baking these.

Let brownies rest in the pan 10 minutes before removing to a cooling rack. Let cool completely before frosting.

Meanwhile, beat cream cheese, remaining butter, confectioner’s sugar, cocoa, and remaining vanilla until smooth and spreadable. Frost cooled brownies.

Cut into 16 pieces.

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.

Mirza Ghasemi.

A few months ago a very sweet student in one of the labs at work phoned his grandmother in Iran to get me a recipe, which he then translated from Farsi but maybe not very well. I knew he could cook, and I had wondered if he ever made mirza ghasemi, a dish of grilled eggplant and tomatoes mashed together with olive oil and spices and garlic and topped with fried egg. I had recently fallen in love with the dish at a Persian restaurant, but wasn’t sure exactly what was in it – there was no description on the restaurant menu, and sometimes Google lies. He knew it, but he didn’t make it, so he asked if I could wait a few days and then called home.

It wasn’t eggplant season then, but it is now, so I pulled his recipe out of my inbox and realized there were a few things lost (or exaggerated) in translation – the ratio of eggs to eggplants was way off. A promising neuroscience student, he was hired away to Germany in the meantime so I can’t ask him my questions; this is a loose adaptation of his grandmother’s recipe, a dish from northern Iran that transforms bitter eggplant into a smoky dip for sangak or regular old white bread (toasted to within in an inch of its life for optimal sopping). The eggs make it a meal for two, or a hearty appetizer or snack for four.

I have given directions for this dish using the oven and stove, but please note that if it is a hot day and you have a side burner on your outdoor grill, you can make this entirely outside using roughly the same instructions and it will be that much better. Serve with bread and lemon quarters

Mirza Ghasemi

(Makes 2 to 4 servings.)

  • 2 lbs eggplants
  • 1 lb tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp. + 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tbsp. roasted shelled pistachios, roughly chopped
  • 2 tsp. fresh thyme, roughly chopped

Heat oven (or grill) to 400°F.

Using a fork or a toothpick, poke holes into eggplants and tomatoes all over. Drizzle one tablespoon of olive oil over whole eggplants and tomatoes.

Roast or grill eggplants and tomatoes for 20 minutes, until charred in places and softened – eggplants should appear to slump. Remove eggplants and tomatoes to a glass bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Cool for at least 15 minutes, or until you can handle them comfortably with bare hands. Eggplants and tomatoes can be roasted or grilled up to 24 hours in advance – just store in the fridge until you’re ready.

If you roast your veggies ahead of time, return your grill or oven to 400°F before proceeding.

Gently remove skins from tomatoes and eggplants. If you like a smooth puree, you can use a food mill to slough off the skins and stuff. I prefer to mash the veggies’ innards with a fork or potato masher until they form a chunky mush. Reserve any liquids that have accumulated at the bottom of the bowl you cooled your veggies in.

Heat remaining olive oil in a 12″ skillet or cast iron pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, and cook for about three minutes, until translucent but not browned. Add garlic, cumin, salt, paprika, turmeric, pepper, and pepper flakes, and cook for another minute, until the spices are fragrant.

Add eggplant-tomato mush, and any remaining liquids, and simmer for about six minutes, until the liquid has evaporated and the mixture looks a bit dry and sticky, like it would burn to the bottom of the pan if you’d let it. Add lemon juice, stir, and taste. Adjust seasonings as needed.

Using a spoon, create four little holes in the eggplant mixture, then crack an egg into each hole. Place the pan in the oven, and bake until the eggs have set to your liking, five to 10 minutes.

Sprinkle the finished dish with fresh thyme leaves and chopped pistachios.

Cake for breakfast.

“Okay, but why are you sorry?”

“Because you got mad.”

I’m at the stage in whatever process I’m in – book-writing, middle-management, big-kid parenting, all of it – where I would like to turn a few pages back in this choose-your-own-adventure story of life. I accidentally set a meatloaf and four sweet potatoes on fire on the barbecue this week and then cried because Nick ruined dinner by spraying it with the fire extinguisher. How could he. If a little char adds flavour, what might a little incineration do? I guess we’ll never know.

“But do you know why I got mad?”

“It’s just something you do sometimes when I break stuff.”

Remember when we were teenagers and the high school teachers had us fill out those aptitude tests to find out what we should be doing with our lives, as if that meant anything? I took the test twice because my first result was “street performer.” I have no musical talent and it rains for months at a time here. My second result was “embalmer,” and I panicked because HOW WOULD THAT EVEN WORK? (Side note: what the hell, 1990s Surrey School District administration, did you buy the discount testing package?!) I was terrible at science and failing math and worried that I wasn’t meant for anything that would support my future cat family and ability to finally own a pair of Mavi jeans. Instead of aptitude tests, teachers should tell teens about all the things they will have to juggle one day, effectively and with a smile, and all their “what am I going to do with my life?” fears would be replaced by “how can I avoid all of that?”

Maybe worrying about your future career path is pointless. Maybe they should give kids parenting workshops so that they know what to do when they inevitably find themselves bested by the world’s sassiest five-year-old.

Aside from “marry rich” and “don’t teach your children to talk,” I don’t have many answers. But perhaps I can make a suggestion? Don’t try to be the kind of parent and partner and worker the internet thinks you should be, at least not all at once, and don’t sign your five-year-old up for soccer and T-Ball at the same time while you try to write a book and work a full-time job on five hours of sleep per night. Another suggestion? Eat cake for breakfast.

Ontbijtkoek means “breakfast cake” in Dutch, and the Netherlands is a place that in a lot of ways has its priorities in order. There is comfort in something that feels just a little indulgent, but still a little nutritious. Not that nutritious, though it has a reputation for it; traditional recipes for this particular delicacy boast of the whole-grain goodness of rye flour, and that there is no fat to speak of in the bread. Traditionally, it also calls for a bucket of honey and molasses and sugar, but that is beside the point. Health! Health?

I wouldn’t exactly call this health food, but I wouldn’t call it junk either. It is wholesome, somewhere between a bread and a cake. Drier than cake, but sweeter than bread, if that makes sense? It’s a very nice way to start your day, especially with a big cup of coffee or tea, and a generous smear of butter and a drizzle of honey. Coffee and cake for breakfast are how I’m surviving the chaos of little boys, and grown-ups who want to add to my to-do list and food that just engulfs itself in flames at RANDOM and not through any fault of mine. I’ll let you know if it works.

Ontbijtkoek

The rye flour in this loaf makes it more substantial than a typical loaf cake, and the molasses means it’s not as sweet. It’s virtuous cake, if there’s such a thing, and it’s meant to be eaten in the morning.

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ¾ cup fancy molasses
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup dark rye flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. Kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. ground allspice
  • ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp. ground cloves

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9″x5″ loaf pan, and set aside.

Whisk together milk, molasses and egg. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine all-purpose flour, rye flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves.

Gently work the wet ingredients into the flour mixture until dry ingredients are just moistened but not lumpy.

Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan, and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean.

Turn out onto a wire rack to cool. After ten minutes, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and cool to room temperature. Will keep for about three days.

Speculaas blondies

speculaasjesI live in Vancouver, which is in Canada but not typically Canadian in many ways, the most disgraceful of which is our complete inability to function in the presence of even a tiny bit of snow. It doesn’t snow much here – some years, it doesn’t snow at all. I can’t remember my last snowy Christmas. We do not have the infrastructure to support this kind of weather, and so a couple of centimeters of snow on the streets sends us into turmoil.

It snowed today. I worked from home.

We are planning our next adventure, and we’ve booked our flights – we’ll be in the Netherlands in late January. I am working on a new book, Dutch Feast, and it will be in bookstores and online in fall 2017, and the thing about Dutch food that is so lovely is that a lot of it is sugary carbs. And so even though it’s cold outside and my toes have yet to defrost from this morning’s failed attempt at finding a bus to work, I’m eating Dutch sweets and my home smells like speculaas spices. I mean, it’s an absolute disaster because recipe testing is messy and I’m usually remiss in cleaning up, but it smells nice and if I don’t look in the kitchen this whole scene is pretty cozy.

These speculaas blondies are an adaptation of a recipe in Heleen AM Halverhout’s Dutch Cooking (©1972); she suggests baking speculaas cookie dough “like brownies,” which she called speculaasjes. I like this idea quite a lot, because everyone knows brownies are better than cookies. We can debate this, but I’m not likely to entertain opposing viewpoints in this case. The nice thing about these speculaasjes is that they require no special equipment (no cutters or rolling pins required!), so if you start right now, you can have chewy, sweet speculaas blondies in time for this evening’s cup of tea.

Speculaas blondies

(Makes 16 pieces.)

  • 1/2 cup room-temperature butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp. dark rum
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup candied ginger (about two ounces), chopped
  • 1 tbsp. confectioner’s sugar, for garnish

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Grease an 8″ x 8″ square baking pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Cream together butter and sugar. Add the eggs, and beat until the mixture looks smooth. Add rum, cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, cloves, and salt, and mix until combined.

Gently fold flour into the spiced butter mixture until just moistened. Add chopped candied ginger, then spoon the mix into your prepared baking pan.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out mostly clean (a few clingy crumbs = perfect). You want these just shy of totally baked, so that they are still chewy.

Cool the blondies in the pan on a wire rack for five minutes, then turn them out onto the rack to cool completely.

Once cool, sift confectioner’s sugar over top. Cut into sixteen pieces.

Serve with tea or coffee and your feet in fuzzy socks or slippers.