Something like mujadara, only French, kind of.

Oh, Meatless Monday. If you fell on any other day, I would have a much easier time. Around 2:00 this afternoon, I was pretty sure we were pretty much going to have grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner. But the thing about having a food blog is that at least a couple of times each week one must make an effort to eat something interesting, or, at the very least, to pretend that she hasn’t been eating an inordinate number of sandwiches, because eating only sandwiches won’t help anyone out of any rut.

And I am in a rut.

This happens every so often, usually during the longest-feeling part of a season when I really just don’t feel like eating whatever’s in season any longer. At the start of winter I cannot get enough root vegetables; by the end of February, the rose in my cheeks isn’t the brisk arctic air but too goddamn many beets. There will be radishes soon, and asparagus, and pea shoots, and peppery little leaves of watercress. I have never been particularly patient.Also I don’t like the cold, and I am bored with my puffy jacket, and all my boots need to be resoled. Whine, whine, whine. It’s possible that I am laying blame for my rut on the weather and the root vegetables when the problem is me. Nick has indicated that’s likely the case, and that I am a malcontent at my worst, and contrary much of the time. I maintain that I’m charming and delightful, but he did not nod in agreement.

So because we cannot live off of grilled cheese alone, winter vegetables will have to do for now. And why not coax the best out of them?

I first heard about mujadara from Orangette. For the uninitiated, mujadara is a simple dish of rice and lentils bound by the rich sweetness of deeply caramelized onions. Made from pantry staples, it’s comfort food for a dark grey day, and the constant sizzle of onions for close to an hour is soothing, and you can eat it with a side of greens dressed in a squish of lemon and it’s really very nice.

But why stop there? Why not pull out that celery and those carrots that have been languishing in the crisper? Why not add a touch of smoke, a pinch of vigour? Yes. Pinçage. Let’s do that. Here’s a variation on the mujadara theme, a twist that will placate those dull feelings until the first tips of asparagus finally grace your plate.

Rice and lentils with pinçage

(Serves four, or six as a side dish.)

  • 1 1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 1/2 cup French green lentils
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt, divided
  • 2 cups diced onion
  • 1 cup diced carrot
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tbsp. tomato paste
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

In a medium pot, combine rice, lentils, bay leaf, one tablespoon of olive oil, and one teaspoon of salt with four cups cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and keep covered.

Meanwhile, heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan over medium high heat. Add onion, carrot, celery, and apple, and cook until onions turn translucent. Turn heat down to medium, and cook slowly, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes to an hour, however long it takes your ingredients to turn golden and soft. Add salt once veggies begin to brown. I let mine go until they’re barely recognizable as their former selves, until they are dark and black in bits and they smell sweet and faintly smokey.

Add the garlic and the tomato paste, allowing it to dry to the bottom of the pan but not to burn. Keep it moving, tossing the veggies to coat in the sauce. When you’ve reached this point, you’ve got a pinçage (although technically a real pinçage wouldn’t have apples in it … technically, shmechnically).

When the bottom of the pan looks pretty dry, add rice and lentil mixture (removing bay leaf). Pour about a cup of water into the pan to deglaze. Doing this will release the flavour of your pinçage into the rice, coating it saucily.

Serve sprinkled with fresh parsley.

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Beet risotto.

Last year we didn’t do much about Valentine’s Day because we’d just gotten Molly the Cat and felt an urgency to be home with our cute little ball of fur. I don’t think we’ve ever done much about Valentine’s Day; the sentiment is nice but I feel sort of silly about it. It’s just the two of us all the time, you know?

We’ll go out later this week, when the restaurants are quiet and we’re not surrounded by moon-eyed couples sitting on the same side of the booth, which makes me irrationally angry, which is the opposite of how you’re supposed to feel on February 14. Seriously – can’t they hear each other chew when they sit like that, and doesn’t that just shoot the romance right in the foot?

But I do like a good theme. So tonight, even if we weren’t celebrating, we did recognize the day, and Meatless Monday, with a plate of lusty, blood-red risotto. It was both virtuous and decadent, with its vegetable stock and beets and butter and Manchego cheese, and it came together in the 30 minutes Nick spent tidying the kitchen. Add a little red wine on the side, and there’s no better way I can think of to spend a Monday Valentine’s Day.

Beet risotto with Manchego

  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. butter, divided
  • 1/2 tsp. red chili flakes
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1 medium beet, peeled and finely shredded
  • 3 to 4 cups warm vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup shredded Manchego cheese
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Handful chopped fresh parsley

Heat stock until boiling, then reduce heat and maintain a gentle simmer.

In a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, heat oil and melt the first tablespoon of butter with the red chili flakes. Add onions and garlic, and cook for two to three minutes, until onions are translucent. Add paprika and rice to pan, stirring for about a minute, or until rice grains turn opaque. Add the wine.

Add shredded beets, and cook until wine has been completely absorbed.

Add one cup of the warm vegetable stock, stirring frequently until liquid is mostly absorbed. Repeat with an additional cup of stock, and then repeat again with one to two more cups as needed. Test your rice for tenderness – if it is al denté, great. If it isn’t, just pour in a little bit more stock, as needed, and let it absorb into the rice. I almost always need the full four cups of stock.

When rice is ready, stir in butter and Manchego cheese. Taste, and adjust seasonings quickly, as needed. Stir in parsley, and serve hot, with additional Parmesan cheese and a light sprinkling of chopped fresh parsley.

And Happy Valentine’s Day. However you did or did not celebrate it, I hope you had a lovely evening and ate something you really liked, in the company of someone you really like, whether it was you alone or with someone else.

 

Risotto and procrastination with currants, orange, and almonds.

Time seems to pass quicker all the time, and before I know it, it’s nearly Thanksgiving again, and hockey’s on TV and I need to have my boots re-heeled and somehow I still haven’t done any of the things I’d planned to by now, and it’s colder so the excuses to not do things get stronger all the time. Why work on that grad school application when I could curl up in my Snuggie with a book? Why finish writing those chapters when I could wander out for hot chocolate, stepping on all the crunchy-looking leaves along the way? Why stay late at work to finish a project when I could go home and make risotto?

Maybe I’m too hard on myself. I have reference letters, and a third of a manuscript together to send in with my MFA application, with a month to go before it’s due. I am writing, and the writing is going well and someday maybe a book will come out of it. And sometimes you just need to decide you can’t stare at a computer screen for even ten more minutes and come home and make risotto.

Maybe I’m too hard on myself, or maybe I’m lying to myself, but either way, it’s important to achieve small things every day so that the big things don’t seem so insurmountable.

The risotto on offer today is one that qualifies for Meatless Monday, but you’ll notice that it’s Tuesday now and there are perfectly pink medallions of pork tenderloin on the plate. Ignore those if you found this via the Meatless Monday website; the risotto is what’s really important here.

Risotto with currants, almonds, and orange

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 cup dried currants
  • 2 tsp. orange zest
  • 2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 3 to 4 cups warm chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large pan, caramelize the onion in the olive oil. Start with high heat, and then drop the heat down when the bits of onion turn just the faintest bit golden. Brown the hell out of them, stirring often enough, and let them go as long as you can stand it. The browner the better. I left mine in the pan to brown for forty minutes, until the onion was a shadow of its former self. However, I understand that not everyone dreams all day of coming home to make dinner, so go with your own judgment and preference here.

Bring heat back up to medium-high, and add in your garlic, dried currants, orange zest, rosemary, and rice. Cook for about a minute, until rice has begun to turn opaque. De-glaze the pan with the wine and orange juice. Stir the rice continuously until the liquid is absorbed.

Add one cup of the warm chicken stock, stirring frequently until liquid is mostly absorbed. Repeat with an additional cup of stock, and then repeat again with one to two more cups as needed. Test your rice for tenderness. The idea is to get it to al denté, but if it isn’t there yet, just pour in a little bit more stock, as needed, and let it absorb into the rice.

Your currants will have plumped, and the smell will be intoxicating. Add Parmesan cheese and butter. Taste, adjust seasonings as needed. And then, at long last, add almonds.

You can serve this as a main dish to two people, or as a side dish for four. As always, this is a recipe that’s easily multiplied, so if you want to feed four, just double it.

It’s a rich dish. Sweet and savory, creamy with a bit of crunch, earthy with rosemary and deeply browned onions, but bright with citrus and just a hint of wine. Beautiful with gently braised pork or lamb, or perfect on its own, with crusty bread and a few bites of roasted stone fruit. Peaches are just about done, but plums are gorgeous right now. Apples would be nice as well. And you’ll find that once you’ve tackled dinner, everything else becomes a little easier to manage; maybe I will write a chapter this evening, or a cover letter. And there’s always tomorrow, which is reliable as long as you don’t let it dissolve into the next day, and the ones after that.

Chard risotto with a soupçon of whining.

All the cool kids on the Food Internet are writing about cucumbers and zucchini today, but I’m all out of cucurbits and also incredibly uncool. Today we had chard – it’s been sitting in a vase beside a window for the past two days, getting brighter, bushier, more lovely. The trouble with buying produce at markets along my bus route home is that I have to carry the produce home on the bus where it inevitably wilts. A little bit of care and water upon arriving home does wonders, and in the meantime chard makes a very pretty centrepiece.

We had risotto, because today was unpleasant. The cat woke me up with claws, and I zoned out in the shower and forgot to shave my legs. I broke my favourite gold sandals around lunchtime and had to wander around the office shoeless, consummate professional that I always am, and then I noticed my hair had fallen apart after the fan behind my head flung everything into wild disarray and the concealer I’d dabbed on my monster pimple that morning had worn off and my mascara was running, so I looked just awesome – incredibly stable. You know you look special when everyone who comes to your office opens with “are you okay?”

I had to take the bus home wearing near-non-existent footwear, and quit on my “shoes” at my stop and walked home barefoot along a busy city street and I might have caught foot syphilis. These are first-world problems, but incredibly dramatic when one is focused entirely on herself.

So we ate comfort food, with my beautiful red chard, and Nick bought beer and pretended like I was a rational human being, and now everything is almost better. Thanks, risotto. Wine and cheese have never not helped me yet.

Chard risotto

(Serves four as a side-dish, two as a main course. Is easily multiplied.)

  • 3 to 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. butter, divided
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 lb. chard (about one bunch), stalks and leaves chopped separately
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 3/4 cup dry red wine
  • 1 tsp. white pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil, divided
  • Salt to taste, if needed

Heat stock until boiling, then reduce heat and maintain a gentle simmer.

In a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, heat oil and melt the first tablespoon of butter. Add onions, garlic, and the chopped chard stalks and cook for two to three minutes, until onions are translucent. Add rice to pan, stirring for about a minute, or until rice grains turn opaque.

Add leaves. It will look like your ratio of rice to greens is off. It will look this way for a long time, but it’ll all work itself out. Pour in wine, and scrape the bottom of the pan to ensure nothing has stuck. Add pepper and nutmeg. Cook until wine has been completely absorbed.

Add one cup of the warm chicken stock, stirring frequently until liquid is mostly absorbed. Repeat with an additional cup of stock, and then repeat again with one to two more cups as needed. Test your rice for tenderness – if it is al denté, great. If it isn’t, just pour in a little bit more stock, as needed, and let it absorb into the rice.

When rice is ready, stir in butter, Parmesan cheese, and one tablespoon of the basil. Adjust your seasonings, to taste. Serve hot, with additional Parmesan cheese and a light sprinkling of chopped fresh basil. The whole process takes about 30 minutes, but believe me, the stirring and the smells are therapeutic. Plus, who opens a bottle of wine to cook with and doesn’t dip in? Try 30 minutes of cooking with the bottle all to yourself, and tell me you don’t feel better about everything, even if you were fine to begin with.

The word of the day is “lazy.”

I had all these big plans this week, but I got lazy. Already. My biggest big plan was to make cabbage rolls because they are so super awesome and they make lunches and leftovers all week long and no one ever went wrong with a big dish of meat. But then, I failed. I didn’t feel like it.

Then I remembered this handy tip I got awhile back from a reader named Jenn, a very funny high-school teacher from Saskatchewan, who suggested lazy cabbage rolls, and also this lazy pierogie thing I’m going to try another lazy time. I liked her idea, but I had all the stuff for non-lazy cabbage rolls, so I adapted. This is what happened. We are going to have leftovers forever.

Oh, one more thing. I used bratwurst here because I always seem to have it in my freezer, and because it’s flavourful and the point here is laziness. If you don’t have bratwurst, or if it isn’t dirt cheap at your local Polish deli, then you can use ground pork, or beef, or whatever you like, but you may want to add additional seasonings.

Lazy cabbage rolls

(Serves six to eight.)

  • 1/4 lb. bacon, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cups diced carrot
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 lb. bratwurst, casing removed
  • 1 cup long-grain white rice
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tsp. dried marjoram
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 1/2-2 lbs. green cabbage, cut into thin strips
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella (or other mild cheese)
  • 1 cup bread crumbs

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Butter a 9″x13″ baking dish.

In a large pan over medium-high heat, fry bacon until brown and crisp. Add onions and crumble bratwurst into the pan, stirring until meat has browned. Add garlic, carrots, and rice, and then add stock to deglaze, scraping the bottom of the pan to ensure all those delicious meaty bits make their way into the sauce. Season with pepper and marjoram, then pour in the crushed tomatoes. Remove from heat and stir in parsley. Taste, and salt as desired.

Layer half of the cabbage along the bottom of the pan. Pour half of meat mixture over top, then add another layer of cabbage. Press down lightly to pack. Add the remaining meat mixture, then sprinkle with breadcrumbs and cheese.

Bake covered for 80 minutes, then remove the cover and cook for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until top is browned and bubbly. I’ll admit, the cooking time is a little longer than I like on a weeknight, so this might be something best served on Sunday night, so you can pack the leftovers for lunches.

Eat while wearing pajama pants. Know that this is going to make your entire office smell like eastern Europe tomorrow. And be okay with that. Believe me, there are worse things you could do.

Mushroom risotto: An easy, inexpensive, and thoroughly impressive gourmet meal.

My parents came over for dinner tonight, and I made these beautiful roasted vegetables, which reminded me about the risotto that we ate the last time I made the roasted veggies, a few days before Christmas. Mark and Jess, Nick’s sister and brother-in-law, were here visiting from Winnipeg, and he’s gluten-free. They brought their adorable little baby with them, and then I felt a bit like an asshole afterward because I had my camera out the whole evening and only took pictures of the food.

The thing I like most about risotto is that it’s upscale comfort food. It seems like a pain to make because you have to monitor it and keep it moving in the pan, but that’s not so bad. Though it might not be the best thing to make at a dinner party, if you’ve just got a few people over and it’s casual no one will mind you running off for a half-hour, and people will always join you in the kitchen if they think you’ve been away too long. Often, they will anticipate your needs and open a bottle of wine, and you’ll get to catch up in the quiet of the kitchen. Risotto is not as antisocial as you might think.

For the following recipe, you can use any kind of mushrooms you like. If wild mushrooms are available in your market, feel free to grab an assortment and play around. If all you’ve got are plain white mushrooms, that’s just fine too, and it will be lovely and you’ll be amazed at what mushrooms can do. I’m always amazed at what mushrooms can do.

Mushroom risotto

(Serves about four as a small main course. This is an easy one to multiply or divide, however.)

  • 3 1/2 cups chicken stock, brought to a boil and kept warm on the stove
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup raw Arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, chopped
  • 1/2 cup crumbled, cooked bacon (optional)
  • 1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans (optional)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

In a heavy-bottomed pan, melt the first two tablespoons of butter. Add onions and garlic, and cook for two to three minutes, until onions are translucent. Add rice to pan, stirring for about a minute, or until rice grains turn opaque.

Pour in wine, and scrape the bottom of the pan to ensure nothing has stuck. Cook until wine has been completely absorbed.

Add one cup of the warm chicken stock, stirring frequently until liquid is mostly absorbed. Repeat with an additional cup of stock.

On your third addition of stock, pour the remaining liquid into the rice and cook, stirring frequently, until liquid is absorbed. When you’ve still got just a bit of liquid in the pan, add your mushrooms. Test your rice for tenderness – if it is al denté, you’re awesome and good work. If it isn’t, it’s probably the rice’s fault, so just pour in a little bit more stock, as needed. Keep in mind that the mushrooms are going to sweat and release their own moisture into the mix.

When rice is ready, stir in bacon or nuts, if using, rosemary, nutmeg, butter, and Parmesan. Adjust your seasonings, to taste.

This dish smells amazing, like autumn or a sunny day in winter, and it tastes woodsy and wholesome, like a blanket you eat. It changed Nick’s whole opinion about risotto, which previously wasn’t very high. And it just feels good to eat. No stress, and if you’ve got people over you haven’t seen in awhile, you can talk with your mouth full, because there isn’t a lot of chewing required.

Berry muffins and your leftover rice.

Muffins!You know when you’ve got leftover rice except that it’s not enough to do anything with and you’d usually throw it out? DON’T! Make muffins. It’s summer, and berries are abundant (well, maybe not yet, but they will be), and maybe you’re like me and you’ve reached the age where fibre is your friend … rice or bulgur in the muffins? An easy way to boost your morning routine. I think you know what I mean.

Last night I made fish and a little stuffed tomato salad that included just a smidge of bulgur. I made more than I needed, because I don’t know how to not make too much when it comes to grains, and I ended up with about 2/3 of a cup of cooked bulgur left over. Which is enough for a single salad, but I also had some yogurt in danger of turning on me in the fridge, a single orange, and a collection of mixed berries that needed to be used lest they turned into freezer rocks held together by gigantic stale-tasting ice hunks. So, you know. Muffins.

Berry Muffins with Rice (or Bulgur)

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup cooked brown rice (or white rice or bulgur and if you have slightly more than what the recipe calls for, just use it)
  • 2 cups frozen berries (I used 1 cup of blackberries and 1 cup of blueberries with the, like, four single raspberries I had left in the fridge … use whatever berries or chopped up fruit you like. I bet rhubarb would be good)
  • 1 orange, zest and juice
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup melted butter

Preheat your oven to 400°F.

In a large bowl, combine your flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Stir until combined. Add your berries and your rice, and the orange zest and juice. Mix well.

In a measuring cup, melt your butter, then add the yogurt, and if it’s big enough, the milk. In a separate smaller bowl, beat your eggs. Add the both of these to the bowl one after the other, and stir to combine. This is a thick, dense batter, so if you’re hand-mixing this, as I did, be vigorous. You don’t want to find floury bits at the bottom of your bowl.

Grease a muffin pan. Fill the cups with the batter, to the tops.

Muffin batter!

This mixture will make 12 muffins. I hate when the muffins don’t breach the top – when they’re too small they’re like muffin pucks, and you don’t get to enjoy the distinction between muffin top and bottom. Sprinkle with sugar and a pinch of cinnamon, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of one comes out clean.

Baked.Once they’re done, let them sit for five minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack.

Racked.I recommend eating one right away, slathered in melted butter and a drop of honey. Rose, my awesome MSN-buddy at work, brought me a jar of lavender-infused honey awhile back, so I will use that, and every bite will taste like summer. You could also use a touch of marmalade, or another something wonderful. Enjoy!