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.

Hunger Awareness Week: Slow cooker borscht.

Food bank use in Canada is 25 per cent higher now than it was before the first recession hit in 2008. One of the reasons for this is that many typically reliable or well-paid jobs, especially blue-collar jobs, have disappeared. Another is that wages, especially for what blue-collar jobs or less skilled labour roles remain, have not increased with the cost of living. Particularly vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or those on disability, have also been affected by inflation and corresponding lack of increase in benefits. In addition to providing emergency food hampers, many food banks provide additional services.

People who turn to food banks often need other types of assistance. Food banks have responded and many now provide advocacy and supports such as:

  • providing skills training such as food preparation skills,
    helping people to search for jobs and transition into employment,
  • raising community awareness about hunger and poverty,
  • assisting with the search for safe, affordable housing,
  • helping people find good quality, affordable child care,
  • providing referrals to other social agencies and support services.
    (Source: Food Banking in Canada)

One of the major barriers to cooking healthy meals at home is time. The logistics of poverty are often time-consuming, particularly as the cost of living in urban centres increases; to afford housing, people often live a long way from where they work or from the services they need to access. Many people rely on public transportation which, particularly in Vancouver, is only reliable in urban centres; the farther you get from the city, the bigger a hassle it can be to get to where you need to go on public transit.

Spending all day in transit can sap the enthusiasm for dinner-making from even the most devoted home-cook. The allure of convenience foods is strongest in those moments when even a pantry meal feels impossible, particularly when you need to feed other people (especially small children, who are not known for their patience or empathy).

For people who are pressed for time, crock pot recipes can be a life-saver. You can purchase an inexpensive, good quality slow cooker at department stores, but you can also find gently used slow-cookers online for pretty reasonable prices on sites like Craigslist or Kijiji. Mine holds about six quarts, which I find handy as it makes enough for dinner and for leftovers, which I can freeze or take to work for lunch.

The following recipe for a slow-cooker borscht is ideal for people for whom time is in short supply. I like to brown the meat and assemble the ingredients the night before, then put everything in the cooker in the morning before I head out the door.

It’s warming and hearty, and it makes generous use of inexpensive but nutrient-dense vegetables like beets, carrots and cabbage. And it makes a lot of it, so you can pack it into containers and reheat it whenever you need a bowl of something warm. Use cheap cuts of beef, like chuck, shank, or brisket, or omit the meat entirely (in that case, just add the butter straight to the Crock Pot).

Slow-cooker borscht

(Makes six servings.)

  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 lb. cubed stewing beef (such as chuck or brisket) or beef shank
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 2 lbs. beets, peeled, trimmed and diced
  • 1 lb. waxy potatoes, such as red or Yukon Gold, diced
  • 4 carrots, peeled and cut into one-inch pieces
  • 1/2 small head of red cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
  • 7 garlic cloves, divided
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5.5-oz. (128 mL) can tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar, divided
  • 1 tbsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • Sour cream and fresh or dried dill, to garnish

Melt butter over medium-high heat and add beef. Brown on all sides, and then pour into the slow cooker.scraping the pan as you do so as not to waste any of those good flavours.

Add onions, beets, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and six smashed garlic cloves to the cooker. Add the bay leaf.

In a large bowl, whisk together the tomato paste, one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and six cups of water. Pour this mixture over beef-and-veggie mixture.

Cook for eight to 10 hours over low heat.

Before serving, mince remaining clove of garlic and add the remaining tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. If using beef shank, remove meat from pot and shred it off the bone using the tines of a fork, then return meat to the pot and discard bones. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed.

Serve with toasted bread and a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of dill.

Potato salad.

img_5900-e1402173537126

It’s officially summer here in Vancouver, and all I wanna do is eat cold food outside on a hot day. I’m looking forward to a pretty much endless feast of watermelon and pink wine from now until October, and I will not be deterred.

Now is not the time for dainty salads or leafy greens.

Now is the time for cold potatoes and mayonnaise and hard boiled eggs and pickles and all those radishes that just exploded in the garden. Potato salad. You can make it ahead, stick it in a container, and tote it to the beach and it never wilts or weeps or sucks to eat. Potato salad is one of the greatest culinary inventions of our time, because it is simultaneously a salad and a vegetable side dish, and nobody dislikes it, and it’s got pickles in it.

Who doesn’t want a hot dog and some potato salad? Nobody, that’s who.

This is a pretty straightforward potato salad, the version my mom and everyone else’s mom and grandma makes. It makes a big bowl, enough to serve eight or so as a side dish, and it’s even better the second day. Make sure you make it while the potatoes are still a bit warm; there is a lot of sauce, and when the potatoes are warm they suck the dressing into them as they cool.

I make this with homemade mayonnaise because I’m too cheap to buy it in a jar considering how much we go through, so if you’re using store-bought mayo you may find you need to adjust the salt or acidity a bit to taste; keep in mind though that the dressing should be a bit saltier and a bit more acidic than you’d normally prefer as those flavours will tone down once the dressing is on the salad and it’s served cold. Please, please do not use Miracle Whip for this. I will know somehow that you’ve done it and feel really sad.

Potato Salad

  • 3 lb. white or red waxy potatoes (not Russets), cubed and boiled until tender and cooled slightly
  • 6 scallions, white and light green part only, sliced
  • 4 to 6 radishes, sliced
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped dill pickles
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 2 tbsp. dill pickle brine
  • Zest and juice of one lemon
  • 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. yellow curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • Salt, to taste
  • Fresh dill, chopped

In a large bowl, combine potatoes, scallions, radishes, celery, eggs, and pickle bits. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine mayonnaise, sour cream, pickle brine, lemon juice and zest, mustard, sugar, curry powder, paprika, pepper, cayenne pepper, and dill. Whisk together. Taste, adjusting salt and acidity as needed.

Pour the dressing over the potato mixture and toss to coat. I use my hands to gently mix the dressing into the potatoes – you should too. Clean hands are the best kitchen tool there is.

Top with a sprinkle of additional dill, and some more radishes and green onion, if desired. Chill, and serve cold.

Something to Read: Blood, Bones and Butter

30days

The best chef’s memoir I’ve ever read was Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter. She’s another writer-chef I heard about through Anthony Bourdain on Twitter, and when I looked Gabrielle Hamilton up, it turns out she’s a bad-ass chef with an MFA in Creative Writing (those are my dream credentials) – I pre-ordered the book (hard cover) and paid full price. It was worth it. So worth it.

Blood-Bones-And-Butter-Gabrielle-Hamilton

If you like Cheryl Strayed, I think you’ll like Gabrielle Hamilton. Both write beautifully and simply about lives both lush and hard-lived; Hamilton just also happens to be writing about food in addition to life and working and marriage and motherhood, so there’s another layer of sensory oomph.

I find her so relatable.

Even now, as I’m sitting here just trying to say something nice about a book I loved, I’m overwhelmed with my own tiredness. Re-reading passages again about Hamilton’s struggles with her 18-hour workdays and her two small kids at home and everything she has to do to keep everything afloat is cathartic, and just when I’m caught thinking maybe you can juggle everything if you just throw high enough, she reminds me, in writing more eloquent than I could muster, that the one who suffers most of all is the juggler.

Maybe this book resonated so much for me because I read it just after it had been published in 2011, when I was just adjusting to life with a small person and the million little changes that go along with that. Everything felt so much harder then; I’m not sure things are any easier now. While the book is just good writing, it appeals in particular to those of us who are struggling to do everything, to make sure that the work gets done well and the kid gets fed and talked to and most of the bills get paid and the partner doesn’t get throttled even though he has done ten things this week to deserve it (and it’s only Wednesday). It appeals to those of us who can do one thing great or two things shoddily.

Which is not to say that Hamilton is in any way shoddy; I’m projecting. Her writing is clean and sharp, with the flawless execution that comes from really knowing one’s craft. This book is not only not boring, but it is not like any other chef’s memoir I’ve read because it is written by someone who is as much a writer as a cook. Both are hard skills to learn, but Hamilton has mastered them, and I read her book in awe.

The Italians have a way of counting for these kinds of family dinners that I wish we had in English. If you ask how many we are expecting for dinner this evening, they’ll answer “un trentina” – a little thirty – or “una quarantina” – a little forty. It’s like saying “roughly twenty” so we know that we can expect anywhere from thirty-five to forty-five when someone answers “una quarantina.” I want this vague yet perfectly precise way of counting in so many contexts of my life. I always want to say everything was twenty years ago. Or you can cook it in twenty minutes. Or I’ve been a cook for twenty years. Or I haven’t spoken to my mother in twenty years. But exactly twenty? Not for an Italian minute. Exactly a “ventina.” (Page 243.)

This is the best book of all the books I’ve told you about, and if you buy any of them I hope it’s this one.

There are no recipes in the book, but here’s one of hers I’ve made and loved. I believe she’s working on a cookbook; I will buy it when it’s out. Preorder, hardcover.

Fennel baked in cream

  • 1 1⁄2 lbs. fennel (about 2 large bulbs), stalks removed, halved lengthwise, and cut into 1⁄2″ wedges
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 1⁄2 cups finely grated Parmesan
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 tbsp. butter, cubed

Preheat your oven to 425°F.

In a bowl, combine fennel, cream, and one cup of the cheese, with a bit of salt and pepper, and mush everything together with your hands. Pour the mixture into a 9″x13″ baking dish. Place the cubes of butter over top, sporadically. Cover the dish with foil, and bake for about an hour.

Pull the dish out of the oven, remove the foil, and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the dish. Put the whole thing back into the oven and continue to cook for another 20 to 30 minutes, until the fennel is tender and the cheese is golden brown.

It’s very good with white fish, or chicken. Or, cold, out of the refrigerator when you’re up at 3:00 a.m., wondering what you should do with your life.

 

 

Something to Read: An Alphabet for Gourmets

30days

We put a clean cloth, red and white, over one of the carpenters’ tables, and kicked wood-curls aside for our feet, under the chairs brought up from the apartment in Vevey. I set our tumblers, plates, silver, smooth unironed napkins sweet from the meadow grass where they had dried.

While some of us started to bend over the dwarf-pea bushes and toss the crisp pods into baskets, others built a hearth from stones and a couple of roof-tiles lying loose and made a lively little fire. I had a big kettle with spring water in the bottom of it, just off simmering, and salt and pepper and a pat of fine butter to hand. Then I put the bottles of Dezelay in the fountain, just under the timeless spurt of icy mountain water, and ran down to be the liaison between the harvesters and my mother, who sat shelling from the basket on her lap into the pot between her feet, as intent and nimble as a lace-maker.

I dashed up and down the steep terraces with the baskets, and my mother would groan and then hum happily when another one appeared, and below I could hear my father and our friends cursing just as happily at their wry backs and their aching thighs, while the peas came off their stems and into the baskets with a small sound audible in that still, high air, so many hundred feet above the distant and completely silent Leman. It was suddenly almost twilight. The last sunlight on the Dents du Midi was fire-rosy, with immeasurable coldness in it.

“Time, gentlemen, time,” my mother called, in an unrehearsed and astonishing imitation of a Cornish barmaid.

I read An Alphabet for Gourmets one summer when I was 20 or 21 and working for a place that exported cars to the US, back when the exchange rate was favourable for that kind of thing. It was my first non-retail job; I’d never realized before that how much sitting you could do and get paid for it.

On a good day, I’d drive some nice car down to the Seattle Auto Auction, sit around for a couple of hours, and drive some other car back. On a bad day I’d be stuck in a white cargo van with no rear-view mirrors and a sense of worry, or I’d be in one of those silly giant pick-up trucks when a snow-storm struck and remain stranded on the I-5 with not enough money for gas to get home. There was a lot of driving, but also a lot of waiting, and so in those lulls I’d read MFK Fisher. She always got me through.

an-alphabet-for-gourmets-fisher

While How to Cook a Wolf  is a book for simpler, leaner times, much of the rest of Fisher’s work is lush and decadent, and even when she’s describing something as simple as peas, there’s extravagance in the details. You want to go to there, wherever it is (most likely France). The way she writes, it’s as if the whole scene is set in that late-August evening light that’s so yellow that the shadows are blue, so golden that everything just sort of sparkles. It’s all like that, verdant, even when it’s nighttime or raining. She’s wonderful. Her life is the stuff of paintings and good poetry.

My bias is showing. She’s one of my favourites.

If you can find The Art of Eating, her selected works, buy it. I picked up my copy in that San Francisco bookstore I told you about before; it was another trip, but I never learn and picked up that book and a couple of other similarly dense, heavy books to lug around until Nick finally got sick of my complaining and carried the bag for me. If all you can find is An Alphabet for Gourmetsthat’s fine; you can collect the others as you find them. It’s a good one; that and How to Cook a Wolf will get you started.

Since we’re talking about peas, kind of, here’s a recipe for one of my favourite summer sides; it’s not a Fisher recipe, but it’s a good one and sort of fits the theme I was kind of going for (French, peas).

Peas with lettuce and mint

  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 cups shelled peas, preferably fresh but frozen will do if you get those little baby peas
  • 1/2 head of romaine or green leaf lettuce, cut crosswise into ribbons
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp. finely chopped mint
  • 1 tbsp. heavy cream

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add your minced shallot, and cook until translucent. Add the peas, lettuce, and chicken stock, and cover. Cook for three minutes, until the lettuce has wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with mint.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a serving dish. Drizzle with cream.

This dish is nice with cold chicken or grilled fish; I quite like it as a side with barbecued Sockeye salmon and buttery steamed new potatoes.

Something to Read: Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

30days

I’ll admit that most of the times I end up cooking for just me, I eat weird food. Last time Nick was away, one night for dinner I ate a whole purple cauliflower, roasted with olive oil and garlic, and three eggs, scrambled medium-rare in probably more butter than was necessary with a lot of black pepper. Not something I’d make for a family dinner, it was a meal that I enjoyed intensely probably in part because I was all by myself.

Eating alone is a secret joy, the kind of thing I recommend everyone give a good solid try. It’s important to be able to enjoy one’s own company, and some people need a bit of practice dining in silence, alone but not lonely. Start with brunch; the most wonderful way to spend Sunday morning is sitting at a table alone in a well-lit dining room with cold white wine, a bit of fruit, a poached egg and some toast, and a stack of magazines you haven’t yet gotten around to. If you go a little while after the lunch rush, you can sit undisturbed for a good long time, and the serving staff will be kind to you and generous in topping up your glass. Tip well. But that goes without saying.

You can practice at home by cooking for yourself and then not eating that meal in front of a screen. Books and magazines are allowed, but iPhones, computers, and televisions are not. Even if you just roast yourself a whole bunch of cauliflower, you must do yourself a favour and eat it at a table, with nice music playing and something manual to distract yourself.

eggplant

And while you’re practicing, read Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, a collection of essays by brilliant people on the topic of dinner for one.

This book has a little bit of something from everyone, from Nora Ephron and Laurie Colwin to Haruki Murakami and Marcella Hazan. From her own piece called Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, from her book Home Cooking and from which the book takes its name, Laurie Colwin writes:

Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, the confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches and bacon sandwiches deep fried with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.

Be your weird self. Cook for just you. Enjoy the silence. Eat a whole head of cauliflower, if that’s what makes you happy.

Roasted cauliflower

  • 1 x 2 lb. cauliflower, cut into florets
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt
  • Ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

In a large bowl, drizzle the cauliflower florets with the olive oil. Zest the lemon over top the florets, then drizzle them with the juice. Add the garlic, salt and pepper, and mush the whole thing together with your hands until the cauliflower is well coated.

Place the cauliflower on a large, rimmed baking sheet.

Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, turning occasionally, until the cauliflower is tender and golden. Sprinkle with a little bit of additional salt, then eat with your fingers out of a big bowl with a plate of scrambled eggs, a glass of cold white wine, and a novel you’ve been meaning to get into. Don’t answer the phone if it rings – it’s me time.

Stock.

Simmering stock

Happy Holidays! Did you celebrate? How was it? We have been busy, and apparently neglectful; the surest way to know we’ve not been home enough is the smell of cat pee on our bath towels and dirty laundry. And it’s not just the cat – our waistlines are suffering a noticeable neglect as well. We’ve eaten more food in the past week than I think we ate all year; definitely more calories. Definitely. I can feel my liver.

It’s not over yet. We have more dinners, more drinks, more friends and family and days filled with driving and negotiating with the car over how little we can get away with spending on gas. Our apartment is a hideous mess, but there’s almost no point in cleaning it. Why bother? We’re just going to have to do it again and again and again.

But the laundry’s going through its rotations, and I’ve found a quiet moment to process the leftovers. There is something meditative about picking meat off of bones; it requires focus, but it’s not strenuous work and the results mean future meals.

Even if we are just in the eye of this seasonal storm, I have found a moment of peace, and in it there is the warmth of bones and the produce that wilted in my crisper finding new life in a pot of stock that will nourish us back to health after December’s frantic gorging finally lets up.

You can’t even smell the cat pee anymore.

Make stock. It will warm your home and then when you’re too tired to do anything tonight or in a few days or next week, you’ll just bring some of it to a simmer with some veggies, a bit of meat and some noodles or grains or legumes and you’ll have an easy (and easily digestible) dinner that won’t take much more than 20 minutes to pull together.

There’s no real recipe. Most of the time I save my veggie scraps in a container in the freezer, and then when we eat a bird or a ham or a lot of bony beef, I put my scraps and bones in a stock pot with some herbs, some salt and pepper and a lemon. I fill the pot to about the 12-litre mark and simmer (never boil) for two hours or maybe more, depending on how the day goes. I usually end up with about eight litres of stock in the end, and that’s enough for eight pots of soup, or eight risottos, or 16 pots of Bolognese sauce or chili.

If you don’t have scraps in your freezer, use a couple of carrots, a few ribs of celery, an onion, the green tops of two leeks, and half a bunch of parsley and as many heads of garlic as you feel like (I always use two or three). For the bones, a carcass from Christmas dinner or a bag of chicken backs from your butcher will be perfectly fine; if you’re using raw backs to start, brown them in a bit of oil in the bottom of the pot with your veggies for extra flavour. But you don’t have to use meat; omit it and you’ll have yourself a perfectly lovely vegetable stock. Add some bay leaves, a handful of black peppercorns, and then just let it go. If anything scummy forms on the top, skim it off. There’s really nothing to it.

Strain it after a couple of hours, then put it back on the stove and simmer for longer to reduce it if you want, or don’t, but salt it at the end after you’ve tasted it. Cool it, then store it in large Mason jars or freezer bags in 4-cup portions.

Trust me on this – make stock. You’ll feel better knowing there’s nutritious, homemade soup in your future.

And enjoy the rest of the holiday season. There’s still fun to be had, and I hope you have it all.