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.

Swarni’s tofu bhurji.

Between right now and the last time I posted here, I wrote 32 drafts of posts I either forgot about or decided were terrible and then sort of thought “whatever, I give up, I AM TERRIBLE,” and then ate my way into a new pants size. The timing of the new Adele record was ideal because it hit me right at peak-wallow, and let me tell you, you do not want to read the Hello-inspired blog post I considered somewhere around the third week of December.

(For your and Nick’s benefit, I ate every last one of those feelings, many of them on crackers and with glasses of very cold white wine.)

But things are looking up. I’ve reignited my relationship with MyFitnessPal, which means I – once again – have a handy, non-human place to direct my contempt. I haven’t eaten cheese in four days, which has been hard but necessary. And I got a few work-appropriate sweater-dress/leggings outfits for Christmas and they’re making the bloat a lot easier to hide in this lumpy post-holiday interim.

And I have a few new recipes, including this one from my lovely, wonderful friend Swarni whom I bother every day at work. Swarni is an essential member of the office potluck team, and a harsh critic of any Indian food brought into the office that isn’t up to her exacting standards. She brought a big dish of her tofu bhurji in for a holiday potluck in mid-December and it was so good that I spent the rest of last month haranguing her for the recipe.

I ended up adapting the recipe a little bit, as Swarni gets her spices ground fresh when she’s in India and so they’re more potent than mine; I also use a bit of turmeric for more of an eggy colour. It’s a very mild dish and good for children (even mine, praise Swarni!), but if you like things spicy, a little (or a lot of) hot sauce works well here.

Tofu bhurji is perfect for weeknights, and January when we have no money and pretty much just fridge scraps with which to feed ourselves. I’ve used butter here, but you could easily turn this vegan by simply replacing the butter with a bit of oil. It’s a bit like scrambled eggs, in the end, but with none of the fart taste that so often accompanies a poorly scrambled egg. It’s magic, and it’s not cheese which, just this once, is a very good thing.

Swarni’s Tofu Bhurji

(Makes two to four servings.)

  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 1 small tomato, seeded and chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 tsp. Madras or other yellow curry powder
  • 1 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1/2 tsp. garam masala
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1 lb. (454 g) medium-firm tofu, drained and patted dry
  • Cilantro

In a large pan over medium-high heat, melt butter and stir together onion, jalapeño pepper, and ginger. Cook for about a minute, until the pepper brightens in colour, then reduce heat to medium-low. Stirring regularly, cook for seven to 10 minutes, until veggies have softened and turned golden.

Meanwhile, mash tofu with a potato masher, or use your hands to crumble it until it resembles curds of scrambled egg. Set aside.

Add tomato, garlic, curry powder, salt, garam masala, cumin, and turmeric to the pan and cook for another three to five minutes, until the liquid from the tomatoes has mostly disappeared and the contents of the pan resemble a soft paste.

Add frozen peas, and cook for another three to five minutes, until the water from the peas has mostly disappeared.

Add the tofu to the pan, and mix well. Partially cover the pan and cook for another five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally. The pan should be mostly dry on the bottom, and the tofu should be evenly coated in spices.

Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Stir in chopped fresh cilantro, and serve with a blurp of your favourite hot sauce and rice or warm roti bread. Would even be good on toast, come to think of it.

And Happy New Year! I hope your 2016 is delicious and everything you hope and want and need it to be.

 

Hunger Awareness Week: Whole grain pasta with chickpeas and caramelized tomato sauce.

A well-stocked pantry has saved my butt on more occasions than I can count. Being able to open a cupboard and see a few simple things that could equal dinner is something I don’t take for granted – it’s a reassuring thing, and a luxury for many. Whether it’s because payday is too far away or I’m just too lazy to get to the market over the weekend, pantry meals warm my home and filled my belly most weeks, and have for my whole life.

When choosing non-perishable items to donate to the food bank, try to select nutritious items to fill the pantries of those with diverse dietary needs.

  • Fifty per cent of food bank users are families, including children; consider donating kid-friendly items like granola bars, breakfast items like oatmeal or other hot cereals, sugar-free applesauce, or peanut- or gluten-free items for school lunches.
  • If 20 per cent of people who use the food bank are seniors, consider seniors’ health issues (diabetes, heart disease, hypertension): select low-sodium canned goods, low-sugar or sugar-free canned or pureed fruits, lean proteins including peanut butter and legumes, whole grain and gluten-free pastas, and high-fibre grains and cereals.
  • For families with babies and young children, consider donating baby food, infant formula, or diapers in a range of sizes (not just newborn). Nursing mums need nutrition too – fortified cereals, canned fish (especially sardines, salmon, herring and mackerel), low-sodium canned soups and stews, and parboiled grains can be beneficial, especially for parents who are pressed for time.

Pasta with caramelized tomato sauce and garlic.A pantry with a few staples you’ll use again and again can go a long way to making you feel secure. Today’s recipe is an easy one – it’s comprised of stuff you probably already have, and it’s hearty enough to feed a family of four to a comfortable degree of fullness. It’s kid-friendly, at least at my table. It’s also suitable for people with diabetes, and it reheats well for lunch at work the next day.

Whole wheat pasta with chickpeas and caramelized tomato sauce

(Makes four servings.)

  • 1 lb. whole-wheat or other whole-grain pasta, such as penne or rotini
  • 19-oz. (540 mL) can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1/2 tsp. red chili flakes (optional)
  • 5.5-oz. (128 mL) can low-sodium tomato paste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Parsley to garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and add pasta. Cook according to package instructions, about 11 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add onion, and cook for two minutes, until just translucent. Add chili flakes (if using) and garlic. Cook until onions and garlic have just turned golden, another three minutes. Add tomato paste. Stir constantly to keep the paste moving around the pan and cook until colour deepens and butter seems to have disappeared, four to six minutes.

Before draining the pasta, reserve about two cups of cooking water. Drain pasta, and add pasta and chickpeas to the pan. Stir, then add water half a cup at a time until sauce has loosened and coats the noodles thoroughly. Taste, adjusting seasonings as desired. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Potato salad.

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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: Spoon Fed

30days

I’m still in a bit of a mood, as the pain after my wisdom teeth extraction remains ongoing. Tomorrow I have to leave the office for a bit to go back to the surgeon’s office to have him review his work. On my walk home from work today I simply couldn’t stand it any longer and found myself back in Dairy Queen for the second time in less than a week. I make a lot of excuses for my behaviour, but I stand by all of them.

spoonfed

Today’s book is Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life by Kim Severson, who is a writer for The New York Times. The book features stories about Severson’s interactions with eight cooks, all women, who play a pivotal role in Severson’s life (both in the kitchen and outside of it). My favourite part is the chapter on Marcella Hazan, who teaches Severson to Let go of expectations and you’ll be a lot happier.” And it features That Perfect Sauce.

“Can you recall the first grown-up recipe you really mastered? It’s likely not the first thing you ever made, the misshapen pancakes cooked at your father’s elbow or a batch of cookies crammed with too many M&Ms. And it is likely not the first few experiments when you left home, the ones you made to impress a date or because it was your turn in the kitchen at the shared house you lived in during college.

“That special dish usually comes once you are old enough to have someone to cook for and mature enough to understand the value in mastering a recipe so that its preparation is as routine as making a bed with fresh sheets, and the results as predictably nice.” (Page 219)

You can make it with fresh tomatoes, but the thing I like about Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce is that you can make it with dirt cheap Superstore No Name Brand canned tomatoes and it still turns out beautifully – not harsh or acidic, not ever. It’s so simple, and so wonderful, and you can gussy it up with meatballs or gnocchi or whatever, but you don’t even have to. I like Hazan’s sauce (from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking) over a bit of whole wheat pasta and a bit of shaved Parmesan, maybe a little buttered bread on the side for sopping. It’s perfect, beyond what you might expect.

If you’re serving other people, double the recipe. If you’re in a pissy mood because your teeth still hurt, have someone else make it for you. Thank that person. Repeatedly.

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

  • 1 28-ounce can of canned whole tomatoes
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
  • Salt

Put the tomatoes and their juices in a pot with the butter and the onion, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally. Taste, adding salt if you find it needs it.

Before serving, fish out the onion and discard it. Give the tomatoes a whiz with an immersion blender, or use a regular blender to smooth the sauce. Serve over pasta.