Roasted apricot with cottage cheese

In our early twenties, my friend Theresa and I shared a basement suite east of Commercial Drive and a tendency towards excess. It was a dark, damp little place last renovated in the early eighties by someone with a preference for shades of brown, but it was cheap and close enough to public transit and places we liked to go. The living room wall featured a cutout with a long fluorescent tube light at the top that was probably meant for displaying art, but it had a ledge just wide enough for a single liquor bottle, and long enough for maybe thirty.

We wheeled an old TV stand in next to the bar and stocked it with shakers and shot glasses and swizzle sticks and hula dancer figurines and felt pretty good about our lives. The kitchen had a place to hang stemware, and we filled it with our mismatched collection of cups and glasses. Every evening after work we’d have cocktails, the alcohol equivalent to swamp water, and we’d feel like fancy ladies as we sipped mango Malibu and peach schnapps out of plastic martini glasses.

But fancy cocktails weren’t our only bad habit. We were too similar to survive together for too long – though I suspect that if she’d never moved to Australia we’d still be together making bad choices in basement suites, probably sharing a set of kidneys – and one could easily convince the other that what anyone else would consider a bad idea was actually the best idea ever, like washing the kitchen floor with ammonia AND bleach (double the cleaning power!) or buying six Filet-o-Fish sandwiches with extra tartar sauce and a full slice of cheese at midnight because we were going to eat them anyway and it would save us another (inevitable) trip out and while we were at it maybe we needed apple pies too. We invented fourth meal but never thought to trademark it.

One of the ways we enabled each other to do incredibly self-destructive awesome things was by claiming that whatever we were doing was in the name of health. At the time, Theresa was a vegetarian except for fish and pepperoni, and I was just beginning to get really excited about fibre. Theresa would go on long runs, and I would go to boot camp because I was too lazy to exercise unless I paid for it and would only go out of guilt at having spent the money. Because we had our health in mind intermittently, sometimes we would stock up on healthy things, either at Costco or at our parents’ houses when one of our moms was cleaning out her pantry and wanted us to take crap away. One of our kicks was dried fruit, which made an excellent snack for a vegetarian and a fibre enthusiast.

Somehow we came to possess about a kilogram of dried apricots. One evening, in our pajama pants and holey sweatshirts with nothing to do and no desire to go out, we put on a movie and made the healthy choice to snack on dried fruit instead of Cheetos or Zesty Doritos, probably because one or the other of us had exercised and did not want to derail those efforts right away. Theresa brought out an opened zip-top bag of dried mango slices and a plastic bag of dried cranberries, and I found the apricots. Over the two hours the movie played, we ate the entire bag of dried apricots and most of the other fruit, which seemed like a good idea at the time because all that fruit fibre was bound to do good things for us.

Theresa is a scientist, but somehow she didn’t foresee what it might do to us. Over the next two or three days we both learned a valuable lesson, and that is that fibre is a finicky friend, and that very easily you can take the relationship too far.

I cried.

Years later, I still approach apricots with trepidation. I buy them only a handful at a time (and rarely dried), because there is safety only in a certain number, but all I know is that the number is low. And yet I still love them. I have never been good at knowing when to give up on a thing.

In the years between then and now, I have learned a little bit about balance. Maybe one apricot is okay. Maybe with a bit of protein, and a touch of sweetness. Maybe, like peach schnapps, apricots are not a meal but rather a snack that can be enjoyed in moderation.

Roasted apricot with cottage cheese

(Serves one.)

  • 1 or 2 apricots, halved
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • Pat of butter, dotted over cut sides
  • 1/2 cup cottage cheese
  • 8 roasted whole almonds, chopped
  • Honey, to taste

Heat oven to 300°F.

Place apricot in a small baking dish, sprinkle with cinnamon, and then dot with butter.

Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until soft and lightly browned.

Spoon cottage cheese into a bowl. Place roasted apricot halves over top, sprinkle with almonds, and drizzle with honey.

This is great for breakfast or for a snack before bed. If you don’t like cottage cheese, this is also quite pleasant with yogurt.

Zucchini parmigiana sandwiches.

Zucchini is back! And early tomatoes, among other things, and my fridge is full of all the edible colours and I am delighted. I’ve started buying large amounts of things to turn into freezer meals for when I no longer have the energy to feed myself or the ability to reach the stove, which should happen right around the end of the harvest season. I am in the process of assembling zucchini parmigiana in foil containers (no dishes!), and had extra bits, and thought they’d be quite excellent in sandwiches.

For the sandwiches, I fried the zucchini instead of roasting it, and used leftover marinara sauce. You can make it fresh, if you like – I quite like this one from Smitten Kitchen with a bit of fresh basil – or you can use whatever you have hanging around in your fridge or pantry. Something simple with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and herbs should do just fine. Any plain sandwich bun will do, and whole wheat would probably be nice.

These smell fabulously summery, and in spite of their crispy fried bits and garlic-toasty top half, they’re pretty light. The tomatoes and basil play well with the breaded zucchini, and there is just the tiniest bit of spice from the Tabasco and red pepper flakes. They would be excellent with cold beer or red wine, and beg to be eaten on a patio in the sunshine. Maybe your Meatless Monday is warm and summery? We had to make do with pretend as it’s been damp and grey around here, but these certainly brightened our moods.

Zucchini parmigiana sandwiches

(Serves six to eight.)

  • 8 buns, such as Kaiser or Calabrese
  • 1 lb. zucchini, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds (about 24 pieces)
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp. Tabasco or other hot sauce
  • 1 cup panko
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 3 tbsp. butter, at room temperature
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup marinara sauce
  • 1 cup shredded Provolone
  • 2 tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 16 basil leaves
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Slice buns in half horizontally and set aside.

Whisk together eggs and Tabasco. Combine panko with lemon zest, and stir to combine. Dredge zucchini slices first in egg, then in bread crumbs. Fry in a large pan over medium-high heat, in grapeseed or olive oil, until golden, 90 seconds to two minutes per side.

Place on a plate lined with paper towel and sprinkle with salt while still hot.

Preheat oven to broil.

In a small bowl, mush together butter, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper (taste and adjust seasonings as desired). Divide equally between the eight buns, spreading on the top half only. Place on a large baking sheet.

Place zucchini slices, two to three per bun, on the other half of each bun. Top with two tablespoons each marinara sauce and provolone, and place on the same baking sheet as the top halves.

Place under broiler and cook until cheese has melted and the buttered half has turned golden, two to three minutes.

Finish each sandwich with fresh tomato slices and basil leaves. Serve hot, with lightly dressed greens on the side. Enjoy!

 

Corn and asparagus salad

As of about 1:30 p.m. last Friday, it is now summer on the west coast and I am wearing a sundress and remembering my thighs now that they are not prevented by denim or Lycra from rubbing together.

Finally, things I’ve been waiting a year for are in season again, and the sun is warm into the evening so we can garden after work or enjoy a fizzy drink or two and a tomato salad on a patio somewhere and be social. I bought this season’s first zucchini on Sunday. I picked strawberries in the sunshine on Saturday. On Friday I ate corn in a park beside a marina.

My Dad trimmed his garlic plants this weekend and sent me home with a wealth of stinky, curly green stalks with which to make pesto and salads until the garlic oil ekes from our pores and our coworkers beg us to eat anything else. And corn has begun to appear in the markets, just as the last of the frozen stuff has hardened into an iceberg that smells like freezer and deserves to be thrown out.

So for this Meatless Monday, dinner came together in a fifteen-minute frenzy of blanching, chopping, and tossing, and it was cool and bright-tasting, with lemon and tomatoes, and basil, and piquillo peppers from a jar in the fridge and those pungent, fabulous garlic scapes.

There would have been a handful of Parmesan cheese thrown in at the end but I was in such a rush to eat that I forgot. No matter. It’s just fine sprinkled on after, and it’s just fine without if you want to keep things vegan. It would also be wonderful with grilled scallops or spot prawns, or maybe halibut, but you can do that some other night.

Corn and asparagus salad

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

  • 1 lb. asparagus, trimmed, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2 large cobs corn (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes
  • 2 diced piquillo peppers (or roasted red bell peppers)
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 1/2 cup garlic scapes or scallions, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. minced fresh basil
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

Blanch asparagus in a large pot of boiling water. Cool in an ice water bath until cold.

Scrape corn from cobs into a large bowl. Add tomatoes, peppers, shallot, garlic scapes, Parmesan cheese, and lemon zest. Add asparagus.

Whisk lemon juice, olive oil, basil, pepper flakes, salt, and pepper together. Taste, adjusting balance as needed. Pour over salad. Toss to coat.

Serve immediately.

Paneer with greens and chickpeas.

If you’ve recently returned home from Paris to find your diabetic husband has eaten nothing but brisket sandwiches from the BBQ place down the street since you’ve been gone, your home full of needy pets and their molted winter fur, and your own digestive system in distress, you’ll relate to this sudden need for the nourishing simplicity of stewed greens. While they simmer, you can toss out all those little containers he left behind that contain just a strand or two of coleslaw and maybe run a vacuum over the floors or the cat. If your jaw is still sore from all that ravenous mastication of so much perfect French meat, this dish will ease your suffering – you don’t have to chew too hard.

Also it includes cheese. Which, if you are harbouring some variety of Space Dinosaur, means that you are addressing all of your needs in one dish and will not have to run out to the market later in the evening for a hunk of medium orange cheddar and some saltines to quell any mad cravings you might be experiencing. In your absence, he ate all the cheese.

Sometimes there’s a lot going on, you know?

Anyway.

This dish is an adaptation of Palak Paneer, one of my favourite things in the whole world which requires only the effort of finding paneer, which in Vancouver is no effort at all, or of making it. The recipe is loosely based on one I’ve made a few times from India Cookbook by Pushpesh Pant, which is a resource that I insist you get if you like to make Indian food – it’s worth it’s (dense) weight and (slightly pricey) price, even if all you do is read it and look at the gorgeous photos. The dish is generally made with spinach, but I like to throw it together with whatever’s on hand; a mix of greens is lovely and also very healthy.

Paneer with greens and chickpeas

(Serves four to six.)

  • 2 lbs. greens, such as chard, spinach, kale, or collards
  • 2 tbsp. mustard oil (or olive oil)
  • 1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes, including juice
  • 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 14 oz. can chickpeas
  • 1 lb. paneer, cubed
  • 1/2 cup chopped cashews, toasted

There are two ways you can start the greens, and I like both ways. You can either blanch them in boiling salted water and then purée them in a blender or food processor, or you can put them dry into the blender or food processor. If you use the blanching method, you will end up with creamy greens; if you go dry, the final product will have a bit more texture. Both ways are good, so I’ll leave that part up to you. Process greens and then set aside.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, sauté fenugreek seeds for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic, ginger, jalapeño peppers, cumin, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper, and cook for two minutes, stirring frequently.

Add greens and diced tomatoes, and reduce heat to medium. Let simmer for ten minutes, adding water as needed (if you processed your greens without blanching, you may need somewhere around a cup of water) to soften the greens. Add cilantro.Taste, adjusting seasonings as required.

Add chickpeas, paneer, and cashews, cook until paneer is warmed through, about two more minutes. Serve over rice with a dollop of plain yogurt.

And stay tuned – more on Paris later! Get super excited for strawberry season.

Pear galette with rosemary and Chevre.

Nick and the cat are fighting over bedtime (they holler at each other while he completes his nighttime routine), and she needed to have her claws trimmed a week ago and now it’s his problem, and it’s laundry night but the sheets came out damp, and we’re all out of Glee episodes to watch and books to read and original thoughts to think. But the apartment is clean, scrubbed down to its grout even, and we have a week of relaxation planned, of catching up on lost sleep and homemade dinners and digging in the garden. We’re not driving places or spending money. We’ve booked ourselves an entire weekend of going nowhere and doing nothing but slow-cooking beans and brisket for Sunday dinner. I’m looking forward to it.

Every so often it becomes urgent to not do anything for a week or two, to be very boring until the bags disappear from under our eyes for awhile. We generally eat well during these lulls, because we are not always worrying about what to wear before dashing frantically off to some thing. It’s during these breaks that we sometimes get to eat pie for dinner, so even if the lulls sound terribly dull, at least there is pastry. And that is a thing to look forward to in itself.

Pear galette with rosemary

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt, divided
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper, divided
  • 1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 5 tbsp. ice water
  • 1 lb. firm-fleshed pears
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup crumbled Chevre
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 1 egg white, beaten with 1 tsp. water

Make your dough. Combine flour and 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and drop each cube of butter in, squishing them between your fingers. The end result before you add the water should be a crumby mixture with larger chunks, some as large as kidney beans or peas. Stir in water, a bit at a time, to form the dough – you may not need all of the water; the dough should be just moist enough to hold together. Press into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until pears are done.

Quarter pears and remove centres, and cut each quarter in half. You can peel them if you want to but I didn’t feel like it, and it didn’t make a difference in the end. Place pear pieces into a saucepan and pour over balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, and enough cold water to just cover the pears. Add the remaining salt, 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper, and the sprig of rosemary. Bring the pot to a simmer over medium-high heat, reduce heat to medium, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Roll pie dough onto a sheet of parchment paper to a thickness of 1/4-inch. Place parchment with pie dough onto a sheet pan.

Place pear slices in the centre of the dough in a circle. Sprinkle Chevre and remaining pepper over top, then fold the edges of the dough over the pears. It will be rough and rustic-looking, but that’s perfectly all right, because who wants to make a perfect pie after working all day? Not me. Place the remaining sprig of rosemary over top, paint the edges of the pie with egg white, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden.

Serve with gently dressed greens and hot black tea.

Curried apple and Cheddar soup.

Every so often circumstances force us to face unpleasant truths about ourselves. I am fortunate in that I am quite delusional, but over the course of the past week I have come to the stunning realization that I might be just as annoying as anyone else when faced with even the suggestion of illness, and that my dramatics are lost on everyone I’m married to.

As the weight in my sinuses drags me down, I’ve realized that I must feed us real food if we are to survive this thing, even if the idea of cooking in that kitchen that is piled with an unnavigable stack of dirty dishes is so repellent that all I can do is fall into the couch to marathon Glee and slurp kimchi ramen out of a Styrofoam bowl and whine about how no one really loves me or he’d throw out everything we own and go to the store to buy new, clean stuff so we could start over and maybe also give the floor a wash and fold that pile of laundry that’s lived a week on the sofa that gets wrinklier and covered in more and more cat hair every day. Also it would be good if someone would make me a pot of tea and find me my lip balm.

Cheese soup might not be the healthiest thing we could do for ourselves at this tissue-littered time, but it’s restorative in that it contains all of the calories I have not been getting by only consuming bowls of cereal, instant ramen, and juice since my face decided to protest health. It’s an easy meatless meal, and despite its half-pound of delicious aged Cheddar and its scandalous amount of cream, there are good things in it. The carrots aren’t just for colour.

Curried apple and Cheddar soup

(Serves four to six.)

  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cups diced carrot (about four)
  • 2 cups diced apple (such as Granny Smith, about two large)
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tbsp. Madras curry powder
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 5 cups water or vegetable stock, or a combination
  • 1/2 lb. sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 cup cream

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, melt butter. Sauté onion, carrot, apples, and garlic until golden, three to five minutes. Add curry powder, salt, turmeric, and black and cayenne peppers. Stir to coat.

Add water or stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until carrots have softened, 10 to 12 minutes.

Remove from heat and purée using a blender or immersion blender. Return to heat and stir in cheese and lemon juice. Taste, adjust seasonings as needed. Stir in cream, and serve hot, with a sprinkling of additional cayenne pepper, as desired.

Also because it’s been awhile here’s a photo of the cat in the laundry basket that we emptied onto the sofa and then just left in the middle of the living room.

 

 

Yogurt cheese, smoked salmon, and canneloni.

Oh, this week! I don’t know where it’s gone, and I have two modes and two modes only these past seven days: frantic disorganization and head-bobbing lethargy, neither of which has proven to be particularly sustainable. My arthritis is flaring up again, this time with insistence, and Nick’s always talking about his diabetes, and I’m always telling him how much fibre is in things and we both feel 800-years-old.

Also, if the weird loop of incongruous music in my head is any indication, my internal DJ is totally high (when did that song from Aladdin get mashed up with The Beach Boys and why has either crossed my mind?), and I know we must have eaten something Monday and Tuesday, but I can’t figure out what it was. And the mountains are dark behind a scattered mist and the temperature has dropped and there are rumours of snow, even after I snapped photos of little white buds in a patch of dirt in front of a building around the corner just this past Saturday when we were running around having adventures in light jackets.


Anyway. I made yogurt cheese because the yogurt I like was on sale. (Given my current state of mind, that’s as good a transition as any.) I told you about yogurt cheese a long while back – it comes from this wonderful blog. At first it was a perfectly good spread for bagels, but now is so much more.

This would be best if you made it with hand-rolled sheets of fresh pasta. Second best is store-bought sheets of fresh pasta, which is what I used. Third would be those hard canneloni tubes you get in a box in the dry pasta aisle, but I have never been able to handle those without crushing them like so many taco shells. It’ll take about five sheets, each one cut in half so that it is roughly 4″x3″ (those Olivieri ones will work just fine).

And don’t just cheat and use ricotta. With the yogurt and the lemon and the salmon together, the filling is bright and flavourful. The night before you plan to make this, empty a large container of yogurt (750mL) into a strainer lined with cheesecloth. Tie up the edges, and hang it over the sink overnight (with a bowl underneath to catch  the whey, which is a fantastic addition to soups and bread). Instructions with photos are here. You’ll end up with a little over a cup, maybe a cup and a half, and it should be the consistency of crumbly cream cheese. Refrigerate the stuff until you’re ready to use it.

Smoked salmon canneloni with yogurt cheese

(Serves four.)

Pasta

  • 5 sheets fresh pasta, 8″x6″ (approximately)
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 leek, 1″ thick, white and light-green part only, chopped
  • 1 batch yogurt cheese (about 1 1/4 cup)
  • 1/2 cup smoked salmon, flaked and packed
  • Zest and juice of one lemon
  • 1/4 cup parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 egg, beaten

Sauce

  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup light cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Melt butter in a pan over medium-high heat. When bubbling, add leek and garlic. Cook for one minute, until garlic is fragrant and leek has brightened in colour. Remove from heat.

In a medium bowl, mush together yogurt cheese, smoked salmon, and lemon zest and juice. Use a fork – the best mushing is usually done with a fork. Pour buttery garlicky leeks into the bowl, and add parsley, salt, and pepper, stir, and taste. Adjust seasonings as needed. When you like what you’re tasting, stir in the egg. Set aside.

Ready pasta for rolling according to package instructions. For store-bought fresh pasta, you may need to soak it for a couple of minutes in cold water. Trim to about 4″x3″.

Bring light cream to just a simmer. Remove from heat. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic, and cook until translucent. Add crushed tomatoes. Once the tomatoes begin to burble and steam, reduce heat to medium and carefully stir in cream, slowly and in a steady stream, stirring until fully incorporated. Remove from heat.

Coat the bottom of a glass or enameled 9″x13″ baking dish with a thin layer of sauce.

Scoop 1/4 cup filling into the centre of each piece of pasta. Roll into loose cylinders, and place side by side into the pan. Once you have run out of room on the first layer, coat the tops with sauce, and continue laying rolls in a second layer. Coat the whole thing with remaining sauce, then cover with aluminum foil.

Bake covered for 35 minutes, then remove foil and cook uncovered for an additional 10 minutes. Serve sprinkled with fresh parsley.

I served the pasta over a bed of wilted chard, which turned out to be a nice way to balance the flavours of the dish, the earthiness of the greens tempering the acidity and smoke of the pasta. It would also go nicely with salad.