Pepper pot.

A friend and I once took a Caribbean cooking class through the Vancouver School Board’s Continuing Education program. I had taken other classes through the same program and they were all taught by professional chefs and I learned some fabulous things, including recipes I still use on a regular basis, so I thought the Caribbean class would be equally useful.

When we got to the first class, the instructor was wearing a lot of red lipstick, some of it on her lips, and a T-shirt printed with a picture of her face. She was no longer allowed to sell her herbs and spices in class – the school board forbade it – so if you wanted to come out to her car after class, she’d sell you spices in Zip-Loc bags. I can imagine how it would look, buying a baggy of dried thyme from the trunk of someone’s car in a south Vancouver high school parking lot, but I guess that’s how she supplemented her income; she would mention her spices two to three times, every time.

She also ran a catering company and would deliver your Christmas turkey or Hanukkah feast, and taught she taught basic cookery to children (I was once handed a recipe for a spaghetti dessert involving raisins, cottage cheese, and cinnamon – I think it was supposed to be Noodle Kugel, but it missed the mark … a bit). The course was four classes long and basically one giant commercial. And the food was terrible.

What I did get out of the class, aside from a Certificate of Attendance and a desire for my own face on a T-shirt, was an introduction to some of the basic flavour combinations that comprise Caribbean cooking. What follows is a version of Caribbean Pepper Pot, which I was introduced to in that class, but which has evolved into something less complicated but infinitely more complex.

It is mildly sweet, as spicy as you want it, and full of autumn veggies, which makes it a cozy dinner that’s lovely this time of year. I hope you’ll try it. And no need to follow me out to my car afterward.

Pepper pot

(Serves six to eight)

  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 8 chicken thighs, bone in, skin removed
  • 1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 1/2 lbs. yams or sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into one-inch pieces
  • 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes
  • 1 to 2 scotch bonnet or habañero peppers, pierced (unless you like it really hot, then chop the peppers finely … but be careful)
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 14 oz. can coconut milk
  • 1 lime, zest and juice
  • 1/2 lb. okra, chopped into one-inch pieces
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped kale, packed
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Add chicken thighs and brown each side. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add onions and garlic to the pan, scraping up any chicken bits from the bottom. Add bay leaves, brown sugar, thyme, allspice, and cinnamon. Cook until fragrant.

Add tomatoes, sweet potatoes or yams, scotch bonnet or habañero pepper(s), chicken stock, coconut milk, and lime zest and juice. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to medium, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add okra, red pepper, and kale and simmer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until okra is soft. Stir in cilantro. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Remove pepper and bay leaves. Serve with rice.

Peach and raspberry streusel cake

The reality of how little time we have left is starting to hit us now that Month 7 is upon us.

I have not been making much food at home because suddenly there is urgency to experiencing every patio and new restaurant, or to savouring the experience of doing absolutely nothing which mostly involves take-out or huge containers of fresh berries and ice cream and marathon sessions of 30 Rock. The laundry piles up and the bathtub stays grubby. But that seems to be the case regardless of the distraction.

There have been bursts of productivity in spite of us both, and everything seems to be coming up Emily. We were despairing the lack of reasonably priced but not disgusting two-bedroom apartments in the city while the walls in our current apartment began to close in on us when a spacious, many-windowed two-bedroom opened up in our own building, just across the hall. We move in October 1, so for the first time we don’t have to rush to pack, and we even have time to paint the new place to our liking.

At long last, we’re having ourselves a summer, but not a painfully hot one – outside the temperature has seldom exceeded 27 degrees (Celsius). Which has meant long afternoons in the sun, eating cherries and watching the barges in Burrard Inlet or feeding the birds tasty bites of fresh doughnut on the boardwalk at Granville Island, or cool evenings picnicking on Jericho Beach or walking to Cambie Street for the good tacos (and some lecherous staring at the beautiful blue-eyed taco man).

The sun is bright but the breeze is comfortable, and this does not feel like the same city I dream about running away from in the winter after 40 consecutive days of rain.

And, most importantly, still no stretch marks. I am so slick with lotion and cocoa butter that I’d be lethal on a Slip ‘n Slide. You keep your fingers crossed good and tight for me.

All this going and doing and lotion application has kept me out of the kitchen most of the time, and I can’t say that I mind. We eat a lot of 10-minutes-or-less dinners, a lot of berries in cream, and a refreshing number of salads. I like to think that summer’s slacking is an excuse to go out and make the stories we tell all winter, that somewhere in the season’s casual outdoor feasts there is something important, or, at the very least, something to dream on.

Like pink wine and sunshine in Grace’s wine glasses: important.

The aroma of a trout Paul that caught as it cooks with lemon and dill on the barbecue: important.

The chewy texture of oatmeal sourdough made by Grace from a starter with natural yeast: important.

A simple meal shared on a blanket on the beach: important.

People you are fond of in good moods and summer clothes: important.

Eating dessert outside at sunset: important.

Cake and peaches and raspberries and brown sugar topping: important.

You can make this now, and eat it on the beach as the sweet finale to a picnic, or you can use whatever fruit you’ve frozen and make in the winter when you’re cold and missing the smell of the ocean and that flattering summer evening light. I made this with peaches and raspberries, but it’s based on a recipe that calls for blueberries. It would be beautiful with blackberries.

Peach and raspberry streusel cake

(Adapted from the Fannie Farmer Baking Book)

Cake

  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice (this is wonderful with Meyer lemon if you can get one)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 cup diced peaches
  • 1 cup raspberries

Topping:

  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup butter, cold
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 1 1/2-quart baking dish.

Beat butter and sugar until thoroughly combined, then add egg, vanilla, lemon zest and juice. Mix.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture with milk, and beat until smooth. Spread evenly in baking dish.

Top batter with fruit.

In another bowl (so many dishes! Fun!), mix sugar and flour. Add butter and vanilla, and squish between your fingers until a dry, crumbly crumb has formed. Sprinkle over fruit.

Bake for 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean. Serve warm.

 

Tamale pie with black beans and red peppers.

Nick’s birthday was last week, and to celebrate we went out to the Tiki Bar at the newly renovated Waldorf Hotel. It was snowing, so I drove so I could still wear cute shoes and eschew a warmer, frumpier coat in favour of something that went better with my outfit. For awhile, the outfit was perfectly acceptable, because on a night like that there’d have been no reason to go outside.

I don’t know what happened.

Somehow, Nick’s friends decided that The Waldorf wasn’t fun anymore, and because it was Nick’s birthday and I drove them, I went along with their new plan to go to some house party on Commercial Drive. We parked the car at his friends’ house, because they said the party was within walking distance – closer than possibly having to park somewhere out of the way, I was assured – and on a warmer night, it might have been. First we walked several blocks to Commercial Drive, and then we headed south. I wasn’t wearing socks inside my stilettos, and my coat only buttoned halfway.

It was a 25-minute walk, and the snow was already several inches thick on the ground. And while Nick’s veins had been warmed by tequila before we left the bar, mine had not. This caused a variety of predictable problems for us as we plodded along.

I remember telling Nick I was going to stab him in the face and leave him to bleed or freeze to death in the snow. A few minutes later, we got to where we were going.

There was a $10 cover for each person, and as we climbed the stairs to the house, I realized that I am far less open-minded than I thought I was. The unmistakable stink of incense wafted down from the front door to the first landing on the stairs up, and when we got inside, we were instructed to remove our shoes. A sign informed guests that there would be no alcohol permitted in the house or outside of it.

This was the sort of place where I would be inclined to drink heavily. In a room with a beaded doorway, a woman warbled poetry and played what I think was a sitar, but it might have been that someone was stepping repeatedly on a cat, or a herd of cats – there was no way to be certain without going into the room, and I am uncomfortable sharing my personal space with a lot of strangers. On the back porch, an erotic cuddle puddle seemed to be forming, and downstairs, there was a performance I’m pretty sure included interpretive dance. I was in hell.

So we left. And we walked, again, in the snow until I was sure my toes would blacken with frostbite and fall right off. When we finally got home, I crawled into my fleece footie pajamas and drank tea so hot it was still boiling in the mug. When I woke up the next morning, I noticed a scratch in my throat, and by Monday, the cold was going full-bore.

This week is for very thick socks, sensible outerwear, and comfort food. Tonight I made a big pan of tamale pie, which is essentially Shepherd’s Pie with cornmeal instead of potatoes. I used a base I adapted from Homesick Texan’s Mexican Chorizo recipe; what resulted was a huge dish of food, one that will last as long as I need soothing, which, given the chill still haunting my toes and the cold fogging up my brain, might be a long time.

Tamale pie

(Serves six.)

  • 1 onion, halved
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 7 oz. can chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
  • 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 lb. ground pork
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cups chopped red bell pepper
  • 1 19 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1 5.5 oz. can tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 cup butter, cold
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Chop one half of the onion, and place in a food processor or blender with garlic, chipotle peppers, vinegar, cumin, coriander, oregano, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and salt. Blend until smooth.

Place pork in a bowl, and pour the blended pepper mixture over top. Mush the meat and the liquid together with your hands until combined. Wash your hands.

Mince the other half of the onion, and heat it in olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add peppers, and saute until they’ve begun to sweat. Add meat, breaking it apart with a wooden spoon, and then add black beans, and both kinds of tomatoes. Simmer until liquid has reduced, about 10 minutes. Stir the mixture regularly while it simmers. Add cilantro, and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, bring four cups of salted water to a boil over high heat. Whisk cornmeal in, and reduce heat to medium, whisking frequently until thickened, three to five minutes. Remove from heat.

Stir in butter, then eggs. Keep the mixture moving as you add the eggs so that they don’t scramble and ruin everything. Add cheese.

Pour meaty mixture into a 9″x13″ baking dish. Pour the cornmeal mixture over top of the meaty, beany pepper mixture.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden on top and bubbling around the sides. Let rest five to 10 minutes before serving, so that the topping can set. Serve with sour cream or thick yogurt.

Choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne.

It’s our anniversary! Our second one, but Mondays are boring and also our laundry day, and for some reason I was awake at 4:00 this morning, so to celebrate we did a load of towels, had a nap, and Nick brought me orange flowers, and we went for sushi, which was delicious, though convenient.

But last night I wanted to do something kind of special, because we spent our first anniversary pushing Paul’s car across the border, which was as romantic as pushing a Honda Civic across the Canadian border in the dark and then standing under an orange street light for an hour waiting for a tow truck on the other side in November after frost has fallen and taking public transit back to the city can be.To make up for last year, this year I brought my A-game. Sometimes I like making food that takes all day, and I wanted to do something distinct to mark Sunday as separate from the rest of the weekend, during which we also celebrated Nick’s birthday. I invited Grace and Paul over to celebrate our anniversary with us, and we had so much food. Come to think of it, it makes sense now that I was up at 4:00 a.m.; there is only so much pork that one can cram into her maw and still expect to sleep through the night.

The recipe that follows is based on Jeffrey Steingarten’s recipe for Choucroute Garnie à L’Alsacienne, from his book The Man Who Ate Everything. Because I am paid considerably less than Mr. Steingarten and am routinely accosted by Nick over how much I spend on special-occasion meals (not much, by the way, but he feels that all the dollars I spend on fancy ingredients could be spent far more enjoyably on beer), there are some adjustments. Much as it saddens me, I simply do not have an elaborate collection of specialty meats on hand. One day. Perhaps with the next husband?

Choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne

(Serves six, generously)

  • 2 smoked pig’s feet
  • 3.5 lbs. sauerkraut
  • 2 lb. bratwurst
  • 1 lb. kielbasa
  • 2 lb. other sausage (such as pork and apple)
  • 1/2 lb. bacon
  • 3/4 cup gin
  • 2 tbsp. butter or duck fat
  • 2 lbs. onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 lbs. apples, grated
  • 1 1/2 cup dry Riesling (preferably from Alsace)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 25 black peppercorns
  • 1 1/2 tsp. caraway seeds
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 4 branches fresh thyme
  • 6 sprigs parsley
  • 1/4 cup minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. coarse salt

Place pig’s feet in a medium-size pot, and cover with water to about an inch above the feet. Simmer for one hour, then remove feet, and reduce until about two cups remain, an additional 15 minutes. Set aside.

Drain sauerkraut in a large strainer, squeezing out liquid periodically. Rinse, then continue to drain, about an hour.

Cook all three sausages and bacon. Set aside.

Simmer gin in a small pot until reduced by about two thirds. Set aside.

In a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat, melt butter, then cook onions until softened but not golden, about ten minutes. Add apples and sauerkraut. Stir to combine. Add gin reduction and bay leaves.

Add reserved stock, and Riesling, and two cups of cold water. In a piece of twice- or thrice-folded cheesecloth, combine peppercorns, caraway, cloves, thyme, and parsley. Tie tightly with kitchen twine and let sit in sauerkraut mixture.

Place meat on top of mixture, then scatter garlic over top, and then sprinkle salt over top. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium low. Cover, and simmer for 90 minutes, stirring approximately every 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 250°F. When choucroute has finished cooking, remove meat to a plate and let rest, covered in tin foil, in a warm oven. Let choucroute rest, covered and off the heat, for 30 minutes.

To serve, drain choucroute and place in the centre of a platter. Place meat on top, and scatter side dishes around, such as spaetzle or fried potatoes. Serve with sweet mustard, sour cream, and cornichons. To eat, ensure you are wearing something with an elastic waistband.

Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s Thanksgiving here in Canada, and we’re all over the place, feasting as if we’ve never feasted before, and wearing pants with elastic waistbands.

I met friends for dim sum in the morning, and then headed home to goad Nick into getting up and dressed and signing a card.

For some reason, the cat bathes Nick rather frequently. She either thinks he’s her kitten, or is absolutely disgusted by him and feels compelled to clean him every chance she gets.

At my parents’, we were greeted with the smell of turkey and a table full of Lego, which would ultimately become somethingorother with Darth Vader or something. Apparently it’s a boy thing.

Dad’s getting pretty good about not stabbing me when I reach in to tear pieces of meat while he’s carving the thing. He sets the crackly skin at the edge so I can reach it without putting my hand at the pointy end of the knife.

I think he’s mimicking behaviour he sees from his aunt and uncle. That’s a soft cider, by the way.

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope yours is full of cats and turkeys and Lego, and that you get to bed at a reasonable hour, before indigestion sets in. If you’re in America and aren’t going to be having one of these for another six weeks, then Happy Thanksgiving in advance!

A Clambush at Desolation Sound.

On Friday, Grace, Laraine, Paul, Nick, and I hopped a couple of ferries and headed to Powell River for what shall henceforth and forever be known as The Ultimate Seafood Feast. Grace planned the whole thing (and included handouts), and it was lovely.

We stayed about 30 minutes out of Powell River, near Desolation Sound. There was nothing desolate about it, and not a sound except for a woodpecker and a few chirpy little red squirrels in the trees.

The point of the trip was clam-digging, though a secondary benefit was certainly relaxation. I read MFK Fisher’s Serve it Forth, Paul made sashimi of the sockeye he had caught the night before we left, and we played Scrabble and drank cocktails and cheap beer and were very civilized out there in our cabin in the woods. Nick had five naps. We were there two nights.

On Saturday morning, our eyes still glued mostly shut after our first feast night and its requisite debauchery, we wandered out to the shore to dig for clams at low tide.

It was all very thrilling. Every so often, Grace would squeal and announce that “I found the biggest one!” or skip over with a particularly lovely clam and declare that it would become earrings, a garland, or a fridge magnet stuck with googly eyes. Paul and Nick wandered off to pick mussels and oysters, and soon we had an embarrassment of edible riches.

When we got home, we all took naps, and then considered the oysters.

And then we had naps again.

And when we woke up, Laraine and I read in the living room while Nick and Paul played a game and Grace poured wine and did dishes and then when we told her not to she said “But I’m having fun!” so we let her have the kitchen.

We let the clams soak in salted water for a few hours so that they’d release any grit they might be holding onto, and Paul de-bearded some mussels. I don’t think I have ever had better clams than we had that evening – Grace made her Dad’s recipe. She poured a bit of sake, a few chopped scallions, and some garlic into the pan and steamed the clams until they burst open. They were perfect, and needed no salt. The mussels were steamed in beer and cream with fennel, and were also very elegant.

We ate dinner huddled around the stove, with Grace steaming batch after batch of clams, each of us forking bites out of the pan and dipping Laraine’s homemade sourdough into the broth. From now on, this is the only way I will serve shellfish for company.

It was so delicious, and we ate throughout the evening, into the night. And at the end of it, we sipped sparkling wine and made fun of Nick and then had cheesecake and then warmed dates stuffed with Roquefort, and there has never been anything better in the whole history of the world.

It was so hard to leave! Fortunately, we were each able to bring a few cooked clams home, so we’ll be able to enjoy a feast more each. How fresh and wonderful it all was! And how impossible to forget!

Turnip? Rutabaga? Whatever, just turn it into dinner.

Sunday was our first wedding anniversary. Time flies – that’s now two years of togetherness, though Nick says he’s sure it must have been longer. Nope. Two years, almost to the day, and one year of marriedness, and we spent our anniversary in much the same way we’ve spent most of our days – almost completely out of money more than a week before payday, in the rain, with some of our favourite people.

We went to The Glen at Maple Falls this weekend, which is somewhere near Mount Baker in Washington, and spent three rainy days with a few good friends. The food was fatty, the beer was cheap, and for some reason we all got a little too caught up in the figure skating championships on TV. I blame the cheap American dairy, which was delicious, for the glassy-eyed stupor that befell us all. I ate a pint of ice cream from the dairy on the way down. There must be something magical about American cattle, because we don’t have ice cream like that up here. Egg nog swirl? GENIUS. Maybe the grass is actually greener down south? Could be.

Anyway, last night was our anniversary, and I had intended to turn the turnip into something magical, but Paul’s car had a little bit of trouble on the way home, and, long story short, we ended up pushing it across the border. Canadians really are very nice, and we were grateful for our good-humoured border guard. And as we waited for the tow truck, and then Paul’s sister, and then the SkyTrain ride home, what was going to be an elaborate meal got shelved for an easy bit of soup instead. Until tonight.

Tonight. Chelsea came over, and then Paul, and then we celebrated appropriately – with butter and beer and wine and cheese and this little turnip thing that’s actually kind of a big deal.

I’m going to give you the recipe, but keep in mind that it makes a lot of pasta and I ended up freezing half. Double the sauce recipe if you’re feeding eight, and boil the full amount of gnocchi. If you make the full batch of pasta and you’re only feeding four, you’ll end up with too much to eat, even for lunches the next day.

You can freeze uncooked gnocchi for up to one month – you’ll certainly use it before that. Halve the recipe if you’ve got a smaller turnip (you’ll need a bit more flour because you can’t halve an egg, so adjust as needed), and keep the sauce the same.

Turnip gnocchi

  • 1 2 lb. turnip, peeled, cooked, and puréed
  • 2 tbsp. crème fraîche (bonus points if you made your own; if you’re without, you can use yogurt or sour cream)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. white pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/2 cup for rolling and kneading, reserved

Sauce:

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 head roasted garlic
  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts, chopped and toasted (there are more hazelnuts in the picture above than are listed here because I find I have to make more than I need because I’ll eat half of the nuts laid out for the recipe no matter what. You do what you have to do, you know?)
  • 2 tbsp. fresh sage, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. grated parmesan
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

I used a food processor, but that’s because it’s Monday night, and at 7:00 pm you just don’t have all day. You don’t have to – if you don’t, though, this might be a recipe better suited to a weekend when you have a bit more time.

Thoroughly combine turnip, crème fraîche, egg, and spices in a large bowl. Gradually stir in flour until dough is formed.

Sprinkle reserved flour on a large surface. Cut dough in half, and form each half into baseball-sized pieces. Roll each piece until it’s about one half-inch in diameter. Slice half-inch chunks, dropping slices onto a cookie sheet until you’re ready to drop the lot into a pot of boiling water. As mentioned, I only used half of this, and froze the rest. But that’s because I only ever have to feed four people.

Boil for eight to ten minutes, in salted water, until gnocchi rise to the top.

In a large pan, melt the butter, and add the uncooked garlic, until you can just smell the buttery garlickness, until the garlic is just slightly golden. Squish in your roasted garlic, and add your gnocchi. Toss to coat.

Let simmer for two to three minutes, then toss with sage and hazelnuts. Let sit for another minute. Grate a bit of cheese over top, and season to taste.

Grate a little bit more cheese over top and sprinkle a bit of nutmeg over before serving. This ends up being quite an inexpensive, very filling feast, one that’s redolent of autumn warmth, especially now that it’s starting to feel a lot like winter. Perfect for an anniversary, or even the day after, with your favourite person or a few of them. Just enough turnip, more than enough but not too much garlic, and butter. You don’t need anything more, except maybe a dollop of that crème fraîche and a little bit of good wine.

There’s no reason why you can’t make gnocchi with any starchy, earthy thing you have on hand, and there’s no reason why you can’t make your own adventure when stranded a couple of hours from home. Both are the kind of thing you’ll surely talk about for a long while afterward.