Hete Bliksem.

Dutch food is often comfort food, and as such, much of it is boiled to mush and then mashed and occasionally sugared in some way. Mush and sausages features heavily in the Dutch cookbooks I’ve acquired over the past year, and while that approach to cooking is not without its merits, there’s only so much mushy stuff I can pass off as dinner around here.

And so, Hete Bliksem. Typically, this dish is a mash of potatoes and apples with bacon or ham, and sometimes pears or onions, and it’s sometimes served with stroop, a kind of Dutch syrup. There are an infinite number of variations on this, from the very high end to the very simple. My variation falls somewhere in the middle, with an updated approach to the cooking so that the dish will stand alone as well as it would alongside a plate of sausages or roast meats.

It makes thrifty use of bacon fat and stuff you’ve probably already got in your fridge and pantry; I’d like to think the Dutch, or at least the less stubborn among them, would be pleased.

Hete Bliksem

(Makes four servings.)

  • 1/4 lb. bacon, finely chopped
  • 1 lb. crisp, sweet apples, such as Braeburn, Honeycrisp, or Ambrosia, cored and quartered, each quarter then halved again lengthwise, and then halved again cross-wise
  • 1 lb. new or nugget potatoes, scrubbed and cut into quarters
  • 1/2 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1/2 cup apple cider or unsweetened apple juice
  • 2 tbsp. fancy molasses
  • 1/4 tsp. allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. grainy mustard
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped

Preheat your oven to 375°F.

In a 12-inch cast iron or other oven-transferable pan over medium high heat, cook bacon until it is very crispy and all the fat has rendered, about six minutes. Scoop the bacon from the pan and onto a plate lined with paper towel, and set aside.

You will need about three tablespoons of fat in the pan; if you don’t have another, add up to another tablespoon of fat, either bacon fat or olive oil. Add potatoes and apples to the pan, sprinkle with salt, and toss to coat.

Roast apple and potato mixture for 60 minutes, flipping midway through the cooking process.

About 10 minutes before these are done, add apple juice, molasses, allspice and pepper to a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until reduced by about half  – it should be about the consistency of maple syrup.

Add cider vinegar and mustard, and set aside.

Remove the potato and apple mixture from the oven. Sprinkle with thyme and reserved bacon, then pour apple juice reduction over top, stirring to coat. Serve in the pan, or spooned onto a serving plate, and garnish with chopped scallions.

Smoked fish cakes.

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I work at a health research institute where I regularly get access to some pretty brilliant people, and often my job is to translate their complicated science-speak into regular-person language. So I’m pretty lucky, as these are pretty high-profile scientists and because of the nature of my work, it’s often up to them to try and help me understand stuff. I tell myself that one day, one of them is going want to inquire about my expertise; until then, I’ll be figuring out just what that is.

One of the researchers I speak to studies human nutrition, specifically children and pregnant and nursing women. She is one of my favourite people to talk to, because she’s just so sensible. Did you know that feeding yourself and your family is nowhere near as complicated as so many articles, blog posts and news segments would have you believe? Just eat food. Choose variety, whenever possible. There no such thing as “super foods.” Fad diets are stupid and potentially harmful. Try to avoid really fatty and really sugary junk. No need to over-think it. Take a multi-vitamin if you think you need to. This is very empowering when you’re bombarded with so much misinformation and pseudo-science. It’s a huge relief when you’re always half-thinking the worst about your picky eater.

We were talking one day about some of her research around omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential fats (which means our bodies don’t make them – we have to get them elsewhere). Omega-3s are important for brain health. The North American diet is not always rich in omega-3s; good sources of omega-3s include anchovies, sardines, herring, and mackerel – things we don’t necessarily eat a lot of. It’s also in salmon, lake trout, and other fatty fish (including fresh tuna), but your best bets are small, oily fish. The good news is that adding more of these to your diet is easy, and they taste good, and they are a lot more sustainable. They’re also cheap.

Side note: Alton Brown lost something like 50 pounds eating his Sardine-Avocado Sandwiches. I’ve tried them – they are delicious – but I am still heavier than I’d like. I wish it was possible to just eat one magic thing that would counteract all the other things I eat with no additional exercise. Come on, science – get on it.

One thing we eat a lot of is fish cakes; it’s a dish that’ll feed the two of us for dinner and then breakfast or lunch the next day; you can also double your batch and freeze them. They reheat pretty well in one of those office-kitchen toaster ovens, though you may want to heat them on a piece of foil or the person who toasts her lunch after you will be a little off-put.

My recipe uses tinned smoked herring, but you can use any smoked fish you like. I just spent my morning smoking the rest of last year’s lake trout, so I’ll be subbing trout for herring for the next little while. Smoked salmon or cod make these pretty fancy; smoked sardines and mackerel work pretty well too.

Smoked Fish Cakes

(Serves 2 to 4 people.)

  • 4 cups mashed potatoes* (approximately two large or three medium Russets)
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp. grainy mustard
  • 1 tsp. sambal oelek or other hot sauce
  • 1 180g to 190g tin of smoked fish (drained), or about a cup of chunked smoked fish
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Oil, for frying

*You can use leftover mashed potatoes to make this even easier. Or, if you’re making them fresh, let them cool until you can handle them comfortably with your bare hands.

Put your potatoes, scallions, and garlic into a bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk together your eggs, mustard, sambal/other hot sauce, and a dash each of salt and pepper.

Crumble your fish into the bowl with the potatoes, give them a bit of a mush, then pour the egg mixture over top and mix thoroughly.

Form into six or eight cakes, about three inches in diameter and about an inch thick.

Fry each batch in a pan with about two tablespoons of a neutral oil, such as canola. You will want the pan to be hot when you put these in, so they form a nice crust; they should sizzle when they hit the pan. Cook for about two minutes per side.

Serve with ketchup, more hot sauce, or fancy mustard.

fish cakes

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.

Cottage pie.

The makings.

A shepherd’s pie is supposed to be filled with lamb, which makes sense, but we’re working on a freezer full of meat Nick hunted and for probably legal reasons, he didn’t hunt a single sheep. So, let’s call this cottage pie, because I think that’s what you call a dish of meat topped with potatoes when the meat isn’t lamb. Here it’s filled with moose or venison, depending on what’s at the top of the pile in the deep freeze.

We are eating a lot of comfort food these days, as the weather has called for it and our lungs and noses have suggested it might be time for cold season and there are Christmas trees in store windows now. I don’t know where most of my days go, but the seasons are short and the years are passing so much more quickly than they used to. So occasionally, on evening I don’t have any plans, I’ll invite a friend or two over, and we’ll share a semi-responsible bit of wine and listen to whatever playlist I’m currently obsessing over and eat big plates of something hearty. Comfort food for comfortable evenings. The stuff elastic waistbands were invented for.

Before and after.

Pro tip: If you measure out the wine before you start cooking, you will be sure to have enough for both you and the recipe.

Also, I cannot emphasize enough how much you need a food mill. Ask for one for Christmas! It is the best tool for perfectly fluffy, lump-free mashed potatoes; I used one for the potato and rutabaga topping and there was nary a lump to be found in my mash. They also stir and spread more nicely if they’ve been milled. I am not tall enough to food-mill on my counter, so I sit on the floor to do it.

Sitting on the floor, milling some turnips and potatoes.

Cottage Pie

(Serves 8)

Topping:

  • 4 lbs. starchy potatoes such as Russets, peeled and diced
  • 2 lb. rutabaga, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • Salt to taste

Filling:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 lbs. lean ground beef
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups dry red wine
  • 2 1/2 cups beef stock
  • 2 cups frozen peas
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt to taste

Preheat your oven to 375°. Lightly grease a 9″x13″ baking dish.

Put cubed potatoes and rutabaga into a large pot of salted water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Once it’s boiling, drop the heat to medium-high and continue to cook.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery and carrots, and cook for two to three minutes, until the veggies have brightened in colour. Add garlic, cook another minute, then add your meat, breaking it into pieces with your hands as you drop it into the pan. Stir, cooking until meat has browned. Add rosemary, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and pepper. Stir. Add flour, and stir again until all the white disappears into the mix. Add wine, scraping the bottom of the pan with your spoon, and cook another minute or two. Add stock, and simmer until the sauce has thickened and reduced just slightly. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Add peas and parsley. Stir. Remove from heat.

Pour your meat mixture into your prepared 9″x13″ baking dish.

Once your potatoes and turnips are cooked – they should pierce easily with a knife once they are done – then drain. Put pack into the pot and mash, or process them in your food mill. Add butter, stir to combine, then add eggs. Stir quickly. Taste, adjusting seasonings to your taste.

Dollop the potato mixture over the meat. Spread to coat the pan evenly, ensuring your potato mix reaches the edges whenever possible. Drag a fork over the topping.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until golden and the meat bubbles around the sides. Serve with salad, red wine, and country bread.

Cottage pie.

Potato-crusted halibut cheeks.

The trouble with the Internet is that you can never really be sure that what you’re being given is the truth. It’s easy to zoom in and capture the beauty of a plate of cookies without all the mess that’s around it, or to choose long strings of delicate, pretty words when one’s situation might be better described more … colourfully. On the one hand, I tell you about risotto because I love it, but on the other hand, I’m still paying off my student loans and I lost my job but still have to make rent and rice and chicken stock and cheese go a long way toward filling a belly; risotto never made anyone feel badly about her lot.

Most food blogs would have you believe that everything is idyllic, all the time – we write as if MFK Fisher would be on her way over with chilled rosé and a spare page in her next manuscript for our quiche or bread or pound cake. A certain amount of this is contrived, because the point is to get you to want to sit down with us. We want you to like us, and to tell your friends about us. This is marketing, to various degrees, but it is not inherently dishonest.

When I zoom my lens in on a plate of food, it’s both because I want you to see it and because I don’t want you to see that I keep spilling things on the tablecloth so it’s stained pretty much anywhere I’d put a plate down but my only other tablecloth is plaid and meant for Christmastime but it went into the dryer even though it wasn’t supposed to and is now misshapen and faded. And I accidentally ruined the finish on the table because I still don’t understand which cleaning product to use for which task, so I need a tablecloth, or place mats, or something.

I’m broke. But, like the banner says – well fed. And even though it’s always messy here and I screen my calls for bill collectors, I can climb out onto the roof of my building and eat dinner while the sky turns orange and then pink before the sun disappears behind the mountains. And sometimes I’m maudlin and feel sorry for myself, but then I find halibut cheeks – which are the cheapest and most delicious part of a halibut – to crust and fry, and a new brand of booze sends me a case of freebies and my favourite stretch pants are clean and folded and waiting for me.

Sometimes a visit to the garden the day after it’s rained yields the crispiest red and green lettuce and sorrel I’ve had all season, the kind of greens that only need oil and lemon for dressing.

I might not be selling a lifestyle (though if I was, it would be the opposite of GOOP’s which should count for something), but I hope I’m selling the idea that there is good in even these bleakest of days. The job will come, the bills will get paid. I will lose 20 pounds. But right now, we have a few pieces of fish, a salad of greens fresh from the ground, a partial view of the mountains and English Bay from the roof, and nothing lasting to complain about.

These are good. That is a piece of information from the Internet that you can be sure is true.

Potato-crusted halibut cheeks

(Serves two. If you can’t find cheeks, cubes of your local white fish will work just fine.)

  • Oil, such as grapeseed or canola
  • 1/2 lb. halibut cheeks
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour or cornstarch
  • 2 tsp. Old Bay Seasoning
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup potato flakes (dry instant mashed potatoes)
  • Salt

In a pan over medium-high, heat enough oil to coat the bottom of a heavy-bottomed (such as cast-iron) pan.

Meanwhile, mix flour and Old Bay. Dredge halibut cheeks in this. I find the most effective way to do this is to shake the flour mixture and cheeks in a paper or plastic bag – here in British Columbia, our BC Liquor Store bags are perfect for this.

Coat floured pieces of fish in beaten egg, then dredge on both sides with potato flakes. Fry for two to three minutes on each side, until golden and crispy. Sprinkle with salt and serve hot, with sauce for dipping. I prefer tartar sauce (with pretty much everything), but go with what you like.

Disclosure: I got free drinks.

If you’d like a summery beverage to go with your cheeky bites, American Vintage Hard Iced Tea is pretty all right. It’s got a true tea flavour, but with a not-subtle boozy punch. If you’re fond of any of the canned Jack Daniels lemonade drinks, you’d like these. I don’t know how reliable I can be about a review of free alcohol, because FREE ALCOHOL, but they are a kind company and sent me samples at the precise moment when the urge to drink my feelings was strongest. This endears me to them, and a result I encourage you to try their product if you enjoy coolers. They don’t have a website (what? Is it not 2012?), but here’s a fairly thorough review I can agree with.

Potatoes with chorizo, scallops, and gremolata.

Full disclosure: I didn’t pay for any part of this dish. It’s technically a sponsored post, I guess, which I agreed to do because the product is potatoes – whole potatoes, which I was allowed to do anything I wanted with. Some of them I cooked simply and slathered in butter, because potatoes in butter taste so much better than skinny could ever feel. (This is the point at which I am sure the nice potato people are wondering whose idea it was to contact me.)

I was asked by a company called EarthFresh, a Canadian potato company, to create a recipe for these pink and gold potatoes, and for it I got the groceries paid for. Which perhaps will become obvious to you when you see that I’ve created a recipe that uses a pound of scallops even though I am still unemployed. Maybe disclosure is redundant then? Anyway, the recipe will go into a contest and if I win I get a second gift card for even more groceries, which will come in handy should the search for work drag on.

As a main dish, I’ll admit this one’s a little weird. But bear with me – the sweetness of the potatoes is matched by the sweetness of the roasted garlic and the scallops, and balanced by the lemon juice and the spiciness of the pepper flakes, paprika, and chorizo.

While here they act almost like pasta, sopping up the dish’s flavourful juices, often potatoes are a secondary ingredient, a thing that rounds out a meatier dinner. I don’t know why that is, as on more than one occasion while I was a student I would eat a plate of buttery, cheesy mashed potatoes for supper and they were more than satisfying, but most often potatoes suffer silently at the side, relegated to the role of “lead starch.” We are told to enjoy them in moderation, and advised to eat them deep-fried less often.

Waxier potatoes, and in particular the golden varieties of potatoes, are not so bad for you. They score lower on the glycemic index, which means that Nick with his diabetes can eat more of them than the fluffy Russet kind as they aren’t so quick to spike his blood sugar levels. Even if he couldn’t eat a whole plate of them, golden potatoes also make for a more interesting mash.

Anyway.

Some notes on this recipe:

  • I used larger scallops for this, about 15 to 20 to a pound. If all you can get is the cute little baby scallops, cook them for less time – I’d guess 10 minutes.
  • I used two pounds of potatoes, about four potatoes to a pound which parboiled in about 15 minutes – if you have larger or smaller potatoes, adjust your cooking time.
  • If you decide not to use scallops, cubes of a firm-fleshed white fish, whole button mushrooms, or diced zucchini would work well instead.
  • When I tested this recipe I used a 9″x13″ baking dish, which worked fine, but the next time I make this I am going to use a roasting pan as I felt the potatoes could sop up even more flavour if they weren’t as densely packed. Use what you’ve got, though – a 9″x13″ baking dish won’t ruin dinner.

Potatoes with chorizo, scallops, and gremolata

  • 2 lbs. yellow-fleshed potatoes (such as Klondike Rose)
  • 1 lb. raw Spanish chorizo, cut into inch-thick pieces
  • 2 red bell peppers, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2 heads garlic, cloves separated and peeled
  • 3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. lemon juice (from about one large lemon)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. coarse salt, divided
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 lb. scallops (thawed if frozen)

Gremolata:

  • 1/4 cup parsley, firmly packed
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Parboil whole potatoes until just fork-tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and chop into quarters or eighths, to about an inch thick. Toss into a bowl with raw chopped chorizo, bell peppers, and garlic cloves.

In a smaller bowl, whisk olive oil, lemon juice, one teaspoon of salt, pepper flakes, smoked paprika, black pepper, and oregano. Pour over potato mixture and toss to coat.

Pour the dressed potato mixture into a baking dish or roasting pan and bake for 20 minutes.

Using the same bowl you tossed your potatoes in (don’t rinse it!), toss your scallops with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt. After 20 minutes, pull the dish out of the oven and carefully nestle the scallops in with the potatoes and sausage.

Cook for an additional 20 to 25 minutes, until potatoes have browned and scallops have turned lightly golden.

Meanwhile, place parlsey, garlic, lemon zest, and salt in a pile on your cutting board and chop everything finely. Really mince the hell out of it. Throw it into a bowl and mix with the red pepper flakes.

When your dish has finished baking, pull it out and sprinkle with the parsley mixture. Drizzle with a bit of extra virgin olive oil and serve hot, with crusty bread for sopping and a salad to make you feel virtuous.

 

 

Fish and chips.

Vancouver is the sort of place you kind of want to run away from for about eight months of the year. When the clouds are low and the rain never really lets up, it’s awfully dark and everything is just so … moist. The smell of the city in this weather is distinctive, and in places where a lot of bodies are crammed together, the scent is reminiscent of a herd of damp sheep.

(Either we’re comfortable and we’re the third-worst-dressed city in the world, or we’re stylish and we smell like fusty wet livestock.)

It’s sort of weird then that the place I’ve been fantasizing about lately is London. Rainy London with its fish and chip shops and dark beers and the possibility that one might trip over Clive Owen and somehow get to keep him. If I’m going to have to bundle up for the rain, I’d rather do it someplace with good fried fish to eat when I come in from the cold.

This recipe is based on one from the Billingsgate Market Cookbook, which is an excellent guide to British seafood and seafood cookery. I used a local cod, but you can use whatever white fish you prefer.

Tip: Use any remaining batter to coat thin slices of dill pickle. Fry in oil heated to 350°F until crisp and golden, about two minutes. Drain on paper towel and sprinkle with sea salt to serve. (Fried pickles are also amazing with hot sauce.)

Fish and Chips

(Adapted from the Billingsgate Market Cookbook. Serves four.)

  • 2 lbs. white fish, cut into eight pieces
  • 1 1/2 lbs. russet potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. Old Bay Seasoning or curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 12 oz./341 mL bottle of your favourite beer

Sprinkle fish pieces with 1/4 cup of flour. Set aside.

Cut potatoes into pieces about 1/2-inch thick, to the length you prefer. Shorter pieces means more fries, and I like more fries. Soak in cold water for five minutes, then remove to a wire rack lined with paper towels and pat thoroughly dry.

If you have a deep-fryer, heat your oil to 325°F. If you don’t, then pour oil to a depth of two inches into a heavy-bottomed pot such as a Dutch oven. Using a candy thermometer to monitor the heat, bring the oil to 325°F. Blanch potatoes in batches for 3 to 5 minutes each (unless you’re extremely daring/stupid like me, in which case blanch them all at once while wearing oven mitts and instructing whoever’s close by to stay near and hold a large box of baking soda for the scary grease fire that will surely break out when all that oil boils over into the burner). Place blanched potatoes back on wire rack. Pat dry with paper towel.

You’ll spend a lot of time patting stuff dry. I might not have mentioned that.

Combine flour, Old Bay or curry powder, baking powder, cayenne pepper (if using), and salt. Whisk in beer until a thin batter forms; add water to thin as needed. Increase the heat of the oil to 340°F.

Using tongs, dip each piece of fish in batter to coat, then dredge for 10 seconds in the oil before releasing. If you just drop the fish into the pot, it’ll stick to the bottom. Fry for five to seven minutes, or until crispy and golden.

Set fish on paper towel to drain, and sprinkle with sea salt.

Heat oil to 350°F. Return potatoes to the pot in batches, cooking until golden (another five minutes or so). Remove from oil to paper towel, sprinkle with salt, and then serve.

Serve fish and chips hot, with slices of lemon, malt vinegar, and tartar sauce.

On moving apartments and melting cheese.

We have a new apartment. We have the Internet, at last. The landlord has promised that I’ll soon have a new stove. And now that we’ve had our first dinner party in our new apartment, the place feels like home and I can breathe. Nick painted the place before we moved in and it’s very blue, so for the first time ever we’re living together in a place that we can describe the colour of using adjectives that don’t also describe bodily fluids. The cat still blends in with all the furniture, but Nick looks better because the walls match his eyes.

We have more windows and better light, and we’ll have lots of time to enjoy these things as the rent on the place will prohibit us from spending much on anything else. Cat has not settled down since we finished moving in last week because there are so many new rooms and cupboards and hallways to explore, and I hear her little voice from all the corners of the apartment reminding me she’s still here. She checks in once in awhile, but she still has a lot to do. There’s an upstairs to this place, and she has to rub her face on every inch of every step and that takes more energy than a five-pound furball can muster all at once.

My kitchen in this new place is the same size as the old one. The advantage is that here I have a window above the sink, and the drawback is that my fridge is half the size. I am twice the size now, having rounded the corner on my thirty-third week with a belly that’s measuring closer to 35 or 36 weeks, so I have yet to start feeling comfortable in my space. It’s hard to relax when you’ve got a habit of knocking crap off the counters or searing-hot pans off the stove at every turn. All of my shirts have stains on them.

I wanted to have friends over for dinner, because a feast in a new apartment is like a bottle broken on the hull of a boat; it’s how you make things official. The first dinner shared with people in a new apartment (not eaten out of boxes on the floor, but at an actual table) is the thing that makes the place a real home. Ordinarily my effort would reflect the importance of this, but I am irritable and my back hurts and the more things I have to do, the more complaints I am able to muster. Fortunately, we have a raclette.

A raclette is a wonderful thing. It’s like a fondue pot, except instead of dipping things into melted cheese, you pour melted cheese over things. We learned about raclette a few years ago in the home of my friend Chelsea and her then-boyfriend, an accented Swiss-German named Marco who was a Physics professor by day and a drummer in a Celtic punk band by night. Raclette is both the name of the apparatus and the type of cheese, though we used good white cheddar and it was delicious.

Your guests will cook their meat and veggies to taste on top of the raclette grill while melting cheese under its broiler. They will eat their cooked morsels with potatoes and drizzle the melted cheese over top. They will do this more times than they can count, and at the end of the meal they will be very sleepy.

To make a proper raclette meal, you boil more quartered red or white potatoes than you think you’ll need, and slice quite a lot of cheese. I boiled a pound of potatoes per person. There were five of us, so I sliced two pounds of cheese. We had asparagus, mushrooms, zucchini, and grape tomatoes for our veggies, and cubed steak, chopped bacon, shrimp, and rounds of Farmer’s Sausage for our protein. Start with the bacon to lube up the grill a bit before cooking the other things. If you’re a vegetarian, wipe the top down with a bit of olive oil before starting.

Because a meal based on the holy trinity of meat, cheese, and potatoes can be, uh … rich, set the table with little bowls of acidic, pickly things, like olives and beet pickles and peppadews and gherkins and cocktail onions – whatever you have in your pantry will do, but if you have to make a special trip, make use of a store’s olive bar, where you can buy just a few of everything for not very many dollars.

Little ramekins with good salt, freshly ground pepper, and Dijon mustard round the dinner out. The whole thing ends up being an inexpensive, rather European feast, and it is made better with wine or good cold beer. It is a warming treat in the wintertime. You will want to have Beirut playing in the background, and perhaps you and your guests will wear sweaters and it will be snowing.

I have bought raclettes as wedding gifts, and know that you can get a pretty good one for $50, less if there’s a sale. Department stores sell them in their small appliance sections, and better cookware stores sell more expensive versions (up to $250), with heavier-duty grills. We have a fancy one, because my parents bought Nick a raclette for Christmas the year he discovered his obsession with it. Ours serves eight people, but Nick would happily melt cheese every night on his own if cheese in Canada was cheaper and if he didn’t have to clean the raclette every time.

There is little more enjoyable than sitting around a table full of food with people who are genuinely enjoying themselves, though keep in mind that you should take the meal slowly, and if you are planning some after-dinner diversion to start the meal a bit earlier. If dinner ends at 10:00, the night ends at 10:00. Meat and potatoes and cheese are good inspiration for long naps, but not one of your husband’s nerdy board games even if that was the plan at the start

What about you? It’s been awhile. How are you warming up to fall? Are you embracing the idea of sweaters and meals of cheese, or putting it off as long as you can? How are you doing?

Fried potatoes. Mostly.

Pan-frying is the second best thing you can do to potatoes, so it’s frustrating to get all worked up and excited about them only to discover that the cook has done it all wrong – and it happens more than you’d think.

Frying potatoes is so easy, but like anything worth fussing over, there are steps one must take to do it properly. There’s this place near where I lived when I first moved to the city that does a $2.95 breakfast that will cure any ill you’ve managed to bring on yourself, but nostalgia has me remembering it better than it was. You get fried potatoes with the breakfast, and I remember dousing them in ketchup and being so happy to shovel them into my mouth with a breakfast beer and a pair of runny eggs.

But you see, there’s the first problem. Good fried potatoes don’t need ketchup. Ketchup is the saving grace of sub-par food; if something’s really good, it doesn’t need it.

To properly fry potatoes, you have to take the French fry approach and cook them twice. In the morning, chop your potatoes to a uniform size. I like to be able to eat mine in two bites, for reasons that are complicated but which I cannot tell you about without coming across unstable in the worst case, or anal-retentive in the least.

The little yellow new potatoes are best, but little red ones will work too. If all you’ve got are russets you can still make fried potatoes, but they aren’t going to be as lovely. A slightly waxy potato will hold together more nicely in the pot and in the pan.

Boil your potatoes in salted water until fork-tender. Drain, do not rinse, and then lay them out on a plate or baking sheet. Leave them on the counter or kitchen table for a few hours, preferably all day. You want them to dry out a bit. The second problem with a lot of fried potatoes is that they’re plopped into a hot pan still wet. Moisture is the enemy of frying. I like to boil my potatoes in the morning, go about my day, and then come back around dinner time; the edges get rough and dry, which is perfect for a hot pan – you won’t find yourself splattered with smoldering grease.

And you’ll need duck fat. Or bacon fat. Butter or olive oil or whatever oil you have will work fine too, but if you have duck fat, this is its best application. Use a fat you like the flavour of. And use a lot of it – a tablespoon of fat per person should do it, but use your best judgment. For four servings of potatoes, I used three tablespoons. I might have used more if I wasn’t being stingy with my duck fat reserves.

You’ll also need time. Heat the fat until melted and hot over medium heat in a large pan. Add your potatoes, and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, turning occasionally. Cooking these over medium heat for a long time will mean that your potatoes will crisp up and turn golden and lovely. Don’t rush this. Add salt and pepper, and if you’re feeling fancy, lemon zest or fresh herbs are also nice.

If you’re attempting to seduce someone with roast chicken, these potatoes will seal the deal. And they’re infinitely variable, so long as you pre-cook, dry, and cook low and slow.

There’s room for creativity. Dress them with vinaigrette and scallions for a warm potato salad, or cut into wedges before boiling to make jojo fries. If you’re all by yourself, make just a few and squish a bit of fresh lemon juice over top and eat them in front of the TV with a dollop of mayonnaise for dipping. But no ketchup. You won’t need ketchup for these.

Unrelated to potatoes, my friend Tracy has been actively campaigning on my behalf, as this blog was nominated in a couple of categories in the Canadian Food Blog Awards. I find the attention both extremely flattering and slightly embarrassing, as to be honest I am more comfortable being in trouble than being recognized – at least when I’m in trouble I know for certain I’ve done something to deserve it. One of the conditions of Tracy doing my dirty work is that I am supposed to be more active and shameless with my self-promotion. I’ve mentioned that you can vote for Well fed, flat broke in the People’s Choice category a few times in recent posts, but never so blatantly as this.

http://www.beerandbuttertarts.com/cfba/nominations/voting-form/I realized after a whole bunch of people on Facebook made profile pictures of this that I look like the hungry version of Simon’s Cat. Also, I think the tiny URL is dead. Please don’t let any of that stop you from voting. Also, when you’re done, go look at the list of other blogs nominated in a range of edible, drinkable categories – they’re all Canadian and really very good. At this point if we were chatting in person, I’d lower my head and try to scurry out of the conversation or make an awkwardly “hilarious” joke to distract us both so we could move on. Imagine that happening right about here.

Meatless Monday: Shepherd’s Pie, sans shepherd.

I think the thing I like best about Meatless Monday is that it comes at just the right time. Monday evening is when some of us need a hearty helping of veggies to undo some of the weekend’s damage; indeed, I spent the bulk of mine throwing back rich dishes and cocktails in between naps.

Today’s Meatless Monday dish is meaty in spite of itself. It’s filled with garlicky mushrooms, rosemary, leeks, and just enough red wine. It’s topped with potatoes whipped with eggs, cream, and olive oil. And then it’s baked until the potatoes are golden and the mushroom sauce has bubbled up around the sides. Use a variety of mushrooms, if possible; I used regular white mushrooms, a couple of fat portabellas, and a few oyster mushrooms, but feel free to use whatever’s available to you. Be sure to scrape the gills from the portabellas before cooking (if using), and chop these into cubes.

It’s rich and satisfying, fragrant and delicious; it’s the sort of thing you could serve to a ravenous meat-eater and he wouldn’t know there wasn’t a spot of beef in it. Even the cat was interested, and she won’t give a sniff to anything that isn’t 95% protein.

Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie

(Serves four to six.)

  • 2 lbs. Yukon Gold or other yellow-fleshed potatoes, diced
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/4 cup + 1 tbsp. heavy cream, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 shallot, minced (about 2 tbsp.)
  • 2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup finely chopped leek (white and light-green part only, about two medium leeks)
  • 2 1/2 lbs. mushrooms, assorted varieties if possible
  • 2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 2 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt to taste, if needed

Boil potatoes in a large pot of water until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and mash until almost no chunky bits remain, then whip in parmesan cheese, two tablespoons of olive oil, 1/4 cup of cream, and two eggs. Taste and add salt as needed; I chose not to add salt, as the parmesan lent sufficient seasoning. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil and the butter over medium-high heat until butter begins to bubble and foam. Stir in shallots and garlic, sautéeing for two minutes until translucent. Add leeks, and saute until shallots have melted down and no longer hold their round shape, about three minutes.

Meanwhile, again, chop mushrooms. It is not necessary that the mushrooms be of uniform size; different sizes will allow the mushrooms to achieve varying textures, which is ideal. Add mushrooms and rosemary to pan, stirring to coat in fat. Allow to sweat, but do not salt the mushrooms. It will take about five minutes, with occasional stirring, but the mushrooms will release their liquid and it will be awesome.

Once mushrooms have sweat and wilted, about five minutes, sprinkle flour over top of the mushrooms and mix until flour disappears. Add wine, soy sauce, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, pepper, and nutmeg. Reduce heat to medium and allow to thicken slightly, two to three more minutes. Stir in parsley and cream, and taste, adjusting seasonings as needed.

Remove mushrooms from heat and pour into a 1 1/2- to 2-quart casserole dish. Top with mashed potato mixture, spreading to cover completely.

Place in oven and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, until potatoes are golden on top and mushroom sauce is bubbling out from around the sides.

Serve hot from the oven. If you have leftovers, this dish is even better the second day, when the flavours, especially the rosemary, garlic, and pepper steep and meld together. Nick can’t wait for lunch tomorrow, and I am looking forward to the smell of this scenting my office. Yum!

PS – check out my recipe for Huevos Rancheros on the Meatless Monday website!