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

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Stock.

Simmering stock

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

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

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

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

You can’t even smell the cat pee anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spaghetti squash muffins.

spaghetti squash muffins

I make a lot of muffins.

Not on purpose, really; I have a picky eater and more produce than I know what to do with and I’ve got to get something that grows into him somehow and he’ll eat baked goods. All the baked goods. So, over the past year or so, I have honed my muffin-making prowess to the point where I believe I could now fill a book with deceptively healthy muffin recipes. When did I get so dull?

If it makes me seem any cooler, I am currently drinking a vodka and soda out of a topless sippy cup because we have a ran-out-of-clean-dishes situation.

Vodka. Topless. There you go, there’s some good stuff, right?

And we have reached that part of the year where all my good intentions in June have manifested in abundance come late-September, and now we’re into October and I have to do something with all the squash. “Good intentions” might be the wrong way to put it – I was a little more delusional than well-intended, I think, because while I love spaghetti squash, I don’t love having to eat a dozen of them all at once, but I never think about that when I’m enthusiastically thumbing seeds into the ground. So, between what grew in the garden and what I couldn’t resist at the farmer’s market, I am forced to get creative.

One does not simply feed a picky eater stringy bits of yellow squash. No.

Fortunately, I’m acing muffins these days and you can put spaghetti squash in muffins. You can. And it’s pretty good.

This recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of cooked spaghetti squash; most of the time, that’s one whole spaghetti squash. If you’re a little short, just add a bit of applesauce to make up the difference.

Spaghetti squash muffins

  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup rolled oats (not instant or quick-cooking)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. flax seed
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked and drained spaghetti squash
  • 1 cup grapeseed or other neutral-tasting oil
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp. vanilla or maple extract
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

Cook your spaghetti squash. There are a bunch of ways you can do this – I usually just throw the whole thing into a 400-degree oven and let it go until it’s soft, but that’s not terribly helpful. You can also microwave it, which is faster. Check this list out, and cook it however you like; just be sure to discard the seeds and scrape the flesh into a colander in the sink to drain it; drain for about 15 minutes, after which the squash should be cool enough to work with.

Preheat your oven to 350°F. If you have two muffin pans, you are very lucky – grease them both, or line the little cups with whatever kind of liner you like. I’m cheap, so one muffin pan plus grease it is.

In a large bowl, combine your flours, oats, sugars, flax, baking soda, spices, and salt. Mix well.

In another bowl, mix squash, oil, eggs, and extract. Fold into your dry ingredients until they are just moistened; add your walnuts and fold again.

Spoon your batter into muffin tins until each muffin cup is about three-quarters full. You should get between 21 and 24 muffins.

Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Whoever you’re deceiving with these will never notice that these are kind of good for them, I promise.

Picky.

Bok choi with mushrooms.

bokchoi

I always think I am going to have so much time, and then I commit to a million things and am surprised when I can’t do any of them well. Well, no more! (That is probably untrue – just ask me to do something.) This summer has seen a shift in my priorities; I want to do a lot of things better, and, I hope, a few things pretty well. I want to make pickles and play outside and write books and blog posts and can homemade baby food for my friend who isn’t doing so well at the moment, and I want to do all of this without feeling like I’m letting anyone/everyone down.

So, with no small amount of despair, I let go of our community garden plot – we simply weren’t able to keep up with it. To be honest, I’m sure that we would have been kicked out eventually anyway – we hadn’t been showing up anywhere near often enough.

The community garden is a 15-minute drive to a spot we used to be able to walk to, and when we moved in December it was to a place across the street from a friend who has abundant garden space that she let us have access to. This new spot isn’t as pretty as our last place, though it is a lot bigger. Last night to make a salad I just hopped the fence across the street and thinned some of the beets, pulled a couple of radishes, and snipped some leaves off one of the heads of lettuce. We were no longer a part of the community in our other spot; here, we are neighbours.

The back part of the garden

The nice thing about our new space being so close is that I can walk by and plan dinner around what’s currently thriving; recently, it was the bok choi. Whenever I buy bok choi, it’s in heads like thick leaf lettuce, or tiny little bunches of the baby variety. I guess we’re growing a different kind, because ours is growing in the way chard does – long stalks off a middle stem with big, soft, droopy leaves. Whatever variety it is, it’s delicious.

In the spirit of saving time (because who even has any?!), here’s a quick dish of greens and mushrooms; you can use chard, or kale, or bok choi or whatever you’re growing or have bought. It makes enough for two large side dishes, or four small ones. It takes ten minutes if you’re a fast chopper.

I hope you like – and have the time – for this one.

Bok choi and mushrooms with trout

Bok Choi with Mushrooms

  • 1 tbsp. sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 onion, halved and sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 lb. bok choi, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. soy sauce

In a skillet, heat sesame oil and butter over medium-high heat until the butter begins to sizzle.

Add onion, and cook for one minute.

Add ginger and garlic, and both kinds of pepper.

Cook for two minutes, until everything is soft and translucent and fragrant. Add mushrooms, then bok choi, then the soy sauce, and toss the whole thing together. Cover, drop heat to medium, and cook for three minutes.

Serve with fish or barbecued meats; it would also be good with fried tofu.

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Roasted cauliflower soup.

Gloom.

This is the hardest part of the year to get through. I have no patience left – please, no more squash! I’m done with potatoes. And I have no kindness left in my heart for kale. Let’s have some asparagus, already!

Tossed.

Spring gave us a sneak preview last weekend, a single day of sunshine and warmth where I ran around with bare arms and ate a bahn mi sandwich in a park while the baby learned the pleasures of sliding and swing-sets. And then things went back to normal, and the sky turned grey, and it has been that way ever since.

This time of year feels like purgatory. Molly Waffles has been pacing the apartment and pressing her paws to the window, scratching at the glass. She is desperate to go outside, but there is a family of raccoons out there, and city raccoons are the size of adolescent black bears and she would be little more than an appetizer. I am similarly desperate for something new and different. Maybe that’s strawberries and pink wine in the sunshine, or maybe it’s something bigger? I will be 30 in 30 days, and I am starting to feel like I’ve been pacing around and scratching at windows, like it’s time to make a mad dash for whatever’s beyond here, whether that means outrunning city raccoons or something even scarier.

Roasted.

Or maybe the wet that seeps in through the holes in my boots has found its way into my bones and now there’s mildew in my bloodstream. Maybe this itch for something fresh is just impatience, because something really good – like peach season – is on its way. And maybe what I need isn’t so much an escape as a way to bide time. If that’s the case, then soup will drag us all through these last dark days before the sun brings back all the green things that make us feel alive.

Soup.

Fingers crossed, anyway. We’ll know better what’s out there for us once the sky clears.

Roasted cauliflower soup

(Serves 4.)

  • 1 small head of cauliflower (1 1/2 lbs)
  • 1 onion
  • 1 bulb of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp. coarse salt
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
  • Zest and juice of half a lemon
  • 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup shredded aged white cheddar cheese (between 1/4 and 1/2 lb.)
  • 1 cup milk

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Chop cauliflower and onion, and place in a large bowl with garlic cloves. Pour olive oil over top, mixing thoroughly with your hands so that all the pieces and bits are coated. Sprinkle with salt, and pour into an oven-safe pot – ideally one that will transfer from your oven to your stove-top.

Roast for 45 to 60 minutes, or until golden and fragrant. Stir halfway through cooking for even browning.

Remove from the oven to the stove-top, and add almonds, stock, lemon zest and juice, and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer over medium heat for ten to 15 minutes, until the almonds have softened. Remove from heat and blend with an immersion blender or regular blender, then return to heat. Add cheese, stir, then add milk. Taste, adjusting seasoning as needed and thinning to your desired consistency with more stock or water.

 

Sweet potato tortilla Española

Eggs

Thank you for all your breakfast advice! I have put it all into a Word document and bullet-listed it, and the document will serve as an extremely wordy shopping list. We’ve been eating a lot of leftovers, and Nick is very excited about the idea of breakfast cheese. He is less excited about leftovers, but he could get up early and make us both something to eat if he really has a problem with it.

He has yet to volunteer.

I’m even putting my Crock Pot to work. It’s still making breakfast slop, but at least the slop is different – I like this list of porridge recipes at SweetVeg (Hi! Thanks for the tip!), especially the overnight barley one (which also works for a blend of barley and farro with dates and cardamom).

Your advice has been super helpful. I have, literally, been eating it up.

I have been gradually learning to cope with morning food, but since starting this new job where my hours are much more flexible we have been eating wholesome homemade dinners a lot more often. Sure, I am up way too early and at the office at an ungodly hour, but I am home by 5:00! It is just enough time to start a load of laundry and savour a brief, perfect moment of silence alone with a magazine and no one wailing on the floor about the injustice of being told “no,” and then to start dinner.

Sweet potatoes in eggs

Tonight, dinner was a lot like a breakfast I might make if I had any zest for life in the grim hours before 8:00 a.m. I actually stole this recipe from my friend Paul who learned it when he lived in Spain, like the well-travelled bon vivant he most dapperly is. Well, I adapted it – his recipe uses regular potatoes, and no thyme. I always have sweet potatoes, and usually a hardy herb or two on hand, so it evolved to suit my fridge’s contents; feel free to use regular waxy potatoes and no herbs if you prefer. The best part about it is that we have just enough for breakfast! If I am very lucky, Nick will get up first* and reheat it for me so I can sleep a little bit longer.

Dinner.

*Dare to dream, no matter how impossible your dream may seem.

Sweet potato tortilla Española

(Serves 2 to 4; portions for 4 will be small.)

  • 4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1 lb. sweet potatoes, sliced thinly (1/4 inch)
  • 1 sprig of fresh thyme
  • 4 tbsp. cup water
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

In a 9-inch pan over medium-high heat sauté the onion in two tablespoons of olive oil until translucent. Add potatoes, tossing to coat in oil and onion mixture, then add water and cover with a lid. Reduce heat to medium-low, and cook for 20 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally to prevent sticking (and scorching).

Remove the sweet potatoes and onion from the pan and cool for 10 minutes or until there’s no more steam, and heat the broiler. Fish out the thyme sprig and discard it. Wipe out the pan.

Whisk together eggs, some salt and pepper, and heat another tablespoon of oil in the pan, tipping to coat the whole bottom. Mix the sweet potatoes into the eggs, pour the whole thing into the heated pan. Run a spatula along the sides every so often, and when the sides are golden, after five or six minutes, then shove it under the broiler until the centre sets and the top is golden. Another three minutes, maybe five, but leave the oven light on and check frequently.

Turn out onto a plate, and slice into six pieces. Serve with salad and pickles or olives.

A slice of tortilla with coleslaw and pickles.

 

 

Slow-cooker ham and white bean stew

Stew.

Patience is a virtue, but it isn’t one of mine. And so I am pacing, expectant, as a friend of mine is days, maybe even hours away from having a baby I feel like she’s been gestating for years. I keep wishing things would hurry along, because while I know people with babies, very few of those people live nearby. And when you have babies, you need other people around you to have them. People with babies need other people with babies because what we really need is a support group with wine.

The longer you have babies, the more you need wine. Mine is an accidental hurricane, a destructive force of nature seemingly bent on exploring and subsequently breaking all my things. That this is going to happen to someone I know is very comforting.

And so my friend is almost there, and because one only needs so many onesies, I had said I would make her freezer meals in lieu of a shower gift. So I have been plodding along, making a container of something here, and a pot of something there. Tonight I added one more to the freezer, a pot of ham and white bean stew, a creamy, savoury combination of leftovers and slow-cookery.

I left the stew in the Crock Pot to cook for ten hours today, and when I came home this place smelled like salty meat and garlic and herbs; using just a few bits and pieces, there was enough hearty stew for at least eight people, I’m sure of it. It’s not beautiful, but it’s delicious, and plenty soothing for someone with a newborn and the imminent danger of having all her favourite stuff smashed by a happy little Hulk.

Crock pot full of stew.

Ham and white bean stew

(Serves 6 to 8.)

  • 1 lb. small white beans, such as Great Northern or navy beans
  • 1 lb. cubed ham
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 6 cups stock (ideally homemade ham stock, but store-bought chicken stock will work too)
  • 1 tbsp. grainy mustard
  • 1 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • Juice of half a lemon, if needed
  • Salt to taste

The night before you plan to eat, cover one pound of white beans with an inch of water.

In the morning, drain and rinse your beans. Put them into a slow cooker, along with ham, onion, celery, pearl barley, stock, mustard, rosemary, and bay leaves. Stir, cover, set slow cooker to low, and cook for 10 hours.

Go to work, or about your day, or back to bed.

When you get home, stir in pepper, Parmesan, and parsley. Taste, and add lemon juice and salt as needed. Serve with bread. Feel virtuous.

Stew and toast.