Taking in strays/Kimchi part 1

It’s been a whole week since I’ve written, and I feel pretty crappy about it. But I have the best excuses. Plus, I have several legitimately exciting food stories to share over the next few days, so that makes up for some of it, right? Well, you be the judge,

The first reason I was away last week is that we took in a stray kitten. If you’ve ever done this before, you know how those adorable fluffballs can just eat up any spare time you might have. This little one was part of a feral colony, but decided she wanted to adventure off on her own and consort with humans. She cried and cried outside my guy’s back door til we were finally able to trap her and get her spayed and dewormed and all those good things. She’d 4.5 months old and doesn’t know how to do anything other than snuggle and hide. But that’s ok. The rest will come with time.

World, meet Betty Boop (Boop for short, or sometimes Bloop, or McBlooperson)

World, meet Betty Boop (Boop for short, or sometimes Bloop, or McBlooperson)

The second reason I’ve been busy is that I have taken in a stray tourist from Japan! A friend of a friend’s lodging arrangements fell through just a couple of days before she was scheduled to fly to Montreal. Rather than cancel her trip, I gave her my room and am staying with my guy for the next couple of weeks. Needless to say, the sudden nature of this made things a bit hectic for a few days there- lots of scrubbing and packing and laundering happened. But now Tomoko is happily doing her thing out of my tiny little Plateau pad, and life is somewhat returned to normal.

In the midst of all this upheaval, I have managed to find some time for cooking, too. Mostly because if I didn’t, I’d go mad. Last Sunday, I had a fermenting/pickling day with a few lovely friends. We made kimchi and dill pickles. I won’t share all the deets until I get to taste the final product, but I’ll woo you with some pictures in the meantime.

Ladies at work

Ladies at work

It was actually a lot of fun, putting together all the little jars and stirring up big bowls of veggies with chili sauce for the kimchi. It would have been more fun had we made it through the day without one of us cutting herself and another squirting ginger juice in her eyes (that was me!) but, you know. The hostess graciously provided us with wine and baguette, which helped immensely.

Dividing the dill and garlic for the jars

The little countertop that could! Dividing the dill and garlic for the jars, grating turnip, carrots and ginger for the kimchi.

Pretty little jars all in a row, ready for their brine.

Pretty little jars all in a row, ready for their brine. Can’t forget the wine. Not for the pickles, for the pickle-makers.

I will report back with the finished results in a couple of weeks. I hope it will be delicious. I am sure it will be.

Pumpkin and Chard Risotto

If you’ve been reading this blog, you get by now that I work an awful lot, producing food for gazillions of people every week. You might think this leaves me totally sick of cooking and eating chickpeas out of the can for dinner most nights. But in fact, I only eat beans out of the can some nights! Weekends are usually reserved for cooking with/for my delightful friends. First, because otherwise I’d never see them, and second, because they have functioning kitchens that I can usurp.

On Saturday we had a Pumpkin All The Things! day with a few folks (who have a great kitchen). Originally we had planned on doing savoury pumpkin ravioli, but couldn’t find vegan wonton wrappers on a Saturday (they only sell them at the Kosher market). So, we improvised and came up with this great risotto.

Believe me when I tell you, this tastes waaaayyy better than it looks.

Believe me when I tell you, this tastes waaaayyy better than it looks.

The tangy, crunchy chard contrasts so nicely with the creamy, rich pumpkin. Mushrooms were added for some texture, along with my favorite ever Smoked Apple Sage Field Roast sausages. The end result was so delicious we all sat numb from overeating watching NFB videos until we could roll out the door.

Pumpkin and Chard Risotto

For the basic risotto:

Olive oil and/or Earth Balance, for cooking
A bottle of buttery, oaky Chardonnay
Vegetable broth
2 cups arborio rice
2 yellow onions, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced

To stir in near the end of cooking the rice:

2 cups pureed unsweetened pumpkin
3 tbsp chopped fresh marjoram, or 2 tsp dried
1.5 tsp dried thyme
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
2 tbsp dijon
Salt and Pepper

To stir in just before serving:

1 large bunch of chard, any colour, thoroughly washed and chopped- Stems into 1/2 inch slices, leaves into 1-inch cubes
4 Apple Sage Field Roast Sausages, broken with your fingers into small, rough bites
1 pint mushrooms, halved and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp tamari
Juice from half a lemon
A splash of wine
Olive oil, for cooking.

Start by preparing your basic risotto. Fry the onions in plenty of oil til they are golden, then add the rice and garlic, stirring constantly until just toasted. Stir in a cup of wine, pour yourself a glass while you’re at it. Once the wine is absorbed, add stock a ladleful at a time, allowing it to be fully absorbed between each addition.

Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables and sausages to be stirred in at the very end of cooking. Sautee the mushrooms over medium high heat in the olive oil until almost all golden, then deglaze with a splash of wine. Once that wine is cooked down, add the chard stems to the mushrooms for a few minutes, and finally the chard leaves and the garlic along with the tamari and lemon. Set the vegetables aside, and in the same pan brown the sausages until mostly golden. Deglaze with a little more wine if things have been sticking. Set aside wit the vegetables.

When the rice is just barely soft enough to eat, but still slightly firm, stir in the pumpkin, marjoram, thyme, dijon, and nutritional yeast. Add another 1/2 cup of wine. Stir in the veggies and sausages that you have set aside, and adjust seasoning if required.

We ate this with delicious roasted red pepper and onion fougasse, but if were up for it we would have made a nice salad to go with.

Pho/Air-boat street food/etc.

Big bowl for pho for big Bear, little bowl of pho for little kitten.

Big bowl for pho for big Bear, little bowl of pho for little kitten.

When I was in my undergrad, I took a bunch of courses in the evening. There were two reasons for this, mainly that I refused to take morning classes, but also because the part-time studies department’s Philosophy classes tended to be more interesting. In those cool in-between months after the term started but before Winter came, I often failed to dress appropriately for the weather and would find myself shivering alone in the corridors waiting for evening classes to begin while sometimes falling asleep over my readings. It was at this time that I would get one of two things: a coffee and a chocolate chip oatmeal muffin from the only cafe that remained open for the night students, or a steaming-hot Styrofoam bowl of Pho from the little Asian vendor in the cafeteria.

I always asked for the vegetarian Pho, even before I was vegan, because it seemed like a much better deal- you got so many veggies! Tender-crisp bok choy, slivers of nappa cabbage, whole petals of oyster mushrooms, sprouts, carrots, peppers, and tofu, all in a fragrant broth with warming anise, clove, and black pepper. The whole thing was topped with a mountain of Thai basil and cilantro, and finally a wedge of lime. It was more expensive than the coffee and muffin, and while it had no chocolate in it, it was still the superior choice.

There is some controversy over whether Pho is related to pot-au-feu, the dish common to the French invaders of Vietnam. Westerners like to think of Pho as a fusion food. I think it’s more likely that the French simply assumed that their culture was the epitome of Culture, and thus interpreted the native Vietnamese dish in the only way their fragile egos could manage- as an approximation of the more familiar pot-au-feu. There is something decidedly un-French about traditional Pho as well, namely the way it was vended. No white linen table cloths, wine, or candles. Just hot street food, prepared with taste, nourishment, and efficiency in mind.

Pho was originally sold at dawn and dusk by roaming street vendors, who shouldered mobile kitchens on carrying poles (gánh phở). From the pole hung two wooden cabinets, one housing a cauldron over a wood fire, the other storing noodles, spices, cookware, and space to prepare a bowl of pho. Pho vendors kept their heads warm with distinctive, disheveled felt hats called mũ phở. (thank you Wikipedia)

I wonder if the Chinese food boat scene from The Fifth Element is at all related to the history of Pho? Some days, especially when it’s cold, I wish for certain conveniences out of sci fi like travelling Pho air-boats or teleportation.

It may be too early for you folks south of the border to be thinking of hot soups as an ideal comfort food, but here in the Great White North the nights have been getting quite chilly, and ominously gray skies have brought portents of Autumn and frost. Unless you have a magical Pho Boat coming your way, this recipe is the best thing to keep the chill out.

Come here, boat of tasty! I want all your deliciousness! But you can leave the terrible ethnic stereotypes behind...

Come here, boat of tasty! I want all your deliciousness! But you can leave the terrible ethnic stereotypes behind…

It took me a while to figure out how to make a good vegan Pho, and the trick is to take your time to treat the veggies right, and not worry too much about being traditional. This is your Pho, make it how you like it.

  1. Take a couple big yellow onions, peel the outer layer and halve them lengthwise. Cut a 5-inch stem of ginger root lengthwise. Blacken the outer layer both over a flame (broiler/element/blowtorch). Rinse away any flakes of char and set aside.
  2. Roughly chop five large, peeled carrots, and a couple cups of mushroom stems (any kind, preferably belonging to the caps you’ll use in the soup) and roast them in a pot with coconut oil until beginning to brown. This will take a bit of time, but keep an eye on it and have a beer to keep you occupied.
  3. Add to the carrots and mushrooms a couple of star anise, a couple of whole cloves, a 4-inch stick of cinnamon, a tablespoon of coriander seeds, a three-inch strip of kombu and several black peppercorns. Cook for 3-4 minutes, until fragrant, stirring constantly. Add the onion and ginger, then about 5-6 cups of low- or no-salt mushroom or vegetable broth- enough to cover with an inch or two to spare.
  4. Simmer until reduced by 1/3, then add a tablespoon or two of good tamari and/or vegan fish sauce. Strain well through a fine sieve. This broth can be kept in the fridge or frozen until ready to use.
  5. Cook medium flat rice noodles til tender. Add to big bowls of freshly-boiled broth.
  6. Prepare vegetables. Firm tofu, mixed fresh or dried/re-hydrated mushroom caps, tender greens, snow peas and peppers can be sauteed ever so lightly, then divided among individual bowls.
  7. Toppings should be served on the side, to be added with chopsticks to the bowls by diners. Scallions and red chilies finely sliced on the bias, whole cilantro and Thai basil leaves, wedges of lime and bean sprouts. Vegetarian hoisin, chili-garlic paste/sriracha, and seasoned rice vinegar should be offered as well.

To Eat: Pile on the herbs, sauces, etc. and barely stir them into the piping-hot broth. It will wilt the leaves, while maintaining some of their texture and providing lovely contrast between the spicy/sour/cool/herbal notes of the garnish and the warm/earthy/sweet/savoury notes of the soup.

Bon appetit!

Easiest Pasta Salad

Simple, colourful, and utterly satisfying. Probably prettier in a wooden bowl, but you know, beggars can't be choosers.

Simple, colourful, and utterly satisfying. Probably prettier in a wooden bowl, but you know, beggars can’t be choosers.

Last summer, I lived for a while with some wonderful folks with an amazing patio. You know, the kind that is level with the widest branches of the trees and suspends you above the rest of the city, filtered through the greenery? This location magically inspired food with lots of fresh vegetables. I ate a LOT of salad. Something about being outdoors inspires further freshness. But because raw veggies can only take you so far, I started finding ways to mix grains into my creations. The pasta salad of my youth was an egg-ridden, totally gross swamp of cholesterol, dodgy food standards and sodium. This variation couldn’t be further removed from that science experiment of a side dish.

This little pasta salad is easy-peasy, varied, and filling enough to be a meal in itself. It follows a simple formula, and the secret is in the sauce. No gross eggy-stuff required.

  1. Pick a cute little pasta. I like bowties. Things like shells tend to stick to each other too much. Macaroni is good, if you’re down with the retro-feel of the uniform elbows.
  2. Pick fresh, flavourful vegetables in four different colours. Colour is important to the appreciation of this dish. It symbolizes the variety and abundance of harvest times. I like crunchy veggies and ones that suck up sauces thirstily, like broccoli.
  3. Use good herbs. I use dried marjoram, thyme, and tarragon. And then fresh parsley and/or cilantro. The fresh parsley really contributes to the flavour of this dish, so try not to ditch it. Use the flat-leaf kind, it’s tastier and has a nicer texture.
  4. Infuse your olive oil. Take a good olive oil, and brown a whole lot of minced garlic in it. It will infuse the oil with garlic flavour, which will then distribute evenly through the pasta. If you want some kick, use dried chilis in your olive oil infusion. Go ahead and add some capers, sundried tomatoes, or marinated artichoke hearts for tang and depth. Stir in some nooch, dijon and almond flour enough to make a cream. Add lemon juice and cider or wine vinegar (yes, both) until it is thinned enough to just coat the back of a spoon. Toss liberally with your salad.
  5. I like fresh greens, such as rough chopped arugula, spinach or chard stirred in at the last minute. It makes it all feel fresher and brighter.
  6. Go ahead and add some beans. Chickpeas, small white beans and green lentils are nice.

This recipe makes me long for summer days and crisp, cool Rieslings sipped on the porch. Also, it pulls together in maybe 20 minutes. Can’t go wrong.

Comfort Food/The Terrible, No-Good, All-Around Bad Week.

This past week was especially trying… I worked long hours, even some 12-hour days without any breaks. I was working at the catering company with a small team to cater two big events, both of which had last-minute surprises (60 bonus people to cook for and a separate allergen-free menu with less than 24-hours notice). I was also working my regular job, cooking for the wonderful family I serve, but with bonus back-to-school schedule changes that didn’t work well with my catering duties.

Millions of perfect pepper triangles for millions of perfect appetizers.

Millions of perfect pepper triangles for millions of perfect appetizers.

That alone would have made the week a blur, leaving me dead-on-my-feet tired by the weekend. But in addition to work, I had a bunch of little shitty things happen- losing a cooking contract, the insoles of my shiny new vegan Doc’s coming out, cutting myself on three separate occasions, emergency work cancellations for the coming month.

All those little things are not devastating on their own, but they do add up, and when combined with immense physical stress from work it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But I am a strong, competent, capable woman and I can deal with a fair bit of stress quite well. It is useful when you work in a kitchen to thrive in a stressful environment. Kitchens are full of unexpected changes, danger, near-misses, and time-pressure. So towards the end of the week, I was in need of a little extra chocolate to keep me afloat and was very much so ready for Sunday-Funday. But alas, it was not to be. There was more.

The tipping point between coping and not-coping-at-all-actually was finding out about two close family members being really sick, one requiring a surgery, and the other requiring ongoing, difficult treatments for an indefinite period of time.

Suddenly I really wished that all I had to worry about was confined to the kitchen.

And that is how I found myself in a sunny, comfortable vegan cafe on Friday morning, staring into a bowl of hot chocolate, playing footsies under the table with my guy, and nibbling on a strange variety of delicious things. You can’t control the weather, but you can control what you have for breakfast.

It's a rare man who will wake up at 7 am just to drive you to work to make your day a little shinier. On Friday he took me out for breakfast before work to my favorite little vegan nook, Cafe Resonance. Kimchi, tempeh BLT, baked beans and brownies. Those brownies are the richest, chocolatiest bits of gluten-free goodness.... I'm melting just thinking of them.

It’s a rare man who will wake up at 7 am just to drive you to work to make your day a little shinier. On Friday he took me out for breakfast before work to my favorite little vegan nook, Cafe Resonance. Kimchi, tempeh BLT, baked beans and brownies. Those brownies are the richest, chocolatiest bits of gluten-free goodness…. I’m melting just thinking of them.

For many people, food is a source of comfort when things are looking down. It’s familiar, associated with fond memories and happier times, and it’s immediately pleasurable. But as a cook, food is also my favorite distraction. It is what I use to procrastinate, what I do when I am fuming over a vexing conflict, how I express my love toward others. It makes me feel good about myself when I cook something well, and it is a source of intellectual curiosity when good food is prepared for me. Food is more than just comfort for me, it’s an intrinsic part of what makes my life meaningful and worthwhile.

Thus on Friday night, when I was barely able to walk home on my smarting feet and so emotionally exhausted I couldn’t spare a smile for the beggars on Laurier, I made a little detour into the market and bought ridiculously expensive mushrooms, leeks, arugula, fragrant olive fougasse still warm from the oven, a bar of good chocolate, a bottle of prosecco and a nice, buttery-round wine. Once home I opened the bottle of bubbles, changed into one of my guy’s shirts, snipped some thyme, marjoram and tarragon from the window box and set to work.

There are no pictures of my little creation, because I was cooking for no one but myself. It was therapeutic, more for the process than the product. Leeks and garlic were cooked down in earth balance with a bit of freshly grated nutmeg, then shiitake, oyster and crimini mushrooms were roasted til golden. Everything was tossed together with a sizzle of wine, the herbs, arugula, a good dollop of dijon and a bit of lemon. Angel hair pasta and crushed red chilis were folded in just before serving with the still-warm, aromatic fougasse and cool glasses of wine.

We ate well and left the kitchen cleaning for the next day. I was asleep within moments of turning on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. My guy set my glasses aside and tucked me in. I slept like the dead.

Sometimes, the little things are all you need.

Sometimes, the little things are all you need.

Aux Vivres/ Huevos Rancheros

Fuck yes sweet potatoes!

Fuck yes sweet potatoes!

We have a fantastic little vegan resto here in Montreal called Aux Vivres (meaning something like To Life!) that serves up the best brunch in town. Not that that’s saying much in this town of very few vegan restos, though there has been some improvement on that front lately. Aux Vivres is one of those health-food vegan type places, with a menu featuring mainly bowls and wraps, a whole lot of juice and some substantial mains. They have excellent cheesecake, don’t serve booze, and have a handy take-out counter so you can enjoy all of the above in the comfort of…. wherever the alcohol is.

I am super stoked that they recently added huevos rancheros to their list of delicious weekend offerings along with blueberry waffles, breakfast polenta, granola and a tofu scramble platter. The meal includes fresh tortillas, refritos, guac, vegan sour cream, pico de gallo, tofu scramble, grilled sweet potatoes and a side salad. It’s big and filling, perfect for Sundays in the park. Here I ordered a chipotle brownie to go with, cause chocolate is an important part of breakfast. I took this feast to go, along with some vegepate wraps for my friends and a bottle of bubbly. Much fun was had at Tamtams that day.

Picnic o'clock!

Picnic o’clock!

 

 

Mushroom Risotto, love, and wine

Today I got to cook my favorite meal. I mean, my favorite meal to cook. I am not entirely sure if it’s my favorite meal to eat, but it’s probably in the top five. As far as cooking goes, though, it’s an experience unto itself.

There are a few reasons why I love making mushroom risotto. It is the very epitome of comfort food. Warm, soft, and fragrant with a toothsome bite. Deep, woody earthiness offset by perfectly balanced salt, caramel alliums, and the sweet tang of oaky white wine. The flavours are extraordinarily complex, and at the same time perfectly mundane. Rice, mushrooms, garlic, thyme. Peasant food. Cooking risotto is an art. You have to understand your ingredients, and understand the flavour you are trying to achieve, and understand how to get that flavour out of those ingredients. And you have to take your time, hover over the pot attentively, obsessively, nudging your tiny grains of rice into compliance and tasting often, making small adjustments to the flavour of your stock as you go. If you’ve ever had someone tell you that you have a problem after watching you spend 30 minutes adding dollops of crabapple butter and splashes of tomato juice to a can of baked beans until you get the exact results you were looking for, risotto is your vindication. It is precisely that ability to imagine an effect, imagine possible ways of creating it, and the willingness to putter and play with things until you get exactly what you were looking for that is required to make this dish.

There’s a secret to good risotto, though, and that is the wine. This is the first rule of making things tasty, incidentally- add booze. Fermented things have a depth of flavour that is hard to find elsewhere. Also, drinking alcohol, especially while you cook, is good for your disposition. Trust me on that one. My Vegan Soulmate and I discovered this quite accidentally back in grad school. We drank because, well, that’s what philosophers do (blame it on the existential angst). And we cooked because we were poor vegans in Edmonton and we needed to eat. That, and we liked to procrastinate marking mountains of first-year ethics papers in the most delicious way possible. Naturally, these two needs would correspond and we found ourselves adding cheap booze to everything we cooked together. It was like magic. Boring potato soup sang with a splash of cider in the leeks, plain chocolate cakes came alive with spiced rum and bourbon cherries, Tofurkies sucked back bottles of Cabernet with enthusiasm matched only by our own. We started bringing two bottles of wine to our cooking dates (that’s how Vegan Soulmates date, rather than going to the movies, we go to the kitchen). One for us, one for the pot.

Deliciousness in the making.

Deliciousness in the making.

Here are some things that make risotto perfect. This is not so much a recipe as a guideline for cooking.

  • Add more alliums, in more variety, than the recipe calls for. Different alliums bring out different aspects of oniony goodness better than others. You are going for a complex flavour profile here, so complicate things by using yellow onions, leeks, garlic, and shallots.
  • Close your eyes when you add the earth balance. It will make it easier to concentrate on how the food tastes, rather than what it will do to your waistline. And on that note, only use delicious fats in your risotto- very good olive oil mixed with earth balance is what I use.
  • Use a good, oaky white wine. You want lots of woody flavour, and some sweetness won’t hurt too much (but err on the side of dry). I like Chardonnay for risotto. But choose something that you want to drink as well. This is imperative, since risotto requires that the cook split the bottle with the pot. It’s only fair.
  • Use at least two kinds of mushrooms. I like shiitake or oyster mushrooms in addition to criminis. For the love of god don’t use white mushrooms. Just don’t. Chantrelles are glorious if you can afford them. Cook your mushrooms in a very hot pan in as much earth balance as they need to move around til they are browning nicely, drying out a bit, and smelling more sharply like earth. At this point, add a bit more earth balance to the center of the pot, some minced garlic and shallots, and a pinch or two of cumin, thyme, pepper and marjoram. Yes, cumin. No, you can’t use oregano instead of marjoram. Marjoram has a sweetness that is irreplaceable. Stir these in for a minute, until the garlic and shallots are starting to brown, and then add a enough wine to coat the bottom of the pot and loosen anything that has stuck, while also carrying the flavours that had previously been suspended only in fat into the spongy mushrooms. At the same time, add a teaspoon or two of good tamari. No, not salt. Tamari.
  • Once you’ve set aside your mushrooms, use the same pot to cook the risotto. Never waste flavour. Add some good olive oil and earth balance to the pot along with the finely minced onions, then the leeks, then the rice, then the garlic. Your onions should be almost caramelized, your leeks translucent, your rice just toasted, and your garlic barely golden. Add more fat if needed to keep things moving. Season the onions just a little bit with salt and pepper- you’ll add more as you go, and it’s better to add sodium in more flavourful ways than table salt. Then add enough wine to coat the bottom of the pot when stirred. Yes, a whole cup. Add a half teaspoon or so thyme and marjoram with it. Things are getting real now, so make sure your glass is full, too.
  • Use a very good vegetable stock. Make your own, or use Better Than Bouillon if that’s what you have. I haven’t found good cubes of vegetable stock for risotto purposes- they are always too salty and two dimensional. Use the traditional risotto making method- add a cup of stock at a time, stir each til absorbed completely, repeat.
  • At the last couple of cupfuls of stock, taste for seasoning carefully. Before adjusting the seasoning, stir in the mushroom mixture. Then proceed to your add your final flavour notes. In a cup, mix a half cup of wine with one good tablespoon of dijon, a teaspoon or two of tahini, a couple tablespoons of fresh squeezed lemon juiceand a couple tablespoonfuls of nutritional yeast. Add this, then taste again. Add more concentrated stock if more sodium is required, or the other last-minute stir-ins to adjust the flavour as necessary. It should be earthy, smooth, salty, and winey. The salty and rich dijon should balance with the herbal and sweet thyme and marjoram. No one flavour, except perhaps the wine (which will dissipate quickly) should stand out before all the others. It should be uniformly complex.
  • Add fresh chopped thyme right at the end, on top of everything. Thyme carries a certain fragrance when fresh that denatures with heat. Let this carry the first bite of risotto to your guests.

I hope you enjoy cooking mushroom risotto as much as I do. If you don’t, you probably haven’t added enough wine.