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.

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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.

Waxing poetic about Autumn

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In Montreal, we have a flair for the dramatic.

I have mixed feelings about autumn right now. I love the season, as a season… but it’s creeping up on me much too fast, and I am just not ready for it. Summer started late, and these 5 °C nights foretell its summation. I crave a long, slow, hot afternoon with an icy drink and a book on the terrace. Or a midnight stroll down the hushed streets and alleys of the Plateau, scotch and clove cigarette in hand, tempting the cats and raccoons into impromptu petting-dates with bags of treats. Instead, I am huddled indoors sipping hot chocolate in my guy’s warmest socks and sweater, barring the blustering leaves and gray skies outside through the lace-covered patio door. Two weeks ago I spent days in nothing but bathing suit bottoms and hiking boots, soaking up the sun and holding it deep in my bones to keep me warm well into the night. This has all happened too quickly. Change is difficult, but that difficulty is a powerful source of energy. Or so I tell myself.

I hate autumn in the city. The cool days and clear nights stir up a deep longing for the crisp, biting sting of frost in the morning cut with steam from a mug of something bittersweet. I want to run away to the woods to bathe in smoke and fire, and hide in the lengthening shadows cast by increasingly bare trees. But instead I am stuck in the humdrum routine of life as a cook, waking early and going to bed late, living in an apron, creating ephemera. I have a vacation booked for the end of October that will take me to the woods…. I am counting the days.

Oh, the humanity.

Oh, the humanity.

I am torn. Pumpkins are right around the corner, but the baskets at the market are overflowing with aubergines and tomatoes and zucchinis now. At the catering company it’s all Jewish holiday food right now- heavy, well-cooked stuff. Warming and comforting. In the homes of families, I have been grilling and baking. Peaches baked til they’re dripping with their own syrup, charred on the outside and meltingly tender on the inside. Easy, kid-friendly week-night stirfries with peanut sauce. Thai eggplant curries with piercingly hot bird chilis tempered by lime and coconut. Tarte tatin and roasted red pepper polenta. Platters of grilled vegetables to pile on fresh-baked olive bread smeared liberally with lemony cilantro cashew cheese.

I have worked so much over the past ten days, I am dead-tired. Fall-asleep-in-my-tarts tired. I have so much to say, because I have been working too hard to speak. My mind has been left to its own devices for too long as I’ve stood over my cutting board aggravating my tendonitis one kilo of potatoes at a time. I want to share with you my thoughts on how to cook in large quantities, and what it’s like being a vegan woman in a male- and meat-dominated industry. I want to give you my recipe for vietnamese crepes. I will take time to write it all out, but first I will rest. I hope the change of the seasons is treating you well, or at least that it is too far off yet to worry about.

Life in Montreal/ Slurpy Noodles (aka The Best Dish Ever)

I don't know why Elvis has a bandaid on his crotch. Probably tore his pants moving fridges.

Native Montrealers flock to run-down, old-timey second-hand stores for all their home appliance needs. The stale cigarette stench and glitter-plastered interiors are just a bonus. http://wikimapia.org/1695232/Ameublement-Elvis

First, you should know that Montreal apartments don’t come with fridges or stoves. Fucked if I know why. It’s not like 19 year-olds rolling out of college have savings lined up for the purchase of household appliances. They’re lucky if they’ve got beer money for the party next weekend. To make matters worse, we have had some of the weirdest architectural rules on the continent due to a sordid mix of terrible policy making, the mob, the church, the police, and the real estate board. That story requires a whole new post, but the gist is that you can’t get an apartment in the Plateau of Montreal without at least a flight or two of sketchy, half-broken, ice-covered external stairs that you have to move appliances up and down every time you bail on your lease in search of a noncorrupt landlord (good luck).  As a result of all this there is a thriving circulation of used appliances working its way through craigslist, second-hand stores, and the sidewalks of the student ghetto on the first of each month. None of which have ever made it into my home.

After careful consideration of the broken-ass stairs up to my third-story flat, my roomate and I decided that perhaps it would be best if we just got a mini fridge and hot plate rather than doing the traditional neck-breaking rite of passage that the locals endure to make it into their apartments.

This actually works surprisingly well for us, by and large. She mostly lives off my leftovers, I walk by three grocers on my way home from work, cold beer is available right across the street til 11pm. We have a system. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough.

But right at this moment, only the second burner on my ancient hotplate is working, and the fridge is turning everything into inedible blocks of ice. Except the PBR. It’s actually making the PBR drinkable. So after feeding ice carrots and shards of crystalized arugula to Lady Rattington (the local cute fuzzy thing), my guy and I sauntered off to the store in search of nosh. An hour later, we were home with fixings for the Best Dish Ever.

My friends, without further ado, it is my pleasure to introduce you to, literally, the best dish ever. What makes it so good? Let me count the ways!

  • It comes together in maybe 30 minutes.
  • It’s cheap.
  • You can get all the ingredients anywhere at any time of year.
  • There are a million substitutions you can make.
  • The most important ingredients are ones you can keep on hand in the pantry
  • It makes a ton or a little with about the same amount of effort
  • It is delicious. It’s literally stuff to write home about. People taste this shit and facebook it before they get to the second bite.

This is not so much a recipe as a serving suggestion, but I’ll do the best I can to make it clear enough for you to reproduce with reasonable success after a few tries.

Slurpy Noodles

Ingredients:

1 block Extra firm tofu, cubed
1 cup Dried shiitakes, soaked and sliced, or use fresh, or criminis, or whatever.
2 cups Greens- baby bok choy, soaked seaweed, kale, etc. I usually just go with one.
2 packs Noodles- the thick, vacuum-packed wheat noodles that stay inexplicably fresh outside of the fridge. They look like worms. Moreso when covered in saucy goodness.

Sauce:

1 tbsp Garlic chili sauce– careful, some brands have fish, etc. The measurement is a guide, adjust to taste
1 tbsp Tamari, or more at the end if things need more salt
1 tbsp Fermented tasty salty things- I usually use umeboshi, but fermented black beans work well
2 tbsp Mirin- preferably the real kind, can omit
1 tbsp Toasted sesame oil, plus more to drizzle over
2 tbsp Rice vinegar (use this to taste, be careful if using the seasoned variety cause it’ll throw off the balance of everything else)
Black pepper- I don’t know why, it just makes it for me.

Optional:

Peppers, bean sprouts, green onions, cilantro and lime, hot peppers, sesame seeds, etc.

For this recipe to work, all you need to do is brown your mushrooms in a hot oiled pan, then add the tofu to brown lightly, then add the greens. Mix the sauce ingredients together and add with the greens, toss on a lid to steam it all for a minute or two, and then mix in a big bowl with your noodles (boil them first to loosen them up, or nuke them in a bowl of water). Easy peasy.

Slurpy noodles

Seriously. You’ve got to try them. The tastiest worms ever.