Springtime comfort food

Sunday, May 22, 2016

"Nothing is so beautiful as spring ...
The glassy peartrees leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling."

- from "Spring" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hard to believe it's been four weeks since I wrote my last blog post. We were on holidays at the beginning of May, and last weekend I visited my mom while she recuperated from cataract surgery. In Toronto, the month of May usually moves from just-past-winter to nearly-summer, and it's no different this year. Andrew and I are enjoying the heat as we garden on this lovely Canadian long weekend.

This recipe is probably more apt for those just-past-winter days, but I've been making it for two winters now and still haven't posted the recipe. I didn't want to let it wait for a third winter. These baked shells are comfort food at its best, and I'll happily enjoy that any time of the year.

Chicken and broccoli stuffed pasta shells
(adapted slightly from Fearless Homemaker)
Note: This recipe is particularly great with homemade alfredo sauce. But if you don't have the time, store-bought is fine too.

1/2 cup alfredo sauce, first amount
1/2 cup alfredo sauce, second amount
2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
2 cups broccoli, cooked and chopped
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup shredded or grated Parmesan cheese, first amount
kosher salt, to taste
20 jumbo pasta shells (which is half of a 12 -ounce box) cooked according to package instructions
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, second amount


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spoon 1/2 cup alfredo sauce in the bottom of a 9 x 9" baking dish (just enough to lightly coat the bottom of the dish).

In a medium bowl, combine 1/2 cup alfredo sauce, shredded chicken, chopped broccoli, cheddar cheese and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese. Add kosher salt to taste.

Spoon the mixture evenly into the pasta shells and arrange shells in the bottom of the baking dish. Sprinkle the rest of the Parmesan over the top. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes, then uncover and bake for 10 more minutes, until the shells are golden brown.

Serve hot.

Measure for Measure

Sunday, April 24, 2016

At the Globe Theatre in London, summer 2004
"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

- "Sonnet 18," William Shakespeare

The Globe Theatre
"And, most dear actors, eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath."
- A Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare

I wanted to post one of Shakespeare's lovely sonnets in honour of the 400th anniversary of his death. But the quote from A Midsummer Night's Dream is more apt, given that it mentions two of my favourite and most versatile ingredients.

Perhaps then, this recipe, which contains both onions and garlic, should be off limits to actors - but I hope the rest of you aren't scared off. The ragout is so good, I loved it the first time I tried it even though I forgot to add the cheese. The next day I sprinkled my leftovers with Parmigiana-Reggiano before heating and it was even better. In short, all's well that ends well.

Mushroom and White Bean Ragout
Note: you can easily cut the recipe in half if you're cooking for two

1 ounce dried mushrooms (preferably porcini)
2 cups boiling (or very hot) water
2 pounds Portobello mushrooms
1 1/2 cups onion, diced
2 Tbsp olive oil
salt to taste
4 garlic cloves, divided
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp fresh rosemary, minced
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp flour
1/2 to 3/4 cup red wine (white wine is also good)
15-ounce can white beans
15-ounce can diced tomatoes
additional salt to taste
additional fresh rosemary for garnish (optional)
sprinkling of grated Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese for garnish (optional)

Place the dried mushrooms in a heatproof bowl or measuring cup. Add hot water and let the mushrooms soak for 30 minutes. Place a strainer over a bowl and pour mushrooms into the strainer. Squeeze the mushrooms over the strainer until you've squeezed out all the juices. Quickly rinse mushrooms to remove any residual sand. Chop coarsely and set aside. Measure out 1 1/2 cups of the soaking liquid and set aside.

Wipe the Portobello mushrooms with a damp paper towel and cut into slices of 1/2 inch or so. Set aside.

Peel onions, and cut into dice of 1/2 inch or so. Place a large frying pan or dutch oven over medium stovetop heat. When it's hot, add olive oil, then add diced onions. Season with salt, lower the heat and sauté until translucent, 5 to 8 minutes.

Peel the garlic and slice thinly or mince finely. Divide into two roughly equal piles and set aside.

Once the onions are ready, add half the garlic. Add thyme and rosemary, and sauté for 1 minute.

Add the Portobello mushrooms. Add additional salt to taste, plus the butter. Sauté for 5 minutes.

Add flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add the reconstituted mushrooms, along with the wine. Cook until the liquid evaporates and a glaze forms on the mushrooms. Stir occasionally so the mushrooms don't stick and burn.

Open the beans, rinse through a colander, and let drain.

Add the reserved soaking liquid, the beans, tomatoes and the rest of the garlic to the mixture. Bring to a bare simmer and cook for 30 minutes.

Serve over cooked barley, polenta or rice. Garnish with rosemary and/or Parmigiana-Reggiano, if desired.

"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember."
- Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Blueberry banana smoothies

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Last time I posted a smoothie recipe, it was when my youngest daughter got braces.

Apparently dental issues are a harbinger of smoothie recipes on this blog, because the same girl had a wisdom tooth out on Friday. Since then I haven't made anything that didn't go through a blender, including this smoothie that's bursting with the taste of blueberries. I made a noticeable dent in the number of blueberries in my freezer, since this was one of the few things she wanted to eat after her surgery.

For the record, the surgery went well, and she's already back at school to write her final three exams. It's hard to know which she thought was the worst thing about the last few days: the removal of the wisdom tooth, the fact that it was bookended by exams, or the two losses by her beloved Blue Jays to the Red Sox. Fortunately, the mouth is healing, the schoolwork is coming along nicely, and the Jays won this afternoon.

Three great reasons to celebrate with another smoothie!

Blueberry banana smoothies
(from Food.com)

1/2 cup vanilla or plain yogurt
1/2 cup frozen blueberries
3/4 cup milk
1/2 ripe banana, sliced thinly
2 ice cubes

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
Makes 2 medium-sized smoothies.

Orange marmalade muffins

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Do you ever get a spontaneous baking idea that you have to follow through on?

I was in the grocery store on Friday and I noticed a jar of orange marmalade. Immediately I could taste the muffins I'd make with that marmalade, warm and sunny with streaks of orange baked right into them.

Not even knowing if such a recipe existed, I bought the marmalade and rushed home to look.

Sometimes when I get inspirations like that, I have to create my own recipe. But this time I was in luck, finding the perfect recipe online in a minute. And the muffins don't take much longer than that to bake  - you can whip up the batter in the time it takes to heat the oven. That's what makes them perfect for a weekend breakfast or brunch - loaded with the sweet yet slightly bitter flavour of orange marmalade, they're the perfect way to start the day.

Orange marmalade muffins
(adapted from The Pioneer Woman; makes 12 muffins)

For the muffins:

2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 cup shortening
1 cup orange marmalade
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg

For the topping:

1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp melted butter
pinch salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and place 12 cupcake liners in a muffin tin.

Sift together flour, sugar, and baking powder. Place in a mixing bowl. Use a pastry cutter to mix in shortening until it's in very small chunks.

In a separate bowl, mix marmalade, orange juice and vanilla. Beat in the egg. Pour over dry ingredients, and mix together gently, just until barely combined.

In a small bowl, mix topping ingredients.

Fill each cupcake liner with batter, just short of the top. Sprinkle one rounded teaspoon of topping over each muffin.

Bake for 20 to 22 minutes until done. Remove from pan and cool on wire rack.

Foodservice Friday: Alo

Friday, March 25, 2016
Aged beef ribeye, bone marrow, watercress, shallots
Sometimes a restaurant gets such a great review that you have to go, just to see if it could possibly be that good. And occasionally a restaurant gets three such reviews. That was the case with Alo.

Toronto Life called it the best new restaurant in Toronto. Canada's 100 Best magazine called it the best new restaurant in Canada. The restaurant critic for the Globe and Mail described his experience of eating the stew as "probably the best five minutes of my year."

How could I stay away?

But such acclaim comes with popularity, and I tried making reservations a few times with no luck. Finally, I must have timed it perfectly, because just before Christmas I scored a reservation three months out - on a Saturday night!
Pinenuts, yellowfoot chanterelles, celery root, delice de bourgogne
Alo is tucked away on the second floor of a nondescript building on busy Spadina Avenue, just above a tattoo parlour. If you didn't know it existed, you'd never find it; even though we knew it was there, we were happy the greeter on the main floor reassured us we were in the right place.

The menu is different every night, with two choices per course. The presentations were gorgeous: even if I wasn't taking pictures for my blog I'd have taken them anyhow, out of admiration and respect. Technically there were five courses, but actually there were probably closer to ten (including three tiny desserts). Everything is prepared with the utmost of care. Even the butter that's served with the bread is made in-house.

And how did it taste? I adored everything I ate, with the chanterelle mushroom dish being an early contender for the best five minutes of my year.

Kampachi, rice pearls, fennel, cured egg yolk
Chef Patrick Kriss graciously answered the questions I asked him. He said his greatest influences were the people he worked for at New York's Daniel restaurant - Jean-Francois Bruel, Eddy Leroux, and of course Daniel Boulud, all of whom he described as being extremely hard-working and dedicated people. And charmingly, when I asked him what his most memorable cooking moments were, he answered, "Cooking with my grandmother when I was a child. Pies and simple roasts on Sunday."

A note to my Toronto friends: Alo is now taking reservations only two months in advance. In the name of blog research, I went on Open Table this morning to see what reservations were available, and got the message "No availability for Alo restaurant ... in next 8 weeks." But don't give up - this is a restaurant that's more than worth the wait. And when you get that reservation, be sure to tell me which course was the best five minutes of your year.

163 Spadina Avenue
Toronto ON


(All opinions are my own, and I received no compensation for this post.)

The first day of spring

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"Wrap me close, sheets of lavender. Pour your blue and purple dreams into my ears. The breeze whispers at the shutters and mutters queer tales of old days, and cobbled streets, and youths leaping their horses down marble stairways. Pale blue lavender, you are the colour of the sky when it is fresh-washed and fair ... I smell the stars ... they are like tulips and narcissus ... I smell them in the air."

- from "Spring Day" by Amy Lowell

Today's recipe is an all-season one that I've probably never made the same way twice. Below is one simple variation, but it's easily changed to accommodate the time of year and what you have on hand. In honour of the first day of spring, you might add a little sautéed leek in with the onions. If you make it in the summer, use fresh vegetables rather than frozen. If you want a vegetarian version, use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth, and forgo the chicken for broccoli and cauliflower pieces. Slice up a few mushrooms and sauté them along with the onions for extra flavour. You can replace the chicken with lamb, and you could top the pot pie with mashed potatoes, biscuits, or puff pastry. (If using puff pastry, cut a sheet of pastry in narrow slices and make a cross-hatch pattern.

Sometimes I cook it all up in one casserole, and sometimes I put it in mini loaf pans or ramekins. The latter are perfect to freeze for another meal, or to deliver to a university student in need of home-cooked food!

Chicken pot pie
(assembled from my imagination, and whatever I have in the fridge)

2 medium potatoes
4 Tbsp butter
1 onion, diced
4 Tbsp flour
2 cups chicken broth
kosher salt
1/2 cup frozen corn
1/2 cup frozen edamame or peas
1 Tbsp fresh chopped thyme or rosemary
2 cooked chicken breasts (preferably roasted), cut into bite-sized pieces

Boil potatoes until just tender. Let drain and mash with a bit of milk. Set aside.

Melt butter in a medium pot, and add diced onions. Sauté until golden-brown. Add flour, and stir until it forms a smooth paste. Add chicken broth and stir until it thickens. Add kosher salt to taste.

Remove from the heat and add vegetables and herbs. Stir in chicken pieces and combine to mix. Cover with mashed potatoes.

Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes (when cooking in ramekins or loaf pans) or 30-40 minutes (when cooking in a single casserole).

Foodservice Friday: Byblos

Friday, March 11, 2016
The glorious brussels sprouts
Most of us have a special occasion restaurant. It's usually somewhere with terrific service, and with food so great we know whatever we order will be spectacular.

For me, that restaurant is Byblos. This is the place where I had the brussels sprouts epiphany.  The place that inspired me to make my own Middle Eastern dessert. And the place where I've celebrated my last two birthdays. Byblos has been responsible for quite a lot of happiness in my life.

The beauty of eating at a restaurant with share plates is you try more things than if you just had a single appetizer and entree to yourself. But even so, the biggest challenge about dinner at Byblos is confronting the sad realization that you can't order every single thing on the menu. So what should you order? You have to try at least one of the eggplant appetizers, the roasted red beets, the ribeye, and for dessert, order the qatayef, and the mousse cake that's covered in Persian cotton candy. Oh, and did I mention the brussels sprouts?

Crispy Qatayef, just one of the brilliant desserts Byblos serves
Photo credit: Byblos Restaurant
Byblos's brilliant chef Stuart Cameron took the time to answer a few questions I had for him. I asked him what the inspiration was for Byblos, and he answered, "There are so many amazing ingredients and flavours that are unfamiliar in other cuisines. When I first started Byblos I was amazed by the quality of products that were available. It really drove me to create new dishes that represented Middle Eastern Cuisine." When I asked about his most memorable cooking moment, he said he loves cooking during TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) because of all the great people he meets. He also singled out getting to cook last year with Michelin-starred chef Maria Jose San Roman.

In other words, he loves food, he loves people, and both of those are what makes his food shine.

So if you live in Toronto, Byblos is a restaurant you simply must try. If you don't live in Toronto, Byblos is a very good reason to visit.

And if you go any time around my next special occasion, you'll probably see me there.

Byblos Restaurant
11 Duncan Street
Toronto ON

(All opinions are my own, and I received no compensation for this post.)