Wordalicious Wednesday: Recharge

Hola, my churros!

Today’s word is pretty straightforward, but crucial. To all of you culinary student readers (and lovely non-students), if you’re wondering why I haven’t done any food words like soufflé, baba ghanoush, or mirin in a while, it’s because

a) something crazy happens every week, so

b) I think it’s better to get you acquainted with a related word that isn’t waiting for you in your glossary list/on Wikipedia, and

c) these are things that you might have to learn the hard way, so do as Chef Tony says and “keep that in your back pocket!”

So, since school finished, marking the end of the Culinary Bootcamp posts, I worked for 2 more weeks at Changes (full-time), then dedicated myself full-time to a (thankfully) short-lived job hunt that was laden with nasty kitchens where Gordon Ramsay ought to spray bleach all over with a fire hose, crazy owners who seemed stubbornly intent on running their businesses into the ground by serving garbage, and flaky hostesses who I didn’t trust handing my resume off to. The joys of looking for employment!

I did the math and figured out how long it would be possible to go without working until finding a place that felt right, but didn’t want to wait long. It can be nerve-wracking to put yourself out there and not know for sure what’s going to happen. I was really lucky and found an awesome, shiny kitchen with a fun team of chefs who are working super hard to get things ready for the grand opening. These guys want to take care of us. They’ve been busting their asses, all day, every day and understandably, it’s driving them crazy!

Poor dudes. I know where they’re coming from and am so grateful. Since the beginning of school, where I pushed myself too hard not only to get into, but to stay in the game, I never turned off. Burnout hovered nearby like a pesky mosquito, but thankfully, I got through it all somehow and the only blood I lost had to do with my knife and that guard-less mandolin at The Shang. Whew!

This truck belongs to someone in my neighborhood and it makes me think of sunlit porches, lemonade, and rocking chairs. How fun would that be?

Recharging my batteries is something relatively new. It’s like salt. You can’t always tell it’s in a dish, but little bits of it will enhance the flavour. And if it isn’t there, you’ll often miss it. Without being rested, you’re likelier to lose your cool or make clumsy mistakes and will wish you sat down and watched a cartoon earlier when there was a chance to do it.

I’ve been enjoying having a little time off for the past couple of weeks, while waiting for training to start up, switching between sleeping through the day (it all caught up with me!) and working on moving I Heart Big Flavour to a new hosting site. This place will be way cooler after it’s done! Posts can display Rouxbe cooking technique videos or other goofy food vids that I make, and I can have greater control of the way this blog looks, works, and runs overall. Better features and new content!

Going through the setup process and learning how to use an entirely new site is agonizing, though, and yesterday I noticed some new blondish-white hairs on the back of my head (they’re kinda hot). That’s what 8 hours of feverish, isolated typing with Lady Gaga and Food Network playing in the background will do to you. If I hear one more eHarmony commercial, that TV is getting unplugged!

Ironically, work is now my break from the blog, when it used to be the other way around. I’m having fun meeting people, trying new foods, and learning new systems, and don’t have to think about tech support tickets, rebuilding page configurations, or re-categorizing and tagging every post manually (argh!!!).

Just like the chefs, I know that all the work and ridiculous hours are worth it, for bigger and better things to come. It’s a warm and fuzzy thought that will get you through hours of delirium, but still. Sometimes, you have to drop everything and take a minute to chill out and sharpen yourself mentally and physically.

It’s a good idea to take 10 minutes and come up with a list of ways to relax. Methods that actually work for you. And if they’re healthy habits, great. I’m a big fan of the glass of water/snack and go for a stretch. Deep breathing or changing up your environment can help, too. I’ve decided to do all four and go for a run. Tired of looking at these walls!

Eat well!


Posted in Non-recipe Related, Wordalicious | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Wordalicious Wednesday: Improvise

One of my oldest friends, Lily, who I have known since the tender old age of six, celebrates her birthday a week before mine. Unfortunately, this year, our schedules clashed repeatedly. We hadn’t seen each other for about six months (!!), and finally got together last week, hoping to eat some birthday cake. She is the kind of friend who I can ring up and blurt out “Hey how are you we haven’t seen each other in forever and I have this crazy cake in my imagination so we have to make it as our birthday cake Lily we have to make it!”

So we did! Or at least, we tried. Her relatives showed up and covered every level surface in the house with food (it was awesome, but we had nowhere to work!), a gaggle of young kids ran screaming around us, friendly pet dogs hovered nearby (expecting treats), people were yelling in various Asian languages (we project very well, okay?), we rummaged about to find baking equipment, and eventually, the kids started asking a hundred questions because they thought we were hosting a cooking show.

While some people might think of this as chaos, I always think it’s hilarious because my family is split up around the city and it’s nice to be around a big group sometimes, especially because Lily’s parents are so nice to me. Eventually, most of the kids and all of the adults went home, and the cake was popped into the oven. We thought we could finally relax, and then tragedy struck. Lily’s poor mum was washing dishes and cut her hand on a wine glass. I didn’t see it happen, but saw the resulting gash and it was pretty severe.

Everything went back to fast-forward in a matter of seconds and the kitchen was full of activity. People were yelling, two girls were threatening to throw up and/or pass out because they were squeamish (yet they kept looking), the dogs were running around because they could feel the panic, one kid was tugging on my arm to ask about where to recycle an egg carton that I handed to her, and I struggled a bit with a language barrier while trying to help stop the bleeding, keep the wound elevated, get another adult to grab the car keys, and leave instructions with someone to check the cake after we left to go to the hospital.

We waited for four hours in the hospital without reply from the cake watcher, while more important matters took place. I decided to lower my hopes and assume that the dessert was a loss, so that if it was anything better than garbage, there was something to be excited about that we could all eat the next day!

Vanilla seed and lemon zest Genoise cake, dying to be eaten!

After arriving back (at 1 AM!), I hunted for the cake, eventually finding it in the (switched off) oven. It was hard, dry, and heavy, meaning that I probably measured or whipped incorrectly, and the oven didn’t help any, so I set to work trimming off the top, bottom, and sides, cubing the interior and setting it aside for a food experiment in the morning.

So we woke up bright and early, and noticed half the cake cubes were gone!

“You have to be kidding me! I thought sleepily. “This is the cake that wouldn’t die!”

"Help us!"

Either the dogs learned how to hop on the table and gingerly pull off then replace saran wrap on a bowl, or someone must have thought the cake was up for grabs, which is all right, because their family has been feeding me for over a decade.

I searched for ingredients to play with, settling on a few eggs, a mango, and some glazed donuts that both Lily and I scoffed at. I whisked the eggs with a flavoured syrup that we planned to soak the cake with, cubed the mango and cut the donuts into large chunks, then soaked them and the cake in the eggs, stuffed everything into a buttered loaf pan and sprinkled sugar on top, covered the pan with foil first to let the food steam through and soften in the oven, then hit BROIL to crunchify the top.

Cinderella Bread Pudding: A wonderful cake was dealt bad cards and still turned into something lovely. It lived happily ever after in our stomachs. For a few hours.

The (uninterrupted) moment of truth came. After lengthy delays, we finally got to eat our “birthday cake” and the poor brick of flour tasted as good as it deserved to. It was moist, spongy, sweet, crunchy on the top, and beautiful! A different result than what we hoped for in the first place, but a worthy and satisfying breakfast contender.

Huzzah! Success.

The reason why I picked this story (other than trying to bring you a laugh) is because things go wrong in kitchens all the time. Surely you already know that. Food burns, last-minute changes get made, people injure themselves regularly, and yes, cakes can turn hard enough to smash windows in a hockey riot.

With that in mind, it’s important to be able to stay on your toes, prioritize, and most importantly, improvise, which someone only becomes good at with practice. You know how that English phrase goes? Keep calm and carry on!

It’s hard to do when under the gun, but any time s*** hits the fan, in and out of the culinary world, I try to assess the situation and think about a few key things:

  • First of all, is anybody hurt?
  • What can be fixed and how much time do I/we have?
  • What tools or skills do I have that can help improve what’s happening?

Then get moving and take care of business. Unless it’s a hostage situation where I could literally be under a gun and the best option is not to move.

Another way to keep your spirits up when things become difficult is to think about ways in which it could be worse because it might make you laugh and not feel so bad.

  • Lily’s mom’s finger could have been hurt a lot more (not laughable!)
  • We could have sat even longer in the ER waiting room if an entire frat house had a handstand-on-a-keg contest gone awry (it was a Friday night, after all)
  • Someone in the hospital could have sneezed on me (I would freak out)
  • The cake could have been blackened in the oven and filled the house with smoke, meaning that we’d come back to a waiting group of firefighters
  • The dogs could have eaten the whole bowl of cake, knocking a ton of stuff off the table and breaking dishes everywhere, requiring us to go to the animal hospital without having eaten breakfast
  • I could have made the bread pudding and forgotten it in the oven (unlikely!)

Clearly, what happened that night wasn’t ideal, but at least none of the above possible instances were piled on top. These are some good problem-solving exercises that have helped me out of a few jams, and hopefully they can do the same for you, too.

As impractical as it may sound to some, preparing for and rehearsing worst-case/unexpected scenarios (and what to do) mentally will do a lot to tip scales in your favour when trying to troubleshoot and adapt. I’ve done it at Changes and for volunteering with the Canadian Red Cross and VPD, and it definitely works. You will be surprised when something comes up, and begin to recognize what your strong points are. If all of this craziness had happened 2 years ago, I probably would have been about to faint and hit the floor along with the other girls.

My brother Tarek, who is actually very good at theater improv and working in kitchens, has a saying that I think of when starting to feel tense. It goes, “If you didn’t wreck a car or raise the dead, everything is going to be fine.” He’s a smart one.

Eat well!


Posted in Non-recipe Related, Wordalicious | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Focaccia: Power Food for Power Nappers

Every weekday morning, I hopped out of bed, excited and raring to go to culinary school. Coming to Northwest was a huge motivator, and even if I was completely exhausted or something was bothering me, one of the last thoughts floating in my head as sleep took over was always “I can’t wait to learn tomorrow!”

Now that school is over and I have a little time off before work starts, I wake up, feeling incredibly lazy. While it’s nice to think “I can do absolutely anything I want today!” it’s equally daunting. I’m not used to having so much free time and also think “What am I going to do today that isn’t going to feel like a waste? I need to get some work done!”

Lately I’ve been filling my days with cooking at friends’ houses, volunteering, working here and there at Changes, reconfiguring the blog, working on recipes, and even cleaning my own home. I tried really hard to be a clean, organized worker at school, but friends and family know it’s bad when I actually stop thinking of creative projects and scrub the grit between tiles on my shower’s walls.

Mornings can be difficult for me because I do silly things when I’m hungry. My brain pretty much shuts off and it takes forever for me to make a decision or get something done. What’s worse is that if I get really focused while working on something, sometimes I forget make time for breaks to eat, resulting in a dazed state of confusion where I’m also too tired to cook, which is why I work really hard at having something to chew on every 3 hours or so.

There’s a great bakery (MIX) by Changes that I often would visit in the mornings before work. They have these huge, pillowy sheets of focaccia for about $2 and I made a habit of getting off the bus a stop early, wandering in, and walking up to the store while eating directly from the giant piece of bread. No hands required!

Roasted grape tomato and grated parmigiano, unusually simple for my kitchen, but still gorgeous!

Italians are food geniuses. Making bread at home is a perfect and inexpensive breakfast food solution for myself and many others. Wake up, throw ingredients in a bowl, go back to bed while the dough rises, throw it on a pan for a second rise, poke, stud with food bits, bake, and eat! There’s barely any kneading involved in today’s recipe, which is great for those friends of mine who can’t be bothered. This bread is so easy that a zombie could make it, because that’s what I am in the morning sometimes. Focaccia is not for real ones, though. They’re only interested in eating people.

Chives, roasted garlic, almond slivers, grated parmigiano.

While it can be both a bread or a cake, it says on Wikipedia that “In ancient Rome, panis focacius[2] was a flat bread baked in the ashes of the fireplace. The word is derived from the Latin focus meaning “centre” and also “fireplace” – the fireplace being in the centre of the house.” Whether or not it’s 100% true (this is Wikipedia, after all), I figured out how to pack this bread with energy, and am just happy that this easy treat helps me regain my focus so I can get back to work.

This basic recipe is so easy to hack and modify to suit your own tastes, and adding cheese, nuts and seeds for added protein are great ways to have a healthy snack on the go.

Flippin’ Easy Focaccia Bread
Feeds 4 hungry humans or 2 starving morning zombies

1 tsp dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water
1 tsp sea salt or table salt
1 tbsp olive oil (if you have extra-virgin, the good stuff, use it!)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tbsp flax seeds (or better yet, ground flax seeds)
About 1 tbsp each of vegetable oil and olive oil for oiling

Pick a few internal bread flavours, like dried chili flakes, freshly torn rosemary, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, chives, scallions, small chunks of cooked potato, nuts, seeds, caramelized onions, or soft cloves of roasted garlic (the garlic will smoosh into the dough and lightly scent it).

Also pick a few treats to stud the bread with, or sprinkle on top, like chopped artichoke hearts, olives, sliced grapes, kosher salt, grated cheese (especially parmigiano reggiano!), capers, or more garlic, nuts, seeds and fresh herbs. Oh my!

That looks cozy.

1. Add the yeast to the water in a small bowl; let it sit and dissolve while you get everything else ready.

2. In another, larger bowl, get the flours, salt, and any internal flavouring agents stirred together.

3. Add the water with the yeast and 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and stir everything with a hardy wooden spoon until it forms a dough. Now you have 2 options: Continue to stir with the spoon if you’ve got some hardcore muscle going on, to incorporate the rest of the flour bits at the bottom of the bowl, or scrape the spoon off and start kneading in the bowl, just a few times to incorporate the flour. The dough should be a little moist and stick to the bowl, because it will be deliciously soft!

Happy, fluffy dough that has risen. Notice that there is a little condensation buildup inside the saran wrap!

Make sure to get alllll of the dough. Watch out, it's delicate!

4. Cover the bowl with saran wrap and let it sit in a warm place for an hour while it rises and doubles in size. On top of a fridge, or on top of a gas stove that has a pilot light on works if you have something else to do, like sleep or cook.

Finger pokes and tomatoes, yum.

5. After an hour, move your oven racks so one is on the bottom and one is near the top, and preheat your oven to 400°F. Use the veg oil to coat a baking sheet. Use your oil-covered hand to gently scoop the dough out of the bowl. Flatten it slightly, pour on the rest of the olive oil, and use your fingers to poke indentations all over the dough and spread the oil around. The veg oil helps to keep the bread from sticking and makes it nice and crispy. The olive oil on top has a lower smoking point (and doesn’t touch the hot metal pan) and adds flavour!

6. Cover the dough loosely with saran wrap and let it rise for another 20 minutes in a warm place while the oven heats up and you take a power nap.

7. Cover the focaccia with your topical ingredients. Sprinkle it with herbs, grate on some cheese, stuff cloves of garlic or grape bits into the dents, go wild. Just don’t serve it to any Italians who believe in simplicity and authenticity.

8. Bake the dough on the bottom rack for just over 10 minutes or so, depending on your oven, until golden, and a thermometer reads 200°F.

9. Sometimes when it’s just about ready, I crank the oven up to BROIL and move the bread to the top rack for about 30 seconds to make the cheese crunchier and get the nuts on the bread nice and toasty.

10. Let the bread cool on a rack for a few minutes, then dig in!

Notes: When serving focaccia with a meal, pick a few simple flavours that complement it well. If you’re having steak for dinner, a hint of garlic and rosemary is a good call.

Breakfast wackiness: Crack a whole egg on top of the dough, protect it with grated mozzarella, and fire it in the oven.

This was a good idea. Hmmm, I wonder if crisping up some bacon on top of this next time will work!

Of if you’re not in the mood to cook other things to go along with it, do what I did (see left) and find some way to cook it on top of the bread.

If you’re serving it as a family-style appetizer plate to guests, there are a lot of great little sides that they can scoop onto them and eat like bruschette. It’s a good way to get people to eat their veggies, and you can have fun slicing the bread nicely, or tearing it for a rustic look, making it perfect for dipping.

Knowing how hot your oven is, or how to eyeball whether or not food is done is very helpful. My oven has a fabulous tendency to burn things so I often set it just a little lower than required, and double-pan baked goods, which means to get another pan of the same size stacked right underneath the one I’m using. That tiny bit of air between them provides a little insulation buffer between the direct heat that normally touches the pan and heats up the food.

Eat well!


Posted in Appies & Sides, Healthy, Whole Wheat & Fibertastic | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

It’s Finally Here: Making Pasta! This is How I Roll.

When I was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old, I figured out how to use our family’s VCR (today, that sounds way behind today’s youth!), and the first things that I wanted to tape (after Power Rangers) were cooking shows.

Mom sometimes watched cooking shows on TV (almost as often as The Young and The Restless!), especially Yan Can Cook. The first TV recipe that stood out in my mind, though, and threw the doors of knowledge wide open was on a show called Yvonne’s Kitchen. She was making some artisanal shaped pasta from scratch, with a little pile of flour on her board, with a well in the middle, and some eggs.

“Oh my GAD! I thought. “You can make pasta at home??? Aaaaaaah!!”

People who know me very well recognize that to this day, food is what most often turns me into a giddy, jumping, very tall child. And they’re cool with it.

Until seeing this on TV, I had always thought that pasta came from a box, and for the rest of my life (to this day!), envied all of the little children in Italy who learned to hand-make and roll perfect pasta, and cook everything fresh and from scratch with their mias and nonnas. I know it’s just flour, eggs, and a pinch of salt, but you can make cakes, breads, pastas, crepes, cookies, so many things from these base ingredients, (the possibilities are endless!) and pasta is by far one of my top favourites.

After numerous failed attempts (pasta disasters), all I can say is, grazie dio for the internet, reputable cookbooks, and culinary teachers. I used to pick up freshly laminated (rolled-out) pasta now and then as a treat at the Granville Island Public Market, until one day someone came along and ruined it forever by letting me play with their pasta-rolling machine. It changed my life!

The noodles were thinner, the texture was tender, and learning how easy, fun, and bleeping inexpensive they were to make, meant that I could never buy plain laminated pasta again! Every time we whipped out the pasta rollers in culinary school, I felt like two different version of myself, a gleeful kid on Christmas and a grown woman on fire with love…for food!

My new friend, Atlas. He's Italian.

My brother (Tarek) and sister (Mia) are amazing and gave me a pasta-roller (with fettucine and spaghetti settings!) for my birthday. I’m so happy with it and whenever friends want to get together and cook, I offer to bring it along and share the love.

A coworker from the store (I am back with the team, as a sort of on-call helper!), Angel Cake, celebrated her birthday recently. Her younger sister, Sally Dear (these are not their real names!), loves to bake and their family is like an adorable Kari fan club! A and S’s dad is visiting family abroad, so I came over to make dinner and introduce them to freshly laminated pasta. Yum!

There was a recipe that we were taught in school that uses superfine flour (“00”), another that uses semolina flour, and one that could be substituted with pastry flour, but I did a little math and figured out how an average person who doesn’t have access to pastry flour or Italian specialty ingredients can try it now! After getting their hands on a pasta maker, of course. After this recipe, though, you’ll want to cook it so often that the machine will pay itself off. Delish!

I have to give a special nod to Chef Tony at Northwest Culinary Academy, first, whose care and pride for Italian food helped him develop the original recipe that this was taken from, which is versatile and perfect for lasagna sheets, ravioli, tortellini, cut pasta, and so much more. He has kindly shared it with many students and foodies alike, who hopefully will treat this like the gold that it is! Fingers crossed that this adaptation doesn’t make him cringe.

“Bend It To Your Will!” Pasta Dough
Serves about 5 hungry people

2 tbsp corn starch
1/2 cup plus 6 tbsp all-purpose flour (all together, not separated)*
2 large, whole eggs
1 pinch salt

*Note: You may need a bit more flour, depending on how moist the dough is.

1. Use a fork to whisk all of the dry ingredients together in a bowl, and create a well in the middle.

Chef Christophe said that when I'm on The Food Network I can make this on a counter. Har har, I might still use a glass bowl, like this one, to avoid looking silly and making a mess.

2. Crack the eggs into a small bowl, one by one, and pour into the well. Quarantining each of them first means this doesn’t become egg-shell pasta!

3. Use the fork to puncture the egg yolks, then begin gently stirring near the edges, where the eggs meet the flour, to begin incorporating it, until it’s all mixed together and looks dry and raggedy, with no obvious moisture.

4. Pick up the dough, even all the little bits of dried-up crustiness that sit at the bottom of the bowl, and knead it all together on the counter top. I knead the dough for about 5 minutes, adding flour if needed, to make a dough that is smooth, dense, and a little bit dry.

5. Wrap it in plastic and rest it in the fridge for at least 45 minutes, preferably an hour, which is the perfect time to make pasta sauce if it’s needed.

See? Gold.

6. Unwrap and poke the dough. I usually find that the entire lump is softer and moister (the eggs hydrate everything!), and needs more flour afterward, anywhere around another tablespoon or so. If this is the case, sprinkle a little flour on your hands and the dough, and get to work, gradually kneading it in, folding repeatedly, until it feels about like it did before going in the fridge. Dough that is too moist will catch and tear in your machine, coming out with giant, shreddy holes. It might be advisable to rest the dough again after this, but every time, I’ve taken it straight to the roller machine and had success. I roll out chunks of dough (usually half), rather than the whole thing, because it’s easier than having a big sheet of pasta that is too long to handle, or having to crank out multiple, smaller sheets, and worry about keeping them from drying out. If you want to eat some pasta right away, put a pot of salted water on the stove, now!


7. Cut off a piece of the dough, shape it with your hands into a oval, and give it a lip that is thinner on one side than the other. The thinner end will be fed through the pasta roller, on the loosest setting, usually #1. To make sure that the pasta gets stretched out enough, instead of running it through each number setting once, which can result in pasta that is too thick and chewy, I run it through at least twice. Sometimes as much as three or four times with the earlier numbers, just to get it going.

Fold and smoosh!

8. After running it through the #1 setting, fold it in half, smoosh the double end to make a thinner lip again, and roll it through. You want the dough to trap a little air in there at the end when rolling, so that it pops loudly. At this point, the dough is nice and elastic, and can be moved to the #2 setting.

Trapped air. When it bursts out of the dough, I hear Eddie Murphy yelling "pah!" from Eddie Murphy RAW.

9. Continue rolling out the pasta and pass it through the machine a few more times. When the dough is thinned out a bit more and becomes long enough to do so, I sometimes take the ends of it (while it’s still in the machine) and press them together tightly. This makes a cylinder of dough that will repeatedly pass through the machine while running and stretching over my hands, to make it more uniform, make the ends uniform and usable, and save time from not having to keep bringing it back and running it through. It also means that you get to make pasta with a friend, unless you want to cut multiple sheets and create cylinders with them yourself.

The pasta now has its ends glued together.

10. Gently support the pasta with your hands as it stretches out, while you move through to the thinnest setting. Keep in mind that pasta swells up when you cook it, so unless you want thick, chewy noodles, the goal is to get it thin enough to see your hand, the wood grain, or the marble speckles of the counter/work top through it. The dough’s durability will surprise you!

If you or a friend get bored of turning the handle, think of it as a jack-in-the-box where you get a prize at the end instead of a sock monkey popping out of it.

Keep going...

Make sure not to let it touch the floor when you cut it!

"What should we call it?" "Kari-tine!"

11. When the pasta is rolled out thin enough, you have a ton of choices of what to do next. You can start cutting out rounds or squares for stuffed pasta, or do what I’m about to show and cut it into multiple sheets that are the length you want to fit in a pan, or twirl around a fork when cut into noodles, about a foot long or so. We went for noodles!

12. Either run the sheets through the machine’s cutter, or stack them and fold twice, then cut as wide as you want them to be. To keep layers from sticking to each other, sprinkle them first with semolina flour if you have it, or a light dusting of all-purpose will do. Don’t overload on the AP, though, or the pasta might absorb it and lose its fabulous texture.

What beauty. "My mouth is watering!"

12. Separate the noodles, and give them a light dusting of flour and a gentle scrunching.

13. If the pot of water is boiling, gently lower the pasta in and lower the heat to a simmer. It’s so delicate that you don’t want the giant, rapid bubbles to wreck your hard work!

There's magic happening in there.

14. Normally when cooking fresh pasta, it’s a good idea to have a little test scrap to check for doneness. Because we used everything from this half-batch, we just used the noodles in the pot. And if making pasta that has 2 layers glued together, like ravioli, make sure your testers also have 2 layers! One of the best things about thin, freshly laminated pasta is that it cooks so quickly, in about 5 minutes or less!

Be gentle!

15. When the pasta feels like it’s almost ready, take it out of the water and let it finish cooking in the sauce and absorb the flavours. Be careful while stirring. Putting the sauce on top and folding it around the pasta works all right. Reserve about 1/2 a cup of the pasta water, and use it to thin out the sauce a little if needed, the starch will add creaminess to it.

Enjoying the company of spinach tomato sauce, sausages, parmigiano reggiano, and kale with garlic.

That’s it! This all sounds like a lot of work, but we were able to split some of it and were all having loads of fun. Isn’t that what enjoying good food is all about? After helping to de-seed tomatoes for the sauce (way easier than when working alone!), roll out pasta dough, and cut noodles, the looks on the girls’ faces after the first bite were of pure amazement. We agreed that it was worth all of the effort!

A jar of Classico tomato sauce runs about $5 at Safeway. Comparably, the two giant cans of Italissima tomatoes we used were $4 together, plus a few cents for an onion, some garlic, and olive oil, ending up making at least 2 bottles’ worth of sauce. The eggs for the pasta were about 40 cents, same for the flour, the corn starch and salt were pretty much a writeoff, $1 for spinach, $1 for kale, and the sausages were probably about $4. A healthy, delicious dinner for three, with double the leftovers, so dinner for 6, for less than $2.00 per head. I am dead serious!

Here are a few tips for cooking pasta that the girls asked about while cooking:

* always have a lot of water, so that the pasta has room to move and won’t stick.

* start with cold water, and salt it enough so that it tastes like the sea, or the pasta will be bland.

* don’t put oil in the water, or the sauce won’t stick to the pasta! Unless you’re cooking it aglio e olio (with garlic and oil) afterward, in which case it probably won’t kill it.

Pasta is something very different in North America than in Italy. In Italy, yes, people eat a lot, just like over here, but pasta is usually served in smaller portions. It’s true! I had no idea how people got through seven-course meals without exploding. The logic behind it is that there’s room for a little something special later. If you have an Italian grandma, or a friend with a food blog (there are a lot of us out there!), you can expect to be ambushed with treats on a regular basis. It’s just how we share the love.

Eat well!


Posted in Healthy, Pasta | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bloody Good: Wine-less (and Whineless) Carrot Risotto

In continuation of the last post, about my love for Italian food:

How does one cook a risotto that won’t make Gordon Ramsay want to throw pans in the bin?

The short answer is: By watching it like a hawk unless you’ve done this before.

Below is the longer, more helpful answer.

Firstly, grab a wooden spoon and use a pan that is large enough. Preferably with sides that are about 3 inches high or taller.

Secondly, wear an apron. You will be controlling the heat and the food won’t (shouldn’t!) be spitting everywhere, but I got a lot of little chicken stock-rice starch liquid splatters all over my Banana Republic silk skirt because of stirring too quickly and concentrating too hard on the food. That’s some serious focus!

Stock can go sour on you, so always smell and taste before cooking with it. If you aren’t making the stock, choose a good quality store-bought one  that is not too salty, in the same way that you should only cook with a wine that you would also enjoy drinking because a when nasty wine reduces, the flavour is going to concentrate! I choose low-sodium stocks because more seasoning can always be added at the end. The rice absorbs liquid as it cooks, and if the stock is salty, the rice is only going to be edible for horses, who like both salt and carrots.

Sautéeing the rice before adding stock gives it a nutty, toasty flavour and will make it take a little longer to cook through, but is a deliciously important step.

This is a wine-less risotto (we thought there was a bottle of white kicking around but alas, tragedy). If you’re going to add some to this dish, use about a cup to deglaze the pan before adding stock, and reduce your total stock amount by a cup. And if you’re going to add wine to any dish over heat, do not pour from the bottle! You might kill someone if it flames up and into the bottle, causing it to explode and shoot glass pieces everywhere. You will probably also injure your hand, meaning no cooking for a while. Blood is sometimes used as a thickener when cooking, but I’m pretty sure people don’t want your blood. No offense.

Everyone who likes to cook risotto has their own tips and tricks here and there (someone told me “It takes 18 minutes on the dot!“), but there are a lot of different factors that can affect how things pan out. Taste and texture are what counts at the end, so in the last few minutes, when it’s starting to look closer to readiness, taste every minute or so, then more frequently to check for doneness.

If cooking a risotto with green ingredients, like broccoli florets or asparagus purée, they may be partially cooked beforehand, but should be added closer to the end. Overcooking green ingredients turns them a shade of greeny-gray. Bleh!

Oh, and if you’re adding cheese at the end, watch the salt! Again!

I have to admit that I was excited by the risotto dinner request, but when we were thinking of vegetables and carrots were suggested, I thought, “Carrots?…Okay!” Sometimes being unsure of how something is going to turn out will give you the motivation to rock it.

“Pony Up!” Carrot Risotto
Serves 6 generous side portions for humans, or 1 actual horse’s dinner

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
2 large cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped finely
2 large carrots, scrubbed well and grated
2 cups arborio or carnaroli rice
7 to 8 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable stock (almost 2 1L tetra packs)
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1/3 cup grated parmigiano reggiano or another awesome, strong cheese
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the chicken stock in a covered pot, bring it to a boil, and keep it warm.

2. Pour the olive oil into a large pan and warm over low-medium heat.

3. Add the onion and a small pinch of salt when the oil shimmers, and lightly sauté a few minutes until golden.

4. Add garlic, cook another minute.

5. Add carrots, stirring occasionally until softened.

6. Look at the clock and note what time it is. Add rice, and more oil if needed to coat, and sauté about 5 minutes, stirring almost constantly. Gradually bring the heat up to medium and keep the food moving in the pan so that the garlic doesn’t burn, but the rice has a chance to get nice and toasty, and the carrots and onions turn sweet and caramelized.

7. Add the stock, starting out with 2 cups (if using wine, use 1 cup and 1 cup of stock here), and stir to fully incorporate. It should start simmering like crazy.

8. Stir some more! Once the stock is almost all absorbed and the rice looks creamy, add another cup of stock, and stir occasionally to prevent scorching, sticking, and angry English chefs kicking things.

9. Repeat twice more, and at about 15 or so minutes in, start tasting the rice to check the texture and doneness. It probably needs at least one more cup of stock and a few more minutes on the stove. Did you stir it? Good. Do it again!

10. When you think the risotto is just about done, add butter and cheese and quickly stir them in to melt and fully distribute creamy fabulousness.

11. Check seasoning, hit it with what it needs, serve immediately before it thickens too much, and sit down to enjoy! You deserve it!

Note: If you are a cook and have to make risotto for service from par-cooked rice, always, always, always make sure that the rice isn’t overcooked or it’s all downhill from there. What I hear Gordon Ramsay yelling the most often in Hell’s Kitchen is “Look! Look!!!!!” Because people clearly are not, and that is where the problems begin to snowball. I adore the guy but swear he is going to have a hernia of the brain.

Yes, that is the star of this post, shoved off over to a corner of the plate. It has the tallest pile, though!

The risotto in the picture was a bit creamier and looser but I waited a bit too long to take this photo (and kept piling more on the plate!) so the rice absorbed more of the liquid. Didn’t stop me from eating it, though! It managed to earn lean-back-in-the-chair and sneak-more-while-everyone-else-is-relaxing levels of goodness.

I would definitely make this again and was delightfully surprised at how well the carrots tasted with the cheese. Maybe this summer I will try cooking it with grated zucchini with a hint of basil, and in the winter make a version with some caramelized onion purée, roasted garlic, or roasted butternut squash.

Risotto is not intimidating, once you get the hang of it. The quicker you get out there and stir, the easier it gets, so hop to it! I have to get back to reading Jamie’s Italy and toss that skirt in the laundry. That book is so good that it’s distracting!

Eat well!


Posted in Appies & Sides, Gluten-free, Healthy, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment