Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Building a Better World by Eating Responsibly

I have been paying $5 for a dozen of eggs because the label reads free roaming and am furious with myself because it does not mean "roaming freely out in the open green fields under the beautiful sunshine." Sharing my thoughts with you was a struggle to compose, but a photo recently posted on Instagram sent me on a rampage, questioning the choices I had been making. What is most infuriating is that I thought I had been doing the right thing all along. 

I miss the days when I used to sing "Old MacDonald," then eat steak for dinner, not making the connection between the pretty cow in the book and what was on my plate. 

History repeats itself, because we teach our children the same nursery rhymes from the same classic books that show happy animals on a pretty farm with a red barn amidst green rolling hills. I hear myself telling Daisy that is where milk comes from and where eggs come from. This is the message we were given and the one that we, in turn, pass on to our own children. 

But, that is not the truth. No one wants to talk about the physically and ethically filthy factory farms, huge conglomerates ruling the market. Livestock and birds are packed in huge numbers into ugly, dirty cages or barns and fed garbage. For years, I have been reaching for the organic, free-roaming, wanting to provide the best quality foods for my family. As a bonus, I thought I was supporting an industry committed to safe, humane treatment of the animals that nourish us. 

Accessibility and affordability continue to be a constant challenge. I will no longer be purchasing milk, eggs, cheeses from major supermarkets, despite the labels claiming honesty in sourcing organic goods.

But, even driving out of my way and paying an extra pretty penny does not guarantee a good night's sleep. The FDA defines the labels and has published a document discussing farm animal welfare. However, there is no government agency tasked to enforce standards. Even third-party certification entities fail to audit the very standards they set. Grass-fed does not mean the cow was allowed free reign over the land. It means exactly that - fed grass. Pasture-raised is more expensive, very difficult to find in metropolitan areas and makes no promise that you are getting something from those happy cows dotting the foggy hills of seaside Cambria. It really is hard to know who to trust. 

Then, what is the answer? The extreme approach is to give it all up...eggs, milk, meat, the whole lot. But, this really does not address the issue very well because, the world is filled with products tested on animals and made from animal by-products, some of which are life-saving. 

Medications, sutures, heart valves, buttons, shoes, handbags, briefcases, wallets, watchbands, belts, jackets, chairs, couches, pillows, cleaning products, cosmetics, Jell-O and many more are all made from animal products. Even Cheetos are fried in lard. There is no guarantee the creatures that were sacrificed to make any of these products were treated humanely. 
It is easy for the consumer to feel overwhelmed and powerless, but there is so much a person can do.

Remember that the busy honey bee plays a big part. This hardworking little creature has a profound impact on the livelihood of the planet. Campaigns like Project Pollination lead the way to save the honey bee. Anyone can help just by purchasing a (very cute) T-shirt or going into the garden to plant flowers that attract bees. It is an easy and relaxing way to spend a lazy afternoon. 

Then, treat yourself to a night out on the town. The culinary world has become sophisticated in its approach to supply sourcing. More restaurants proudly announce that they support sustainable farms, offering truly free-range eggs, pasture-raised meats and produce from local farms. Supporting your local farms can be a refreshing change to the old weekend routine. Take the family out for a fun day of apple-picking.

When I was a little girl, my uncle Feri lived in Switzerland. Whenever he or my aunt would visit, we knew we were going to get boatloads of delicious Swiss chocolate. Maybe the chocolate was so good because the milk came from healthy cows roaming the alpine landscape. I grew up thinking that was how all cows were raised. Alpine farm-steading has its own challenges, but is a much better approach to corporate factory farming. 

There are some good resources to help locate quality meat and dairy products. The Humane Society explains food labeling. Watchdog organizations like the Cornucopia Institute maintain scorecards of meat, egg, dairy producers listed by location in neatly organized tables.
The Organic Consumers Association sums everything up nicely and recommends using the Animal Welfare Organization (AWA) search engine to find grocers in your area that carry certified humane productsMore and more families and workplace cafeterias are dedicating at least one day each week to vegetarian cooking, usually with the "Meatless Monday." Make meat an occasional indulgence and splurge with the best quality. Homegrowncow is a great source for a wide variety of pasture-raised meats. 

You know you got the good stuff when you pop the lid open on a dozen eggs and the shells are all different colours. The same farms that offer pasture-raised milk and eggs, also offer my beloved butter and sour cream. Most natural food grocer have everything you need to bake a cake, which is always on my agenda. Tell me your ideas!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Campfire Steak Rub

This is one of those times when I wish you were here or that we had Scratch 'n' Sniff  computer monitors, because this is one damn delicious steak rub. A week and three shampoos later, my hair still smells smoky, but I really do not mind. In fact, I wish someone would hurry up and create a perfume, L'eau du Feu (Scent of Fire). 

Deep in the far crevices of our nature burn the embers of our cave-dwelling ancestors. The concept of cooking meat over an open flame dates back to when fire was first discovered. The caveman eventually evolved into the cowboy who added a gritty cup of coffee brewed in a tin pot right over the campfire. The only thing that has changed since then is really just presentation. Dress it up on a pretty plate and have a man in a tux serve it,  you now have fancy steakhouse fare.

There was a time in my young, bachelorette days when my parrot and I shared a cute apartment with a Dutch door that opened onto a small porch. These were days I could (and would) eat an entire jar of Nutella for breakfast. There was always ribeye marinating in the fridge. It's a wonder how I did not have a heart attack by the time I turned 30. Nowadays, steaks are an occasional treat. As more health-conscious consumers committed to eating responsibly, more of us avoid large-scale meats at the supermarket in favour of the certified humane, grass-fed varieties.

One early summer evening, we city slickers decided to pretend to be cowboys, even for just a few hours in our own backyard.

You cannot beat camping with all the comforts of home and the best part is we did not have to lug anything around. I must admit, though, that I did miss the night sky dotted with infinite twinkling stars, the smell of pine trees, the gurgling of a nearby stream, but we were lucky to hear the crickets chirping and Daisy giggling.

Shawn set up a tent and manned the fire pit. Daisy was in charge of entertainment, as she always is. The menu was assigned to me and, since life is uncertain, dessert placed first in the plans. S'mores, of course. Next, I had to think about dinner, which called for simple cowboy grub of steaks, taters and corn.
Campfire cooking is not easy because the heat distribution is uneven, but great smoky flavour is a guarantee.

Ribeye is naturally delicious. The marbling adds flavour and keeps the meat juicy while it cooks. It really just needs a light sprinkling of salt and pepper, but I had been in an experimental mood. The indoor version came first, on a rainy night.  A paste of butter, garlic, parsley, lemon and Aleppo pepper with a touch of sweet honey made for a more interesting venue. With its sexy cut fries, it looked considerably more polished than its rough + tumble outdoor cousin, but looks aren't everything. The taste of steaks cooked on a fire is undeniably better.

After that first bite, you will instantly turn vegetarian, because you will never, not ever want to eat steak unless it is cooked on an open fire. This is a big claim, but I stand by my word. The Aleppo pepper adds a mild bite and delicious earthy flavour. The honey develops a glossy glaze around the meat and keeps the moisture in place. 

There really isn't much of a recipe here. Just mash everything together, rub all over the steaks, then toss them onto the fire. A simple formula anyone can follow and a taste everyone will enjoy. 

There was so much going on in our backyard that night. Daisy and Milou ran in and out of the tent, bouncing up and down on the air mattress. Then, before the sun went down, there were bedtime stories in the hammock with Daddy. Marshmallows roasted over that crackling fire made for a sweet finish.

Camping in your own backyard does not qualify as "roughin' it," but, with a toddler, there are always surprises. Daisy had a blast, playing all evening with Milou, running in and out of the tent, jumping up and down on the mattresses. When the sun disappeared, everything changed. She was too frightened to sleep in the dark, despite the numerous flashlights and LED candles we set up for her. So, Shawn and Milou got to enjoy sleeping outdoors, while we girls walked a few steps into the house and retired for the evening. Good thing we had not hauled house and home miles away into the woods.

That fire pit could finally be scratched off of my wish list. We had arrived at an evening long anticipated. The warm glow of the fire against blue twilight made for a most memorable family night. Those honey-glazed smoky steaks were unspeakably delicious. And once you try them for yourself, the Caveman region of your brain will light up like a Christmas tree. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Afghani Rice (Kabuli Pulao)

There is a story behind every recipe, like Kabuli Pulao which is the famous specialty from its namesake Afghani capital. A colourful dish teeming with fragrant Eastern spices, traditionally made with lamb that is hidden between layers of rice and crowned with sweet carrots and raisins. I had this for the first time in Manhattan where I would spend summers with my grandmother, visiting her sister. I had forgotten all about it until recently when my parents treated us to their newfound favourite eatery. Every bite took me back to those sunny days in New York City and cast my search for the perfect recipe.

The Afghan palate mediates between cuisines of its neighbours. More tame than Indian food, every mouthful bursts with vibrant flavours akin to Persian food. Cooking basics are also surprisingly similar. Kabuli polo begins with meat cooked in boiling water, skimming the froth that forms on top. The precious broth is reserved for use in cooking the rice. While the meat is cooking, onions are sautéed, then a generous amount of garlic.

Once everything is assembled into the pot, a clean tea towel wrapped around the lid collects the excess steam to ensure the rice stays fluffy. This is how Mom, like both my grandmothers before her, cooks and she has never been to Afghanistan.

I have tried various recipes and this is my favourite because it is based on one from a home chef. There is something most unusual about it in that it incorporates a caramel, much like that used for creme caramel. I'll admit I wasn't too sure about this at first, but after I tasted the rice, I was convinced it was necessary.

The garam masala is very simple, composed of only four ingredients. We have a $20 coffee grinder that we use only for grinding spices. I like toasting whole spices to bring out their oils before grinding them. Fresh bay leaves are especially fragrant. We have a small potted laurel plant on our back porch. So I don't even buy dried bay leaves anymore.

Typical of Middle Eastern dishes, Kabuli Pulao does take a bit of time to prepare. Beat the clock by preparing the meat and broth beforehand and even freezing some for future use. This dish is lovely with lamb, chicken or beef and, I dare say, possibly even shrimp.  Do not let the long recipe instructions intimidate you. Read through the recipe once or twice so you get the idea. There is no special culinary experience necessary here, just a bit of patience and a hearty appetite. This is a dish well worth trying at home, especially because Afghan restaurants are a rare find.  Who says you can't have an exotic feast on a weeknight?

Afghani Rice (Kabuli Pulao)
Based on Haseeb Miazed's Recipe
Serves 6


2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
6 cups water
4 tsp garam masala 
(= 4 bay leaves + 1/2 tsp whole cloves + 1" cinnamon stick 1 tsp cardamom seeds)
3 Tb olive oil
2 medium onions
4 cloves garlic
2 cups brown basmati rice
5 Tb sugar
2 tsp cardamom
big pinch salt
1/2 stick butter
2 potatoes, cubed


Place chicken into a deep nonstick pot, add enough water to cover the chicken (about 6 cups),
put the lid on and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes.
Skim the froth and discard the foam that forms over the broth.

To make the garam masala, add cinnamon, cloves and cardamom to a small dry pan
and toast for a few minutes over medium heat.
Transfer to the grinder, add bay leaves and blitz to a powder.

Mince the garlic and set aside.
Set a pan over medium-high heat, drizzle olive oil into the pan.
Chop onions and sauté until golden brown.
Add garlic and fry another 2 minutes.

Measure sugar into a small sauce pan and set onto medium heat.
Swirl the pan occasionally until sugar melts and darkens to a deep caramel
colour. Be careful as it tends to burn very quickly at this stage.
Add 2 teaspoons of garam masala, 1 teaspoon of cardamom, 1 cup of
the chicken broth and a generous pinch of salt.
Bring to a boil, then reduce to a very low flame.
Continue cooking another 10 minutes.

Peel and chop potatoes into small cubes.
Transfer to a bowl and cover with cold water until ready to use.

Remove chicken from the pot and set aside.
Add rice to the chicken broth.
Add sautéed onion and garlic, stir gently, put the lid on and bring to a boil.
Once boiling, reduce heat and cook another 10 minutes.

Peel and slice carrots.
Add a dab of butter to the pan and set onto medium heat.
Add carrots, raisins, a pinch of cardamom and a teaspoon of sugar.
Stir and cook until carrots are glossy.

Brown a couple of tablespoons of butter in a small pot.
Be careful not to burn the butter.

Remove lid from pot, gently transfer rice to a bowl and set aside.
Drain the potatoes, drizzle some olive oil over the bottom
of the pot, arrange potato cubes, season with salt and

Return half of the rice to the pot over the potatoes.
Arrange chicken over rice.
Top with the rest of the rice.

Pour hot sugar and spice broth over the chicken and rice.
Tilt the carrots and raisins from the pan on top.

Sprinkle another pinch of garam masala, cardamom and salt.
Pour brown butter on top.

Place clean tea towel over top of the pot, put the lid on so that
it's snug, and tuck the ends of the tea towel up, toward the top of
the lid.
Reduce the heat to a very, very low flame and steam for another
20 minutes.

To serve, lift the lid, gently remove carrots and raisins and set aside.
Place a large serving platter over the pot.
Using oven mitts to protect your hands, hold the platter in place and
flip the pot onto the platter so that the potatoes are on top.
Carefully lift the pot off of the rice.

Garnish the top with the carrots and raisins.
Serve with yogurt, fresh salad and Indian lime pickle.

Finding beauty in everyday things, including necessities, is the secret to happiness. This is not to say that you'll ever find me whistling a fine tune and dancing to the beat when folding the laundry. In fact, there is a mountain of laundry resting on top of our foosball table as we speak. Daisy is lucky to be too young to be expected to partake in the joy of this chore. Both Shawn and I will find every excuse to avoid it, like mowing the lawn or making complicated foreign dishes.

Food shouldn't just be for nourishment. It should also set the scene for relaxing in good company with a meal that delights the senses. Every sweet spoonful of cardamom-scented Kabuli Pulao will convince you of that, although paying attention to the conversation may prove a bit of a challenge.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lemon-Soaked Poppyseed Cake with Champagne Crème

Armenian hospitality calls for a table overflowing with treats. Whenever I am planning a menu, my sister's voice resonates in my head, "Don't test recipes just before your guests arrive." Fortunately, we live within walking distance of excellent bakeries. Yet, I insist on making things myself. Baking is so relaxing. I am forever looking for a reason to bake. Sometimes I even invent an excuse.

Luckily, we had foodie guests coming to visit. I asked for a favourite cake idea, expecting to hear chocolate cake. Then this happened...Lemon poppyseed with champagne custard filling and real whipped cream frosting dusted with lemon zest!!!

Suddenly, the air around me stood still and I could not breathe.  Champagne custard? Both stunned and impressed, I cursed myself for a moment, then came to my senses and started thinking hard. The bad news was I had never even tasted champagne custard. The good news was that I knew my bubbly and still had plenty of time.

Some serious  testing had to take place. Wasting good champagne on a questionable venture could summon a mob of angry wine aficionados to our door, because the good stuff is reserved for savoring in sips, NOT MAKING FROSTING. On the other hand, there is no such thing as "cooking wine" in our pantry. If it is not good enough to drink, it has no place in my pot or pan. There had to be a trusted recipe that I could test with moderately nice champagne without offending the global wine community. So, I waited for the resident champagne connoisseur (aka my hubs, Shawn) to leave town on business and got right to work.*

Since our guests are well-traveled, this cake must have been the brain child of a young pastry chef at a fancy restaurant/hotel on the East Coast, no doubt. After scouring every corner of the www, nothing turned up. So I hit the books. We have a LOT of cookbooks, none of which, not even my treasured Parisian bakery one mentions a word about champagne custard. So, I called the expert. Mom to the rescue!

Every day, at 10 am, I call my parents for a quick hello. 10 am is traditionally the time for Armenian coffee at our household. Today's order of business was this recipe. Mom suggested revamping one of her trusty napoleon cremes to fit the bill. 

Baking is an exact science and carries a challenge in that you cannot sample and adjust the taste the way you can savory dishes. Even with a solid recipe, things can go wrong and you will not know that until you have already placed that first slice in front of your guest. Or course, any excuse to bake is a good excuse to bake.

Phase I of the test resulted in a moist, lemony cake that went to the office. The custard was a cheater's delight, just instant vanilla pudding bloomed with cold milk, topped with homemade whipped cream, lemon zest and fresh blackberries. The secret to its success may have been the simple syrup made with the lemon juice and sugar, brushed over each layer. Cake #1 left everyone smiling and humming for the rest of the day.

Phase II entailed creating the champagne custard from scratch, which was oddly a bit intimidating. Armed with two of my mom's vanilla custard recipes and a bottle of lovely Sofia, I knew I had a winner. The result was an airy cake wrapped in lemony fragrance, creamy layers, crowned with a pillow of fresh whipped cream, as pretty to look at as it was a reward to eat. Our guests agreed. Little Miss Daisy could not stop eating it and even Shawn, who is normally not very vocal about my baking, would not let me give the leftovers away and, instead, resorted to more frequent 100-mile bike rides.

The instructions look lengthy, but are designed to maximize your time if you intend to make everything at once. This recipe can easily be done in stages. The custard and lemon syrup can be made the night before. There are two choices for the custard: Decide whether you have the time to make the it from scratch (#1 needs about 15 minutes) or need to take the quick route (#2 needs about 15 seconds).

This recipe makes 2 round 9-inch cakes, which can also be made ahead of time, but be sure to keep them under cover to retain their moisture. Use a sheet of parchment paper to separate the two until you are ready for the final assembly of the 4-layer cake. 
Read through the recipe to get a better feel for what to do. This isn't rocket science. I have already made this cake twice in the last week and plan to make one for my parents tonight!

Lemon-Soaked Poppyseed Cake with Champagne Crème
Note: Stevia is a natural sugar substitute for your diabetic guests. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar. So a little goes a long way. Adjustments are provided in the recipe in case you would like to use it in place of sugar.

Inspired by Billy Derian

Serves 8


1 cup  milk
1/2 stick butter
4 whole grade A free-range eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar (or 1 1/2 tsp stevia)
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
2 tsp poppy seeds

Custard Choices:

#1 From-scratch                                                                        #2 Cheat's 
Ingredients:                                                                                 Ingredients:
2 eggs                                                                                        1 3.4 oz box instant vanilla pudding
1 cup sugar (or 1 tsp stevia)                                                        2 1/2 cups milk
1 cup flour                                                                                  1 tsp lemon zest
3 cups milk                                                                                 1/4 cup champagne (Sofia)
1 tsp lemon zest

1/3 champagne (Sofia)


1 lemon
2 Tb sugar (1/2 pinch stevia)

2 cups heavy cream
1 lemon


Grease and flour two 9" round cake pans.
Heat milk + butter in a small pot on low heat. 
After the butter has melted, remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 325*F.

Beat eggs in stand mixer with paddle for 4 minutes.  Set the kitchen timer to 4 minutes.
Sift flour, baking powder & salt together into a clean bowl. Set aside.
Reset the timer for another 4 minutes and add sugar. Beat until creamy.

Add the sifted dry ingredients a bit at a time and mix just long enough to incorporate.
Add cooled milk and butter mixture, then the poppy seeds.
Divide batter between the two prepared cake pans and pop into the warm oven.

Bake until fragrant, maybe 35 minutes. 

While the cake is baking, make the lemon syrup.
Grate the zest of one lemon. Reserve for use later.
Juice the lemon into a small pot. 
Add 2 Tb sugar, heat on low just until sugar is melted.
Set aside to cool.


#1 Instructions:                                                                            #2 Instructions:

Beat eggs, add sugar.                                                                   Mix all until well combined.    

Add flour and mix gently.                                                              Cover and chill.

Incorporate milk and zest.

Transfer to stove and cook on medium-high heat, stirring constantly, 

until thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.

Cool to room temp.

Cover and chill 2 hours.

Remove from fridge and add champagne. 

Stir until well incorporated.
Cover and return to fridge until ready to assemble the cake.

Remove cakes from oven.
Insert a clean toothpick into the center of each cake. 
If the toothpick comes out clean, the cake is ready.
Remove from oven and allow the cakes to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes.
Then, turn them onto a metal rack to finish cooling.

Using the stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip heavy cream until stiff peaks form.

Slice cooled cakes in half horizontally. 

Place one layer of the cake onto a pretty plate. 
Brush the top with lemon syrup.
Spread about a 1/3 of the custard over the cake,  and set another layer of cake on top.
Repeat syrup and custard process until the last cake layer is placed on top.

Brush the top layer of cake with lemon syrup.

Spoon dollops of the whipped cream over it and spread to create a wavy pattern.
Sprinkle the remaining lemon zest over the whipped cream.
Cover and transfer to fridge until ready to serve.

Peaches and berries would be right at home here. Tuck them in between the layers, arrange them over the whipped cream on top or just offer them as a side. Celebrate the flavours of summer with this light and luscious treat. But, in case you end up hiding in the closet with the whole thing, do try to find a way to forgive yourself for not wanting to share.

*Honey, I assure you there is no need to panic. No Veuve Clicquot or Moet was harmed in the making of this cake. Only several glasses of Sofia were sacrificed, but since the results were stellar, it was no loss in the end.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cottage Panzanella

Sometimes, the best of part of the meal is the fresh bread, but day-old bread is usually not welcome at the table. Throughout culinary history, some inventive ways have been devised to save dry, stale bread from the bin. The French  deserve credit for the cute, crunchy little croutons that are the star of  a classic onion soup. Middle Easterners save pita by toasting it, then breaking it up over a fresh, lemony Fattoush salad. The Italians do it with Panzanella.

A mad mob of French breadmakers will be quite disappointed to know that I have sacrificed many a half-loaf of freshly baked baguette the second day. What makes baguette an irresistible bread, even for someone like me who usually finds other things more appealing at the dinner table, is the beautiful delicate crunch of the outer crust and the billowy soft center. The next day, one of two things will happen. If the baguette is left open air, it will transform into a brick, best suited as a self-defense weapon.  If stored in a plastic bag, it turns into a spongy soft bread, which does not sound all that bad, except that crunchy crust is gone.

Day-old bread serves best torn right over the fresh Panzanella where it soaks up the dressing and all the delicious juices from the vegetables.  This rustic salad is so quick to make and so lip-smackin' delicious that I have already made it THREE times in the last 2 days! It's peculiar, really, that I had never thought to try it before. As I was running down Andrea's list for July's Cottage recipes, my eyes screeched to a halt at Panzanella. It was finally time for me to make it.

Here, day-old bread has never been in better company. The cool crunch from the Persian cucumbers, the briny capers and kalamatas, creamy, salty feta cheese, sweet little cherry tomatoes, fragrant basil and slight punch from the shallots all get a turn to take center stage. The bread soaks up the fruity olive oil and tangy lime juice along with hints from all the other ingredients. 

I cannot seem to get sick of this salad and have an unavoidable urge to finish whatever is left in that bowl. All this talk about Panzanella made me so hungry that I could not stop thinking about it. So I just ran to the fridge to grab what little leftovers we have to munch on while writing to you. It certainly helps that I'm married to Farmer Shawn and enjoy homegrown tomatoes. They taste like sweet candy right off the vine. The basil is also from our garden. Invest in quality ingredients. Try different brands until you find the ones you like best. Al Wazir is our olive oil and Valbresso is our favourite feta cheese.

Cottage Panzanella
Inspired by River Cottage Veg

Serves 6

1 lime
1/3 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil
Freshly cracked black pepper
2 good handfuls of vine-ripened cherry tomatoes
2 Persian cucumbers
1/2 a loaf day-old baguette
10 pitted kalamata olives
1/2 a small shallot
1 1/2 tsp capers, rinsed
handful basil leaves
2 Tb crumbled feta

Wash cucumbers and tomatoes.
Rinse basil leaves under cold water, set aside to air-dry.

In a big bowl, grate the zest of the lime, extract its juice,
drizzle olive oil, sprinkle black pepper.
Use a fork to blend dressing until it thickens to an opaque lemon-yellow sauce.

Slice cucumbers and tomatoes into the bowl.
Very thinly slice the shallot and add about 1 Tb to the bowl.
Add the capers and olives.
Tear basil and bread over the lot.
Use two spoons to toss gently.

Thanks to Andrea for suggesting this one, many a half-loaf of baguette has been saved from the bin in a mouth-watering combination of signature Mediterranean flavours. Once again, I have strayed from Hugh's instructions a bit and embellished with a few variations. I assure you the results are fabulous and if I have lucky enough to find Hugh reading this post one day, I hope he will taste it and smile with approval.

One bite will have you convinced this is what you want for dinner on any summer night. So light and refreshing, yet hearty and satisfying, rustic Panzanella features all the elements of a classic time-tested salad. What will surprise you most is seeing everyone fighting over those odd-shaped chunks of stale bread.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Cocktail Hour: Sweet Minty Mood Lifter

The Mood Lifter. It's my latest invention. If Mojito married Amaretto, this is what their baby would be. What do you do when your mom gets you a Nutribullet? Make a cocktail. What else? A minty, citrusy, slushy concoction that gives Margarita a run for her money. A sheer delight. Smoother, milder than the traditional mojito, the sweet undertones of this sassy little number make it quite sink-into-your-seat-and-say-ahhhh good.

Now, I want it to be known that I am not a qualified bartender, nor do I have a history degree specializing in the evolution of alcoholic beverages. I just know what I like. When we are out for a fancy dinner, if I order a cocktail, it's always the mojito. So crisp and refreshing with a hint of pirate adventure,  the ones my hubby makes for me at home top my list. Shawn makes the best ones I have ever tasted. A close second is the mojito I had at the snazzy lounge bar of our hotel in Florence years ago when we were honeymooning in Italy.

One of the best things about living in an Armenian neighbourhood is easy access to good quality fresh herbs. Spearmint is the leafy green you want for this sassy li'l number. A word of warning to those of you inclined to grow this stuff in your home garden: Beware that mint is a hearty plant that literally invades like a weed. Be sure to keep it confined to a pot.

Mood Lifter
Fills 4 martini glasses

fresh mint, good handful
3 shots Amaretto di Sarono
2 jigs Rose's Lime Concentrate
1 cup Limeade
1 orange, juice only
1 lime, juice only
handful ice
4 pretty sprigs of mint for garnish

Chill martini glasses in the fridge maybe an hour ahead.

Wash mint and lay onto a clean tea towel to air-dry.
Juice an orange and a lime into the pitcher of a blender.
Add the mint, Amaretto, lime concentrate, limeade and ice.
Give it a good blitz until just slushy.
Divide among 4 sparkly martini glasses and garnish with a pretty sprig of mint.

Because it is made with fresh leafy greens and antioxidant-rich citrus, technically this is a cocktail that is somewhat, in a way, perhaps good for you. Amaretto smooths the rough edges of traditional mojito into this velvety drink that is a delight to sip, although so delicious that gulping it all in one breath may not be avoidable.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blooming Kale Strawberry Salad

The culinary bandwagon rolled by several times, but I am still driving a VW. These days, there are so many creative food items that have been brought into the limelight, cast as super foods, that it can be somewhat overwhelming, especially for those of us who like to keep things simple. My generation saw chia seeds sprouted as tacky mini clay figurines, not praised as a dietary supplement. Millet is a tempting snack for my pet bird and kombucha, hell, if I face-planted into one, I would never even know it. 

Enter the Kale Phenomenon. This rough-and-tough leafy green would do better as an ornamental plant in my garden rather than gracing my dinner plate. So I thought, til I tasted it. Even I can bend to the big waves which have been boasting its exceptional nutritional attributes. Throw some parmesan and strawberries into the mix and I'll eat anything. 

As a bonus, there is a purple blooming variety with the added benefit of rich polyphenol antioxidants. I not a registered dietitian and so am more impressed with its stunning beauty. Composed as a colourful salad, its deep, bright purple hue, graceful curls tinted in green and interesting veining mimic the vivid world of marine life. Luckily, this beauty does not seem to mind my awkward stares.

A salad is indeed the best way to showcase this leafy blossom. Fresh strawberries, Asian pears, dried tart cherries all dove into the big bowl, bathed in fresh lime juice and a touch of balsamic vinegar, finished with snowy blanket of finely grated parmesan. 

Purple Kale Strawberry Salad
Serves 4

1 head of flowering purple kale
10 strawberries
1 Asian pear
1/4 dried pitted tart cherries
1 lime, juiced
1 Tb balsamic vinegar
4 Tb grated parmesan
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
pinch of salt

Juice the lime.
Wash and rinse the kale and pear.
Slice the pear, chop the kale and drizzle lime juice over the pear.
Season with salt and pepper.
Add dried cherries.
Drizzle balsamic vinegar over the fruits and give them a gentle toss.

Just before serving,
wash and slice strawberries. 
Add to the salad, sprinkle grated parmesan on top.

Healthy is tasty and beautiful in this innovative salad. All flavours are in order: Salty, sweet, tart. The textures are so interesting with the rough chewy purple kale, crunchy pear, juicy strawberries and gummy cherries and nothing is missed. It pairs well with grilled fish, crusty bread and a full-bodied red. Looking at this beautiful bowl fills my mind with visions of sea kelp swaying to the waves, bright starfish glistening in the sunlight that pierces the water and ornamental coral gracing the reef.