February 25, 2010

Sunday Night Dinner with Rich - The Tortilla Book Edition (la sopa de tortillas)

We are lucky to live in a multicultural city.  Want Ethiopian food? No problem.  Korean, Thai, Afghan, Cambodian? We've got it. From Argentinian steak to Ukrainian perogies, Toronto has it all.  Our neighbourhood is experiencing an interesting evolution.  Once the heart of the city's original Little Italy, the area has been home to as many Jamaicans as Italians, giving rise to the moniker "Rasta Pasta". 

Of late, though, there's a decidely Latin flavour in the air.  Imperial Fruit Market, run by a very nice Asian man, sells epazote and five kinds of chiles. Tiny shops specialise in Latin music and DVDs.  Within several blocks, there are countless Latin cafes and restaurants, from Mexicano Grill and El Ranchenita Asa Dos to Dona Luz Pancho Villa and Motivos Latin Bar-Club. 

This boded well for this week's Sunday Night Dinner series - a meal cooked from Diana Kennedy's The Tortilla Book.  Not counting a tortilla press amongst my many kitchen gadgets, we were on the hunt for fresh corn tortillas and found them at La Tortilleria.  Hot, fresh, completely delicious and inexpensive (less than $3 for 20 freshly made tortillas), La Tortilleria promised to form the foundation for an authentic Mexican sopa.

The menu was simple: Tortilla and Black Bean Soup, followed by Baked Shrimp Tacos and a simple green salad.  Note to self: these are the types of recipes that are like layers of an onion; the list of ingredients are recipes unto themselves (eg. Prepared Sour Cream, see pg 27; ½ lb cooked black beans, see pg 18).  A little Patron to start the meal, some Negra Modelo cerveza to accompany the eats, and a Mexican fiesta is well underway.

Truth be told, I have never bought fresh tortillas before.  It seems I've eaten them in every permutation, from crispy chips and shells to soft rolls.  In making this meal, we prepped them a number of ways: into thin crispy strips for the soup, fried very lightly for the tacos, and then rolled and baked with a rich tomato sauce.  But even just plain, these tortillas were simply delicious.

What I loved most about making this meal was buying ingredients I seldom use, or never heard of before, like epazote. It was also fun to have enough beans left over from the soup to make refried beans - the real deal - and freeze them. 

Pot Beans*
from The Tortilla Book by Diana Kennedy

1 lb. black beans
10 to 12 c. cold water
2 tbsp lard or peanut oil
¼ medium onion, roughly chopped
1 tbsp salt, or to taste
2 sprigs epazote (optional; I used dried epazote)

1. Cover the beans with the water, add the lard and onion, and bring to a boil. 

2.  Cover the pan and simmer until the skins are soft and breaking open, about 1½ to 2 hours.

3.  Add the salt and epazote and simmer for another 45 minutes.  The beans should be soft, almost mushy, and there should be plenty of broth.

*To make refried beans, use about half the quantity of beans and broth from the Pot Beans recipe (beans and broth measuring about 4 cups). Blend the beans and broth in batches in a blender until you have a rough puree.  Set aside.  Heat 5 tbsp. lard or vegetable oil and fry ½ onion, roughly chopped, until the onion is soft (do not brown).  Add the bean puree, a bit at a time, cooking over medium high heat, until the beans start to dry out to a thick consistency.  Be sure to scarpe the crusty bits into the beans until well incorporated.  The beans are now ready to use, or can also be frozen.

Tortilla and Black Bean Soup
from The Tortilla Book, by Diana Kennedy 
makes 6 servings

6 oz. bacon
2 c. cooked black beans
2 c. + 2 c. broth from cooking the beans (or use a combination of chicken broth and water)
¼ medium onion, roughly chopped
4 whole chiles serrano
2 sprigs epazote (or 1 tbsp dried)
Peanut oil for frying
9 stale tortillas, cut into thin strips
6 tbsp finely grated Romano or Sardo cheese

1.  Cut the bacon into very small pieces, and cook over low heat in a large heavy saucepan until the fat renders out (do not brown)

2.  In a blender, blend the beans with 2 cups of the broth and the onion until smooth

3.  Add the bean puree and the whole chiles to the bacon in the pan, cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about 8 minutes.

4.  Add the remaining 2 cups broth and the epazote, and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to a bare minimum to keep soup warm.

5.  Pour peanut oil in a frying pan to a depth of ½ inch and heat.  Fry the tortilla strips , one third at a time, until they are stiff but not brown.  Drain well and add to the soup.*

6.  Simmer the soup for 5 minutes, then serve garnished with the cheese. 

If not serving all of the soup at once, add only some of the tortilla strips.  The soup base can be made ahead and frozen; add tortilla strips when the soup is thawed and reheated.

February 19, 2010

Go Bananas - Cranberry-Banana Quick Bread

I love quick breads.  The kind that use up random ingredients, that don't require hours of rising time and that can be made on the spur of the moment.  I especially love banana bread, because that moment  of optimal ripeness for a banana is so fleeting.  All too quickly, it seems, the yellow becomes brown, the skin beginning to wizen and pucker.  If time and patience permit, let the bananas be.  Let them go until they are deep coffee brown, barely recognisable.  Remember that half bag of cranberries you threw in the freezer?  Take them out and let's begin.

Cranberry-Banana Quick Bread*
makes one large loaf, or two medium size loaves

1½ c. all purpose flour
1¼  tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 c. frozen cranberries, plus a handful more (can use fresh)
2 very ripe bananas, mashed
½ c. sugar
¼ c. vegetable oil
1 large egg, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla

1.  Preheat oven to 350°F.  Spray a 9" x 5" loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray. You can also use two 8" x 4" pans to make two loaves.

2.  In a medium bowl, sift flour, baking powder and baking soda.  Stir in 1 cup of cranberries.

3.  In another medium bowl, whisk remaining ingredients together until smooth.  With a wooden spoon, stir dry ingredients into banana mixture until just blended. 

4.  Scrape evenly into prepared pan(s).  Take the reserved cranberries and stud the top of the batter with them.  Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.

5.  While the bread is cooling completely, put a kettle on for some soothing tea and put on your favourite CD.  Cut a generous slice or two, curl up on the couch and enjoy!

*The recipe can easily be doubled.  Either that or throw those brown bananas in the freezer for future baking

February 15, 2010

Butter Me Up - Fresh Homemade Butter

Fresh creamy butter. Preferably unsalted, or with a soupçon to bring the rich flavour to life. Spread over hot hot hot toast, just the right shade of brown and satisfyingly thick. Each bite an audible crunch, crumbs flying everywhere but on the plate. Is there anything more gloriously simple than homemade butter?

I have been inspired of late to try my hand at making things that I used to buy off the shelf.  Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle is chock full of inspiration for everything from cheese making to raising chickens. And while I have yet to make yogurt,  Daniel Patterson's journey to make fresh butter seemed too easy to ignore.  

Fresh Homemade Butter
yields about 2 lbs of butter, plus approx 2 cups of buttermilk

Start with 6 cups of high quality organic 35% cream.  I use  Harmony Organic, a local producer whose cream is so thick that there's always a big dollop at the top of the bottle.

Put the cream in a bowl for a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap.  Whip on speed 6 for a Kitchen Aid mixer (or medium high), for 10 to 15 minutes. 

As the cream passes the "whipped" state, it will start to separate and form liquid. At the point where liquid from the bowl starts splashing against the plastic wrap, and the cream becomes pale yellow and pebbly, turn off the mixer - you're almost done.

Strain the solids, catching the liquid in a bowl, and leave them in the strainer. That liquid is fresh buttermilk! Get out your favourite scone or soup recipe.   Restrain the buttermilk with a fine mesh sieve and set it aside.  You'll add more to this cache of rich goodness in a few minutes.


Knead the solids over a bowl, expelling and capturing any remaining liquid.  Continue kneading, for about five minutes, or until the butter is dense, creamy and smooth.  If you prefer salted butter, at this stage, add a ½ tsp of fine sea salt, and knead until incorporated throughout.  Strain the remaining liquid through a fine mesh sieve and add to your reserved buttermilk cache.  Place the buttermilk in a clean container and pop it in the fridge to get icy cold.

Smooth the butter into a container with an airtight lid.  And there you have it - simple, delicious butter, ready to be used and enjoyed. 

It gives a whole new meaning to whipping something up in the kitchen...

February 12, 2010

Nutty about Nutella - Zucchini Nutella Bread

I know, I know, I'm late.  The foodie blogosphere has been rife with Nutella recipes, in celebration of World Nutella Day (yes, really). I spread the gospel according to Ferraro and bought everyone at the office a jar of Nutella on February 5 to honour the day. 

And of course I rifled through the dozens of recipes on the official World Nutella Day site. It's been years since I bought Nutella, and truth be told, the easiest recipe I know is: take spoon; dip in jar; lick. To get a little more complex, one can also peel a banana and spread copious amounts of Nutella on that.

I’ve progressed on the culinary front since those days, and so I thought I’d try something new. A recipe for chocolate zucchini bread caught my eye, and it seemed like a good cross between delicious and nutritious. I dug out my own tattered recipe card with my zucchini bread recipe, compared notes and came up with this creation.  I may be late for World Nutella Day, but this would make a pretty spiffy Valentine's Day breakfast on Sunday morning...

Liz’s Zucchini Nutella Bread
makes two loaves

3 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tbsp cinnamon
3 eggs
1½ cup granulated sugar
1 c. vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla
2 cups shredded zucchini
1 tbsp grated lemon zest (use Meyer lemons if available)
½ cup (or more) Nutella chocolate chips (see Notes)
⅓ cup toasted hazelnuts, chopped (see Notes)
6 tsp Nutella

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon and set aside. Grate the zucchini and set aside.

3. Beat eggs lightly in a large bowl; stir in sugar, oil, zucchini, lemon rind and vanilla.

4. Using a wooden spoon, fold in flour mixture until just combined. Stir in hazelnuts.

5. Divide batter between 2 greased loaf pans. Push several Nutella chips into the batter randomly (see Note).  Place 3 tsp of Nutella on top of the batter in each pan, and swirl across the top with a fork. Place into a 350 degree oven.

8. Bake for 50-60 minutes until top is spring and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool before slicing.


Nutella Chocolate Chips: No, you haven’t missed a newsflash. Nutella doesn’t make chocolate chips. But I wanted that creamy Nutella taste throughout the bread and not just on top. So I put dabs of Nutella on waxed paper on a baking sheet, popped the sheet into the oven until I needed them and – voila – Nutella "chocolate chips"!

Hazelnuts: Toasting hazelnuts is not a straightforward thing.  It's made complicated by the fact that you need to rub the skins off after toasting, and that isn't always easy. You may need to toast more than you'll need; depending on the freshness of the nuts, the skins can be pesky, but don't give up!

Variation: Zucchini Walnut Bread with Pineapple
makes two loaves

Follow the recipe above and substitute ½ c. coarsely chopped walnuts instead of the hazelnuts.  Add one can of drained crushed pineapple and stir gently just before transferring batter to the pans. This recipe does not use Nutella.

If all else fails, you don't need a recipe to grab a spoon…

February 09, 2010

Tools of the Trade - The Spurtle


I'm a late bloomer when it comes to oatmeal.  Funny thing that - I love all things creamy.  Rice pudding, tapioca and my childhood favourite -
Cream of Wheat.

That's what I had when everyone else at the table was eating polenta, which I decidedly didn't like.  It was one of the few eating quirks I had and so my mother obliged.  Made easier by the fact that my sister didn't - and still won't - eat red tomatoes or garlic.  It was way more complicated for my mother to make lasagna, gnocchi and pizza without tomato sauce than it was for her to make up a pot of Cream of Wheat for me.  I never imagined Cream of Wheat with brown sugar instead of the parmigiano cheese I so generously sprinkled into my bowl.  So naturally oatmeal, Cream of Wheat’s first cousin, never struck me as being particularly breakfast-like.  

And then I discovered steel cut oats.  They were Cream of Wheat with a crunch.  Nutty, delicious and healthy to boot.

McCann’s became an instant staple in the kitchen.  I've already shared my recipe for overnight steel cut oatmeal with apples, but when the weekend rolls around, I don't mind spending the 30 minutes or so it takes to stir up a freshly made pot of oatmeal.

The fundamental challenge with steel cut oats is the "stick" factor.  No matter how low the heat, or how constant the stirring, there always seems to be a tipping point when the bottom of the pot becomes a mess 'o oats.  Enter the spurtle.
Dating from the 15th century, the spurtle is a kitchen utensil whose sole and express raison d’être is to stir oatmeal. Simple, elegant, and exactly right for what it is meant to do, my spurtle is all the more loved because its design hasn't changed for hundreds of years.  As I stir the oatmeal lazily and sip my coffee, I'm connected to an ancient cooking ritual.

Tips for Perfect Steel Cut Oats

Bring 4 cups salted water to a firm boil  and add 1 cup steel cut oatmeal.  Let the oatmeal simmer briskly for five minutes before lowering the heat.  Cook and stir for 30 to 40 minutes until creamy but with a bit of a bite (think pasta al dente).  I'm still a bit of a purist - no brown sugar for me - but marcona almonds add a decadent touch to a perfectly wholesome breakfast.

February 07, 2010

The Sunshine State - Winter Citrus Salad

Eating seasonal and local is a good thing. Really it is. Except when you live in a cold climate and the winter months drag along. Cabbages, parsnips and potatoes may be all very well and good, but a little sunshine goes a long way to making winter bearable.

That’s why I can’t give up citrus fruits. Sunny, squeezable, and completely satisfying, all things citrus make me happy. And although oranges are available all year round, there are still a few varieties that appear for just a few short weeks. Clementines, blood oranges, Minneola tangerines, Ruby Red grapefruits (which also make a fantastic sorbet), Seville oranges, Meyer lemons – I want to buy them by the bagful.

The easiest way I know to get a fix of all my favourites is in one big citrus salad. I’ll add the seeds of a big knobby pomegranate, another fleeting visitor in the produce department.

I’ll toss the segments with a very special dressing, and enjoy a bowl of Florida sunshine at breakfast all week long.

Winter Citrus Salad
serves four-six

2 lbs assorted citrus fruit, about 6 or 7 (Ruby Red grapefruit, Seville oranges, Meyer lemons*, tangerines, etc)
1 pomegranate, seeded
2 tbsp orange juice
1 tbsp Pama liqueur
1 tsp honey

1.  Peel the citrus fruits, and remove as much of the white pith as possible.  Cut each fruit in half and dice into 1-inch pieces. Try to catch the extra juice that results.

2. Seed the pomegranate and add to the citrus fruit. Set aside.

3. To prepare dressing, combine orange juice, Pama liqueur and honey in a small bowl.  Whisk until the honey is dissolved.

4.  Pour over salad and gently toss to combine. Serve or refrigerate until ready to serve.

*Meyer lemons are much sweeter than regular lemons; if they're not available, add another orange or tangerine instead.

February 03, 2010

18 Carrot Crunch

I'm suspicious of bagged vegetables. Especially bagged vegetables that are uniformly perfect in size shape and colour. The disillusionment began when I discovered that bagged baby carrots – so cute! so convenient! were actually big old misshapen carrots that had been cut down to size. Although an easy snack, they are strangely flavourless, tasting more waterlogged than super-charged with beta carotene goodness.

That’s why I love Vicki’s Veggies. The vegetables are gorgeously ugly - just as nature intended them to be. More importantly, they’re fantastically sweet. I can’t resist buying them by the bagful at the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, especially since Vicki herself is so passionate about every single thing she sells. The problem is I can’t consume everything as quickly as I’d like, particularly when flying solo.

Enter my magnificent Liebherr fridge. With an amazing Bio-Fresh drawer, my produce stays fresher way longer. Long enough for me to rescue a bag of Vicki’s real baby carrots just in time.

Crunchy never tasted so good.

Glazed Baby Carrots
serves two generously

1 lb baby carrots, washed with a soft brush, and trimmed
2 tbsp rendered duck fat
1 large shallot, finely chopped
Salt to taste
2 tbsp Madeira

1. Heat the duck fat over medium-low heat in a heavy pot.  Add the shallots and cook until softened but not brown, about five minutes.

2.  Add the carrots, cover and simmer for ten minutes without removing lid.  After 10 minutes, stir, sprinkle with salt and cook a further five minutes uncovered, or until the largest baby carrots are beginning to soften, but are still firm.

3.  Add the Madeira and cook a further two minutes, or until the wine is mostly evaporated and has formed a glossy glaze over the carrots.  Taste, adjust salt and serve.

Serve as a side dish to any roasted meat, or on their own.