winter minestrone

Hello out there. Hello! 

I'm ready to clear the cobwebs from this space, look January in the eye and give up my routine of salads and juices in Myanmar for soups and roasts in Munich.
Myanmar was all that I ever hope for a vacation to be. It was the type of trip that makes me wish that I was always traveling. It made me forget that there were plants waiting for me at home to be watered and deadlines to be met.
It got me up early in the mornings to watch the sun rise, stroll through ancient temples, eat mohinga and go on long hikes. It fed me well, slowed me down, taught me new tricks and gave me a long list of foods to try my hand at at home and topics to read about. I hope to tell you more about it all soon. 
I came home to a city dressed up in winter. As it often happens, the drop in temperature combined with nearly three weeks of mostly rice and a stomach ache from a long flight home made me crave Italian food. 
The first thing I made was a bit pot of minestrone. It sat on the stove for a couple of days and kept me good company at lunchtime, with some toasted sourdough on the side. I followed Tamar Adler's advice in An Everlasting Meal: "Minestrone is the perfect food. I advise eating it for as many meals as you can bear or that number plus one. (112)"
Minestrone needs no introduction. It is a classic, but that is not to say that it is always well executed. It is a soup that can range from boring and bland to rich and extraordinary. What separates the two? Good ingredients is a no brainer. Lush ingredients are going to yield a lusher soup, which is the great thing about minestrone. It is a soup for all seasons, since the idea is to cook it with whatever vegetables are in season. Because January calls for a heartier soup than say April, I've used potatoes and leek and Swiss chard. A springier version could include green onions instead of leek and beans and peas instead of Swiss chard. 
The other difference comes down to garnishes. A good bowl of minestrone should have lots of them - always a drizzle of fruity olive oil, a pinch of crunchy sea salt, fresh herbs and a generous amount of cheese, be it Parmesan or Pecornio or even ricotta. A dollop of fresh pesto can bring the whole bowl to life. Same goes with really good olive oil. 
And one last trick: a Parmesan rind. Whenever you are down to the rind, wrap it up in some plastic wrap and throw it in the freezer, saving it for the next time you make soup. This adds richness and more flavour to any soup. 
Add a pinch of chile flakes if you want some heat and some pancetta if you want some meat.
Minestrone often includes pasta, of the small variety such as tiny tubes or orecchiette. Because after a vacation I fill enough of my meals with pasta as I get back into the groove of cooking, I decided to leave it out of my soup. Personally I find beans and vegetables enough.  

Winter Minestrone
serves 5


1 cup dried beans (such as borlotti or cannellini)
4 cups (1 liter) water + more as needed
3 tbsp olive oil 
1 large red onions, diced
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 leek, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
4 small potatoes, chopped into chunks
a Parmesan rind
a handful of fresh basil
1 cup Swiss chard, or any other leafy green, roughly chopped
1 can tomatoes
for serving
freshly grated Parmesan
a drizzle of good olive oil
fresh basil or parsley
Soak the dried beans in water for a couple of hours or overnight. Drain and rinse them well and then put them in a large pot with 4 cups of water. Bring to the boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the beans are tender. Set aside.
In another large pot heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the red onion, carrot, garlic, leek and zucchini. Cook until everything begins to soften and is fragrant, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Then add the chunks of potato, Parmesan rind, fresh basil, Swiss Chard and the can of tomatoes, juice and all. Give it a good stir and then add the beans and their cooking liquid. The liquid from the beans plus the tomato juice should be enough to cover, but if not add more water.
Bring the pot to a simmer and then leave to simmer until the vegetables are cooked through, the tomatoes have melted (crushing them with the back of a spoon if necessary) and the broth is flavourful, about 60 minutes. Discard the Parmesan rind and add salt to taste.
Serve warm and garnish with freshly grated Parmesan, a drizzle of your best olive oil, salt and pepper and fresh basil.


bitter foods for a sweet season: belgian endives bathed in butter

Christmas looks like it may be grey this year instead of white, but that doesn't make this season any less sweet. 
In the spirit of relaxing and celebrating, I'm taking off for a couple of week. I'll be ringing in 2015 in Myanmar, a country I know little about and a cuisine that I'm very excited to become acquainted with. 

But before I hit the road, I'll be eating rich roasts, fancy cakes, and indulging in the decadence that is Christmas. I'll also be bathing endives in butter, which I think that you should do too. There is nothing like a little bit of bitter to complement all of the season's sweets.
At the end of November Molly wrote about Belgian Endives Bathed in Butter, which I've made four times since. It sounds and tastes decadent and turns out to be the best way I now know to cook endives. 
 One time I ate the endives and their juices with quinoa. Another time with a fried egg. Another time I ate the leftovers straight out of the pan, using bread to scoop up as much as buttery, lemony, bitter liquid as possible. 
The recipe comes from Jennifer McLagan's Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor. She explains that since endives are mostly water themselves they should never be cooked in water. Instead they should be cooked in fat, lots of it. This is suiting since she is also the author of the cookbook Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient
The recipe uses lots of butter and just a little bit of fresh lemon juice to brighten things up. 
One of the times I made it I served it with duck confit and yellow beets. The fact that the duck was from my local butcher, pink on the inside and had crisp skin and that the endives were still the most delicious thing on the plate says everything. 
Think of this as a formula, and not a recipe. I've mostly halved the amount and it works just fine, although it yields less juice. In a pinch, I've also increased the heat of the oven so that it would be ready in less than two hours and that worked too. The recipe says to use an ovenproof skillet and to cook the endives in said skillet both on the stove top and then in the oven. I've done that, but I've also transferred them to a baking dish (as pictured) instead, which also works.

In other words if you follow this formula, you'll be well rewarded and pleased: Belgian endives + lots of butter + good salt + a little lemon juice + cooking them shortly in a skillet of hot butter and then roasting them slowly in the oven. 

Belgian Endives Bathed in Butter
from 'Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor' by Jennifer McLagan, via Orangette 
yields 4 servings
800 grams (1 3/4 pounds) Belgian endives (anywhere from 3-8 endives, depending on their size)
100 grams (7 tbsp) unsalted butter
coarse sea salt
2-3 tbsp fresh lemon juice juice
black pepper
Preheat oven to 300F / 150 C / gas mark 2.
Use a damp cloth to wipe the endives. Discard any leaves that have gone bad and, if needed, trim the stem ends. 
Place an ovenproof skillet (one that has a lid) over low heat and add the butter. If you don't have a skillet with a lid or prefer to use a baking dish for when the endives go in the oven, warm the baking dish in the oven as it heat. Proceed with a regular skillet.
Once the butter has melted, increase the heat to medium and let the butter cook until it smells nutty and the milk solids have started to brown. While it cooks, stir it from time to time, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan.
Add the whole endives to the pan. Season them with salt and turn them with tongs to coat them in butter. Cook until they take on some color on all sides. If you are using the skillet in the oven, remove the skillet from the heat and pour in the lemon juice. Cover with a lid and place in the oven for 1 hour.
If you are using a baking dish instead, remove the heated dish from the oven and use the tongs to transfer the endives to the pan. Pour in the liquids from the skillet and add the lemon juice. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil and place in the oven for 1 hour. 
After an hour, remove the pan from the oven and carefully flip the endives. Cover it again and return to the oven. Cook for an additional 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the endives are very soft and limp.
Before serving, taste the pan juices and add more lemon juice if you please. Serve hot with salt and lots of freshly ground pepper. Any leftovers can be kept in the fridge for a few days.
* * * * *
Illustration by Kera Till for Prantl
May your holidays be delicious and bright!


apple and cheddar: from snack to scone

My all-time favourite snack hasn't changed since I was about 4 or 5 years old: slices of apple topped with pieces of cheddar cheese. Some of the specifics have evolved - like white cheddar instead of orange and the older the better - but no other snack has ever threatened to dethrone it.

As much as I love the cheeses of France and the German Alps, a good aged cheddar will forever be my number one. You can take the gal out of Canada, but you can't take Canada out of the gal. 

Cheddar with a tart and crispy apple is as good as it gets in my book. This combination, however, can be dressed up to be a bit more interesting and sophisticated than the afternoon snack plate of a toddler. It can be the basis of a pie, a salad, and scones.

A couple of Decembers ago I wrote about ginger cookies and how I think that they should be eaten with blue cheese. Take this as proof that come cookie season, I'm craving cheese. Christmas baking is swell, but all the sugar and spice makes me want heartier baking, baking that is a bit more savoury.

These apple and cheddar scones nail both sweet and savoury. With a little extra sugar on top, the first taste is crunchy and sweet. Then you reach the bottom, which tastes like a frico. In other words, it is hard to just eat one.

You want the bottoms a little dark, not burnt, but dark. Like all scones, these taste best the day they are baked, but no need to worry: they won't be sticking around long.

I have a rather old fashioned kitchen, which means few appliances, so I made these by hand. If you have a food processor, certainly put it to work instead. 

The recipe calls for cutting the apples into small pieces once they've been cooked, but I kept them as chunks. It further plays up the contrasts of these scones: sweet and savoury, finely grated cheese, coarse chunks of apple. 

Apple and Cheddar Scones

adapted from Smitten Kitchen's take on 'The Perfect Finish'

makes 6-8 scones


3 firm tart apples (425 grams or a bit less than 1 pound)
195 grams (1 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
55 grams (1/4 cup) unrefined sugar, plus 2 tbsp for sprinkling
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
85 grams (6 tbsp) unsalted butter, chilled
65 grams (1/2 cup) white cheddar cheese, grated
60 ml (1/2 cup) heavy cream
1 egg

Preheat the oven to 375 F /  190 C / gas mark 5.

Peel and core the apples and cut each apple into 12 slices. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and evenly spread out the slices. 

Bake the apples in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until they take on some colour and feel dry to the touch. Remove and set aside to cool, but keep the oven on.

While the apples bake, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a medium sized bowl. Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the flour mixture, either with your hands or by mixing/cutting it with two butter knives. Once the butter is the size of peas, use a spoon to mix in the sugar, cheddar and cream. Add the apple pieces and give it a good stir until it all comes together, but do not overmix.

Flour a clean counter top or large cutting board, and dump out the dough onto its surface. Flour your hands and pat or roll the dough into a circle that is about 3 cm (1 1/4) inches thick. Cut the circle into six to eight wedges, depending on how large you want your scones (I made eight).

Line the baking sheet with a new sheet of parchment paper and transfer the scones to the sheet, leaving space between them. 

In a small bowl, beat the egg with a pinch of salt. Brush the top of each scone with the egg mix. Sprinkle the two tbsp of sugar over all of the scones.

Bake until the scones are golden and firm, about 30 minutes.

Remove from the oven and use a spatula to transfer them to a wire rack to cool. Cool for about 10 minutes and then dig in.



a break from cinnamon: pomelo salad

The first Advent is now behind us and I'm doing a good job at celebrating the season by eating Lebkuchen at least once a day. My apartment is also accented with notes of red and green and so far I don't mind that the evenings come so early, as I've been lighting candle after candle. 

But I'm also taking breaks from all things cinnamon scented to celebrate the arrival of citrus season, specifically the biggest citrus fruit of all: pomelo.

Munich has excellent gelato and Lebkuchen, but good Asian food can be a little harder to come by. My recent interested in Chinese home cooking is one part fueled by how easy and fast it is (not to mention delicious), and another part fueled by how I much I miss Chinese food in Toronto.

But thank goodness for exceptions. Of all places, Munich happens to have a gem of a Thai restaurant. Tucked beside a casino and about the size of a standard North American bed, it gives new meaning to the expression hole in the wall. Seriously, I think that I've slept on mattresses larger than this restaurant, but clearly size does not matter. 

Manam it is called and I call it the best Thai food in the city. The women who run the kitchen aren't afraid of making their German customers sweat. The food is spicy, flavourful and full of soul. 

One of my favourites on the menu is the pomelo salad: Yam Som O. It is made with lemon grass, chili, shredded coconut that has been toasted, salty peanuts and fresh coriander. It is a nice light lunch for one, or a welcome side dish to share with a curry.

As much as I love Manam, I'm not always up for biking to the other side of the river and waiting in line to sit on a tiny plastic stool (although I admit that I am more often that not). Also, they close at 9pm, so I don't always have the choice. 

So inspired by Manam, I've started making pomelo salad myself. 

Pomelos range in colour, sometimes with pink flesh and other times with yellow. No matter the colour, it makes for a good salad. The possibilities are vast. Add some shrimp if you want a heartier salad. Add more herbs if you want more green. Use a shallot instead of red onion. Make it spicy, or keep it mild. 

Pomelo Salad

serves 2 as a main and 4-5 as a side dish


1 ripe pomelo, peeled and segmented
1/4 cup fresh mint, roughly chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, thinly sliced
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
juice of 1 lime
4 tbsp fish sauce 
1 Thai chili, seeded if desired and finely chopped
2 tbsp brown or coconut sugar
1 tsp chili sauce, such as Sriracha
1/2 cup coconut flakes, toasted
1/2 cup peanuts

 In a large bowl, toss together the pomelo segments, fresh mint, cilantro, lemongrass and red onion. 

In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, fish sauce, chili, sugar and chili sauce. Whisk well until the sugar dissolves and then give it a taste, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.

Pour the dressing over the pomelo and toss well to mix. Top with peanuts and coconut flakes and serve right away.



a short season: cranberry pear tart

Cranberry season is short. And when they are being imported from across an ocean, it is even shorter. 

Here in Germany the season isn't as strongly on my radar as when I was living in Canada. So when I see fresh cranberries for sale at markets in Munich each year, it feels like a surprise. A good one.  And I buy some, regardless of what I was planning to make.

This bright red berry helps to brighten up a month that too often feels grey.
And this cranberry pear tart, sweetened with maple syrup, does exactly that. There isn't much this tart wouldn't brighten up. Breakfast, dessert, that sweet snack you need to make it through the last hour of the work day? Name it and it's got you covered.

The crust is crumbly, the cranberries bring just the right amount of sour and the pear is sweet and a tad crunchy. 

I first made this tart a couple of years ago and remember wanting to eat it at all of the times mentioned above and then some. I made it again yesterday and it probably won't be around to see tomorrow. It's that good.

I changed the recipe a little bit, using maple syrup instead of honey and brown rice syrup. I'm Canadian - I just can't help myself. Besides, maple syrup and cranberries have the same roots. They make sense together. Sorry brown rice syrup. 

Coconut oil costs a small fortune in Germany, so instead of using it both for the crust and the filling I used olive oil for the crust. Use one or the other or both.

Cranberry Pear Tart

serves 8-10


For the Crust

1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
75 g flour

For the Filling

2 pears, thinly sliced
2 and1/3 cups (250 g) fresh cranberries 
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 tbsp chia seeds
6 tbsp water
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cardamom
zest of 1 organic lemon

Preheat oven to 350 F / 190 C / gas mark 4.

In a food processor, pulse together all of the ingredients for the crust until well mixed.

With either olive oil or coconut oil, grease a tart pan (about 9") and then press the crust along the bottom of the pan with the back of spoon. Make sure that it is even. 

Layer the pear slices over the crust.

For the filling, begin by mixing the chia seeds with the water. Set aside until it forms a gel. In the meantime, mix the cranberries with the remaining ingredients, stirring to make sure everything is well combined. Add the chia seed gel and fold to mix. Pour the cranberry filling on top of the pear and crust layer, making sure to spread it evenly.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cranberries shrivel up and the crust looks firm.

Allow to cool completely before removing from the tart pan.

Serve with ice cream, a dollop of creme fraiche or yogurt.

* * * * *

The winter issue of Gather is now out and, just like this tart, it knows a thing or two about magic. That's right - this issue is all about alchemy, magical herbs, fairy tales and potions. I've shared a magic trick of my Babcai's: getting unloved ingredients to perform disappearing acts at the dinner table. 

With the holidays fast approaching, it is good to have a reminder to not let your eyes be bigger than your stomach. Rub & Stub, a restaurant in Copenhagen, is exactly that reminder with their inspiring efforts to decrease food waste. I've written about them over at MUNCHIES


remembering + roasted grapes

Yesterday was Remembrance Day in Canada. When I lived there, I used to always buy a poppy and wear it on the left breast of my autumn coat. I wore mine with extra pride, since I actually called my grandfather, a veteran, Poppy. 

I remember how the red of the poppies would always pop against autumn's rusty colours. I remember the drama of November's leaves being the background of the outdoor ceremony in Ottawa that I sometimes watched on TV. I remember veterans selling poppies, in exchange for a small donation, their boots buried beneath fall's leaves.

Occasionally I remember the red of the poppy looking so bright against the whiteness of the early snow. 

My grandfather kept all of his papers from when he served in the Canadian Army and, years later, my Nana compiled them into a photo album. That album is now in my living room in Munich. It is charming and curious and full of handsome black and white photographs of my relatives and specific instructions about writing letters (that says things such as "Wisecracks and jokes. Sterilized." can be included in NEWS and E. - THE ENDING "Never end without a "God bless You."). 

The paper that I'm drawn to most falls between yellow and brown in the colour spectrum. It has three columns: German, Phonetic and English and includes words such as Angetreten - Fall in!, Marsch - Quick March, and Nicht Schiessen - Don't Shoot.  

As a child I was always fascinated with this album. I flipped through its pages and it brought all of my grandfather's stories to life. I never paid much attention to this one piece of paper with German translations, until I was flipping through it as an adult and realized that I could now read the German. I also realized that based on the phonetic description, this was a north German accent being deciphered (Nickt Sheeson). 

Remembering is important. But it is also complicated and sometimes challenging. It changes with your geography, your politics.  

Roasted grapes, on the other hand, are simple, uncomplicated. And thank goodness there are simple things to provide a break from the complexity of politics.

Roasted grapes are delicious wherever you are, whatever your politics. They are ridiculously easy to make and versatile. Roast them with olive oil, ghee, or coconut oil. Roast them until they are just hot, or keep them in the oven until they are about to burst.

Eat them hot in a bowl of yogurt with a sprinkle of sea salt. Throw them into salads, or add them, like I have here, to rice pilaf.

Rice Pilaf with Roasted Grapes 

serves 3-4 


1 cup brown basmati rice, soaked overnight or for a couple of hours in water
 1 tbsp of ghee
1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
zest of 1 small organic clementine or orange
2 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of saffron
1/4 cup fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
fresh lemon juice, to serve
salt, to taste

350 g grapes (3/4 of a pound), preferably seedless
a knob of ghee or coconut oil

Rinse the rice and then soak it in water for a couple of hours or overnight. Rinse well again and then drain. Set aside. 

In a medium to large pot over medium heat, melt 1 tbsp of ghee. Add the onion, a pinch of salt and then cook until brown, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure that the onion does not burn. Once the onion has browned, remove about half of it from the pot and set aside. 

While the onion is browning, give the clementine a good wash and then slice its rind into thick strips, trying to not get any of the white pith. Set aside.

Put the saffron into a small cup and add 2 tbsp of hot water. This will make a "saffron tea" to add later to the rice. 

Keep the rest of the onion in the pot over medium heat and add the orange zest, cardamom pods and cinnamon. Saute until fragrant. Then add the rice and give it a good stir, so that it is thoroughly coated with the ghee and onion. Add two cups of water and the saffron tea. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer until the water has been absorbed and the rice is cooked, about 40 minutes.

While the rice cooks, preheat the oven to 400 F / 200 C / gas mark 6. Line a baking sheet with baking paper and spread the grapes out on the baking sheet. Melt the ghee and then drizzle the grapes with it and a pinch of salt. Roast in the oven for about 15 minutes, until the grapes are soft and shriveled and about to burst. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. 

Once the rice has finished cooking, remove it from the heat and season to taste with salt. Add the chopped parsley, roasted grapes, the rest of the browned onions and a couple of squeezes of fresh lemon juice to taste. Serve warm.


* * * * *
I'm thrilled to announce that I'm now contributing to MUNCHIES, Vice's food website. You can read my first article here.  


"send the rice down"

When I got home from Moscow, I found myself craving spicy food. The weather in Munich felt tropical compared to the Russian capital, and yet this craving for chilies did not wane. 

Specifically I wanted Chinese food. I guess I was missing Toronto's several China Towns that spoiled me with steamed fish made Cantonese style, mapo tofu, and Chinese pancakes.

Although I never made it to a Chinese restaurant in Moscow (I was too busy trying pre-revolution Russian cuisine and drinking tea), I got the feeling that Moscow must have good Chinese food.

Upon my return I bought Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice, which celebrates simple Chinese home cooking. It is a charming and approachable book that I plan to spend a lot of time with this winter. The first recipe I made was Sichuanese "Send-the-rice-down" Chopped Celery with Minced Beef, which has already been lovingly praised over on the Wednesday Chef.

I've made it twice in the past week and, if I wasn't sick and far too lazy to dress myself let alone walk over to the butcher shop, I'd be tempted to make this for dinner tonight. Both times I've served it with black rice, which adds a little extra drama to the plate, but of course brown or white rice would be fine.

If you like, you can add a splash of light soy sauce to taste. I skipped this as I thought the flavour of the dish was so perfect, so complete, that it didn't need anything else.

 Chopping the celery is the only part of this recipe that requires a bit of time. Other than that, this meal is weeknight eating at its best. I had to make two new additions to my pantry: Sichuan chili bean paste and Chinkiang vinegar. But I have a whole book to cook my way through and a whole winter to spice up, so they'll surely be put to frequent use.

Fuchsia writes that this dish is typical of Sichuanese home cooking because it has a strong flavour and is a perfect companion to a bowl of rice, hence "sending the rice down". 

 Sichuanese  "Send-the-rice-down" Chopped Celery with Minced Beef 

adapted from 'Every Grain of Rice' by Fuchsia Dunlop

serves 2 as a main

300g celery
3 tbsp cooking oil, such as peanut
100g minced beef
1 1/2 tbsp Sichuan chili bean paste
1 1/2 tbsp ginger, minced
1 tsp Chinkiang vinegar 

Cut each celery stick lengthways and then chop into thin strips. You want the celery to be finely chopped.

While you prepare the celery, bring a pot of water to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, add the celery and blanch it for about 30 seconds and then drain immediately. You don't want to cook the celery, you just want to take away its rawness.

In a wok or frying pan, heat the oil over high heat. Add the minced beef and with a wooden spoon or wok scoop or ladle, break up the strands. Stir-fry the meat until it is fragrant and cooked. Then add the chili bean paste. Continue to give it a good stir until the oil has reddened and the bean paste is fragrant. Then add the minced ginger and fry it for a few moments until it is fragrant. 

Finally add the celery and let the whole dish cook until the celery is piping hot. Add a little soy sauce now, if you wish. Stir in the Chinkiang vinegar and serve right away with rice. 


* * * * *

In other news, last week a text that I had written about my grandfather was published in the Globe and Mail's Lives Lived section. It is a real honour to share his life in Canada's national newspaper and if you are interested in reading it, you can find it here.  

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