comfort food, snow and bagna cauda

  
Each year my concept of comfort food grows. This is, of course, a good thing. Seeing that this is apparently the darkest winter in Germany on record, I'm craving a lot of comfort food right now. I've come a long way from just craving the mac n' cheese of my childhood. That cheesy baked pasta will always make me feel warm and safe, but since then I've discovered a lot of other dishes that make me feel the same. 

Being Canadian, I am often asked what the coldest temperature I've ever experienced has been. Having lived in both Ottawa and Montreal, I am no stranger to temperatures in the minus 30s. However, the coldest I've ever felt was last winter when I was in Deli and Rajasthan. Temperature wise it wasn't that cold, just around zero, but because winter is rather short in Northern India, people do not have heating. - 30 C with heating is significantly warmer that coming out of the shower with wet hair in a unheated bathroom that is just 1 degree. That winter I discovered and became very grateful for dal makhani. I had been eating my share of dal in Mumbai for two months before traveling North, but it was in Jaipur that I first ate this creamy and rich dish made with black urad dal. Dal made with yellow lentils and dal made with black lentils are two very different things. Yellow lentils will always be satisfying, but black lentils are better suited for cold temperatures and warm cream. And since then I specifically crave dal makhani when the temperatures drop. In fact, when I got back to Munich after having been in Texas and Mexico it was the first meal that I made. 


It is a funny thing to try a new food for the first time when you've made it yourself. I'm not referring simply to something new that you've cooked up for dinner, but instead dishes that are defined just as much by their geography as they are by their ingredients. Unlike eating dal makhani for the first time in Jaipur and associating it with the pink city, sunny days and cold nights, sometimes my first experience of a food and flavor is just with a cookbook in my own kitchen.

The first time that I tried an arepa was not on the streets of Venezuela. Instead it was in my kitchen in Montreal on an autumn day courtesy of a Mark Bittman recipe. I've never even been to Venezuela. 

And the first time I tried Bagna cauda was in my kitchen in Munich. Summer was nearing its end and my fridge was rich in radishes and carrots, endives and tomatoes. I had already had my fill of salads and raw veggies just is and so I decided to melt some butter, heat some olive oil and smash some garlic and anchovies to make Bagna cauda. From the Piemonte region, it is the Northern Italian answer to fondu. 

Bagna cauda translates as hot bath and that is exactly what the dip is for an assortment of vegetables. We melted the butter, warmed the olive oil and added the garlic and anchovies. The anchovies collapsed, the garlic softened and everything came together to make a sauce. That night we didn't bother with bowls or even a table. We stood in the kitchen, glasses of wine on the counter-top, and dipped our veggies directly into the pot of Bagna cauda that was still on the stove top. When it began to cool we simply turned the heat back on and warmed it up. 

In the fall I traveled to Asti, Piemonte to go truffle hunting as part of "research" for an article that I was writing. I was so focused on truffles that I nearly forgot about some of the other culinary gems of this region in Italy. My aunt and I arrived in Asti the day before our truffle hunting date. We walked around the brick city eating seasonal gelato (apple caramel anyone?) and eying shop windows and restaurant menus. A few menus later and I remembered that we were in the region of Bagna cauda and so what we were going to have as an appetizer before that night's dinner was already decided.

Bagna cauda is traditionally eaten in autumn and winter, but I think it accompanies each season's veggies - from spring's asparagus to summer's tomatoes and from autumn's artichokes to winter's celeriac. Just serve the veggies raw or steamed, roasted or lightly boiled according to season and taste. Like most culinary things in Italy, this recipe is simple and straight-forward. It relies on few ingredients, but it is somehow more than the sum of its parts. Below is the version I make at home, but tweak it to suit you. Some people make Bagna Cauda only with olive oil and skip the butter; others use half olive oil and half butter. You can add more garlic and anchovies if you like. It is traditionally served in small terracotta pots with a candle below, but when I ate it in Asti it was just in a small dish on my plate. 



Bagna Cauda

serves 2-3 as a meal and a few more as an appetizer

ingredients

3/4 cup good olive oil
1/4 cup butter
1 small tin of anchovies
2 large garlic cloves

a selection of vegetables 
(I last used roasted onions, colourful beets, boiled potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and raw carrots and endives)

other winter vegetables to try

roasted peppers
raw or roasted fennel
turnips
cabbage
tart apples
cardoons
celeriac
cauliflower

Peel the garlic cloves and if they are not new, remove the inner part. Slice the garlic very thin; or, pound it to a paste in a mortar with a pestle and a tiny pinch of salt.

Drain the anchovies and pat them dry. 

In a small pot over low heat, melt the butter with a bit of the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook at a very low heat. You want to cook the garlic until it softens, but you don't want it to brown. If it starts to sizzle, turn the heat off and let it cool down. Once cool, reheat.

Once the garlic is very soft and falls apart, add the anchovies. Add the remaining olive oil and cook until the anchovies fall apart. 

Serve right away while still warm. Either serve it in individual bowls for dipping, or keep it in the pot and spoon it over the veggies as you eat.

Guten!

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the island of monks and roses


Put down the chocolate and that whisk. It is that time of February and so you're probably making chocolate delights for loved ones or for yourself. You're probably not whisking chocolate and milk to make champurrado. That just seems too humble for this week; instead, you're probably getting a workout from beating egg whites, or diligently stirring melting chocolate over the stove-top. Well step away from it all. Let's take a break and talk about jam and monks, islands and roses. 

I don't have a recipe to share; instead, I want to share a place: San Lazzaro degli Armeni. It is an island in the Venetian Lagoon. Everyone knows the well-worn tourist sites in Venice. We're all familiar with San Marco, the Grand Canal, the Doge's Palace and Harry's Bar. What I enjoyed most about spending two months in Venice was getting to know the city beyond these sites. Sure, sometimes I too got stuck in the work-home-bar triangle, but in a city like Venice it is easy to find the extra energy to stay up a little later or to wake up a little earlier. This is because when it comes to art, culture, history and food, as much as there is on the tourist radar there is even more off of it.

San Lazzaro degli Armeni is not quite a secret; although, it is secretive. It is the kind of place where the simple things in life - a shared meal, an artichoke garden, an old book - somehow seem magical and the public's access to that magic is limited. I spent nearly a month in Venice unaware of its existence and as soon as I learned of the island I became obsessed with visiting it. One evening after work (located somewhere between the home and bar axes of the work-home-bar triangle), I stumbled upon a post that the food writer and photographer Emiko Davies wrote about San Lazzaro.

San Lazzaro is a small island. It is home to an Armenian monastery, thirty or so monks, a library with more than 150,000 books and 4000 manuscripts and gardens well populated with artichokes and roses. There are rumoured to be peacocks as well, although I never saw them. The monks are very private and there is only so much of the island that visitors may see. Visitors can only tour the monastery with a guided tour and there is one each day at 3:30pm.  

The tour covers both the history of the monastery as well as the history of Armenian Christianity. The monk whose tour I attended looked so peaceful as he recited the words that he knows so well. At times he had his eyes closed, with his hands casually crossed and resting on his belly, as he told us the history of his home, room by room, first in English and then in French. Named after the patron saint of lepers, St. Lazarus, a leper colony was founded on this isolated island in the twelfth century and then it was later abandoned in the sixteenth century. After being abandoned, the council of Venice gifted the island to a group of Armenian monks in 1717, including Mekhitar. It has been inhabited by Armenian monks ever since.  


Although I do have an interest in Armenian culture and the type of museums that you find only in places like rather isolated monasteries, I went to San Lazzaro for the jam. The monks eat rose petal jam for breakfast. May is when the roses are in full bloom and so the monks harvest all of their rose bushes and can about 5000 jars of jam in a few weeks time. They then sell some of the jam in the monastery's gift shop and then save the rest to eat each morning on buttered bread. 

The jam itself is stunning both in colour and flavour; however, I like it even more knowing how the monks enjoy it at breakfast. For every meal, the monks sit and eat in silence. A painting of the Last Supper watches over them. They gather in a large dining room made with wood probably old enough to be considered ancient. At three long tables all of the monks sit on one side of the table, except for one. At each meal one monk reads to the others. He stands in a small balcony and reads biblical texts out loud. The others eat with their mouths and listen with their ears. Each meal becomes both a lecture and a moment to let both thoughts and tastes linger. 

I haven't tried my hands at making rose petal jam. For now I prefer to leave it to the monks so that I always have a reason to go back to San Lazzaro. However, if you have a generous rose garden or if you stumble upon a small fortune of wild roses (or roses that have not been sprayed with chemicals), Emiko has a recipe for rose petal jam. She spent some time at the monastery when she was training as an art conservator. Although the monks did not share their recipe, they did share their technique; the monks massage the roses in order to enhance both the scent and the colour of the petals. 

I would like to blame February for how touched I am by this fact, but the truth is that I felt the same way when I first learned about San Lazzaro degli Armeni and the rose petal jam. I can only think of a few things more beautiful and humble than the monks harvesting the roses from their own garden and then gently massaging them to make jam. And one of those things is the first time that I ate the jam. After visiting the island, friends and I went back to my apartment, opened a bottle of prosecco and gently spread the jam on pieces of flat bread with generous slabs of soft goat cheese. That whole day was magical and we think that it was all because of the rose petal jam that must somehow passed on the monks' blessings.  

   
Rose petal jam can be almost achingly sweet which is why it goes so well with creamy goat cheese. The cheese absorbs and balances out the sweetness of the sugar and the perfume of the roses. It is a little too sweet, I find, to just have it on toast, but it tastes like a dream with goat cheese, or stirred into some hot oatmeal or cold yogurt. 

Now I'll let you get back to your chocolate, your egg whites and your whisk. But first let's toast to San Lazzaro degli Armeni, its kind monks, and rose petal jam. Happy Valentine's Day!

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mexico, roadtrips, chocolate & champurrado


We made it. January is over. Winter always feels the harshest in January. The holidays are long over which means that the season and its icy winds goes on without Christmas as a buffer. It is pretty easy to not notice the freezing temperatures in Germany when one has a large glass of mulled wine in one hand and gingerbread cookies in the other. January takes the comfort of Christmas Markets away. We're on our own, without those markets, for the rest of the season.

Now that Gluehwein stands are scarcer in Munich, I've been making hot beverages at home and, in my opinion, there is no hot beverages that is more comforting than hot chocolate. It is childhood served in a mug or sometimes a bowl. When I look into a mug of hot chocolate, just like with a crystal ball, I see far beyond the vessel. Instead, I see the canal in Ottawa and the thrill that my brother, sister and I would feel each year when our mother announced that it was finally frozen. I see a family wearing hockey skates over two or three pairs of socks. I see noses as red as Rudolph's and post-skate appetites as big as the deep-fried dough with lemon juice, sugar and cinnamon that we Canadians call Beaver Tails

But because of my recent travels to Mexico, I also see beyond childhood and nostalgia and even the coldness of winter in that cup of hot chocolate. Now I see that morning that a good friend and I woke up earlier than the Mexicans in our hotel and went to the market in Oaxaca. In addition to garments with intricate hand embroidery (the kind that Frida Kahlo used to wear), Oaxaca is known for its chocolate. It was January 31st and we started the last day of the year with large bowls of hot chocolate with pan de yema on the side.


I am thankful that hot chocolate now also reminds me of Mexico as I've been drinking a lot of it recently and I can't really think of a place better to be reminded of. On a grey, snowy day I will happily think about the smooth, long strip of highway from Mexico City to Oaxaca. I will think about the cactus desert in between the two, the rolling hills, and a sky that couldn't be any more blue. I will think about how small the landscape made me feel and how warm the sun felt on my skin. I will think about our road-side-stops for mushrooms quesadillas and guave paletas

The sun in Mexico made my cheeks a little rosier and the fresh fruit juices put a spring in my step. It is amazing what only a few days somewhere else can do. Travel is the best medicine I know. It makes me walk a little faster, stand a little straighter and open my eyes a little wider. And, always, it a) feeds me foods that I've never tasted and b) makes me wish that I had Anthony Bourdain's job (seriously, Anthony, I would be happy to assist you anytime). 

The one thing that strikes me most about the food that I ate in Mexico is that I liked it all. Seriously, everything I ate was good, really good. I did not once have a bad meal. I already told you about my new fondness for nopales and my new belief in adding pomegranate seeds to guacamole. However, there was so much more that filled both my belly and my heart. In Oaxaca I ate cactus fruit ice cream at a square devoted only to ice cream. I repeat: an ice cream square. Vendor after vendor surrounded the circumference offering flavours from chili mango to mezcal and from coconut to rose. And then there were paletas. I always was into popsicles as a child, but now I wish that I had had an earlier introduction to paletas because they are without a doubt a more flavourful, fruitier and superior version of ice pops. I have big plans to buy this book and to catch up on all the time that I could have been eating homemade paletas instead of grocery store popsicles. 

The food epiphanies that I had in Mexico go on and on and on. Hibiscus flower enchiladas. Washing down a spicy taco with ice cold and smooth horchata. Blue corn everything. Deep fried quesadillas. Tres leche cake. Squash blossoms everywhere (from tacos to soups). Learning that Mexicans know how to make anything into a taco. Mango enchilado - dried mango with chile - is now my favourite candy. I even smuggled some passed Homeland Security. It was well worth any potential risks or fines.


Mexico knows good chocolate and Mexico knows how to make good beverages. Mexican chocolate has a different consistency and a slightly different flavour. It is more granular than a lot of other chocolate. This is because it is made with undissolved granulated sugar and because it is grainier, it is meant for melting for hot chocolate or cooking for mole as opposed to eating by the bar. It often comes already flavoured with vanilla, cinnamon and sometimes almonds, but it also possible to find it plain.

When I was living in Berlin I became acquainted with hot chocolate made with coconut milk. Once again, the New York Times whet my appetite and made me look at both hot chocolate and coconut milk with fresh eyes. But now that I've been to Mexico (beyond a beach holiday as a teenager), I'm hooked on champurrado, a spicier and thicker version of hot chocolate.


So what makes champurrado different from hot chocolate? Masa, and that is about it. The same dry corn dough that you use for your tortillas and tamales thickens the hot chocolate, giving it a bit more texture, a bit more depth. Any masa based drink in general is an atole and the types of atole are endless: from spices to fruits (such as wild cherry or strawberry) and from seeds to various types of corn. Champurrado particularly refers to a chocolate atole. It can be basic as chocolate, milk, water and masa, or that can be the base for adding spices, orange zest and even an egg. The classic champurrado spices are vanilla, cinnamon and star anise.

My version of champurrado is inspired by the Mexican classic, but it takes a detour as instead of using of using panela (which I haven't even seen in the Mexican grocery store here in Munich), I use maple syrup as a sweetener. A total scandal it is, I know, I know, but I am Canadian and I simply cannot help myself from using maple syrup when an opportunity arises. That, and it just tastes so at home with the melted chocolate and spices. Once again breaking from tradition, I make my champurrado with an ordinary whisk, whisking and whisking away to make my beverage frothy. If you want to go the traditional route, get yourself a rather sweet looking molinillo. How I wish that I had picked one up in Mexico. Why say no to a wood whisk that looks good in your kitchen and that does a mean job at making a drink frothy?

So Mexico, I will keep drinking champurrado until the two of us meet again. Trust that I will be back. I still haven't had a chance to drink a michelada and for that alone I will return (trust me, I'm pretty sure that mixing beer with lime juice and spices is against the law in Germany). However, the inspiration continues. I have enough to last me until my next trip, and I still have a bit more to share. I will save Frida Kahlo's house (and her kitchen) for another post. Let's just say for now that a month later I'm still feeling inspired from just a week in Mexico.   



Champurrado

serves 2

ingredients 

1/2 cup water
2 tbsp masa
1 disk of Mexican chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 star anise
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of sea salt
2 cups milk
 1.5 tbsp maple syrup, or to taste

In a small pot over medium-high heat, bring the water to a simmer and add the masa. Stir with a whisk until the masa thickens and there are no chunks. Add the cinnamon, star anise, sea salt and chocolate and stir until the chocolate is completely melted. 

Add the milk and keep stirring until very smooth. Add the maple syrup, taste for sweetness, and then bring the mixture to a steady simmer, whisking constantly for frothiness.

Serve immediately.

Guten! 

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where the sky is bigger + broil your grapefruit


When I flew to Dallas in December it was my third time visiting the Lone Star State. Three visits later and I still find it a mystery to describe. It does live under its own flag, but the lifestyles under that flag are as vast as the sky. The sky is the first thing that I notice each time I arrive. It just feels bigger than it usually does. Of course, it can't be, but it just looks more-never ending, more infinite. And so I find that I notice it more. Instead of looking at what is in front of me, I cannot help but look up. I've been to deserts in Northern Africa and to beaches in the Caribbean, but there is just something about that Texas sky.

It isn't just the sky that feels different, but also the ground. In North Texas the ground hops and skips, but it barely rolls or curves. It is more clay than soil and so when it rains the water stays on the surface, unabsorbed. Parking lots begin to look like wading pools and roads start to feel like canals.

Outside of Dallas, tall buildings disappear. As you drive away from the city fields begin to replace skyscrapers, cow and horses replace people, and an assortment of barns, ranches and trailers replace typical suburban homes. There is just something about this state that grabs my attention. I don't have a driver's license, but the thought of road tips to Marfa alone has finally motivated me to sign up.


These contrasts - a sky bigger than normal and dirt that is more clay than soil, ranches big enough to be countries and trailers too small to imagine living in - are also present in the food. I ate at a greasy spoon diner for breakfast and at a sleek bistro with updated versions of Southern classics for brunch. I ate a deep-fried apricot pie in small-town Canton, Texas and pumpkin bread with cream cheese icing at a gluten free bakery in downtown Dallas. I ate deep-fried pickles on the run and made green smoothies at home. There was fast food and slow food.  Fresh food and fried food. Expensive food and cheap food.


And then there was grapefruit. I visited during grapefruit season. My mom and I bought a box of sweet, red Texas grapefruit and we ate a lot of it, the whole box and then some. We made smoothies with grapefruit juice. I ate them as if they were oranges, peeling them and then eating them segment by segment. I took the approach of my childhood, minus the heaping amounts of sugar, and cut the grapefruit in half and ate it with a spoon. I juiced grapefruit after grapefruit and made curd and jam. However, I did not broil it, but now I wish that I had. 


I just recently learned about broiled grapefruit. Perhaps you are well informed and have been broiling your grapefruit for years. Per usual, the internet was responsible for this discovery. All of a sudden I kept encountering articles and posts that instructed me to cut a grapefruit in half, sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar and then broil it until caramelized. And so I did as I was told and the results were okay. Just okay, I thought.

I love that when in Italy in addition to being able to order panna cotta or tiramisu for dessert, I also have the option of a plate of freshly cut pineapple, or orange slices, or just strawberries (not even with cream). I often eat fruit as is. A grapefruit cut in half with just a spoon. A peach so ripe that I have to eat it over the sink to catch the juice. You'll often find an apple in my bag and there is a well-stocked fruit bowl in my kitchen at all times. My favourite snack as both a child and an adult remains the same: a bowl of fruit. Good fruit doesn't require much more than a knife and sometimes, like a good peach or apple, doesn't even require that. However, heat, spices and a little bit of honey can go a long way and add some variety to how we eat our fruit.

Cinnamon just wasn't right for me. Don't get me wrong, I do love cinnamon. I, too, find it a cozy spice, but I also find it to be at times boring. It is just that cinnamon dominates. It hogs the spotlight and other spices, such as cardamom, star anise and saffron, are ignored by recipes for all things sweet. Ginger isn't pushed to the sidelines quite as much as the other spices, but I think it deserves just as much, if not more, attention that cinnamon. Sorry cinnamon, but you're just overused. 

Instead of cinnamon and sugar, the second time that I broiled my grapefruit I added ginger and honey and it was through this combination that I learned that broiled grapefruit is something special. But that is just me. The best cooking is always done according to individual taste. If you prefer brown sugar to honey, use the sugar. Same goes with maple syrup or white sugar or agave nectar. Cardamom instead of ginger, why not? Or, how about a pinch of dried red chile with a bit more honey to mix spicy with sweet? I feel like I should change the label recipe on this blog to formula. Most foods I share are about flavor combinations or ideas on how to eat or cook something, as opposed to a regulated account of what exactly to do. 

Broil some grapefruit for breakfast, eat it as a snack or serve it for dessert. Broil three or four at a time, or just make one for yourself. And do let me know if you have a favourite combination of sugar and spice to top it with.


Broiled Grapefruit with Ginger and Honey

inspired by the Kitchn

serves 1

ingredients

1 red grapefruit
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp honey

Preheat your oven to broil.

Cut the grapefruit in half and with a sharp knife carefully cut around the interior of the grapefruit and each membrane. Essentially, cut it the same way you would if you were to serve it raw in a bowl with a spoon. Place the grapefruit halves in an ovenproof dish and drizzle honey on top of each half and then a sprinkling of ground ginger (adjust the quantities of both to suit your taste). 

Place the grapefruit in the oven and broil until the top is caramelized, about 10-15 minutes. Let the grapefruit cool slightly and then serve. 

Guten! 

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