grapefruit_FeedMeDearly

I was 24 when a Mexican bird pooped on my face.

How did I know the bird was Mexican? Because we were in Mexico. In all fairness, he could have been an ambitious American bird who’d flown too far south for the winter. But for the purpose of this story, I’ll assume that he was Mexican. And that he was a he because aim was a factor.

It happened during my first trip to Mexico with the man I now call my husband. We’d been on a family vacation with his parents, and had made the last-minute decision to extend our stay. Both of us were in the midst of job transitions and were lucky enough that our calendars overlapped.

Initially, our spur of the moment hotel/apartment search was a flop; nothing was available. His parents weren’t happy that poolside Margaritas had been replaced by a frantic search for a strip mall hotel or kindhearted landlord who would take us in.

Towards the end of our planned vacation, we found ourselves apartment-hunting in downtown Acapulco when a bird, possibly a Condor or a Falcon, pooped on my face.

We didn’t actually see the bird, but Rodney, combining his high school biology and college-level math skills, made some rough estimates based on the poop surface area. Thankfully it had missed my eye, but covered a broad swath of my right cheek. Although I never actually saw the wreckage, I distinctly remember the sensation. Like a mug of hot chocolate had been splashed in my face.

These discussions happened after the fact of course. Rodney’s immediate reaction was to slip into a mild shock, recover, and then attempt to clean it off. A little too quickly I might add, because instead of wiping it off my cheek sideways, he barehanded it down over the corner of my mouth. Our Cat 4 problem had now escalated to a Cat 5.

We needed water. And not your standard issue garden hose as that would have increased the likelihood of a second gastrointestinal flesh-eating disease.

The hunt began for a bodega and bottled water. It wasn’t long before we found one and in that same back alley where the Condor had made me his personal latrine, we washed our tainted bodies.

cincodemayo

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IMG_5608 - Version 2

I once told a horrible tale about suffering through month after month of vegetarian lasagna.

This is not entirely accurate.

Yes, it was the summer when I was pregnant and deluged with weekly deliveries of vegetable-filled CSA boxes. It was exhausting, but it was also thrilling – each week opening a box to something new, something fresh, plucked from the ground only a day or two before.

I don’t know how much vegetarian lasagna I made that summer but it was enough to put a spare freezer on my Amazon Wishlist. Never mind the lack of space in my apartment. Details…Throw an afghan over it and there you go, instant coffee table.

What I really should have done is gotten a food manufacturing license and started to sell them at the local Walmart. They would have flown out the door, especially given the competing options which are full of cultured Dextrose and other unmentionables.

My technique is simple – I make a quick tomato sauce – in a pinch you can use a good jarred version. But it takes three minutes to sautee an onion & carrot, add a can or two of tomato puree, season, and let it simmer while you tend to the rest.

With the sauce simmering, I cook (most often grill on my indoor grill pan) the vegetables and prepare the remaining ingredients.

Although I’ve made lasagna with fresh pasta before, it can be time consuming, and you can get great results with no boil noodles. When you’re using no boil, or oven ready noodles, you definitely need a filling that has some heft – this isn’t the time for an airy cream sauce. I cut my vegetables into thick slices, drizzle some olive oil, season, and grill then until they’re nice and charred. No indoor grill pan? Slice them the same way, and roast them in the oven instead. They’ll still pack plenty of flavor.

When the vegetables are done, all I have left to do is to mix an egg into the ricotta, and I’m ready to assemble.

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The layering is pretty simple. Here’s my rule – don’t sweat it. Even after layering countless lasagnas, I still lose track of what goes where. It’s hard to remember the order – was it noodle, sauce, ricotta, veg? Or noodle, sauce, veg, ricotta? Don’t panic! This is not life or death. As long as you have some sauce on the bottom, and leave enough sauce for the top, it will be….just….fine….

I only say this because I was once that person – the lasagna novice who was overly concerned about having the layers in the right order; I would dart back and forth from the recipe, reading the instructions once, twice, thrice. Child’s play! Now you know my secret – that with homemade tomato sauce, fresh ricotta, and grilled vegetables, you really can’t go wrong. Just do me a favor- season it well- those plain noodles need to be salted and if you’re just seasoning the fillings, the noodles will be bland.

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Baked-Minestrone-Soup

Can we talk about soup? Old man winter has overstayed his welcome; the only benefit being that we have carte blanche to continue those stewing, braising and baking activities that have kept us busy all winter.

I’ve seen the restaurants waving their bundles spring vegetables in the air chanting “we have ramps!” My answer: too soon! I’m not ready for ramps, or fiddleheads, or even asparagus. If it’s below freezing, I don’t want to see any of those tender shoots. What good does it do me to devour a lightly dressed spring salad when I’m wearing two sweaters and a pair of mocs?

Back to that soup.  I’ve waxed poetic on this blog about my days as a ski racer, growing up on Canadian slopes from the mountains of BC, to the Laurentians of Quebec. Our home base was Ontario, so we spent the bulk of our time racing in Quebec.

Our trips happened frequently throughout the winter months. In the hours before dawn, we’d load our skis and poles into storage boxes built on top of our vans and start our slow trek East. My preference was to ride in the red van that we fondly referred to as The Big Cheese. It had modern day conveniences, notably a reliable radio station and a functioning heater.

The Big Cheese was named after our head ski coach, a man by the name of Jurg Gfeller, a former skier on the National Swiss Team who’d started our school in tiny Collingwood, Ontario.

Rodney had the chance to meet Jurg last year when for the first time in 20 years, I returned to Collingwood for a friend’s wedding. We stopped by the Ski Academy so that I could show Rodney a little of my roots including the dorm room where I’d ingest late night brownies and the words to every Indigo Girls song.

As luck would have it, Jurg was at the house that day, just as I’d left him 20 years before. Despite a lack of ski conditions (this was October), he was dressed for the season in a snug Descente vest.

He gave me a teasing but hard punch on the shoulder: “Vee gonna get you out on da slopes dis year Jesseeca?”

I was too ashamed to admit that I’d only been on skis a handful of times since I’d quit the sport in 2000.

“That’s the plan” I responded. I then launched into a lengthy description of my present-day nightmares, which are entirely skiing-related. Skis that won’t carve a turn; a pole dropped from the chairlift right before my start, and the most frightening of all: slipping off the chairlift and spending the remainder of the ride clutching the base for dear life.

Rodney shot me a look that suggested that I was barreling out of control into my gray zone of unproductive tangents. I’m working on it. No stranger needs to learn about my insomnia, and Jurg certainly didn’t need to know that my days as a skier under his tutelage contributed to some sort of athletics-related PTSD.

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There were fond memories too. Yes, the trips were long; 8 hours in a crowded van to get us to Mont Tremblant or Mont Sainte-Anne – with limited stops for food. But when we did stop, if it wasn’t a hit & run at a roadside McDonald’s, it was real food. French food.

Anticipation would build as we neared Montreal. The Pirelli Pneus billboard was my signal, answering that crucial “are we there yet?” question. Finally, I could visualize stretching cramped legs and indulging in some stick-to-your ribs Quebecois cooking.

One of my favorite dishes was, soupe a l’oignon au fromage, French onion soup. Onions slowly-cooked in a hearty beef stock, served in a crock with a thick layer of melted Gruyere cheese. Not to be confused with the gimmicky versions you’ll find in nondescript cafeterias, delis and dives. This stuff was the real deal – real beef bones, authentic French cheese.

I don’t think I’ve had soup that good since.

We were experiencing another cold snap last week, and I was digging around my fridge for inspiration. It was Saturday, and I was on a comfort food mission, but lacking a solid plan.

In one of those scenarios presented on cooking competitions, I faced an odd yet promising bag of mystery ingredients: a package of Sunday bacon, some collard greens, an onion, canned tomatoes, a sack of dried chickpeas. Minestrone? The wheels were turning.

As it was early in the day, I figured I’d put my slow cooker to work so that I could lazily attend to other things, namely lying flat on the couch, coffee in hand, dog curled and wedged into my crotch.

Jack

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Pomegranate molasses
Not long ago I was scared of pomegranate molasses.

It’s not a common ingredient, and to be perfectly honest, anything with the word molasses makes me just a little bit hesitant. My mind jumps to baking and Southern cooking, neither of which are strengths.

Combine my aversion to molasses with pomegranate molasses packaging, which is often entirely in Arabic, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

I’d bought a jar years ago when I’d seen it used in recipes from my Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cookbooks. Paul Wolfert, Yotam Ottolenghi, Claudia Roden, all repeat offenders.

But I’d hidden it in the back of my cupboard, along with the Vietnamese rice papers, and there it remained until last year. When for obvious reasons, I pitched the dust-covered bottle into the trash, horrified by its 2010 expiration date.

But I do love sweet & sour flavors. It’s a perfect marriage; Chinese restaurants have made a fortune singing its praises.

A few weeks ago I came across a recipe for sticky Moroccan chicken, and there it was – pomegranate molasses – in all of its glory, with the promise of a gooey, slick, finger-licking sauce.

Seeing that I’d already pitched the bottle of pomegranate molasses, I figured I’d pass on the recipe. But when I peeked into the fridge that morning, I was happy to see a full, unopened container of pomegranate juice. Hmmm…perhaps all was not lost. The wheels began to turn.

One thing I’ve learned in the kitchen is that when you don’t have the right ingredient, improvise. Lime instead of lemon, brown sugar instead of white, and most important, homemade when you don’t have a packaged version. You won’t get the exact same result, but you’ll get something similar. Which unless you’re trading baking powder for baking soda, will still be pretty delicious. Sometimes even more so.

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Before long, I was nose deep on a pomegranate DIY mission, surfing through online recipes and getting excited about the prospect of making some at home.

I found what I needed, cracked open the pomegranate juice, added some lemon juice and a hint of sugar, and I was off to the races.

I don’t know why I was so nervous about pomegranate molasses. It’s one of those simple, flavorful ingredients that every cook should have in his or her arsenal.

Bobby Flay will flay you for not keeping it on hand. (Cue the laugh track, I needed it there). But seriously, he’s crazy about this stuff. Here’s proof. It tastes good on everything. Including straight off the spoon.

Check out some of my favorite ways to eat it, starting with the chicken of course…

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And if you read this postabout my love for kitchen alchemy, you’ll know that the pomegranate molasses has made its way into quite a few cocktails…

Here it is paired with Chambord, key lime and blood orange juice with a hint of soda…

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cassoulet-feedmedearly-2

When I was first learning to cook, I was game to try anything that sounded fancy and impressive, irrespective of the grunt work involved. I had time on my hands, lazy weekends with nothing to do but visit the farmers’ markets and make a mess in my kitchen.

Cassoulet was one of my early dishes. With loads of slow-cooked beans and plenty of pork fat, it’s the kind of food that speaks my language.

My first attempt was a several day affair. I had to source the salt pork, boneless lamb shoulder, and fresh pork skin. I made my own chicken broth, and pre-soaked my beans. Although I couldn’t get my hands on real Toulouse sausage and didn’t make my own Duck confit, it was a decent first try.

And it was good. A hardened French peasant might have questioned my technique, but I’m certain that I could have fooled most people on this side of the Atlantic. 

If you’re eager to try your hand at authentic cassoulet, I recommend the book Real Stew by Clifford Wright. Along with the cassoulet, it’s full of inspiring stew recipes from around the world, from Bedouin Lamb and Mushroom Stew to Veal Paprikash and Czech-style Goulash. And of course, there’s a fantastic selection of chili recipes, which, have inspired me to make this, and this, and this. It’s one of my dog-eared, wine-splashed favorites.

Now I’m guessing that most people don’t have the desire or the time to spend 3 days preparing a dish. Even Clifford Wright’s quick cassoulet takes serious effort. But I don’t want you to miss out on making this dish at home because a simple version can be made in an hour. I make mine with ingredients that you’ll likely have on hand. No Toulouse sausage, no pork skin. Just raid your pantry and most of the items should be there. 

Flavorful sausage is a must. I’m lucky enough to have a butcher in the neighborhood who makes some of the best sausage in the city – Cotechino with parmesan, Lamb Merguez, Irish bangers, Wild Boar. For this recipe, I used his famous Porchetta sausage flavored with fennel, sage, and bay leaf. The sausage gives this dish most of its flavor, so if you’re using cardboard, your final dish will taste like cardboard. 

Along with the support cast of good smoked bacon, white wine, baby white beans and fresh bread crumbs, it’s one of those meals that  you can’t really screw up.

If you screw it up, put an egg on it.

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cassoulet-feedmedearly-egg

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