Making Lunches

About mid-July this year, our youngest daughter informed us that her friend at school has much better lunches than she does and she thinks maybe her chef Papa needs to step up his game.

food picNow, I’m just going to take a moment to unpack all of this. First of all, our youngest is spectacular at throwing some shade and rarely misses an opportunity to do so. She does this with an impish grin and gets away with it most of the time. Secondly, all our children can and do cook. She is super capable of making her own lunches and has done so. Having said that, Alex really loves to cook for people, this is such an expression of affection for him, that he will always make meals for us. Finally, we homeschooled our kids for varying parts of their educations and now we have 3 in school and so making lunches is something we need to get a handle on!

One of my favourite things to eat for lunch, either at home or at work, and what I’m in fact chowing down on as I write this, is a Big Salad. Remember when Elaine on Seinfeld became obsessed by the Big Salad? That is me. I love veggies and I really love having something I can eat over the course of hours as I do other things and it just gets better as the salad dressing sinks in. There is rarely a time in our house when we can’t make a Big Salad out of the stuff in our fridge and cupboards. And to go along with a Big Salad, I like to have a homemade dressing. I really, really, really dislike store bought salad dressings. I find them oddly sweet and glompy. And so I always make my own dressings, which can be as simple as taking some olive oil with salt and pepper in it, and a couple of lemon wedges or as fancy as sesame oil with garlic, ginger, hot chili flakes, soya sauce and lime juice. Check out some of our Big Salad and dressing combinations here.

Now on to those pesky kids! None of our kids are big sandwich eaters. Generally speaking, they will choose other options. And when we were homeschooling all of them, lunch was usually leftovers from the night before. Or pita pizzas: easy and quick. Now, we are looking to make lunches every day and apparently, one of our kid’s friends has a mom who is acing this lunch thing and putting the chef to shame so let’s get this lunch thing kicked up a notch. This will be an on-going endeavour so we’ll be sharing our ideas (and would love to hear yours!) as we go!

How to Build a Big Salad

big salad1 Start with greens

I like to use at least two types of greens.
Use iceberg or romaine for crunch and then
arugula or spinach or mesclun or mizuna or kale or some other more serious green for flavour.

if you are feeling fancy, make Macerated Kale. It breaks it down and makes it tastier and easier to chew.

To make, slice kale into thin strips. (Chiffonade as we chefs call it). Season with salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon and a massage in a little olive oil.

Or season with soy sauce and dried chilies, a splash of rice vinegar and massage in sesame oil. adding toasted sesame seeds is nice too.

Or add a little protein. Massage in some tahini and lemon, or peanut butter, or almond butter….

2 Add Veggies, add any or all of the following, whatever you have in your fridge

tomatoes, diced, wedged, cherry tomatoes….
cucumbers, sliced or diced
canned corn
celery, chopped
cabbage, shredded
carrots sliced thin or shredded
broccoli or cauliflower (roasted if you have time)
cooked green beans
red onion, I like to soak in cold water for a bit to take the edge off
snap peas
beets, boiled or roasted
… you get the idea. veggies

3 Add protein, one or more of the following

grilled, sliced chicken breast
grilled, sliced steak
dice ham or salami
hard boiled egg, wedged or chopped
cottage cheese
cheddar, gouda, smoked cheese… any hard cheese
blue cheese, particularly good with arugula and grilled steak
feta, goat cheese or parmesan
4Add something crunchy and interesting

sunflower seeds
walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts… any nut
sesame seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds
croutons
tortilla chips, corn chips…
coarsely chopped herbs
raisins, currants, dried cranberries

Dress your  salad

can be as simple as a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or a splash of balsamic or use one of these simple dressings:

 

Dijon and Honey

1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp grainy dijon mustard
pinch of salt
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
3 tbsps olive oil

Sesasme Ginger

small clove of garlic, minced
½ tsp grated fresh ginger
pinch of chili flakes
1 tsp brown sugar
1 tbsp rice vinegar (or lime juice)
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsps canola oil
1 tbsps sesame seeds (optional)

Orange Coriander

1 tsps cracked coriander seeds
1 tsp chili flakes
zest and juice of one orange
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
3 tbsps olive oil

Yogurt Dill

1 tbsp chopped fresh dill
1 tbsp chopped parsley
pinch of cayenne
½ cup yogurt
½ cup mayonaise
1 tbsp lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

Some of the combinations will work better than others, but play around, you’ll find the ones you like the best.

Mothershuckers!


lianeEvery year we celebrate my girlfriend Liane’s birthday with her. Her birthday is in July so we are lucky enough to have a fun event at the lake. It’s always a beautiful evening of food and wine, celebrating a beautiful soul. Earlier this year, Liane took a holiday to Nova Scotia and enjoyed seafood and beer in a pretty fabulous sounding restaurant on a pier called The Half Shell. This adventure provided the nudge toward a birthday dinner theme for this year: Oysters!

I was slow to come to raw oysters. Throughout my childhood, my dad kept cans of smoked oysters in the cupboard. I was always repulsed by the look of them and slightly put off by the texture of them but I could not resist their salty oiliness. I would eat them on crackers with a little crumble of blue cheese. And then when I was 12, I had an oyster po’boy at a roadside shack along the Gulf of Mexico, somewhere between New Orleans and on route to Florida. I can still remember the big white roll slathered in mayo, crispy cold shreds of iceberg lettuce and the crunch of the breadcrumb coating on the oysters, followed by the surprise of the warm creaminess of the hot oysters. It was incredible. I’ve never had another po’boy that meets up to that experience.

So, canned oysters and hot, breaded oysters were okay by me but raw oysters? Um, nope. Then about 10 years ago, Alex and I visited an oyster restaurant in Toronto called Starfish and I felt the time had come to really take the plunge, quit nibbling around the edges. The incredibly knowledgeable owner/head shucker hooked us up with oysters from all over the place: ….. There were delicate little oyster, meaty, creamy oysters, and mammoth I-think-not-Alex-can-have-those oysters. They were served with lemons and horseradish, and hot sauce, and champagne mignonettes. The owner walked us through pairing up and taught us the history and harvesting practices of most of them. He shucked them quickly and deftly with shuckers he designed and had made for himself. It was a beautiful evening and I left a raw oyster convert.oyster 3

A couple of years later, we took a fun weekend to New York and one of the great highlights was a place called Maison Premiere in Brooklyn. It was ah-mazing. The whole place was done up to look like a New Orleans bar from the turn of the last century, with big, slow moving fans, rickety little tables and peeling wallpaper. Our trays of oysters came on tin plates with shaved ice and we drank cocktails and slurped the oysters all back while listening to live brass band. That was a pretty incredible experience and I truly believe experiences enhance and filter our food experiences.

Possibly my favourite oyster experience came a few years ago in Nova Scotia. Alex and I, along with Adam Connelly from Segovia, attended the Chefs’ Congress run by Chef Michael Statdlander (a dream of mine is to bring this conference to Winnipeg but that is blog for another day…) We were set up in a field next to the Bay of Fundy and during the day, we attended workshops held under open-sided white tents. At the mid-morning break, instead of the usual stale muffins and coffee, Chef Michael Smith set up a giant old wooden cutting board piled with buckets of oysters on ice and shuckers standing upright, having been stabbed into the board. We walked up, grabbed an oyster, shucked it yourself and slurped it back. Followed by a shot of PEI vodka for anyone interested. It was the best conference I’ve ever attended and those were the freshest oysters I’ve ever tasted, having been plucked from the waters the day before. It was a magical experience.


lianaWhen Liane said she wanted oysters for her birthday, we were happy to make that happen. Alex sourced 2 kinds of oysters, malpeques and village bays. He then set about making mignonettes to highlight certain qualities in the oysters (I’ll let him talk about that and share some of the recipes). On the night of the party, we had chilled bottles of bubbly which goes great with oysters. Prosecco, Cava and, of course, Champagne all pair beautifully and cover a wide range of price points. Prosecco (Italy) and Cava (Spain) are both at the lower end of the spectrum, with many lovely bottles available for under $20. As for Champagne, the range is vast. My favourite is Veuve Cliquot and it is about $80-100 a bottle at the MLCC right now.

One of the really cool things that happened at Liane’s birthday party was the spontaneous shucking class Alex led. There were a few people at the event who had never shucked and so he taught them. It’s a great skill to have and once you get going, not too hard to pull off. Our eldest daughter learned how to shuck when she was 15 and got pretty fast at it, turning out plates of dozens of oysters at our old restaurant. There is this sweet spot, and when find it with the shucker, it gives to most satisfying pop and then the whole oyster opens up. You have to scrape under the oyster and do a quick once-over for shell bits, then pop it on the ice tray and grab another one. I highly recommend a shucking party, it’s a good time for everyone. 

About Oysters

oyster1There is a huge variety of oyster types, but the all come from one of 5 edible oyster species. They usually get their names from where they are from, Malpeque, Raspberry Point, Chesapeake Bay etc…. Sometimes they are given cute names that describe their appearance. Lucky limes are called that because of the green colour of their shells. The wide range of flavours come from the characteristics of the water where they were harvested. In general, the colder the water the cleaner the flavour and the smaller the meat. Oysters harvested in warmer waters tend to have a more pronounced “fishy” taste and tend to be larger. I had some Chesapeake Bay oysters in Baltimore that were as large as my fist. Its fun to try a variety of types and enjoy the nuanced tastes.

Oysters once harvested have long shelf life. If you ever have chance to look at old cookbooks from the prairies, you will see lots of recipes that contain oysters. This is because they were one of the few types of seafood that could be shipped this far inland before the advent of refrigerated transportation. When buying oysters, make sure they are fully closed and feel heavy for their size. They should smell like the sea, not like a dead fish lying on the beach.

To shuck an oyster you need an oyster knife. This is a short blunt knife. Although you can buy fancy ones like the Henckell’s or even Paddy’s own design, I am partial to the simple wood handled ones available for about 7 bucks at Gimli Fish Market. You can even do like a lot of the old maritimers do and use a stubby slot screwdriver. You will also need a tea towel, folded 3 times, this is used to hold the oyster and protect your fingers.

To shuck and oyster

oyster shuckf the oysters feel dirty or gritty, rinse under cold water, use a brush if needed.  Take a look at the oyster. There will be a flat side and a rounded side. You will also notice that the shell comes to a point. Place the oyster on the counter or cutting board with the flat side up and the point facing you oyster knife hand. Using the towel, hold the oyster in place. Do not press down too hard. With your other hand, hold the oyster knife, keep your fingers on the inside of the little guard to protect your fingers from the jagged shells. Gently work the tip of the oyster knife between the shells were it comes to a point. Don’t try to force it, just wiggle it gently. You will feel when you have the knife in properly, it feels like a little pop. Once the blade is in place, turn it, like you are turning a key to open a door. Do not pry it open, just twist the blade. When the shells come apart, run the blade along the top shell, keeping the blade flat against the shell. This will cut the muscle away from the shell. Then run the end of the blade along the inside of the bottom shell to release the meat from the shell. Try not to tear the meat and try to keep as much liquid in the shell as possible. The “liquor” keeps the oyster juicy and tasty. Check the oyster to make sure there are no little fragments of shell on the meat. If the oyster meat is dry or if it smells overly fishy, discard the oyster.

oyster 2To eat the oyster, just tip the shell into your mouth and slurp it back. For novice oyster eaters, just swallow the oyster whole like you are doing a tequila shot. Once you have learnt to love the taste of oysters, give the meat a little chew before swallowing it to get more of a flavour experience. I like oysters completely unadorned, but they are also good with a squeeze of lemon or lime, a couple drops of hot sauce or some freshly grated horseradish. Traditionally, oysters are served with a mignonette, which  really just mean something small. The most traditional mignonette is just finely diced shallots with red wine vinegar. I like to play around with other versions. Here are a few to try:

Cucumber Mint Mignonette

1/2 cup finely diced cucumber

1 tbsp chopped mint

1 oz gin

squeeze of lime

Balsamic Tomato Mignonette

peel and seed a roma tomato, finely dice the flesh

1 tbsp finely chopped basil

1 tbsp finely choppep parsley

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

Radish, Orange, Jalepeno Mignoette

2 radishes, finely diced

1 jalepeno, seeded and finely diced

1 tbsp grated orange zest

1 tbsp orange juice

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

Sesame Ginger Mignonette

1 tbsp grated ginger

1 tbsp black sesame seeds

1 tbsp finely chopped green onion

1 tsp white sugar

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup sesame oil

Chicken Livers with Polenta

livers 8This is our perfect comfort food. Feeling tired? Long day? Feeling sad and just need a warm hug? Chicken livers cooked with sausage or bacon, caramelized onions, tomatoes and stock that gets velvety as it reduces. Spoon this over creamy polenta, find a quaint english mystery show on Netflix… and chill.

We make this with bacon or sausage, depending what we have on hand. You can leave out the salty fatty pork component if you would like, but why? You can use wine or beer, but its just as good without. If you like mushrooms, you can add mushrooms. Feel the need for some healthy greens? Chop up a little kale and add it to the mix. The polenta is simple, quite basic, I usually add a little grated parm to the polenta, but it’s really good with smoked cheddar. Use whatever cheese you have on hand, or leave the cheese out all together. If you are avoiding dairy you can sub olive oil for the butter and skip the cheese.

Make sure you start the polenta before you start the livers because the longer the cornmeal has to cook the better.

Polenta

polenta 14 cups water

pinch of salt

1 cup cornmeal

2 tbsps butter

1/2 cup shredded parm, (or other cheese)

s+p to taste

 

  1. Put water in a heavy bottomed pot. Add salt, bring to a boil.
  2. Whisk the water to create a whirlpool, slowly pour in the cornmeal whisking the whole time. The mix should be the consistency of heavy cream. Don’t worry, it will thicken. Don’t keep adding cornmeal until it is thick, thats too much cornmeal.
  3. Bring cornmeal back to a boil and then turn down very low. Let simmer, stirring occasionally. If it gets too thick, add more water. If you have the patience, let this simmer for 45 minutes. The longer it cooks, the less gritty the cornmeal and the silkier the texture.
  4. Right before you serve, whisk in the butter, grated cheese and check the seasoning. You could also add chopped parsley, basil or other fresh herbs.

This is a great side dish for braised meats, chicken cacciatore or saucy sautéed vegetables. Try it with just a dollop of mascarpone and some chopped basil.

Chicken Livers

1/2 lb sausage or baconlivers 1

1 large onion, diced

1 clove garlic, miced

pinch of chilies

1 lb chicken livers

1 cup flour (optional)

1/4 cup wine or beer, optionalsliced garlic

2 cups chicken or beef stock

1 large tomato, diced

1/4 cup chopped green onions

s+p to taste

livers-4.jpg

 

 

  1. if you are using sausage, I like to use a mild italian sausage. If you like a little more heat, by all means, use a spicy sausage. If you are using bacon, slice it thick and cut it into 1/2 inch strips (or lardons).
  2. sauteé onions and sausage in a large heavy skillet until sausage is brown. add garlic and chili flakes and sauté one minute longer
  3. dust the chicken livers with flour. (if you are trying to avoid gluten, you can use corn flour or my favourite, chick pea flour. or you can skip this step altogether. The flour just helps give the livers a nice brown crust and thickens the sauce a bit)livers 5
  4. push all the sausage and onions to one side of pan. Shake any excess flour off the livers and place in pan. Now ignore them, walk away, don’t mess with them. People often spend too much time fiddling with food. If you keep fussing with the livers they won’t brown properly, you will tear the meat and make a murky grey mess. Leave the livers alone until the one side is nice and crisp and well browned. Then flip them over.
  5. livers 6Add the wine or beer if you want,  and reduce. Add the stock and reduce until sauce is creamy. Toss in  tomatoes and green onions and check the seasoning. Chicken Livers are best when just a little bit pink inside, if you over cook them they get chalky in texture.
  6. Serve livers on the polenta. Enjoy with a nice medium bodied red, like a valpolicella or a tempranillo or a dark malty beer.

Want to try something different? Check  Food 52
for this fun recipe for Buffalo Style Chicken Livers

Soup

zucchini2The turn in weather this week has me dreaming of soup and big mugs of tea and fresh baked bread slathered in butter. With our current tilt toward eating healthy, I’m getting the soup and tea. In fact, as I write this, I have peppermint tea in Alex’s ceramic mug. He loves this mug because it has a nice big handle, making it easy to grip with his big man hands (sausage fingers?) I love the mug, too. A little bit for the same reason but also because it’s his mug and I like drinking tea from it and feeling that quiet connection.

In addition to all the tea you can stand to drink, from any kind of mug, soup is considered a reasonably healthy choice, with some caveats. No cream. Minimal potatoes. Not too much bacon (or any, really). That’s about it, I think. Making soup flavourful and healthy is actually pretty straight-forward and you still feel satiated and full of love from it. I also like to make less-healthy soups which my daughters truly enjoy. And it makes me happy to feed them something so full of love and warmth.garlic

In case you haven’t noticed, I love soup. Which I find kind of funny because as a kid, I would have nothing to do with soup. I pretty much thought it was nonsense: a bowl of mystery textures waiting to torture me. Fortunately, I slowly moved through this particular neurosis and have come to fully embrace soup. I have soup preferences, mind you. For example, smooth soups are okay but chunky soups are the best. As Annie, a frequent customer at my cousins’ restaurant in Riding Mountain used to say in her thick Ukrainian accent, “I like tick soup, lots of juice”. It’s true, I do. I like my soup with lots going on it. And our youngest kid totally gets this and loves soup. She would eat it for every single meal. So, I make a lot of soup. And I think I’m pretty good at it. My dear friend Harry Paine, a brilliant cook among his other great skills, used to tell me my soups looked horrible but always tasted divine. He said I had the ability to make something out of nothing. I made 2 soups this week and I’m going to share the recipes – one is healthier than the other but they are both fabulous so enjoy!

cropped-onions.jpg

 

Potato Leek Soup

Potato Leek soup

2 tbsps olive oil

3 large beautiful leeks, thinly sliced cross-wise – as you near the dark green parts, peel back the tougher bits and keep slicing, until it’s all tough parts.

3 lbs potatoes, cut in half and then thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

stock to cover – about 1.5 litres

chili flakes

salt and pepper

1 whole lemon – zest the rind and juice it

  1. Put the sliced leeks in a colander and push the rings apart. Leeks hold a lot of dirt from growing so you want to take a few minutes to make sure they are well rinsed.
  2. Heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a big soup pot. Add the leeks and saute til soft. Add the potatoes,garlic, chili flakes and saute for a few minutes, getting a bit of char happening on some of the potatoes.
  3. Season with salt and pepper. Add the stock and scrape the bottom of the pot to pull up all the yummy bits stuck to the bottom. Let simmer for 40 minutes, uncovered.
  4. Add lemon zest and lemon juice. Taste to decide if it needs more salt or pepper.

Sometimes, I will throw a can of corn into this soup because I know my girls love it and it adds a bit of colour. You can add it at any point.

Tomato Lentil Soup

lentil soup1/2 lb diced bacon or turkey bacon or diced sausage (this is totally optional – if not using bacon or sausage, you will need some canola or olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan before sautéing the veggies)

1 white onion, diced

2 carrots, diced

2 ribs of celery, sliced (including the leaves, they are so good, especially in soups)

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 zucchini, diced

1 cup cut green beans (or cabbage or cauliflower)

1 big can diced tomatoes or 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes

2 cups cooked french lentils (brown or Puy – just not red lentils – boil them in stock, herbs and a tsp of butter until they are al dente)

1/2 tsp chili flakes

salt and pepper

chopped fresh basil or flat leaf parsley or both (and as much or as little as you like)

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

  1. Fry the bacon in the soup pot until crispy – depending on the size of the pot, you may need to do this in batches. If you put too much bacon in at once, it kind of struggles to get crispy – leave space between the pieces. If using bacon, start with a cold pot and heat it at medium high, this avoids the bacon burning or being burnt and soggy: truly a bacon disaster.
  2.  Once the bacon or sausage is nice and crispy, remove it from the pot and set aside. Drain off most of the fat, just leaving a coating on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Saute the onions over medium high heat until soft and just starting to turn brown, add celery, carrots and garlic. Add chili flakes, salt, pepper. Cook for another 1-2 minutes then add the zucchini. Continue to saute for a few minutes. Add the canned tomatoes, green beans and lentils. Let simmer for 30 minutes. Add the chopped herbs and the balsamic vinegar. Enjoy!