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Spring, it seems, is my walking season. Since the weather has taken a turn for the bright and sunny, most days I plunk Kiddo in the stroller and spend a good chunk of the day outside. Sure, it may not be warm yet, but it isn’t cold. Trees aren’t quite budding yet, but they will soon.

All of this to say that my time in the kitchen lately has been more transactional, less meandering. So in lieu of a fuller post, here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve been cooking.

1. Leeks vinaigrette, courtesy of Orangette. It’s my new favourite thing to do with leeks; tender and green and reminiscent of marinated artichoke hearts. I suspect that leeks will become as much of a grocery list staple as apples and carrots, which at our house we go through at a prodigious rate.

2. Mark Bittman’s pan-cooked vegetables with crunchy fish. While technically this is Springtime, it takes a while for the new fresh stuff to make it onto our plates so we still have to make do with winter veg. But grating a variety of sweet root veg and giving it a quick saute, with some very light seasoning, seems a light and refreshing thing to do with yet more parsnips and sweet potatoes.

3. This morning’s breakfast was a Springtime-y omelette with parsley, green onion, asparagus and feta. Made with eggs from our neighbour’s family farm.

Happy Spring.

You wouldn’t know it from my name, but ethnically speaking I’m more Irish than anything.

The year that I was twenty-two, I went to Ireland with my Mom and my sister to connect with our Irish roots.

We travelled through Ireland like Canadians; which is to say, we drove ridiculously long distances that no sane Irish person would. As Northern Ontarians we’re accustomed to driving at least eight hours just to get to someplace interesting, but we hadn’t accounted for the narrowness, curviness, and overall treachery of the roads. Sure, it may be only 250 km or so from Dublin to Donegal.  That only takes a few hours on our nice, wide, Canadian roads. But in Ireland, the lanes were so narrow that I was always worried about sideswiping the lorry next to us. (And at one point we did lose our hubcap in downtown Belfast after hitting a curb. Never mind.) On the rural roads, signage was spotty and the National Roads Authority didn’t always see fit to put up protective barriers between driving lanes and cliffsides. What I’m getting at is, the distance may have been manageable, but the drive itself felt so perilous we really should have taken it slower.

So a lot of my memories of Ireland involve driving and the green, rocky, rolling landscape. But me being me, a few meals shine out too. At a pub in Galway I ate a creamy coconut vegetable curry n top of boxty, which is basically a potato pancake. I had Ploughman’s lunch for the first time. In the small town of Doolin (which was special because my mother’s maiden name is Dooling) I had a  seafood chowder that I am still trying to recreate.

And everywhere we ate, it seems, there was always a basket of dark brown bread on the table. Hearty, crusty, staff-of-life bread that I couldn’t get enough of. After I came home I tried to recreate it, but could never get it right.

The problem was that I always assumed it was a yeast bread, but I recently learned that it’s not. Basically, it’s soda bread. But not what North Americans think of as soda bread; there’s no currants and it’s whole wheat, not white.  Apparently in Ireland everyone has their own way of making it, but the main components are straightforward: whole wheat flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk.

This recipe includes a few other ingredients, like additional bran and an egg to help bind it, but it’s a pretty simple bread to bake. It is dense and crusty and filling enough to make a meal along with a bowl of soup. It’s still not quite what I ate in Ireland, but I’m happy enough to keep making wheaten breads like this in hope of finding the elusive perfect batch.

 This week, let this be your nod to Irishness. It’s way better than green beer.

Notes: You can bake this freeform on a baking sheet, but I like using a springform cake pan to help the bread rise higher.

Irish wheaten bread
(adapted from Epicurious)

1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for shaping
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 3/4 teaspoons salt 
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3/4 cup of either: wheat bran, wheat germ or oat bran (or a combination of all three)
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1 large egg
About 1 3/4 cups buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 425 Fahrenheit, and lightly grease and flour a 10″ springform cake pan. (Alternatively, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.)

2. In a large bowl, combine the whole wheat and all-purpose flours. Using a box grater, grate the cold butter into the flour mixture and mix to combine evenly. Stir in the remaining dry ingredients.

3. Break the egg into a two-cup glass measuring cup and beat lightly with a fork. Add enough buttermilk to make two cups’ worth of liquid, and combine. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add the buttermilk mixture. Stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until the dough comes together into a wet, shaggy mass.

4. Scrape the dough onto a floured work surface and dust with some additional flour. Shape the dough into a round roughly 7 to 8 inches across. Don’t worry about shaping it too perfectly; the beauty of this bread is that it’s crusty and nubbly. With a sharp knife, score a cross on the top of the bread. Brush the top of the dough with water, or the watered-down end of the buttermilk-egg mixture.

5. Bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes, until it is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. The centre should register at 195 or 200 with an instant-read thermometer. Let cool and serve warm or at room temperature.

The bread keeps well for two or three days if wrapped, and freezes well.

Can we just take a moment and acknowledge that despite its many virtues, meatloaf is not very photogenic?

How about if I strategically place it on a nest of *Confetti Kale?  

 

Yeah, still not that great. So let me say that despite its humble appearance, this meatloaf is pretty spectacular.

I’m a big fan of meatloaf. I have never understood why it has a reputation for being dull and loathsome. Probably TV, wherein broccoli and brussels sprouts are also reviled, is to blame. But seriously, what could be wrong with a dish that’s economical and receptive to so many different types of seasoning? I love the traditional beef-and-pork meatloaf with the sweet ketchupy glaze, but there’s so much room to play. Moroccan lamb. Tex-Mex chipotle. And in this case, made with lean ground turkey, spiked with fennel and topped with bacon to make it seem decadent.

And let’s face it, this time of year, we still need a bit of decadence. Here in Central Canada we still have a bit of winter left to go. While you, my west coast friends, can go enjoy your asparagus and fiddleheads, we still need some comfort food to give us the strength to carry on.

I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t written much (if anything) about fennel here yet. Fennel is one of my favourite winter flavours. I eat it sliced very thinly in salads at least once a week these days, and when I cook with it, I usually try to bump up its presence in the dish with ground fennel seeds, but in this recipe I go one step further and add ouzo to deglaze the pan when you saute the onion. A quarter-cup sounds like a lot, but it mellows in the cooking. You could ease off and just use white wine or even stock, but it’s worth the use of an unconventional cooking ingredient.  

Despite its down-home virtues I don’t really think of meatloaf as a weeknight dinner unless I’ve done most of the work in advance.  There’s a fair amount of chopping, plus the baking time is a bit long. To get a better return for your time investment, you can mix up a double batch and freeze one batch for later. Or, if you are a two-eater household like mine, (well technically three, but she’s not really into meatloaf yet), you can split the recipe below into two smaller meatloaves. One half-recipe will yield two dinner servings plus two brown-bag lunches.

*At my house, Confetti Kale is what we call a simple saute of diced red pepper and carrot, corn and kale. Onion or garlic if we feel like it. Nothing fancy, just tasty and colourful.

Turkey Fennel Meatloaf
serves 8

Do-ahead: Take the recipe through to the end of step 4 and cover the meat mixture in plastic wrap. It will keep a day or two in the fridge before baking.

2 tsp. olive or veg oil
1 medium-sized onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup finely diced fennel (about 1 cup)
generous pinch chili flakes
2 tsp. fennel seeds, lightly ground
1/4 cup ouzo or white wine
4 thick slices of bread, crusts removed
3/4 cup milk
2 lbs ground turkey
4 slices of bacon, finely chopped
1 tbsp. worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten

Optional: about 8-10 slices of bacon
Or: 2 tbsp. honey mustard as a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and position a rack in the centre of the oven.

2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook the onion, garlic and fennel until softened and just beginning to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the chili flakes and fennel seeds, and cook one minute more. Add the ouzo or wine to deglaze the pan and cook 2 to 3 minutes to reduce the liquid, until the mixture is almost dry. Remove from the pan and set aside in a large mixing bowl.

3. In a shallow dish, soak the bread in the milk for about 5 to 10 minutes, mixing once or twice so that the bread is evenly soggy but not falling apart. Lightly squeeze the bread one handful at a time to get rid of some of the milk, and finely chop it. Add the chopped bread to the cooked onion-fennel mixture.

4. To the large mixing bowl, add the ground turkey, chopped bacon, worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper and egg. Mix just until combined – overmixing will make the meat loaf tough.

5. Do a taste test. Heat a teaspoon of oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Shape about a tablespoon’s worth of mixture into a patty and fry it on both sides until cooked through. Taste it and adjust the seasonings as needed.

6. To bake the meatloaf, line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the meat mixture to the baking sheet and shape it into a rectangular block about 10″x4″. It will become more loaf-shaped as it cooks. If you’re using an optional topping, now is the time to drape it seductively with bacon or brush the top with honey mustard. Bake the meatloaf for approximately 45 to 50 minutes (35 to 40 if you’re baking a half-batch), until the middle registers at 165 F on a meat thermometer. Allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Elsewhere: Junction Parents

Hey hey! I have a guest post at my neighbourhood online hub, Junction Parents.

This month in fast, easy, family-friendly recipes: Mac and cheese with leeks and bacon.

Barely-sweet granola bars

Recently I made some changes to my diet. The kinds of changes that, while you know are good for you in the long term, are difficult to carry out. The kinds of changes that require not only the advice of a trusted health professional to make you do it, but the deep-seated belief that she is right, and if you do it, you’ll feel better.

By which I mean since the new year I’ve cut out caffeine. And white starches. And sugars. I’ve started eating less wheat, and more of other grains, like amaranth, buckwheat and kamut. These changes are meant to be more or less permanent, with the understanding that in a little while I can switch from a zero-tolerance policy to a sometimes policy.

I’ve known for a while that I needed to do this. I have issues with my blood sugar levels, and there are times when getting hungry is a full-blown crisis. It’s not pleasant, for me or anyone close to me (especially my husband). So  I figure that since I don’t have work stress in my life these days, and I have the energy required to eliminate things from my diet, try out new ingredients and recipes, and recalibrate my tastebuds, now’s the time.

And here’s what I’ve learned so far: cutting out sugar sounds like a simple change. (Notice I said simple, not easy.) But it’s actually one change made up of a million tiny changes. It’s learning to like the taste of (decaf) coffee without sugar. It’s switching my evening snack from cheese and crackers to cheese, a bit of fruit and a few nuts. It’s discovering that oatmeal tastes just fine with some cinnamon and banana in it intead of maple syrup. (This is not true of french toast. Some things you just have to let go of.)

So far, results have been good. I feel much more even-keeled, and I’ve lost a few pounds to boot. So if you’re doing something similar, good news! I will share my successful new healthy recipes right here, so you have less kitchen experimenting to do!

But on to the recipe already. This new no-sugars rule unfortunately means no honey and no maple syrup either, or sweeteners in general. Which sadly removes granola bars from my diet. And I miss them! So I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I tinkered with this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, and took out just about all the sugar and honey, relying instead on nut butter, applesauce and eggs to bind it all together. So believe me when I say these things are barely sweet. In fact, the sweetness here largely comes from the dried fruit. It tastes sweet to me, because my palate is different now, but if you are NOT on a no-sugar diet, you can feel free to sub in honey for the applesauce, and even add more if you want.

Barely-sweet granola bars
makes 16-20 squares

1 2/3 cups quick-cook rolled oats
1/3 cup oat flour (or quick-cook oats pulverized in the food processor)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
2-3 cups mixed dried fruit and nuts (I used figs, apricots, pistachios, almonds, coconut and ground flax seeds)
1/3 cup nut butter (I’ve used both tahini and almond butter; I preferred the almond butter.)
1/4 cup applesauce (optional: use up to 1/2 cup honey in addition to the 2 tbsp. below)
3 tbsp. melted butter
2 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. vanilla
1 egg

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line an eight-inch square with parchment paper, allowing it to go up the sides. Lightly grease the parchment paper and the exposed pan, or coat with a non-stick spray.

2. Mix together all the dry ingredients, including the fruit and nuts. In a separate bowl, mix together the nut butter, applesauce, vanilla, honey, melted butter and egg. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry until the mixture is evenly crumbly. If the mixture is too dry, add a few tablespoons of water.

3. Spread the mixture in the prepared pan, pressing it in firmly to ensure that it’s molded to the shape of the pan.

4. Bake the bars for 30 to 40 minutes until they’re brown around the edges. They’ll still seem soft and almost underbaked when you press into the centre of the pan but, they’ll set once completely cooled.

5. Cool the bars in their pan completely on a cooling rack. Alternatively, you can use the parchment paper to pull them out of the pan and let it cool on the rack so that it cools more quickly.

6. Once the bars have cooled completely, use a serrated knife to cut the bars into squares. To store, wrap the bars individually in plastic or stack them in an airtight container. In humid weather, it’s best to store bars in the refrigerator. They also freeze well.

 

Usually on weekends we have one fancy egg breakfast. This morning I wanted something special and red, on account of the Hallmark-manufactured holiday happening on Monday. So I made poached eggs on whole-wheat biscuits, with creamy red pepper sauce and some garlic-sauteed spinach on the side.

The biscuits were cribbed from a King Arthur Flour recipe, but I haven’t yet tweaked it to my liking so I won’t include it here yet. However, the sauce is an old favourite. This recipe makes way too much for a few poached eggs, but then it also tastes divine as a pasta sauce, or as a drizzle over baked chicken, turkey or fish. It also freezes well for a later time, so that in a month or so you can randomly have fancy poached eggs again without having to do as much work.

Red Pepper Cream Sauce

1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled and seeded
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cold milk
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. tamari soy sauce
1/4 tsp. sriracha hot sauce
pinch salt

Equipment: immersion blender

1. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Sprinkle in the flour and whisk to combine, and let cook for a few minutes until it turns from yellow to a whiter shade of yellow. [Cooking Fact! This is called a white roux. It’s used as a thickener for bechamel, or white sauce. A brown roux, cooked a few steps further till it’s a nutty golden brown, is used to thicken brown sauces.]

2. With a whisk in one hand and the cup of milk in the other, pour in the milk and whisk vigorously to combine. Let cook until thickened until it coats the back of a spoon. If you draw a line with your finger on the back of said spoon, the line should its shape. It’s okay if you end up with a few lumps, because you’re just going to puree the whole thing soon. 

3. Pour the sauce into a large glass measuring cup or other vessel you like to puree stuff in. Add the remaining ingredients and puree until smooth.

4. Adjust the seasonings to taste.

Marriage (or any other long-term cohabitional situation) is a wonderful thing, but it does have a way of nudging certain foods out of your life. Over time, dishes that had previously been a single person’s mainstay are shelved out of respect for the significant other’s dislikes; one day you wake up and realize these old friends have become culinary persona non grata.

For many years I lived with my beloved friend Jennifer, who is a star in the kitchen, but whose downfall was that she doesn’t like potatoes. Not that she outright won’t eat them, she just made her utter lack of enthusiasm for them very clear. So I deleted the potato from my cooking for years, even after we stopped being roommates. (I have since reclaimed the potato.)

Now, the two main things I miss and have to eat on my own are salmon and tuna. Canned tuna, especially, which Andy used to feed to his late beloved kitty, Mia. Years after Mia’s demise, he still considers canned tuna a sort of catfood and likely always will.

But see, to me canned tuna is instant dinner or lunch. It’s a pantry wonder. Cheap, tasty protein, it doesn’t need thawing or cooking or planning at all. It just sits there in your cupboard ready to be tossed into a sandwich, on top of a salad or into a pasta dish. It plays well with others, especially other things that generally live in your kitchen, like a can of tomatoes, pasta, garlic, lemon and olives. A can of tuna, to paraphrase the late Laurie Colwin, will get a hungry person out of trouble.

This dish in particular is what I eat on the rare nights I find myself alone for dinner. It’s perfect for the times when you’re desperate for a quick and easy dinner, and you’re low on groceries. It’s easy to make – the sauce is assembled while the pasta cooks. And the flavour is something much better than the sum of its parts: briny olives with fishy tuna brought together with a tomato base; lemon zest and fresh herbs give the whole thing a lift. (In a perfect world I would have had fresh herbs in this photo, but there weren’t any in my fridge. I think the food gods will forgive me.)

I’ve written the recipe for four, but a half-recipe will easily feed one person dinner and provide lunch for the next day.

Pasta with Tuna and Olives
serves 4

2 tbsp. olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
generous pinch of chili flakes
1 tbsp. lemon zest
1/4 cup chopped pitted olives
1  28-oz. can diced tomatoes
2 cans of tuna
salt and pepper to taste
optional: 1 tbsp. chopped capers
garnish: chopped parsley or basil

pasta – I’ll let you decide what kind and how much. The pasta in this photo is fettucine made with kamut flour. I also like short pasta, like fusili or penne, to go with this chunky sauce. .

1. Heat a skillet over medium heat. When the pan is hot, heat the oil until it shimmers and add the garlic and chili flakes. Cook until the garlic softens and is aromatic but not browned. Add the lemon zest and olives (and capers, if using), cook for 1 minute and then dump in the tomatoes and tuna. Let simmer for 10-15 minutes while the pasta cooks.

2. Meanwhile, cook your pasta in a large pot of salted water. Cook it just to the al dente stage.

3. Season the sauce to taste and mix in the herbs. Drain the pasta and toss with the sauce.

Leftovers taste even better the second day.