Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Asparagus Pesto + Toronto Picnickers

asparagus pesto

When my awesome friend Anna (whom I've mentioned several times) asked me if I would be interested in doing a blogger picnic series with her, I couldn't say no. And so, Toronto Picnickers was born.

Throughout the summer, Anna and I will be hosting picnics in parks all over Toronto to celebrate friends, food, and summer in the city. Our adventures will be featured on the lovely site Swallow, where you can read all about it. We're both stoked for a summer of good food, good stories, and good times.

So the other weekend, Anna and I invited a bunch of friends to join us in High Park for a picnic. However, due to an unfortunate weather forecast, we sent everyone indoors to avoid sad scenes of shivering people eating food with chilled fingers on damp blankets. Anna and I still ventured forth to take photos of the prettiness that is High Park prior to our indoor smorgasbord, because even though we didn't host our picnic outside, we wanted to pay some tribute to one of Toronto's loveliest green spaces.

a tangle of trees High Park in May
High Park, looking pretty in pink
spring blossoms dangling blossoms

And all that now brings me to the part you're probably much more interested in: pesto (which I've talked about before, and for good reason, because, let's face it, pesto is fantastic). I once had reservations about the murky green substance I kept seeing in jars at the supermarket - for the majority of my life, my only experience with pesto was with the weird-smelling stuff from the jar, so we didn't start out on the best of terms.

Thankfully, however, at one point I realized that pesto combines all things that are awesome: basil, cheese, garlic, nuts. Why wasn't I eating this? And constantly? It has the ability to make just about everything better: bread, eggs, pizza, pasta, crackers, sandwiches, a spoon - the list goes on.

Once I started making my own pesto, I realized quickly how easy it would be to play around with it. Pine nuts are not essential for a good pesto; I often use toasted almonds because I like their nutty, slightly smoky flavour, and I can see myself using walnuts too. I also got on the bandwagon of Adding Vegetables to Pesto, if only because I'm always trying to find more ways to make myself eat greens (because clearly I am still a five-year-old at heart). But hey, turns out adding lightly steamed greens to pesto yields an incredibly creamy and delicious spread.

It seemed to only make sense, then, to make pesto with asparagus, which is always the first thing in the markets and, at least to me, signals the beginning of summer - of warmer weather, cute sundresses, drinks on the patio, and pleasant late night walks. It seemed particularly appropriate to bring along to a picnic; it's easily transportable, can be eaten cold, and tastes great with other easily transported things, like crackers and baguettes.

And while our first picnic was held indoors (due to a damp and slightly chilly day), it was still a great success. You can check it out on Swallow here, and find Anna's post with her recipe for Cocoa Nachos with Berry Salsa here. (They were amazing, so you'll really want to.)

colours of spring Anna and her camera a screen of trees
asparagus the season of asparagus

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Warm Lentil Walnut & Apple Salad

warm lentil walnut & apple salad

Since I've become a vegetarian, there haven't been many moments that I've missed eating meat. I ate it rarely for years before I decided to stop eating it entirely, so it was hardly a drastic change to my eating habits that sent me into a state of shock and meat cravings that I know some people have experienced.

That being said, there are some things I do miss, more specifically, one dish, and that's my dad's stuffing.

I realize that the end of May is not really the time of year to feel nostalgic about the Christmas turkey stuffing of your childhood, but I'll get there. This recipe had absolutely nothing to do with stuffing or nostalgia in the beginning. In the beginning, this recipe was a loaf that came about only because I had an excess of cooked lentils in the fridge I didn't know what to do with. And so I googled, and then I made a loaf.

It was fine - good, even, but during the cooking process, as I was frying up the celery, carrot, apple, onion, garlic, and thyme, I took a taste and was transported back to the Christmas dinners of yore, when I still ate meat and my brother had yet to start thinking of me as a person with a "condition". It tasted like stuffing - very much like my dad's stuffing, which was always, at least for me, the highlight of Christmas dinner. It was rich, hearty, flavourful, and at least seventy-five percent sausage. God, it was amazing.

Somehow, however, this humble mixture of vegetables, apple, and a bit of thyme with salt and pepper tasted shockingly similar to my dad's stuffing. I made the loaf thinking, "Yeah - vegetarian stuffing in cube form!" and was mildly disappointed. It tasted good, but somehow the flavours just didn't seem as vibrant. And that's when I realized I had to deconstruct it (which is just a fancy way of saying "not mash it up and bake it").

It was a true success. The satisfying crunch of the vegetables is still there, the apple lends just the right bit of sweetness, the walnuts adds a bit of earthiness and texture, and the thyme is the perfect flavour to bring it all together.

brain food lentil walnut salad

Friday, May 17, 2013

My Mother's Bread

whole wheat bread golden ridges

My mother has been making her own bread for most of her life, using the same trusted recipe that she's perfected over time. I called her up several months ago asking for it and jotted it down hastily as she narrated it over the phone. I've made bread in the past, but it never turned out like my mother's - her loaves were always perfectly formed, with dark brown exteriors that weren't thick or crusty or hard to slice through. They were always baked evenly throughout, and even though they were made with whole wheat flour they weren't too heavy or dense, but had a light crumbly texture.

I missed my mom's bread, so I decided it was time to get her recipe and see if some of her bread making wisdom had rubbed off on me over the years. I've watched her make bread from the time that I was small enough to use her bread mixing bowl as a winter sled. She taught me how to knead bread and form it into loaves (although mine always end up looking a little odd). She showed me the trick of using your wrist to gauge the temperature of the water for proofing yeast: "If it's warm enough to wash a baby, it's the right temperature". (I'm still not sure that I would trust myself to wash a baby though.)

Of course, the main thing with making bread is patience. My mother always used to make bread on the weekends, on a lazy Saturday or Sunday. The big bread bowl would come out, along with the bread pans, darkened with use, and the entire morning or afternoon would be dedicated to the making of bread. She'd occupy herself with other chores or just relax in between rises - even though the bread takes about three hours to make, the majority of that time is spent waiting. My father and I would always wait impatiently, both of us looking forward to that first slice of fresh bread, still warm from the oven, smeared with melting butter.

So be warned, this bread requires time and patience, but it's more than worth it, if only for that first glorious slice.

my mother's recipe

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Spicy Black Bean Dip

spicy black bean dip tortillas & spicy black bean

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Apparently, today is not much celebrated in Mexico, but I will take any excuse I can get to invite people over to eat a ton of Mexican food. (It goes without saying how amazing it is.)

For example: black bean dip. You wouldn't think such a humble appetizer item would be worth getting excited over - I didn't. That was, until a month ago, when I sampled some innocuous-looking "black bean spread" from Mad Mexican. Holy shit. That stuff was fantastic. I may or may not have consumed an entire package of it in one night.

It was so damn good, in fact, that the very same night I went home determined to recreate that magical black bean spread. So at 11 pm, I strode into my apartment laden with tortilla chips, black beans, and various other grocery items, and made a beeline for the kitchen and my food processor. In a matter of some minutes, I had created my very own black bean spread. While it was by no means a re-creation of the taste experience I'd had earlier, it was still delicious and awesome in its own right.

This spread has a lot of zing to it, and it's packed with a few of my favourite things: garlic, cilantro, cumin, jalapeños, and lime. Honestly, with all of those things together, it's hard to go wrong.

flavour and spice