Friday, May 31, 2013

asparagus and cheese sauce on toast

Once, on Prince Edward Island, someone fed me asparagus and cheese sauce on toast.

I had a boyfriend whose mother was from the Island, and maybe it was one of his relatives. I can hardly remember anything about that trip  it was maybe 15 years ago  except that it was Easter and it was cold and snowy and someone fed me asparagus and cheese sauce on toast.

I had never heard of such a thing.

I mean, I had heard of each individual thing: asparagus, cheese sauce, toast. But I had never heard of putting them together and then eating them with a fork and knife for dinner.

I remember going home and making it a couple of times at my little apartment in Halifax where I was studying. And then I don't remember ever making it again, even though I obviously liked it.

But this week in my Prairie city, that is almost as far and as different from Halifax and Prince Edward Island as you can get in Canada, I thought of it again.

We had half a bunch of asparagus sitting in the fridge and no plan for dinner. I suddenly remembered putting asparagus and cheese sauce on toast back on the east coast (rhyme not intentional).

As a good western boy, Scott had never heard of such a thing, but he was game. Twenty minutes later  bread toasted, asparagus steamed, cheese sauce whipped up  we were eating dinner and happy as (PEI) clams.

I made the recipe up out of my head because this is not a complicated business. I did try to look it up on the Internet to see if there was some quaint Island name I could attach to it.

I found absolutely nothing related to asparagus and cheese sauce on toast and Prince Edward Island. So, as Anne Shirley would say, the name for this dinner is plain prose and not poetry.

But I think you'll like it.

P.S. If you're from PEI and you know what this is properly called, could you please tell me?

one year ago: Chinese-Canadian lettuce wraps and loganberry vinegar
two years ago: Oregon hazelnut salad and blueberry rhubarb rum jam
three years ago: ripe bean soup and chocolate peanut butter oatcakes

asparagus and cheese sauce on toast
serves 2

 5 pieces of bread
enough asparagus to cover the toast (maybe 15 stalks)
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. wheat flour
     or gluten-free: 1 tbsp. sweet rice flour*
1 cup milk, heated
1 c. old cheddar cheese, grated
salt and pepper to taste

Start by making the cheese sauce. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and let it simmer for 1  2 minutes to cook and bind together. Slowly whisk in the heated milk. Turn the heat up to medium and bring to a simmer. Simmer for a minute or two until it's thickened somewhat. Whisk in the cheese a bit at a time until it's incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In the meantime, put the asparagus in simmering water and cook until bright green and tender. Alternatively, steam it until tender.

Toast the bread.

Set the table with butter, asparagus and cheese sauce. Butter your toast. Lay the asparagus on top. Pour cheese sauce over to taste. Eat.

*If you don't have any sweet rice flour, you can use white or brown rice flour but your sauce won't be quite as smooth.

Monday, May 20, 2013

cauliflower and mull cheddar soup

Have you heard of a Scottish genius called Nick Nairn?

Growing up in Canada, I had not  until I found his big glossy book at a bookshop in Inverness a few years ago. I carted New Scottish Cookery back across the pond and he has joined us for quite a few dinners here in the new world.

Scott especially has made outstanding (and time consuming!) dishes from Nick's recipes. I'm talking baked filet of halibut with cabbage, smoked bacon and a tarragon cream sauce, not to mention lasagne of smoked haddock and peas, which is much more elegant than it sounds and involves a homemade vegetable butter sauce.

There's also a genius spicy salmon broth that comes together very quickly and has lemongrass and chillies practically bursting out of it.

For my birthday weekend this year, Scott offered to make me a new recipe from New Scottish Cookery. I opened the book with great anticipation, but only got three recipes in.

The bright green herb oil drizzled over the white cauliflower and mull cheddar soup got me.

Looking at it, I thought that maybe, just maybe, this might be the cauliflower cheese soup I have been searching for all my life. This might be the one that wouldn't break into watery pockets of bland cauliflower purée. This might be the one that would be supremely creamy and still have lots of cheesy flavour. This might be it.

It is.

And it's so simple that we are now making it regularly on weeknights. It really just has five ingredients: onion and garlic softened in a good amount of butter, cauliflower and some kind of nice cheddar cheese. We like an Irish cheddar called Kerrygold Reserve, although it is possible I was seduced by the handsome wrapper.

Yes, we've made the herb oil too, but you know what?

Aside from looking pretty, it's not really necessary. The soup itself has so much cheesy-cauliflower flavour that it doesn't need any fancy herb oil to gunk up my immersion blender. Adding a bit of chopped parsley also looks pretty and is a lot less work.

Thank you, Nick Nairn, for your new Scottish cookery.

one year ago: mango love on oahu
two years ago: sour cream coffee cake and dutch marzipan cookies
three years ago: chocolate nut balls

cauliflower and mull cheddar soup
slightly adapted from New Scottish Cookery
feeds six

50 g. (2 oz) butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 large cauliflower, chopped finely (1  2 cm pieces)
140  175 g. (5  6 oz) Mull Cheddar, Kerrygold Reserve Cheddar or other aged white cheddar,    grated
freshly ground sea salt and black pepper
1 tbsp. fresh parsley, finely chopped, to garnish

Warm a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add the butter and let it melt. Add the onion. Stir often and cook until it's translucent, golden and almost softened, about 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute.

While the onion and garlic are cooking, fill a kettle with 1 litre (4 c.) of water and set it to boil.

Add the cauliflower and boiled water to the onion and garlic. Bring it to a boil, and simmer until the cauliflower is tender, about 20 minutes. Take it off the heat.

Purée the soup with an immersion blender until it's quite smooth. Return the pot to the element and turn the heat on low. Add a small handful of cheese and stir it in until melted. Repeat until all the cheese is melted in. (If you add it all at once, it will clump.) Turn the heat off.

Serve with fresh cracked pepper and chopped parsley on top.

Note: Nick Nairn says that if you'd like to freeze the soup, don't add the cheddar. Instead, add the cheddar when you reheat it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

spring in a jar: rhubarb syrup

The rhubarb has been waiting patiently for me.

Just before running out the door to catch my plane out of Comox, I remembered the rhubarb. Dad rushed out to cut me some big, happy stalks. We pushed them into a plastic bag, and carefully laid them in my carry-on next to the kale and stinging nettles.

That was the end of April.

Since then I have planned a live radio show on board a streetcar and gone to Saskatoon to celebrate my sixth wedding anniversary. It's been a busy few weeks.

But, as I mentioned, the rhubarb has been a model vegetable,* quietly waiting at the back of the fridge.

Yesterday, I chopped it up and turned it into a slightly-sweet, ruby-red syrup.

In other words: spring in a jar.

I make this syrup every spring because it's such a nice way to process rhubarb and looks so pretty. It's also incredibly easy about 20 minutes from stalky start to syrupy finish.

What to do with the syrup?

Well, it would be a darn good excuse to make panna cotta. I also like it drizzled on a dollop of thick Greek yogurt. And, in just three days, the weekend will be here and we'll try it dibbled on pancakes.

bonus photo: this is rhubarb just pushing out of the ground in February

Really, you could spoon it over anything . . . what food isn't happier with a bit of pink syrup on top?

*You may call rhubarb a fruit. That's OK, too.

one year ago: mango love on oahu
two years ago: dutch marzipan cookies
three years ago: putting asparagus on pizza and chocolate nut balls

rhubarb syrup
slightly adapted from Canadian Living

makes about 1 cup / 225 ml syrup

500 mL (2 c.) fresh or frozen rhubarb, chopped
125 mL (1/2 c.) white sugar
125 mL (1/2 c.) water
1 strip lemon peel

Put all the ingredients in a pot with a heavy bottom. Bring to a light boil over medium-high heat. Turn the heat down a bit so it can simmer comfortably and stir every so often. Cook until the rhubarb has broken up, but isn't a dead pulp, 8 10 minutes.

Strain through cheesecloth or a fine-mesh sieve suspended over a bowl. If you like your syrup a bit thicker, return the syrup to a clean pot and simmer for 8 10 minutes. It will reach the consistency of maple syrup once it's cooled. (Simmer it longer if you want it even thicker; but don't simmer it so long that it loses its fresh flavour.)

Cool and refrigerate. Keeps for at least a week. Lovely on yogurt, panna cotta, anything that needs a little injection of spring.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

iranian desert figs

See these funny-looking dried figs?

My dad and I found them in a little Middle Eastern shop in Victoria. They were sitting in a giant basket right by the door. We peered down at them, curious.

Dad brought me up eating dried figs and dates, but we had never seen any quite like this. They were pale blonde and I was fascinated to see that each one was split into a Y, baring its little seeds to the world.

Usually, I like dried figs that are soft and pliable. These looked tough and crunchy . . . but also kind of intriguing.

The owner saw us looking at them and said we should try one. We took one to share, but he insisted we each had to eat our own because "they are too good to share."

As we were chewing  these figs are chewy, but all that chewing leads to a kind of sweet tenderness  he told us that they were very special figs because they only grow in the desert in Iran.

We were hooked. Dad found a plastic bag and filled it to the top. The owner told us we could also  soak them overnight in milk and have them for breakfast.

Despite their funny looks, these are not cheap little figs. The owner told Dad that he gave him a $2 discount so he wouldn't have a heart attack over the price.

Still, they were worth it. We treated them like jewels, with a limit of three at a time. We did try them one morning soaked in milk and they were softer and gave the milk a nice fig flavour . . . but we agreed we like them best in their chewy, dried-out state.

What kind of fig is this, you may ask?

I wish I knew. I scoured the Interweb, but to no avail. However, I can tell you is that the Iranian word for fig is "anjeer." Maybe I'll have to go on a fact-finding mission to the Iranian desert to get the exact name of this particular fig? I wonder what else grows there.

P.S. If you live in Victoria, the shop's name is Mediterranean / Middle Eastern Deli and it's on Pandora Street.

one year ago: grilled chicken sandwiches
two years ago: 8 hours in san francisco and sour cream coffee cake
three years ago: swedish tea cookies