A pan, a zan, an ella

I'm sitting here in my beat-up, blue vinyl lawn chair listening to rain patter on the deck above me. I'm clickity-clacking away as the warm smell of fresh earth wafts toward me. Goddamn.

Goddamn. I often think, and sometimes even say this outloud - mostly when I'm hurtling down a hill on my bike, the Olympic Mountains knife-sharp in the distance, icy and slate-gray, stuck in my throat. I also said it the other day when I made this for breakfast:

That there is a panzanella or bread salad. Panzanella originated in Italy as an ingenious way to use up stale bread. A classic specimen finds juicy ripe tomatoes, fragrant basil, olive oil, vinegar, and sometimes salt and pepper, tossed together with cubes of rustic, country bread. Besides the quintessential summer version I've also mixed up a wintery panzanella with Brussels sprouts and squash and a spring take with asparagus and peas. I am a frugal one and panzanellas gratify my desire to utilize every little scrap of food I've got. (Full disclosure: I eat watermelon rinds).

A couple summers ago I made a strawberry panzanella that found chunks of bread tossed with a sweet, buttery coating before being toasted, dressed with incredibly ripe strawberries, and served with thick Greek yogurt. With some prunes kicking about the cupboard, a loaf of scrumptious, homemade walnut bread stashed in the freezer, a new tub of decadent Liberté prune and walnut yogurt, and memories whirling about my head, I decided to create my own sweet panzanella.

Man, oh, man. The pairing of prunes with walnuts is something I'd heard much about but never tried for myself. There's a reason it's been around. This breakfast panzanella highlights that complex, winey flavour of prunes with a bit of booze, the earthy, contrasting crunch of walnuts and a smooth swipe of rich, tangy-sweet yogurt. Goddamn.

Prune & Walnut Panzanella
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
If there is no walnut bread to be had (even for ready money) you could choose another fairly hearty, country-style loaf. Likewise, I used Marsala because it was around but a sweet dessert wine, fruity liqueur, or even a light red wine could all work.

Maybe you don't even want to use prunes - switch it up and try a different fresh or dried fruit and nut combination. Consider changing the type of bread, alcohol and/or yogurt you use to complement your new creation.

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp natural cane or brown sugar
pinch of salt
1 pound hearty, day-old walnut bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/3 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups pitted prunes, cut in halves or quarters
1/3 cup Marsala
3/4 cup Liberté prune and walnut yogurt plus more for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Put the butter in a large, heatproof bowl and place in the oven, as it preheats, for a few minutes. Once the butter has melted, stir in 1/4 cup of sugar and a pinch of salt until dissolved. Add the bread cubes and toss for about a minute to coat thoroughly. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes or until the bread is well toasted, tossing every 5 minutes for even coverage.

Meanwhile, toast the walnuts in a medium frying pan over medium heat until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Set aside. While the frying pan is still hot, add the prunes and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tbsp of sugar. Quickly stir and, once the sugar begins to melt and caramelize, add the Marsala. Stir, scraping up any gooey bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Simmer gently until the Marsala is reduced to a slightly syrupy consistency.

Once everything is ready, toss the bread cubes, boozy prunes and yogurt together in a large bowl. Serve with more yogurt on the side.

Makes enough for about 6.


A sprightly soup

Lately, I've been reminiscing about muffins and pasta from the past, pretzels and pie of yore. But today, I want to talk about the here and now. Or at least the last week.

I made this soup right before I went to work and it was nothing short of outstanding. Chock-a-block full of delicate green herbs and vegetables - peas, fava beans, parsley, cilantro, mint - and finished with a sparkling shot of lemon juice, it is sprightly and refreshing. Crispbread shattered over the steaming soup provides  crunch before it succumbs and sinks into the warm broth. I was running late so I had no choice but to slurp this down, but I suggest that you sit back and savour it.

Lebanese Spring Vegetable Soup

I could have included the recipe for homemade pita or flatbread from Moro: The Cookbook but I decided that most of you would find that a bit too ambitious. However, if you're eager for a challenge, let me know and I can pass the recipe on to you.

Make sure you have all your vegetables prepared and ready to go before you start the soup. It takes mere minutes. Oh, and I neglected to include directions for trimming artichokes but if you're looking for a helpful guide may I suggest you take a look at this.

For the crispbread:
25g unsalted butter
2 pita breads

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Melt the butter while warming the pita breads in the oven for a couple minutes. Split each in half lengthwise, then brush on both sides with melted butter. Slice each in half again lengthwise, then cut each piece into four or five triangles. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, until golden brown and crisp. 

For the soup:
1 quantity of crispbread
1 litre good-quality chicken stock, preferably homemade
150g podded young broad beans (peeled as well, if large)
150g shelled peas, fresh or frozen
5 green asparagus spears, woody stems snapped off at base, cut into ~3/4 inch pieces
2 raw globe artichokes, trimmed, cut into quarters and very thinly sliced
1 large bunch each of fresh mint, flat-leaf parsley and cilantro, roughly chopped
2 spring onions, finely chopped
juice of 1/2 lemon
sea salt and black pepper

When the crispbread is ready, heat the chicken stock in a large saucepan and check for seasoning. Bring to a gentle simmer and add the broad beans, peas, asparagus and artichokes. Cook for 1-2 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Remove from the heat and add the herbs, spring onions, lemon juice and crispbread broken into small pieces. Season again, and serve hot.

Serves 4.


On blueberry hill

When I was growing up my Mom was the head cook in our house. There was the occasional night when my Dad would take over - usually to make "breakfast for supper" with eggs, bacon and toast - but normally my Mom did it all. Sometimes I got to help.

I loved egg fu yung - a dish with an exotic name and an enormous amount of eggs. I would crack each one carefully on the edge of our large, brown-glassed bowl then whisk the gleaming mass of golden yolks and milky whites together. The wok, battered and scratched, was hauled from its home underneath the stove and soon oil would be spitting, garlic and ginger sizzling. The tangle of tender egg, juicy shrimp, crunchy bean sprouts and sweet plum sauce intoxicated me.

It always seemed like a special occasion when my Mom opened her Best of Bridge cookbook to the tomato-sauce splattered recipe for lasagna. Pots of water bubbled furiously and the irony musk of browning meat filled the air as she measured and minced, sliced and stirred. I assisted with the layering and quality control - snacking on slices of mozzarella, strangely dry cottage cheese curds and spoonfuls of garlicky sauce. I still crave that lasagna.

But when it comes to favourites my Mom's blueberry muffins take the cake. Literally! Sometimes, if a birthday girl (or boy) requested, these muffins would serve as the all-important candle holder in lieu of cake. Mostly though, they were just eaten whenever - for breakfast or as an after-school snack. At my insistence, the recipe was included in my grade two class-curated cookbook Terrific Treats. Just now I slipped the slim, neon-green volume from its place and flipped through the typewritten pages that wear and tear have loosened from the spine. I paused on Japanese chicken wings, Teriyaki mushrooms and there, blueberry muffins, and instantly, in my mind, I am biting into one of those deliciously moist muffins, bursting with gooey pockets of soft blueberries. I am home.

Happy Mother's Day Mom. I love you.

 My Mom's Blueberry Muffins

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk (any percentage will do)
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups blueberries (fresh or frozen), divided

Preheat the oven to 375 F with the rack in the middle. Grease the muffin pans.

Using a stand or hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until each is fully incorporated.

Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together. Whisk the milk and vanilla together. Add alternately to the batter, starting and ending with the flour mixture, and mix well after each addition.

Crush 1/2 cup of the berries, add to the batter and mix well. Fold the remaining 2 cups of whole berries into the batter. Spoon into the muffin pans and sprinkle with more sugar, if desired.

Bake for 30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 5 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes about 1 dozen muffins plus 1/2 dozen mini-muffins.


Peas, pasta, primavera

I am committed to writing in this space once a week but today it is going to be short and sweet. I've got strawberry-rhubarb...cobbler? crisp? something to (make and) eat! And wine to drink!

As of late, whenever I sit down to write here I want to sing the praises of Spring. And why not? The sun sets after eight o'clock, turning the clouds a marvelous shade of pink; lilacs thicken the air with their fragrant perfume; trees shimmy and shake, showing off their new, shapely sets of leaves. It IS Spring, right? Well, when westerly head winds are buffeting my face and tossing my bike into traffic, it's hard to think so.

I need food to keep me going and this tasty, little number does the trick of warming up a chilly night while still hearkening Spring.

Pasta with Carbonara and Spring Peas
Adapted from Jamie's Dinners

A little bit lighter than regular ol' carbonara but certainly as good. Try to plan ahead so the bacon finishes cooking around the same time as the pasta. For this to work, the pasta needs to be hot enough that its residual heat just barely cooks the egg and creates a luscious sauce. Add the egg to the pasta off the heat to ensure it doesn't scramble.

Jamie uses farfalle while I made mine with fusilli. I recommend choosing a shape that will hold peas, bacon, and other delights in its crevices. 

1 lb pasta such as farfalle, fusilli, penne, or orecchiette (to name a few)
1 large egg, preferably from a good source
7 tbsp heavy cream
12 slices of pancetta or bacon, cut into rough slices
3 handfuls of frozen peas
2 sprigs of fresh mint, leaves only, thinly sliced
Parmesan cheese, to taste

Place a large pot of salted water over high heat. Whisk the egg and cream together in a large bowl, then season with salt and pepper. Start cooking the pancetta or bacon in a large saute pan over medium heat.

When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta. Once the bacon is crispy and golden, remove from the heat and set aside. About a minute and a half before the pasta is al dente, add the peas and finish cooking. Save some of the pasta cooking water, then drain in a colander. Add to the pancetta or bacon and stir in the sliced mint leaves.

Scrape into the bowl with the egg and cream and toss quickly. You are aiming for a smooth sauce that just coats the pasta. Thin with some reserved cooking water, if necessary. Taste, then season with salt and pepper. Top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.