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A few years ago during a road trip, a mouse got into our trunk and made a home for a few nights.  He slept in the instant oats, nibbled on the stump of a muffin, picked open a bag of corn chips but didn’t eat the chips themselves – and most interestingly, ate a whole Ziploc bag of popping corn kernels.  On one hand I was annoyed at the unwelcome intrusion, but on the other I had serious respect for the mouse’s choice of probably the healthiest, least processed food in the car.  No M&M’s, buddy?  (It appeared he licked but didn’t eat them).

Sometimes I don’t feel so different from our rodent companion, though I feel more squirrel-y than mouse-y, mostly because I can relate to a squirrel’s penchant for hiding food in places for later (we have a very well-stocked pantry).  And the bushy tail, I like the bushy tail.  But anyway, I feel like these almond millet chocolate bars pay homage to the four legged companions that flit in and out of our lives.  They are gluten-free, vegan, and made with recognizable things.  The chocolate topping is made with unsweetened chocolate so that the sweetness can be adjusted according to taste with the addition of icing sugar, making for a more wholesome, mouse-worthy snack.  Similarly, brown rice syrup has a relatively lower sweetness, so it can be exploited for its magical gooey powers of holding things together without going off the sweet charts – hence, these are the first snack bars I have ever made that didn’t crumble apart when I cut into them.  Less crumbs on the floor mean more crumbs in my tummy, which I feel is a good thing.

Almond millet chocolate bars

makes one 9×12″ pan

4 tbsp coconut oil
11 soft dates (if hard, soak in hot water for 10 minutes to rehydrate and plump)
250 g / 1 cup raw almonds
80 g / 1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
50 g / 2 cups puffed millet
2/3 cup brown rice syrup

100 g unsweetened chocolate
2 tbsp icing sugar

In a high-speed blender or food processor, blend the crap out of the coconut oil, softened dates and almonds.  Scrape down occasionally to make sure everything gets obliterated by the blades.  Scrape out this mixture into a large bowl and mix in the pumpkin seeds and puffed millet.  Meanwhile, gently heat the brown rice syrup in a small saucepan until it becomes looser in consistency and the edges just start to bubble.  Pour this over the mixture and fold together to evenly distribute the syrup.  Scrape everything into a 9×12″ baking pan lined with parchment paper, and press down evenly and firmly.  Chill the pan in the freezer while you make the topping: in a double boiler, gently melt the bittersweet chocolate.  When it is completely melted, stir in the icing sugar until it melts as well.  Pour the chocolate over the bar and smooth out with a spatula.  Freeze for at least 30 minutes before attempting to slice.  Only attempt to slice when you are feeling calm and collected, lest the bar crumbles under unabated emotions, in which case, add more brown syrup next time and all will be well.

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The winter is a time for heartier fare, but I also like to make these sorts of cooked salads – they are satisfying and nourishing, but digest easily.  This is a good example of something that I like to make – it’s also what I served to the students at a silent meditation a few weeks ago.  I like to make it with lots and lots of cilantro, as if the herbs were salad lettuce – it’s a nice way to add greenery and bright flavour to the winter dining table.  I also think it’s really worth using dried chickpeas over canned: they have a subtler, nuttier flavour than the canned stuff, and have a cheery yellow look instead of the grey slimy sad face that the canned chickpeas have.  Make this for a weekday office lunch, or as a side dish for a weekend smorgasbord.

Chickpea potato salad

makes 4-6 servings

1 cup dried chickpeas
2 small red potatoes
a few tbsp olive oil
a large handful fresh cilantro
1-2 tsp ground cumin
1-2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1 lemon’s zest and juice
salt and pepper to taste
a drizzle of maple syrup (optional)

Soak the dried chickpeas in lots of water overnight.  Drain the soaking water, and cook the chickpeas in a pot of new water.  It’ll take about 30 minutes until they are cooked through.  Drain the chickpeas of the cooking water.

Meanwhile, cut the red potatoes into small chunks and toss in a tablespoon of olive oil.  Roast in a 425 F oven until brown and roasty.  Toss into a big bowl with the chickpeas.  Roughly chop the cilantro, and toss with everything else.  A little drizzle of maple syrup can help balance out the flavours if the salad is too tangy from the lemon juice.

chickpea potato salad

In another life, I spent a summer waitressing at a crepe restaurant in cottage country.  This was a year or so after a crepe restaurant would open up on a very busy intersection in the city I grew up in, and a few years before I would move to a city where yet another crepe restaurant would open up.  Somehow, crepes have always been hovering around me, like a smack of jellyfish in the Pacific Ocean during a night-time dive.  Moreover, all these places have seemed to do well, notably without my patronage.  I enjoyed my time serving crepes, not because I thought they were particularly good, but I enjoyed the challenge of being perky while remembering who needs more coffee and balancing three plates on one arm.

So when a friend came over one Sunday afternoon, and the thought floated into my head that we should make crepes, I didn’t really realize its historical underpinnings.  Being a classical French recipe, we decided a good place to start would be my secondhand original edition of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking.  Alas, Mrs. David’s recipe was certainly from a different time; the way she listed the ingredients was thus: “2 large eggs, their weight (which will be 4 to 5 oz.) in butter, flour and sugar, and about 1/4 pint of milk, a tablespoon of rum, salt.”

In my crepe-starved state, I couldn’t wrap my head around this.  It sounds simple enough now, but the confusion due to low blood pressure in the moment was too great, and we sheepishly defected to a recipe from allrecipes.com – possibly the most polar opposite to Mrs. David’s refined and laid-back sensibility, but time was ticking before a full-on hunger tantrum would explode.

Regardless, the crepes we made were incredible and delicious – and easy to make!  Now I’m starting to see a glimpse into why a crepe restaurant would be so alluring to a potential restauranteur: a basic crepe recipe, multitudinous fillings, a dash of nostalgia and Parisian whimsy…a sweet and buttery dream.

dessert crepes

We filled ours with Nutella and strawberries, or peanut butter and bananas, scattered with sliced almonds.  The recipe made a substantial stack of crepes, so for the following days every breakfast consisted of a reheated crepe smothered in Nutella, folded into quarters, and eaten with my hands.  This ritual triggered the resurfacing of another buried memory: eating the most gargantuan crepe of Nutella and bananas while walking through the streets of Paris with my friends a few years ago, and feeling like I was going to throw up at 10 in the morning because it was so good I couldn’t stop.

Basic crepes

makes 8-20, depending on size

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp butter, melted

Whisk everything together.  It might be a little lumpy, so let it sit for 30 minutes to let the lumps hydrate and soften and then whisk again.  Place a heavy frying pan (preferably non-stick) with low sides on medium-high heat.  Use a brush to apply a thin layer of butter on the bottom of the pan.  Pour about 1/3 cup of batter into the pan and immediately start swirling the batter around so it evens out across the pan.  Let it cook (3-5 min) until it is fully cooked on one side before confidently flipping with a spatula.  Stack on a plate until you are ready to fill.

crepes ready to be filled

I feel like I have been posting too many photos, and not enough words.

But I don’t feel like talking much.  If I do, all I feel like saying is, “Look at the food, the food!”  Doesn’t it look good, doesn’t it make you want to go make something good and then share it with your loves so you can eat the good food together??

I humbly defer to the food.

Said the Muffin Man, when I asked him what his favorite dish was from the night’s dinner.

Well!

We had a couple of friends over for dinner on a Saturday night, and I had greatly looked forward to an evening filled with good company and of course, good food.  As you may or may not know, I happily spend copious hours daydreaming about dinner menus, luxuriating in the permutations and variations possible when planning an assemblage of foods.  However, you can never be too sure how it’ll all turn out until the dishes are lined up on the table.

Limitation often begets creativity, and the only confinement to the menu was the vegetarian inclinations of our guests.  (However, they did eat seafood.  Land animals were off the menu).

After some deliberation and list-making, I settled on this menu of vegetarian tapas to be served all at once in the middle of the table, which guests could pick at to their liking:

1. Cool raw ribbons of zucchini with grated bits of carrot, golden raisins and sesame seeds, in a sesame oil-rice vinegar dressing with the smallest pinch of sugar added.
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2. A slightly warm salad of boiled red and golden beets, walnuts and feta, lightly moistened with rice vinegar and sesame oil, garnished with nigella seeds.
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3. Homemade baba ghanoush served with whole wheat pita bread cut into wedges.
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4. Warm chickpeas with finely diced celery, made even warmer with the addition of cumin, fennel, black mustard seeds, and garam masala.
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5. Vegetarian poutine: roasted baby red potatoes and fresh cheese curds smothered in a miso gravy.
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and…
6. Seared scallops on a bed of wilted kale tossed in a brown butter sauce.
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Just as sunshine is better appreciated when there are gray days before it, food requires juxtaposition to properly illustrate its spectrum of qualities.  As such, successful menu planning is based on the dichotomies of gastronomic encounters: hot/cold, heavy/light, chunky/smooth, raw/cooked, sweet/spicy…the list goes on.  If the Muffin Man’s opinion is any proof, this meal’s contrasts were balanced enough to bring it all together, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating it all.

I think my favorite item was the vegetarian poutine, because I have been dreaming about making poutine at home for ages.  Most people’s ideas about poutine is that it is a soggy, heavy mess of greasy fries underneath a stodgy gravy that is meant to spackle the insides of your intestines for 6-12 months, usually eaten at a strip mall alongside teenagers playing hooky.  Well, about five years ago I had a poutine that changed all the poutines thereafter: at a light-filled restaurant with my high school art teacher in the heart of a major urban center, I had a lunch of poutine made with tiny locally grown new potatoes, lightly covered in a thin beef brisket jus, and crystals of locally made cheese, the exact type of which I can no longer remember.  The potatoes were loving and happy, the gravy was gentle and inclusive, and the cheese was a little sharp, making exclamation notes on my tongue.

It was a happy occurrence that the vegetarian poutine I made was an acceptable rendition of the classic.  The miso gravy was incredibly easy, and inspired by a recipe from a vegetarian website that I cannot recall:

Miso gravy for poutine (and other things, perhaps)

Whisk together about 2 cups water, 1 giant tablespoon of brown miso paste, 1 heaping tablespoon of all-purpose flour, a small splash of sesame oil, and a few streaks of soy sauce.  Heat gently in a small saucepan, whisking occasionally until it boils and thickens. 

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In my books a successful dinner party is not complete until I have overfed my guests, and that includes dessert.  To finish, we had a deconstructed cheesecake: I served the traditional graham cracker crust as crumbs underneath a spoonful of soft cheesecake filling.  I enjoyed the democracy of the experience: each diner could choose the ratio of granular crumbliness to smooth milky sweetness in each spoonful according to their tastes.

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Once in a while, serendipity nods her head my way, reinstating my dedication to looking for joy in all places, in the kitchen and otherwise.

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(All photos were courtesy of the Muffin Man when his mouth wasn’t full).

My lovely friend S gave me homemade cookie mix for Christmas.  It’s a great gift, because it’s an excuse to bake and then I get a large Mason jar to store dried lentils in afterwards.  It was originally a recipe for “classic sugar cookies” but since I have a belligerent streak, and it was going to be a rather large batch of cookies, I decided to create several variations of a similar theme.  I started with mixing the base recipe in one bowl, and then I scooped a chunk of it out into another bowl to add particulates.

A classic cookie, in three movements:

Movement 1
Hemp hearts
Sesame seeds
Mandarin rind and juice
Raisins
White chocolate chunks
Ground nutmeg

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Movement 2
Turtles (those caramely chocolates, cut up into pieces)
White chocolate chunks
Large flakes of oats

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Movement 3
Dark chocolate chips
Milk crumbs (essentially a mixture of white chocolate, milk powder, sugar, butter, and flour – a delicious mystery)
Ground ginger 

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All three cookies were made of the same base: the contents of the jar, butter, eggs, the last scrapes out of the bottom of the peanut butter jar, chocolate cake crumbs (why should they go to waste?)  I didn’t measure a thing, just added what seemed right.  All in all, a melodious way to make several things good to eat. 

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