Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Thai Dragon Bowl from Rebar Modern Food Cookbook

March 2013

SmartCooks here.  Today, I went to Victoria to make some comfort food for the week.  It was a virtual tour, not a real one, although with the 20+ centimetres of snow we're getting here today, I would love to escape what's happening outside my window.  Not loving much about this winter and apologies for complaining about it incessantly.  Time to become a snowbird somewhere in a warmer climate!  

Inspired (or depressed) by the weather, I went in search of low-fat, slightly spiced bowl of soup to nourish body, mind and soul.  Thanks to a neighbour I heard about  Thai Dragon Bowl from the Rebar Modern Food Cookbook. a Victoria, BC publication.  It has all those comfort ingredients I crave -- veggie (or chicken) stock, ginger, lemongrass, curry, lime, tofu, snow peas, bean sprouts, red peppers, scallions and rice noodles.  

Basically, you mix and match what you want to add to the soup stock.  I added quite a bit of stuff and kept the garnishes (cilantro and bean sprouts in my case) to sprinkle on the hot steaming bowl.  My only question mark is how long it will hold up.  I'm hoping for three meals over three days -- we'll see.  

And a big thank you to our neighbours for mentioning it.  

Rebar Modern Food Restaurant 

The recipe for Thai Dragon Bowl and the Rebar Modern Food Cookbook emanates  from a Victoria-based restaurant called the Rebar Modern Food Restaurant and Juice Bar.  Perhaps my West Coast and Saltspring Island friends have visited it!  According to their website, it first opened in 1988 to feature fresh, healthy and predominantly vegetarian fare.  

The name of the restaurant reflects the philosophy of the owners: "Just as industrial rebar gives support and strength to structures, tasty, nutritious food provides valuable support for the body and mind." It has moved locations and expanded from a juice bar over its 25 or so year history, but basically the Restaurant retains a place that:  "fuses hippy-chic neo-noir retro-fitted coolness to bring together the best of the best:  healthy, delicious food in a trendsetting atmosphere." 

I'm good with all that.

The Rebar Modern Food Cookbook 

The cooks in the restaurant collaborated to produce the "Rebar Modern Food Cookbook" which they say can be used by "anyone looking for delicious ideas with a funky twist."  Right up my alley. 

In fact, there are foodie folks who devote their blogs to systematically cooking all the book's recipes, ranging from Szechuan noodle salad with soba, avocado and cashews; peanut sauce with ginger, lime and cilantro, rosemary garlic foccacia bread to white bean hummus with roasted garlic, sage and pine nuts and pad thai with tofu, bean sprouts and roasted peanuts. And, of course, the Thai Dragon Bowl.  

The Cookbook, self-published by the staff/owners, is now as iconic as the restaurant itself.  For some photos of the cookbook classics, check out the blog on the website.  

Bonus, there's probably no snow there right now.  Husband and I just finished shovelling the first 20-25 cm that fell today.  Soup for me.  Enjoy! 

Thai Dragon Bowl 
(Inspired by and adapted from the Rebar Modern Food Cookbook)


8 cups veggie stock

3 lemongrass stalks
3 T minced ginger
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 T red curry paste 
2 T brown sugar 
3 T low-sodium soy sauce
1 green chili pepper, diced 
1 red pepper, diced 
1 cup coconut milk
1 lime, juiced
1/3 lb rice or vermicelli noodles 
1/2 block extra-firm tofu 
6 oz snow peas
2 T hoisin sauce 
Large handful of shiitake mushrooms, sliced 
1 bunch scallions, minced
4 tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup cilantro, minced and for garnish
Bean sprouts, for garnish 


Heat the stock and add the lemongrass, ginger and garlic. Let this mixture simmer for 15 mins or so.  Remove the lemongrass stalks.  Some folks strained the stock.  I didn't.  

Stir curry paste, brown sugar, soy and hoisin into the stock and simmer for 5 mins. Add coconut milk and lime juice and continue to simmer. 

Add rice noodles, tofu, chili, mushrooms, red pepper, scallions, and tomatoes.  Cook until the noodles are tender. Add the snow peas and a few bean sprouts and cilantro. 

Serve in large bowls with slices of lime, cilantro, bean sprouts or any other garnish you would prefer. 

Saturday, 16 March 2013

St. Patrick's Day Menu Part 3: Apple Loaf

March 17, 2013

SmartCooks here. 

Having prepared the Irish Beef Stew and Irish Cheddar Soda Bread, how to finish the meal?  The answer was not perfect but drove off what was on hand -- apples.  

So, Apple Loaf crumbled over home-made aka Cusinart vanilla (me) or chocolate (others) ice cream rounded out the perfect mid-March St. Patrick's Day comfort meal.  

All three parts of the mid-March menu are blog- worthy!  And so much better than singing with the crowds at the Heart & Crown Irish Pub or dancing on the tables of the now defunct Molly Maguire's in the university years with the Charlotte Street roomie.


Apple Loaf 

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
3 cups apples (peeled, cored, chopped, I used gala apples)
1 cup canola oil
2 cups sugar
3 eggs, beaten
2 tsp ground cinnamon


Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.  Spray two loaf pans with cooking spray.

Mix flour, baking soda, salt, walnuts, and apples in a large bowl. Whisk oil, sugar, eggs, and cinnamon together in a small bowl.  Add to flour mixture and mix until just moistened. Divide mixture between loaf pans.

Bake in oven until a toothpick comes out clean, about 90 minutes. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes before removing to cool completely on a wire rack.

St. Patrick's Day Menu Part 2: Irish Cheddar Soda Bread

March 16, 2013

SmartCooks here.  

Irish Cheddar Soda Bread.  I think a roommate and I accidentally baked a soda bread about 40 years ago when we lived in a slum apartment on Charlotte Street in Ottawa in 2nd year university.  

I remember it was close to the end of the year (so maybe mid-March) and we both had no money with little food or staples in the apartment.  We somehow concocted a 'soda bread' with whatever was in the cupboards and enjoyed a meal of bread, cheese and cheap white wine (me) and beer (my roomie). Those were the days! 

I've never really attempted breads till now.  What led me to try this Irish Cheddar Soda Bread was forgetting to buy some Art-is-in bread to go with the Slow Cooker Irish Beef Stew.  So I trolled around some sites for quick breads and was overwhelmed at the choices. For try #1, I went basic with a Soda Bread with just some cheddar cheese in it. Later in the week I varied it by trying whole wheat flours and dried apricots and currants similar to the photos. The Cheddar Soda Bread won by a wide margin! 

Origins of Irish Soda Bread

Despite the name, Soda Bread apparently originated with the North American Indian communities, who used a natural (potash-based) soda to help make their breads rise.  The Irish are identified with soda bread probably as a result of their history as a poor country as soda bread uses the most basic of ingredients:  flour, baking soda, soured milk like buttermilk, and salt (aka my earlier university days).  

The 'X' cut into the top of the dough is also traditional, some say to ward off the devil, or as a symbol to mark Christian holidays, or, more practically, to make it easy to divide into four pieces.  Whatever the explanation ... it all comes together beautifully in a simple, easy bread to accompany an Irish stew so enjoy!

Irish Cheddar Soda Bread
(Makes 1 large loaf or divide into two smaller loaves)

4 cups all-purpose flour
2 T sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
4 T cold unsalted butter, diced
1½ cups cold buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup cheddar cheese (I used a 5-year old cheddar) 


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl. Add the diced butter and mix until all combined. (You can use an electric mixer with paddle attachment.  I whisked hard.)

Lightly beat buttermilk and egg. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Toss the diced cheese with a little bit of flour to lightly coat and stir into dough.

Put dough on a flat surface and knead lightly to bring it all together into a round loaf or divide into two round loaves. Place on parchment paper and cut a large, deep x on the loaf/loaves.

Bake for 45 to 55 minutes.  Cool and serve. Lasts 2-3 days in the fridge.   

St. Patrick's Day Menu Part I: Slow-Cooker Irish Beef Stew

March 15, 2013

SmartCooks here.  It's mid-March, depressingly mid-winter but, nonetheless, I have the spring cleaning bug.  It's my version of March madness, characterized by hauling furniture out of every room and digging cat hair out of cold air vents. This frenetic activity is watched closely by the cat-kids who pounce on the vacuum cleaner, cleaning supplies and each other.  Whatever amuses them... 

What amuses me is comfort food at the end of the cleaning day.  Twice in the past week it was Irish Beef Stew, cooked all day in a slow cooker, with enough for both my household and that of close friends, one of whom is recovering from surgery on a broken wrist.  

The Slow Cooker Irish Beef Stew is Part I of three postings on the perfect meal to melt those winter blues and toast St. Patrick's Day at home. Part 2 is Irish Soda Bread to accompany the stew.  Part 3 is the Apple Loaf for dessert.  

A Word About Guinness Beer

All of the various recipes I consulted on the foodie blogs featured Irish Guinness beer as an integral part of the Irish stew experience.  Off I trundled to my local LCBO to purchase a can.  Seems like I wasn't the only person with the same idea as I got the last two cans in stock although not sure the other purchasers were doing it for the stew.  But home I came victorious and added the 3/4 cup I needed for the stew.  

Husband nobly 'offered' to finish what remained of the beer while watching a hockey game.  As he finished the can of beer, he called me into the TV room to ask me if I could hear a rattle in the can.  He shook it hard.  No doubt about it.  There was definitely a foreign object of some kind in there.  

I said a few unmentionable **#*! words thinking I would have to pitch the broth and start over.  We found a can opener, opened the lid and pulled out a white plastic ball.  I said a few more choice words to express my frustration.  I checked the second can by gently shaking it and, indeed, there was a suspicious sound.  

Before pitching the meal and starting over, I Googled "Guinness beer plastic ball?" and, lo and behold, it was a 'widget' or device patented in Ireland specifically for Guinness beer.  The purpose of the nitrogen-filled widget is to release the CO2 from some of the beer in the can to create the head.  

Who knew? Anyway, I was relieved at not having to pitch the Irish stew and start over. 

On to the Irish Beef Stew

Recipes for Irish Beef Stew called for various ingredients, ranging from different types of root vegetables to thicker or richer gravies.  I did a mix and match and cranked up the slow cooker for 5-7 hours on high (8-9 hours low) and ended up with a rich, flavourful and comforting stew.  Enjoy! 

Slow Cooker Irish Beef Stew 
2 lbs lean organic stew beef, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 lbs potatoes, combo of baby white and red, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
2 stalks celery, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 carrots, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 cup), or more if desired
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into thin stalks or rounds
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 T salted butter
2 cups no-sodium beef broth
3/4 cup red wine
3/4 cup Guinness draught
2 T tomato paste
1 T sugar
1 T low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 T dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 T cornstarch, mixed with 1 water
Salt and pepper, to taste

Chop all the vegetables and put into the crockpot. Rinse the meat and pat it dry, then salt and pepper the beef.

Heat oil in a large skillet. Add beef to the pan and brown on all sides, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook for one minute.  Put beef in crockpot on top of the vegetables.

Add butter to the skillet, then the beef broth, red wine, beer, tomato paste, sugar, soy sauce and thyme. Stir liquids while scraping the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil for a few minutes, then simmer for 10-12 minutes. Add cornstarch and water.

Pour broth mixture into the crockpot over vegetables and beef. Add bay leaves and cook on high for 4-6 hours or 6 to 9 hours on low.  

Before serving, remove bay leaves. 

Add Part 2, Irish Soda Bread, from the next SmartCooks recipe.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Heaven in a Bowl: Thai Chicken Noodle Soup (Khao Soi)'

March 2, 2013

SmartCooks here.  

Winter doldrums, winter blahs, seasonal affect disorder ... whatever.  Time to wake up the senses.  This weekend, I found myself browsing through Bon Appetit's selection of exotic soup recipes.  I came across a Thai version of 'Chicken Noodle Soup' called 'Chicken Khao Soi' (their photo at right) and decided to give it a whirl.  It was exactly right for a Saturday night, one-bowl, meal. 

Khao Soi is a well-known curry noodle dish from the northern part of Thailand, from a city called Chiang Mai.  From my research, it seems to have originated in Burma.  it is often made with chicken but can be made vegetarian using tofu.  The dish is strong but not too hot; each taste blends together into a delicious bowl of soul-satisfying soup.  The 'authentic' dish is served with crunchy, fried, Chinese noodles on top, but 'crunchy' toppings vary in many recipes ... from fried onions, shallots, red onions, fried whole chilies, to roasted peanuts, depending on personal preference.   

Bali, Thailand in April tbd 

The soup didn't quite banish all the winter doldrums. I am intrigued by Thailand and have been for some time.  In fact, there's a yoga retreat there in late April in Bali. I'm semi-considering it.  I haven't had a holiday in years or been overseas much.  Of course, even though I am way more travel hardened now by my weekly air commutes, I'm still wary of an overseas jaunt.  Plus, the weather is usually quite humid at that time of year.  Yet, still, I continue to ponder something completely different like this.... although if I intend to try it I better act quickly as I suspect it will be sold out shortly.  

Guajillo Chiles 

Anyway, back to Chicken Khao Soi.  It takes about an hour to assemble which is why it was a good Saturday night choice.  There are endless variations for ingredients to go into the soup.  I've given some 'OR's below.  For example, I made it with more broth than coconut milk and the coconut milk I used was a premium, organic, lite coconut milk which is easy to find now in Ottawa.  

Finding dried guajillo chiles was challenging.  I couldn't find them at my go-to Herb and Spice store so ended up using dried red chiles I had in the cupboard.  They worked just fine.  I suspect if I had looked a bit harder, I would have found them as guajillos are one of the most popular chiles in Mexico, second only to the Ancho chili and to the Jalapeno.  Guajillo chiles are grown in the drier climate of north central Mexico, are usually dried and used in hot sauces.  Digging a little further, I found that guajillo, ancho, and pasilla (sometimes called chile negro) together are referred to as the 'Holy Trinity of Chiles'.  The things you learn...

I also used a wider noodle (Pappardelle) instead of the Chinese egg noodle and it too worked fine. For toppings, I chose a combo of red onion, fried onion, cilantro, and lime wedges and they were all delicious.  

Heaven in a Bowl Chicken Khao Soi


Khao Soi Paste
4 large dried guajillo chilies, stemmed, halved, seeded OR substitute dried red chilies 
2 medium shallots, halved
8 garlic cloves
1 2-in piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup cilantro stems
1 T ground coriander
1 T ground turmeric 
1 T curry powder (I used medium curry powder) OR 2 T Red Curry Paste 

2 T vegetable oil (I used canola) 
2 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk (I used one lite; 1 premium, both organic) 
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth OR substitute water or vegetable broth 
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, halved lengthwise (I used organic, boneless chicken breasts) 
1 pound Chinese egg noodles (or substitute a thicker noodle) 
3 T fish sauce 
1 T (packed) palm sugar or light brown sugar
Kosher salt

Condiments for serving:
Any of:  sliced red onion, bean sprouts, cilantro sprigs, crispy fried onions, crispy fried Chinese noodles, shallots, chili oil, Sriracha, roasted peanuts, lime wedges 


First, make the khao soi paste.  Place chilies in a bowl, add boiling water and soak for 25-30 minutes until softened. Drain chilies, reserving the liquid.  Purée chilies, shallots, garlic, ginger, cilantro stems, coriander, turmeric, curry powder, and 2 tablespoons soaking liquid in a food processor, adding more soaking liquid by tablespoonfuls, if needed, until smooth.  I ended up adding almost all the liquid in order to get a smooth, colourful paste.

Then, make the noodles, drain and leave in pot until soup is ready.

Finally, make the soup.  Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add khao soi paste; cook, stirring constantly, until slightly darkened, 4-6 minutes. Add coconut milk and broth. Bring to a boil; add chicken. Reduce heat and simmer until chicken is fork-tender, 20-25 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate. Let cool slightly; shred meat.

Put the shredded chicken, 2 T fish sauce, and sugar into the soup. Season with salt or more fish sauce, if needed. 

Finally, assemble the bowls.  Put the noodles in each bowl, add the broth and chicken.  Top with condiments of choice.  

Finally, a word about 'fried noodles'

The traditional crispy topping for Chicken Khao Soi is done with Chinese egg noodles.  To crisp the noodles, take 1 cup and fluff them up until the strands are separated.  Fry a little at a time in a pan with very hot oil until the noodles are golden.  Flip once to get the same colour on the other side.  Set aside to use as the topping.

Ottawa East Community Gardens

March 2013

And now for something completely different to do with my life.  Well, not completely new.  More like an extension of current interests.  I'm on a mission to find a small, nearby, suitable plot of land to grow my own vegetables and herbs this summer.  Turns out Ottawa has such a thing as "Community Gardens" -- small plots of land for use by the community -- with a site not far from here at the University of Ottawa.

Lots of reasons for choosing a community garden venture.  For one thing, our house location is not ideal for growing vegetables.  I've tried. The back yard, while nice, is almost completely shaded most of the time.  Hostas grow like crazy but not much else.  What lawn there is belongs to the kitty gazebo where happy cats watch the endless video loop of birds on the bird feeder for hours on end. The one spot in the yard where vegetables may have worked was claimed a few years back by a young family who needed more parking space to haul two kids out of two car seats.  Their car now parks up against what could have been a few metres of garden ... Carbon monoxide vegetables somehow don't appeal. 

Then there's Boris and Natasha Racoon and their halflings. They regularly skulk around at sunset looking for dinner, taunt the kitties, saunter along the back deck fence, and yank open the green bin, even with the bin weighted down by stones and rocks.  They helped themselves to most of the neighbour's crop of tomatoes and zucchini (the neighbours get more sun!)   


I became intrigued with the concept of community gardens a few years back.  Most, however, were on the outskirts of the city and, being forever time challenged, this was a non-starter.  This year, I hunted around until I found one at the University of Ottawa.  Each plot measures 1m x 2m so two of them should give ample produce for me, neighbours and friends.  

Judging from what's available at the farmers' markets and our geography (generally Zone 5), I should be able to start planting some early hardy spring produce in mid to late April like turnips, radishes, heirloom carrots and kale.  In May, I will add zucchini, lettuce, cucumber, heirloom tomatoes and herbs.  It's just a few to try out this venture, organic and heirloom varieties if I can get them. 

From websites, it seems there's lots of sites popping up in the inner core.  The one pictured right is just down Main Street about five minutes from here.  I use the multicoloured fence to orient myself toward home; this garden specializes in teaching kids the gardening basics.

I will have to tell myself not to get carried away -- small, basic, homegrown, for the home table.  I know I will have to find a way to fit in upkeep in a schedule that includes jam-packed days in Charlottetown and Ottawa.  Anyway... if I didn't have these projects I'd end up too one-dimensional.  I continue to resist such a characterization that defines so many of my colleagues.  

So .... snow be gone! Let there be spring!