Sunday, 28 September 2014

Aside. Top 10 Books

SmartCooks (cooking but not blogging much these days) here.  

Facebook folks were posting their Top 10 Book lists recently and I started writing one but didn't get a chance to post it so... blog it is.  

Writing a list reminds me that I used to read voraciously... Saturday mornings I’d make the rounds of the various unique  bookstores… Ottawa Women's Bookstore on Elgin, and over to the Glebe to Prime Crime, the House of Speculative Fiction and Octopus Books.  An ambitious Saturday then saw me head to Sussex where the Children’s Bookstore was housed for years.  All long before the era of the Big Bad Book Box stores.  My appetite for reading was insatiable. 

So my top 10 list and, yes, I read a lot of series.  I have to start at book one when I begin a series and then follow chronologically. 

1) Darkover series.  The science-fiction-fantasy world of Darkover and the lives of the Free Amazons and Renunciates.  All 28 or so books are written by Marion Zimmer Bradley, the same author of the wonderful Mists of Avalon.

2) Millennium trilogy.  It was so tragic 
Stieg Larsson died before we got book four.  I raced through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire and then discovered that book 3 (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) was only available in Europe. A friend got it from a travelling friend who picked it up at Heathrow.  She read all weekend and then called me when she was 20 pages away from finishing it.  I raced over, got it, and took home the treasure.  Like Brigid, I too now look for Swedish authors because of these books.

3) Harry Potter. I still laugh about waiting for hours in long line-ups at midnight at various Chapters and then reading the book all night. Ivan even made money one year as he left the store with several copies in hand.  A harried father raced up, saw the line-up, groaned, and offered $100 for one of the books to take home to his daughter.  Why not?

4.  Marcia Muller. (Now above 30 books) featuring private investigator Sharon McCone from the All Souls Legal Co-op, who tries to make a difference to her clients and the world around her.  Her life becomes very complicated!
5.  Woman’s Room by Marilyn French.  I read this book in 1997 when it was first published while sitting on a beach. I loaned it to a woman next to me who read it.  She, in turn, gave it to her husband to read.  They ended up in a bitter battle of words.  Oops. 

6.  May Sarton.  I prefer her 20-plus books to her journals.  I especially loved The Fur Person, a quirky novel for cat lovers, with Tom Jones, a street cat who gives up his catting-around lifestyle to find the right human companion.  It’s a must-read for all us cat lovers.  Her books were difficult to find in the 1970s and 1980s, long before on-line ordering.  I scoured bookstores in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere to make sure I had all of them. 

7.  Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. 1976.  Critics call it a classic utopian ‘speculative’ science fiction, I was gripped by how Marge Piercy dealt with issues around feminism, social justice, and mental illness.  She also predicts the rise of the Internet, and a world ruined by massive mega-cities and environmental pollution. 

8.  Tales of the City.  Armistead Maupin.  These books were game changers in the late 1970s, opening up a life beyond the narrow confines of Ottawa.  I devoured all six books.  Alas, by the time Bob and I travelled to San Francisco in the 1980s, it was ravaged by HIV/AIDS and many restaurants and businesses were all shuttered.  The only bookstore that was thriving was ”A Different Light”, managed by a former Ottawa Citizen writer, Richard Labonte, who both Bob and I knew from the Southam News days. The Castro Street bookstore was named after an author, Elizabeth Lynn, who wrote a science fiction fantasy (a world without cancer and pain) and in whose honour the bookstore was named. 

9.  Colour Purple by Alice Walker.  Another game changer, this time a novel set in the 1930s about lives I could barely comprehend.  A book that grips the soul and I literally could not put it down.  I felt all the injustice, rage and triumphs of these women.  It’s a terrific book (and movie).

10.  A toss up.  It’s either A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l’Engle, a science fantasy book published in 1962.  It won a Newbery Award and other honours and celebrates the indomitable spirit of children to take on ‘evil’ and conquer it.  The first book is the best of other books about the O’Keefe family.  

Or, it’s the The Giver, by Lois Lowry, the first in a series of four books about Jonas, questioning life in a boring utopia of community ‘sameness’.  Another game-changer.  It’s been made into a movie and I’m interested to see whether it lives up to my reading of it.

The walk down memory lane. And then there’s Robert Crais, Lawrence Block (Burglar series), Lord of the Rings series, Narnia series, the prolific Jonathan Kellerman with sidekick Milo, and on and on and on. I barely read any newer books at all these days.  Retirement will likely see me devouring what I’ve missed!

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Welcome spring!: Asian Salad with Arugula, Enoki Mushrooms and Hazelnuts

March 2014

SmartCooks here.  March is easing on down the road, and none too soon.  In honour of spring ... mega-hint here Mother Nature ... I searched out a recipe I made a few times last summer and was great for entertaining:  Asian Salad with Arugula, Enoki Mushrooms and Hazelnuts.  Easy, presents well, fresh taste ... a winner.  

For most of the winter, I've been flattened with a combo of flu, cold, cough, cough, cough. I was supposed to take a week off but cancelled it when it became clear it would be an 'off' week, not a week 'off'.  

I will try some R & R again in April.  The bathroom renovations are over and both bathrooms now look fabulous, clean, bright, modern, professional, all good.  One more to go.  Next time someone asks me where our money goes, I can honestly say 'down the drain'. 

I can't wait for spring.  It's been the coldest winter in 20 years here in Ottawa and it felt like it was.  Snowmageddons of snow, freezing rain/heavy rain and flash freezes, as the 'stock' photo at left shows.  Charlottetown office has been closed due to weather many times, and I've cancelled travel to the Island many times.  I got the last seat on the last plane off the Island tis week just in advance of WhiteJuan2, which saw 53cm of snow in downtown Charlottetown and 100plus Kmh winds.  No fun... We'll see what spring brings.  

Even Washington, where I hoped to walk amongst the famous cherry blossoms, was knee-deep in snow and slush.  I got to see "How Washington Really Works" but missed most of Day 3 when my workplace melted down in a political crisis and I flew fast from one capital to another. 

And I WILL go back to Washington soon ... Newseum here I come.  It was torture sitting in the Canadian Embassy boardroom with the lovely Inuit sculptures outside the window and knowing this treat was just next door.  Next time! 

I've been saved from total blues-y boredom by nightly viewing, with himself, of Downton Abbey, beginning at Episode One, Season One.  We worked our way through to the final episode of Season 4.  We're quite hooked.  

Since Valentine's Day, we've added in a nightly episode of House of Cards and I would like to report that Season 2 gives me the same chills/creeps as Season 1.  But, between Netflix and the Olympics, I managed to keep life in perspective.  

Now we're onto Series 5 of Nurse Jackie.  She's sober this season but dealing with the aftermath of long-term drug addiction, loss of marriage, friends and now looks like one of her kids.  We'll see how that goes.  

On that note, in honour of spring, I've perked up lunches once a week with spring type salad.  This one -- Asian Salad, with Arugula, Enoki Mushrooms and Hazelnuts -- is fresh and offers endless variations.  Don't have arugula, then just substitute your favourite greens.  

Enoki Mushrooms
Add caption

Enoki mushrooms, also known as the velvet foot, are one of the delights I've found since Herb and Spice started getting regular supplies of every type of mushroom imaginable from Le Coprin.  Enoki mushrooms are have a mild, delicate flavour and a slight crunch.  They can be used in Asian cooking but are also the right touch in salads, sandwiches, miso soups and pasta sauces.  

The ones I buy are collected from the wild in northern Quebec.  They are often the last mushroom to linger in late fall and the first to appear in the spring.  Enjoy! 

Hazelnuts or Macadamia Nuts 

Either can be used in this salad.  I prefer hazelnuts, or filberts as they are also known.  There's nothing like the earthy crunch of hazelnuts in salads. The original recipe for this salad, which appeared in Food and Wine, called for macadamia nuts, no doubt due to their rich, sweet, buttery flavour.  But I didn't have any on hand and substituted hazelnuts.  

Either way... this salad works fabulously.  Switch it up and enjoy! 

Asian Greens

I always hesitate when recipes ask me for 'Asian greens' without specifying which ones ... so I end up trying whatever I can find that's organic, fresh, and in season.  

At this time of year, it's most arugula; as spring progresses, there will be a wider selection of greens, including mesclun, spicy flavours of red mustard, tatsoi, mizuna, spinach etc.

Asian Salad with Arugula, Enoki Mushrooms and Hazelnuts 
(Food and Wine inspired)


2T mayonnaise (I used light mayo) 
1 T rice vinegar1 T white wine vinegar
1 T low-sodium soy sauce 
2 tsp honey
1 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
1 tsp Asian sesame oil
1 minced large garlilc clove
1/2 tsp Sriracha chili sauce or other hot chili sauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup (3 ounces) hazelnut or macadamia nuts
1 T sesame seeds
3/4 pound (18 cups) baby arugula, Asian greens or mesclu
1 3-ounce package Enoki mushrooms, trimmed and separated


In a blender, combine the mayonnaise, rice and white wine vinegars, soy sauce, honey, ginger, sesame oil, garlic and chili sauce and process to mix. With the machine on, blend in the vegetable oil in a thin stream. Scrape the dressing into a small bowl and season with salt and pepper.

In a medium skillet, toast the macadamia nuts over moderately low heat, shaking the skillet, until the nuts are a deep golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer the nuts to a plate to cool. Add the sesame seeds to the skillet and toast until a deep golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Transfer the sesame seeds to a plate to cool. Coarsely chop the macadamia nuts (I put them in a plastic bag and lightly pounded them with a mallet).

In a very large bowl, toss the baby Asian greens with the enoki mushrooms. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well. Scatter the toasted macadamia nuts and sesame seeds all over the salad and toss briefly once more. Serve the salad at once. 

Assemble ahead:  Take the salad to the event and add dressing at last minute for best results! 

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Vietnamese Comfort Food -- Chicken Pho with Crispy Shallots and Garnishes

January 2014 

SmartCooks here.  

If it's January it must be ... 
polar vortex cold, freezing rain, rain, sitting at airports waiting for delayed or cancelled flights, thaw ... rinse and repeat. 

It's also Comfort Food R Me -- 
Chicken Pho with Crispy Shallots and garnishes.  

My version of it was inspired by a Christmas gift of Vietnamese Home Cooking by Chef Charles Phan and Smitten Kitchen's take on it. 

Perfect winter comfort food.

It's also winter reno time. The bathrooms -- 2 out of 3 of them -- are in major do-overs. The upstairs bathroom has been screaming at us for years with its moaning pipes or ones that freeze in the winter leading no water/no shower and a cold wind on the toes (and other body parts) due to lack of heat. 

The reno has brought unwelcome surprises.  Surprisingly, the old bathtub came out with no problems, exposing old floorboards and ... a live wire and rotten pipes.  A live wire (even capped off) is not what you want under your bathtub... ever.

Then, with the wall tile removed, there was a lovely view of the outside through the hole in the brick.  Explains the cold tootsies.  

To finish it off, the bathroom vent to the outside turned out to be the stove vent too.  Code (not).  

To do a proper bathroom vent means dropping the ceiling.  Kaching $  

Warming up the bathroom means installing heated flooring. Kaching $  

New pipes and floorboards Kaching $ $ $ 

Next up is the tiny bathroom on the main floor.  It's old and tired with a spongy floor that feels like the floorboards are rotting beneath it.  Turns out they are.
Kaching $  

Undoubtedly, there will be more surprises to come when that work starts in the next few weeks.  Old houses, lots of problems.  

New bungalow (not in the burbs) anyone? 

Kaching$ Kaching$ Kaching$ 

Himself is having to do full-time marshalling of the cat kids during the day, locking them up out of harm's way, moving around food and water bowls, much to their disgust.  In fact, someone (guilty party paws up!!!) actually peed in the new tub overnight.  And they say cats can't talk.  Sigh.... bleach r me.  New bungalow anyone? 

The poor weather curtailed travel to Charlottetown this month. Just as well because January is a frenzy of getting ready for the spring parliamentary slug-fest, taking part in a Deputy panel at the annual government Communicators' conference, the obligatory bureaucratic 'talent management session' where I'm given feedback on my faults and not-so-faults, and a Deputy retreat with the Clerk and all my colleagues at Fort Sussex to talk 'medium-term' planning agendas.  Who would ever have thought I would end up in rooms like that? Not me.  And have something to contribute?  Honestly, it's a bit bemusing. 

I'm off to Washington next week for two days of studying at the Canadian Embassy on  'How Washington Works'.  I think I'm one of the chosen 12 for a private tour of the White House.  Fingers crossed.  Shades of West Wing but it has always intrigued me.  

It's too early for cherry blossoms there and it's likely the Capitol is due for polar vortex round 2 ... darn.  Eternal winter be gone!   

With a weekend of gym and grunge ahead of me, I looked about for some appropriate comfort food.  I didn't look far -- Vietnamese Pho Noodle Soups.  Chicken Pho with Crispy Shallots and garnishes  Just the ticket.

A word about the noodles.  The recipes recommend using dried rice noodles, linguine shaped (called bánh phở), but pad thai or rice vermicelli noodles work just fine too.  

It requires some time to make your own chicken broth.  There's always the option of skipping this step and using whatever but, hey, it's the weekend so play around.  It's snowing again anyway.  

Chicken Pho with Crispy Shallots and Garnishes
(Serves 6)

Broth (optional):
2 unpeeled yellow onions, quartered
3 1/2 inch thick slices of unpeeled fresh ginger, smashed
4 quarts cold water
3 lbs chicken bones or chicken wings

Fresh 3.5 lb chicken, quartered
1 T kosher salt2 tsp sugar
Additional spices (optional)
Cinnamon, star anise, black cardamoms, coriander seeds, fennel seeds or cloves
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce

1 lb dried rice noodles, a linguine shape (bánh phở) if you can find them

Garnishes (any or all):  
2 large scallions, thinly sliced
1 lb mung bean sprouts
1/2 cup torn basil leaves, Thai basil if you can find it
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
2 limes, cut into wedges
2 jalapeños, thinly sliced into rings
Hoisin Sauce
Sriracha Sauce 
4 large shallots (for crispy shallots, about 2 cups) 
Canola Oil (for crispy shallots, 2 cups) 

Directions for the Broth: 
Step 1:  Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Put onions and ginger on a lightly oiled baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes, until softened and light brown. 
Step 2:  Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add the roasted onions and ginger from step 1, then chicken bones/wings, quartered chicken, salt, sugar and any of the optional spices you wish and bring to a boil. Lower heat the medium and simmer until chicken is cooked, about 30 minutes.
Step 3:  Using tongs, transfer the quartered chicken to a plate and let it cool slightly. Remove the meat from the bones and refrigerate. Return the skin and bones to the stockpot and simmer for 2 hours longer. Strain the chicken broth into a large soup pot and cook over high heat until reduced to 12 cups, about 15 minutes. Stir in the fish sauce; adjust to taste.

Directions for Noodles:
Soak the noodles in a large bowl of warm water for about 20 minutes.  Alternatively, follow directions on package.  Transfer the noodles to large bowl and sprinkle with the scallions.  

To finish:
Add the chicken to the broth and simmer until heated.  Ladle the broth and chicken over the noodles.  Serve with any or all of the garnishes, especially crispy fried shallots (below): 

Directions for Crispy Fried Shallots:
In a small saucepan or large heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium-high until it registers 275°F.  Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden brown, about 4-8 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  You have the option of stopping here and adding to the pho.  


Follow the Vietnamese way and do the next step.  Increase the heat to high and place a fine-mesh sieve over a heatproof boil. When the oil registers 375°F on the deep-fry thermometer, return the fried shallots to the oil and cook just until they are crispy and well-browned, about 5 seconds, watching carefully so the shallots don’t burn.

Pour the oil and shallots through the sieve to stop the cooking and transfer shallots to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Sprinkle with salt to season and serve!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The New Year Menu for 2014!

January 2014 

I didn't post in December.  Posting on things I like to do is my way of managing work and life stress but when the writing itself becomes the stressor, it's time to throw in the writing trowel. 

Small whine ... December has become a burden.  I become overwhelmed by 'stuff', whether it's decorating, planning for the holidays, cleaning or whatever. All I want to do is just throw everything away and reduce the days to simple, clean, monastic.  It's not helped by fact that December is always work-crazy as we rush to finish all the big projects that need to be considered for the following year's federal Budget.  

I'm hoping retirement in the future restores more equanimity to the holiday season.  I used to love it. 

So the boost to the season was some of the gifts I received from friends and family -- inspiring cookbooks with photos opening worlds yet to be explored, both literally and through home-based cooking.  Here's two of the half a dozen I received, with reviews of them in subsequent postings.

The first is Vietnamese Home Cooking, written by Charles Phan, who is executive chef at a celebrated group of restaurants that started with The Slanted Door, located in San Francisco.  Check out their cutting-edge website! 

For each item in the book and on the menu, Phan went to the original region, studied traditional ingredients, flavours and techniques, and recreated the recipe using contemporary methods and organic vegetables and meat.

The recipes, photos and the author's experience as a refugee are engrossing.  The restaurant is on the bucket list of places to visit.  Second best is to cook some of the recipes like Lemongrass Pork (or Chicken) cooked in coriander seeds, a brothy rich Coconut Curry with a mix of spices, Grilled Five-Spice Chicken with Tamarind, and Roasted Eggplant and Leek Salad.  There's also a myriad of fish and seafood recipes for those inclined that way.

The next one is written by an author/chef I've profiled in previous posts:  Ottam Ottolenghi, a UK chef and food columnist. The first time I profiled Ottolenghi's book called Jerusalem, as reviewed in this New York Times article.  It's become a well-thumbed book in my household too.  

This time, I pored over the Christmas gift of Plenty, where Ottolengthi takes vibrant vegetables and grains and puts together 120 vegetarian recipes which prove we can get the majority of our calories quite happily and wholesomely this way.

My frig now always has a small bottle of preserved lemons, freekeh grains are in the pantry and sumac is part of my herb supply. I've yet to find pomegranate molasses and my sleuthing in Middle Eastern shops goes on.  

I've marked to try Spiced Moroccan Carrot Salad, Cucumber Salad with smashed ginger and garlic, Ultimate Winter Couscous, and Marinated Mushrooms with Walnut and Tahini Yogurt.  

Next up to profile is The Best of the Best Cookbooks from Food and Wine, 

bad-boy Gordon Ramsay's Chef's Secrets, and 

my new PEI home-boy Michael Smith's Fast Flavours, 110 Simple, Speedy Recipes.  

It's all in aid of chasing away the 2014 winter blahs.  I've got 'em big time.  Hate this wintery year.  Attitude adjustment in store....