If Yan Could Cook. . .

Archive for the ‘Vegetarian’ Category

Bruchetta, Cheese Puffs, & Curried Lentil/Sausage Canapes

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On Saturday I had a party at my soon-to-be-ex-apartment. My furniture was rearranged to convince people to take it with them or mark it as their own with Post-It notes, and it worked out very well. Bidding wars diffused quickly because people were too nice. I sat with a hardbound notebook marking down what people were taking, looking like a mousy accountant.

The party was supposed to start at seven and I got to the apartment at four, still needing to buy groceries and empty out my shelves and drawers. I cooked like it was dinner service at McDonald’s (that is to say, fast and in a flurry of panic). I bought a bag of Munchies mix just in case it all went south. All the pictures are by Laura D’Alessandro.


I made the ever popular pancetta jalapeño cheddar shrimp, described more fully here. In short, very large peeled shrimp get slit down the back of the spine and opened up (butterflied) so that a strip of seeded jalapeño and strip of cheddar cheese can be inserted. Then the shrimp can be closed up and tightly wrapped with pancetta – the slice of pancetta laid down like a piece of paper, shrimp on top, and then rolled upward – and then stuck with a toothpick to keep it all together. They go into a 400 degree F oven for 15 minutes. I was braver this time – I think I’m getting better at butterflying, as I could jam in much more jalapeño and cheese than usual. El fatty fantastico. Phil called me the “bacon magician”.


This is the bruschetta, more or less, used at Cafeo on their grilled salmon salad the summer that I worked there. I doubt that dish still exists – the menu turned over rapidly, and the dish was a misnomer (a lie?) as we never had a grill. There are other ways to cook a fish, as they say. Half a large red onion, 7-10 kalamata olives, three gloves of raw garlic are minced and thrown in the bowl. Then a (unpressed) cup of chopped basil, and two large or four small tomatoes small diced. I add a finely chopped jalapeño for “kick”, though I feel pretentious and 1990s for saying that. All of this is tossed with a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Salt to taste. Good on melba toast rounds for canapes – as we had at the party – but also on nachos, fish with dill, cheese toast, ham/pork products, and thin-crust pizza.


There was a half-bag of green lentils in my cupboard I wanted to get rid of. This dish was pure invention and hope. I cooked the lentils for forty minutes in boiling water and then drained them. At the same time, some hot Italian sausages picked up colour on all sides in a pan on the stove and then went in the oven to cook. I put the lentils in the blender with sparing olive oil, some of its cooking water, salt, ground coriander, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, and turmeric, and blended it into a paste. I spread some of this lentil paste on each melba toast round and used it as hummus-like “glue” for a slice of sausage. The whole platter was sprinkled with chopped parsley.


The star of the evening! I followed this recipe. A cup of water and a stick of butter get brought to a boil on the stove, and then a cup of flour is added all at once and pulled into dough. The dough gets put somewhere off the heat where four eggs are blended into it, one at a time. At this point the recipe said to just drop them onto a greased pan with a spoon. I tried three approaches: (a) spoon drop, (b) pastry bag (Ziplock bag with a corner cut off) with big hole to make one big dollop and (c) pastry bag with little hole to make ice-cream swirl shapes. After they’re baked (400 degrees F, 25 minutes, for me it was less), they’re hollow on the inside, so you can poke a hole or split them slightly to fill them with something and then close them up again. I was honestly amazed by that. Something about the process seemed magical or mystifying, that these solid lumps of dough (although raw they had a texture somewhere between soft-serve ice cream and mashed potatoes) would hollow themselves out and be so crisp and cogent. Immediately after baking they’re hard on the bottom and not sticky in any way, and you can throw them around like cookies. Anyway, strategy (B) works the best – the (C) style puffs looked the best but had many little hollows inside instead of one big cavity because of their odd shape. Spoon-dropping as the recipe suggests is fine, but it was too hard for me to get evenly sized balls that way.

The filling is onion-infused butter (a slice of onion cooked and then discarded) and flour roux, plus a 1/2 cup of milk, whisked/stirred until very thick. The recipe called for Gruyère but I used cheddar because I damn well wasn’t going to keep two kinds of cheese in a fridge I was trying to empty out (1 cup, grated). The puffs get cooled, filled, and then baked a second time in a cooler (350 degrees F) oven for ten minutes to heat them through.

While cheese filling was decent enough, it wasn’t terribly flavourful (I regret not using finely chopped onion and leaving it in). I am mostly impressed by the puffs themselves. While there are more steps than I imagined, it’s all ingredients one always has on hand and it’s hard to mess up. I’m very excited to try filling them with whipped cream or different flavours of ice cream with chocolate sauce.


Everything came out quite well and people were lulled enough with food to pay for my furniture. Leftover bruschetta and lentil spread is yummy with chips.


Written by skimfu

April 1, 2009 at 11:54 am

Posted in Pork, Shrimp, Vegetarian

Leek-Potato-Fennel-Celery Soup

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I dislike cream soups conceptually. Soups with clear broth are much more harder and riskier in all senses – presentation, crowd-pleasing, transparency of ingredients. Many restaurants make what can only be described as garbage soup by simply running a handblender through broth and any vegetables that are starting to go bad or were extraneously prepared. It always looks and tastes fine (never terrible, never spectacular) and no colour – not even the murkiest grey-brown – is considered strange. You can even let them ferment. We had a broccoli soup at one place I worked that developed an interesting sour kick to it. I ate a bowl every day for a week; my coworker said we would stop serving it once I started to hallucinate.

All that said, last night I made a leek and potato soup variant that made me feel how I imagine it feels to be popcorn: warm and buttery all over.

I used two leek stalks (just the white and light green), one bulb of fennel, three medium golden russet potatoes with the skin on, half a white onion, and two stalks of celery, all finely sliced. The whole pile wilted in a sea of butter (actually only about 1/4 cup), garlic, and chicken bullion, and then simmered in just enough water to cover everything. Finally I ran it through the blender in batches. It was thick and rich even without adding any cream. Best served with a piece of crisp pancetta on top (to add salt without adding salt) and a few fronds of dill from the fennel bulb.

Today, for complicated reasons, I ate breakfast in Shawinigan, Quebec, a white-bread town about two hours north of Montreal. It was hard to find breakfast. Mostly there were bars filled with old men, drinking deep at ten in the morning.

Written by skimfu

August 19, 2008 at 2:05 am

Posted in Soup, Vegetarian

Dill & Yogurt Potato Salad

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The boy sitting next to me at the bus stop today had the kind of lanky frame and ambiguous face that could have been fifteen or thirty. Yet he had the sincere, oblivious beauty of a child: not the genetic luck and coif that aids our grown-up hunt for a mate, but just plain newness. The world had yet to rub off his shiny finish. We smiled at each other and said some things, and I thought, “You must be very young.” His bus arrived first and he saluted me through the window, earnest as a boy scout.

Children are like potato salad: at once too intense and too wholesome. This is why they pair so well with hot dogs. They need to be mellowed out by cynicism and flavourless pleasure.

It was hot today and I am suffering from a massive caffeine-withdrawal headache, so I just ate cold potato salad for lunch, balancing it on my stomach in a cushy chair in the living room. I boiled the potatoes right when I woke up, drained them, rinsed them in cold water, and then stuck them in the fridge to forget for a few hours. They say if you cut your potatoes before boiling, you’ll end up with a mushy salad that comes apart. I’ve found, though, that as long as you stop the cooking at the right time, your potatoes should hold their own and be soft all the way through.

Plain yogurt, finely chopped green onions and celery, iceberg lettuce, lemon juice, a spot or two of dijon, salt, pepper, and sprinkling of sugar, all mixed together in a bowl. It’s more than the actual temperature that makes it seem cold. Something about iceberg and celery and raw onion, their bursty sharpness. The yogurt also does a good job of making it creamy without the weight of mayo. Sprinkle with dill (I have a bulb of fennel in my fridge still awaiting judgment) just before serving.

I don’t know how photogenic this very blob-shaped dish will turn out to be.

Written by skimfu

August 16, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Posted in Salad, Vegetarian

Dirty Little Things: Battered Zucchini and Carrot with Dipping Sauce, Pancetta-Wrapped Cheddar Jalapeno Shrimp

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Whenever I am struck by a vague sense of malaise, I try to refine it. I ask my body what it wants, if it is large or small. The feeling is strongest when I am leaving work, and the high, bright, manic note I sing all day, aided by a steady stream of free espresso, finally fades out. Once I am surrounded by strangers and not coworkers and superiors and customers, strangers driving cars in the same lane as my bike or sitting across from me on the metro, everyone lost in their own small private worlds, staring into nothing. There is no longer so clearly something I should be doing, something I have to be doing while I am on someone else’s clock. Nobody’s looking at me.

The option I always consider first is food: what food would fix this feeling? A candy bar? A slab of meat? A full grapefruit, crammed into my mouth one half at a time? Boiled vegetables over rice as bland, warm balm?

If the answers I get are only more emotions, I keep asking the same question: but what do you want? Yes, you feel like you didn’t get anything done today. Does that mean you want to do the laundry? Yes, you feel like your life is going nowhere. Do you want to block out some time to write, or hide under the blanket?

Often it is enough to identify the desire, without actually meeting it; it is enough to know that I want something so simple, something you could probably buy off the internet. Meandering, unfocused loneliness and grief is crippling, terrible. But if it is reduced to an articulated, tangible want – I want somebody to put their hand on my back – it seems so achievable, not a big deal at all.

I cook like this, too. For better and worse. When I eat something good in a restaurant, or that someone else has made, I refine the pleasure in my head: what, precisely, do you like about it? Which part? At its simplest incarnation, what is this thing you’re enjoying? How could you prune out everything else? How could you bring yourself closer to the core of the experience?

I dislike wading through all the sweet potatoes you get with vegetable tempura, when all I really want is the carrot and zucchini. And it’s not really the tempura I like, it’s biting through batter that has sopped up oil, all crispy and naughty, to get to the wholesome, tender-yet-firm heart of a vegetable. The way a sweet potato melts and mushes doesn’t do that.

So tonight I made up my usual batter of flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and pepper, sliced up a zucchini and two carrots and dipped them in this dry half of my batter, and then laid them out on some parchment. I read somewhere that this makes the batter adhere better, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. The batter is finished with a splash of lemon juice and a big pour of beer, mixing until it is the thickness of pancake batter. The slices were battered and fried in oil. For the dipping sauce I used about two parts soy sauce to one part rice wine vinegar to two parts simple syrup (sugar dissolved in boiling water). A small bowl of steamed white rice rounds out the setting.

I’ve made cheddar jalapeño shrimp quite a few times before, and it’s always a hit. If I make it for six people, everyone’s disappointed there isn’t more; if I make it for two people, both wind up feeling sick all evening. I used to use bacon and long skewers, but I found this was difficult and the shrimp overcooked before the bacon even started to crackle. This time I used pancetta and individual toothpicks, instead. First I butterfly the shrimp, slitting along the back (the bigger the shrimp, the easier this is), and then tuck a sliced strip of jalapeño pepper and an equally tiny amount of strong white cheddar inside. I put each shrimp onto one piece of pancetta, laid out like a piece of paper, and then just roll upward and stick a pick in it. Then into a hot (400-500 degrees C) oven for a while (15-20 minutes).

The thrill of these is very similar: it’s a two-stage taste that surprises you, every time. First is the delicious, classic, primally fatty mixture of shrimp and pancetta, then there is a small burst of heat and cheesy goodness, all contained in a tiny, perfect package.

I had a friend come help me eat these dirty little things and drink – after all, it doesn’t take a six pack of beer to make batter, but that’s no reason not to buy one!

(Nearing the end of the roll now.)

Written by skimfu

August 13, 2008 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Pork, Shrimp, Vegetarian


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These photos are from last fall, I guess, while still documenting my meals. I’m not clear on why I never published them. Pictured: Lentil soup, “Love” soup, basic stir-fry, jerk burgers, steak with onion/carrot/peppercorn compote.

Written by skimfu

August 10, 2008 at 9:49 am

Posted in Beef, Soup, Vegetarian

Cooking for One, Baja Fish Tacos, Salmon Salad

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Today I went shopping at a food superstore – the kind that sells vegetables, barbeques, hard drives, and underwear side by side, that you can get lost in for hours. The man in front of me in line was buying six bottles of Sprite, two pineapples, and nothing else. I imagine his fridge contains nothing but a 4L bottle of vodka.

On the walk home I saw a squirrel eating a Mars bar, which was such an odd spectacle that I just stopped and watched. He didn’t seem to mind. Most of the wrapper and about a third of the bar was clutched in his small paws (claws? hands?) as he nibbled away at the edges. Are you built for eating something like that, dear squirrel? Can your system handle it? Is no ingredient a more potent poison than it is for us (delighting, as we do, in slow poisons)?

Recently I moved into an apartment with a kitchen at least a few blocks up on my road to the Dream Kitchen. There is a gas stove, a fridge that beams like a beauty pageant winner, and most importantly, space. All of the goodies and gadgets I have acquired over the years can all come out at once.

Cooking for myself in this place, though, has a curious sense of defeat to it. I used to live in a one-room studio. Now I have a dining room that seats eight. Last night, I made myself a fantastic steak dinner, with zucchini and eggplant and steak fried in butter. After I ate (sitting alone in the kitchen) I deglazed the pan and added some onions and garlic to make gravy for another day. I was thinking about what I wanted to do with the gravy (shepherd’s pie? straight up mashed potatoes? another steak?) and this little voice in my head said, “What’s the point? It’s just you. Go get some McDonalds.”

The forty minutes I spent in the grocery store were the highlight of my day. Playing a game of combinations in my head (I could puree all the leftover bruschetta ingredients but leave the tomatoes coarse, then toss it with some hot linguine and sausages! Let’s buy linguine and sausages!). The cooking is fun, sure, but then I reach the point of plating and I just slop the food onto the plate. It is just me – and a book, or my laptop and some shitty TV show.

A couple months ago I made Baja Fish Tacos for a small group of friends. They have these everywhere in California (at least in the Bay Area), as a staple fast food. The version I came up with was cubes of beer-battered cod in soft tortillas, with small chunks of cucumber and shredded lettuce, and a yogurt sauce (cilantro, lemon juice, jalapeño peppers, garlic, spices) served with two fruit salads. Conventionally there would be fruit salsa, but I am personally opposed to the concept. My friend Laura D’Alessandro took the pictures.

At my housewarming dinner I served salmon salad to seven. It was sort of haphazardly conceptualized, but it came out…well…spectacular. Sadly, no one had a camera. Each plate had a salad of mesclun greens, cold potatoes (boiled and just slightly crisped on the stovetop), raspberries, corn, and blanched asparagus, dressed in homemade maple vinaigrette. The salmon was baked under a layer of ginger, served on crustinis (three slices of baguette, each toasted with melted gouda on top). The ginger was removed and replaced with a heaping spoonful of bruschetta – minced olives, garlic, red onion, basil, and jalapeño, mixed with small-diced tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil.

It was the stuff of dream weddings, and overpriced restaurants by the sea.

Why cook like this? For pleasure, certainly, but there is a comparable level of pleasure in eating Cheetos and ripe cherries, things you can buy and then pop in your mouth. One cooks like this to be loved. Eating your beautiful meal alone is like being a demented, jilted bride, wearing your wedding dress every day for years, wandering your one-bedroom apartment, thinking he’ll come back.

Written by skimfu

August 10, 2008 at 9:24 am

Posted in Fish, Salad, Vegetarian