Archive for the 'Food Nerd' Category

Food Nerd: Turkey Roastery

Dec 10 2013 Published by under Food Nerd

Illustration by Kira Sheppard

As we were eating dinner the other evening, my husband, Mark, asked me, “If you were to tell people how to make one essential thing, what would it be?”

“Um… cheesecake?”

Wrong! Turkey!”

If Mark could have one meal, and only one, day in and day out until he breathed his last breath, it would be turkey dinner. Followed in close second by hot turkey sandwiches. He lives in fear that one of our children might grow up to be a raw-foods vegan, and I can’t say what might happen if such a tragedy should occur.

There have been times when I’ve felt a little bit creatively stifled by the back-to-back turkey roastery we engage in here, where the bones of Thanksgiving’s bird have just been boiled clean when we turn around and do the whole damn thing again for our yuletide festivities, but I commit to it anyway. Mind you, there’s nothing saying you have to do turkey for both days, or for either. Except tradition. Which can be a pretty strong force, especially for those family-oriented holidays.

And what’s wrong with that? There’s something to be said for innovation, of course, but there’s also much to commend the cozily comforting, the predictable—especially in these dark days of winter. A turkey dinner is a sure thing, and it’s also far less complicated than many people would have you believe. Roasting a turkey is pretty much the most stress-free endeavour of the holiday season, provided you take a few minutes to plan it out and don’t get yourself worked into a frenzy over it.

I can’t even really give you a recipe. I just kind of take the turkey and fling it (lovingly) in a pan, put it in the oven, then some hours later I eat it. I don’t even cover it unless it looks like it’s getting too brown too fast, in which case I casually tuck a bit of foil over the top. Is my way the only way? Certainly not. Is it the best way? Who knows? I appreciate the fancy stuff —brining and spicing and whatnot—but I just want to keep things as simple as possible during the bustling season.

If you can snag a fresh, local turkey, then by all means do it; our farmers are our friends, so give them your money if you can. If your budget requires that you pick from the frozen offerings at the grocery store, that’s cool, too. If you have a decent-sized freezer you can grab a turkey when they’re on sale, which happens pretty often. I would advise against the pre-stuffed, pre-basted, buttered-up ones; injecting turkeys with industrial moisture-retaining solutions makes them taste kind of weird.

Whatever you buy, make sure it’s fully thawed—and, if possible, close to room-temperature—before you start.

For cooking times, I save myself the second-guessing and check the chart from the Turkey Farmers of Canada (, because if they don’t know, who will? Don’t break your brain trying to work out equations on Christmas morning, just check the chart and err on the side of more time rather than less. If the bird is done early, remember that a foil-tented turkey can sit on the counter for a good 45 minutes before it starts to lose too much heat. That crispy skin locks the heat inside like a toasty jacket. Even if you’re rushing and people are looking like they might eat the tablecloth you should let the bird sit for at least fifteen minutes before carving so it will be at optimal juiciness.

So you’ve got your turkey. You’ve got your oven preheated to 325°F. You’ve got your timing worked out, knowing that once your turkey comes out of the oven you still have to let it rest for fifteen minutes, make gravy, and carve the meat (I allot half an hour or so for all that, but if you’re not feeling like a kitchen ninja, give yourself a few more minutes.)

Want to stuff it? Stuff it. Don’t want to stuff it? Cut an onion in half and stick both pieces in the cavity of the turkey with a couple lengths of carrot and celery and some fresh herbs (I favour sage and thyme); the aromatics will add a lovely flavour with pretty much no effort. Truss if you want to (you can do it like this:, but I don’t bother.

If you don’t have a roasting pan large enough, those aluminum ones at the grocery store will do fine, but you might want to double them up, because they can be pretty flimsy. If you have a rack you can put the turkey on inside the pan, use it; if not, it will still be fine.

Salt and pepper the outside of the turkey generously. I like to brush on a whack of softened butter for extra awesomeness. I baste the turkey once or twice toward the end of the roasting time too, and I’m not convinced it makes a difference but it’s customary. I don’t have a baster, so I just use a big spoon, and it truly isn’t Christmas until I have accidentally burnt my arm trying to reach into the oven to baste the bird with the improper implement.

A turkey is cooked when the internal temperature is 180°F (measured in the thigh). If the turkey is stuffed, the stuffing should be 165°F. If you’re a thermometer-shunning daredevil, you can cut into the thigh joint and if it immediately comes loose and there’s no sign of blood, you’re good to go. That said, daredevil, thermometers are cheap and you can get them at the grocery store, so if you don’t want to have to worry about poisoning your loved ones, pick one up.

Now. I’ve imparted all my knowledge on to you, and my husband can sleep easy knowing that there are more people out there who aren’t afraid to roast a turkey. Happy holidays, friends! May your turkeys be moist and your leftovers be plentiful.


Stuff That Goes With Turkey



Finely chop an onion and cook it until soft in 1/2 cup melted butter (or less, but it’s Christmas), with a generous couple spoonfuls of Mount Scio Savoury. You like celery? Add some chopped celery. Apples? Cooked bacon? Toasted nuts? Handful of raisins? Honestly, I just keep throwing stuff in, cooking any vegetables until soft but not brown. I mix it all into a big bowl of large-ish breadcrumbs (I take a loaf of stale bread and crumble it up with my hands – the Light Rye from Rocket is quite nice for this), then salt and pepper it enthusiastically. Stuff it in the turkey, not too well-packed but not so loose that it gets washed away. Done. For vegetarians I axe the bacon and add a bit of vegetable stock to moisten, then bake it all in a covered casserole dish.


The most important part of dinner? Perhaps. Here’s what I do: a few days before roasting a turkey, I roast a chicken for dinner. Then I take the chicken carcass, an onion, a couple carrots and some celery, bay leaves, and peppercorns and throw all of that in a slow-cooker full of water and leave it on low heat overnight. Yay! Chicken stock! Then on the morning of turkey day, I take the neck and giblets (that little bag of stuff that’s tucked inside your turkey), more of all the same vegetables and seasonings, and give them the same treatment. Yay! Turkey stock! Obviously, you can use store-bought stock if you want but I’m so in love with my method I thought I should share. When the turkey comes out of the oven I remove it to a board to relax, then scrape all the drippings and little cooked-on bits into a saucepan. I top it up with stock and then thicken it with a flour-and-water slurry or, even better, with some beurre manié ( Add salt and pepper to taste, and it’s done.

Special Bonus Vegetarian Option!!!

Get yourself a pack of phyllo pastry in the freezer section of the grocery store and let it thaw overnight. The next day, cook up two thinly-sliced leeks (the white and light green parts only) in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add a tablespoon or so of chopped fresh sage and thyme, about a cup of finely chopped button mushrooms and a grated medium zucchini, and cook until soft. Add a half-cup of chopped walnuts, a half a can of drained chickpeas, and maybe three cups of cooked bulghar or quinoa (follow the package instructions). Set that aside and cook up some manner of vegetarian gravy; I like chickpea-based ones like this: When your gravy is done, add enough to the bulghar mixture to glue it all together, adding salt and pepper to taste, and set the rest aside for later. Now, in a deep-dish pie plate or spring-form cake pan, layer six leaves of your phyllo dough, brushing with melted butter or olive oil between each layer. Make sure the phyllo goes up the sides of the plate and sort of flops over (it’s okay to make a mess, phyllo is very forgiving). Fill with the bulghar mixture, then top with three more phyllo layers brushed with butter/oil. Fold any overhanging edges over the top and brush that with some more butter/oil. Bake at 400°F for about forty minutes, until the phyllo is deeply golden. Reheat remaining gravy, slice up your tasty pie, and serve.

Food Nerd: Turkey Roastery

8 responses so far

How do I get my baked goods to look all nice and shiny like bakery-bought ones?

Sep 23 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

Dear Food Nerd:

How do I get my baked goods to look all nice and shiny like bakery-bought ones?

– Dull Thud, St. John’s

Dear Dull:

Well, it kind of depends on what kind of baked goods you’re talking about (I don’t know how to shine, say, a muffin, although a sprinkling of coarse sugar before baking does wonders for sparkle), but here are two of my favourite general shining-up methods:

1. Egg wash. Take an egg, beat it well, and use a pastry brush (or an unpainty paintbrush, or your fingers) to spread a thin coating of the egg on your unbaked scones, pie crusts, pie-crust-y cookies (like rugelach), sweetened breads, fancy tea rings, whatever. You’ll end up with a beautiful, shiny finish and you’ll feel very accomplished indeed. You’ll only use about ½ teaspoon of the egg, so stow the rest of the wash in the fridge and make an omelet later (or feed the leftovers to your cat for a nice glossy coat).

2. Jelly or preserves. This is for fruit-filled pies and tarts with no top crust. When you don’t glaze them, the fruit looks dull and shrunken. I always feel like making a fruit tart and not glazing it is like putting tons of time into a presentation and then delivering it in your pyjama pants. The commercial route is to get some apricot preserves, heat them, strain the big chunks out, then spoon the warm preserves over the surface of the fruit. I usually make a batch of crabapple jelly for just this purpose in the fall (obsessive, perhaps, but crabapples are free, and apricot jam isn’t). Heat up maybe ¼ cup of jelly, whisking it to get the lumps out, pour or brush over your tart or pie surface (after it’s been baked and cooled), and voilà.
Hope this helps. Shine on!

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How do I get my baked goods to look all nice and shiny like bakery-bought ones?

7 responses so far

How can I use up a big whack of overripe fruit?

Sep 08 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

Dear Food Nerd,

Any suggestions for using up a big whack of overripe fruit? ‘Tis the season.


As a matter of fact, A, I do have a suggestion: fruit leather. I’ve just started making it and it’s strangely rewarding. Works for pretty much anything except bananas. You need to puree your fruit -– just whizz it if it’s something soft (berries, cherries, peaches, maybe pears), or cook it with a little water if it’s something harder (like apples, or not-so-soft peaches or nectarines). Remove any seeds, unsavory bits of peel, whatever -– you want the puree to be silky smooth, so you might want to push it through a sieve if your pureeing device (blender, food processor, food mill, potato masher) isn’t quite up to the task.

Now, set your oven as low as it goes (around 140F). Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and spread the puree about 2mm thick all over the parchment. If you have puree left over, you can stow it in the freezer until next time. Place the cookie sheet in the oven and leave it there 6-8 hours until it becomes nice and dried out and leathery. I put it in the oven when I go to bed, and check it in the morning. It should be pliable, not crispy –- like those “Fruit To Go” little snackies. If it’s still kind of damp (like, you can stick your finger into it), try flipping the whole thing over onto another piece of parchment, putting it back on the cookie sheet, and returning it to the oven for another hour or so.

When it’s dried to your liking, you can cut it up, paper and all, and roll it like Fruit Roll-Ups (it will probably be a little stiffer, but still roll-able), or just cut it into rectangles and stack them in an air-tight container. If you remove the parchment before stacking, dust them with cornstarch so they won’t stick together.

If you give this to kids (and you should, because they love it), make sure they brush their teeth after, because the fruit sugars are wickedly concentrated and will eat right through their darling wee chompers.

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How can I use up a big whack of overripe fruit?

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What makes a better pie crust: butter or shortening?

Aug 21 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

Dear Food Nerd:

What makes a better pie crust: butter or shortening?

– Flaky, St. John’s

Dear Flaky,

That’s a good question, and one that has torn families apart for generations. An all-butter crust is rich and tender, while a shortening-only crust is flaky, with a neutral flavor (butter pastry tastes, well, buttery).

Most recipes call for a combination of the two, although the ratio will depend on the baker. My old standby recipe calls for ¾ cups butter and just over ¼ cup shortening for a single pie crust. It’s a delicious pastry, and pretty easy to work with.

Of late, though, I have come to love that bad-boy of baking, the lard pastry. I know, I know, we’re supposed to think lard is gross, but the thing is, lard is a much less processed form if fat than vegetable shortening is. Just think about it: it’s a lot easier to get pure, solid, fat off a pig than it is from, say, canola plants. Pigs are fatty. Canola is not. So if you want fat, I figure the pig knows best. And the pastry: oh, it’s delicious. Lard is why your grandma’s pies always tasted so good (well, that or Lucky margarine).

If you’re averse to all of the above, you can make a quite decent pie crust using frozen olive oil. Olive oil freezes almost solid. If the rest of your ingredients are very cold and you work fast, you can put a crust together without it melting. You’ll probably have to press it in the pan rather than rolling it, but that’s no matter.

Whichever ingredients you’re using, keep t hem cold and use nimble fingers. Move with confidence and certainty, and your pie crust will turn out fine.

What makes a better pie crust: butter or shortening?

10 responses so far

Not to scale

Jul 01 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

How the war against child obesity is going to backfire.

A few weeks back, author Harriet Brown wrote a fantastic piece for The Huffington Post on the unintended negative effects of the US’s enthusiastic “war” on childhood obesity. In case you, like myself, live in a cave and don’t already know these things, this battle has as its general the charming and rather fit first lady Michelle Obama. The goal is simple: to make the US a healthier, happier country by encouraging children to eat well and get plenty of exercise.

And who could argue with that? We all want our kids to be healthy, right? And who could do anything but swoon at the words of Ms Obama, she of buff upper arm and organic kitchen garden? A nation of healthy, active children is surely a good thing.

The plague of childhood obesity is, apparently, an insidious enemy sweeping the land, worse than smoking and fossil fuels and Styrofoam and the Taliban combined. It’s enough to make you hover over your child, measuring her or his serving sizes and having her of his BMI charted fortnightly, clutching your carrot peeler in white-knuckled terror that your progeny might, despite your best efforts, end up being The Fat Kid.

Well, you know what? She or he might. And you know what else? Big friggin’ deal.

There are a whole lot of flaws in the discourse around childhood obesity. First of all, it’s not a plague. Are there more overweight children now than there have been in the past? Depends on which study you read. At my child’s school, which is an urban K-to-6 representing a fairly broad socioeconomic and cultural sample, there are a handful of larger kids, a handful of rather slight kids, and the rest are in the middle. The larger of the kids climb endlessly up and down the playground equipment and tear around the soccer field along with their classmates, which leads me to believe that they’re just as fit as anyone else. They seem to have plenty of energy, which suggests that they probably eat as balanced a diet as their peers. So what’s the problem? If they’re just as healthy as the other kids, why hassle them about the size of their jeans?

Because our culture seems to swallow, without question, the notion that heavier people are, each and every one, miserably unhealthy. And that they are unhealthy because they are heavy. And that they are heavy because they spend all day on the couch, living off of high fructose corn syrup and take-out hamburgers.

Well, dear reader, it’s horsecrap.

First of all, how much weight a body wants to carry depends on that body. Someone of my height but with a more delicate frame might be at her healthiest at 120 pounds. I’d probably perish if I got that thin. And I know plenty of women who outweigh me by half and who could still kick my ass in a dance-a-thon, and look gorgeous all the while. I say that if you can do that, you’ve got an ideal body. I know plenty of people who might look like they’re at a “perfect” weight, but who would get winded doing the same uphill walk that I do every day. Size is a crappy indicator of overall health. It’s crappy to assume that if a larger-than-average person happens to be ill, that the illness is caused (or even exacerbated) by size. Your heart or knees might have to work harder to lug extra pounds around, while mine might be of tougher mettle.

It’s also crappy to assume that people who are of larger-than-average size eat crappy food all day. They probably don’t, and even if they did, it’s none of your business.

Now, take all this and apply it to children. Sweet, innocent, vulnerable school-aged children. Of course, as parents we all want our kids to eat well. But we seem much less concerned about whether they eat happily. The very idea that children my daughter’s age are being taught that their health goal should be to avoid getting fat by avoiding any food with fat in it is just appalling. Anyone who knows kids (dare I add, especially girls), knows that the result of this message is not going to be a future of glowing health, but a constant judgment of friends’ lunches and the incessant comparison of one growing body to another. Kids already spend their time comparing themselves to everyone around them (“Allison has lost more teeth than I have!” “Jessica’s hair is curlier than mine!” “You gave James more juice than you gave me!”). Do we really need to emphasize the differences in weight, too?

I do believe that certain foods are better for you than others. Garlic is good for your blood. Whole grains keep your digestive system happy. Yogurt and olive oil cure most ills. I also believe that chocolate cheesecake can help bandage, if not heal, a broken heart, and that salt meat and potatoes can bring together the generations in a harmonious state of mutual respect. Organic foods are generally better than non-organic foods, but there’s nothing wrong with a Super Mae West, either. Some of the foods I love are full of “bad” things, but dammit, they are oh, so very good.

Despite our culture’s insistence that everyone is a complete idiot, most people, even children, know how to eat well. If children gravitate toward high-fat, calorie-dense foods, it’s probably because they need them. They’re growing, after all, and that takes far more energy than does the commute from one’s office to one’s house. Their brains are growing, too, and brains need things like fat and cholesterol to work properly. A person with a healthy relationship with her or his body will know when to eat more green vegetables or more protein or more fat just by listening to her or his body’s cues. But it’s practically impossible to have a healthy relationship with your body when you’ve grown up counting grams of fat and watching your every calorie and measuring yourself against an impossible goal.

We need to teach children that they need to eat good meals to make their bodies strong, so they can play soccer, or to do yoga, or to dance, or to dig up rocks, or to run up the stairs in order to slide down the banister fifteen times in a row, or whatever it is that makes them feel most alive. And that they need to eat well in order to keep their brains growing, so that they can read, and write songs, and ask questions, and come up with answers, and make up stories. They should never have to hear the word “fat.” Or “overweight” Or “obese.” They should hear “feel good,” and “have lots of energy,” and “sleep well at night.” They should hear, “so you can have lots of fun.”

One more thing: the big kids know they’re big. Because kids notice everything. What they need to know is not that they’re bigger than the other kids, but that they’re wonderful, and that they’re as valued and as beautiful and as loved as any other kid. None of us might ever say out loud that larger people are of lesser value than their more slender friends, but that’s what comes across every time we say, “I couldn’t possibly eat that; I’d be huge!” or “Too many burgers will make you fat, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?” Every time we mutter something under our breath when a larger-than-average person is seen in public eating anything other than carrot sticks. Every time we claim to feel guilty about something we’ve eaten. Our kids hear it, and they remember it, and they internalize it, and they repeat it. The effects of this are far worse than the effects of all the high fructose corn syrup and fast-food burgers in the world.

Not to scale

23 responses so far

Foods for baby-birthin’ and why they might work (or not)

May 20 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

By the time you read this, I should, by all rights, be a happy, sleepy, mother of three. Right now, though, I’m 40 weeks and two days pregnant, which some of you family-type readers may recognize as “two days overdue.” That’s only sort of true; a baby’s due date is more properly known as an EDD or estimated due date. It’s not like a stamp on a library book or a warning on a package of ground beef. An EDD is an approximation, and there’s a two-week range on either end during which most women deliver perfectly healthy babies with no more trouble than they would if they had had them right on the 40-week mark.

Still and all, while there’s no reason to worry about being a few days late to the party, I wouldn’t mind having this baby, oh, right about now. Being very pregnant gets tiresome. I keep bumping into doorways and cabinets and people with my gut. I always have food on my shirts, and I can’t wash the dishes without soaking whatever I have on as I try to reach past my enormous belly and into the sink. My awesome birth attendants have other clients, and I’d like to be able to leave a little space for rest between my kiddo’s birth and someone else going into labour. Midwives need sleep, too. And, most of all, I would kind of like to meet this little person who has been doing advanced breakdance moves in my gut for what seems like ages.

Now, most women who have had babies will suggest to you all kinds of foods you should eat to help kick-start labour. I have two theories about this business. First of all, when you’re ready to go into labour, you’ll try a hundred things, and then whatever you were doing when you started having contractions will be known as “the one thing that worked” forevermore. Anyone else might recognize it as coincidence, there might be no scientific evidence to back up your claim, but that doesn’t matter. “Oh, yeah, a family-sized Fruit & Nut bar. But you have to eat it while standing on one foot and listening to Johnny Cash. Totally works. I swear by it.”

Second, though, is that when you’re at that point, any and all claims will be considered, so long as they’re not clearly dangerous or overly gross (actually, some people have eaten some pretty gross things in pursuit of contractions). I don’t really care if pineapple has been scientifically proven to cause an enzymatic reaction that moves things along, dammit, I’ve got a pineapple sitting on my counter and I’m going to eat it. I don’t care that there’s no real evidence to support the idea that spicy food might induce labour; if this baby’s not out by tomorrow, it’s Indian take-out for supper at my house.

When I had my son, it was after one of those longish, start-and-stop labours. Eager to get out of the “stop” phase and back into “start” mode, I followed a friend’s advice and ordered some “bad Chinese food.” Apparently, it has to be “bad Chinese food,” not the wholesome, perky stuff, resplendent with fresh bean shoots and gorgeous greens. We’re talking oily noodles and bits of chicken, battered (or bashed) and fried and drenched in some kind of fluorescent, sugary sauce. The kind that seems like a brilliant idea at the time, but that almost always results in instant gastric regret.

So, did it work? Well, I went right back into labour, but really, I would have done that eventually. It certainly wasn’t a quick fix, as it took another fourteen hours for the youngster to finally make his bid for freedom, but who knows? Maybe the oily noodles were exactly what my body needed to soldier on. They sure were delicious.

As for tonight, my husband is making lasagna, some to eat and some to put in the freezer for the weeks to come. Then I’m tucking into that pineapple, and perhaps hiking up and down Alexander Street a few times, then… anybody have a trampoline?


Foods for baby-birthin’ and why they might work (or not)

All of these are, of course, completely anecdotal. Chances are that hours before you’re about a baby is not a great time to eat a lot of foods that don’t agree with you, so if you know for sure that a big plate of lasagna is going to give you killer heartburn, you might want to leave that alone.

Hot, hot, hot.
“Eat spicy foods” is a classic suggestion, although who knows whether it really works? And what if you’re from a culture where all the food is spicy? I’ve read that chili-pepper-laden foods might actually make delivery more difficult because the chemicals they release in your body interfere with the release of endorphins, and you want lots of endorphins. Who to believe? The North American diet is, generally, pretty spice-free, so perhaps for most people spicy food should fall under the next category.

Food that makes you feel gross.
This would include the mythic “bad Chinese food,” greasy fast food in general, anything that would cause a, shall we say, unpleasant gastric reaction. At risk of being indelicate, the theory behind this one is that whatever gives you gut cramps will also start contractions. Makes about as much sense as anything else, and there’s a good chance you don’t feel like cooking anyway.

Pineapple and other tropical fruits.
Pineapple and papayas and kiwis have enzymes that aid digestion and that do all kinds of other good things for you, so it could well be that they encourage babies to move out, too. Definitely worth a try.

Since one of the most important things to remember when you’re having a baby is to relax, I would think that any meal where you share a few laughs and enjoy your food is going to help. Oh, and don’t forget to drink lots of water.

Foods for baby-birthin’ and why they might work (or not)

2 responses so far

What to do with a jar of English chutney

May 06 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

As my fingers hit the keys, the sun is out, there are green things growing in my yard, and it well and truly looks like spring might be here. It’s the time of year when a food-lover’s mind turns to farmers’ markets and vacant-lot foraging, but there’s still a whole lot of waiting to do. For the next month or so it’s more of the same old dry goods, imported produce and, if you’re very lucky, berries you smartly stashed in the freezer last year.

But you know what’s just as good now as it was when I made it last year? Chutney, that’s what. There’s a bit of a chutney glut at my house, since I have, in the past, tended to make great huge batches of it and then failed to give it away as intended. I also have a very hard time saying no to chutney from other people’s kitchens, since everyone’s chutney recipe is different. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an obsession, but it certainly is an accumulation.

Now, you have probably encountered chutney in one of two contexts: as an accompaniment to Indian cooking, or as a condiment to go alongside cheeses and meats. The chutneys you encounter with Indian food vary widely, from syrupy tamarind sauce to chunky spiced vegetable relishes. Some are made from cool, mouth-refreshing ingredients like mint, while others are quite zippy indeed. The chutneys you might find on a cheese plate are a little different. They’re generally made of fruit, with lots of sugar and vinegar, and tend to be rather thick. They’re usually chunky, and commercial ones are often quite sticky – think Major Grey’s mango chutney. Strictly speaking, sauces like ketchup and HP Sauce could be considered chutneys, since the have all the classic chutney ingredients: fruit, sugar, vinegar, and a collection of spices.

How did an Indian condiment make its way onto the cheese and meat plates of the English-speaking world? It’s all part of the legacy of England’s colonial presence in India in the 18th and 19th centuries; the British there became rather accustomed to certain aspects of Indian cuisine, and they brought the parts they liked home with them. The English interpretation of Indian foodstuffs is fascinating, actually. Who could have known that the exotic spices of the Indian sub-continent would end up in a gravy to be sopped up by thick-cut chips as ballast against so many nights of drunken English revelry? And speaking of revelry, did you know that the gin and tonic is another relic of the British East India Company? Tonic water really is a tonic, in the medicinal sense, and it was consumed to help ward off malaria. Gin was added to make the stuff more palatable and to take the bitter edge off the tonic’s quinine flavour.

But I digress. Gin will make you do that.

Chutney, though, deserves your attention, because it’s one of the tastiest and most intriguing of preserves. It’s also a great place to start preserving, if you’d like to try your hand at it but don’t quite know where to start. It’s not as finicky as jams or jellies, which rely on pectin to thicken and set. English-style chutneys are thickened by slow cooking, and the balance of sugar and vinegar is extra assurance against them spoiling. The only hard part is the heller lot of chopping you have to do: onions, mostly, possibly bell peppers, and then whatever fruit you’re using. But it’s kind of pleasant and meditative, if you’re into that kind of thing.

You can find chutney recipes using just about any fruit as a base. Dried fruits like dates, apricots, and raisins are delicious. If you want to use fresh fruit, you can use much of what looks good at the store (so long as it’s fairly sturdy, not, say, a kiwi), or wait a few weeks until you can get your hands on some local rhubarb, and try the recipe at In fact, you would do well to put away a small batch of chutney for each wave of sturdy fruit that comes along between now and the fall: peach chutney at the height of summer’s heat, pear and ginger chutney as summer winds down, apple and date chutney with currents as fall hits and the leaves turn, green tomato chutney at the same time. Or you could leave it to the more experienced chutney-makers and buy a few jars. President’s Choice makes a good peach chutney if you’re in a hurry, but if you’re willing to wait for the farmers’ market to get on the go, you may well cross paths with local King of Chutney Jordan Young, peddling his Coaker’s Hat Chutneys there.Craft fairs and church sales are good chutney-spotting zones, too, and it’s well worth it to reward intrepid local chutney-merchants for their hours of chopping and stirring, don’t you think?

What to do with a jar of English chutney

• Dollop it by spoonfuls atop slices of sharp cheese on grainy crackers, and eat as an outdoor lunch with apple slices and a handful of walnut halves. My favourite lunch ever.

• Should you be in possession of some leftover roast beef, slice it thinly, then arrange the slices on your favourite bread, starting first with some mayonnaise and a nice layer of chutney. Put some cheese slices on top, then throw the whole thing in the oven until everything is melty and bubbly.

• Get yourself a small wheel of Brie, place it in the middle of a sheet of puff pastry, top with a goodly amount of chutney, gather the pastry up to cover the cheese, brush the whole thing with beaten egg, and bake it at 350F until the pastry is deeply golden. Serve at a fancy party and amaze all your friends. Or, if you want to get really super fancy, make little tiny puff-pastry squares or cups (in a mini muffin tin, perhaps), fill those with Brie and chutney, bake, and serve.

• Take some chicken breasts, bone removed, skin on (sad naked chicken breasts depress me). Using a sharp knife, slice the chicken breast open (this is called “butterflying”), then sandwich some soft goat cheese and chutney in there, and close the chicken breast like a book, skin-side-up. Bake at 375F until cooked through, about 45 minutes (will depend on size).

• Put it on a burger, be it a proper burger-burger, a veggie burger, a turkey burger, whatever. Super tasty.

What to do with a jar of English chutney

4 responses so far

Almost-Instant Macaroni and Cheese

Apr 22 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

Illustration by Elling Lien

Since Christmas, my daughter has graduated from having storybooks read to her at bedtime. It’s all about chapter books now. I had always imagined that the first chapter books I would read to her would be the ones I love: The Secret Garden, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Chronicles of Narnia. Wholesome classics to give her a sense of what literature should be. No dice. Her preference is for the books in the Disney Fairies series, starring Tinker Bell and a host of fairies and sparrow men (apparently boy fairies aren’t fairies, not even in Pixie Hollow) who use their talents to solve problems and to whom nothing particularly bad ever happens.

At ten chapters and about 90 pages a pop, we’re zipping through them. They’re not nearly as vomitrocious as they could be—as far as the Disney crap factory goes, this is almost tasteful—and I can’t help but love how much my daughter loves them. Last night, after we started another volume in this seemingly (and lucratively) unending series, she asked me which one of the fairies was my favourite. Naturally, I answered that it was Dulcie, a baking-talent fairy who delights the other fairies with her cakes and biscuits and poppy-puff rolls. It was kind of a default answer: I’ll admit, I have a hard time remembering the names of the other fairies, which ones talk to animals and which ones make bubbles and which ones make babies laugh or whatever the hell.

But Dulcie is my girl. In one recent adventure, she suffers from baking burnout, never having taken a day off in as long as anyone could remember. Her cakes are flat, breakfasts are disastrous, her mojo is lost, and Dulcie is forced by the queen to take some time off, much to her indignation. Not knowing quite what to do with herself, she starts kicking around the library, where she finds an ancient fairy recipe for “Comforte Cayke.” Well, Dulcie, like any of us food nerds with occasionally impaired mojo, is bound and determined to follow the recipe through, despite the fact that it is written in ancient fairy language, and that the ingredients only appear on the page one at a time, after the one before has been procured.

To cut to the end, Dulcie gathers her ingredients, sneaks into the kitchen, bakes the cake using her instincts (there are no directions, like in many ancient recipes), and just when the whole thing looks like a complete flop, the cake magically rises into a magnificent display of home-baked deliciousness. The Comforte Cayke is a success, and indeed it brings comfort to all the fairies and sparrow men, Dulcie gets her job back, and six-year-old girls get to go to sleep happy.

But here’s the cool part: when the fairies eat Ye Olde Comforte Cayke, it tastes different to each one of them. Because, of course, comfort food is something different for everybody. I, for one, hit the peanut butter and banana sandwiches pretty hard when I’m in need of a big foodular hug. Buttery mashed potatoes and tinned corn niblets are another comfort food standby. My mother’s chicken curry with a side of yogurt and tinned peaches was a university-era favourite. It’s essential to make too much rice so that there’s extra for making old-fashioned baked rice pudding later, with raisins and cinnamon, eaten warm with cream poured on top.

There’s an attitude in our culture that “emotional eating” is somehow the wrong kind of eating. I think that’s ridiculous. Eating is, by nature, emotional. Foods wouldn’t have mood-altering qualities if we weren’t supposed to use them to alter our moods. If you survey people’s comfort foods, most of them involve a one-two hit of sugar or starch and fats—pasta Alfredo, chicken pot pie, bread and butter, chocolate chip cookies and milk, a hot turkey sandwich and fries submerged in a pool of gravy. This makes sense: the carbs elevate your mood, and the fats stabilize it for a while. It’s not going to make your troubles go away, but it might normal you up long enough to put things in perspective, or to at least stop crying for a while. How on earth can this be a bad thing? As I’ve said many times before, the value of food isn’t just to be found in its nutritional profile, but also in how it makes you feel. If chocolate cake with a big scoop of ice cream transports you to a happier place for a little while when you’re feeling down, then that has great value. We all need to take our comfort where we can find it sometimes.


Almost-Instant Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni and cheese is a classic comfort food. I first found this method for making it in Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Express, but it turns out it has a long history. I’ve adopted it because it uses an egg-based sauce instead of one with flour, which means I don’t have to go fiddling around to de-gluten-ize it. Essentially, the noodles are baked in a cheese custard. One warning: be very careful that you don’t cook the sauce too long, or the eggs will harden and go kind of scrambly. It’s just as delicious this way, but it loses some of the silkiness that makes it so warm-fuzzy-blankety.

Serves 4 (or one, on a very hard day)

250 grams macaroni noodles of choice (I use brown rice pasta in elbow or corkscrew shapes)
3 cups loosely packed grated sharp cheddar cheese (250 grams by weight)
1 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
½ teaspoon prepared yellow mustard
dash Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste

1. Cook pasta according to package directions in well-salted water. Heat oven to 450F.
2. While pasta is cooking, combine all other ingredients in a large bowl.
3. Drain pasta and return to pot. Add sauce ingredients and stir over very low heat until cheese has melted and sauce has just begun to thicken.
4. Transfer pasta and sauce to a shallow baking dish (I use a cast-iron frying pan), and place in the oven, until the top has begun to brown, about 8-10 minutes. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t burn. Remove from oven and serve.

Feel free to customize your mac and cheese with a topping of bread crumbs, sliced tomatoes, cooked bacon, a handful of green peas, a blend of favourite cheeses, whatever makes you feel happy.

Almost-Instant Macaroni and Cheese

5 responses so far

Soup advice for the impure of heart

Apr 08 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

The composer Ludwig van Beethoven is credited with having said, “Only the pure of heart can make good soup.” There is considerable evidence that Beethoven was a curmudgeon and a loon, so who knows what he was thinking? I’m a proper monster half the time, with a heart as black as pitch and twice as smelly, and I make a damn fine pot of soup, thank you very much.

I know that soup seems like kind of a fallish-winterish thing to make, but let’s be honest here: it’s April in Newfoundland. We could still have a month of snow ahead of us. Aside from that, though, I have a deep-freeze full of little baggies of prepped, chopped veggies from last summer, and I need that sucker emptied out by the time this year’s harvest rolls around. I have also been on a campaign to chuck less food waste. When you have little kids, you end up having to toss a lot of food—there’s just no way to estimate how hungry they are going to be come supper time, or to know if they even like, say, carrots this week.

Soup stock (the brothy stuff that all the other stuff gets cooked in) is the first place you can use up a few bits and pieces from the fridge. Whenever I have good veggie trimmings, like the green parts of leeks or celery leaves, I stick them in a bag in the freezer, and then when I have a pile of chicken or turkey bones ready for the pot, I simmer the bones with the veggie bits, a quartered onion, some broken-up carrots, a few (a generous few) peppercorns, and call it done. By the time the simmering is finished I’m usually ready to go to bed, so I let the whole pot sit overnight, either in the fridge or, if it’s winter, between my two basement doors, where it’s every bit as cold as the fridge is. Then, the next day, I take out all the bones and veggie bits and peppercorns, and if there’s a thick layer of gelatinous goo on the top I take that off, too. Then I make soup with the tasty liquid that’s left.

I think that what makes for the best leftover-fridge-and-freezer-stuff soup is a measure of restraint. It is tempting to throw every little bit and scrap of food into the pot in the name of Depression-style thriftiness. But don’t do that. Sure, you can cook lettuce—the French have been known to do it—but should you? Likewise, cucumber is best left out of the soup pot about 98% of the time. And there are some foods that just shouldn’t go together: I can’t bear the thought of broccoli in the same pot as sweet potato, or as tomato, for that matter.

Here’s my advice: Rather than just going willy-nilly through the fridge or freezer, take a minute to assess your leftovers and come up with a theme. Say you have slightly wilty red or green peppers, some black beans, and half tin of tomatoes in the fridge, and some corn in the freezer, well, that adds up to something with southwestern flavours—fry up some onions and a lot of garlic, throw in some cumin seeds and chili powder (or chipotle chilis, if you have some), maybe a splash of brewed coffee and a ¼ teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa, add your veggies and beans, add stock (you can use store bought stock if you like, I do it all the time), and let it cook about 20 minutes. Stir in some shredded cooked chicken or beef if you have such a thing, finish it off with a squeeze of lime juice (out of a bottle is a-ok), and a dollop of sour cream or yogurt. Eat with corn chips. Happiness.

See how easy that was? Now, say you have carrots and sweet potato to get rid of. Peel them and chop them up (or not, if they’re already cooked), fry them with some onion, garlic, and ginger, grab your curry paste or powder of choice (Indian, Thai, Caribbean, however you like it), dollop an appropriate amount of that in, and cover it with water, or a combination of water and white wine (put the wine in first, then top up). Add a tablespoon of uncooked white rice, let everything come to a boil, simmer until everything’s cooked through, then purée it all in the blender. Same formula works great with squash and nice tart apples, with a warm garam masala blend instead of the curry powder. Top with chopped, toasted almonds, peanuts, cashews, coconut, whatever. Maybe some coconut milk to stir in.

It’s your soup, dude.

And really, the purity of your heart has nothing to do with it, thank goodness.


Soup advice for the impure of heart

Not all vegetables can hold up to a long simmer: broccoli and cabbage will stink up your house if cooked too long, so save them for last or leave them out altogether. Sturdy greens like chard and beet tops can stand about 8 minutes of simmering, and delicate greens like spinach should be stirred in just before serving. Likewise, pre-cooked leftover vegetables like green beans or peas should be added just long enough before serving to warm through.

If you want to add rice or noodles to your soup, but don’t want them to turn into slimy, starchy exploded yuckness, cook them separately (or use leftovers) and add them to the bowl before topping with the hot soup.

A tin of V-8 improves the flavour of almost any soup. V-8 or orange juice. I put them in soup all the time.

Soup always seems fancy if you dollop or sprinkle something on top. Kind of how drinks always taste better with a straw. Chopped herbs (green onions are cheap and pretty), a swirl of coffee cream, a spoonful of chutney, finely diced apples and raisins, whatever, so long as the flavours match up with what’s in the soup. It makes you feel like you’re in a nice restaurant and not at home eating leftovers.

Soup advice for the impure of heart

5 responses so far

Coconut-flour cherry muffins

Mar 25 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

Photo by Andreae Callanan

So you know when you’re at the bulk store and there are all those crazy kinds of flour there? Past the candy, past the lentils, in what I call the “freak section”? Freak flours. I’m right into them. In the last year, I have experimented a lot with different kinds of flour in order to replicate the magical—but, for my family, crazy-making—properties of gluten. I read a lot, I try a lot, I screw up a lot, and every now and then I have a brilliant success and I hurry to the computer to tell you all about it.

Gluten-free baking usually requires more than one kind of flour. If you’re making straight-up wheaty muffins, you take your all-purpose flour or whatever, wing it in the bowl, add your baking powder or baking soda or both, mix up some eggs and oil and milk or some such combo of wet ingredients, and off you go. You may mix white and whole wheat flours, but that’s about as crazy as it gets.

At my house, though, I usually have to mix three or four different kinds of flour any time I have to make anything. Each flour imparts a different taste or a different textural dimension, and I haven’t really found a blend that works awesomely for all the different things I like to make. A lot of brown rice flour makes excellent waffles but weird, gritty cookies. Quinoa flour is tasty and nutty but it’s heller expensive. I’ve made gorgeous squares with teff flour, and one appallingly gross carrot cake. Usually I do a blend of rice, buckwheat, sorghum and tapioca flours, plus xanthan gum.

I’m sure that, for a lot of you, this sounds like a complete pain in the arse, but I enjoy it. Because I’m like that. Sometimes, though, people come to me asking for a recipe for gluten-free whatever because their mother-in-law or their best friend’s boyfriend or someone else is coming over for brunch and they can’t eat gluten, and “please can the recipe not have any weird ingredients in it.”

Well, whaddaya do?

You get some coconut flour, that’s what.

I’ll bet you didn’t even know coconut flour existed, did you? Neither did I, but it’s right there in the freak section at the bulk store. Does it smell like coconuts? A little, yeah. Does it taste like coconuts? A tiny bit, depending on what else is in your particular baked goods. So provided you have nothing against coconuts, this may be the most amazing gluten-free flour ever.

Coconut flour has many, many strange properties. First of all, it’s very thirsty, so you use very little of it in a recipe. Like, half a cup in a batch of muffins. If you just substitute it, cup for cup, for regular white flour in a recipe, you will end up with a gummy brick. But in the right proportions, coconut flour rules the baking world. It’s not grainy or gritty—in fact, since coconut isn’t a grain, it’s suitable for people who can’t eat any grains at all (it’s more common than you probably think). It’s light and naturally sweet, so you don’t have to add a lot of sweetener to your baked goods.

And here’s my favourite: unlike most gluten-free flours, it doesn’t taste all that “health-food-y.” Not that there’s anything wrong with health food, but sometimes you want something cakey and moist and fluffy to snack on. Coconut flour is low-carb, low on the glycemic index, and high in fibre, and you can still make a nice, white birthday cake with it. Without adding any other “weird ingredients” like tapioca starch and xanthan gum. Even if gluten doesn’t bother you in the least, you should give it a try, for no other reason than that it’s good.

I’ve been making nice fruity muffins with coconut flour lately, as I have a lot of cherries and berries in my freezer to get through in order to make room for more of the same when summer comes. You can fancy the recipe up with citrus zest or some other kind of flavouring, but the vanilla-cherry combination I made yesterday has been the favourite here so far. I plan to adapt this to a lemon-poppyseed version soon, and I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Coconut-flour cherry muffins

Do not be alarmed by the unusually huge number of eggs in this recipe. Coconut flour works best in the company of a whole lot of eggs. They’re good for you, and the shells are super good for your compost. If you don’t have a compost and you live near me, just drop your eggshells at my house. I swear, I won’t think you’re weird or creepy. Unless you are. Then don’t.

Makes 12 muffins

6 eggs
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract (or other flavouring, like almond extract)
½ cup coconut flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup fresh or frozen cherries, chopped (or berries.) If you are using frozen fruit, do not thaw it first.

1. Preheat your oven to 400F. Butter a 12-cup muffin tin, or line with cupcake wrappers
2. In a medium bowl, beat eggs lightly. Whisk in melted butter, sugar, and vanilla.
3. In a large bowl, stir together coconut flour, salt, and baking powder, breaking up any large flour lumps.
4. Add wet ingredients to dry and stir until smooth. Stir in fruit.
5. Fill muffin cups about 2/3 full and bake 16-20 minutes (they’ll take closer to 20 minutes if the fruit is frozen). Remove muffins from oven and let sit several minutes in the muffin tin before removing to a cooling rack. Once cool, store in an airtight container.

Coconut-flour cherry muffins

4 responses so far

Irish food

Mar 11 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

I don’t get St. Patrick’s Day. At least, not the way we get on about it. I understand saints’ days, if you’re Catholic. I understand holidays, if St. Patrick’s Day still were one here. I understand that some of our province’s stock came from Ireland, long, long ago.

I just don’t get how that translates to “drink your face off, woooooo!”

Now, I have no problem with drinking one’s face off. I don’t even mind everyone in town drinking their faces off at once. But why bring Ireland into it? Or St. Patrick? St. Patrick, as a child, was captured from his home in Britain and brought to Ireland by slave traders. He eventually escaped, and legend has it that he returned to drive the snakes out of Ireland. Except there never were any snakes in Ireland. By “snakes,” they mean “pagans.” So St. Patrick converted the pagan Irish, who were, no doubt, happily going about their business like most colonized people were before they got colonized, and that’s why everybody wears big green foam hats and puts on fake Irish accents and gets shitfaced every March 17.

Never mind St. Patrick himself for a moment. Let’s look at this big green hat, sparkly shamrock earrings, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish”, ti-tiddly-tee-tum, pot o’gold, they’re-after-me-lucky-charms business for a second. Now, I haven’t been to Ireland, and I’m no expert, but I have met enough Irish people who are, you know, normal, to suggest that Ireland is not actually inhabited primarily by leprechauns. Or by drunks. Or by drunken leprechauns. “Celebrating” Irishness by painting some shamrocks on your cheeks and upending a series of barstools while listening to frantic tin whistle music before vomiting greenly onto your date’s “My Goodness, My Guinness” T-shirt is not terribly respectful of Ireland as a nation, or of Irish people, is it?

Here’s the thing: every time we Newfoundlanders see an image of a toothless, Cape-Ann-wearing, illiterate, rum-swilling, accordion-playing, seal-clubbing, Newfie-joke-inspiring fisherman as a “celebration” of our culture, we get righteously angry about it. We write letters and boycott products. We go on national programs to speak articulately about our industrial edge, our cultural and artistic achievements, our boutique hotels, our ecological attractions, our ever-changing urban demographic.

And yet, we’re not ashamed to portray Ireland and its people in an equally ignorant fashion for 24 hours (plus hangover lag time) every March. We’ll go so far as to say it’s okay because “we’re Irish.” Well, actually, most of us aren’t Irish, and many of those of us who are (in an ancestral sense) haven’t been Irish (in a practical sense) in a long time.

“I’m sorry,” you may be saying, “your mad rant is very interesting, but what does this have to do with food?” Well, food is an expression of culture, isn’t it? Ireland’s history of food culture is complicated and political; it was the great famine (which was, let’s remember, starvation at the hands of colonial landlords) that resulted in much of the migration of Irish people to North America. The potato isn’t indigenous to Ireland; it is a South American plant, which was introduced to Ireland as a supplementary crop, but which was manipulated into becoming a staple. When the potato blight hit in the 1840s, the Irish people had no other food to turn to (most other crops having been claimed for export to England), and so a great many Irish people came to the Americas to give it a go here. Those immigrants formed communities, integrated into the cities and towns, and that’s why we began to recognize St. Patrick’s Day in the first place.

Surely I’m not the only person who finds this interesting. Surely! Come on, people!

What I’m getting at here, if you’ll indulge me, is this: if you wish to celebrate Irish history—and why wouldn’t you?—how about instead of turning it into a stereotype-fuelled piss-up, why not take some time to honour the Irish experience by thinking about what happens when communities lose the means to grow food for themselves? And while you’re at it, why not raise a glass to the indomitable spirit of Ireland, and of people everywhere who have survived devastating cultural losses. As for St. Patrick and his story, well, I myself side with the snakes.

Irish food

Irish food tastes and Newfoundland ones run along similar lines – our ancestry and climate have much to do with that. Contemporary Irish cuisine (as hip and cool as contemporary cuisine anywhere) combines traditional ingredients like root vegetables, cabbage, potatoes, game, salt meat, and lamb with newer techniques to create dishes that are at once simple and elegant. Kinda like we do here, hey?

Although Ireland is an island, seafood has only played a large role in cooking in certain areas. Modern Irish cooks are taking better and better advantage of local seafood, and salmon, mussels, scallops, lobster and the like appear frequently on restaurant menus.

Irish beer and whiskey are, of course, famous (and for very good reason). Why not try steaming mussels in a mixture of Guinness and half-and-half, with some onion thrown in there, and some appropriately green parsley? Or how about lamb chops brushed with a mixture of honey, whiskey, garlic, and marmalade? There are plenty of sources for contemporary Irish recipes on the web; I found some good-looking ones online at

Of course, you would always defer to James Joyce on this one, and dine on organ meats in the style of Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

If you’re into that sort of thing.

Irish food

18 responses so far

Food Nerd highlights

Feb 25 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

I never really set out to become the Food Nerd. I was just kind of minding my business, making tasty dinners in my damp and drafty apartment, and occasionally blogging about it. I’ve always known a lot about food and cooking, but it had never really occurred to me that anyone wanted to hear about it.

Then, way back in the mid-aughts, my old friend Elling sent me an e-mail saying, “We’re moving to St. John’s to start a free alternative paper. You want to be in it?” Well, of course I agreed. Who doesn’t want to write for a free paper? I mean, imagine the glamour! The fame! The fat free-alternative-paper-columnist paycheques!

After some talk, it was determined that I was to be the official voice of food lovers at The Scope. We didn’t want to do restaurant reviews, since a) Karl Wells had that pretty much sewed up at the time, and b) we had no budget for fine dining (or for any dining). For a while there was some talk of my interviewing local non-culinary personages while preparing foodstuffs, but the short-lived free version of The Express started up an interview-over-lunch column about a week after we thought it up (they were monitoring my brain, I swear it). So we figured, let’s cut out the restaurants and the celebs and just talk food.

Well, actually, Elling’s assignment was “a column that’s like a sex column, only with food instead of sex.”

“Um… sure, I can do that,” said I, not at all sure I could do it, or even what he was talking about, but willing to give it a go.

I’m not certain I’ve ever approached that directive, although I’ll admit that my chocolate beet cake column ( was a smidge lusty, and I may have gotten a little blue in my descriptions of quinoa grains (, but, seriously, they look like sperm. Was I supposed to not go there? I’m a newspaper writer, damnit! I have journalistic integrity!

Actually, I have no journalistic integrity whatsoever. But I do have the encyclopedic knowledge that comes from a lifetime of reading cookbooks as though they were novels. My college years were spent defending Martha Stewart to my Women’s Studies colleagues (you would have paid money to see it, I promise you). I started cooking when I was about seven, and I’ve even earned a few bucks catering over the years.

I’m no chef. I have no desire to run a restaurant or even a muffin stand. I occasionally toy with the idea of having a soup stall somewhere, or delivering lunches to downtown offices, but I keep having babies and they’re not really keen on helping me advance my foodular career. I get asked with some frequency when I’ll have a cookbook out, and I always kind of laugh at that. Me? A cookbook? But I am sitting on 99 Scopefuls of food writing (I missed one issue due to a family emergency, but that’s it, people, that’s it), and I suppose that’s adequate grounds for a cookbook, no? Some of you would buy it, wouldn’t you?

Not to go all sloppy and sentimental on you now, but here’s the thing: the best part of writing this column is you, my readerly friends. I know I act like a dork when I run into you somewhere and you say, “Hey, you’re the Food Nerd, right?” I don’t mean to be so dorky. I just can’t believe that people are still interested in my rants against the grocery super-empires and in my many, many ways to combine chocolate with vegetables. To say that I’m flattered doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Since The Scope ran its first skinny, floppy issues, I’ve moved house four times, gone through several day jobs, weaned a kid off gluten, had a baby, gotten married, and cooked a lot of meals. I’ve sent in my columns from Paris, London, Quebec, Halifax, and Gander. For the first year, I didn’t even have a computer of my own, and I would cobble together my columns at friends’ and relatives’ houses and various people’s offices. And you guys have been there the whole time, sending e-mails and leaving comments and occasionally hugging me in noisy bars. You know how to make a nerd feel loved.

So… here’s to 100 more?


Food Nerd highlights

I’ve said and eaten some crazy things over the last few years. Here are some of my favourite Food Nerd memories:

Making food videos with Rachel Jean Harding, first the now-classic “for the love of the cake” (, and then the charmingly awkward “Food Nerd vs. the waffle” (

Having people come up to me and say. “I had no idea how easy it was to make éclairs ( / truffles ( / granola ( / yogurt ( / whatever. I’m so happy when I can reveal how simple most foods are to make.

Being a guest on Radio Noon Crosstalk twice, first to talk about kitschy food trends (mmmm, Jell-O salad), and then to talk about local foods (mmmm, arugula salad).

Eating dandelion fritters ( with ice cream and honey. Like deep-fried sunshine.

Surreptitiously documenting the early days of courtship between myself and my husband, using pastry as a metaphor for love ( Nerdiness. I know.

Food Nerd highlights

2 responses so far

Old reliable chocolate cake

Feb 11 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

It’s been over a year now since I switched this column over to the all gluten-free network of foodnerdery, and look, you hardly even noticed. Same tasty treats, same snarky remarks… nothing’s changed, right?

Well, maybe not at your house, but it has at mine. Just to recap, in case you’ve forgotten, about 14 months ago I put my daughter, who was in kindergarten at the time, on a no-gluten diet to deal with some health issues she was having. Which meant that we had to re-think, in a pretty serious way, everything we eat. Gluten (just to refresh you) is a protein found in many grains, primarily wheat, spelt, kamut, rye, barley, and (through processing), oats. It’s not, you know, evil, but for people with sensitivities to it, the effects can be anywhere from mildly irritating (congestion, bloating) to debilitating (malnutrition, depression, reproductive disorders, you name it).

Some people with gluten issues can pick the cheese off the top of a piece of pizza and eat it without any ill effects; others, especially people whose systems have been damaged by Celiac disease, can have their symptoms triggered if their food is so much as prepared with a wooden spoon that had been used to stir a pot of beef and barley soup last week. Those little gluten molecules are sneaky shaggers.

Changing your diet, and especially changing your child’s diet, is difficult. As is always the case in my life, when faced with difficulties, I deal in one way: I bake. I bake cookies, I bake cakes, I bake squares and cinnamon buns and scones. It’s my coping mechanism. I drown my troubles in butter. I am lucky to have very few troubles to drown, else my butter intake would far exceed the recommended amount for any human. Who am I kidding? I’m sure it already does.

When you have to put your kid on a special diet, you worry about them being labeled “weird.” Suddenly, you desperately want them to be able to eat all the cookies at the school Valentine’s party. Which is funny, because under normal circumstances, you would be begging them not to eat all the cookies at the school Valentine’s party. But there you have it. Parenting makes you do irrational things. So, when there’s a party, I send cupcakes to share with the class, so my youngster isn’t the only one with a non-matching cupcake. When she gets together with friends, I usually send along cookies to share, partly because that’s just nice, and partly because I don’t want her friends’ parents to be standing there, looking through their cupboards, reading every ingredient and getting all stressed out about it. If I can whip up some cookies in half an hour and save someone else an afternoon of freaking out about what’s going to happen if my kid gets into the multigrain tortilla chips, it seems like a batch of cookies is the way to go.

Cupcakes decorated by someone I know.

I won’t go into the crazy science of gluten-free baking right now, because, frankly, it’s a book-length discussion of wacky flours (quinoa? sorghum? millet?) and starches and xanthan gum. Not to scare you if you’re considering going gluten-free: it’s a little complicated, but once you get the hang of what does what, you’re fine. Better than fine, sometimes, like in the case of the chocolate cake recipe below.

I know that this is the third chocolate cake recipe I’ve run during the life of this column – the fourth, if you’ve ever baked the Fudgy, Sludgy Brownies in a cake pan and called it a cake – but all those other ones had vegetables in them, so they hardly count. Besides, it’s February, the Season of the Cake. If you pick this up early enough, you can make one for Valentine’s Day. If you don’t, well, what odds? I’ve never felt that chocolate cake was something that required excuses.


Old Reliable Chocolate Cake

You can bake this in two 8” round pans and make a layer cake, or you can pour it into a Bundt pan for a ring cake, or you can always go with cupcakes. Most recently, I used this recipe to make a dozen mini-cupcakes for my daughter and her friend, and there was enough batter left over to make a small loaf cake for the grown-ups.

A note on flour: if gluten is not a concern for you, just use all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached. I developed the recipe using El Peto brand gluten-free flour mix, so that’s what I’ve listed, but I’ve also used Glutino brand, and it’s fine. If you don’t want to use a flour mix, I would suggest ¾ cup sorghum flour, ¼ cup sweet rice flour, ¼ cup tapioca starch, and ½ teaspoon xanthan gum, whisked together.

1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/3 applesauce
2 eggs
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 1/4 cups El Peto gluten-free all-purpose flour (or other flour: see note above)
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Butter pan(s) and dust with flour or with cocoa powder, or, if you are making cupcakes, line a 12-cup muffin tin with papers.

2. Cream together butter and sugar (about 5 minutes). Add applesauce and blend well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well between additions.

3. In a small bowl, dissolve cocoa in boiling water. Stir in buttermilk. Set side.

4. Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt. Add to sugar-butter mixture, beating well.

5. Beat cocoa mixture into the batter.

6. Pour batter into prepared pans. Baking time will depend on the size of pan(s) used. Check cupcakes after about 15 minutes, 8” pans after about 25 minutes, and Bundt-style pans after about 40 minutes. Cake is done when a tester comes out clean, or when surface springs back slightly when touched.

7. Allow cakes to sit in pans 5 minutes before turning onto wire racks to cool completely. Top with your favourite frosting (I, sadly, never measure when I make frosting, so I have no recipe to give you). If you have made cupcakes or a Bundt cake, you may want to top them with:

Coconut Ganache
2/3 cup chocolate chips
1/4 cup coconut milk

Melt together in a double boiler. Stir until smooth. Cool slightly before spreading. Will harden to a truffle-like consistency overnight. Be warned: if you use this right away, they will be messy. Deliciously messy.

Old reliable chocolate cake

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Eat it, punk!

Jan 28 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

So, you’re gonna do the RPM Challenge? Well, good for you. You’ve got 28 music-filled, magical, intense days ahead of you. I imagine that three weeks from now you will be completely out of your mind.

I was hoping I could come up with some kind of appropriate fuel for you during this mad journey, but who am I to tell you what to do? If you’ve been writing songs for more than two weeks, you probably have some kind of formula for fueling your work already. Perhaps it’s beer and smokes, perhaps it’s drugs about which I would surely know nothing in the least. Perhaps it’s rock-climbing and whole-wheat pasta. I’m not a musician, and despite my track record of having dated almost exclusively musicians from the years 1992 to 2006, I don’t know a damned thing about what makes you people tick. You’ll note that I ended up marrying a poet. Him, I get.

The only experiences in my own life that I can imagine would be anything like completing the RPM Challenge would be 1) pulling all-nighters writing university papers, and 2) um, childbirth.

In the case of the paper-writing, I had a pretty decent system worked out. I discovered early on that simply drinking coffee all night would yield nothing but all-over shakes and peripheral-vision hallucinations. So I would have a couple good-sized mugs of the ol’ caffeine juice, then I would switch to a giant pitcher of water and a bag of jelly beans. The jelly beans provided the essential refined sugar and artificial colours to keep my brain buzzing along (until that painful mid-morning crash, oh the crashiness of it), and the glasses of water made sure that if I were to doze off, I would quickly be awakened by the need to pee. Not bad, hey? Yeah, I’m a genius. As for childbirth, quarts of homemade electrolyte drink (lemon juice, water, honey, and a pinch of salt) saw me through the wee hours of that particular trial, with popsicles in between.

Useful information? Probably not, but it’s all I’ve got.

I would suggest that you stock up on some easily-prepared, high protein foods to have around the house, something that’s going to fill you up without making you feel too gross. And something that’s not going to make your fingers all greasy, because whether you’re holed up with a guitar and a four-track or making beepy noises on your laptop, clean fingers are a good thing. Save the Big Mary for the first of March. Keeping some good, wholesome fixin’s around is a decent plan, for no other reason than this: say, just say, that you’ve just stumbled upon what might be the greatest song ever written, and it’s being written by you. But you’re also approaching hunger-induced delirium because you skipped lunch and you’re about to pass out. Do you want to reach for a snack to tide you over while you seamlessly finish composing the greatest piece of music to grace the ears of the RPM listening party attendees, nay, the world? Or would you rather faint in a heap on the floor, only to awaken and find your great opus a mere fragment, a memory, a collection of bits and pieces like Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn, destined to remain unfinished for all time?

I think we know the answer here: Feed yourself, my friend, and feed yourself something half decent, for heaven’s sake, or who knows what state you’ll be in when you emerge from your musical cave at the end of the month.

One warning, though. Gather healthful snacks, yes, but I don’t suggest you take this time to turn into a real health food nut. Because you know who’s a health food nut? Randy Bachman. Yeah. Do you want to end up like that, swiveling around in a leather chair in a radio studio, riffin’ your heart out while you relay anecdotes about the glory days and your famous pals? No, my friend, you do not. Nor do I want that to happen to you. So, you know, rock the multigrain, but go easy on the wheatgrass, for all of us.

• What’s round like a cd and full of goodness? A waffle sandwich, that’s what. Take two tasty , grainy waffles (from a package, or you can use the recipe here——or the gluten free ones here— – to make your own and keep them in the freezer), toast ‘em up, and spread them with peanut butter (or almond butter, cashew butter, whatever), add some slices of apple or banana, a drizzle of honey or maple syrup, and yum, that’s a meal. Cream cheese and raisins also make a delicious, if unlikely, waffle-stuffer.

• As much as I would have once scoffed at the breakfast burrito, there’s much to commend the omelet-wrapped-in-a-tortilla for portable, fast protein. Just make sure to warm your tortilla (or wrap of choice) first, because the clamminess of a cold tortilla is enough to suck the soul out of anyone. Other than that, it’s just a matter of beating a couple eggs, winging them in a hot pan, throwing on a little cheese, and letting them cook through, which should take no more than 90 seconds. Turn the omelet out on to the tortilla, spread on a little ketchup or add a slice of ham or something, roll the thing up (artfully tucking in the ends to prevent drippage), and eat.

• I know, grilled cheese is a no-brainer, but if you’re looking for inspiration that takes less than 5 minutes, there are some good ideas embedded here And if a non-grilled, not-necessarily-cheese sandwich is more your style, there are some ideas here (check the comments, too)

• Hummus. Great tubs of hummus. With rice crackers. Only takes one hand. Dig it.

Eat well, and good luck, Challengers!

Eat it, punk!

One response so far

Mo’ Rockin’ Chicken & Chickpeas

Jan 14 2010 Published by under Food Nerd

So, remember a couple years ago, when I was all, like, “hey Scope friends, I’m totally pregnant and I hate food now, sorry for any inconvenience”? I mean, I got over the food-hating eventually, but man, was I ever not into cooking for a while there.

Well, I’ve done it again. Gotten pregnant, I mean. I had help, obviously, but the point is that I am once again in the family way. I’m halfway through the process, and I’ve managed to spare you the details of this particular food-hating phase (although I’m not sure chicken stir-fry and I will ever be friends again). I’m happy to report that my appetite is back in a big way. It returned, conveniently, just in time for me to consume several batches of cookies, innumerable chocolates, and the better part of a 22-pound turkey.

I may not be queasy right now, but you know what I am? Freakin’ exhausted. It turns out that having a six-year-old and a 15-month-old and being pregnant all at the same time is awfully tiring. Go figure. I wake up tired, I fumble through the day tired, I take a nap and I’m still tired. I usually fall asleep on the couch or putting my elder kiddo to bed at around 8:30, then I stumble to my room where I sleep in three-hour intervals punctuated by rounds of toddler-screams (he’s perpetually teething, poor darling boy), and then I wake up tired again. Next verse, same as the first.

And so it is with great enthusiasm that I have accepted a gift from my mother: a slow cooker. Yes. The “I’m really not a gadget person” Food Nerd now owns a machine that cooks dinner for her. My mother, you see, needed a slow-cooker for her Christmas party (there were meatballs, and they wanted to be warm), and the gadgets were so impressively marked down that she bought two. Now one of them lives at my house, on the condition that it be returned for parties.

You may be asking, “What the heck is a slow-cooker?” Well, you might know it as a Crock-Pot. Crock-Pot is actually a brand name, and belongs to the appliance company Rival. Just about every other appliance company has an equivalent product. The unit has three parts: a ceramic crock that you put your ingredients in, a metal or enamel base that has electrical elements running through it, and a glass lid. The elements heat the crock, which in turn cooks the ingredients you’ve put inside it. Only, rather than cooking everything at an oven-like heat, the slow cooker cooks at a low temperature (between 170F and 200F), and instead of things being done in an hour, it takes between six and ten hours to have dinner on the table.

“Why, oh why,” you ask, “would you want cooking to take longer than it already does?” A very good question, indeed. The beauty of the slow cooker is that you can toss your ingredients in the crock in the morning, or even the night before (in which case you stick the crock in the fridge overnight), and then you turn it all on, walk away, and by supper time you have a hot meal on the table with minimum effort. There may be a little preparation involved, like frying your onions or browning your meat, but it’s pretty reasonable. If you’re someone like me, who has just slightly more energy in the morning than in the evening, a slow cooker is an awesome help. At 9 am I can wrap my head around a decent meal, and I have the brains and coordination to assemble the ingredients, prep them, and pop them in the slow cooker. By 5:00 pm most days, I’d just as soon have a giant bag of potato chips for supper as even think about cooking. I’d do it, too, if it weren’t for the children.

Slow cookers are especially good for stew-type dishes that benefit from longer cooking times. Hearty stuff, not delicate fare. Pot roasts, chicken thighs, that sort of thing. If you’re a vegetarian, slow-simmered bean dishes do very well, but apparently some dried beans can be toxic if they aren’t cooked at a high enough heat, and so you have to bring them to a boil in a pot on the stove for an hour or so first (or just used tinned ones). Other than that little warning, though, let me suggest that, if you have a slow cooker you’ve never used, you dust it off, assemble yourself a nice dinner, walk away for a while, and enjoy.


Mo’ Rockin’ Chicken & Chickpeas

This recipe grew out of a similar one I read in a Moroccan cookbook years ago. I always just called it “Moroccan chicken,” until the joke emerged that it was “Mo’ rockin’ than any other chicken!” It’s my family’s favourite dish, and is perfectly suited to the slow cooker. Serves 4.

1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 small onion, finely diced
3 1/2 pounds chicken thighs, skin removed
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
5-6 tinned Roma tomatoes (or 3 regular summer tomatoes) seeds and juice squeezed out
1 1/2 cup cooked (or canned and drained) chickpeas
1 tablespoon honey
Salt to taste

Cooked couscous or rice (for the gluten-free crowd) and plain yogurt, to serve.

Slow cooker method
1. In a pot over medium-low heat, cook almonds in olive oil until golden. Remove almonds with a slotted spoon and set aside.
2. Add onions to pan and cook, stirring, until translucent. (If you have a problem with ¼ cup of olive oil, you can pour some of it off first, but I’m of the belief that olive oil is awesomely good for you, so I leave it all in.)
3. Transfer your onions and oil to the slow cooker. Add chicken and sprinkle with turmeric and cinnamon. Add tomatoes, crushing them with your fingers a little, and then chickpeas. Give it a stir, turn your cooker on “low” and let cook, undisturbed, 6 – 7 hours or until chicken is cooked through. Time will depend on your model of slow cooker and on the size of the chicken thighs.
4. Remove lid, and stir in honey. Add salt as necessary.
5. Serve immediately over couscous or rice. Dollop with good, thick yogurt, sprinkle some of the reserved fried almonds on top, and add a grinding or two of fresh pepper.

Stovetop method
Follow steps one and two. Add chicken to pot and sprinkle with turmeric and paprika. Cover and let chicken cook on medium low in its own juices for 10 minutes. Remove cover, turn chicken pieces, and add tomatoes and chickpeas. Cover again and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook on low heat about 40 minutes or until chicken is cooked through, stirring occasionally to make sure chicken isn’t sticking to the bottom. Remove lid: if dish is too soupy, cook an extra 5-10 minutes uncovered. Add honey and salt and serve as above.

Mo’ Rockin’ Chicken & Chickpeas

One response so far

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