Sunday, January 8, 2017

Alone in the kitchen with some eggplants

Laurie Colwin was a beloved American food writer and novelist who produced two delightful essay collections devoted to her kitchen thoughts and adventures: Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. My wonderful friend Kate sent them both to me years ago and they remain favourite comfort reads.  One of the essays is amusingly titled "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant," something I frequently am, and was last night.

Two eggplants, in fact, which I chose to transform into a sort of kitchen-sink vegetable ragu - a riff on ratatouille, eggplant parmesan, and caponata, incorporating the things I like most about all three. Soft, rich vegetables; hits of salt, spice, and sweetness; a velvety mouthfeel; and a warm, deep, comforting flavour that is perfect for the dark, sad, letdown of a month that January can be. But take heart, friends: at 5:15 p.m. today, the sky still held some light. There is hope, and until the long bright evenings are back, there is always eggplant. (With carbs. Don't forget the carbs.)

Eggplant ragu (Homage to Laurie Colwin)

1/4 cup olive oil
Two medium eggplants, peeled and diced into 1/2" chunks
Three bell peppers (any colour except green)
sea salt
One fat clove garlic, minced
One can diced tomatoes (28 oz)
One large handful black olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil, roughly chopped
6-8 pickled cherry peppers, drained and roughly chopped
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2-3 tbsp sugar or to taste

Heat oil in a dutch oven and saute eggplant and peppers ten minutes, salting liberally, until softened and beginning to cook down. Add garlic and toss 2 min. Add tomatoes, olives, cherry peppers, balsamic, basil, and sugar. Bring to a low boil and them simmer, covered, 30 min or until eggplant are soft. Peppers should retain a little bite.  Simmer uncovered an additional ten minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve liberally over pasta or (my preference) creamy polenta with butter and Parmesan cheese. We had some herb-roasted chicken alongside, which was just perfect, but it would be great next to braised short ribs or pork too.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Living the life at Riviera

Elegant. Luxurious. Delicious. Those were the impressions I was left with after an evening spent at Riviera, Matthew Carmichael's newest restaurant.

Its location is the first thing you'll notice: the perennially-deserted-at-night Sparks Street (albeit at the busier Elgin end, near D'arcy McGee's pub). Inside, the old CIBC flagship building has been lovingly updated, with gorgeous sky-high ceiling and wall moldings intact. The cream, grey, and brown colour scheme feels like a cross between church and a fin-de-siècle train station, which is to say I loved it. Grainy wood tables, soft brown tufted leather banquettes, and oversized striped linen napkins felt both rustic and chic. The open kitchen and bar run along one full wall, with the rest devoted to tables and booths of varying size.

Our group of six women (eventually joined by my husband) had the fabulous large square booth at the back of the restaurant. I cleverly positioned myself facing the front so that I could look out over the rest of the space and all of the action. On a Tuesday night in December, the place was packed and hopping for the entire 2.5 hours we spent there. Due to the large sound-absorbing fabric panels on both walls, the noise levels were delightfully muted despite the soaring ceiling and many fellow diners.

A sign that this is a place where dinner is taken seriously: the large number of staff members on hand. Bartenders, food runners, and servers were all available whenever needed, but never in your face about it. Our server was friendly without being obsequious, well-informed about the menu and drinks list, and efficient. The wine list was pricey, but well-rounded, with some interesting and unexpected selections and a short list of half-bottles that my friend and I took advantage of. More of that, please, Ottawa. They're perfect for two people who aren't huge drinkers, especially if one of them is driving.

Four paragraphs in and I haven't even gotten to the food: that's how important the atmosphere is to this place. Just sitting at my table, with my coat whisked away and softly glowing copper lamps illuminating my menu, felt serene and welcoming. But trust me, the food is no slouch. A long list of gorgeous-sounding appetizers heads up the menu, followed by a shorter selection of pasta dishes and a well-curated quartet of mains. Also on offer were oysters, a fish special, and a daily pasta. It took all my willpower not to order six dishes, because I had heard great things about their desserts (spoiler: it was good intel).

In the end I went with two of those seductive apps to make up my meal: tuna tartare followed by scallop and spot prawn chowder. I've found this to be my preferred way to eat at higher-end restos lately because it lets me try more of the menu. Nearly everyone else at the table ordered an app and a pasta dish, with one lone holdout going with the short rib main.

The tartare arrived covered in thin, crisp sunchoke chips that looked for all the world like flower petals. Beneath, chunky cubes of soft, meaty albacore tuna were layered atop a fine dice of "ratatouille:" zucchini, eggplant, peppers and onion cooked gently until tender-crisp. The balance of textures was brilliant and the restrained flavours of the vegetables allowed the tuna to be the star of the dish. The portion was generous without being too much. I relished every morsel.

Fortunately, my next dish was equally showstopping. A wide shallow bowl arrived filled with small chunks of soft potato, tiny adorable bay scallops, perfectly cooked spot prawns (the prettiest shrimp in existence, if you ask me), a couple of unheralded-but-welcome mussels, tiny chewy morsels of good bacon, and bright crisp kernels of white corn, bathed in a rich, creamy, herby broth (but not too much of it). It was cohesive without blurring or numbing any of the individual elements, and I loved it.

I didn't try anyone else's dishes but they were all equally well-received, including the tomato and burrata salad for two, shared by my dining companions across the table and gazed upon jealously by yours truly. I also wished I had room for the unctuous, cognac-laced chicken liver pate. My neighbour loved her orechiette carbonara with chanterelles, and the short rib lover pronounced it a perfect example, tender and flavourful.

My husband, as mentioned, popped over from work in time for dessert, and felt himself lucky to have done so, given the options available. Described in loving detail by our server, the three offerings all sounded amazing to me, but when there's a lemon tart, I order the lemon tart. It arrived as advertised, in a stemmed coupe glass with its almond pâte sucrée crust crumbled into chunks at the bottom. Above it, a properly tart lemon curd, made frothy with whipped cream, was concealed beneath a silky-smooth, lightly bruléed cloud of lavender-scented meringue. Every bite was magic. I have eaten many a lemon tart, and this one reminded me why I love it so much. 

Nearly everyone else went with one of the two chocolate options: the first, an opulent tart with a crust made from peanut brittle, a ganache filling, chunks of sponge toffee, and a cloud of chantilly cream; the second, a dense flour-and-nut-free chocolate soufflé on a puddle of orange curd, topped with chile-spiked whipped cream. Chris had the peanut concoction; his response was essentially "je ne regrette rien." The soufflés also disappeared at speed, with murmurs of delight.

The man himself, Chef Carmichael, was on the line for much of the night, and I wanted to shake his hand but both of his were usually full. What he has achieved with Riviera is the kind of elegant dining that Steve Beckta pioneered in Ottawa: high-class without being stuffy, creative without being weird, and fun without being silly. Riviera is a celebration-level restaurant for us; you'll easily drop $150 a couple here with tip, more if you really sink your teeth in and do pre-dinner cocktails or a bottle of wine. That said, I've already decided it is where I plan to spend my next birthday in February. An evening this pleasant and delicious simply begs to be repeated. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable

This is a food blog, not a political blog, but let me just say: What a horrific, sad, depressing, and frightening week it's been. Would that I could cook our way out of the world being awful. I'm going to do other things to try to effect some change, but in the meantime we still have to eat. So comfort food it has been (and a lot of chocolate too, not going to lie).

This week Chris is working outside the house so I made a couple of things that are good for days of leftovers and also fill our bellies and hearts with warmth. Lasagna is always a good choice: layers of carbs, cheese, veggies, and a little meat for rib-stickiness. My recipe is based on an old Kraft foods one (my adaptation below), and each time I assemble it I chant the layers in my head so I don't screw it up: sauce, noodles, cheese; sauce, noodles, cheese; noodles, sauce, cheese. It came out looking huge and gorgeous, and I am happy to report that it tastes even better.

The second thing I made is a Bon Appetit recipe with a very silly name, that I am simply referring to as chicken and leek pot pie. Because that's what it is. And oh, is it good. This is my second one in three weeks, it's that good. The first time I slacked off and bought frozen pastry, but had too much filling and had to MacGyver a small batch of homemade to use up the rest, and mine was so much better than the store-bought stuff that this time I went full scratch and holy cow, yes PLEASE. I subbed golden raisins for the prunes, added a hefty glug of whisky to the sauce, and omitted the butter in which they would have you cook the bacon because it is superfluous and also there's a lot of butter in the crust already. Otherwise I did it as written. You should too. Soon.

We'll work through this together, my friends, but an army marches on its stomach. Remember to feed yourselves kindly and lovingly. I wish I could send you all a lasagna or a pie this week.

Turkey, mushroom, and spinach lasagna (serves 8 generously)

9 lasagna noodles
1 500-gram container cottage cheese
1 block frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 cup grated Parmesan or Grana Padano (I use the latter)
2 cups grated mozzarella
1 egg
2 dozen button mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
500 grams ground turkey
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp each dried basil and oregano
one huge clove garlic, minced
2 large cans crushed tomatoes
1 tiny can tomato paste

Make the sauce: Heat olive oil over medium heat and cook garlic 3 minutes until softened. Add the turkey and cook until no longer pink, breaking up with a wooden spoon. Add the mushrooms and dried herbs and cook until mushrooms shrink and give off their liquid. Add the tomato paste and stir well to combine. Pour in the crushed tomatoes; stir, and bring to a simmer. Cook 30 minutes; taste and add sugar or salt as needed to balance the acidity.

While sauce is simmering, combine the cottage cheese, 2/3 of the grated cheeses, spinach and egg; mix well and set aside. Reserve the remaining grated cheeses in a bowl together.

Cook the lasagna noodles according to package directions. Drain and cool slightly. Preheat your oven to 375.

To build the lasagna: Spread a thick layer of sauce over the bottom of a 9"x13" lasagna pan (mine is Pyrex). Place three noodles parallel to one another to cover the sauce, then spread half of the spinach mixture evenly over the noodles (you might need to use your fingers). Repeat with a second layer of sauce, noodles, and spinach-cheese mix. Over the spinach, add a final layer of noodles, then cover completely with sauce (you may have some left over) and sprinkle the top with the reserved grated cheeses.

Bake 30-35 minutes or until cheese is browned and edges are bubbling. If your pan is very full, place a metal sheet pan underneath it in the oven to catch drips. Allow to rest 30 minutes before cutting (trust me). Breathe deep and dive in.