Monday, February 20, 2017

Get stuffed

Lately I've been eating a lot of bell peppers. Well, I always have done so, in the warmer months when they don't cost a million dollars each at the grocery store, but this past year I've been buying the 4-pack of multicoloured ones at Food Basics regardless of the cost, every week. (Some weeks I buy two packages. Luxury!) The bottom line is that I love them. They're by far my favourite vegetable, and as luxuries go, it's a small one.

This week in lieu of putting them in my scrambled eggs each morning, or into a stir-fry or a soup, I elected to stuff them. This is a dish I used to make a lot back when we first moved into the house, ten years ago now. But it fell off my radar for a few years, for whatever reason, and this week it occurred to me that it deserved resurrection. Chris had mentioned wanting to cook himself some quinoa sometime soon, and despite my former dislike and subsequent banishment of it from my kitchen, I relented and bought a package at the store. I did some reading and discovered that in all likelihood I had not been rinsing it thoroughly enough years ago, and that's why it tasted bitter and soapy to me. I rinsed it for a full two minutes tonight, swishing it around with my hands, and then cooked it in chicken stock.

Then I mixed it with some ground pork that I'd browned quickly with some corn kernels, green onions, and spices, added grated cheese and some fresh cilantro, stuffed it into pepper halves and baked them until slightly browned and crispy on top. Both of us took one bite and then basically alternated bites with compliments to the food we were eating. It was totally delicious - healthful and rich all at the same time. A great balance. This one's a keeper.

Quinoa and pork-stuffed peppers
Serves 4

4 large bell peppers, any colour
3/4 cup dry quinoa, rinsed very well, cooked according to package directions in salted water or chicken stock (recommended)
300 grams ground pork
1 tbsp vegetable oil
salt and pepper
cumin and smoked paprika
3 scallions, sliced, white parts discarded
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, washed, dried, and chopped
1 cup grated cheddar (I used old)
1 can corn kernels, drained, or 1 cup frozen corn, thawed

Preheat your oven to 375 F and start the quinoa cooking. Wash and dry the peppers. Cut them in half carefully, cutting closely around the stems. Remove seeds and white pith. Place pepper halves in a microwavable container, add an inch or two of water, cover and cook on high for five minutes to soften. Drain and arrange in a single layer in a baking dish, ready to be stuffed.

Heat the oil on high in a large skillet. Brown the pork until no pink shows. Season with salt, pepper, cumin, and smoked paprika to taste. Add the corn and green onions, and cook three minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.

Once quinoa is cooked, stir in about 2/3 of it with the pork mixture. Add half the cheese and stir well to combine. Stuff the mixture into the pepper halves, pressing in tightly and mounding in the centre. Sprinkle each pepper half with remaining cheese. Bake for 20-30 minutes until cheese is melted and tops are lightly browned, or to taste. Serve two pepper halves to each person. Sigh with delight.

This can easily be made vegetarian by substituting veggie ground round or lentils cooked in vegetable stock until soft  for the pork.

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.