Oh, the Dramatics [Spicy Chickpea Salad Melts]

I’ve been struggling through the last few weeks.  Struggling to find sense and purpose in some days, feeling angry that I’m not where I thought I would be at this point in my life, crushing under the [self-induced] pressure of my late 20s (which, I know, is still very young and leaves plenty of time for change). It seems everyone is on a path these days, travelling towards their light at the end of the tunnel. Some days it feels like I’m a hamster running in a wheel. Constantly spinning, exhausted, but not going anywhere.  It’s hard to remember that despite this feeling, I am on a path even if it’s not the one I intended to be on. I struggle constantly with the decision to start over. To take a giant leap into the unknown not knowing where my feet will land and what will be there to cushion my fall, if anything. Life can be so scary sometimes. But through all the nerves and anxiety, I can still hear that meager voice challenging “…but isn’t it better to be happy?” and I’m starting to feel like, yes, it probably is. To be happy and terrified, or comfortable and miserable. It’s a question that’s not so uncommon with my age group, it seems. And though the answer appears so simple, it just isn’t that easy. 

I’m trying to take each day as it comes. To enjoy and embrace all the little things, as fleeting as they can sometimes feel. I’m lucky, selfish as it sounds, to have friends who are dealing with the same fears and struggles. It’s comforting to talk to someone that understands what it’s all about, how irrational and weighing those feelings can be.  

Oh, the dramatics of it all.  I hope I’m not the only one moaning and groaning over this – surely you’ve been (or are currently) there, too. I choose to believe you have and it brings us closer together as a result. See! That’s a nice way to look at it. You’ve always been so understanding.  And to thank you for listening, I’ve prepared some Chickpea Melts. That’s right. Chickpea. Melts. A creamy, dill-pickley, slightly spicy chickpea salad schmeared over a piece of grainy bread and topped with greens, tomatoes and lots of gooey mozzarella. If that doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, or at least whatever you’re struggling with today, I don’t know what will. So go ahead, feed your problems away and smile. It could always be worse.   

Spicy Chickpea Salad Melts
inspired by Madison at Mad Faux Cheese
makes 4 open-faced sandwiches

1 1/2 cups (approx. a small can) canned chickpeas
1 celery stalk, diced
1/4 red onions, diced very fine
2 tbsp Greek yogurt OR mayonnaise
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 large dill pickle, diced
1/2 clove garlic, minced or pressed
2 tbsp fresh minced basil
juice form 1/2 lemon (or a whole lemon if you like it tangy!)
1 tbsp sriracha (+/- depending on heat tolerance) OR 1/2 tsp (+/-) cayenne pepper
6 slices crusty multigrain bread
greens of your choice (I like torn kale)
sliced tomatoes
1-2 cups shredded mozzarella (or fresh, torn mozzarella)

fresh ground pepper

Pour rinsed chickpeas into a flat, high sided dish, drizzle with a few glugs of olive oil and mash with a fork or potato masher until mixture starts to stick together. No need to be fussy, it’s even tastier when you get a whole chickpea in a bite. 

Add in the celery, red onion, mayo, Dijon, pickle, garlic, basil, lemon juice, sriracha or cayenne and a good pinch of salt. Mix and taste for seasoning. Add more lemon, salt or cayenne if needed. 

Preheat oven to 400.

Slice your bread, lay on a baking sheet and top each with 1/4 of the mixture. It may seem like a lot but trust me. Just trust me. Top the chickpea salad layer with some greens, a layer of tomatoes and mozzarella. Sprinkle with pepper and pop in the oven for 10 minutes until golden. If necessary, turn the oven on to broil to brown the cheese in the last minute or two. 


Taking Time [Baba Ghanoush Bowls with Pomegranate, Mint and Mozzarella]

My brains are taking a brief sabbatical today, taking time to decompress and enjoy the long weekend, but I wanted to share this recipe with you before I start melting into a sunny chair on the deck with a cold glass of riesling in hand and my best friend to my side. 

I hope Sunday is treating you kindly and feeding you well. 

Baba Ghanoush Bowls with Pomegranate, Mint and Mozzarella
serves 4 as a snack, 2 as a main

I make this dish every so often when I want something decadent, rich but still healthy enough. The flavours are big and bold, but mellowed with the creamy, mild mozzarella, which may seem like an odd combination, but trust me. Just trust me. 

Baba Ghanoush 
2 tbsp olive oil
2 large eggplants
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
pinch ground cumin (1/8 tsp)
fresh ground pepper

To Garnish
1/2 cup pomegranate perils
1/2 cup almonds, toasted and roughly chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup mozzarella, pulled into bite size pieces
1/2 tsp sumac, optional (gives a lovely tartness)
Olive oil

Toasted Pita, to serve

Preheat the oven to 450.
Prick each eggplant about 10 times all over with a fork (this helps prevent them from exploding in the oven… a mistake I’m sad to say I made a mere day ago). Rub eggplants with olive oil and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast, turning every 10-15 minutes, until flesh is very tender, 45mins-1 hour. 

Let sit until cool enough to handle. Scoop the flesh from the skins and place in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until smooth. Scoop into a bowl and add the garlic, salt, lemon juice, paprika, cumin and a few grinds of pepper and stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking. Spoon into 1 large serving dish or 4 personal sized ones. Can be made 1 day in advance. Keep in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. 

When ready to serve, distribute the pomegranate perils, almonds, mint, mozzarella and sumac among the bowls and drizzle with olive oil. Scoop up with toasted pita or naan bread. 


No Bake Takes the Cake [Lasagna Caprese]

I came home tonight with full intentions of sharing a Frozen Lemon Soufflé with you. But given the circumstances, that can wait. Who cares about delicious light-as-air frozen lemony desserts, anyhow? (I do. A LOT. But it can wait one or two days, can’t it? CANT IT!?)

While I was sitting at my desk this afternoon, day-dreaming as is common after lunch, an idea popped into my head. Lasagna. But not just any lasagna. Caprese lasagna. Say it again with me, Capreeeese lasaaaaagna! Nice. Now if you’re like me, you’ll need to pick your jaw up off the floor before we continue. And I don’t mean to sound as though I’m tooting my own horn. But I totally am. I’m sorry.

(For some reason I have a much easier time copying recipes from my cookbooks to a notebook before cooking. It’s an OCD thing. And one that keeps my cookbooks free of stains)

Caprese salad is an Italian classic from the region of Campania that’s made up of tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and finished with a drizzle of of fruity olive oil and some fresh cracked pepper. That alone is enough to make me and most others weak in the knees, but with the addition of soft lasagna noodles and the ingredients layered between them, it was, in a word, perfect. Fresh, colourful, simple and packed full of flavour. It’s also a wonderful dish to use up all the tomatoes and basil you’ve no doubt planted and are starting to pop up right this second.

The only unauthentic part of this dish is the switch from fresh basil to basil pesto. I was hesitant about adding a sauce or dressing, but was worried the dish might feel a little dry. The pesto is the perfect compromise and helps it feel creamy and smooth. Plus, the look and colour of the pesto make me feel swoony.

(I wasn’t going to post this picture, but I had to because it was so funny. I started pouring the olive oil and taking a photo at the same time and thought I was oh-so-coordinated before I realized I was pouring olive oil everywhere. Turns out I’m not nearly as talented as I seem to think)

Because there are so few ingredients in the dish, it’s important you get the best ones you can find. Ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, and high quality cheese and olive oil are all majorly important in making this lasagna as delightful as it is. If you’re ever going to spend a little extra on something, now is the time.

Perfect for an evening thats too hot too turn the oven on, and even better paired with a hunk of grilled meat or tofu on the side.

Lasagna Caprese

I assembled this on individual plates the way you would a typical Caprese, but it would be just as lovely served family style from a glass casserole pan. If you’re planning on doing it that way, don’t worry about folding the noodles. Just layer them, add a thin layer of pesto, tomatoes and cheese etc etc.

The pesto recipe here belongs to Marcella Hazan and is from her brilliant book
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. She approves of the food processor method, so I feel safe in saying it is absolutely authentically Italian. So there.

2 cups tightly packed basil leaves, plus a few leaves to garnish each plate
3 tablespoons pine nuts, plus 2 tbsp to garnish
1/2 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine before being added to the processor
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons grated Romano cheese
3 tablespoons butter, softened

12 lasagna noodles, boiled according to package instructions
4 large vine ripened tomatoes
1 1/2lbs fresh mozzarella
the best olive oil you can afford, to garnish
balsamic vinegar to garnish (optional)
fresh cracked pepper

Put first 4 ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and blend until creamy. Transfer to bowl (or leave in food processor bowl, but it’s a bit of a pain) and stir in cheese and butter. This gives it a nice rustic texture.

On each serving plate, place two slices of tomato. Top with one lasagna noodle, letting one half of it extend over the tomatoes. Spread 1 - 1 1/2 tbsp pesto over the half of the noodle that tops the tomatoes. Fold the noodle back over itself so it covers the pesto. Place two rounds of mozzarella on top of noodle. Place another noodle on top, spread with pesto and fold over. Repeat steps one more time ending at the mozzarella. (tomato, noodle/pesto, mozza, noodle/pesto, tomato, noodle/pesto, mozza = voila!)

Top each plate with a few basil leaves, a good drizzle of olive oil, some pepper and a little balsamic (if you like balsamic).

See? How easy was that? Almost too easy, am I right?


Frivolous Spending and Frugal Beans

Everyone does them. Some willingly, some hesitantly. Some cut coupons, some buy extravagantly. I don’t often stop to look at the way I buy food. I put what I want in my basket, and I move on. I often don’t look at prices. I swipe my card confidently knowing that I don’t have to worry about the dreaded "Insuff Funds" coming up on the screen in front of me. I’m lucky. And I know there are plenty out there that don’t have this luxury. And yes, good food is a luxury. Food in general is a luxury that we don’t even think to be thankful for. A lot of us have never known anything different. 

Before going any further, I want you to know that I’m certainly not trying to leap up onto my soapbox and make everyone feel badly for the way they buy food. I am more than guilty of buying things frivolously and not paying mind to how much things are or how unnecessary certain purchases may be. Please do not take this as a stern talking-to.

My friend Mel is participating in the Do The Math Challenge, which basically asks groups or individuals to live exclusively off the contents of a food hamper for as long as they can (typically 3-4 days but some can stretch it as long as 10). You’re encouraged to eat at least two meals at a drop-in but are not allowed to accept free food or drink other than that. The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness and ask the Ontario Government to immediately increase, by $100 a month, the social assistance received by adults in Ontario.

While I’m not participating in the challenge, I’ve definitely been paying closer attention to what I’m buying, how often, and how much I waste. Unfortunately, it’s not something I pay attention to because I’ve really never had to.

I often tell you to eat organically, buy local, get the best there is… but all I’m asking of you today is that you eat consciously. Even for a week. Pay attention to what’s in your grocery basket and if you actually need it. It may change the way you shop, or it may not. But at least you have a better idea of how you buy. It can be as small as bringing your grocery bags. Five cents for each bag can add up quickly when you’re living on Social Assistance.

In keeping with conscious eating, I’ve got a recipe that is as cheap as it is delicious. The grocery bill was $19.86, making each of the 5 servings come in at a reasonable $3.97 per bowl. That’s assuming you don’t have any ingredients on hand, otherwise it will be significantly cheaper (I did already have some pantry staples on hand).

Baked Chipotle White Beans with  Kale, Cilantro Pesto and Mozzarella
based on Heidi Swanson’s Giant Chipotle White Beans

1 pound of dried white beans (the bigger the better) rinsed, picked over and soaked overnight - or up to 24 hours. If you’re like me and don’t always think in advance, you can try the no-soak method for softening beans.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 big pinches of red pepper flakes
2 pinches of salt
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons adobo sauce from a can of chipotle peppers (or as much as you like)
1 medium clove of garlic
1/3 cup fresh cilantro
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
big pinch of salt
2/3 cup kale or chard, washed and cut into ribbons

1 cup goat’s milk mozzarella, cubed (optional) 

1 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs (optional)

Add the olive oil, red pepper flakes and garlic to a cold pan. Turn the heat on to medium and put the pan on the element. Stir the red pepper and garlic constantly until fragrant (45 seconds-1minute). Don’t burn the garlic. Add the crushed tomatoes and oregano leaves and heat through for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the adobo sauce. Stir in kale/chard. Set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, blender, or if you’re old fashioned and awesome, your mortar and pestle, add the garlic clove, cilantro, olive oil and salt. Blend until smooth. It will be quite liquidy, don’t panic. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 375.

Add your beans to a large casserole dish, stir in the chipotle-tomato sauce, and the cheese. Top with bread crumbs and bake for 15-20 minutes or until crumbs are golden brown. 

Drizzle with pesto and serve.

And before you chow, be conscious, appreciate and be glad that you’re eating a delicious meal that some are not lucky enough to enjoy. 


Back to Basics - Tomato Sauce

I like to cook (no waaay!). I love that it differs from baking in that you can add this and add that until whatever you’re making resembles something edible. Cooking like this often provides a welcome distraction when trying to pull myself out of whatever slump I’m in. Even if it’s just because they ran out of my favourite chips. That can be traumatizing, too. And while I love to lose myself in a recipe of 20 ingredients, I have a special place in my heart for the basics, too. The recipes that can’t be added to or altered lest they be ruined. Like a basil pesto, for example. You can taste the basil, the olive oil, the pine nuts, the Parmesan and the garlic. You can alter/add to a pesto recipe as much as you want but the more you add, the less you taste. The more it ventures away from ‘pesto’ and becomes something completely different.

Today, we’re talking Tomato Sauce basics. I know, I know, you have the best tomato sauce recipe passed down from your grandmother’s, grandmother’s, father’s sister. I know we all have one. And I thought I did too. There is a place and time for your best ever tomato sauce recipe. But this is different. Have you ever tasted a real tomato sauce? I mean really tasted it? No olive oil, no garlic, no basil, no peppers. This sauce is magic. It takes you somewhere else entirely (no doubt Italy, but I haven’t been and I don’t want to lie to you. Maybe you could confirm for me?).

The sauce is made with three basic ingredients that I wouldn’t be surprised if you had on hand right now. You got your tinned (yes, tinned) Italian tomatoes, your onion and your butter. Yes, butter. You heard right. An odd ingredient to add to a tomato sauce, but it really rounds out the acidity in the tomatoes while making the sweetness of them pop. The onion lends a savoury hand but not too much so. It tastes like tomato sauce should. Pure. And like TOMATOES!

This sauce is easy. And it’s good. Good like you wouldn’t believe. And there is just no acceptable reason why you’re not making it tonight. Or for your friends/family this coming Sunday.

I need to say just one last thing before I pony-up the recipe. Please try this as written before you make any additions. It deserves a chance to be tried in it’s purest form. No additions. Not even garlic or oil. After you’ve had it once, you may go to town adding whatever your heart desires.

Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion
adapted from Orangette via Amateur Gourmetvia Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

1 28oz can whole, peeled Italian tomatoes (like San Marzano. Plum will do in a pinch)
1 yellow onion, halved, skin removed
5 tbsp good quality butter*

*I didn’t use unsalted so I didn’t add any extra salt. Taste your sauce frequently and add salt if needed.

Add tomatoes, butter and onion halves to a large pot. Bring to a boil and then lower heat to medium-low and let the sauce gently simmer for 45 minutes - 1 hour. Discard onion*.

*If you’re particularly fond of onions and don’t like to waste - I sort of like to spread the stewed onion on a few pieces of crusty bread to serve with dinner.

That’s it! That’s all!

If you’re looking for something nice to use the sauce in, might I recommend Baked Spaghettini?

Preheat oven to 400.
Cook your spaghettini until al dente (5 minutes) and strain. Toss enough sauce with the pasta to just coat the noodles. Pour into a large baking dish. Evenly tuck about 1/2C of torn fresh mozzarella into the pasta.
Bake for 10-15 minutes until noodles are browning slightly and cheese has melted.