Tuesday, February 19

Maple-Dijon Pork and a Sauté of Peppers and Green Beans on Forbidden Rice

I try to limit the amount of pork my family eats, but there are days when I just need a juicy pork tenderloin roast.  Like something my grandmother would have served for Sunday dinner. She always served her roasts on a bed of something; whether it be mashed turnips and potatoes or sautéed spinach and collard greens.  And, in an ancient, chipped serving bowl, she'd always offer a colourful medley of fresh vegetables, lightly cooked and still a little crisp, most often picked from the garden hours earlier.  She's given me such amazing food memories!  So tangible and timeless.  I could have eaten her Pepper and Green Bean Sauté yesterday, the memories are so vivid.  I can feel her spirit in all the food I cook, and I'm so grateful to be able to give my children these same beautiful memories.
My kids had Monday off from school so I decided to create a feast inspired by memories of my grandmother's cooking.  Treasured recollections and keepsakes from a time long ago.  I found a beautiful pork tenderloin, which I coated in a mild, herby rub.  I slathered it in in a maple-dijon glaze half way through cooking and, in the style of my grandmother (how often do we say that?!), I served it on a bed of nutty, regal forbidden rice.  The striking, amethyst grains were cooked with just a little onion and chicken stock, and finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.  To accompany it, I made a sauté of the freshest green beans and red bell pepper, cooked until just tender.  A variation of the Green Beans Almondine which my grandmother used to make (without the almonds, though you could certainly add them if you're not allergic).  It's so satisfying to treat my kids to a feast that could have come straight from their great-grandmother's kitchen.  And though they never met her, I feel as if they know her through her food, and through the distinct imprint of her flavours and textures that are embedded within my being.

Saturday, February 9

The Vanilla Sweetheart Cake

Ah, the spontaneity of childhood.  Even something as simple as a heart-shaped cake can give rise to an elaborate tea party fit for the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.  Nothing is ever planned, yet everything comes together in magical perfection.  At least that's what happened the day I made this Vanilla Sweetheart Cake.

If there's any flavour that I love more than chocolate, it's vanilla.  Yes, I would choose vanilla ice cream over chocolate any day.  It's funny because as a kid I detested the scent of vanilla.  I found it sickeningly sweet and nauseating.  Strange, no?  Luckily my own children do not share the same affliction.

When I began planning a Valentine's day menu for my little loves, I knew I had to make a Vanilla Sweetheart Cake.  There's something so whimsical about a heart-shaped cake.  A simple vanilla cake with an ultra-decadent salted brown butter and vanilla bean frosting.  White on white is so elegant.

My little girl is quite inquisitive about the art of baking.  She was eager to help sift the flour and pour the milk, and of course, to lick the frosting from the whisk.  Then she sat with her nose pressed against the oven door and watched in rapt anticipation as it baked, slowly rising and morphing into a delicious treat.  A lesson in patience as we let it cool before pouring over the icing.

The icing.  Oh the rich, luscious icing.  The cake is good, but the icing is what takes it over the top.  Fresh, sticky vanilla seeds scraped from the pod.   Opulent butter, browned to nutty perfection.  And the salty sweet crunch of French grey sea salt, still moist from the shores of Guérande.  If you make nothing else, make the icing and eat it with a spoon.  It's that good.

I found this recipe in Country Living and modified it ever so slightly.  Really, it's such a good recipe, why change it?

As her patience waned while the cake was cooling, her imagination took over, and soon my little girl was setting the table for an extravagant tea party.  The sun was sinking.  I set the old kettle on the stove to boil, and as I iced the cake (and snapped a few photos) the guests began to arrive:  a prima ballerina from Paris, two soft and lovely princesses, a village girl dressed in red from Ecuador, and one very special pink rabbit.  The party ensued amidst giggles and warm smiles, and my sweetheart cake quickly disappeared.  In its place are memories of a Valentine's tea party that will last forever. 

Wishing you and your sweethearts a very happy Valentine's Day this week!

Wednesday, February 6

Vegetarian Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili

You don't mind if I wax poetic on the humble sweet potato for a moment, do you?  It's the unassuming treasure of the vegetable world.  Unlike corn or tomatoes, which begin to convert their sugars into starches the moment they're picked, sweet potatoes actually convert their starch to sugar after they've been harvested.  This means that sweet potatoes become sweeter and more digestible the longer they sit around.  It's as if mother nature is allowing us that essential gratification that comes from garden fresh vegetables in the midst of chilly February when we long for it most.  As if she's telling us, You can make it to Spring.  I know you can.  Here's something to tide you over.  After indulging in sweet potatoes all winter long, I'm starting to believe her. 

I find that there is a point in mid-winter when I begin to dream about fresh vegetables.   I even start to contemplate, in a vague and sentimental sort of way, the very unrealistic notion of becoming vegetarian (though I do admire those who are).  Our meat-filled, heavy winter meals begin to weigh on me, both physically and mentally, and I desire something light, fresh and nourishing.  I satisfy my cravings with large and diverse meatless meals.  The combination of mellow sweet potatoes and rich black beans conjures up idealistic images of ancient cultures and faraway places.  Add in a good dose of coriander and some spicy red chili and you have delicious winter chili that gets better over time. Serve it with a salad, warm skillet cornbread, and a variety of toppings for a very satisfying meatless meal.

This dish is all about building layers of flavour.  It starts with caramelizing the onions.  Drawing out every last bit of natural sugar so it can brighten and sweeten the chili.  This step is somewhat time-consuming, but I wouldn't skip it, as it adds such a complex, luscious dimension, which I feel is absolutely necessary to chili.  Next you toast the spices, releasing their fragrance and creating an opulent smokiness that highlights the caramelized onions.  After that, it's a waiting game as the sweet potatoes and beans simmer in rich and spicy bath of tomato sauce, taunting you with the tantalizing aroma that fills your kitchen.

By the way, did you know that February is national sweet potato month?  I didn't either.  As if we needed another reason to enjoy them right now.

Saturday, February 2

Thai Sunflower Noodles with Chicken

While the rest of the US seems to be locked in the icy claws of winter, here in Colorado the days have been almost summery.  My south-facing kitchen is bathed in brilliant sunlight throughout the day.  At dinnertime it's cheerfully warm which brings on cravings for the cool salads and simple meals of summer.  On one exceptionally warm evening last week I decided to make these cool and refreshing Thai sunflower noodles - something that hasn't graced our table since early last summer.

Yes, I know that sunflower noodles are not traditionally Thai, but here's the story behind the recipe.  My husband's all-time favourite meal before going peanut free was Thai Peanut Noodles.  It was a dish that was so easy to prepare and could be made almost entirely in advance that I came to rely on it on the busiest of days.  When Eve was diagnosed with a severe allergy to peanuts, it's absence left a very distinct hole at dinnertime.

With a few modifications to the original recipe, I came up with this to fill that hole, and honesty it's just about as perfect a substitute as you can get.  You really can't tell that you're not eating peanut butter, the taste and texture are so strikingly similar. 

Now, I have to tell you that I'm very hesitant about feeding anything that remotely resembles peanut butter to my daughter, but when I do cook with sunbutter or soynut butter I instruct her to never eat anything like it outside the home unless I've confirmed that it's safe.  She knows that peanuts are sly and elusive creatures, and hide in the most innocent of foods; she knows what peanut butter looks like, and why it's so risky.  I don't try sugar-coat her allergy when we talk about reactions.  She knows exactly what will happen if she eats peanuts, and I think she's on the right path to independently keeping herself safe, even at three years old.  With that said, why should I let her allergies get in the way of exploring the vibrant flavours of Thailand, as long as I've prepared safe versions of the dish?

This recipe comes together so quickly and easily, especially if you have a couple bags of  Vietnamese marinated chicken stashed away in the freezer (as I always do).  If you don't, just grill a couple of well seasoned chicken breasts well in advance so they're nice and cold at dinnertime.  The noodles are best served at room temperature or chilled which makes this the perfect summertime meal.  However, we like to have it any time of year.  Especially in the middle of January, when mother nature is giving us a tantalizing taste of Spring before thrusting us violently back into the throes of winter.