Monthly Archives: April 2022

Why do we cook?


April 2022.

When bad news hits or good news shows its smiling face, I head to the butcher block and start chopping. When my neighbour or my kids visit. When we need comfort. When Dave remembers another in his wonderfully long list of our anniversaries. The reasons we cook are many, and often have nothing to do with why we eat. My auntie Lila, a wise woman, told me once, “If hunger isn’t the problem, eating isn’t the solution.” I try to remember that when my mouth hungers for the act of eating or the sense of satiation but my appetite is asleep. For me, though, cooking in all its magical stages of transformation is what I do to celebrate, relax, cope, or create.

Last week, for instance, I was slicing citrus. I peeled each, then slivered the peels and added water before I set them aside to let the pectin seep out of the peels. That pectin would thicken into marmalade when I simmered the rind and fruit with sugar.

Magic, right? But another magic happens in the back of my writer’s brain while my hands do the same thing over and over. Stories unravel, dialogue unknots. Poems touch down. Essays evolve. Same thing occurs when I run, but I am still on the injured list, so the kitchen is my primary idea garden. Like I said, magic, but one I have learned to trust. Those ideas – generated while I am preoccupied with the tangible – come straight from the Muse.

It means that when I make pasta or marmalade, potential exists for making something else as well, something wild and untamed, something that originates in the wilderness. Trusting that means I’m willing to embark on those big cooking projects.

I know that for some, cooking is a chore. But it needn’t be. Cooking can be a way to connect with that place of flow that generates dopamine. Called the chemical messenger of mental health and well-being, dopamine is linked to motivation, memory, attention, pleasure, and reward. So first we cook. Then let’s eat and talk more about the psychic links between brain and belly.

Canneloni with Ricotta and Greens

I love two sauces in the same dish, which makes this a project, especially if you make the pasta by hand. (In that case, make enough to assemble lasagne as well from more of the same ingredients.) Having a good freezer-pantry helps: thaw tubs of roasted tomato sauce, and/or Bolognese/meat sauce while you make fresh pasta and béchamel.  Choose one-meal freezer-friendly pans if you make extra cannelloni or lasagne. Serves 8 – 12

béchamel sauce:

3 Tbsp. butter

½ onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

a grating of nutmeg

½ tsp. dried basil

3 Tbsp. flour

1 ½ cups milk or coffee cream

salt and hot chili paste to taste

Lea & Perrins to taste

2 cups grated Parmesan, divided

2 cups grated cheese, your choice, divided

pasta, 2nd sauce, filling:

1 recipe fresh pasta in sheets, or dried pasta sheets 

2 bunches spinach or 1 bunch swiss chard, chopped, stalks removed

olive oil for the pan

1 large onion, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

½ tsp. each dried oregano and basil

salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup minced parsley

2 cups ricotta cheese

2 eggs

2 – 3 cups roasted tomato sauce and/or meat sauce

To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed medium pot and add the onion and garlic. Sweat without colouring until tender. Add the nutmeg, basil, and flour, then cook until sandy, about 5 minutes, stirring. Slowly whisk in the milk or cream. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and season to taste. Stir in ½ cup Parmesan and1 cup grated cheese. Keep warm.

Lightly oil shallow gratin dishes. Bring a pot of salted water to boil and cut the fresh pasta into lengths that fit the gratin dishes; cut dried pasta after cooking. Cook the pasta a few sheets at a time, about 2 minutes for fresh, as needed for dried. Remove carefully and lay in a single layer on a baking tray lined with plastic wrap. Repeat with remaining pasta.

If using chard, finely chop the lengthwise stalk. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan, add the onion, garlic, and chard stalks. Sauté until tender. Add oregano, basil, salt, and pepper. Add the spinach or chard leaves with 1-2 Tbsp. water and cook until just wilted. Cool and pat off any accumulated juices.

Combine the parsley, ricotta, and eggs. Stir in the onion-greens mixture. Add 1 cup grated Parmesan and ½ cup grated cheese.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spoon tomato and/or meat sauce to just cover the bottom of each baking dish. Put ¼ cup ricotta mix along one edge of each pasta sheet. Roll up and place in a baking dish, allowing 2 tubes per serving. Nap with tomato and/or meat sauce. Repeat with remaining sauce, pasta and filling, sauce.

Spoon béchamel down the centre of each pan. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan and grated cheese. Bake for 40 minutes before serving.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

Southeast Asian II: Thai Panang Curry


April 2022.

When talking about Thai food on Parts Unknown, the late Tony Bourdain said, “It was like discovering a colour I never knew existed before. A whole new crayon box full of colours.” Bourdain loved Thailand, and had the means to visit it repeatedly. Lucky man. But his life was tougher than we could see on our TV screens. I am grateful for his books and TV shows, some of which are on YouTube.

I have not yet been to Thailand. I would love to ride in a tuk tuk – “a golf cart crossbred with a rickshaw,” said Bourdain as he approached the Night Bazaar in an episode of A Cook’s Tour set in the city of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. I want to wander the bazaars, eat street food, revel in the warm air laden with moisture, the smells and scents and sights of the tropics.

Northern Thai cuisine resonates with my palate because its components emphasize hot, sour, sweet, bitter, and salty. Other contrasts include texture – soft/crunchy – and temperature – cold/hot. Bright fruit like mangoes add vibrancy and sweetness.

Here are a few distinctive ingredients for those Thai moments. Look in the Asian produce section of your grocery, or in an Asian market. As a last resort, try online shopping and mail-order shipping, but it’s high-risk for anything fragile and fresh.

Coconut milk and coconut cream add their unmistakable notes to sauces, rice, and soups.

Ginger root and its cousin, galangal, add richness, pungency, underlying spiciness, and a suggestion of citrus. Ginger is as aromatic as it is flavourful. Mince or grate it on a medium rasp and leave the threads behind.

Jasmine and sticky rice are both short-grained, similar to arborio, which you can substitute in a pinch.

To cook rice noodles, thin or wide, soak in boiling water for about 5 minutes, then add to the finished dish. Rice noodles disintegrate when reheated.

Thai fish sauce is the same as Vietnamese, made from fermented small fishes and used as a salt condiment added at the end of cooking. It adds irreplaceable umami.

Dried shrimp or shrimp paste add another form of salt underwritten by a hint of the sea.

Some herbs such as cilantro and spearmint (use spearmint, not peppermint), and others may be similar to what you already grow or purchase, such as holy basil or lemon basil. Grow them yourself – they all are generous and easy to grow in season – or buy fresh.

Makrut (formerly known as kaffir) lime leaves add an intensely herbal citrus aroma that is irreplaceable. Buy them fresh or frozen, not dried. Look online for several good mail-order sources as a last resort. Triple-bag the leaves and store in the freezer. My fave.

Lemon grass, too, is herbal and citrusy. Buy dense stalks and discard the tough external leaves, bottom, and top. Mince, smash, or use bruised larger pieces that can be easily removed in infusions and broths.

Tamarind is sweet and tart, its paste messy to separate from its pits, so I buy a good tamarind chutney at my favourite South Asian store.

First we eat Panang curry, then we talk about how to make other good curry pastes.

Panang Curry

Use turkey, chicken, fish, shrimp, tofu… It’s true that Mae Ploy makes good Panang and Massaman pastes, much quicker and easier than building a paste from scratch. But here’s the full Monty. Serves 6

Curry paste:

3 Tbsp. soy

1 Tbsp. chili powder

4 Tbsp. fish sauce

1 Tbsp. dried shrimp paste

2 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 Tbsp. ground coriander

1 Tbsp. ground cumin

1 or 2 hot red chillies

½ tp. ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/8 tsp. ground cloves

Sauce and protein:

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 small onion, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup minced or grated ginger

¼ cup tomato paste

4 makrut (kaffir) lime leaves

4 boneless chicken thighs or breasts, cubed

2 bell peppers, cubed

2 tins coconut milk

2 Tbsp. tamarind paste

the juice of 1 or 2 limes

salt to taste


fresh cilantro, holy or lemon basil, or spearmint leaves

chopped peanuts

Combine all the paste ingredients and set aside. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the onion, garlic and ginger. Saute, then stir in the tomato paste and curry paste. Mix well and sauté, stirring, for several minutes. Add the lime leaves, chicken, peppers, and coconut milk. Cover and simmer until tender. Season to taste with tamarind paste, lime juice, and salt. Garnish and serve with jasmine or coconut rice.

Note: Massaman Curry (a corruption of “Muslim” and originating with 17-century Muslim trading history in southern Thailand) offers an early example of fusion cooking – Thai food influenced by Malay and Persian/Indian cuisine. To the Panang paste, add sparing amounts of ground spices such as star anise, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaves, minced lemongrass, and turmeric, along with toasted and ground cashews, peanuts, or peanut butter. It’s best with red meats.

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Southeast Asian I: Vietnamese pho


April 2022.

We are so fortunate in Canada to have arrivals from around the globe to teach us about seasoning our tables. Lucky for us, food is one of the best tools for welcoming people and sharing experiences. The foods of Southeast Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam – are worlds apart from what those of us of European extraction grew up with. Learning to utilize ingredients and tastes from across the globe will undoubtedly make us all better cooks and maybe even better global citizens.

Stocking our Vietnamese pantry has become easier since 1975-76, when Canada welcomed 6,500 of the many Vietnamese refugees who fled the region’s deteriorating conditions after the Vietnam War. A few years later, as the situation in Indochina worsened, Canada accepted 60,000 Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees. According to the 2016 Canadian Census, of over three million arrivals from South and Southeast Asia, over 240,000 Canadians claim Vietnamese origins.

Vietnamese food is dairy-free and subtly seasoned. In your Asian aisle or market, stock up on nuoc mam (fish sauce), a salty and pungent sauce derived from dried anchovies that serves as a salt condiment, like soy sauce in Chinese cooking. Store it in the fridge. Also buy dried rice noodles in several thicknesses, plus hot chili paste, ginger, star anise, fresh limes. Fresh herbs like mint, basil and cilantro can almost be thought of as greens, used by handfuls.

You may recall from a previous column that back in the day my boys looked forward to the early dismissal from school that we all called “noon dismal.” It wasn’t just busting loose from class that my sons relished. They also liked the associated field trip to the recycling depot, followed by lunch at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant.  That experience from an early age helped shape their wide tastes in food. Both my boys, now adults, love the slurpy soups and rice noodle dishes with the subtle-to-heated seasoning of Southeast Asia, in particular the coat of many colours that is Vietnamese pho. First we eat a bowl of soup, and then we can talk about other ways to season the pot.

North Vietnamese Pho

In situ in northern Vietnam, pho is traditionally made with beef, often slow-cooked tendon, for really beefy taste. But my boys and I fell in love with pho made with chicken, so here’s another chicken noodle soup for your cold-weather pantry. The broth is subtly seasoned with ginger, star anise and cinnamon. The soup’s internal garnishes are noodles, vegetables, and the protein can vary – here I use poached chicken. The rice noodles are best added the day you plan to eat the soup because they deconstruct if they sit in leftover broth overnight. If all you have is linguini, by all means swap it in, but the texture will be different. Don’t forget the table garnishes; they are crucial. Optionally make it more south Vietnamese by adding curry paste at the beginning, and coconut milk and peanut butter at the end. Serves 4


2 quarts chicken stock

4 whole star anise

2 cinnamon sticks

oil for the pan

2 large onions, sliced

6-8 slices fresh ginger

1 head garlic, peeled

1-3 hot chiles, optional


3 large chicken breasts, skinless and boneless

salt to taste

½ lb. medium-width dried rice noodles

3 small bok choy, quartered

3 large carrots, thinly sliced on the bias

1 cup chopped broccoli

1 cup chopped cauliflower

¼ cup nuam mam (fish sauce)

the juice of 2 lemons

Table garnishes:

lime wedges

hot chili paste

fresh cilantro leaves

fresh mint or Thai or holy basil leaves

mung bean sprouts

hoisin paste, optional

soy sauce, optional

Heat the stock with the star anise and cinnamon in a large pot. Lightly oil a sauté pan and heat it, then add half the sliced onion and all the ginger, garlic and optional chilies, and sauté until well browned. Transfer the aromatics to the poaching liquid. Cover and simmer for an hour. Strain and discard the solids.

Salt the chicken to taste, then add to the broth. Cover and poach at an active simmer until cooked through, about 20 minutes. Check for doneness, and cook additionally if not yet done. When the chicken is cooked through, remove, cube into bite-size pieces, cover with a ladle of broth, and keep warm.

Bring about 4 cups of water to a boil. Put the rice noodles into a large bowl and cover with the boiling water. Let stand for about 5 minutes, or until soft, pulling them apart as they soften. Drain.

While the noodles soften, add the vegetables to the broth and cover. Simmer until as tender as desired. Add the chicken, noodles, nuoc mam, lemon juice and salt to taste. Ladle into bowls. Pass around the table garnishes for each diner to add to taste.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary