Monday, October 12, 2009

A Tribute to Julie, Julia, Canadian Thanksgiving and My New Kitchen

Now, I realize this blog was supposed to be about food and cooking *amongst other things* and up to now has been somewhat dominated by the food and cooking part. I do intend to write about other topics (really!) but in light of a new kitchen and a recent expedition into culinary literature, I feel it is necessary to post one more culinary entry.

First of all, can we all just take a moment to admire the awesomeness of my new kitchen? I am fairly certain that this kitchen has more counter space, and more cabinet space than all of my previous kitchens combined. Not to mention a gas stove! Prior to this weekend, I had only attempted minor cooking feats in this kitchen. But even on a small scale, I was impressed by how quickly and easily things got done. Pasta was once again a quick fix (as the water boiled in 15 min. rather than 45 min.), stews could be made to simmer (as opposed oscillating between a rolling boil and not boiling at all), ingredients could be kept within arm's reach of the stove, but not on it, etc. etc. It was all very exciting.

And so, I decided to celebrate both my kitchen and Thanksgiving (the Canadian one!) by cooking a turkey dinner. A whole turkey seemed a bit overkill though (especially since it was only feeding 4 people) and so, I took a page out of Julie Powell's book (or rather, an entry out of her blog and a page out of Julia Child's book) and attempted to make Boned, Stuffed and Roasted Turkey Breast.

Now, full disclosure here, this recipe does not come from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I am not that brave. Instead, it comes from The Way to Cook, in which Ms. Child has toned things down a notch. Further full disclosure: I toned things down a few more notches. Amongst other sins, I simplified the stuffing (you really don't need anything but bread, onion, sage and spices), I basted with chicken broth rather than butter, I made a gravy base with chicken broth and added the juices from the turkey to it at the very end (turkey breasts really don't have the juice to make enough gravy for 4 people), and I skipped the deglazing business when I made the turkey stock from the bones (personally, I think I should get points for even *making* the stock).

Ok, so after that rap sheet of culinary short cuts, what I am about to present probably doesn't seem quite as impressive, but I'm proud of it, so I'm going to write about it anyways.

The first challenge of this culinary endeavor began outside of the kitchen. I had been warned that unless it's X-mas or Thanksgiving (which its not, in the US right now), that turkey breasts can be hard to come by. So when I found one in a store on the other side of town, I bought it immediately, without giving any thought as to how I might haul it home. Well, I made it about as far as UW on the bus, before giving up and calling for reinforcements (and a ride) to get myself and the turkey breast home. They are heavy little buggers.

Then came the skinning and deboning. This was actually not as scary as I expected it to be. A good knife, a large cutting board, and an extra pair of hands proved very useful.

After some careful knife-work, I was left with two massive boneless skinless turkey breasts, and an equally massive breast bone (which went directly into the stock pot, no questions asked).

Now we come to the fun part: stuffing and wrangling. I say wrangling because that is truly what it is. It took two of us, poking excess stuffing into the cavity and yanking at the cheese-cloth to beat the thing into submission. Afterwards, just to be sure, we secured it with some embroidery thread and a few knots I remembered from sailing (actually, I think it was mostly just a creative use of half-hitches). Anyways, Julia suggested sewing it...really? Sewing cheese-cloth? I think not.

(Turkey breast wrangling: before and after)

I was truly amazed that we'd made it this far without anything exploding, and the kitchen, considering the carnage that had just taken place, really didn't look that bad. However, we'd reached the part of the recipe that scared me the most: the cooking part.

I like stews. You begin by sauteeing some veggies, add some sauce or broth, some spices, maybe some meat and a few more veggies, and let the whole lot cook. Its a very gradual process, and if at some point in that process you decide the stew needs more salt, or cumin or whatever, you just add it in, and to test when it's done, you can try little bits of it. Roasting anything (especially meat or poultry) requires a certain leap of faith that just doesn't exist when you're cooking a stew. For me, this is the most terrifying part of roasting a turkey: that 2.5 hour stretch where you sit there, basting and checking diligently as the recipe tells you to, and praying to the culinary gods that you don't undercook, or worse yet, overcook the turkey. A meat thermometer is a huge help in such situations, but really there's no way to know for sure until you haul the bird out of the oven, remove all the hardware used to hold it together, and cut the first slice.

Luckily, the culinary gods were smiling on us that day, and we managed to get it just about right. We even timed it so that the potatoes, the turkey and the green beans were all ready at about the same time. It must have been beginner's luck.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Sunday afternoon at Marche Jean-Talon

Summertime visits to the Jean Talon market usually leave me with two thoughts:
1) I should come here more often
2) I should do more interesting things with my veggies
On this particular visit, I decided to focus on what was most in season, which happened to be veggies. Although the summer fruits --peaches, nectarines, apricots etc--were beginning to appear, it is still a bit early for the locally grown stuff. So aside from the requisite bag of Alphonso Mangos (which I have become hopelessly addicted to), and a basket of golden cherry tomatoes (it's still a bit early for the tomatoes..though I can't wait for the heirloom tomatoes to arrive in full force), I picked up some asparagus, some zucchini, and some summer squash.

So what does one do with asparagus, zucchini, and summer squash? Grill it, of course! In fact, the asparagus is so fine and so fresh, that I have been munching on it raw, dipped in hummus, but for the zucchini and summer squash, I decided to attempt a variation on this recipe.

Lacking fresh mozzarella and flat-leaf parsley (and not planning on eating 2lbs of grilled squash in one night), I only went as far as the grilling and tossing with garlic and wine vinegar...But not I have a whole container of garlicy, grilled zucchini in the fridge, waiting to be employed to dress up a pizza or a panini.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A 30k Bike-ride, Lunch, and Dinner (in that order)

It was supposed to rain today, but depending on which weather source you consulted, you got a different ETA for the rain. Despite this, we decided to brave it and go out for a bike ride anyways.

About biking, ever since I discovered this awesome site, biking has become way more fun. Bikely lets you map out routes on google maps, and search a database of routes as well. The end result is that you can reasonably estimate the distance you rode (or are planning on riding), and you can benefit from other people's knowledge by looking at the routes they've posted. This is especially useful in Montreal, where conveniently placed highways and traintracks can really make life difficult for cyclists.

Anyways, this was the route we did today. Unfortunately, unless one feels like going all the way around the eastern tip of the island, there's no direct route back...which is why the path gets a bit wobbly towards the end.

Upon returning home, it was unanimously decided that food was in order. We decided to try a nearby vegetarian place La Lumiere du Mile End. It's amazing that you can live half a block from a place like this for two years and not eat there...of course, if you were to eat at every interesting restaurant you saw in this city, you'd be eating about six meals a day. La Lumiere du Mile End was really good though. I had a sandwich on dark rye bread with olive tampenade, cheddar, and roasted red pepper, and DP had a quinoa burger which he said, restored his faith in veggie burgers, after an unfortunate run-in with Provigo's frozen ones. And they make killer cookies =)

I try to eat more vegetables than non-vegetables (hence the lunch choice), but every once in a while, especially when a 30km bike ride is involved, I just need meat. Tonight was one of those nights, well, that and the fact that the flank steak idling in the fridge needed to be dealt with. Anyways, a couple days ago, I had hauled it out of the freezer and marinated it in garlic, EVOO, balsamic, and herbs, with a dash of red wine vinegar for good measure. So the plan was to grill it up tonight and make wraps. Then I found this:

Fresh Herb Risotto from the New York Times.

Despite the fact that I didn't actually have any of the herbs they suggested in my fridge, I decided to give it a try. Turns out, it's a pretty flexible dish. I used arugula, sage, thyme, scallions, oregano, and some pesto that was in the freezer, in place of the recommended herbs (chives, basil, rosemary etc.), and it worked pretty well--and went great with the steak. The wraps will have to wait for tomorrow night.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

What is "Panda's Puzzle"?

Panda's Puzzle is a book from my childhood about a panda who goes on a long journey to determine whether he's "a white bear with black spots or a black bear with white spots". In the end, he discovers that it doesn't really matter what color his spots are, and chooses to describe himself as a "traveller who plays tunes".

As I was trying to sort out what to name this blog, Panda's Puzzle came to mind. This blog (which I should probably have gotten round to starting 3 years ago), is about all the parts of my life that don't translate so well into a buzz-word packed line on a C.V.: Mathematics, cooking, drawing, biking, yoga, photography, camping, bird-watching, frog-catching, puzzle-solving, neuroscience, restaurant discovery, thrift store exploration, etc. So when it came to the naming of the blog, I found I was a bit stuck. is a bit of a mouthful and could also lead to some confusion as to what this blog is actually about. And thus, I gave up on trying to find a fitting name for it and instead named it after a panda who, like me, isn't exactly sure where he belongs on the continuum of white-bears to black-bears (or in my case, artists to scientists).