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Even people who claim to love food with near obsession will often tell you that cooking for yourself is either a waste of time or horribly self-indulgent. It wasn’t that long ago that I counted myself among them. Since a large part of eating is sharing and connecting with others, cooking was something I did to nurture family and entertain friends. I always wanted to impress people with what I made, which always added an element of stress to my time in the kitchen and made the whole process of cooking less pleasurable. Everything had to be timed just so and look worthy of the pages of Gourmet magazine. It was easy to forget the whole point of getting together and eating in the first place. It all got lost in some misplaced drive for perfection.
There were times when I came home from work and poured myself a bowl of cereal for dinner. Or fixed myself a sandwich, even though I had already had one for lunch. I cooked for myself, but not every day. I didn’t eat packaged foods; I made fresh food, but the sort of food one makes when in a hurry or not wanting to make much of a fuss. Pasta with a bit of bottled pesto. Store-bought skewers of chicken thrown on the grill and eaten with a green salad and a microwaved sweet potato. Nothing was inherently wrong with this food, it just wasn’t very exciting. Furthermore, it wasn’t food I would ever serve anyone but myself.
Everything changed when I began writing this blog. I started Gratinée when I decided that I wanted to become a food and travel writer. I wanted a portfolio of writing samples I could show editors; this was my main motivation. But when you put so much work into something, you want others to read it consistently. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a huge audience, but I wanted a loyal one. People who would come to this site and find something compelling in the narrative, inspiring in the recipes, and keep coming back. To this end, I knew that the writing mattered, but that the photography and recipes I chose would also be paramount. The photography is an evolution, and I try my best with my limited resources i.e. major lighting challenges. The recipes represented here are for the type of food that I love to eat. Simple, classic dishes, often French or inspired by French technique, comforting and bursting with robust flavor, composed of fresh and easy to find ingredients.
When I started cooking for this blog, I was essentially cooking for one. I offered the full recipe, but always cut the ingredients by half, or even three-quarters. I froze a lot of food and began inviting people for dinner more often. Posting recipes that people would want to make required more. More ingredients, more herbs and spices, more trips to the grocery store. It required more of me. Because I was accountable to this project, I had to come home and cook something new instead of just plopping on the couch.
I learned a lot. I learned how to cook new dishes, of course, but I also learned more about what I liked and what I didn’t like. Through my exploration and sourcing of better quality ingredients, my palate changed. I learned what a really good cheese should taste like. I began to love cilantro even though I once hated it. I found my voice, not only in terms of how I wanted to say things, but also in the kitchen.
Here is what I noticed when I began cooking for myself with some effort; the things that I cooked, more often than not, turned out perfectly. Much better than they did when I cooked these same things for others. When I cooked for myself, I didn’t have to impress anyone. I felt much more relaxed about the whole process when it didn’t matter whether my souffle fell or not. No one else was going to eat it but me. Even when my food didn’t look that great, it always tasted fine. Learning this was a kind of liberation, wholly unexpected.
There are days when I still want something fast, something that I can throw together in a matter of minutes. But I’m no longer satisfied with the standard fare of singledom. The other day I noticed that in almost eight months of blogging that I have posted only one pasta recipe. This is amazing to me, because for years, I ate pasta on an almost daily basis. Not that there is anything wrong with pasta, but writing this blog has taught me that there is so much more in the world to cook and eat.
Lemon Garlic Prawns
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
pinch dried rosemary
pinch dried chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
basil, chopped chiffonade style
juice of half
1) Combine all of the ingredients except the lemon juice and butter in a mixing bowl. Toss the prawns to make sure they are well coated.
2) Melt the butter in a skillet over high heat. Add prawns and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, until they turn pink and cooked through.
3) Drizzle with lemon juice and garnish with more chopped basil, if desired. Best eaten with slices of French baguette or pita.
Food and memory are inextricably woven. A lasagna eaten on a terrace overlooking the dusty pink buildings of Bologna is somehow much more memorable than a lasagna eaten at your Aunt Luisa’s summer holiday potluck, no matter how good of a cook she is.
I cannot always recall the details of the places I’ve visited, or even what year I’ve visited them, but I can always recall what I ate there. I still remember my first taste of real Swiss chocolate on a visit to Switzerland with my mom when I was eleven. I’m sure I’ve had better chocolate since then (hello Valrhona!) but nothing matches my memory of that first silky, creamy chocolate coin given to me by my mother’s Swiss friends.
So it’s without a doubt that the highlight of my trip to Prince Edward Island last week was the Atlantic seafood that found its way to my plate virtually every day of my trip. Although I am an unrepentant carnivore and would have a hard time giving up meat, I could do it if I could keep my shellfish. From the king crab to the lowliest of clams, I love them all. Many an evening I will drive out to my local purveyor of fresh seafoods and steam myself a heaping bowlful of mussels marinier, an act my non-foodie friends find shockingly indulgent.
But what of it? Seafood is low in calories and fat and offers a host of nutritional benefits. It’s only recently that it has come to be seen as luxury food; it wasn’t long ago that shellfish like lobster and oysters were reserved for the proletariat.
We started off Day One with a ten pound bag of PEI mussels cooked in white wine–de rigeur for mussels, in my opinion.
To prepare the mussels, scrub them with a sink brush or a coarse dishcloth to free them from any sand residue. A few grains of sand can ruin any seafood dish. If any mussels are not shut tightly they may be dead and therefore dangerous to eat. If you tap them and they close, they’re probably still okay. I cook them any way, and if they don’t open during the steaming process, you should discard them. It’s best to prepare the mussels just after you buy them. You can store them in the fridge for a day, but this will probably result in a lot of dead mussels, which is wasteful.
I like to cook my mussels with parsley, cream, and shallots exclusively, but the varieties are actually endless. One of my favorite restaurants in the city where I live serves them with chopped up chorizo sausage or in a broth with coconut milk and lemongrass.
We ate the mussels for lunch, served with a basket of rolls and some butter for dipping.
As we ate our way through the week, it seemed like we were making our way up the crustacean food chain; mussels, clam, scallops, and finally lobster. It started with a lobster BLT at a Charlottetown oyster bar called Fishbones. There are few things I like more in life than a BLT, so a lobster BLT was really something. My sandwich came with crispy fries and a vial of coarse sea salt to sprinkle them with.
As heavenly as it was, it only whet my appetite for the full meal deal. As it happened, the following day was the last day of lobster fishing on PEI. My brother got up early to go down to the dock to buy them off the lobster fisherman and cooked them up for our lunch. I had not eaten a whole lobster before and was looking forward to eating one.
Because of the recession, people are spending less money on luxuries such as lobster, even on PEI, and unfortunately, the fisherman have been hard hit by this. The lobster was four dollars a pound–unheard of.
This is fifty bucks worth of lobster.
And this little guy was all for me. Actually, he wasn’t so little.
You’d think after this trip I would be seafood-ed out. Au contraire–when I went grocery shopping yesterday I picked up the one type of shellfish I didn’t have on PEI. I picked up a big bag of prawns. Shrimp cocktail, anyone?
Moules Marinieres (Mussels in White Wine)
Adapted from Ina Garten’s “Barefoot in Paris”
6 pounds mussels
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped shallots
1/3 cup minced garlic
3/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 cups white wine
1/2 cup cream
4 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1) Heat the butter and olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for five minutes, then add the garlic and cook for 3 more minutes, or until the shallots are translucent but not browned.
2) Add the parsley, wine, cream, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil.
3) Add cleaned mussels and stir. Cover the pot and cook over medium heat for 8-10 minutes, until the mussels are opened. Discard and mussels that remain shut. With the lid on, shake the pot a couple of times to make sure the mussels don’t burn on the bottom. Pour the mussels and the sauce in a large bowl and serve hot with slices of fresh French bread.
Although I absolutely adore shellfish without exception, I’ve never been a great lover of fish. It’s not so much the fish itself, but the act of eating it. Picking through every sliver of my meal looking for tiny bones or chewing with the fear of choking on one that I might have missed takes a lot of enjoyment out of the act of eating. Truth be known, my favourite fish is the kind that is deep fried in thick batter, doused with tartar sauce, and served on newspaper with a pile of crispy fries. Not exactly what doctors mean when they tell you to get more fish to up your intake of omega acids.
Which is why I came up with this recipe for fish cakes. Crab cakes have long been one of my favourite appetizers and I sometimes make a large one and have it alongside a salad for dinner. But I have found using frozen fish fillets or even salmon from a can can make a lovely and healthy substitute. They don’t need to be cooked in much oil and you can add any number of spices or flavorings. I like green onion and chopped parsley. The trick to keep them from falling apart is using equal parts of fish and mashed potato and to refrigerate them for awhile before frying.
I serve these with lemon wedges and cocktail sauce cut with a healthy dollop of mayonnaise.
12 oz (350g) potatoes, cooked
12 oz (350g) boneless fish fillets, skinned
1/2 cup (60g) fine breadcrumbs, divided
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon horseradish or cocktail sauce
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 scallion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1) In a food processor pulse the fish, lemon juice, horseradish, and mustard until fish is finely chopped.
2) Mash potatoes with a fork and add milk and olive oil. Add potatoes to fish mixture and pulse to combine. Follow with 1/4 cup breadcrumbs and the herbs, garlic, and onion. Add salt and pepper. Pulse for a few more seconds to make sure everything is well blended.
3) Refrigerate mixture for at least 30 minutes. Heat a bit of olive oil in a non-stick skillet (about 2 tablespoons) on medium. Form into patties and dip into the remaining 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs. Fry fish cakes on each side for ten minutes, or until they are cooked through and a deep golden brown.