Just add chives

If there has ever been a vegetable or herb garden on the property where you live, chances are you have chives, popping up faithfully every spring in clumps of hollow grass-like shoots followed by purple buds and eventually fuzzy blooms.

One of several clumps of chives growing in my herb garden.

Don’t overlook these ubiquitous perennial herbs as a way to add some fresh onion-garlic flavour to just about any dish.
Need an example? Here’s three ways I used chives just last weekend.

Sauté mushroom in a little butter in a non-stick pan. Beat eggs with sour cream, 5 mL (1 tsp) or so per egg, salt, pepper and lots of chopped chives. Add egg mixture to pan. Cook over medium-low heat until eggs are nearly set, stirring gently at the beginning to speed things up. Add shredded havarti. When cheese is melted and eggs are set, flip one half of omelette over the other and serve.

Barbecue baked potatoes
Poke baking potato several times with a knife. Microwave on high for about 8 minutes, until soft, flipping once. Wrap in foil. Toss in the coals while you’re grilling your meat. Serve with sour cream and chopped chives.

Asian-style chicken thighs
To your favourite barbecue sauce (store-bought or homemade), add fish sauce, sriracha (rooster) hot sauce and a little sesame oil. Taste for heat and seasonings and adjust as necessary. Marinate bone-in skinless chicken thighs in sauce at least four hours. Grill or bake. Serve sprinkled with chopped chives.

When you trim chives, they will produce a second growth (and maybe even a third depending on the weather and your consumption) during the same season. Which means you can be picking and eating them in May (in an asparagus tart – recipe to come), August (along with lots of fresh dill for a new potato salad) and October (as a garnish for your roasted squash soup).


Roast chicken rediscovered

Roast chicken.

In the past year, I have found a whole new appreciation for the humble roast chicken — thanks to chefs Thomas Keller and Ruth Reichl.
From the former, I learned to dry and season both the inside and outside of the bird, truss it and roast at high heat (450 Fahrenheit) for a short time (40 minutes to an hour works well for an average 1-1/2 to 2 kg bird).
From the latter, I learned to trim visible fat, mince and stuff it under the skin of the breast, and to cook the bird on a bed of vegetables. She uses a rack, puts the chicken on top and potatoes, onions and garlic underneath; I forgo the rack and use carrots and onions because, roast chicken means gravy and gravy calls for mashed potatoes.
The result of combining these techniques is a juicy, flavourful bird with a golden, crispy skin — and a great vegetable sidedish.

First ingredient: Duck

If truth be told, the subtitle for this post is Christmas Eve dinner for two. I had such good intentions to post, post, post during the holiday break, but there was always something more pressing to do (sip eggnog and brandy, make soup, listen to the radio, snuggle on the couch).
Having wrapped up all our gift and grocery shopping, David and I spent the day before Christmas at home — preparing for the trip to visit his family Dec. 25 and 26 and the arrival of my family Dec. 27.
I wanted dinner to be non-taxing, yet special.
After much inner debate, I settled on duck breast. Having never cooked or purchased it before, I called my local butcher for some information and he led me to King Cole Ducks. The home farm for this large producer is located in the north end of York Region and sells fresh, frozen and smoked duck to the public. I visited the busy store Dec. 23 and bought two fresh breasts for the very reasonable price of $8.
It provided the inspiration for a simple and seasonal yet elegant and delicious meal. We paired the duck with a jammy merlot.

Roasted butternut squash and apple soup with maple allspice sour cream.

Roasted butternut squash and apple soup with maple allspice sour cream
This was a reprise of the soup I served at Thanksgiving. Really, a vessel for more of that maple allspice sour cream. I eyeballed the proportions for the sour cream this time around and it was better than I remember.
I made the soup in the morning, reserved two generous servings to reheat for dinner and packed the rest in the freezer for later.

Mixed greens with gorgonzola and pear

Mixed greens with gorgonzola and pear
A simple salad of mixed baby romaine mixed with a white wine vinaigrette and topped with sliced pear and a generous wedge of room temperature gorgonzola.

Pan-seared duck breast with cassis compote and pan-fried Yukon gold potatoes.

Pan-seared duck breast with cassis compote
This recipe comes courtesy of Bob Blumer.
I wanted a tart fruit sauce to complement the rich duck, but not one that involved buying imported fresh fruit. I had a bottle of cassis purchased at Finger Lake Distilling during a camping trip this summer. It was fate.

2 boneless duck breasts
2 shallots, minced
generous splash of cassis
30 mL (2 tbsp) of black currant jam
generous splash of balsamic vinegar

High heat and a well-seasoned cast iron pan made the duck breasts plump up and sear quickly.

Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.
Using a sharp knife, score 4 (1/2-cm-deep) cuts across the skin of the duck breasts at a 45 degree angle. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heat a well-seasoned skillet or non-stick pan over high heat. When pan is hot, add duck breasts, skin side down, and cook for 5 minutes or until skin is brown and crispy. Flip and cook for 2 more minutes.
Remove pan from and transfer duck breasts, skin side up, to a cooking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake on the top rack of the oven for 6 minutes.
Carefully discard all but 15 mL (1 tbsp) drippings from pan. Return pan to medium heat and add shallot. Stir occasionally for 3 minutes or until shallot begins to turn golden.
Add cassis to the pan and stir with a wooden spoon to loosen up the browned bits left by the duck. Add jam, vinegar and more black pepper, and stir occasionally for 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
Remove duck from the oven and slice each breast at a 45-degree angle into 1/2-cm-thick strips (properly cooked duck should resemble medium-rare steak). Arrange in a fanlike pattern on warmed plates and spoon sauce overtop. Serve immediately.

Pan-fried Yukon gold potatoes
A classic.

225 g (1/2 pound) Yukon gold potatoes, 1-cm dice
salt, pepper
15-30mL (1-2 tbsp) duck fat

Parboil potatoes until nearly cooked but still firm. Season with salt and pepper
After searing duck breasts, transfer 15-30 mL of fat to hot pan.
Add potatoes and fry to a golden brown.
Serve with pan-seared duck breasts.

You say methi, I say fenugreek

Fresh methi (fenugreek) leaves.

Sometimes the grocery store can be a surprising source of inspiration. A week ago, I was leafing through the flyer for the local Fresh Co, when a spread marking Diwali caught my eye. “Fresh methi 99 cents” it advertised. I was intrigued.
A quick Google search and I learned methi was another name for fenugreek, one of the dominant flavours in most curry powders. I had never cooked with fresh fenugreek and was eager to give it a try.
I decided on a dish featuring bone-in chicken thighs in a thick, spicy yogurt sauce. I was inspired by this recipe but, as usual, made some changes as I went along.
The recipe called for three green chiles. I had some green chiles in the freezer that I knew to be quite hot, so I pulled out two, scraped out the seeds and used them for the paste. But I started doubting my decision and added a pinch or two of red pepper flakes to the whole spices.
Also, despite having clearly written yogurt on my shopping list, I forgot to buy it. I did have some full fat sour cream (it was on sale, there was no low-fat, what can I say) and no desire to make a return trip to the grocery store.
Finally, the original recipe called for adding half the yogurt to the spices, removing the cooked chicken from the sauce, reducing the sauce until practically dry and then adding the remaining yogurt. I skipped this step. I wanted a lot of sauce.
It’s certainly not a quick weeknight curry, but it is worth the work and the wait. I will be keeping a look out for fresh methi at the grocery store and markets so I can make it again.

Methi chicken
I served the chicken and sauce over plain brown rice, with roasted curried cauliflower as a side.

Ground spice mixture.

8 bone-in, skinless chicken thighs
25 mL (1-1/2 tbsp) vegetable oil
250 mL (1 cup) whole milk yogurt or sour cream
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced or grated
2-3 green chiles
4 cm (2 inches) ginger, minced or grated
250 mL (1 cup) fresh fenugreek leaves

Whole spices and onions sizzling.

3 cardamom pods
1 stick cinnamon (I broke this up)
2 mL (1/2 tsp) coriander seed
2 mL (1/2 tsp) fennel seed
a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
5 mL (1 tsp) ground tumeric
5 mL (1 tsp) chili powder
2 mL (1/2 tsp) mustard powder
1 mL (1/4 tsp) ground clove
5 mL (1 tsp) ground cumin
5 mL (1 tsp) ground cinnamon
5 mL (1 tsp) salt
5 mL (1 tsp) sugar

Using a mortar and pestle, grind the ginger, garlic and chiles into a fine paste.
Heat vegetable oil in a dutch oven. Add whole spices.
When spices begin to pop, add onions and cook slowly until they are golden
Add ginger/garlic/chile paste and cook three to four minutes.
Add ground spices and combine well.
Turn heat down and cook until spices begin to release oils. Add a little water if necessary.
Remove pan from heat and blend in yogurt or sour cream.
Return to heat. Add fenugreek leaves and combine.
Add chicken thighs and coat with mixture.
Cover pan and cook on a gentle heat for 25 minutes, turning the chicken thighs once.

Chicken cooking in oh-so-flavourful sauce.

Good gravy

While gravy is normally a rarity in our house, I have made it twice in as many weeks: a thick turkey gravy for Thanksgiving dinner and a thinner, but still very flavourful, beef gravy to go with the surprisingly traditional prime rib dinner (beef, gravy, horseradish, roasted potatoes, carrots and rutabagas and steamed green beans — the last three from my garden) we had on Sunday.
Here is my basic method for making good gravy.

Pan drippings, flavourful liquid and a slurry are all you need to make a good gravy.

pan drippings
1 L (4 cups) or more chicken or beef stock and red wine (optional)
45 mL (2-1/2 tbsp) flour
375 mL (1-1/2 cups) milk or water
salt and pepper

Keep some liquid in your pan while roasting. This not only keeps your meat moist, it prevents any drippings from blackening in the pan and giving your gravy a burned flavour. For turkey, I always use homemade chicken stock. For the best beef gravy, I use a combination of dry red wine and beef stock. Add a cup or two of liquid to start and top it up as necessary while roasting.
Transfer meat or bird from pan to a large platter and tent with aluminum foil.
Place roasting pan on stove, covering two burners. Turn both up to medium-high. Add additional liquid to measure about 1 litre (4 cups). Boil while scraping the bottom of pan for five to 10 minutes.
In a mason jar, mix together flour and milk (for poultry gravy) or water (for beef gravy) and shake until combined. (This mixture is called a slurry.)
Add slurry, plus salt and pepper to taste to roasting pan. Cook until bubbly and thickened, then cook one minute more. Skim fat from top of gravy if necessary.
Strain gravy through a fine mesh sieve before serving.

Thanksgiving post mortem

Turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

Thanksgiving dinner was a success.
The turkey was stuffed and in a 325 Fahrenheit oven by about 2 p.m. The 9 kilogram bird would take about 4-1/2 hours to roast.
Our guests arrived around 3 p.m.
I had cooked the sausage, washed the apples and picked and washed the sage, so it only took a few minutes to pull together the sausage with apple and sage. We served these with the meringue nuts, sauvignon blanc and Creemore Springs Urboch before dinner.
After a walk around the garden, I started on dinner.
For the first course, I reheated the roasted squash and apple soup and whipped up the easy maple allspice sour cream garnish. The garnish was a surprise hit. The combination of maple syrup and allspice is something I will use again — perhaps as a flavouring for baked squash?
The fresh local turkey was tender, juicy and flavourful.
To accompany it, I served cranberry sauce, brown butter mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes and sautéed Swiss chard. For easy sweet potatoes, peel and cut into large cubes, then microwave with a bit of water until soft. Drain Add a little butter, brown sugar and nutmeg and microwave again for about a minute. The chard (the last from my garden) was sautéed simply in a little olive oil, red pepper flakes and chopped garlic.
My mother-in-law, who makes perhaps the best pastry I’ve ever tasted, brought apple and pumpkin pie for dessert.

Sausage with apple and sage

Sausage with apple and sage
I adapted this Laura Calder recipe only slightly. I used local Gala apples instead of Granny Smith (which tend to be imported) and in larger pieces than she suggests. I also cut down on the olive oil and butter.

2 pork sausages, cooked
1-2 apples, peeled and cored
20 mL (1-1/2 tbsp) olive oil
15 mL (1 tbsp) butter
pinch sugar
24 small sage leaves

Slice sausage into half-centimetre slices on the bias.
Cut apple into small cubes.
Heat oil in a saute pan and fry sausage slices on both sides until golden brown, remove to a platter.
Wash pan. Melt butter in pan. Add sugar and fry apple cubes tossing occasionally until golden on all sides.
Add a little more oil to the pan, if needed, and fry the sage leaves until slightly crisp, 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Brown butter mashed potatoes
This is an occasion treat at our house, only served with big traditional meals such as turkey or prime rib. It is inspired by this recipe from PEI chef Michael Smith, although I use less butter and add a little milk or cream.

4-5 large potatoes
80 mL (1/3 cup) butter
60 mL (1/4 cup) milk or light cream
few pinches of nutmeg
salt and pepper

Peel potatoes and cut into large cubes. Place in pot with lots of cold water. Heat until boiling and simmer until cooked, about 20 minutes.
Drain and mash potatoes.
In another pot or pan, melt butter, swirling the pan, until it becomes golden brown and gives off a nutty aroma. Add milk to stop cooking.
Add butter and milk mixture, nutmeg, salt and pepper to potatoes and stir.