a bowl of spring and olive oil

My shoulders are lightly pink from running a race yesterday in Ithaca, Central New York’s sunniest of towns. (This is the place that collectively banned Wal-Mart from setting up shop — thus holding my cultural allegiance and continued patronship.) With temperatures hovering around 15 Celsius, the past two days have seen their share of rolled down windows, bike rides, hammocks and barbeques. (The latter two sent my way care of friends.)

Though I’ve cooked asparagus already — how unseasonal of me, I know— it’s time to officially welcome it into my repertoire as a spring staple. Woody stalks and blossoming tips, you are hereby declared most esteemed guest of dinners to come.

I’ve been inspired lately by Heidi’s healthy-looking goodies over at 101 Cookbooks, and so chose to indulge my asparagus fancies with one of her rice-bowl recipes. I must say that I wasn’t thrilled with the last two things I made from her blog (this is likely due to my own shortcomings and not her lack of culinary finesse), but was determined to find something in her wholesome foods database that would turn out as earthy and natural looking as her photos proclaimed. The chosen dish seemed like a smooth transition from a rice n’ beans winter to a fresh green spring.

Settling on a dinner that promised to come together in ten minutes (after cooking the rice) I got to work chopping onions, garlic and asparagus, and whisking tahini, garlic and lemon juice. It wasn’t until I was finished that I realized its uncanny similarity to another salad I featured on this here little site. Oh well, guess I’m a sucker for the nutty tartness of tahini- kissed chickpeas staring up at me like a pile of suns shining on my plate. (I might’ve clocked in at 13 or so minutes, a forgivable offense if there ever was one.)

What I wish to share with you tonight is a twofold lesson. One, experiment with rice, my friends. There are some darn good ones out there. For those of you in Syracuse, Wegman’s carries the Lundberg Family Farms’ line of ecologically- and sustainably-farmed rice blends. For this recipe I used their (very affordable) Wehani brown rice. If the following recipe doesn’t convince you, maybe the fact that it smells like pumpkin pie while it cooks will. (Also check out Han’s market for their massive bags of Thai black rice and other pretty shades of the ubiquitous white grain.)

Secondly, I want to talk about oil. Olive, coconut, safflower, sesame, walnut, peanut, flaxseed — it’s like a Romantic poem in the making. And frankly, this ever-expanding list of oils to try is starting to confuse me. Each with its own unique smoke point, health benefits, balance of omega-3s, etcetera etcetera, it’s all left me floundering. I’m going to try to be patient with myself and let my oil knowledge evolve at a natural pace.

But making tonight’s dinner taught me that what I’ve been reading about olive oil at least is correct. And that is that extra virgin olive oil is best consumed raw, in terms of taste and nutrition. I won’t bore you with all the technical talk about free radicals and fatty acids, saving my words instead for the veneration of olive oil as garnish: when a bite of tonight’s dinner proved a little dry, instead of adding more dressing I tried crowning it with a drizzle of olive oil — a technique applauded in cookbooks and on health websites. What followed was what you’d expect if all the flavours of the dish joined hands with a particle of silky butter and proceeded to tango all over my mouth.

When you bring virgin or first (cold)-pressed olive oil to high temperatures, you miss out on the liquid perfume that it truly is. In Alice Waters’ words, “It is simply a waste to expose extra virgin oil to the direct heat of a pan as its fruity character and color are soon lost.” Alternately, olive oil under the name “pure” is made from extracting the oil through other methods and then refining it. Refined oils are actually better to cook with, as they are already “accustomed” to heat. I will probably continue to cook with my liquid gold, given the industrial-sized tin of it we bought last fall (apparently another no-no), but will now consider it a tabletop companion to my salt and pepper shakers. Try it on grilled or steamed veggies, salads and appetizers, grilled meats, and drizzled over soups and pasta.

I keep olive oil, along with balsamic vinegar, in empty wine bottles with pour tops fitted into the necks. I stole this idea from a friend, and love its convenience and stylishness.

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patriotic muffins

In Canada we have this great stuff called Red River Cereal. Not only is it Canadian, it actually originated in Manitoba’s storied Red River Valley–the area surrounding the city I’m from. I don’t know if it’s available in conventional grocery stores in the US, but as with everything else, is available here. (Bob’s Red Mill 7 or 10 grain cereal will also do the trick, though the result will possess a diminished cultural caliber.

As far as whole foods go, this one is tops. Made of just three simple ingredients — cracked wheat, rye and flax– this stuff will boost your High-Density Lipoproteins (the “good” cholesterol everyone is raving about these days) like nobody’s business. HDL Muffins didn’t quite have the same ring to it though.

And just in case the cholesterol pitch wasn’t enough, these babies are high in fiber and protein as well. So pack up those power bars and whip out your wooden spoons.

Since we’re not swallows who can just peck away at grains laid out on the glistening buffet of late February snow, we humans have to turn cereal into more tender possibilities. Whether it’s cooked on the stovetop to yield a hot viscous pudding with a satisfying chew, or made into these Red River Valley Muffins, I think we might actually have it a little better than the birds.

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Chameleon Granola

I often call it my favourite meal of the day. I love that delightful first crunch of that says “hello world.” I love cracking the shell of a boiled egg, exposing its warm, opaque flesh. I confess that I often fall asleep thinking about breakfast.

For some, breakfast is just fuel for the day. For others, it can be a reason to get up.

When I was cycling around Vancouver island in the Spring of ’06, breakfast was the only meal I’d eat out. I’d ride around a new town for an hour, looking for the perfect nook. I was often rewarded, like when I found these cinnamon buns at a rustic bakery, hidden away in cottage country forest, brushed inside with the slightest hint of raspberry.

It was so good, I didn’t even notice the plastic.

Breakfast with friends is a vulnerable meal to share; each rubs sleep from his or her eyes, and dips into the first morsels of a day full of senses. I have so many cozy memories of breakfasting: my grandfather’s porridge, fancy sweet potato pancakes at Fresh (a fantastic Winnipeg restaurant), a plate heaping with goodies at a greasy spoon, my friend Krista’s rum and banana crepes, poori bhaji in India.

Among all the ways to break a fast, granola holds its own. (Hey, I did live in Winnipeg’s ‘Granola Belt’ for 4 years.) It is a constant friend, showing up in our house at least every two weeks with new displays of taste and texture. This is the perfect recipe-in-flux, forgiving and even flourishing under the most brash of adjustments and tweaks. I think that trying to find new combinations of texture, chunkiness, sweetness, and health might just be one of my lifelong quests.

You can find much more straightforward granola recipes out there, but believe me, in terms of this morning delight I’ve played the explorer and the scientist. I can’t tell you how you’ll like it best, but I can tell you what to try. As the Chinese Proverb so goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Here’s to a lifetime of granola.

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