Granola: Personalizing a Classic

Standard

granola

Mom isn’t usually one for compliments, so I knew I had a winner when she called and moaned into the phone, “This granola is so good. Can you make me more?”

I’d given her a jar of my latest batch the day before, and I’ll admit that I’d come awfully close to attaining my holy granola grail.

My idea of granola heaven is Eleven Madison Park’s, in which each oat is separate and crisp like a potato chip, and the mix is addictively salty-sweet. But you could also call it the Fat Millionaire’s Granola: it uses pistachios and dried cherries and an eye-popping amount of salt, maple syrup, and brown sugar.

So over the years, I’ve tried and tweaked countless versions, all within the olive oil family, like this one from Melissa Clark, and that one from Marge Granola. My ideal granola would still have EMP’s wonderful crunch and sweet-savoury quality, but would be more approachable and affordable, something I could eat every morning.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about my preferences along the way:

1. No spices. I like the flavour of oats loud and clean.
2. A hint of bitterness. This provides backbone and plays counterpoint to granola’s richness, which is why I use olive oil instead of coconut oil or butter, and why I like the addition of pumpkin seeds, which add a nutty, grassy note.
3. Maple syrup is king. I’ve used honey, brown rice syrup, and just sugar, and have decided that maple syrup is the game-changer. Here in Canada, I try to buy No. 1 medium, and in the US I look for Grade B. These have a dark, complex flavour reminiscent of chocolate or coffee. A little goes a long way.
4. Salt, but not too much. All my favourite recipes load up on the salt, but Kevin needs to watch his sodium, so I dial it back a bit. I do, however, make sure to use kosher, which has larger grains than table salt, so it makes a bigger impact in the mouth.
5. Unsweetened coconut chips or ribbons. Who knew that this would make such a difference? Because this coconut is cut broad and flat instead of shredded, it toasts to a big crunch and lends a savoury depth.
6. Low and slow. I bake at 300F giving the granola a stir every 15 minutes or so, and will go down to 275F if ingredients are browning too quickly. If I want it really crisp and dry, I’ll sometimes turn off the oven and leave the granola for an additional 10-20 minutes after baking.
7. Add a little somethin’ somethin’. I mostly populate my granola with inexpensive pantry workhorses like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and plain old raisins. But I’ll add a handful of something interesting to each batch to make it feel like a treat. I’ve done hemp hearts, dried cherries, and pecans, and lately have been opting for chopped hazelnuts. Don’t chop too finely — keep these additions large so that you can really enjoy them!

New Classic Granola

3 cups rolled oats, also known as old-fashioned
1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds
1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup raw hazelnuts, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons raw hemp hearts
1 cup unsweetened coconut chips
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup raisins

1. Preheat oven to 300F.
2. Mix oats, seeds, nuts, hemp hearts, coconut chips, and salt in a roomy bowl.
3. In a liquid measuring cup, measure olive oil and maple syrup, and then stir in dark brown sugar until no lumps remain.
4. Pour liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients, and mix thoroughly.
5. Place equal amounts of the mixture on 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake for 40 minutes, stirring at 10-15 minute intervals. Turn down the heat to 275F if the granola is browning too quickly. When it’s done, it should be completely golden, and completely dry to touch.

The Simplest Soup

Standard

lentil_soup

On the ground floor of my office building is a hugely popular Italian bakery and caffe. It mostly serves two-foot lengths of Roman-style pizza that they weigh out by the slice, but when I want something more nourishing, I ask for lentil soup. It’s got nothing in it: just brown lentils that settle at the bottom of a bowl of thin, savoury tomato broth. But I never order any other soup. I find its simplicity and clean flavours endlessly appealing. It’s a dish I could eat every day.

So last week, I decided to do just that. I made a big batch of the simplest lentil soup recipe I could find, and contentedly ate a bowl almost daily: as a packed lunch, a late night snack, or as a simple dinner with a piece of cheese toast.

Don’t let these few ingredients fool you into thinking this will be boring. Unlike the soup at the caffe, this one is substantial. The butter, nutmeg, clove, and wine give it a richness and a haunting depth of flavour that will guide your spoon back to the bowl again and again.

Simple Lentil and Tomato Soup

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 cups lentils, rinsed
1 bottle tomato passata, 680 mL *
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1/2 cup red wine
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. In a large pot, heat butter over medium-high heat. Add chopped onions, and cook for five minutes, or until translucent. Add garlic, cloves, nutmeg, and bay leaf, along with a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to medium and cook for five minutes more, or until onions have softened and turned golden.

2. Add lentils, tomato passata, chicken broth, and water, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Add wine and cook 20 minutes more, adding water if it seems too thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Before serving, remove the bay leaf and whatever cloves you can see. Sometimes, they soften and break up into the soup, and that’s just fine.

* Tomato passata is simply a purée of tomatoes without seeds or skin, and can be found at most Italian grocers or gourmet stores — but it’s just as good using whole canned tomatoes in juice that have been whizzed with a blender.

Dinner in the Details

Standard

rapini

Tonight’s dinner actually started three nights ago, on a Wednesday evening. While running an errand, I popped into No Frills, the local discount grocer, to pick up a few staples. While No Frills is probably best known for loss-leader sales — $.99 cent Pringles and $2 slabs of ham and so on — their produce can be decent, and I took home a particularly verdant bunch of rapini, or broccoli rabe.

I remembered that rapini this afternoon, and rather than make a simple sauté with garlic and anchovies, I decided to go a richer route: sausage, pasta, and pecorino. Despite being a very simple dish, it was a pitch-perfect meal, due to being attentive to a couple details. In this case, joyful shopping and a vegetable peeler.

I’ve had this dish before with supermarket sausage and cheese, and it’s just fine. But this afternoon, with Kevin’s encouragement, we headed to Harkness & Co. Butchers. Every time I’ve stopped by, there’s meat being broken down on a vast and immaculate expanse of butcher block. They’ve cut up whole chickens for me, sold creamy slabs of fat for me to dice and add into my homemade sausage patties, and this time, steered me towards a fennel and coriander sausage that had been freshly cased just moments before. It was fantastic: expertly seasoned, with a juicy, porky texture.

Then, we went to Benton Brothers for a slab of pecorino romano. The cheese there is handled and stored with so much skill that a piece of pecorino romano can taste a world apart from the same cheese bought elsewhere. When I have to buy pecorino or parmesan at the supermarket, I always feel a bit sorry for the cheese. It’s been shrink-wrapped, has begun to sweat inside its wrapper, and usually tastes stale and ever so faintly of plastic. But the stuff at Benton’s? It comes alive in your mouth.

And the final tip came from Lida Bastianich, in this recipe. She treats rapini with astonishing respect, even asking cooks to peel the stems. It seems like a lot of work, but it goes by quickly and makes such a difference. While I love dark greens, rapini can sometimes be unpleasantly fibrous. With a few quick swipes around the stem with a peeler, my rapini was tender and stringless.

Tonight, I ate dinner filled with gratitude for the people both down the street and far away who get the details so right.

Tasting Anew

Standard
Spinach and Butternut Salad

Spinach and Butternut Salad

The past four days have passed in a haze of naps, body chills, and pitiful coughing. I mostly drank broth and water, and ate the occasional piece of fruit or toast.

Today was the first day I prepared a proper lunch for myself: a salad of spinach leaves, roasted butternut, fluffy Macedonian feta, pickled shallots, and hazelnuts. It felt just right. Nutritious, full of flavour, and even a bit indulgent.

This bout of flu feels like a tastebud reset. Suddenly, everything tastes clearer than before. The holiday fog of sugar, fat, and cheap chocolate has finally lifted. I don’t feel that pull to keep putting food in my mouth, while somehow being unable to really taste what I’m eating. Now, everything tastes exactly like itself: yesterday’s takeout soup was far too salty, the apple could use more flavour, my breakfast of soft-boiled egg drizzled with soy sauce a perfect balance of umami and lush textures.

Thank God for recovery, but thank God, too, for the moments of clarity – big and tiny — that come with illness.