On the Art of Recipe Writing

What makes a good recipe? It’s something I think about a lot. It feels elusive, unknowable. There’s no guidebook for the form. But then again, there’s no guidebook for any worthwhile art. All we can do, I've come to realise, is learn what we can from those who know better.

That’s why I read. A lot. That’s why my shelves are lined with every colour of cookbook and I continue to buy food magazines even though I rarely seem to make many of the recipes. It’s also why I jump at the chance to meet people who know the craft. Just last week, one of those chances came my way: I attended a food writing workshop with Lucy Waverman, part of Devour: The Food Film Festival hosted by my hometown Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

Are you familiar with Lucy Waverman? Most Canadians are. She's the editor of Ontario's Food & Drink magazine, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, and the author of eight award-winning cookbooks. She's the real deal and I've always been quick to flip to her weekend recipe column as soon as I get my hands on Saturday's Globe

I was thrilled to be able to hear her speak. She knows the food writing business in and out. She also tells a great story about the time she met Julia Child: apparently, an 80 year old Child could out-drink just about anyone. 

So what did Waverman teach me about recipe writing? The most important thing she brought to my attention was the "or until..." moment in any recipe. You know the one: "Roast for 3-4 hours or until the meat falls off the bone." "Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick tester comes out clean." It's an essential part of any well-written recipe, Waverman told us, because without it, your reader lacks an important visual cue. Our ovens, pots and pans, and especially our ingredients are all slightly different; "or until" becomes the great equalizer in cooking.
When Waverman spoke about this, a switch turned on in my mind. Of course! So important! But I also understood it as an opportunity to be a bit creative in recipe writing, something I'm always looking for. Think about it: the "or until" part of a recipe carves out a space for descriptive language in an otherwise instructional form. True, good writers infuse themselves in the flow of a recipe, but it can sometimes be hard to balance clarity and creativity. The "or until" moment is where both of these elements can come together in a useful way. Such as...

"Sear on all sides, for 15 minutes in total or until the meat glistens with a mahogany patina."

"Bake for 18-22 minutes or until the muffin tops are plump, golden and domed."

"Whisk vigorously for 30 seconds or until the eggs bubble and wink."

Of course, it's important for your visual description to remain true to the cooking process and be actually helpful for the reader. That's another thing that Waverman emphasized: recipes are forms of education, opportunities to teach and learn.The recipe I chose for this post has quite a few "or until"s of its own. Trust them: you might learn something!
Sweet and Smokey Squash Soup
recipe serves eight

This recipe uses Sweet Dumpling Squash, a new variety for me. It has a tough, ridged skin that's hard to peel so I decided to pre-roast the squash in the oven before adding it to the soup. This route is much easier than the alternative: no fiddling around with a knife and peeler. The sweet in this soup comes from a combination of squash, pear and sage, while the smokiness is derived from double-smoked bacon. 

2 sweet dumpling squash (they vary in size but aim for medium)
olive oil, salt and pepper for seasoning

5 strips of bacon (double-smoked if you can find it)
2 d'anjou pears, peeled and diced
1 yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1/4 cup heavy cream
more salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375.

Cut each squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet, flesh side up, and rub with a little olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Roast for 35-40 minutes or until the orange flesh doesn't fight the gentle jab of a fork. Allow squash to cool slightly and then scoop the flesh into a bowl. Reserve.

In a large soup pot, cook bacon until crisp. Remove and reserve.

Saute pear, onion and sage in the bacon fat left in the bottom of the pot for 5 minutes or until the onion turns amber and soft. Add stock. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the apple turns to mush when met with the back of a spoon.

Add the squash and half of the bacon, crumbled, to the pot. Heat through and puree until smooth (an immersion blender is especially useful when dealing with this much soup).

Add heavy cream. If the soup seems too thick, add a bit of water to thin it out. Re-heat the soup again before serving: piping hot is best!

Top each bowlful with a little crumbled bacon.


On the New November

November 1st always used to be a beacon on my calendar. Not only did it mean that the dreaded Halloween was finally past (every year it reminds me why I hate it so), but it also meant I could finally embrace what was coming: Christmas. At long last, I could poise the needle on my ancient Frank Sinatra holiday record and dust off my gingerbread man cookie cutter. Sound crazy? I was not alone. I know many who consider the beginning of November to be the beginning of all things holiday.

But a few years ago, I suffered an unthinkable affliction: holiday burnout. After a month of baking and carolling and Christmas movie watching, we realised we had strung all of our twinkling holiday lights but we were also completely strung out. December rolled around and we had had our fill far too soon. We don't let that happen any more.
Now, we wait. Now, we hold our breath and count the days until the month it's actually appropriate to count the days. You know: advent and all.

But that doesn't mean we can't warm up to the idea of the holidays. Little inklings here and there are perfectly acceptable. For instance, I like to spend my November window shopping. As in other big cities, the department stores in Montreal go all out this time of year: festive, over-the-top displays best enjoyed in a warm coat* on the first day it snows.

And, though whipping up holiday classics is out of the question, incorporating nostalgic flavours into your cooking and baking is completely innocent. A little ginger here. A little molasses there. A spicy hint of what's to come.

November can be awfully drab. I think that's why I always sought to spruce it up with the spirit of what comes next. But there's no point in trying to make it something it's not. I say: enjoy the quiet and the calm before all the craziness begins. The new way to do November.

* DKNY coat, Isabella Sinclair striped buttondown, Guess jeans, Lucky Brand boots, Anthropologie sunglasses.
Molasses Bread
This sweet loaf, flavoured with dark ale, is more breakfast than dessert. Serve with strong coffee and a generous swipe of soft butter.

recipe makes 1 loaf

you will need...
1 1/2 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup molasses
1/2 cup scotch ale (brown ale)

Preheat oven to 375. Grease and flour loaf pan.

Melt butter and heat beer together in a small saucepan. Set aside and allow to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, spices and salt. In a large bowl, beat egg, butter, beer and molasses to combine. Add flour to molasses mixture and beat until smooth. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick tester comes out clean.

Allow to cool in pan on a wire rack. Loaf will keep for up to 4 days if well wrapped.


On Nesting

I've been in dedicated nesting mode these last couple of weeks: never straying too far from home and keeping house in little ways, prep for the long winter. Can you blame me? Something about this time of year. We've had more more grey, dark days than light and sunny ones and there's something quite spooky about the way the world turns black and orange all at once (that's about as excited for halloween as you'll ever find me). It calls for turning on the heat for the first time, the air all scratchy with burnt dust, and pulling out our thickest sweaters. I've spent a lot of time on chilly walks but they always lead me to the same place: that mountainous blanket heap I don't seem able to resist, a good book or album thrown in the mix to keep me company, and a warming mugful of this or that. Cozy at its best.
How do you like to nest? Do you dream up hearty menus for the months to come? Or write a to-watch list for all those evenings you know you'll spend inside, the world too inky-black to venture out? I aim to strike a chord that is part productive and part not in my nesting. I'll freeze soups or clean out my closet, but only in between watching films and flipping through magazines. It feels decadent but also very, very right. I think I was born to nest.

One thing I've noticed? "I'm nesting" isn't a valid excuse for skipping out on anything. Shocker, I know. You can't cancel plans to don pyjamas at eight o'clock (but oh, how I wish you could) and you can't reschedule a meeting just because you had hoped to make hot toddies (you even the bought the brandy, too bad for you).
When you do get a night to yourself though, you should make this Warm Roots Salad. Nesting food, in its essence, sticks to your ribs, fills up your torso, warms you, actually, from the inside out. That doesn't mean it has to be heavy though. Forget braised short ribs and chicken pot pie (at least for today). Sometimes the most comforting foods are also the most nourishing.

On blustery nights, when ingredient seeking is out of the question, I like to gather whatever root vegetables I have on hand and roast them up good in a hot oven. They become a warm, bistro-inspired salad when served with green lentils and roasted kale and tossed with a satisfying vinaigrette that's tangy, salty and sweet all at once. Second helpings are inevitable. Don't fight it.

Warm Roots Salad
Serves four as a main course or more as a starter

for the salad...
3 large beets, peeled and cut into half-inch wedges
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into half-inch coins
2 parsnips, peeling and sliced into quarter-inch coins
1/2 of a red onion, thinly sliced
4 cups of kale, chopped into bite sized pieces
de puy lentils enough for four (1 1/2 cups should do it)
olive oil
salt and pepper

for the vinaigrette...
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
more salt, more pepper (to taste)

Preheat oven to 425.

Divide beets between two sheets of aluminum foil. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and wrap up tightly. Transfer to a baking sheet.

Combine carrots, parsnips and onion on a second baking sheet (unwrapped). Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Transfer both trays of vegetables to preheated oven and roast for 30 minutes, stirring the carrots/parsnips/onion half way through. After 30 minutes, add the kale to the carrot pan and roast for 5 more minutes. Remove all veg from oven and open up the beet packets to allow to cool slightly.

While vegetables are roasting, prepare lentils according to package instructions. For me, I usually work from a ratio of 1:3 for lentils and water. Combine in a saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain any water that's left in the pot.

While vegetables are cooling, make vinaigrette: combine all ingredients and whisk to emulsify.

Serve the vegetables atop the lentils and drizzle with vinaigrette. Toss to combine.
In this issue...
Heard: Burn Your Fire for No Witness by Angel Olsen
Read: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Worn: Ann Taylor sweater, Zara skirt, H&M hat (now only available in black), knee-high socks (similar), suede oxfords (similar), Calvin Klein bag