A few years ago I was invited to join a book club. This was (and is) no snack-and-glass-of-wine kind of book club. It's where the love of food is almost as important as the pleasures of the page. The eight of us meet over a home-cooked dinner, as varied as a fine tagine with couscous to equally satisfying bowls of homemade chowder and a superb selection of cheeses.
A recent book selection was The Lives of Animals by JM Coetzee, Nobel Prize and twice Booker Prize winner, South African by birth, now citizen of Australia. The book is thought-provoking in its discussions around animal welfare, and Coetzee, a vegetarian, is an advocate for animal rights. Our host that evening was Carolyn Barber, a dietician and excellent cook whose own meals are increasingly vegetarian, one of which, carrot cashew loaf with mushroom sauce she served the book club. She rounded out the menu with fresh local asparagus and salads.
Carrot Cashew Loaf
The loaf is colourful, tasty and slices easily. While Carolyn Barber served Two-Mushroom sauce over the loaf, a fresh tomato and mango salsa or even a chunky preserved salsa would also compliment the slices.
- 4 cups (1 L) boiling water
- 6 cups (1.5 L) sliced carrots
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup (250 ml) finely diced celery
- 1 cup (250 ml) finely chopped leeks or onions
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 2 Tbsp. (15 ml) all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp. (30 ml) olive oil
- 1 Tbsp. (15 ml) fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp. (5 ml) salt
- 1 tsp. (5 ml) dried crumbled sage
- 1 tsp. (5 ml) dried crumbled thyme
- 1 tsp. (5 ml) dried crumbled basil
- 1/2 tsp. (2 ml) pepper
In a steamer over boiling water, cook carrots, covered, until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, reserving all of the carrot cooking liquid for Two-Mushroom Sauce (following). Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk eggs. Stir in celery, leeks and garlic. In a food processor, whirl cashews until finely ground with some sand-sized grains. You should have 2 cups (500 ml). Add to egg mixture. In same food processor (no need to wash it) whirl carrots until smooth with some pea-sized bits. Add to mixture in bowl along with flour, oil, lemon juice, salt, sage, thyme, basil and pepper. Stir well to combine.
Pack into an oiled 8- x 4-inch (1.5 L) loaf pan; smooth top. Bake in centre of a 350F. (180C.) oven until loaf comes away from sides of pan and is firm to the touch, about 50 minutes. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing and serving with the Two-Mushroom Sauce. Makes 8 servings.
You need a total of 1 lb. (500 g) mushrooms for the sauce. For ultimate flavour, make the sauce with two kinds of mushrooms, a quarter of the volume with more expensive shiitake caps, the remainder, still tasty but less expensive, button or cremini mushrooms. You can make a very good sauce with all button or cremini mushrooms.
- 2 Tbsp. (30 ml) each butter and olive oil
- 2 small shallots, finely chopped
- 6 cups (1.5 L) diced mushrooms
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) all-purpose flour
- 1/4 tsp. (1 ml) pepper
- 2 cups (500 ml) of the liquid from cooking carrots (see above) or vegetable broth, approximate
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 Tbsp. (30 ml) soy or tamari sauce
- Balsamic vinegar, optional
In a saucepan, heat butter and olive oil over medium high heat; add shallots and mushroom. Sautee until mushrooms give off their liquid, then as liquid evaporates, mushrooms become golden. Reduce heat to low; stir in flour and pepper to coat mushrooms and shallots. Stir in 2 cups (500 ml) of liquid from carrots and bay leaf; bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, adding more cooking liquid or broth, as needed to create a sauce that coats back of a spoon. Stir in soy sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a splash or two of balsamic vinegar if desired. Remove bay leaf. Makes about 4 cups (1 L) sauce.
Chocolate Macaroon Bars
An essential part of an evening’s discussion of a good book is dessert. It’s time to linger over bowls of local strawberries and a piece of some sweetie. This bar, adapted from The Epicurious Cookbook, by Tanya Steel and the Editors of Epicurious, (Appetite by Random House, $29.95) is the ultimate bar/square – three layers of shortbread base, chocolate and a chewy coconut macaroon topping. Devilishly delicious, perfect partner with coffee and the final chapters of a gripping book.
- 2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) packed light brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp. (1 ml) salt
- 3/4 cup (175 ml) cold butter, cubed
- 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) semisweet chocolate chips (300 g package)
- 4 large egg whites
- 1 cup (250 ml) granulated sugar
- 1 tsp. (5 ml) vanilla
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) all-purpose flour
- 2 cups (500 ml) sweetened flaked coconut (200 g package)
Line 13- x 9-inch (3.5 L) metal cake pan with parchment paper or grease; set aside. Shortbread Base: In a food processor, whirl flour, brown sugar and salt to combine. Sprinkle butter over dry ingredients; pulse until mixture begins to form ragged clumps, and holds together when pressed. Sprinkle mixture into prepared pan; press firmly and evenly, using hands and an offset metal spatula, if available. Bake in the centre of a 350F. (180C) until golden, about 18 to 20 minutes. Place on a rack; sprinkle chocolate chips over the surface. Let the chips melt; spread evenly over the shortbread base.
Topping: Meanwhile, in a bowl, beat egg whites just until foamy and pale white. Stir in granulated sugar and vanilla, followed by flour, then coconut. Drop by small spoonfuls over melted chocolate. Using a fork, carefully spread coconut mixture over chocolate. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of coconut mixture to go around. Bake in centre of a 350F. (180C.) oven until golden brown on top, about 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool on a rack.
(Make-ahead: Cover and store at room temperature for up to 5 days.) Makes 24 to 36 bars depending on size.
Tip: The utensil du jour for this recipe is a small offset spatula – to press and even the butter shortbread mixture, then spread the melted chips over the baked base. The spatula’s rounded blade bends at 45° just beyond the handle, allowing the cook to spread batter or other mixtures into the corners of a pan, even if the pan has sides. In a similar fashion, the cook can get under items like bars in rimmed pans or cookies on rimmed baking sheets and lift them out without breaking their edges.