Chinese Noodles with Meat Sauce and Fresh Garnishes

The food: Homemade Chinese noodles with Meat Sauce and Fresh Garnishes


The story:

One of the dishes brought to a meeting of The Oakdale Dinner Club in my novel of the same name is a Chinese dish of noodles with meat sauce, garnished with fresh cucumber sticks. The sight of the dish causes a (somewhat pretentious) character named Tom to proclaim it the basis of some Proustian memories he formed in a Szechwan restaurant in Montreal decades before.

Those Proustian memories are, of course, mine – the first time I had the dish was in Montreal, in the 1980’s, when I was visiting my brother, then a student at McGill University, for the weekend. To me, a lifelong devotee of Cantonese chow mein, this new noodle dish in a bowl was different and delightful. I loved the contrasting tastes, textures and temperatures of the hot, slightly spicy meat sauce, soft noodles, and crisp, cold cucumber.

This past summer, I tried and deemed decent the version of it served at Mother’s Dumplings in Toronto:


But I preferred the iteration I devised after combining elements from two recipes I found online and a third recipe that comes from a dearly beloved old cookbook called Cooking for Crowds. To which I added shiitake and water chestnuts, because I really like shiitake and water chestnuts.

My version is pictured at the top of the post, and the recipe for it appears below. Also pictured is the recipe as executed by a professional chef this past September, when I collaborated with the lovely organizers of the Kingston WritersFest to put on a festival event called The Kingston Dinner Club, during which I read from The Oakdale Dinner Club and spoke about food in fiction, while the attendees dined on a meal that featured food described in the novel.

Served alongside a refreshing salad of chicken, mango, and avocado in a lime vinaigrette (a recipe I blogged about here), the Chinese noodles with fresh meat sauce and fresh garnishes shone. They tasted good too.


Chinese Noodles with Meat Sauce and Fresh Garnishes

Serves 4.


1 lb. fresh Chinese noodles
1 T. sesame oil
1 lb. ground pork
3 T. sherry
1 tsp. sugar
4 T. soy sauce
4 T. hoisin sauce
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1 T. sweet chili sauce
½ cup sliced scallions (white part)
2 T. canola oil
½ cup sliced water chestnuts
1 c. sliced shiitake mushrooms

For garnish:

1 ½ cups fresh bean sprouts
1 ½ cups English cucumber strips (cut into 2 inch long julienne strips)
1 ½ cups fresh baby spinach leaves, cut into julienne strips

optional garnish add-ons or substitutions: 1/2 cup finely chopped scallions (green part), 1 cup thinly sliced radishes, chopped fresh coriander leaves


1. Mix pork with sherry, sugar, and soy sauce in bowl. Let stand.

2. Cook noodles in boiling water till tender, loosened and separated (a few minutes). Drain in colander, shake to remove moisture, and toss in bowl with sesame oil. Set aside.

3. Sauté white part of scallions with mushrooms in oil until browned. Add pork and stir-fry until loosened, cooked through and most of the liquid has cooked off.

4. Stir in water chestnuts, hoisin sauce and sweet chili sauce and cook for a minute or two to blend.

5. Add noodles to pan and stir fry for 1-2 minutes to heat and mix with sauce.

6. Turn noodles and sauce into bowls. Garnish each serving with some sprouts, cucumber strips, spinach, and other fresh garnishes. Serve warm.


Engorgeous Sweet Potato Vichysoisse

The food: Sweet Potato and Leek Vichysoisse


The story:

In my novel The Oakdale Dinner Club, the character Mary Ann, who is itching to have an extra-marital affair (for quasi-justifiable, “get hers” reasons, after her husband cheated), brings to a key meeting of the dinner club something another character refers to as “the unfortunately named” Engorgeous Soup. The recipe comes from a (fictional) cheesy cookbook Mary Ann has found called “Cooking for Lovers” – on another occasion, she makes a Chocolate Orgasm cake from the same book – and she hopes the soup will act as an aphrodisiac on her intended affair prospect.

I didn’t describe the soup in detail in the book, but the soup I had in mind when I was writing the passage was a Sweet Potato Vichysoisse that has been in my home repertoire since 1985, when I found the recipe in The Silver Palate Good Times cookbook.


The vichysoisse is smooth, silky, and rich-tasting, thanks to white wine and lime zest/juice that deepen the flavours of the sweet potatoes, leeks, stock, milk and heavy cream. A bowl of the soup, garnished with frizzled leeks as shown in my photo above, would make a lovely light lunch or supper served alongside a few chunks of toasted focaccia, say.

Sidenote: you can hear me talking about food, affairs and The Oakdale Dinner Club with the CBC Radio One “Host Shelagh Rogers at CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter web page.

Sweet-Potato Vichysoisse*, adapted from The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook (by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
4 leeks (white part only), well rinsed, dried and sliced
6 cups chicken stock or canned chicken broth
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy or whipping cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Melt the butter in a large stock pot over medium-high heat. Add the leeks and sauté until soft and transparent.
2. Add the stock, wine and sweet potatoes. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
3. Let cool off the heat about 15 minutes, then stir in lime zest and juice, milk and cream. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Puree the soup in batches in a blender until very smooth.
5. The soup can be served hot or cold, with garnishes of your choice.
6. The recipe says it serves 6, but I find it makes more like 8-10 servings.

*Aphrodisiac qualities not guaranteed.

Cream Cheese Sandwich Loaf: Retro Goodness or Please Make It Go Away?

The food:
Cream Cheese Sandwich Loaf AKA Frosted Ribbon Loaf AKA Run for your Life

Party Sandwich Loaf, as per Betty Crocker

The story:

In a scene from my new novel The Oakdale Dinner Club, Alice, one of the main characters, attends a wedding shower – in 1992 – of her best friend Mary Ann. Mary Ann is a traditionalist who has asked her mother, an accomplished cook, to prepare ancient-fashioned wedding shower fare, including a Cream Cheese Sandwich Loaf, which, for the uninitiated, is one name for a loaf of bread that has been sliced horizontally; stuffed with layers of things that don’t go together well, like deviled ham, shrimp salad and egg salad; ‘frosted’ with cream cheese; and decorated like some kind of bizarro savoury cake.

When I wrote the scene, the cream cheese sandwich loaf I described was based on one I had sampled, probably in the 70’s, and that looked, in my mind, something like the pic above, courtesy of Betty Crocker – click here for a defies-belief recipe.

What the sandwich loaf in the story was not meant to resemble was this monstrosity, produced in my very own kitchen, in an act of food preparation that convinced me I am not and will never be the cook Mary Ann’s mother Sarah is in The Oakdale Dinner Club.

Cream Cheese Sandwich Loaf as per the Hungry Novelist

Look at that thing! Between the squished layers of bread (I used a higher fibre white loaf from Cobs Bakery which could not stand up to my Hulk Smash slicing attempts, through no apparent fault of its own), there is a layer of tuna salad and frisée lettuce, a layer of egg salad, and a layer of cream cheese and cucumber because I started thinking about tea sandwiches but should I have used watercress? I don’t know. And those are pecans and gherkin pickles on top of the cream cheese frosting, because why not. (Also, why.)

How did it taste, you ask? Yes, I ate a slice – I wasn’t about to throw the perfectly good ingredients away. And it tasted okay, if okay means it was too bready, too cream-cheesy, and its components would have been better served up as a scoop each of tuna salad and egg salad on a bed of lettuce with maybe a slice of buttered whole wheat bread alongside.

Like Alice in the novel, I found this dish a mite too exotic. But it makes for a good punch line. Both here and as item #5 in this very funny Buzzfeed list of 21 Truly Upsetting Vintage Recipes.

Gorgeous Grilled Cheese Inspired by Chef the film

The food:

Gorgeous Grilled Cheese from “Chef” movie

The story:

My new food-centric novel The Oakdale Dinner Club is now available, where books and ebooks are sold!

As part of my half-baked fun-filled campaign to promote it, I’m Writer-in-Residence this month at Open Book Toronto where there is an almost embarrassing amount of content on me: an interview that lists 12 things most people don’t know about me (or do they?), some book recommendations, and several blog posts about my writing life.

At the end of my launch week, I went to see the movie Chef, and was so taken by the food-porn-to-the-max grilled cheese sandwich made by the chef character in the movie for his 10-year-old son that I tried to recreate it in my kitchen the next day, with very tasty (if fattening) results that I blogged about over at Open Book Toronto.

After the end credits of the film, a short sequence shows famed L.A. chef Roy Choi, who was a producer and food consultant on the movie, instructing actor/writer/director Jon Favreau on how to make the grilled cheese sandwich. Or so I’m told, because I did not know this before I went to see the movie and didn’t stay in the theatre past the end credits! This, even though, I put in a past-the-end-credits type teaser, for fun, at the end of The Oakdale Dinner Club!


Fevered internet sleuthing – one review mentioned which cheeses were used in the film sandwich, and that olive oil was a factor in the pan, random best grilled cheese recipes elsewhere suggested grating the cheeses for faster melting – led to my very own recipe for how to make a gorgeous grilled cheese sandwich in the manner of Chef the film, a movie I highly recommend if you like food, eating, and feel-good movies about food and eating.

Gorgeous Grilled Cheese

Gorgeous Grilled Cheese in the Manner of Chef the Film

– 2 not too thick, not too thin slices of good quality, airy white bread, such as sourdough or ciabatta
– 1/2 cup to 1 cup – depending where you fit on the risk aversion/thrill-seeking continuum – of grated cheese, made up of 1 part Parmigiano Reggiano, 1 part extra old cheddar (white or orange) and 2 parts Swiss Gruyere
– generous amount of unsalted butter
– a drizzle of olive oil for the frying pan


– Butter generously one side of each slice of bread
– Heat small amount of olive oil in frying pan until hot and swirled over surface of pan
– Place one slice bread, buttered side down, in pan, turn heat down to medium
– Pile up grated cheeses on bread, as much as you can handle
– Place second slice of bread on top of cheese, buttered side up
– Cook over medium heat for about 3-4 minutes or until bottom slice is golden
– Flip sandwich over and cook until other side is golden
– Press down on the sandwich with a spatula if you wish to compress it a little
– If cheese is not melted when both sides of bread are golden, turn heat down to low and cover frying pan, let cook for another few minutes until cheese is melted to your satisfaction but top and bottom are still crunchy
– Slide sandwich out of pan onto cutting board and cut with big, sharp, impressive-looking chef’s knife
– Slide two halves of sandwich onto plate and arrange one on top of the other at an angle (see photo) to look more arty, appetizing and well, gorgeous
– If you’re me, gild this lily with a little sea salt sprinkled over top
– Eat while still hot, with or without your condiment of choice (chutney, ketchup)

Comfort Chicken Chasseur (and it’s gluten-free)

The food: Chicken Chasseur

Chicken Chasseur Hungry Novelist Style

The story:

Fall has arrived (begone, overly hot, overly long summer!), and while I dislike the cold weather as much as the next person – no, wait. I like cold weather. Or rather, I like cool sunny days of the autumnal variety. I like turning off the a/c and NOT turning on the furnace. I like putting the hot water bottle into play at bedtime. I like jumping back into the local literary scene at Toronto’s Word on the Street festival at the end of September.

Guest speakers Luba Lesychyn and Emily Niedoba at one of the talks I hosted at the WOTS Scribendi Wordshop Marquee featuring the Humber School of Writers

And I like bringing back to the regular home cooking rotation fall/winter comfort food dishes like Chicken Chasseur (poulet chasseur, more properly, but I work from the Joy of Cooking recipe I’ve used for years, the one that is amusingly and Americanishly titled “Hunter’s Chicken, Chicken Cacciatore or Chasseur”: take your pick.)

The recipe suggests serving the chicken, which is cooked in a wine-scented, mushroomy, tomato-rich sauce – over boiled spaghetti (wtf?). But in a nod to my multicultural origins (and cooking influences) I serve it over Japanese white rice, and top it with challah croutons for gluten-eaters and rice bread croutons for the gluten-free among us.

Gluten-Free Chicken Chasseur Hungry Novelist Style
(adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

Rinse and dry with paper towels:
4 half chicken breasts, bone-in

Dredge with:
3-4 T. cornstarch

Saute till golden brown in a large saucepan in:
3-4 T. olive oil
2-3 shallots, peeled and minced

Mix and add to the pan:
1 small can tomato paste (about 1/2 cup)
1 c. dry white wine
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 and 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf, 1/2 tsp. thyme, 1/2 tsp. marjoram
2 Tbsp. brandy or cognac

Simmer mixture, covered, for 45 minutes to an hour until chicken is tender and sauce has thickened nicely. Keep an eye on it to ensure it doesn’t burn. If too thick, thin with a little more chicken stock or wine.

Meanwhile, saute 2 c. sliced mushrooms in olive oil until browned and tender.

Make steamed rice.

Make croutons by frying 1 slice per serving of bread (of your choice) in 1 Tbsp. olive oil until browned and fragrant. Fry gluten-free bread slices in a separate pan from gluten-full bread, obvi. Cut fried bread into crouton-sized pieces.

When chicken is tender, remove breasts from sauce, cut meat from bone and into bite-size pieces/shreds, discard bones, and return chicken pieces to sauce. Stir in sauteed mushrooms and keep mixture warm.

To serve, place a mound of cooked steamed rice on a plate, top with 4-6 croutons, and pour a ladleful of chicken and mushrooms in sauce over top of both.

Serves 4-6.

Savouring Local, Seasonal Asparagus & Strawberries in the South of France

My writer friend Isabel Huggan makes her home in a lovely old stone house in the French countryside, near the town of Tornac, in the foothills of the Cevennes mountains, 7 km from the small town of Anduze. In the spring months, she hosts a writer’s retreat there, in her stone barn – a private, quiet haven for writers, artist or musicians seeking peace and quiet to work on their art.

When Isabel completed the Hungry Novelist Questionnaire recently, she also composed a guest blog post about the local, seasonal food she was eating and serving her guests in April. Oh, to be in France in springtime! Here’s Isabel:

April in this part of France means two things: fresh asparagus and fresh strawberries. And so this makes it very easy to have people for a meal. There’s hardly anything to do besides wash the asparagus to get the sand out, and the same procedure, although more gently done, for the strawberries.

I buy from two different stalls, both of them within 10 minutes by bike… I’ve provided a photo of the one I tend to favour, run by Madame Sestini and her good-looking son.

With asparagus, I often serve it alongside another dish, such as this salmon and wild leek quiche… it’s a simple enough recipe that I don’t even have it written down… pie crust (here in France one can buy pie crust ready to be unrolled into a pie plate) , 4 eggs beaten with 1 ½ cup cream & milk, with salt & pepper,….chopped leeks (wild are best but normal leeks are fine, use LOTS) that have been sautéed and then cooled, and 3-4 slices of organic farmed salmon OR wild salmon… put leeks into the pie crust and follow with the salmon, make sure you’ve mixed them together evenly, and if you want, add some lemon rind and/or finely chopped celery with leaves, or finely chopped green onion. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes to an hour, depending… the top of the quiche should turn golden and be bubbling nicely…

I serve the cooked asparagus separately, and I try to be very careful to undercook rather than over. After it has been well drained, I arrange it in on a favorite pottery plate and trickle a mixture of olive oil and balsamic vinegar over it… I’ve been known to decorate such a place with strips of lightly sautéed red pepper arranged to look like lacing around and over the green asparagus. Very pretty, but not necessary…

At this time of year there’s always fresh roquette [editor’s note: it’s called roquette in France, rocket in the U.K. and arugula in North America. But something tells me the roquette Isabel gets at her local farm stand is the best-tasting of them all.] available, and I mix that with one or two other salad greens – mache for example — with a few cherry tomatoes and sliced mushrooms to make an accompanying salad for the quiche. These egg-based dishes come alive when they’re eaten with something that is sharp and a little bitter to the taste, such as roquette.

Strawberries are also in season now.

Nothing easier, and you don’t have to make a tarte or shortcake… Simply cleaned and placed in a bowl, and if possible, mix two or three varieties – I like Garrigette and Clery together. [Editor’s note: imagine being able to buy two different kinds of strawberries at a neighbouring farm stand, and in April. Sounds like heaven.] At this point, once they’re in the large serving bowl, I usually drizzle a bit of Triple Sec, in lieu of sugar, and it seems to bring out their taste without disguising it. Here, I serve strawberries with crème fraiche which is something like sour cream only better. You could probably achieve the same taste by mixing whipped cream with a little sour cream. I serve biscuits or madeleines along with the fruit…

Living where I do, it would be unthinkable to provide lunch without wine, and I almost always choose a rosé from a vineyard I particularly like, LE GRAND CHEMIN. It is dry and gently fruity, an inspired combo of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, and seems to bring out the best in both the savory and the sweet parts of the meal. Sadly, LE GRAND CHEMIN wines are not yet available in Canada, but there are indeed many other lovely rosé wines from this region (Languedoc).

For more about Isabel’s writing and Le Mas Blanc Writers’ Retreat, visit

Winter Comfort Cake

The food: maple cream chomeur pudding cake

The story:

After spending two weeks in sunny southern California this past January, it wasn’t easy to come home to cold, gloomy, gray Toronto. Back home, I replaced the vista-filled canyon hikes of L.A. with step classes at the gym, traded in glorious sunset beach strolls for wind-whipped walks on the often icy sidewalks in my neighbourhood, and abandoned California-style vegetable-centric farm-to-table cuisine for winter comfort food. Especially comfort dessert.

As soon as I read that the recipe for the Pudding Chomeur Cakes featured in the February issue of Canadian House & Home magazine called for copious amounts of maple syrup and whipping cream, I wanted to make them. My official excuse for treating myself and my husband E to such a high calorie indulgence: Valentine’s Day was coming up. A Toronto wintry Valentine’s Day.

The recipe calls for the cake batter to be divided among 6 five ounce ramekins, and baked on a foil-lined baking sheet after a full 2 cups of a maple syrup and whipping cream mixture is poured over them – that’s a 1/3 cup of liquid on each. Here’s what the cakes looked like before they went into the oven:

And after they came out:

I guess the recipe writer expected the overflow, hence the foil-covered baking sheet. I would have thought using a larger ramekin might be a better solution, or splitting the batter and liquid among more ramekins. Whatever. E came up with the idea of lifting the caramel crackle off the foil and eating it like candy. And I decided that what the dense, sweet cakes needed to leaven their maple-y sweetness was dollops of (more!) whipped cream, fresh raspberries (for that Valentine’s Day feel) and okay, a gilding of crumbled crackle.

Eaten while the cakes were still warm, this dessert was comforting, fattening as hell, delicious, and helped me miss the California sunshine a little less.

Maple Cream Chomeur Cakes (adapted from House & Home magazine)

Serves 6+

3/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup maple syrup
1 cup whipping cream
Pinch of salt
Whipped cream and fresh raspberries to serve

1. In a large bowl, combine butter and sugars and mix until smooth. Add eggs and vanilla, and beat until completely incorporated.
2. Add flour and baking powder, and mix until dough is well mixed. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
3. In a saucepan, bring syrup and cream to a boil, stirring often. As soon as it reaches the boiling point, remove from heat, add salt and let cool till tepid, then refrigerate for 1 hour.
4. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Place 6 oven-safe 6 ounce ramekins on a foil-lined baking sheet and spoon a couple of tablespoons of maple mixture into the bottom of each. Divide dough evenly among ramekins by loosely packed tablespoons.
5. Slowly pour remaining maple mixture over dough, then bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.
6. If desired, use spatula to lift any cooked caramel crackle from the baking sheet that has spilled over from the ramekins. Break into small pieces.
7. Let cool 5 or 10 minutes, then scoop cake out of ramekin and onto a plate. Serve with whipped cream, fresh raspberries and a sprinkling of crackle.

Note: one cake makes a large serving. Consider cutting each cake in half before adding cream and berries, and get 12 servings out of 6 cakes.