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Our cookbook of the week is In Mary’s Kitchen by Mary Berg.
Perpetual “why?”-askers make some of the best cookbook writers. Case in point: Toronto-based author and television host Mary Berg. In her third book, In Mary’s Kitchen (Appetite by Random House, 2023), Berg highlights what she calls the “whys” of each recipe in the hopes that readers will carry that knowledge forward to future cooking.
Why does she suggest chopping ingredients before adding them to the food processor in recipes such as her green ginger miso soup? The short answer is friction. Why does she instruct readers to stir occasionally, not frequently, when making her miso butter corn pasta? Because the vegetables need prolonged contact with the hot surface of the pan to get that golden-brown colour. Why does she dredge fish fillets in flour before frying them for lemony piccata? The flour left behind adds fullness to the pan sauce.
“I’ve always been a ‘why?’-asker. I think you would have called me a precocious kid. If I was asked to do anything, if you could tell me why, I’d do it. But if it was just a ‘because’ or there was absolutely no reason, I’d get a little suspect,” says Berg. “I’m like, ‘Hmmm. You can’t describe to me why I need to do this. Then why am I being asked to do it?’”
Knowing why you’re doing something is a big part of what makes cooking enjoyable, she adds. On the flip side, following instructions without understanding the reasoning can make you feel hemmed in.
Over three seasons of her cooking show, Mary Makes It Easy, Berg has invited viewers into her Toronto kitchen. She sees In Mary’s Kitchen as an extension of that sentiment. “There’s something so special about recipes written in cookbooks. I feel like you can have more of an intimate relationship with cooks at home and readers and get more, maybe, nuanced points across. And I really hope that comes across in this book.”
A self-described “lifelong trier and learner,” Berg embarked on a culinary career after winning the third season of MasterChef Canada in 2016. First was the cooking show Mary’s Kitchen Crush and her cookbook debut, Kitchen Party, in 2019. Then, the first season of Mary Makes It Easy and Well Seasoned in 2021. The release of In Mary’s Kitchen in October came hot on the heels of another accomplishment: hosting a daily talk and lifestyle series, The Good Stuff with Mary Berg.
Whether doing the CN Tower EdgeWalk with her mom, Myra Berg, or stepping into the ring with professional wrestlers, learning new things on the show “itches the curiosity part of my brain.”
Berg describes the kitchen as her happy place, which hasn’t changed since she added “daytime talk show host” to her resume. When she was younger, an artist advised against turning a passion into a profession. They had lost the spark; what had once brought them joy had become a source of stress. Luckily, says Berg, this hasn’t been her experience. “When I’m cooking for work, (it’s) very different from when I’m cooking for pleasure. I still love cooking for work and figuring out how to make recipes as approachable as possible.”
When writing In Mary’s Kitchen, Berg tried to predict readers’ questions and share facts and tips that could be carried forward from one dish to the next, whether cooking improvisationally or following someone else’s recipe.
“I love doing that, and I love putting myself in that frame of mind. But when I’m cooking for my family or my friends or myself, it’s like jazz. I’m not thinking about anything. It’s just all feel and taste and just going with what I’ve got in the fridge and pantry … It’s kind of like left brain-right brain.”
The book is subtitled, “Stress-Free Recipes for Every Home Cook.” Berg approached the stress-free promise without offering assurances such as, “five ingredients or fewer,” or, “15 minutes or less.” She wanted the food styling to be minimal and the reward of each recipe to be great, following her 30/70 rule — 30 per cent effort, 70 per cent payoff — and reflecting on some of the steps she takes in the kitchen without even realizing it.
Berg hopes that the notes in every recipe will become so ingrained that readers will intuitively reach for their rasps to grate garlic directly into a dish or, understanding that garlic tends to burn quickly, add it later to the pan — “and you don’t even really necessarily remember that it’s me that taught you.”
Her food and recipe-writing style has “casualed up” over the past few years, says Berg. She’s unconcerned with trends and making her dishes look perfect — because as much as she enjoys looking at impeccable, sun-drenched food photos, they’re not representative of how she eats.
“Online, there are so many subtle nuances that make me, at least, feel like I’ve failed if it doesn’t look exactly that way, or if I’m not getting this dish perfect, or if I’m not wearing this outfit properly that I want to remove that unconscious shame from things not being perfect.”
Instead of chasing an ideal, she pursues enjoyment. “I’m leaning a lot more into not being perfect. Leaning into it just being delicious. Having the recipes be as stress-free as possible — from shopping for the groceries to cleaning up, even — is really important to me because that’s just how we cook every day.”
Life is hard, adds Berg. Food doesn’t have to be. “Even if you are putting in a little bit of effort, it should be accomplishable and doable. So it’s not aspirational cooking. It’s attainable cooking.”
IRISH ONION SOUP
3 tbsp butter, divided
5-6 yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp maple syrup
3 garlic cloves, finely grated
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh sage
2 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
1 fresh bay leaf, optional
2 tbsp brandy
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 cup stout
4 cups beef broth
4 (1/2-inch/1.25-cm thick) slices whole-grain bread or baguette, toasted
1 1/3 cups grated extra-old white cheddar
In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the onions and season with salt and pepper. Give the onions a stir and allow them to cook, stirring frequently, until softened and starting to brown slightly, about 15 minutes. Turn the heat up to medium, add the remaining butter and maple syrup, and continue to cook the onions until caramelized, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Turn the heat down to low, add the garlic, sage, thyme, and bay leaf, and cook for 30 seconds. Carefully deglaze the pan with the brandy and balsamic vinegar, stirring very well and scraping the bottom of the pan.
Add the stout and allow it to bubble until reduced by half, then stir in the beef broth and bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes to allow the flavours to meld. Season the soup with more salt and pepper, if needed. At this point, you can cool the soup, transfer to containers, and store in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
When ready to serve, ladle the soup into four oven-safe ramekins or French onion soup dishes. If you don’t have individual dishes, use a 9-inch (23-cm) round or square baking dish. Turn the broiler to high and top with the toast and grated cheese. Broil for 3 to 4 minutes until the cheese is golden brown and the soup is bubbling.
Allow to cool slightly before serving.
Note: If you don’t have fresh herbs on hand, you can swap in dried ones. Just be sure to reduce the amount you’re using, as dried herbs tend to have a more concentrated flavour. The general rule is 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs equals 1 teaspoon of dried herbs.
BRINE & BAKE PORK CHOPS
For the brine:
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tsp peppercorns
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 cup cold lager
4 pork chops, 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick
For the coating:
2 tbsp butter
3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp celery salt or kosher salt
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp onion powder
1/4 cup ground Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tsp Dijon or German mustard
For the brine, in a deep bowl or square baking pan, whisk 1 cup of water with the salt, sugar, peppercorns and garlic until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Stir in the cold lager then add the pork chops, ensuring they are submerged. Cover the bowl or pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours or up to overnight.
Preheat your oven to 425F, spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray, and remove the pork from the brine. Dry the pork with paper towel and set aside to come up to room temperature while you prepare the coating.
For the coating, melt the butter in a large skillet set over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs, garlic powder, thyme, salt, paprika, cayenne pepper, and onion powder and toast, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the breadcrumb mixture to a shallow dish and set aside to cool. Stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano and set aside.
In a small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise and mustard.
Brush the pork chops with a thin layer of the mayo mixture, making sure to coat the sides as well. Press the chops into the panko mixture to evenly coat on all sides, then transfer to the prepared sheet pan.
Roast the pork for 15 to 18 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 145F or is cooked to your liking.
Note: While a coating of panko undoubtedly provides crunch, I find that it rarely has enough time in the oven to get as golden brown as I want it to. Toasting the panko before it hits the oven guarantees a crisp, golden-brown coating no matter how long it bakes.
APPLE CINNAMON BISCUIT BUNS
Makes: 9 biscuits
For the filling:
4 tbsp butter, divided
2 cups (about 2 large) apples, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch (1.25-cm) dice
1/2 cup packed brown sugar, divided
1 tbsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans
For the biscuit dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
5 tbsp cold butter, cut into pats
1 1/4 cups cold buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the cream cheese frosting:
1/2 cup brick-style cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup icing sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp cinnamon
For the filling, melt the butter over medium heat in a medium skillet. Scoop 2 tablespoons of the butter into a small dish and set aside for later. Add the apples and 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar into the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly caramelized, 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool completely.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the remaining 6 tablespoons of brown sugar with the cinnamon, salt, and pecans and set aside.
When the apples are cool, heat the oven to 450F and lightly grease a 9-inch (23-cm) square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.
For the biscuit dough, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Toss in the cold butter and, using the tips of your fingers, pinch and snap it into the flour mixture until the pieces are about the size of a pea. In a glass measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and vanilla. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add the buttermilk mixture. Stir just to combine, until a shaggy dough forms.
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. Press the dough down with your hands until it is about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick, then fold it over onto itself like a book. Repeat this process two more times, then press the dough out into a 9-by-12-inch (23-by-30-cm) rectangle.
Spread the reserved melted butter over the dough and evenly sprinkle on the cinnamon-sugar-pecan mixture. Transfer the cooled apples onto the dough and spread them into an even layer. Starting at the long edge, roll the dough up into a swirled log, then cut into nine equal pieces. Arrange the buns in the prepared pan, cut side up. At this point, you can cover the pan and store in the fridge for up to 8 hours.
Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until golden brown and the centre bun springs back when gently pressed.
While baking, make the cream cheese frosting by beating the cream cheese, icing sugar, vanilla and cinnamon together until smooth.
Allow the buns to cool slightly or completely to room temperature before frosting. Store leftover buns in an airtight container for up to 2 days.
Note: In most biscuit recipes, buttermilk measurements are often listed with a range in order to get the right texture and achieve light and flaky biscuits. For instance, on hot and humid days, the lower range called for will most likely do, while on drier days, your dough may need more buttermilk. With this recipe, however, a slightly stiffer dough is preferable as it is easier to fill and roll, so additional buttermilk is not needed.
Recipes and images excerpted from In Mary’s Kitchen by Mary Berg. Copyright ©2023 Mary Berg. Photographs by Lauren Vandenbrook. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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