September 29, 2005

Cooking Light

Greek Chicken with raisins, capers and feta, from Cooking Light. The first time I made this, I used red onions, which not only gave the dish a visual punch, but also a certain sweet-and-sour quality that I particularly enjoyed. Next time, it will definitely be the red onions again. There is a pan-juices style sauce that is largely chicken stock and lemon juice, providing a tangy counterpoint to the sweetness of the sultanas and the salty hit of the capers and feta. I served it with lemon rice the first time, and straight-up couscous the second. A few crunchy radishes or cucumber slices on the side, and dinner is ready in about a 1/2 hour.

Most of my everyday dinners are designed around following healthy eating options. I tend toward lower fat dishes, and I prefer to use "good" oils, such as olive and canola. I have a number of cookbooks on lighter cooking styles and methods, but many of my newest recipes have come from the Cooking Light magazine collections. Several times per year, Cooking Light produces special recipe-only issues under different collection titles. There is an annual of the year's best, and a variety of other titles, such as Soups & Stews (two volumes), Easy Weeknight Dinners, etc. Most of the recipes that I've tried from any of these collections have been fairly tasty, and while I tend to mess with them (sometimes substantially) on the repeats, a number of them have become staples in my arsenal of delicious non-detrimental cooking.

I won't cook recipes that sacrifice flavour in the name of a lean bottom-line. I don't buy the monthly magazine (and I'm sure I miss some great dishes that never make it into the collections) because I cannot abide the lifestyle articles or the sheer volume of advertising in them. There seems to be a perception that people who want to buy specialized magazines on a regular basis also want to be bombarded with reassuring (although I often see them as condescending) articles that validate whatever lifestyle choice the publishers think their readers are making, which I find frustrating beyond belief. Thank goodness for the collections, though. My cooking repertoire is richer for having discovered them.

September 26, 2005

Zucchini Fritters

Fortnightly update! (the update was on time, but the announcement is sadly in arrears...)

The main Always in the Kitchen website has a new...

recipe: Zucchini Fritters (which, incidentally, would be a great foundation for a couple of poached eggs, come breakfast time...)

and a new essay: A Brief History of the Olive

"...How many hungry peasants spitting into the bushes did it take before someone extrapolated – perhaps from the de-bittering process of salting eggplant – that under the harsh frontal assault of the tiny olive lay a tasty treat that could be revealed after a longish salt bath?"


September 25, 2005

Autumn's Here

Autumn is undoubtedly here. There is a chill in the air, although it has been blessedly sunny so far, and the wind is starting to rattle the gradually baring branches of the trees. Everything is starting to turn to shades of gold and umber. It's time to take out the comforting, hearty foods of the harvest, to turn on the oven and glory in the warmth of the kitchen instead of the oppressive, hot slog of summer. One of my favourite things to make at this time of year is Braised Chicken & Fennel. It doesn't need the same length of time in the oven as beef or pork ribs, but it is full of slow-cooked deliciousness and rich autumn flavours.

I particularly like using sweet potatoes in this dish - the colour gives a little pop to the soothingly pale fennel and garlic cloves, although regular potato (or even carrots) works as well. The fennel becomes very tender here - a melting sort of subtly, brought into sharp focus with a scattering of fennel seeds. The sauce is not thick, but provides a creamy gravy to ladle over each plate, or to mush around a piece of warm, crusty bread.

While I gladly welcome the change to my favourite season, I'm a teensy bit reluctant to let go of summer entirely. Since pizza, to me, is a year-round endeavour, it seemed as good a dish as any to enjoy in these still-sunny last days of September.

I am playing constantly with my crust recipe - walking the thin line between crispy and chewy, hoping for spring in the crumb and a satisfying firmness that will stand up to the toppings - in this case a spicy tomato sauce, some hot Italian sausage (left over from the Braise) and a generous amount of finely chopped green pepper.

All is well in the changing of the seasons.

September 24, 2005

Wine Club: Gelly's Pick

This week's tasting was going to be New Zealand wines but misfortune occured, in the guise of a truck being towed, which prevented our buyer from making it out to collect the wines. As in the past, we relied instead on our director's stash of goodies to produce an eclectic variety of wines.

We tasted eight wines - somehow managing one more than our usual seven, despite the logistical challenges. As is our custom when tasting both white and red wines, we started with the white and moved on to the red, positioning the bigger, more assertive wines toward the end. It's hard to go back to a frisky yet delicate little chablis (for example) after you've been conked over the head with a shiraz.

In that spirit, we started with two BC wines - the 2002 Hillside Kerner ($14.95) and the 2003 LaFrenz Chardonnay ($17.90). The Kerner was quite popular, although with very low acids and mild flavours, it was suggested that it would be a good patio wine - easy drinking, undemanding, and easy to pair with snack-foods or a selection of cheeses. The LaFrenz, however, failed to garner much appreciation. I should be clear in attributing that to the fact that our tiny wine club harbours few Chardonnay-lovers, as the wine itself was quite typical of the grape, with a buttery nose and a vaguely tropical backnote against a palate of mineral oil and straw. Still, at the end of the night, it got a few votes from people who liked it.

The first red was a 2001 Domaine Des Coteaux Des Travers, Rasteau (Cotes du Rhone) from France ($27.95). The pricing is what I like to refer to as "the danger zone" of French wines, where it's really a crapshoot whether you get something tasty or disappointing. This one had a vanilla-bean sweetness on the nose, and a dried-fruit flavour of figs and prunes and a little flintiness, but ultimately was judged not very complex or interesting - although it didn't offend. Overpriced, clearly. Still in France, still in the danger zone, we moved on to the 2001 Francois Pelissie Croix Du Mayne ($22.95). Surprisingly for France, this wine is 85% Malbec and 15% Merlot. It had a great colour - opaque garnet red, and good legs, but the nose was thin and, despite an appealing smokiness on the palate, had a very thin body. Wine Spectator gave it 92 points, but I yet again must disagree with WS's assessment. Only one of the tasters like it.

With some anticipation, we hit Italy with the 1998 Tenuta Sette Ponti Crognolo (IGT) ($53.59)from Tuscany. The nose was very nice - leather and chocolate and allspice (all good things!) and the flavours were simple and bright with strong notes of blackberry. It was a nice wine, but at $53.59 I expect better from Italy. The blend was 90% Sangiovese and 10% Merlot - for body, I presume - and while I'd happily drink a glass handed to me at a party, I won't be buying this one myself. This was the first release of this wine for Sette Ponti, so maybe subsequent wines were worth the cost.

The next wine was the ridiculously named Edge 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($36.50) a Napa Valley Cabernet with a big attitude. It is made to compete with the "big boys" - Caymus et. al., but at a lower cost. This was a decidedly enjoyable wine, with a dark, rich body, and a black, dark sweetness that is not at all sugary. There were echoes of dust, leather, blackberries and pepper on both the nose and the palate. It was still a little pricey for what it was, but it was generally well received.

The seventh wine, and the clearest winner of the night, was the 2002 Angoves Red Belly Black Shiraz ($23.95) from South Australia. Once again, Australia provides shockingly decent wines at equally shockingly decent prices. The wine was a dark red with two tiers of legs forming, one low and fat and one high, thinner, and slower. The nose was big and musty, and the palate had an odd-sounding but delicious combination of flinty blackberry leaves, balsamic vinegar, and even the faint sting one associates with battery acid. It was universally liked around the table.

Our final wine was a little more problematic, prompting a decided divide down the table. BC's Calona Vineyards 1999 Sonata Red Dessert Wine (~$20) was clearly designed along the lines of a tawny port. The nose was somewhat flinch-inducing, and the word "armpit" was muttered two or three times. The palate fared somewhat better than the nose, although there was a sort of rotten plum flavour that wouldn't go away for me. There were also notes of caramelized brown sugar, honey, and a somewhat vegetal aftertaste, but still - there were a couple of tasters who liked it enough not only to finish theirs, but to eagerly accept unwanted glasses from the rest of us who would rather have a quick bite of bread and sink back into the arms of Edge or Red Belly Black.

For an impromptu selection, it was a successful tasting, with four of the eight wines getting check marks in the "Tasty!" column.

Next month, New Zealand.

Previous Tastings:
BC Small Lots
Portugese Table Wines
Pinot Noir
South African Red Wines
Spanish Wines
Summer Patio Wines

September 22, 2005

Even Supermarket Tomatoes Have Their Uses

I already had an embarrassment of riches in the tomato department when I stepped out to the Farmers' Market and loaded up on the heirlooms last Saturday. Hence, I've been eating even more tomato-toast than usual (oh, the Purple Prince tomato is delicious, cut thickly and layered on toast!), and finding other creative ways to use up a vegetable (okay, fruit, shut up!) that should never, ever be put in the fridge. While tomato sauce is always an option, I find myself seeking more and more interesting ways to dispatch my tomatoes. With a handful of particularly robust red globes aging gently on the kitchen counter, I set about making stuffed tomatoes.

The formula is fairly simple. For each three large tomatoes, you'll need a cup of cooked rice and about a cup of other ingredients. I chose finely minced prosciutto, about two tablespoons of toasted pine nuts, a little parsley, a little olive oil, and freshly grated parmesan cheese. Cut the tops from your tomatoes, and scoop the innards out with a spoon. Let the tomatoes rest upside down briefly while you prepare the filling, to allow excess juices to drain. Place the tomatoes upright on a lightly spritzed dish - such as a pie plate - and heap the filling into them. Top with a little extra cheese, and pop into the oven for about 20 minutes at 425 F. Serve with garlic toast, spaghetti, or whatever strikes your somewhat Italian fancy.

Next time I might use a little more cheese, or perhaps an egg or a little pesto to help keep the filling from crumbling while the tomato is being eaten, but it was a charming dish as it was. I'm also considering a sort of spanakopita-type filling of spinach and feta for my next batch.

September 19, 2005

Heirlooms such as these

I love the idea of heirloom vegetable varietals, but I love the flavours even more. These little beauties, captured at the Trout Lake Community (Farmers') Market, are Purple Prince (front) and Black Krim tomatoes. The darkness of the tomatoes is not due to poor lighting (for a change) but rather a much darker, muddier hue than the brilliant red globes we are most familiar with. I also received a small bag of sungold cherry tomatoes - orange as pumpkins, sweet, and undefinably delicious in that way that only homegrown tomatoes can be - from my market-perusing partner in crime. She manages a small, but robust garden along the side of her house, and usually has great luck with tomatoes. Sadly, I devoured them by the fistful before remembering to take out the camera.

These are the little treasures that make me happy, if not downright excited, to get to work on in the kitchen. Two Black Krims were fatly sliced and alternated with equally fat slices of fresh buffalo mozzarella and large basil leaves, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper to make a stunning insalata caprese for Saturday night's dinner.

I like regular tomatoes just fine, too. As long as they're ripe, there isn't a tomato that I'm likely to turn my nose up at; sliced tomatoes on toast are my favourite quick summer breakfast, and for the most part, I use the bright red tomatoes from the local market. It is now, when the summer days have stretched almost to snapping, that the ripe heirlooms in the darker hues make their dusty, lumpy and misshapen appearance, and these are the very best tomatoes of all.

Now, of course it is very fashionable to grind on the large conglomerate producers - purveyors of the monoculture way of growing that is leading certain strains of produce into extinction - but at the end of the day, it's this: heirloom varieties taste better. Oh, sure, there are reasons not to grow some of the varieties - lack of flavour, lack of hardiness, large seed-size - these are the reasons that some varietals fall by the wayside. But, for those that can be carefully raised to good flavour - they just require more care, knowledge and attention to get a usable crop. Locally is the only way to purchase these more fragile, fussy or challenging types. Food that is raised locally doesn't have to travel as far, so it doesn't have to be picked unripe for transport. Since the food isn't unripe, it doesn't have to have ripeness (or the verisimilitude) forced upon it by various gasses that make so much of our supermarket produce look ready to eat - even when it is as hard as a rock and has as much flavour developed as a wad of paper.

I'd like to think that, by buying heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, that I am encouraging diversity, preserving the flavours of yesteryear, supporting my local community, and getting some wonderful food into the bargain.

Check out the BC Directory of Farmers' Markets. These are great places to get the unique, the specialized, and the local. Hurry, though - the market season is ending soon.

September 15, 2005

Creamy Goodness

After being asked by Templar to step in as a guest judge on the Sopel Chef Challenge, I had the image of creamy mushrooms dancing in my head. Dinner, therefore, was a no-brainer. It had to be rich, it had to be creamy, and it had to not devastate the healthy eating I've been trying to maintain. The solution? Chicken pörkölt - or my take on it, anyway.

There's a great deal of flavour packed into just a few simple ingredients. While egg noodles would probably be a more traditional accompaniment (galuska notwithstanding), I settled on rice as I already had some on hand. It doesn't take long to make this - if the minor amount of prep is done in advance, the dish cooks in the amount of time it takes to make a pot of jasmine rice: 15 -20 minutes.

Chicken Pörkölt

1 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 lb. button mushrooms, sliced
1 small onion, diced finely
2 cloves of garlic - minced or pressed
1/2 large green pepper, diced
1 cup defatted chicken stock (I used Organic "Better than Bouillon")
1/2 cup sour cream (light is fine)
3 teapoons hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons cornstarch

In a large, non-stick skillet, sautee the chicken in a tablespoon of olive oil until lightly browned. Add a little salt, and the onions, and sautee until the onions start to caramelize. Add the garlic, the cumin, and half of the paprika, and stir until chicken is evenly coated. If it is starting to stick, splash a little vermouth, white wine, or water - just a couple of tablespoons worth - into the pan to prevent the dish from burning. Add the mushrooms, and stir gently. Allow the mushrooms to cook down a little and pick up some colour.

After about five minutes of stirring, as the mushrooms give up their liquid and reduce in bulk, add the chicken stock. Allow the dish to come to a simmer, and reduce the heat. While it simmers, stir the remaining paprika and the cornstarch into the sour cream until it is all integrated. Stir the sour cream mixture into the bubbling chicken and mushrooms, and continue to stir until a thick, smooth, orange-tinged, creamy sauce develops. Turn heat to low, and add the green peppers. Allow to simmer for another couple of minutes. Taste, adjust for salt, and serve over rice, noodles, spaetzle, or galuska. Heck, even mashed potatoes!

Makes great leftovers for lunches the next day, too.

September 12, 2005

Experimental Cooking: Lentil Kibbeh

Every once in a while, I like to make something that I've never even tasted, something completely outside my frame of culinary reference. This past weekend, it was vegetarian Lentil Kibbeh, based loosely on a recipe by Paula Wolfert, and filtered through The Hungry Tiger blog.

Redfox was clearly dealing with better lighting for her photo, and it probably helped that she chose yellow stoneware instead of black to show of her little heap of goodies, but the end product looks quite similar, I thought.

The sauce is a haphazard combination of Turkish cacik, Greek tzatziki, Indian raita, and Arabic labneh - yogurt with garlic, flat leaf parsley, dried mint, and salt. It is fairly tasty on its own, as a dip for the kibbeh, or drizzled over sfiha (little lamb pizzas). I knocked it together on the spur of the moment, but these kind of sauces / raitas are always pretty tasty.

The kibbeh themselves were quite interesting. Not difficult to make, but a little time consuming in that the lentils must be cooked, then stirred into bulgur wheat and left to stand for some time. Then, a mixture of sauteed onions and spices are added, stirred through, and finally, after a suitable resting period, the kibbeh are shaped into little ovals and baked for 15 minutes to firm up their exterior.

I wanted to use harissa for the chile paste, but couldn't secure any quickly (the corner shop that used to carry it no longer does, although the owner accorded me some strongly worded advice about purchasing only the tubes, not the tins), so I eventually ended up using sambal oelek, sieved to remove the seeds. Lacking fresh tarragon (which, honestly, seems like an odd choice for this dish) I subbed flat-leaf parsley, and plenty of it.

The mixture that I made was a little wetter than ideal, I think, or perhaps I didn't let enough water evaporate while I was cooking the lentils. At any rate, I finally decided on the quenelle method (a nifty sculpting of a triangular oval using two spoons) for shaping them, in the interests in keeping my hands from being completely encrusted with lentils. This worked very well, and after they were all shaped, and had a chance to dry a little, I pressed down the distinctive ridge that is the signature of the quenelle, and smoothed out any rough bits.

The verdict? I enjoyed them - especially after they had cooled a little, but I'm not entirely sure if I'll make them again. They could certainly be an interesting party snack - quite pleasing to the vegetarian contingent, as long as they're down with the spicy and moist - and I do confess that the leftovers lurking in the fridge have become a midnight snack these last couple of days. There was something along the lines of "slightly damp falafel" about them that made me wonder if I would like them better deep-fried - a fate not yet ruled out for the survivors in the fridge. Certainly, they're garlicky, spicy, and bite-sized, which are all good things. The jury's still out.

September 09, 2005

Farewell to Summer

There is something bright about the flavours of Thai food - a sharp green-ness to the herbs, the tang from the citrus, and the sly bite of the peppers. Even fish sauce - unappealingly funky on its own, lends a grounding note to the high-flying elements of cilantro and lime and the crispness of the green onions. Just having these items in my fridge and pantry make me feel sort of happy.
This dish is from a recipe that I got from Nigella's Forever Summer (albeit via the Marquise, who emailed it to me and insisted that I try it). It has been slightly modified from the original. It is a perfect dish for those long, hot days when you want the stove to be on as briefly as possible, if you must have it on at all, or for those last, bright sunny days heading into autumn, where you want to hang onto the illusion that summer is still here. I served this with a cold spicy soba and homemade gyoza from the stash in the freezer. There were no leftovers.

Thai Lettuce Wraps

  • 375 g ground beef (turkey would also be good)
  • Thai Fish Sauce (about a tablespoon)
  • 1 lime
  • chopped red chiles
  • fresh cilantro to taste
  • 4-5 chopped green onions
  • vegetable oil
  • lettuce to serve

Heat the oil in a frying pan and sauté chiles for a minute or two before adding the beef. Crumble it around in the pan until it's fully cooked, adding the fish sauce at some point during this process. When all the liquid is gone, pull it off the heat and add green onions, cilantro and juice and zest of the lime. Stir through evenly. Serve with lettuce leaves.

I actually used the whole amount of fish sauce, which might surprise those of you who know how sparing I tend to be with all things fishy. There was a definite tang to it, and the squeamish may wish to reduce the amount to a teaspoon, but I recommend using the full amount. The original contains a garnish of sesame seeds, but neither the Marquise or I bothered with that. Both households received it with great enthusiasm, earning it a place in the summer cooking permanent collection.

September 08, 2005

Breakfast Strata

Fortnightly update!

The main Always in the Kitchen website has

a new recipe: Breakfast / Brunch Strata

and a new essay: Shhh! It's a Secret!

"...I don’t want to be remembered with bitterness."


September 05, 2005

I experiment, so that you don't have to

Sometimes, a particular vein of recipes just doesn't work that well for me.

Drunken Spaghetti. It sounds like a darn fine thing, even when sober. I watched David Rocco making this on Dolce Vita where, to be honest, he looked a little tipsy himself - you know that "very carefully trying not to look tipsy" sort of tipsiness?

But, man, it looked good. Good enough to try, in fact, so I did.

In the context of the show, the spaghetti was being served to a bunch of somewhat drunken Italian lads as a sort of intermission before heading out (yet again, I gather) for more drinking. It looked pretty tasty, and the name alone definitely has some appeal, so I reviewed the recipe and decided to make it for dinner, despite the fact that a previous recipe attempt from that show didn't go over all that well.

Noting that there was very little going on in the recipe other than pasta and a somewhat thin dressing, I figured I would up the ante a little by adding some shrimp to the dish - to make it more of a dinner, as opposed to a side dish. There were already some anchovies in the sauce, so at least the flavours were heading in the right direction.

Well, the shrimp weren't bad, but I should have added them more last-minute as they toughened a little in the time it took for the spaghetti to absorb the wine. Overall, though, the dish still screamed "side dish" and wasn't very satisfying on its own. It wasn't terrible or anything, it just wasn't what I wanted it to be. Perhaps I needed to have drunk a lot of wine while I was making it - that might have helped.

This is strike two for David Rocco's recipes - I think I'll stick to Giada's recipes from the land of the Food Network - which have (all four that I've tried) worked very well for me despite my tendancy to depart from the original.