July 31, 2011

Mango Chile Lime Paletas

Unlike the rest of North America, Summer still hasn't really arrived in Vancouver. We get occasional days where it feels like Summer is actually here, but for the most part, we are having cooler than usual temperatures, frequent rain, and even more frequently, cloud cover. Today has started off with cloud cover, and will apparently become at least partially sunny, with a whopping 21 degrees by later today.

Yesterday, however, was the real deal. Hot, sunny, and gorgeous blue skies. Perfect for a day of taking in the local festival in the park, going to the Farmer's Market (early, because I'm no fool), and lounging around on a patio eating barbeque. Also, a perfect day for Mexican popsicles, or paletas.

Paletas are essentially frozen fruit bars. They are easy to make, and they put to shame any sort of frozen juice on a stick that seems to be the mainstay of the homemade popsicle above this latitude.

Mango Chile Lime Paletas

2 medium to large Ataulfo mangos
2 tablespoons agave syrup/nectar (or honey)
1 Lime (juice only) - use two if your limes aren't very juicy)
1/4 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
1/4 cup cold water

Peel, pit & dice the mangos. In a blender or food processor (I use my mini-prep bowl that came with my immersion blender), add all of the ingredients and blend until perfectly smoothly pureed. Add a little more water if you need to. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze for a minimum of 3 hours.

I am currently thinking about experimenting with adding coconut milk, because I think that would be awesome. If successful, a report will follow...

July 26, 2011

Chicken Gold

This isn't a recipe, it's...well, it's kind of a secret. But, oh! It shouldn't be! It didn't used to be.

This is the dripping from a roast chicken. I roast my chickens in a cast iron skillet, and after the chicken comes out of the pan to rest (before carving), there's a lot of fatty liquid left behind. After the chicken has rested, and been carved, and after dinner has been finished and the plates cleared away, I do two things:

1) I take any remaining chicken meat off of the bones, and stash it in the fridge for future uses (I usually have at least a couple already in mind). The bones themselves generally go in the freezer, wrapped, to make chicken stock, if I have the room to store them.

2) I pour the liquid from under the chicken (on its carving plate) into a small, lidded container, and pour the dripping from the skillet on top of that.

The container sits innocuously on the counter until I have finished cleaning the skillet and tidying up, and by then the liquid will have magically separated out into the two layers you can (kind of) see above. I put a lid on it, label it with a sticky note, and pop it into the fridge.

Within a couple of hours, the fatty layer, which has risen to the top, becomes solid. This can be scraped off and discarded, if you are the sort of person who is frightened of a little chicken fat, or it can be used culinarily to make the best darn stew-dumplings you've ever had, or to roast up a gorgeous pan of Brussels sprouts, or even simply to fry up potatoes. But I digress. The fat is a valuable culinary ingredient, although I know not everyone in this fat-wary age is inclined to make use of it.

Underneath that layer of fat, however, is the true chicken gold. This is the distilled chickeny goodness that contains a wonderfully dense chicken flavour, as well as a rich, collagen-heavy texture. It sets up like aspic and, since the fat has risen to the surface where it can be removed, it is virtually fat free.

Think of it as a sort of chicken demi-glace. You can add it to darn near anything that needs a little punch of chicken flavour. You can save several chickens' worth and make the best chicken gravy you can possibly imagine (great with fried chicken), or dole it out by the spoonful to add a little fabulous to each soup, stew or pot pie. Diluted with a little water, it makes a beautiful, cloudless chicken broth.

Most excellently, you don't have to use it up all that promptly. The fat perfectly seals in the chicken gold and protects it from freezer burn as you stack up the little containers in the freezer (assuming you haven't just decided to use it the very next night). Once frozen, you can also slice the fatty part away from the concentrated juices, but I find it easier to just let it defrost, and scrape away as needed.

Even a generic, supermarket-type of chicken gives off excellent chicken gold, but it you go the extra mile and get a tasty organic or naturally raised bird, the results can be truly exceptional. Don't let it go to waste: you'd be pouring gold into the trash bin.

July 22, 2011

Sesame Peanut Noodles

I've made this dish before. I've even posted about it before (see post). Hmmm, that must mean that it's actually summer, not that you can tell from the weather. Still, this salad is delicious no matter what the weather.

This is a Nigella recipe, and it really only needs minor tweaks to suit my needs. You can see the official version of the recipe here, and my version below.

The first time I made this dish, I added some chicken to round it out as a meal, but in all honesty, it doesn't need anything added to it. It does make a lovely side dish, though, so if you've got a few skewers of shrimp on the grill and you're looking for a low-maintenance make-ahead side, this is definitely a great place to start.

Sesame Peanut Noodles
Adapted from Nigella Express, by Nigella Lawson

1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons sambal oelek (or sriracha)
100 grams smooth peanut butter
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons honey (use agave syrup for vegan)

125 grams snow peas, sliced thinly, diagonally
1 red pepper, julienned
125 grams zucchini, julienned
2 green onions, finely sliced
500 grams Chinese-style steam noodles

Toasted sesame seeds

Directions are almost superfluous, here. Slice the vegetables, cook the noodles, and drain them, shocking them with cold water to stop the cooking process. Combine the dressing ingredients and beat until smooth, and then toss the noodles, the vegetables, and the dressing together.

You can vary the vegetables, of course. I replaced the bean sprouts in the original with julienned zucchini, and now I can't imagine making it any other way. Using a variety of peppers might add an extra splash of colour, too - combine red, yellow, and orange pepper strips for a little extra visual punch. Radish or jicama strips might also go nicely in here.

Having made this a couple of times, it should be said that you simply must use your hands to effectively combine everything. in the final assembly stage, otherwise, no matter how big your bowl and how dextrous your fork-handling, you will not get the dressing and vegetables properly integrated throughout the noodles. With fingers, though - quick business.

Another note is regarding peanut butter: use the very best tasting peanut butter, please. This is not the way to use up what my family calls "dried up wrinkly old" peanut butter, aka the desiccated natural peanut butter in the bottom of the jar, which I did in my last posting of this recipe. I'm currently raving about Nuts to You smooth organic peanut butter, which is by far the best I've ever tasted (plus, it has an awesome ingredient list: peanuts). Everything I make with that peanut butter is somehow amazing!

The salad travels well for lunches, too, although it seems to like a little extra soy sauce to perk it up a bit.

July 18, 2011

Cauliflower Mac & Cheese: smarter than the box

When Kraft came out with its plan to add cauliflower to boxed Kraft Dinner (Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, to my non-Canadian readers), it seemed like a good idea, even if I'm not a big supporter of Kraft generally. It's nothing new, in one sense, as clever parents have been pureeing vegetables and hiding them in pasta dishes for a very long time. Plus, cauliflower and cheese go so very well together, and macaroni and cheese go so very well together, so getting all three into the pot together seems fairly sensible.

The Kraft Canada website advises that there is a half-serving of vegetables in each helping (ie. recommended serving size of 50 grams, or 3/4 cup prepared) of "KD Smart." The vegetable content therefore seems pretty minimal, for all of the fuss - Yoni Freedhoff at Weighty Matters does a nutritional comparison of the "smart" version against the original product, with scathing commentary highlighting (amongst other things) the extra sodium, saturated fat, and sugar that it apparently takes to make this product.

To revisit the idea that cauliflower, cheese, and pasta should all get along, you don't need to go with a heavily processed product. You need cauliflower. It's even easy! You simply add (finely) chopped up cauliflower to the noodles in the last few minutes of their cooking time, whatever recipe you are using, and carry on. If you are determined to use a boxed macaroni, you can still add cauliflower yourself, for much lower cost and greater benefit. The absolute minimum benefit is that you can add a lot more cauliflower to each plate without having to increase the amount of cheese sauce you're using (try it - unless you're adding an entire head of cauliflower, there should be enough sauce). You can certainly make sure you're getting more than a mere half-serving of cauliflower.

Yeah, you can see (and, to a degree, taste) the cauliflower. Cauliflower is good! It's even better with cheese! You can have a larger portion of the dish because it has a lot of vegetable mass mixed right in. Because cauliflower's white surface picks up the colour of the cheese, it's a very satisfying plate to look at - even though you know there's cauliflower in there, it looks - to the quick glance, if your pieces are small enough - just like a big ol' plate of cheesy pasta.

I made this using an all-cheddar version of my Skillet Macaroni & Cheese aka "Evapomac" recipe (see recipe here). It made four generous helpings - one each for the two of us at dinner, with roasted asparagus for bonus veggie points, and one each for lunch the following day. I used about four cups of finely chopped cauliflower (half a large head), so it was well over a "serving" of cauliflower in each portion. I didn't add extra cheese or milk or anything to stretch the sauce, and I didn't need to.

This version is not really all that sneaky. You can see the cauliflower, and you can taste it, although the cheese is the dominant flavour. If you really hate cauliflower, this is not going to work for you. You could also use broccoli, but because broccoli is a little bitter, you might want to blanche it separately first, which is more work, albeit not by much. You could also use some leftover roasted cauliflower, which would likely be a little sweeter from the roasting process, and might taste a little less like the brassica vegetable that it is. If you're sensitive to the somewhat bitter aftertaste of the cabbage family, that might be the way to go.

So, thanks for the idea, Kraft. I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me to try adding cauliflower to my mac and cheese before. I'm not going to buy your product, but I'm going to totally run with this idea. I may not add cauliflower every time I make my macaroni and cheese, but I'm definitely adding it to the options.

July 16, 2011

Butter Chicken Revisited

I first posted about butter chicken a few years ago (see link). Butter chicken is probably the single most popular dish in Indian restaurants in Vancouver, which is actually a little bit sad, because it means that almost every restaurant (don't worry, I do know there are exceptions) feels the need to keep one on the menu, however indifferent to it they might be. I've had a fair number of wretched ones, and almost never order it out, anymore. The good news is that it is a very easy dish to make, although the recipe looks a bit daunting. Some of that is the list of ingredients, but in all fairness most of those are spices.

I've updated and streamlined my recipe since the original one was posted on my old, non-blog recipe site (here).

Butter Chicken (2011)

Serves 4 - 6
Total Prep & Cooking time: 45 to 60 minutes

8 boneless, skinless raw chicken thighs
2 tablespoons hot tandoori masala
14.5 oz / 398 ml can diced tomatoes, with juices
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 bay leaves
1 inch of ginger root, peeled
3 large cloves of garlic
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons natural cashew butter (unsalted)
1 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup cream
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
cilantro to garnish optional

Sprinkle tandoori masala evenly on both sides of the skinless chicken pieces and let them rest while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Prepare and measure out all ingredients ahead of time: this is not a chop-as-you-go endeavour. Use little bowls or plates to get organized. Items that are added at the same time can be put in the same bowl.

Ginger, garlic and onions can be finely ground together in a blender or food processor. You want them very finely minced, but not completely pureed. Scrape down the sides as necessary, to ensure a fine texture. Remove to a bowl, so they're ready to add when needed. Puree the tomatoes separately, with their liquid, and put them in a separate bowl (an immersion blender works well for this.

Heat the butter and oil in a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat, until the butter is melted and the pan is hot. Add the bay leaves, the onion/ginger/garlic paste, and fry, stirring often, until golden brown and all water has evaporated. Don't let it burn. Add the tomato puree, chile powder, salt and sugar, and fry until the water has all evaporated and the oil separates out into shiny orange-y droplets. This can take up to 10 minutes, so be patient and stir a lot. The mixture will be quite thick, almost dry.

Add the cashew paste and continue to stir and fry another few seconds, and then add the milk and water slowly, stirring the whole time, and raise the heat to bring the mixture to a boil. The sauce should be thick and almost custard-y in texture. You can always add more water later, if needed.

When the sauce has come to a boil, turn the burner to low. Shake any excess tandoori masala from the chicken, and slide the pieces gently into the pan, and spoon the sauce over each piece. Cover and simmer very gently for 25 minutes (you can also do this in the oven at 350℉, if you need the stovetop), stirring half-way through. Remove the chicken pieces carefully from the sauce and roughly chop the meat into large bite-sized pieces. Return the chicken pieces to the pan and stir into the sauce. Over medium heat, add the cream and garam masala, and cook for a further 5 minutes, until heated through. Garnish with cilantro, if you like.

I should also note that the sauce freezes beautifully, should you have any left (or if you only have a smaller amount of chicken - you can still make the whole recipe of suace, and then freeze the leftover). When you want to use it, simply defrost and heat in a skillet, slide more masala-rubbed chicken into it, simmer, and serve. Just like one of those ready-to-use sauces, but at a fraction of the cost, and much, much better.

The sauce on its own would make a pretty awesome pizza sauce, don't you think? Leftover chicken can also be mixed with rice and vegetables (curry-roasted cauliflower, for example) and wrapped in a roti or tortilla as a freezer-friendly stash of homemade goodness.

While not strictly correct, I've also had good luck substituting quality peanut butter for the cashew butter. I'm currently very impressed by the Nuts To You organic smooth peanut butter (unsalted), which may be the best I've ever had.