August 27, 2011

Cajun Jambalaya with Okra

I am a huge fan of jambalaya, and it's something I almost always make at home, rather than order out. That is solely because I live on the west coast of Canada, where "jambalaya" usually involves pasta instead of rice, and seldom has sufficient seasoning - either in type or quantity, and shockingly often includes cream. When I was in New Orleans, I took great delight in sampling the extensive varieties of jambalaya available - each with a different ratio of ingredients (including seasoning), a different degree of sauciness, and a different notion as to how much one person could/should eat at lunch. Each one was a definitive jambalaya, in its own right.

Jambalaya is such a wonderfully versatile dish, that more's the pity that so few places up here get it right, and by "right" I mean an acceptable variant of the classic forms (Cajun or Creole), which is most emphatically not merely sausage and bell peppers tossed with pasta. Jambalaya needs to be a one-pot dish, rice based, and incorporating the seasonings of the Cajun or Creole variety. The rest - the protein(s), the wet/dry ratio, the choice of featured vegetables, these are all up to the cook. It can be cooked in a deep pot or a skillet, depending on how much you are making at a time.

I have been leaning toward brown, or Cajun-style jambalayas, lately, which tend not to be tomato based. This variation was conceived because I had picked up a bag of lovely looking fresh okra from the market, and needed something to make with it. As it happened, I also had some ham and a couple of chicken thighs that needed using, so, in fine ad hoc style, into the pot they went. My basic methodology is essentially the same as I previously wrote about, but tweaked to incorporate the okra.

Jambalaya with Okra
Serves 4

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, diced
2 medium stalks celery, diced
1 medium green bell pepper, diced
1 cup orange (or red) bell pepper, diced
2 jalapeño peppers, diced
1 1/2 cups okra, sliced
8 oz ham steak, diced
175 g boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 2), diced
3 cloves garlic, minced/crushed
3 cups chicken broth or stock
1 cup parboiled rice
1 teaspoon red Tabasco sauce
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt-free Cajun spice blend (to taste - start with a tablespoon)

Heat a large cast iron frying pan well over high heat. Add oil, and tilt pan to coat bottom. Add ham cubes and sautée until they start to take on a bit of colour. Add cubed chicken, and stir well, but don't allow chicken to brown. Add the onion, celery, green pepper and jalapeño, and stir.

Cook until the onion turns nicely translucent, then add the garlic, Tabasco sauce, and spices. Stir well. Stir in the orange/red bell pepper pieces and the okra until thoroughly combined.

Stir in the (uncooked) rice, making sure that each grain gets well coated by the juices in the pan. Add the chicken stock/broth and stir again, making sure that the rice grains are all submerged. Bring up to a gentle simmer.

Turn heat to very low, cover pan, and cook for 25 minutes, stirring gently once at the ten minute mark. If it seems a little dry, you may wish to add a bit more water at this point, too. If you want to go crazy and add some raw shrimp, this is also the time to do it, at the ten (or, for small shrimp, fifteen) minute mark. Garnish with a little sliced green onion, if you like, and lots of black pepper. Pass the hot sauce.

Obviously, you can switch out the proteins however you like best: smoked sausage, turkey or duck meat, rabbit, venison sausage, shrimp, oysters, alligator, crawfish, or the classic, tasso (spiced ham) for serious points. You can increase or decrease the meat(s) and the amount of vegetables, depending on your taste or what you need to use up - this is a great way to use up extra bell peppers that might be lurking in your fridge.

August 19, 2011

Ham Rotini Casserole

This is one of those dishes that grew out of a sudden desire for a creamy pasta, which is actually a pretty common occurrence in my household. In this case, there was also a coincidental need to use up some yoghurt. For some reason, ham seemed to be the perfect thing to tie it all together, since I wasn't feeling particularly in a stroganoff-y mood. Originally there were supposed to be mushrooms, as well (some creminis which also needed using up), but I completely forgot about them until I was putting the pan into the oven, and it was simply too late.

The sauce is very creamy, and a little cheesy without feeling like a cheese pasta, perhaps because the yoghurt gives it a little tanginess that cuts through the richness. While this is no health food item, with salty ham and rich yoghurt, it is still better for you than most big ol' plates of pasta at a casual restaurant, so that's some additional comfort for a comfort food dinner.

Ham Rotini Casserole
Serves 4

200 grams rotini
125 grams boneless cooked ham, diced
1 2/3 cups 1% Milk
2 tablespoons butter
1/8 cup unbleached flour
1 teaspoon chicken base (such as Better than Bouillon)
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan Cheese
1 cup plain, thick yoghurt (such as Liberte Mediterranee)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (230 degrees C). Bring a pot of water to boil and cook the rotini according to the package directions (until it is just a little underdone).

In a large skillet, melt butter and stir in flour until smooth. Gradually add milk, bouillon paste, salt, garlic, and pepper. Stir all together and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring until thick and bubbly. Reduce heat; add ham cubes, cheese and yoghurt. Stir until cheese is melted. Add the drained pasta, and stir through to combine. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until heated through.

Optional topping: Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in saucepan and stir in breadcrumbs and some finely chopped parsley. Sprinkle crumb mixture over casserole before baking. I was totally going to do that, but then (again) completely forgot. Seems to have been my day for forgetting things.

I debated trying to shoe-horn some vegetable matter into the casserole, but in the end decided that it really wanted to be a very simple sort of dish rather than a one pot meal (as fond of those as I am). I decided in the end to make a tossed green salad with rather a lot of chopped veggies in it - cucumbers, bell peppers, radishes, tomatoes, etc., partly to make up for the indulgence of the pasta, but mostly to give dinner a little freshness and crunchiness, both things that don't exactly go with the creamy hammy territory.

This dish was immediately voted "into the book", about two bites into dinner. The next time I've got some yoghurt to use up, I'll definitely be thinking of this one.

August 15, 2011

Meatballs: Pork & Turkey edition

I wasn't originally planning to post these, I just wanted some meatballs. However, after they turned out rather well (Palle suggested that they are the best meatballs I've ever made), and since I did kind of scribble down the proportions as I was going along, and since it turns out they are equally delicious cold (hello, bento!), I decided to share them.

I don't make meatballs or meatloaf very often, but I do like them rather a lot, as a main course unto themselves, as part of a pasta dish, as a little protein add-on to a salady sort of meal, or as a sandwich filling. Not to mention the "on a little toothpick" hors d'oeurves application.

The meatball matrix is pretty simple: ground meat(s) of your choice, seasoning, binder, corrector, and featured ingredient (if any). These meatballs are half lean ground pork and half ground turkey breast (hence the pale colour, in case you were wondering), seasoned with salt and pepper, fresh garlic, whole fennel seed, fresh parsley, and ground oregano, bound with egg, corrected with panko, and featuring finely chopped roasted red peppers and green onions.

As with hamburger and meatloaf making, one of the keys to great texture is to avoid over-mixing or over-compressing of the meat, and that means that the best tool for the job is your impeccably clean fingers. Don't be afraid to get right in there - you will have much better distribution of ingredients that way. I am also a fan of putting everything but the meat into a mixing bowl, giving it a bit of a stir with a fork (to break up the egg), and then separating the ground meat into little clumps with my fingers and dropping the bits on top of the rest of the mixture. Once all of the meat is aerated and added to the bowl, I get my fingers in there and toss it like a salad, to avoid the aforementioned over-compression. Once everything is nicely combined, I begin shaping the meatballs. This method works wonderfully for any time you are mixing ground meats.

Pork & Turkey Meatballs
Makes 12 large meatballs

450 grams lean ground turkey
375 grams ground pork
1 large egg
1 whole roasted red pepper (such as Piquillos)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 cup minced parsley
1/2 cup panko-style bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Combine all of the ingredients as described in the paragraph above, separating the meat into chunks, and then mixing in the rest of the components. Fry up a tiny nub of meat until cooked through, and taste to see if you need to adjust the ingredients - more salt or fennel seed, for example. Correct the seasoning as needed.

Place, spaced out, in a 9x13" glass baking dish. Sprinkle each ball with a little Worcestershire sauce. Bake at 400 F for 40 minutes - they should be just golden brown. Use a spoon to trim any "spill" of liquid into the pan, as you lift them out, once they are cooked through. If you want a slightly browner meatball, you may wish to brush them with a little soy sauce half way through, but note that this does add a bit of extra saltiness, too. Low sodium soy sauce might be your best choice, there.

You can fry these up on the stovetop, too, of course, although the meat mixture is quite moist, and you are likely to get misshapen meatballs for your extra effort. I highly recommend the baking/roasting method - the balls keep their shape, and you can spend the time that you would have been tending to the meatballs to do something else.

As mentioned above, these are great hot (for example, beside a nice polenta, or a potato-and-vegetable salad, or cold, in your bento (beside...a potato-and-vegetable salad, perhaps...)
If you're planning to make a meatball sandwich, you'll want to have a little sauce, I'm guessing. If you have a stash of leftover sauce in the freezer, this is a great use for it. Otherwise, you can either make a simple sauce from scratch, or purchase one. Warm the sauce together with the meatballs, if you are starting with cold, pre-cooked meatballs. You may want to toast up the bun, too, to add to structural integrity of the sandwich, given how damp even a thick tomato sauce can be. If you want to make your bread garlic bread, I'm certainly all in favour of that. I tend to use Portuguese buns, because I can get good ones in my neighbourhood.
These ones don't really look cooked, but they are - they're from the same batch as the bento shown above.. This is a flaw in the lighting/photography rather than the meatballs themselves, though. Of course, pork and turkey are very light-coloured meats, and I didn't do the extra browning step.

August 11, 2011

Garlic Scape Pesto

Ah, the special treats of summer that truly are still seasonal! Seize them when you can, or wait a full year for another taste.

I encountered garlic scapes last summer, in my friend Willie's garden. He had us over to dinner, and, after remarkably little slave labour helping to pick the scapes, served us some of his famous handmade fettuccine with garlic scape pesto. He also gave us a giant bag of garlic scapes to take home and play with ourselves.

Unfortunately for all of us, the scapes had gotten a bit on the large size, with the attendant increase in fibrousness. We had to discard a certain amount of each scape, and had to sieve the two dishes that we made - a simple pesto to top pork tenderloin pintxos, and a cream soup. The flavour was wonderful, but lordy, was it work.

This year, we were fortunate to receive scapes again, younger ones this time, from our bacon-curing friend, Rodney. They were much thinner and shorter, and considerably more tender, despite having spent some quality time in the fridge before we got around to using them. We went with pesto on fettuccine, because we liked it so much the first time. This pesto recipe was likely a bit different from the first one we had, but it turned out very well. We used fresh fettuccine from The Ravioli Store, because it is lovely stuff.

Garlic Scape Pesto
Serves 4 - 6

1 cup garlic scapes, finely chopped
2 tablespoons ground almonds
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups fresh basil
1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan Cheese

Place the finely chopped scapes into a blender or small food processor, along with the almonds and basil. Pulse a couple of times, then add the salt and olive oil. Pulse and then puree until smooth. Taste it, and see if it wants the lemon juice. If so, add the juice and pulse it through. If you are going to freeze some of the pesto, put that portion aside now. If you are using it right away, stir in the cheese and you are good to go: Add to freshly cooked, drained pasta, dab onto any savory appetizer, really, or use as a pizza sauce (that's the likely fate of the bit that's in the freezer, actually). You can also stir it into a soup (white bean, for example...ooh, now I want to try that!), or as a sandwich spread, or use it pretty much as you would use any other pesto.

August 07, 2011

Sour Cherry Soup (Hideg Meggyleves)

Revenge is not the only thing that is best served cold.

When I was visiting Hungary in 1995, I fell in love with Sour Cherry Soup. It was late July, and it was about 40℃, and I was playing air-conditioning bingo on my excursions around Budapest. I ate a lot of ice cream, and tried to figure out ways to stay cool.

Fortunately for me, I was able to connect with a former co-worker and his wife, both Hungarian Canadians, who had come home for a visit at the same time I was there. With the bonus of interpreters of both language and culture, I found myself in destinations I might not have otherwise found (caving, for example, and also some peculiarly situated wine bars), and eating and drinking things that might not have otherwise caught my eye. Sour cherry soup was a revelation for not only deliciousness, but also for its cooling properties. It was served primarily as an appetizer course, but I imagine it would do just fine for dessert, as it is on the sweet side.

I am sad to report that I misplaced my original recipe for Meggyleves - I've been making it ever since I got back to Canada, although not necessarily frequently. I've consulted the internet extensively, and cobbled together from (prompted) memory just how the version that I first made goes. I do put in less sugar these days - and I may like it all the more. I'm pretty happy with this version, so it's going in the black binder, so I don't lose it again.

You do need good sour cherries, Morellos for preference. Fresh, also, for preference. I'm given to understand that pitting or not pitting is up to the cook, but I generally pit mine (unless the cherries are likely to fall apart). When I saw these at the Farmers' Market last week, I knew just what to do:

Hideg Meggyleves (Cold Sour Cherry Soup)

Serves 6 - 8 as an appetizer

1 lb. fresh morello cherries, pitted
1 cup good red wine*
3 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
2 clove buds
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons unbleached flour, shaken with 1/3 cup water
3 - 4 strips of lemon zest
1/2 cup whipping cream

Bring the cherries, half the wine, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, lemon zest, and water to a boil, and allow to simmer gently for about 10 minutes. Add the slurry of flour and water, and stir through, heating until the soup just starts to boil a little (this will thicken the texture slightly). Add the rest of the wine, bring back to a gentle simmer, and let cook over a gentle heat for another 20 minutes.

Remove the spices and lemon zest, and allow the soup to cool before refrigerating. You can force-cool it by adding an ice pack (sealed in a bag) straight into the soup. This works even faster along with a cold water bath, and moving the soup out of the cooking pot to a large bowl or soups tureen.

Once the soup is cool enough, refrigerate until quite cold.

Stir in the cream, and serve. If you like, you can also add a splash of brandy or sherry before serving. In the picture above, I've sprinkled the soup with cinnamon, but frankly, it doesn't need it.

I'm told by a Romanian-born co-worker that a similar soup is also made using tart apples. I can only imagine how good that must be - in fact, I may need to try it. I think I would use Granny Smiths and a crisp white wine with floral notes, which would make it a little bit similar to a pork tenderloin dish from Normandy.

* A brief note about the wine: You don't want a tannic Shiraz here, or a jammy Merlot. Go for brighter wines, such as a nice Zinfandel (such as Cline or Ravenswood), a Chianti, Barbera d'Alba, or Carmenere. You don't need a fancy wine, but you want one that you will enjoy, because the flavour comes through quite strongly.

August 06, 2011

Azifa - Ethiopian Lentil Salad

Last year, I was surprised and irritated to discover one of my photos (from the era before I labeled them) was being reproduced all around the internet. Half of my irritation was at the (uncredited) misappropriation of my photo, and half was that it was being wrongly used - it wasn't Azifa at all. The photo had been taken from my old website (linked here); there are two recipes on the original page - one for the delicious Ethiopian lentil salad called Azifa, and the other was an also fabulous Turkish lentil salad (which I believe translates as yeşil mercimek salatasi). There was only one photo, though: the Turkish salad. The photo had been mercilessly hijacked and propagated with the wrong recipe attached (or versions thereof). I figured the tomatoes in the original photo would be a dead giveaway as to which salad was pictured, but no - it turned up on a number of recipe collection sites and even once on the menu of an Ethiopian restaurant. To the best of my knowledge, those copies have now been taken down.

So now, years after posting the original article on two versions of a green lentil salad, and while I'm in a sort of mood of re-addressing old favourites, I thought I would finally give Azifa a photograph of its own. It may not be the prettiest or most colourful salad, but it is delicious! Do visit the original post for the recipe - it's a fine summer dish, especially with a glass of crisp white wine, or a hoppy IPA. It also packs well for lunches (and bento!) and makes a great pita stuffer, but it also pairs beautifully with grilled salmon, or lemony yassa.

Here's a different picture, from a different batch, with different lighting: