December 29, 2005

For the Love of Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts don't get nearly enough love in this world. Still, someone must be eating them, because they show up faithfully all winter long in the markets. I find that often when a meal includes them, the wee cabbages are drearily overcooked and often stone cold by the time the plates are served. This is a tragedy, for a good Brussels sprout is a tasty treat that shouldn't be relagated to the "last bowl to be emptied" status that it seems to have in so many households.

In fact, if it were not for the firm tradition that insists on serving them for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, I wonder if they'd be available in anything but the specialty markets. A few years ago, I discovered the secret to foolproof sprouts: slice them in half and roast them with a little drizzle of chicken fat. That's it! I was making a baked chicken-one-pot supper, and was shy on the usual vegetables that I generally include. I had some sprouts though, so I wedged them in around the other veggies, shrugged, and figured they'd at least be fine for one night's dinner. How surprised I was, at how well they turned out! Everywhere the sprouts touched the glass of the baking dish, was a caramelized golden brown, and the small amount of fat rendered from the chicken legs I was baking gave them a tender succulence that could not be believed without sampling. A discreet scattering of kosher salt grains across the top of the dish meant that the Brussels sprouts were delicately seasoned, and the long oven-time meant that they stayed nice and hot on our dinner plates.

About halfway through dinner, we were lamenting at how few sprouts I had actually included in the pan. By the end of dinner, we were vowing to never again subject the noble sprout to boiling or steaming, if roasting was at all feasible.

It took a few tries to hit on the exact formula, but here it is in its glory:

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

1 large glass/pyrex type baking dish, spritzed lightly with canola oil
Enough sprouts so that, when cut in half pole-to-pole, they cover the bottom of the dish in a single layer.
A final spritz with the canola oil over the rounded tops of the sprouts
A tablespoon or two of chicken fat, drizzled over the sprouts
A small pinch of kosher salt sprinkled over all

Bake uncovered in an oven set at 350 - 400 F, for 25 - 35 minutes (depending on your oven setting. Obviously, in hotter ovens cook for a shorter period of time). Finished sprouts should be fork-tender and showing a little brown on their cut-sides.

The beauty of the variable timing is that you can cook it along side another dish at whatever temperature is required.

You'll be fighting over the last sprout in no time.

December 22, 2005

There Must be Shortbread!

I do not cook for a large family and therefore it is only to be expected that my Christmas baking has decreased proportionately - excepting those years when we host a holiday open house, in which case I find myself making even more things than if I were baking for a family of twelve. Every year, I weigh the pros and cons of different recipes versus the available time, strength and energy that are available to me. Fruitcakes - dark, rum-soaked, full of naturally dried fruit without a neon-coloured cherry to be found - I only make every couple of years, in tiny loaf pans for passing out to relatives and friends of the fruitcake-appreciating persuasion.

When I was a kid, there were no baking-traps to navigate around. Pretty much the only holiday sweets we had were those that we made ourselves (excluding Santa's modest delivery), or polite amounts of those made by our neighbours and relatives. There were no cookie-studded workplace platters to navigate around, no client-appreciation chocolates lurking on every surface in the kitchen, no office parties with alcohol and rich food. Thus, I stumbled into the business world completely unprepared for the onslaught of goodies that were on offer throughout December, where polite meant actually taking a piece of grainy fudge or a misshapen sugar cookie instead of restricting oneself to one. I was also completely unprepared for the shocking variety of cookies all called shortbread. As we all know well, the only true shortbread is the one that your mother used to make, right?

My mother's shortbread is incredibly simple to make, and is the one thing that is an absolute requirement on my holiday table. Because it is easy to make (even easier to eat!) even at my tiredest I can manage to knock out a tray of these. It has become my one must-have bit of holiday baking.

Prize Shortbread

1 cup salted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup icing sugar
large pinch ground ginger
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose white flour

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease (or spritz with canola oil) a large baking sheet.

Cream together the butter and the icing sugar until the mixture is light, fluffy, and its colour has changed to white. This will take several minutes with a hand-mixer, and is essential, as there is no levening agent in the cookies. Add the ground ginger and one cup of flour, and mix until the flour is thoroughly incorporated. Add the other cup of flour, but use a spatula to blend it smoothly into the dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured board, sprinkle with a little flour, and roll out to the desired thickness - I like mine only a little thicker than thin sugar cookies, but not too thick. Traditionally, these are cut into squares or rectangles, and special shapes were reserved for the sugar cookies. I've thrown caution to the wind here, however, and used a little tree cutter for my shortbread this year.

Cut the cookies however you like - if using a cutter, you can re-roll the scraps and cut again, but do handle carefully because if you add too much flour during the rolling, they can get a little tough. Place the cookies on the baking sheet - they won't need much room between them because they don't really rise, but a bit of space makes it easier to pull them off the sheet. I like to poke some airholes with a fork to prevent the dough from bubbling up, but it's not strictly necessary.

Bake for 10 - 15 minutes, depending on how thick your cookies are. Check frequently - a slight tinge of gold on the edge is okay, but you don't want them to brown. Cool on racks and store out of sight, if you hope to keep them around for a few days.

December 18, 2005

From My Rasoi - Bengali Dal

For my 101st post, I am posting my entry to Meena's "From My Rasoi - Winter" blogging event. I've chosen an original recipe that I call Bengali Dal (even though it is not made with Bengal gram), which is the perfect kind of warming, comforting food to have during the long, comforting food to have during the long, chilly months of winter.

The red lentils don't take long to cook, and the warmth of the mustard seed oil combined with the creaminess of a small amount of coconut milk makes this a wonderful counterpoint to the flavours of cumin, chiles, garlic and curry. The little dark specks are brown mustard seed and nigella seed, the red is finely diced tomato, and the green is sliced chiles. You can vary the amount of chiles to make it as spicy or mild as you like, but naturally I like it spicy. There is a little dried fenugreek stirred into the dish at the last minute, which makes a sudden, compelling fragrance that will pull people into the kitchen.

Bengali Dal

Serves 6 - 8
Total prep and cooking time: 40 minutes unless you're super-efficient and/or have kitchen helpers. Then, maybe 25 - 30.

1 1/2 cups of red lentils (masur dal)
4 1/2 cups of water
3/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon curry powder (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons sambal oelek
1 clove garlic, minced
2–3 jalapeños, seeded and chopped
1 small can coconut milk - 2/3 cup, approx.
1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon mustard oil
1 teaspoon nigella seed (kalonji)
1 teaspoon brown/black mustard seeds
1 medium onion, diced medium
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 large tomato, seeded and diced

salt to taste
big pinch of fenugreek leaves

Pick over lentils to remove misshapen, discoloured or otherwise irregular lentils and any foreign matter (little rocks, plant stems, etc). Rinse thoroughly, with several changes of water to remove any grit or dust (very important).

Place lentils in a heavy pot with the water and the turmeric and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a medium-low simmer, and skim the yellow foam from the top. Allow to simmer until lentils are tender and starting to fall apart – 15 minutes or a bit more, if you have older lentils. Add the jalapeños, crushed garlic, spices and the coconut milk and continue to simmer (with the lid off, stirring occasionally) and get thick while you prepare the tempering.

In a small, nonstick skillet, heat oil gently over medium heat. Add nigella seed and mustard seed, giving the pan a shake to distribute. As soon as the mustard seeds start to pop, add the onions and sliced garlic and fry gently until they have softened. Next, add the diced tomatoes, and stir until they give up their liquid - often they turn the onions a pretty golden colour - and scrape the mixture into the lentil pottage. Use a spatula to get out all the spicy goodness! Taste and adjust for salt to your preference and stir in the fenugreek leaves just before serving.

I am happy to serve this over rice as a meal unto itself, or as part of a larger menu. It freezes and reheats extraordinarily well, which makes it the perfect thing to make lots of, and tuck away the leftovers in the fridge for one of those harrowing days when you need a little home made comfort, but haven't the energy or nerves to do more than heat something up. It also travels well to work or school and is vegan, although I am not.

December 14, 2005

Five out of Ten (and Chicken Yassa)

My last post, the You Are What You Eat list, was both easier and more difficult to come up with than I thought it would be. Sure, the items just tumbled out of my head and onto the page, but I agonized about whether they were truly representative.

As I was eating lunch today, I noticed with some bemusement that my little container of leftovers contained five of those top ten items: Rice, lemon, chicken, onions, and chiles. Chicken Yassa, to be precise (please see recipe in the comments below).

On the weekend, I made a stop at the South China Seas Trading Co. on Granville Island, which is my go-to destination for a number of hard-to-find ingredients including hominy, epazote, dried chiles, and all manner of interesting Asian and Central/South American ingredients. As always, just standing in the store caused me to revise my weekly menu substantially as I stared at piles of fresh poblano peppers, long garlic chives, jarred mole sauces, and fresh young ginger and turmeric roots. A brightly coloured pile of habaneros by the cashier mocked me until I slid a couple into a brown bag and added them to my basket - and my menu. Fresh habaneros don't have a long shelf-life, so I immediately shouldered Yassa into my menu plan. One must take advantage when one can, and Yassa is a little lighter on preparation than Jerk, which is another favourite use for the habanero.

Traditional Yassa recipes start with marinating the chicken and proceed through an on-the-bone grilling stage before the dish is completed. My adaptation is really more of a quick stew, starting off-the-bone and simmering the marinated meat in the lemony, mustardy matrix that makes up the sauce.

Whoa. I can't believe I left mustard off my list. That would have made it six out of ten!

December 12, 2005

I must be spicy!

Lera of Myriad Tastes tagged me for the "You Are What You Eat" meme, and I have to tell you, it's not an easy task to define myself within only ten things, so I'm sure I've overlooked something significant. Due to the restriction of "eating" I have left out beverages, or you can bet that wine would have been on the list, somewhere. Here goes:

10) Bread. I love to bake bread, and while I don't bake every week, or even every month (pizza dough notwithstanding) I enjoy both the process and the result. Bread baking gives a satisfaction that is unparalleled.

From my essay: "I enjoy making bread by hand for a number of reasons. The scent of yeast, the smooth, warm silky feeling of the dough as it comes together under your hands in the roll and flex of your wrist and fingers. The process of kneading, which drains tension from the maker even as it gives a light workout to the arms. The more a bread is kneaded, the finer the texture of the crumb, so the more anxiety you have to release, the more delicate the bread you produce. That's pure alchemy. I even find simple pleasure in seeing how the bread has risen from the small lump of dough into a magnificent loaf, and the wonderful smell of the bread as it bakes is a panacea for any tired spirit."

9) Homemade pizza. We make pizza at least twice per month. You can hide leftovers on it, or you can made an entire meal with only a few simple ingredients without feeling like you're skimping. It combines the magnificence of homemade bread, with the satisfaction of making a meal. You can load them with things you like, and you can take them into the living room to eat in front of the television, when hockey's on. You can invite some friends over, and have a little feast.

8) Citrus. Lemons and limes get top billing, followed by grapefruit, then oranges, and finally whatever miscellaneous other citrus you might have going. My forays into Jamaican and Mexican food has me more interested in limes these days, but lemons are a great standby. You can make any course of a dinner with citrus, from drinks through desserts and all stops along the way. Citrus juice or rind can pep up almost any side dish, balance the flavours of a stew or soup, or blend with sugar to create marmelades and fabulous sweet baking treats.

7) Chocolate. The darker, the better. Preferably, so dark that light cannot escape its surface. Need more be said?

6) Cheezies. You didn't think this was all going to be healthy food, did you? This is my defining junk snack food. I like the Hawkins ones best (only available in Canada), but I'll take most varieties of cheesy corn curls in a pinch. This may count as a second vote for cheese (see #2 below), but I don't care.

5) Rice. I have at least three types of rice on hand at all times. My default, go-to rice for side dishes or as a foundation for miscellaneous other dishes, is Jasmine rice. If I say "I'm going to put some rice on," this is what I probably mean. I also have Basmati, which is partially due to my love for Indian food, and Arborio, because I also adore risotto. Sometimes I'll have other varieties on hand - sushi rice, wild rice, etc. I'm very curious about the Chinese Forbidden Rice - who wouldn't be? I must try some, soon. I eat a lot of pasta, too, and had potatoes nearly every day, growing up, but rice is the dominant dinner-starch in my life these days.

4) Poultry. I'm roasting a duck for Christmas, this year. Roast duck with cherry sauce. Over the nine Christmases we've been together, Palle and I have explored everything from Chicken through pheasant, cornish game hen, goose (twice!), duck, traditional turkey, rouladen of turkey breast, and ham, once, just to be difficult. On non-holiday meals, we eat rather a lot of chicken on a regular basis, and as you can tell from a glance at my recipe cauldron, it is featured rather prominently.

3) Garlic & Onions. I have a friend who is allergic to the entire lily family, and must eschew fresh onions, garlic, and leeks (fortunately, he can have them in dessicated powder form). Myself, I get a little nervous if I'm down to only one onion, and I buy fresh garlic about once per week - more often on the weeks that I roast chicken. A few years ago, I was out for dinner at a lovely, upscale (and sadly, now closed) Hungarian restaurant called "Bandi's" with author Steven Brust, among others. He professed his love for onions and garlic to be such that "if it doesn't have onions it had better be dessert, and if it doesn't have garlic, it had better be chocolate!" We gloried in the langos - a fried flatbread that is topped with crushed, uncooked garlic that swims in a little pot of butter while it waits for you to scoop it on top of your langos. Heavenly. Garlic doesn't even register on the Richter scale equivalent of bad breath. If I smell garlic, and I'm not eating garlic, I just feel jealous.

2) Cheese. Cheese is the reason I would never want to go vegan. Seldom does a day pass without a little cheese in it, and that's just the way I like it to be. I'm seldom without at least two different cheeses in the fridge, and often have as many as four or five.

From my essay: "What other food than cheese has such astonishing variety of texture, character and application? You can slice it for sandwiches or crackers, crumble it over salads or pasta, melt it for fondue, smear it on toast or eat it straight from the knife. It can be an assertive primary flavour, or a subtle matrix that holds a casserole together. It makes a good party even better."

1) Chiles. Much of the food that I eat on a daily basis is fairly spicy. I cook with habaneros without a second thought (as I did last night). Much of what I bring to work as leftovers/lunch elicits oohs and aahs when I take it out of the microwave, but which I know would half-kill most of the people in my office. I didn't set out to be a chilehead; eating some of this stuff would have been nigh impossible for me fifteen years ago. I just love the flavours and the heat comes along as a package deal. My discovery of Mexican food (as opposed to Tex-Mex and Cali-Mex, which I also like, but are very different) and Indian food has only increased the amount of spicy dishes that I order, cook, crave, and eat. I have four different kinds of whole, dried chiles in my storage box right now, and then there are the powdered: Cayenne, Chipotle, Ancho, Japones, Paprika... I'm probably leaving one or two out, actually. And the blends! Cajun mix, Ethiopian berbere, good old-fashioned chili powder, Southwest seasoning, Garam masala, not to mention whole berries: Tellicherry black peppercorns, Szechwan peppercorns... and of course I usually have a fresh chile or two lurking in the fridge. Don't even get me started on hot sauces!

So, above all, if I am what I eat, I guess I'm spicy. And maybe a little cheesy.

December 09, 2005

And So It Begins

The holiday baking has begun.

I confess, I started off easy with a version of my Buttermilk Coffee Cake. Instead of doing the usual ribbon-layer in the centre, I stirred some allspice and nutmeg into the batter, along with a handful of dried cranberries (there's few enough cranberries in this that the cranberry-impaired can removed them easily). A little extra nutmeg and some cinnamon across the top, and ba-da-bing, one baking item "down." Mind you, this barely counts as Christmas baking, since it's actually relatively healthy. However, it will be a festive addition to work-lunches over the next couple of weeks, and it never hurts to balance out the damage done by shortbread and butter tarts with goodies of a lighter nature.

I'm still dithering a bit on what other items to make, but time is marching along, so I need to get down to business this weekend. I desperately need to go shopping for a few critical ingredients, but I also need to crack open the holiday recipes and remind myself of the amounts to buy. One year, I ended up with so many leftover ground almonds that I was putting them in everything in sight for a few weeks.

December 06, 2005

Don't Let Anyone Tell You...

Don't let anyone tell you that you can't make quesadillas out of leftover aloo gobi. Because you totally can.

I used to make pizza out of anything leftover. My mother used to conceal leftovers in scrambled eggs. Now, I make quesadillas. A little cheese to act as culinary glue, a little Sriracha sauce, and dinner was good to go!

December 05, 2005

Creamy goodness #2 (Cardamom Rose Rice Pudding)

Last night we had a few friends over for vegetarian Indian food. I did most of the cooking ahead on Saturday, which meant that I only had a few tasks on Sunday and could enjoy my guests' company. The main menu consisted of old favourites: Bengali Dal, Saag Paneer, Aloo Gobi, and Channa Masala, accompanied by a carrot and chile salad dressed with lime juice, and a banana raita that is based on a pachadi recipe from the outstanding Seductions of Rice. The banana raita is fast becoming a must-have dish when we make Indian food at home.

Dessert was also from Seductions of Rice - a rice pudding flavoured with cardamom and rose water. It is creamy and light-tasting, despite being made with whole milk. I topped it with pistachios, as suggested, not knowing that one of my guests was in the process of developing a nut intolerance. Not an allergy, thank heavens, so he was able to simply remove them from his portion. The original recipe called for twice as much sugar as I used, but I loved the balance of sugar to rosewater and spice, so I don't think I'd increase it.
Cardamom Rose Rice Pudding
Adapted from Seductions of Rice

1 cup short grain rice, rinsed and drained (I used arborio)
4 cups whole milk
2 cups water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons rose water
1 teaspoon cardamom powder
pistachios and extra cardamom to garnish

Place the rice, milk, and water in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Bring to boil, stirring, and back the heat off to a bare simmer. Cook and stir frequently for about one and a quarter hours. The rice may develop a bit of a skin, but just stir it back into the pot and it will be fine. When the rice is tender and the liquid is mostly absorbed but still a bit soupy, add the sugar, rose water and cardamom powder. Stir in thoroughly until sugar dissolves, and remove from the heat. Transfer rice to a serving bowl or individual serving dishes, and allow to cool. Chill, covered with plastic wrap, until needed. To garnish, give each portion a "hit" of cardamom powder and top with a few lightly toasted pistachio nuts.

Serves 6

November 30, 2005

Rice and Beans, Jamaican style

I eat rather a lot of beans, for someone who grew up with beans primarily in chili or occasionally in the Boston Baked family of dishes. I embraced garbanzos for hummus, the Southwestern American tradition of adding black beans to just about anything, black or pinto beans for refried beans at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and flageolets for cassoulet. Got exciting variants, like Romano beans, Cranberry beans, Pink-eyed peas? Anasazi beans? Bring 'em on. I do like beans.

I also eat a lot of rice, partly because I came late to some of the great rice-based cuisines, and am now making up for lost time. The New Orleans classic, Red Beans and Rice, was a happy combination of these two ingredients and led to other discoveries such as Moros & Cristianos, and, at long last, Jamaican Rice and Peas. At first, I was a little concerned about the title "Rice and Peas" because I'm notoriously unfriendly toward the green garden variety of pea (unless a) raw, b) whole, such as snow-peas, or c) as split pea soup). From there, I confess to being a little confused, when the pea-component of the dish turned out to be considerably more bean-like in character, often being made with kidney beans. I'll happily eat kidney beans, so there was no worry about it, but it didn't entirely make sense to me.

Eventually, I discovered that the traditional pea used in Jamaica is the Pigeon Pea, which is a brown, oval bean originating in Africa. At last, I was able to align the Pigeon Pea with the Black-Eyed Pea in my mind, and came to a sort of understanding.

The thing that makes Jamaican Rice and Peas so very appealing is that it is quite spicy, and contains coconut milk, another ingredient I have come to love. Additionally, Rice and Peas is a one-pot dinner, which makes clean-up a quick affair.

There are as many Rice and Pea recipes as there are cooks who make it, like national dishes the world over. This one is adapted from Full of Beans by the delightfully named Violet Currie and Kay Spicer. It's a lower-fat version than many you'll find, but the flavour is fantastic. I use Kidney beans, as the recipe suggests. Pigeon peas are difficult to come by, in this neck of the woods. Usually, I make this as a side dish and omit the ham, which makes it vegetarian/vegan.

Jamaican Rice and Beans
adapted from Full of Beans by Violet Currie and Kay Spicer

1 teaspoon canola oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups cooked kidney beans (drained and rinsed, if canned)
160 ml coconut milk plus water to make 1 cup liquid
1 cup diced ham (optional)
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce of your choice (habanero would be very appropriate)
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground sage
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup uncooked rice (I use parboiled for this dish)
1 medium red bell pepper, diced (optional)
sliced green onions to garnish

In a medium pot with a tight-fitting lid, cook the diced onion, garlic in the canola oil until it starts to turn translucent. Add the beans, coconut milk, ham (if using), and spices, and bring to a boil. Let cook, stirring, for about a minute, and then add the rice and 1 & 3/4 cups boiling water. Bring the mixture back up to a boil, stirring, then immediately cover. Turn down the heat to a bare simmer and leave undisturbed (no peeking!) for 25 minutes. When it is done, stir gently and fold in the bell pepper garnish. Sprinkle with green onions and serve.

November 20, 2005

Send in the Clowns

It's not often that I make new cookies. I have my favourites, and since I don't really bake all that many cookies during the year, I usually revisit my trusted, tried, and true recipes more often than not. As it happens, it is often the fact that I am specifically craving ginger snaps, for example, that make me decide to get out the baking sheets.

My kitchen life, however, could probably be subtitled "Iron Chef - Leftovers!" as I find ways to make good food out of whatever is lying around from previous efforts or events. To this end, I found myself with about a cup of leftover miniature m&m candies after Hallowe'en. Since they were about the size of chocolate chips, I decided to make a more colourful version of my default chocolate chip cookies. As they came out of the oven, I couldn't help but think that they looked as though I had stirred a clown into the batter, and the brightly coloured buttons had risen to the surface. Just a little macabre, post-Hallowe'en imagery. (Aren't clowns a little bit creepy on any day of the year?)
Clown Cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
3/4 cup butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon or orange extract
1 cup miniature m&ms for baking
pinch salt

Preheat oven to 300 F. Combine flour, soda, coriander and salt in a small bowl, and blend together with a mix. In a larger bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the butter and sugar until it forms a grainy mixture. Add eggs andd extract, and beat again until well blended, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the flour mixture and the m&ms, and mix on the lowest setting until the dough just combines without floury streaks. Be careful not to overbeat them.

Use a teaspoon or a miniature ice cream scoop to shape your cookies on lightly greased (or spritzed) baking sheets and bake for about 15 minutes in the centre of the oven. They should not brown. Transfer hot cookies immediately to a wire cooking rack. As they cool, they will firm up slightly.

November 12, 2005

Cooking for the weather

The rains are upon us, and show no sign of leaving. Unlike the grumblers that I hear around me, I don't really mind the rain, although it can make getting about a bit less comfortable and restricts certain passtimes. I'm sure even a lazy scientist could swiftly disabuse me of the notion that rain in the city is anything resembling clean, but there's a certain refreshing feeling of renewal that comes with the damp, as though nature is doing some of the housework for you. You can retain this pretense as long as you don't look down at the brownish sludge that has become of the crimson and yellow leaves that fell in the dry, cool days at the beginning of autumn.

After enough grey days in a row, however, even I start getting a little techy. This is when I turn to the large pyrex baking dish, and start sifting through recipes from Italy, Mexico, West Africa... places whose warmth is imbeded in the cuisine. I can borrow a little of that sunshine, culinarily, and cosy up on the sofa with a steaming plate or bowl of something hot - usually in more ways than one.

So, of course, I had been waiting for a suitable run of crummy weather to try out Giada De Laurentiis's Manicotti. Surprisingly, I felt the recipe needed some adjusting right from the get-go, and set about lacing the beef and ricotta filling with my triumvarate of Italian pick-me-up flavours: fennel seed, pepper flakes, and oregano. I upped the garlic considerably, too, under the theory that it would ward off any inconvenient cold or flu germs going around, but I use a LOT of garlic, so that should surprise no one.

I had the requisite amount of tomato sauce lurking in the freezer from a previous dinner, so it was a relative snap to put together. I do find that the very best tools for stuffing manicotti are one's fingers. My mother used dainty parfait spoons, whose bowls were small enough not to rupture the tender pasta, and I had a brief fling with the notion of using a pastry bag, which I eventually threw over in favour of the tools I was born with. This sped things up considerably, although it did require a bit more in the way of clean-up than more refined methods.

This is certainly a dish that I would repeat - I might find some twists and turns along the way, but it was a very tasty dinner and we enjoyed the leftovers at work for a couple of days, too. Any good dinner that also yields lunches for the coming week is worth noting. Having recently had good success with a simple pasta dish of farfalle with asparagus in a roasted red pepper sauce, I'm now eyeing the manicotti with the thought of changing up standard tomato for something a little more exotic. Mind you, I'm also contemplating finding a way to work roasted fennel slices into the filling, but that's just me: always thinking about my next meal, sometimes while I'm still eating the one I've got in front of me.

November 07, 2005

What Could Be Better

... than homemade oven-baked chicken fingers? Maybe knowing that it's a fraction of the price of restaurant chicken fingers, maybe it's knowing that it's considerably healthier than fried versions, or maybe it's just that it takes less than half an hour to make 'em. You decide.

The recipe notes that Panko is good for the breadcrumbs, but when I was making this batch I ran out. I substituted freshly processed breadcrumbs instead - it was actually even easier to get them to cling to the chicken. The first half of the batch was done with Panko, though, which is utterly bone white. Because it doesn't brown much in the oven, I decided to add a bit of paprika to the bowl of Panko crumbs This worked very well, although it wasn't really obvious in the raw stage. They baked up beautifully golden, as you can see.

Rather than the egg-dip method, I used the Dijon variation listed at the bottom of the recipe, but in a fit of cleverness, I added a pinch of cayenne pepper and a tablespoon of light sour cream to the mustard to make a pleasingly smooth bite. The Dijon variation is awesome - it has become my preferred method, because I can just dump all of the chicken pieces into the mustard bowl and mix them around. It's very quick.

November 02, 2005

Bread - that's almost a meal

I have a lot to live up to, in the bread-making department.

When I first started making bread, it was my mother's brown bread that I made. Dense with whole wheat and added wheat germ and bran, dark with molasses, enriched with eggs and baked in six-loaf batches, her bread was a hearty, filling loaf that rounded out a bowl of soup or stew into a dinner quite handily. The recipe, for which - alas! - I do not have a written copy, was tricksy. She gave it over and over to friends and community members who admired her bread, but they almost universally reported failure of their attempts to replicate her bread.

For some reason, her recipe just didn't work well for others, but I was one of the few who could even come close - although mine never rose quite as high as hers and therefore was a little denser and a little crumblier. That was the bread that I grew up with as sandwich bread; a sandwich made from two of these slices would sit with you for a while.

We did occasionally have other, lighter breads in the house, when I was growing up, usually in the form of soft French loaves - batards - that were our favourite base for garlic bread on spaghetti dinner nights. I was enamoured of their airy texture, which was foreign and exotic seeming to me, but didn't have the sugary squidge of the white sandwich bread my schoolmates had in their lunches. In my late teens I discovered sourdough rye breads, and cheese breads. Despite my affection for "regular" bread, what a delightful discovery these new breads were! My eyes were opened to the possibilities.

When I began experimenting with bread baking in my twenties, I quickly came up with a heartier type of white bread of my own: The Cornmeal Cheddar Onion loaf. I played with the proportion of cornmeal to wheat flour, and experimented with using raw minced onion or sauteed. I adjusted the level of cheese, and since I was at the time shifting towards sharp or aged cheeses, that simple change afforded a whole new level of cheese flavours.

It's a tasty bread, but it does have limited applications. It makes excellent toast, for example, and a shockingly good toasted cheese sandwich, but sweet applications and peanut butter are pretty much out of the question. It was originally designed as a breakfast bread - something heartier than your average loaf, to stay with you in the morning, but it translates to other meals pretty well. The cornmeal does reduce the amount of glutinous spring in the bread, so untoasted sandwiches can be a touch crumbly, but with a little capicolla and fresh mozzarella...maybe a little can be a delicious lunch. At mid-day or in the evening, next to a steaming bowl of soup, it holds its own. You can find the recipe here.

October 26, 2005

Pie: A Day in the Life

Sometimes, I go to almost ridiculous lengths to use up something in the fridge, or even just to use a particular condiment or treasured ingredient. On this particular occasion, I had a jar of Jamaican Tomato Relish, redolent with allspice and feisty with fresh habanero chiles in the fridge. It had just reached the stage where it had finished curing and was ready for eating.

Now, it so happens that I'm quite fond of meat pies with chutneys and relishes, so that decided dinner for me. I ventured into the slightly labour-intensive world of pie-making, just so that I could use my relish. I decided on a simple beef and onion pie, moistened ever so slightly with a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, and seasoned with a touch of curry powder, some fresh ginger, ground allspice, thyme, and garlic - to compliment and sometimes echo - the flavours in the relish.
During the above stage, the top-crust was partially rolled out and resting in the freezer. After I got the filling in and smoothed out, I took the top-crust out, let it sit on the counter for a moment, and then finished rolling it out.
I am a compulsive pie-crimper. I know no other way. I cannot bear to do the fork-pressed edges, because I can feel my mother's laziness-accusing gaze from the heavens. So, I crimp all pies. Even lattice-tops.
A teensy bit of egg-wash on the top of the pie gives it a lovely golden colour. I start my filled pies at 450 F for ten minutes, then reduce to 350 F to finish baking - 30 - 40 minutes, usually.

Coleslaw is one of my favourite accompaniments to meat pie. Its cool, raw veggie flavours and creamy sauce contrast beautifully with the hot, meaty filling and the flaky crust.

I have long been an advocate of pie-making. They freeze (whole) quite well, and they reheat (whole or by the slice) in the oven rather well, too. In a household of two, a meat pie will last for two or three meals, depending on what else is served or how much restraint we're manage to summon. And the relish? Delicious.

October 22, 2005

Simple Fancy (Fennel Soup)

There is always something that seems a little on the fancy side, when it comes to creamy soups - ones that didn't come from a can, that is. They tend to be loaded with butter and cream, and have a silky texture that is both comforting and lulling. They make me think of French restaurants, and indeed, that is often where I have them.

Every once in a while, though, I bother to make my own. It isn't difficult, and it only takes about an hour of lazy-work, and there aren't that many ingredients required. Ever since I picked up a fennel bulb recently - to make a roasted fennel and Italian sausage pizza (no pictures, I'm afraid) - I've been thinking about the pile of plump, round, white and brightly green fennel in my local greengrocer. Coincidentally enough, I've also had a recipe for fennel soup beckoning me from a cookbook that I've had for some years. It does call for a modest amount of butter, but needs only plain milk rather than cream, and uses not only the flesh of the fennel bulb, but also the roasted seeds and the fronds from the top as a garnish.

Today, since breakfast was light and dinner will be late, we decided to make lunch - a rarity on the weekend. A quick trip up the street to pick up some fennel, and then back to the stove to begin the magical transformation into soup.
I won't lie to you - there is a little chopping involved. Fennel, happily, is very easy to chop. You simply remove the heavy, stringy, outer layer, cut in half pole-to-pole, and then slice half-moon pieces as easily as cutting an onion. With a little practice, even that doesn't take long, and you're practically done at that point.

Fennel Soup
Adapted from the Australian Women's Weekly Fruit & Vegetable Cookbook.
Serves 4

2 tablespoons butter
2 medium bulbs of fennel, trimmed and sliced
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 medium apple, peeled, cored, and diced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3 cups of light chicken stock
1 cup of milk
2 teaspoons of fennel seeds, toasted

Remove the stalks from the fennel and reserve for another use or discard. Save some of the fronds for garnish - set them aside.

In a medium-large pot, melt the butter. Add the sliced fennel, the onion and apple, and stir and cook until the onion starts to turn translucent and the volume of vegetable matter reduces in the pot (softens enough to compact). Add the stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the chunkiest bit of fennel is tender to the tip of a knife. Allow to cool slightly while you pour two teaspoons of fennel seeds into a small frying pan, and toast over a medium heat until they start to turn colour and smell fragrant. Be careful not to burn them.

When the fennel is tender, puree the soup in batches (add the toasted fennel seed to the first batch) - be careful when pureeing hot soup - never fill your blender more than half-way up. If you have an immersion blender, that would also work. Once all of the soup is pureed, return it to the pot on the stove. Add the milk and stir well. Taste the soup to see if you need to add any salt. The chicken stock may have added enough, but if not you can add a little pinch of salt now, and stir it through. Heat the soup gently until it is warmed through, but be careful not to let it boil. Top individual bowls with a good pinch of chopped fennel fronds, and a grinding of black pepper. Serve with bread to mop up every last bit of soup from your bowl.

So simple. Yet still, it feels a little fancy.

October 17, 2005

Leftovers: The Eternal Question

It is the blessing and curse of family feasts that the memorable meals we create also generate a substantial amount of leftovers. This is particularly true in the case of turkey-related meals, because a small family will have leftovers from even a tiny bird, and a large family typically overestimates how many pounds of bird it will take to sedate its members into a tryptophan-induced stupor. Everyone wants to be sure that there's at least enough bird leftover to make a turkey sandwich or two, preferably on sourdough bread spread with cranberry sauce and maybe just a touch of stuffing - because nothing says holiday leftovers like bread stuffed with bread. Except, in my case, I would rather chop the hapless leftovers into small pieces, smother them in a velouté sauce, and cover them with bread - er, biscuit, actually.

The biscuit dough was a little feistier than usual, or I was a little heavier-handed, because this batch wasn't as featherlight as is typical. Still, it's a whole new lease on life for turkey leftovers (and the bits of bacon that cling tenaciously to the skin) that a) uses up most of the leftovers at once, so they don't languish in the fridge or freezer, and b) is significantly different from the feast whence it came in flavours, despite being full of turkey goodness. A little corn, some sliced carrots, some mushrooms - turkey is very veggie-friendly, so you could easily add whatever you like best: some braised fennel, peas, yam chunks, even potatoes if you feel your dinner is not sufficiently carbohydrate-rich.

And, if by chance (and it would have to be by chance, in my household) there's a teensy bit of wine leftover from the dinner or there's an extra unopened bottle lurking around just waiting for a purpose in its life, you pour yourself a glass and sit down to a meal that's fit for anyone who knows good food.

October 13, 2005

Experimental cooking: Dijon Dill Chicken Bake

I had a little fresh dill lurking in the fridge, and I knew it could't lurk much longer. I like dill, but outside of pickles, Cooking Light's Orzo & Chickpea Salad, and the odd veggie-dip, I don't have a lot of uses for it. I made the salad last week for an office potluck - Mediterranean theme - and still had a half-bunch of fresh dill to use up.

I had seen a recipe once in the low-fat cookbook Looneyspoons for a dill-and-sour cream chicken dish, but I didn't write it down because it seemed a little bland to me. However, armed with the experience of making Pörkölt, I thought I'd take the idea and run with it. It was pretty tasty - I have some minor tweaks to make it better, but it is definitely worth making again. Like the Pörkölt, it's low-effort cooking, but very rewarding.

Next time, I might roast some asparagus and dice it up to add at the last minute.

Dijon-Dill Chicken Bake

serves 3

10 chicken tenders or slices of chicken breast
1 1/2 cups light sour cream
2 - 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard - or to taste
1/4 cup finely minced fresh dill
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
zest of one lemon
pinch of salt
black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 F. Spritz an 8" Pyrex baking dish with canola oil.
Mix sauce ingredients (everything but the chicken) briskly with a whisk. Taste, and add more Dijon if necessary, or adjust for salt. This, minus the cornstarch, would make a fabulous veggie or chip dip, by the way. I'm just sayin'.

Place a couple of spoonfuls of sauce in the baking dish, and smooth to cover. Lay the chicken tenders in a single layer over the sauce. Pour the rest of the sauce on top, and smooth over the chicken so that it is completely covered. Place in preheated oven and bake uncovered for 35 - 40 minutes. Remove from oven and stir gently to even the sauce texture. Serve over rice, preferably with a bright green vegetable. There's lots of sauce, which is perfect for rice, pasta, mashed potatoes, or some other sauce-loving starch.

What would I do differently next time? I might add a shot of tobasco sauce. I would definitely increase the garlic to 2 cloves, because I love garlic, and I think that adding a pinch of dry mustard powder in the sauce would be a good way to round out the depth of the mustard flavour without it getting too mustardy. And I'm definitely considering the asparagus.

October 08, 2005

Roast Lamb to Cure the Blues

I sometimes get into a little wee rut, making the same things over and over until I feel entirely uninspired, and even a fridge full of food does not inspire me. I mope over my meal calendar and stare at the spines of my cookbooks, and sigh. It's the cooking blues. I know that fantastic dishes lurk within their pages, some triumphs of the past, some perhaps of the future. There's a sense of overwhelming work involved with the idea of either reproducing a past glory or tackling something brand new that is a part-and-parcel of the whole stuck-in-a-rut cooking blues feeling.

Sometimes the cure does come from a recipe or a cookbook, fallen magically open to something that looks both delicious and undaunting to my frazzled mind. More often, though, I am captured by the sight of something in the market that gets the motor running again. This week, it was a lovely half-roast lamb - from the shank side (which makes it easier to debone at any stage). Roasts are lovely because they can require minimal preparation time, take a while in the oven, and you can surround them with things that are both delicious and suitable to the task at hand.

For this little devil, I lay down a few springs of fresh rosemary, cut some slits into the roast and thrust slivers of garlic into them, rubbed the whole thing lightly with canola oil (olive would have been fine, too) seasoned liberally with salt and pepper, and tossed it in a 400 F oven for an hour and a half. The potatoes are chunks of Yukon Gold - a lovely, lovely, medium starch potato that roasts up very well and, as I am wont to add to almost any roast, a fistful of peeled garlic cloves went in half-way through cooking. The potatoes finished cooking, getting a nicely rosemary-infused crust in the roasting pan (actually, my 10 3/4" cast iron frying pan) while the lamb rested on a plate. A few chopped vegetables and a little feta later, we had a salad, and heartbeats later, we each had a plate of sliced rare lamb, golden roast potatoes, a few cloves of garlic, and a Greco-Turkish salad.

Blues? What blues?

October 05, 2005


Those of you who read the essays on my main site have already been subjected to a large number of my memories of food from my childhood, so when Ana of Pumpkin Pie Bungalow tagged me to participate in the Five Childhood Food Memories meme, it took me a bit of head-scratching to come up with five that I haven't already blathered on about ad infinitum.

Here we go:

1) Topless Tarts. One Christmas, when I was about five or six, I was helping my mother bring out holiday goodies to our guests. After a long afternoon of baking, I was very pleased with the number of different items that we had created, and was proud to serve them up to company. The very last batch of mincemeat tarts were open-style, as we had used up all the pastry and didn't have time to make more. I blithely took a tray of them in and loudly offered all of our guests "topless tarts." My mother had to explain to me what all of the arched eyebrows and giggles were about, but I don't think the explanation really took hold until I was older. I managed to be mortified anyway.

2) Bread-bun crabs. I helped my mother bake bread as far back as I can remember, from the time when I thought that greasing up the loaf-pans, or fetching ingredients from the cupboards or storage room was a real privilege as opposed to a chore. If I had been good, I would get a small amount of risen dough, sliced evenly from the six loaves that she was shaping, to make a bun for dinner. The earliest buns were simple round affairs, where I would attempt to mimic the shaping and spanking procedure that my mother used to shape her bread. As I got more skilled at handling the dough, my buns became more and more elaborate, culminating in the crab, complete with dough pincers and little currants for eyes. After that one, every bun that I made was a crab.

3) Peeling potatoes. We were a decidedly meat-and-potatoes family, although I understand that the portions of meat that we ate in proportion to the vegetables, was considerably smaller than average. Potatoes were far and away the most common starch, to the point that one of us kids was usually deputized to peel them and put them on to boil. If for some reason, five o'clock had rolled around and mom wasn't back from whatever excursion she was on, one of us would inevitably get started on the potatoes to speed up the process of getting dinner ready for the moment when dad got home. We ate a LOT of potatoes. Mostly boiled, but sometimes mashed, scalloped or baked.

4) Writing it down. My mother often cooked her most common dishes from the top of her head, not needing to look at a recipe. Many of these dishes didn't have a recipe to begin with, and existed solely upstairs. In a fit of journalism or pragmatism, I can't recall which, I began writing down the recipes while my mother was making them - laboriously writing on little recipe cards. I was fanatical about amounts, because I didn't realize how unimportant they are outside of baking, and thus still have recipe cards that instruct me to use .580 kg of beef for baked spaghetti for six.

5) More jam. My dad was probably one of the biggest supporters in my learning how to cook, for one specific reason: Anything that I made, he ate without complaining, and said "thank you" when he had finished. Eventually, I began to judge the relative worth of different dishes by how he managed to eat them: straight up and quickly was a very good sign, more slowly, and with an abundance of condiments was a clue that I had gone wrong somewhere. I remember particularly when the light dawned on me. In a fit of "cooking healthy" I had made pancakes with neither salt nor sugar. Never in my life had I seen my dad put so much jam on a pancake, and gradually, the reason for it sank in. My respect for him rose even higher when I realized how many years he had been doing this. He only ever complimented the things that I had done very well but his stoic acceptance, even appreciation of the effort that went into the dishes that weren't so good is an enduring memory. To me, that showed a greater love than any unearned praise.

I guess it's my turn to tag someone, so I'm picking on Joe from Culinary in the Desert.

October 03, 2005


I'm not Jewish, but I am very interested in Jewish food and the traditions that go along with them. I find the sheer number of dietary prohibitions kind of boggling, but I greatly enjoy many of the foods that go with the various holidays.

In a somewhat ecumenical spirit, I occasionally do a cook-along with a variety of different religious and secular food-related holidays and events. Since it is currently Rosh Hashanah on the Jewish calendar, I decided that honeycake was the way to go.

A few years ago, I was given a wonderful cookbook by Claudia Roden - The Book of Jewish Food. The recipes for challah (my favourite bread to make) and honeycake alone are worth the cost of the book, but there's an amazing amount of other good recipes as well. Like most of my favourite cookbooks, this one is part story, part history, lots of recipes, and has a very distinctive personality.

The cake itself is rich with things that I enjoy in their own context: coffee, rum, orange zest, and above all - honey. It is incredibly sweet, containing almost a cup each of sugar and honey, but that makes it an amazing "keeper" that can last for most of forever without spoiling. In fact, I find that it is invariably better the next day, as the first day it can be a teensy bit on the dry side. It gets moister as time goes on, which is a bad thing in blueberry muffins, but a good thing in honeycake.

I've been a fan of the very notion of honeycake since Winnie-the-Pooh's little friend Roo jumped up and down with glee at the notion of "chocolate honeycake!" for their picnic. My latest cookbook, Nigella Lawson's Feast contains a chocolate honeycake... adorably decorated with marzipan bees (which brings to mind David Sylvian's album Dead Bees on a Cake but which is disconcerting at the moment, as my kitchen is lately filled with dying bees). I may have to make that one next.

In the meantime - L'Shana Tova to my Jewish friends - Happy New Year! May it be a sweet one.

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.

August 31, 2005

Now with Spam!

Sorry folks - I've had a spamtastic day here, so I'm turning on the word-verification filter to try to get around it. Sorry for the extra step, and my apologies if any real comments got nuked with the spam, spam, spam, eggs, and spam that I've just deleted.


World Blog Day

I have been remiss in not providing a links section to some of the many food blogs that I read regularly. I do plan to add one in the not-too-terribly-distant future, but it hasn't happened yet, obviously. However, in honour of World Blog Day, I will share five remarkable food blogs whose pages I visit regularly, whose updates I look forward to more than any newspaper or magazine (well, except, perhaps Cooks Illustrated), and with whom I feel some form of culinary kinship, despite never having met any of them. It's hard to pick only five, because I read about 15 regularly and even more on a periodic basis.

Without further ado, and in alphabetical order:

Bakingsheet - Nic in Los Angeles produces volumes of stunning food with charming anecdotes from cooking school classes and simple, easy-to-follow recipes.

Chocolate & Zucchini - Clothilde in Paris manages one of the best known food blogs in the world, and has a forum full of helpful and interesting folks from around the world participating. Lots of well written short pieces on the food she finds and eats in Paris and occasionally elsewhere.

Delicious! Delicious! - Caren details her career as a personal chef to a hollywood actor (anonymous, of course) in movie-script format. The little stories are entertaining, the recipes are simple but impressive looking.

Domestic Goddess - Jennifer in Toronto has an impressive link archive of worldwide food blogs, but her own site is well worth perusing, with fun little notes on her personal culinary escapades.

Orangette - Molly in Seattle writes charming and delightful, highly personal, diary-like entries and posts fabulous recipes. Hers was the first food blog that I encountered after starting this one, and is the gold standard of its kind - terrific recipes (I've made a number of them without a flop), great photography, and thoughtful prose. After playing catch-up in her archives, I very nearly discontinued my own. I'm a stubborn cuss, though, and don't stop talking easily.

There are so many more: Pumpkin Pie Bungalow, Food Ninja, Lex Culinaria, Oswego Tea, Culinary Adventure...

I promise to install a proper links section soon.

August 25, 2005

Wine Club: BC Small Lots

The August wine tasting - BC Small Lots - was unexpectedly good. I don't know why I'm still amazed whenever I have good red wines from BC, but I still have this reflexive cringe from my very first (to my knowledge) BC red back in the late '80s - a Calona Vineyards Pinot Noir. I didn't know much about wine in general at the time, and I certainly didn't know anything about Pinot Noir, other than that it had a cool sounding name. You know, set yourself up with some film noir and a glass of Pinot Noir - it just sounded like it should be fancy and mysterious, and maybe a bit elitist. It should probably be wearing a beret. However, even in my utterly uneducated state, I disliked the wine intensely. It may have in fact delayed my interest in wine by several years.

How much has changed! While generally a little overpriced, some BC red wines can compete palate-to-palate with wines from Europe and beyond. This tasting consisted of seven BC wines that are produced in limited releases - one sparkling and six red. Many of these are not available in liquor stores, although you may have some luck in wine shops, or ordering from the vineyard directly.

Photo Credit: D. Langtry

Whenever we have a sparkling, that's where we start first. It's poured last, and the tasters fall on it with a cry without waiting for their peer's glasses to be poured. nv Blue Mountain Brut is where we started, and it was widely agreed to be a pleasant wine. It had a sharp, crisp scent of apples on the nose, and a sort of Strongbow-like flavour of cider on the palate. There was simply nothing outstanding about it, and several tasters noted that they could buy a lot of good sparkling cider for the $22 price tag. Still, it's always nice to start with a sparkling wine, yes?

We moved on to another Blue Mountain, this time a magnum of the 2000 Reserve Pinot Noir Striped label. A previous tasting of the much sought-after Blue Mountain Pinot Noir (regular) revealed it to be disappointing, so we were keen to see how this one stacked up as it was both a) the reserve, and b) a magnum size (wine generally tastes better if it is stored in a larger bottle than the standard 750 ml). It was pretty enough, with a garnet red colour and a clear rim, and even the scent of chalk and rock wasn't off-putting - Pinot Noir can have some fairly funky odors. Unfortunately, the palate was equally rocky, and very thin-textured, with no fruit or pepper flavours at all. It seemed rather sour to me, and I moved on relatively quickly. $75 for the magnum - yikes!

Happily, I moved on the the LaFrenz 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, from Naramata, at $27. Bloody and opaque, with just a faint hint of orange showing at the rim, the nose yielded very little. The palate however, was a musky combination of cherries and plums, with a faint acridity. It had good body - lots of body! - and it was generally concluded that a strong game meat would be ideal to stand up to the fierce flavours. Possibly something cooked with juniper berries...

The next wine was the 2002 Sandhill Syrah Small Lots - Phantom Creek at $30. This is not a Burrowing Owl Sandhill, by the way, but a very interesting boutique wine. It was the kind of dark opaque red that almost looks like a black hole - as though light would have trouble escaping its surface. The legs were thick, quick to form and fast moving. The nose was unusual, consisting solely of plums and salt-licorice. The palate was even more unusual, evoking the words "dark, bark, metal, rocks, licorice, and salt." Almost unanimously, tasters declared it "kind of weird" but many of us kept going back to our glass, sipping and frowning and sipping, and gradually confessing a sort of growing fondness for it.

We eventually put our glasses down and picked up the 2003 Oak Bay Meritage, at whopping $35. The composition of this wine was 40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc. It was a pretty, bright red with a cherry-pink rim, a fair amount of acidity and a little red fruit on the nose, and a sour-cherry flavour that was quite refreshing. The price tage makes this one a little too steep for what is essentially a fruit-and-cheese sipping red, or the second bottle at a dinner party, but it wasn't bad at all.

2002 Burrowing Owl Meritage, however was worth its $35, which is a relief to those of us already housing one in our wine cellars. The composition of this wine was 20% Merlot, 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc. The wine is a dark ruby colour, opaque, and with good body. The nose is a little rocky, but the flavours were fruit, spices, nuts and a hint of Christmas. This is a very tasty wine, and worthy of the gold medals and attention that it gets.

In the grand tradition of saving the best for last, our final wine of the night was the 2003 Black Hills Nota Bene, comprised of 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, and 20% Cabernet Franc. This is a heckuva wine for $34. Dark, bloody red, with dark red fruit, flint and raspberries on the nose, the flavours were smooth, balanced, fruity, and with just a hint of pepper. The body was elegantly velvety without being overly thick, and the entire glass just disappeared to the soundtrack of universal approbation.

Six out of Seven isn't a bad haul, and although this tasting has done nothing to improve my outlook on Blue Mountain wines, it is comforting to know that BC reds are improving at a remarkable rate. Now, if only we could keep the prices under control...

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