May 31, 2005

Restlessness and Cake

I've been a little restless in the baking department, lately. I like to have some sort of baked goods on hand for taking to work, and with only two of us in the house I prefer that the baking items are ones that can be sliced, wrapped and frozen in advance, so I don't end up resentfully staring at a somewhat stale piece of coffee cake at the end of the pan. By having two or three different things in the freezer, I can mix it up and stave off boredom.

The thing of it is, even with the mix-and-match approach to stocking the freezer, I'm finding my frequent flyers are starting to pall a bit. Don't get me wrong, I love that coffee cake (and the fact that it can be varied quite a bit in itself), and I will probably always love the Devil Fooled Cake, but it seems that for months I've been oscillating between the two, with the Spiced Sweet Potato bread thrown in when I just can't face the others anymore.

Of course, there are many more cakes and cookies and squares in my repertoire - so why the repetition? The thing of it is this: I like to eat relatively healthy foods, and if I am taking baked goodies in my lunch EVERY SINGLE DAY, I want to make sure that they're not completely detrimental to my health. Those three are the shining stars of my heart-healthy, lower fat, and all-around guilt-reduced recipes.

Last week I experimented with rumball brownies, based substantially upon a Cooking Light brownie recipe. It was fairly tasty, but needs work, and I can see myself tinkering with it in the near future. Still, brownies are not usually a go-to snack for me (even non-detrimental ones) and while these little darlings are lower in fat (clocking in at about 30%) than most recipes, I'm looking for something more in the 20% range so that I can snack with impunity.

Tonight, I plan to attack a simple snacking cake made with apricot nectar. The recipe is a hybrid of many different recipes that I've found online - most of which call for prefab cake mixes, which I tend to avoid. I will, of course, keep you posted with the result.

May 26, 2005

Kitchen Makeover

Those of you who have been loyal readers of my main site, Always in the Kitchen, know that I've been promising to give the whole place a spiffy new look sometime this year. I'm pleased to announce that the renovations are under way!

This blog will likely stay materially the same (possibly gaining some artwork), but stay tuned for the fully re-vamped kitchen sometime in the not-too-terribly-distant future. Yay!

May 25, 2005

The Heartbreak Grape

In honour of the resurgence of popularity for the obstreporous Pinot Noir (due in no small part to the Oscar-nominated movie "Sideways") and because it has been a few years since we did a dedicated side-by-side tasting of it, my wine club chose Pinot Noir for its May tasting.

The nickname "The Heartbreak Grape" comes from the fact that there really isn't a mid-range of Pinot Noir wines. If all the conditions are right and the grapes are grown in just the right way and handled carefully by the winemaker (and the stars are all in alignment, etc.) the resultant wine will be a marvel of complex, elegant character and nuance. One misstep, however, and the wine is dreadful, sometimes to the point of utter undrinkability. The grape responds truculently to mishandling, and grows well only in certain microclimates.

We sampled Pinot Noirs from British Columbia, Oregon, California, New Zealand and France.

Most disappointing, were the expensive bottles from France, weighing in at $28 and $77 respectively. While we were warned that both bottles were from "off years" where the conditions were not ideal, we were still surprised by the thinness of character in the Chateau De Chamilly 1999 Cotes Chalonnaise - the scant fruit flavour seemed to evaporate on your tongue before you could even swallow, and the jammy, flat, overcooked plums in the Domaine Bizot 2000 Vosne-Romanee Les Jachees. The latter was particularly disappointing in that it had by far the best nose of any of the wines, full of leather and smoke and fruit.

California's offering, the Mandolin 2002 was not particularly good, but it was inexpensive ($13) and many people found it inoffensive. I didn't care for it, but I seemed to be the lone wolf of dissent, although it was broadly acknowledged to be an inferior wine.

We had three wines from BC - the Blue Mountain 2003 ($24), the Quail's Gate Family Reserve 1998 ($35) and the dark horse of the evening, brought by one of the tasters, the Okanagan Vineyards (2003? I can't recall) a new product which will be soon made available at a shocking $10. In summary, for the BC offerings, the Blue Mountain was overrated and generally mocked as the inadequate darling of people who buy into the artifically difficult availability, the Quail's Gate had some good flavours and aromas but was definitely past its best-before date, and the Okanagan Vineyards was bright, tasty and juicily drinkable, if not particularly sophisticated - we were shocked to find out how little it goes for.

The Kim Crawford 2003 ($24) from Marlborough, New Zealand won most tasters despite its screw top, with bright, cherry flavours reminscent of soda pop. It had a pleasant, if not entirely characteristic nose of cedar and orange zest.

The clear winner of the evening was the Torii Mor 2003 ($35) from Oregon. It showed a classic nose of slightly mouldy wood, cherries and vanilla that were echoed in the flavours. The wine elicited comments about its silky texture and smooth, balanced flavours, although some felt that it edged a little too far into sweetness. This wine was the one that had tasters wrangling over any leftover amount, and which I hoarded to go with my dinner.

The next tasting will be table wines from Portugal (as opposed to ports, sherries) which I hope will include some vinho verde, a speciality not found anywhere else.

Previous Tastings:
South African Wines
Spanish Wines

May 23, 2005

Taking Stock

...and, resultantly, making stock.

I have a pretty good freezer attached to my fridge. Unlike its immediate predecessor, it keeps ice cream frozen solid (very solid, in fact) without creating that partially melted and refrozen, crystaline sludge that looks like part of the set from the ice caves of Hoth. The freezer also has a rack, which is eminently sensible and makes searching for things much less precarious than it otherwise would be.

I generally try to put bags of "stash" items in the narrow, below-the-rack space, which fits perfectly a re-sealable tortilla bag crammed with burritos, a couple of ziploc bags of gyoza, and currently some adorable little scoops of baked falafel. The above-the-rack space is larger, and allows me to stack containers of frozen soup, cooked beans in their liquid, leftover curry, and all manner of yummy things that I might need - applesauce, frozen corn, leftover pasta sauce, IQF shrimp.

In and around the towers of freezer cartons, are an assortment of bags containing things that no one in their right mind would consider food in their current state: chicken carcasses that were picked almost clean, and meaty ham bones. These things are something of a secret weapon in good home cooking, because they make delicious stock that has a multitude of uses.

When I get a bonus day off, such as today, without too long a chore list of things that I need to do outside of the house, I like to round up some of the bones from the fridge and put them to use.

Right now, I am simmering a ham bone with bay leaves, brown mustard seed, a few slices of onion, some parsley sprigs, and a clove of garlic that has been sliced almost-through in about six places. There was a certain amount of meat scraps still clinging to the bone from where I wearied of divesting it before chucking it into the freezer, but that's okay because it now can give its all to the stock.

Ham stock is quite gelatinous by nature, and also can be very fatty. You don't want to be making it the same day you are using it, because it benefits immeasurably from standing around for a while so that the fat can rise to the surface, solidify in the fridge, and be scraped off and either a) discarded or b) made into some dish that requires pork fat. I generally choose option a because I don't do a lot of cooking with pork fat, and the amount rendered in the soup process is significant in terms of stock, but not in terms of what would be needed for a lot of southern cooking. I suppose, if I were truly living up to my pioneer stock ancestors, I would simply scrape it into another container and save it to make biscuits, but mostly I can't be bothered. Besides, I already have mugs of goose fat and chicken schmalz in the freezer.

It doesn't take long to make a good ham stock. It mostly minds itself while you take care of other things, simmering gently on the stove for an hour or two, filling the house with its hammy scent. It makes me want to make split-pea soup right now, but I have other things planned for the afternoon and I am looking forward to having a supply of ham stock waiting for me in my freezer the next time I make Jambalaya or a simple risotto.

Today, it's ham stock. If I get the rest of my day sorted out and am still feeling ambitious, I might drag out the two sets of chicken bones, and make chicken stock, too.

May 20, 2005

Living on the Edge

... of the expiry date.

Sometimes my cooking and/or baking is predicated on what’s most in need of using up. The tag end of an irregularly used pasta shape, the green peppers that I had forgotten to put in the salad four days ago, the milk that is rapidly approaching its due date. Things that are taking up space.

I open the door to the fridge, and survey the contents with an Iron Chef scowl. What can I make that will use up as many of the “secret” ingredients as possible? Then I get right to work. I don’t have a small army of sous-chefs to chop and stir on my behalf, but I also don’t have to work within an hour’s time constraint or stand at the end of the table while mincing tasters make faces and search for adjectives for “meh.”

When the must-use items include buttermilk, the first thing that leaps to mind is coffee cake. Almost infinitely adaptable and very forgiving of slap-dash, make-do efforts, the coffee cake can conceal a multitude of kitchen sins. It’s a good thing, too.

When I was first learning to bake, I would assemble all of my ingredients on the kitchen table before beginning. That way, there would be no surprises, such as last night’s realization that I only had half the amount of buttermilk required, and half the amount of the correct type of sugar (golden/brown sugar). Only slightly daunted, I soldiered on with the recipe, using a quarter-cup of liquid egg white instead of a whole egg, packing the remaining space in the sugar-cup with both demerara and white sugars, and replacing the filling and topping with shaved Callebaut chocolate and cinnamon. The buttermilk was shored-up with regular 1% milk and left to “age” in the hopes that the culture in the buttermilk would quickly convert the interloper.

The finished cake didn’t rise quite as high as the original recipe faithfully does – my punishment for subbing out the egg with only whites and the buttermilk for a mixture - but it was light-textured (“weightless!” says Palle) and flavourful, with a pretty spackle of chocolate across the top. Although less sweet than the regular version, it was in fact ideal with a cup of coffee.

The rest of the regular milk is on a ticking clock, too – I will probably make paneer tonight, to go with tomorrow’s potential Indian dinner. Cooking the milk will give me the day or two’s respite needed to gather my wits and plan a dinner around it.

May 15, 2005

Off to Market

The Farmers' Market at Trout Lake opened for the season, yesterday. The sky was overcast, but it was warm enough that I had to remove a layer coming home. I like this kind of weather for the market - blazing sun makes the shoppers cranky and difficult, and since it's treated as a family outing by many folks, a sunny market day can mean a lot of wailing children. So, I go early, rather than after noon, and I prefer to go on cloudy days.

Not all of the vendors were there. There were only two bread bakeries, for example, and while one of them had the coveted pao de queijo in unbaked form, the lineup was fierce and I didn't make it through. There were two apiaries hawking honey and beeswax products, but I have a fair amount of honey, and little need for beeswax at the moment. I examined the offerings from a discreet distance, and moved on.

The mushroom folks were there, and that is where I made my first purchase. A large tub of mixed mushrooms, containing variously a portabello, some shiitake, some oyster and a few cremini mushrooms was mine for only $5. They will become dinner of some sort, tonight - I'm rather thinking that Wild Mushroom Risotto might be the way to go. I also found a vegetable stand which had French Breakfast radishes, and since I've been adding radishes to everything lately (usually the regular, round, red, globe radishes) I thought I'd give them a try. Organic Long English cucumbers were only a dollar each, so I snagged one of them, too. I forsee another Greek or Turkish salad in my immediate future.

My final purchase was a riotous little French Thyme plant. French Thyme and English Thyme are both thymus vulgaris, but the leaves do look a little different. I'm not entirely sure what the difference is, so perhaps I need to do a little research. French Thyme is widely regarded as the preferred among all thymes for cooking, and since my little kitchen rennaissance of French dishes (not to mention all the Caribbean dishes I've become so fond of) it made sense to replace my long departed garden pot.

Cloth bag stuffed full of goodies, and clutching my fragrant pot of herbs, I stumbed down to Broadway to catch the bus home. Yesterday's menu had been worked out well in advance, without room for any of these treasures, but today... today I get to play.

May 09, 2005

Fennel is the next big thing

In my kitchen, anyway. I enjoy the odd food jag, and I’ve been between frenzies of late. It started with Molly’s recipe on Orangette for Carrot & Fennel Soup. Not only was the soup delicious (and easy to make), it froze well and reheated fabulously for a lazy Sunday lunch when you dare not brave the Mother's Day frenzy of brunch.

When I was shopping for the ingredients for the soup, I noticed how lovely the fennel bulbs in the store looked. Smooth and white, clean and fresh – begging to be shaved raw into a salad, braised and whirred into a puree, or sliced and roasted and tossed with linguini, fennel seed, chile flakes, halved cherry tomatoes, and cubes of fontina.

That last one, the pasta dish, may very well be dinner tonight. I haven’t made it in ages, but it was very popular the few times that I did. If I remember correctly, the original dish called for some sort of bacon or prosciutto, but I’ve got some ham to use up, so tiny cubes of sautéed ham it will be. There’s also a few black olives languishing from the Cinco de Mayo potluck, and they might go in, too. A little crushed garlic, a little good quality olive oil… dinner’s looking pretty easy, and pretty tasty.

I’m also eyeing a purely fennel soup recipe from one of the Australian Women’s Weekly collections (I think it’s the Fruit & Vegetables cookbook). I suspect it will freeze well, and I’m leaning favourably toward Sunday lunches like yesterday’s – a little soup from the freezer, some good bread, various cheeses and pickles. It feels so very much like home.

May 06, 2005

Lazy Roast Chicken

There may be no rest for the wicked, but the lazy can still enjoy a darn good roast chicken. I’ve seen (and made) many variations on your basic, garden variety roast chicken over the last twenty years or so. I’ve brined, and stuffed, and butterflied, and cooked upside-down for half the time. I’ve put butter between the skin and the meat, I’ve trussed, I’ve basted, and employed an exciting variety of herbs, sauces, rubs, and quirky temperature adjusting. Lid on. Lid off. Most of these ways work perfectly well, but my standard lazy roast chicken is a mighty fine dish on its own.

It’s not really a recipe, more a set of directions and suggestions. I use a basic broiler/fryer for most of my roast chickens – they’re cheaper than “roaster” chickens (albeit smaller) and fit nicely into my cast iron frying pan.

This is what I do:

Preheat the oven to 400 F. While the oven is heating up, rinse the chicken under cool water, allow to drain (just hold it over the sink and give it a shake, really) and pat the surface dry with paper towels or napkins – something that you can toss away when you’re done.

Put the now-dry chicken breast-side up into a dry cast iron frying pan - mine is a 10 ¾” and fits most broiler/fryers perfectly. No chicken-roasting gizmos needed!

Pull up the skin flaps around the cavity, and pull/cut off and discard any excessivly large globules of fat. Wash your hands thoroughly in hot soapy water.

Spritz the top surface of the chicken with canola oil, or rub lightly with oil (and wash your chickeny hands again). Sprinkle coarse salt liberally over the chicken breasts and legs. If you want to add another herb or spice – paprika gives it a lovely colour – do that now. Place the pan in the hot oven.

Do not cover the chicken (lid or tinfoil or anything).
Do not baste the chicken with anything
Do not change the oven temperature

A 3 lb. chicken cooks in about 1 to 1.25 hours. During this time, you can relax. Do the laundry or other chores if you want, otherwise laze about in your favourite fashion. Test the chicken for done-ness (an instant read thermometer registering 185 F when thrust into the thickest part of the thigh meat is good, or a knife into the area between the leg and the body – if the juices run clear, you’re good to go). Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the chicken to a plate or carving board. Let the chicken rest for at least 5 minutes before cutting, or you will lose most of the juices. Slice/carve/destroy the chicken as suits you best. Devour.

Nifty extras: A large russet potato bakes in about the same amount of time as the chicken. Wash the potato thoroughly, and jab it with a fork a couple of times. Place on the oven rack next to the frying pan full of chicken and ignore until the chicken is ready. The potato will be, too.

Roast garlic is delicious – even more so when it is roasted in chicken fat! Peel a handful of cloves (or heck, do the whole head!) and throw them into the pan with the chicken about ½ hour before you expect the chicken to be done. Give them a little stir so they’re coated with the chicken fat. When the chicken is ready, the garlic cloves will be sweetly caramelized and delicious.

If I am going to have leftover roast chicken, I like to remove the meat from the bones right after dinner, while it is still warm and freshly cooked (use your bare hands!); it is much more hassle if you wait to do this after the chicken has been refrigerated. I plate the boneless meat, cover it with plastic wrap and put in the fridge for the next day. The bones go into a bag and into the freezer, to deal with when I feel like making stock.

There you go. Not glamourous, not fancy, not even really a recipe – more of a method. But it’s a low maintenance dinner (you can always make a salad or steam some broccoli in the last few minutes of cooking) that I’m happy to have, and which gives me great leftovers and stock-fixings.

That’s a reasonable amount of mileage to get out of one little chicken, I think.

May 04, 2005

How much did those renovations cost?

Rob Feenie has recently appeared in television commercials for White Spot, trading on not only his name-brand recognition from his show on the Food Network, but his recent triumph on Iron Chef America.

It's bewildering. One can't help but wonder if our local boy is losing it, especially after seeing the dreadfully constructed ad for his own restaurants, Feenie's and Lumière, on the backs of buses. I have no objection to his advertising his own enterprises, although it looks as though he lost a bet and had to use something his competition picked out, frankly. The ads are ugly, and probably unnecessary. Both of his restaurants appear to be doing very well - filled with people every time I am there, or even walk past them. He owns one of the true destination restaurants in Canada in Lumière, and heaven only knows, the boy doesn't suffer from lack of exposure in this town.

Lumière was closed down for a while in April, for renovations. I haven't been back yet since it re-opened, although the menus look as delicious as ever (and the format has changed slightly for the tasting menus in the formal dining room). I really like the bar there - the staff know their drinks inside and out and you never have to worry that your vintage cocktail is going to show up in a metal "martini glass." The food at the bar is also exquisite - I haven't had a dish there that was less than fabulous, and some of them (the four-cheese macaroni, the wontons in Peking duck broth) I can get almost evangelical about.

In fact, as I have said before, I am willing to eat anything that Mr. Feenie puts down in front of me. This is partially why I'm so flinchy at his recent plugging of White Spot. The general thrust of the new White Spot adverts (some of which apparently feature John Bishop of Bishop's although I haven't seen that one yet) seems to be all about the use of fresh, local ingredients - something for which both Rob Feenie and John Bishop have long been vocal advocates. White Spot isn't adding foie gras to its (optimistically named) triple-o sauce, or forcing you into a prix-fixe format.

It seems like it should be a good deal for White Spot - endorsement of their product by some of the fanciest and shmanciest chefs in town, and since White Spot is a local chain, won't particularly contaminate their reputations abroad. However, is the name-brand endorsement really going to reach out to the target audience of White Spot? Is it going to elevate the clientele, or move the restaurant chain more up-market? Is it going to have anything other than amusing kitsch factor for the current patrons? Didn't it cost them a lot of money?

It would have to cost White Spot a lot of money. I cannot fathom how or why either of these chefs would stoop to shilling for a tedious local (BC & Alberta) burger chain without White Spot driving a dumptruck of money up to his house. With two booming restaurants, an established television show AND an Iron Chef America title under his belt, how much more does he need? Are we going to see him hawking his own line of cookware (although, that would be less irritating than what he's doing now)? Plugging the fish counter at Safeway? Has he lost all sense of perspective? Is it all a joke?

I can't help but be waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don't care if he does eat at White Spot, it looks like selling-out, to me.

May 02, 2005

Whoops, I did it again...

... I played with the requisite pan-size of the recipe that I was making. Consequently, the banana cake took almost twice as long to cook, and got rather firm on the top. Volumetrics, baby: always do the math.

The thing of it is, when I'm paying attention I know that you can't sub an 8" springform pan for a 9" square pan, for crying out loud! It doesn't matter what the recipe says. But no, I was thinking "Oh, I've got an 8" springform! I'll use that." I would have been better off using an 8" square pan, rather than the round one. The math was backwards. You can sub them the other way 'round. Oh, well.

Then, there was the ham. I was looking for something suitable for a jambalaya version that I've been working on, and when I saw inexpensive, marked down further, smoked picnic shoulder lurking in the supermarket, I thought, "Oh HO! This will work nicely!" Completely forgetting to check to see if it was going to need cooking, or was in fact fully cooked, I tossed it into the fridge (with a heavy thump, might I add, at 7 lbs of piggy goodness) and it didn't occur to me until about 5:30 that it might need some time in the oven.

Of course it did. It needed 2 1/2 hours in the oven, in fact! By the time it was ready, I was starving and the house smelled like an entire roast pig was turning on a spit somewhere. The cat was going ballistic whenever I went into the kitchen to check on things, and I was starving. No way was I going to much around with chopping up celery at that point - dinner was going to be revamped around the pork shoulder.

The thing about pork shoulder is, it's much fatter than pork hind-leg, from which we get ham. This means, that at 8:00pm or so on Sunday night, starving half-to-death in the face of plenty, I was rather sloppy about removing the fatty layer from the roast before slicing. The meat was succulent and very tasty, but the amount of grease I ingested has left me quite queasy even to this moment of writing. I really shouldn't have nibbled on the crackling.

Evenutally, I divested the meat and (most of) the fat from the remains of the roast, and placed the meat in large chunks in the fridge to be made into jambalaya today. The meaty bone, from which even the least greedy person could have found more flesh to carve, got wrapped and frozen with the vague notion of split pea soup in the future (Hi J!). Tonight, I get to carefully remove the remaining fat from the chunks of meat (and oh, how I will be scrupulous to get each bit!) and make it useful once again.

It was one of those weekends, though, where almost nothing went quite right. There was an apple-raspberry crisp that turned out rather nicely, and I didn't manage to cut myself while slicing roasted chicken breast or anything, but that's the extent of the triumphs.