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.