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 jalapeƱos, 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 jalapeƱos, 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