February 26, 2006

Of Jerks and Yams

I should really let Palle write most of this entry, as it features his signature dish - a five star, five-alarm, tangy, fierce, and delicious jerk chicken. He makes the sauce from scratch - no pre-mixed seasonings or ready-pour fixings. It's just the man, the knife, and the blender and ingredients such as fresh limes, green onions, a boatload of allspice, and the all-important habanero peppers. He has been perfecting the dish for a while - trying it out on willing, yet oh-so-unsuspecting friends, tweaking the amounts of vinegar and ginger root, and coming to the understanding that the end product is irretrievably linked to the quality (and heat) of the peppers.

I know that there are other things that one can "jerk" in the kitchen. Pork is quite popular down in the islands, and I suspect that a pork tenderloin baked in jerk sauce would be a real winner. Goat and lamb are also obvious choices - lamb being a little bit easier to source in my neighbourhood. Somehow, to this point, we have only managed to jerk chicken. In its defence, it is an outstanding combination - very much a classic dish.

It is a funny thing - a twitch, if you will - where it is virtually impossible for me to throw out leftover sauces. I scrape them into little plastic containers and stack them in the fridge for future use. Way back when I checked out Food Ninja's Jamaican Beef Patties, the sauce that I bumped mine up with was leftover jerk sauce that had been carefully hoarded against such an eventual need. I've also used leftover jerk sauce variously to add kick to bean dishes and casseroles and, quite memorably, as a pasta sauce. The pasta sauce worked so well, in fact, with only a little cream added to mitigate the heat, that tonight's leftovers will likely meet the same fate later this week. This time, however, there is a little chicken left over, too, which will make for quite a splendid re-working. All I really need to do is pick a pasta shape.

I'm surprised that we haven't used pasta as a side dish for jerk before, actually. We tend to rely heavily on a rotation of side dishes that might include several of: rice, cuban-style black beans (or replace both of those with Jamaican Style Rice & Beans), cole slaw, ceviche, and yams.

I have never had a bad instinct, when it comes to yams - well, those yams which are actually orange-fleshed sweet-potatoes, that is. I've been happy to eat them prepared pretty much any way they are presented to me, but it is only recently that I have added them to my repertoire with any real frequency. They were predominantly a holiday item at our table, baked and served with brown sugar and black pepper, and I have always been happy to eat them.

A culinary epiphany on Christmas day a few years ago led me to the creation of a holiday yam dish that was quite fresh and different from those that I had eaten before: I baked the peeled, cubed yams in mixed-citrus juice with whole spices - cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and allspice. They were tasty, and a pleasant change from the more sugary ones I was accustomed too. They became a Christmas tradition for us.

Over the last few years, I have ventured out more and more as I seek to find ways to make my meals not only healthier, but more delicious than ever before. I started adding yams to soups and curries, and was quite pleased with the results. I started sprinkling baked yam halves with ground cumin, salt and black pepper instead of sugar or butter, and this became a low-fuss favourite. Last year began my fascination with oven-baked yam fries, which has intensified now that I'm eating less white potatoes than I used to. It is amazing, what a little cumin seed and chili powder can do for a simple baked yam.

Today, I had another aberrant thought. Last week, while attending a gala dinner at a museum, I was served a tasty little tapas dish of fig-stuffed pork tenderloin over maple yam puree. As a still somewhat new yam enthusiast, I was delighted at the idea. The pork was tender and juicy, and nicely accented by the figs. The yam puree, however, was not up to snuff. It was grainy and fibrous, and leaked water into the bottom of the plate. The strong maple flavour sharpened the sweetness of a vegetable that does not need help in the sweetness department. It was, all in all, a disappointment.

So, since Palle was making jerk chicken for dinner, and since some sort of yam is a favourite accompaniment to jerk chicken, I set about re-inventing the yam puree. Nothing sweet was to be added, I told myself, and something has to be done about the texture.

I peeled and diced the yams and set them to steam and become soft enough to mash. A little chopped garlic sauteed in a tiny amount of butter was prepared on the side and topped liberally with ground cumin and left to infuse while the roots finished cooking - which didn't take long. I drained the tender cubes of yam and scraped the garlicky, cuminy butter into them, and set about vigorously mashing. Despite having chopped up the yam in its raw state, there were still disconcerting fibers. I finished the flavouring with a couple of tablespoons of coconut cream powder, and added just a little water to the pot. Still a bit grainy, still leaking a bit of water. I stared at the immersion blender for a moment, shrugged off the possibility that it would completely destroy the dish by rupturing too many starch molecues, and put it in motion. Immediately, the graininess disappeared and the liquid integrated into a smooth, velvety, luscious puree. I had found the answer. I only wish I had made more. Guess what we're having next time there's a jerk in our kitchen?

February 19, 2006

The Things You've Been Missing

While I was unable to post during the Great Computer Crash of '06, I was certainly still cooking. I'm dedicating my next few posts to catching up on some of the things that simmer, baked, stewed, and burbled out of my kitchen during the latter half of January/early February.

Chicken and Dumplings is one of those peculiarly regional dishes that varies so much from location to location that it sometimes seems that the only constant is the chicken - and even then, it can have almost infinite variations of cut, bone, and procedure. As for the dumplings - my goodness, there are an aweful lot of things out there going by the name "dumpling." I've seen everything from dumplings that incorporate some of the chicken inside them, to matzo balls, to something thin, slick, and almost noodle like. I, myself, have been known to substitute a good biscuit, rising tall and turning golden and firm in the oven, but I think of that as a separate dish.

My own dumplings are the same as my mother's. Simple, minimal ingredients of flour, salt, baking powder, a little fat and a little milk - some fresh green herbs, if I can get them (even if only parsley). They are dolloped in small spoonfuls over a gently simmering stew - in this case a stew of boneless chicken, shiitake mushrooms, a few root vegetables and some celery and onions - and covered tightly for the 15 minutes it takes for them to puff up into perfect little balls of bread-y goodness.

The fat that I am most likely to use for dumplings is rendered chicken fat. I keep a mug of it in the door of the freezer (alongside, I confess, similar mugs of bacon fat, duck fat, and goose fat), simply pouring the fat away from roast chickens from time to time so that I can use it when a little fat is called for and the chicken flavour will be an asset. These dumplings are the perfect use for it. A mere tablespoon of chicken fat in a cup of flour yields light and fluffy dumplings with just a hint of savoury chicken accent. A little hit of comfort in the long nights of winter.

My freezer full of mugs of fat is probably a separate story all by itself - a stash borne of the habit of frugality and the sure knowledge that these frozen treasures add a depth of flavour and character to my dishes that is simply impossible to find using good ol' canola or olive oil.

February 18, 2006

Back in the Saddle Again

I'm back, baby! The main Always in the Kitchen site has finally been updated. Check out the essay for Winter Weather, or the recipe for Creamy Pink Pasta - pictured above with an optional crumbled bacon topping. Excellent in mini-portions as an appetiser for your favourite Italian dish, or as a main course.

I hope to get back to the fortnightly updates - my publishing schedule will return to Wednesday nights, which means that the next update should be on March 1. This blog, of course, I will continue to update on my usual irregular basis.

February 12, 2006

Love is all you need - but a little spice never hurts

This post was written for From My Rasoi - Cooking for Love, where Meena knows that "A way to one's heart is through their tummy."

Okay, I'm - dare I say? - cheating (just a little) with this one, but only in that I'm not actually cooking Indian food for Valentine's Day dinner. If I were, though, this is what I would make. This is a simplified Chicken Korma that can be easily put together by even the most distracted cook, and yields a creamy, mildly spicy dish that warms your heart on its way to your stomach.
The boneless chicken cooks in the richly scented gravy to a silky tenderness, and the occasional burst of flavour from one of the few whole cloves or cardamom pods makes each bite take on a slightly different but equally delicious character.

I have adapted this from Quick and Easy Indian Cooking by the inimitable Madhur Jaffrey. In the picture, the chicken pieces are perhaps a little larger than ideal, but a bit too large is preferable to chopped too small. Pieces the size of a walnut in its shell are good.

Quick Chicken Korma

1 1/2" fresh ginger, peeled & roughly chopped
6 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons canola oil
3 bay leaves
2" cinnamon stick
8 cardamom pods (green)
4 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon whole cumin seed
1 small onion (about the size of a lime) chopped finely
1 tablespoon ground coriander seed
1 tablespoon ground cumin seed
2/3 cup canned diced tomatoes
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, raw, diced slightly large
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons cream

Grind the peeled garlic and ginger into a smooth paste in a blender or mini-prep, adding a little water if necessary.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, cloves, and whole cumin seed. Stir until it starts to pop, then add the finely chopped onion. Stir well, and cook until the onion gets a little translucent, with browned edges. Add the coriander and ground cumin, and stir and fry for about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, and stir and fry for 30 seconds, then add the diced chicken, the cayenne, the salt, and the water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and allow to simmer, uncovered for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cream, and cook for another 8 - 10 minutes, stirring as needed until sauce becomes thick.

Serve with basmati rice, or flatbread.

Serves either 4 for dinner or 2 for dinner, with enough leftovers for 2 lunches the next day. I had to defend my leftovers with threatening fork-movements and a wild look in my eye.

February 07, 2006

Lovely Lemon Loaf

I'm very fond of citrus, and lemons are constantly jockeying for position with limes as to who reigns supreme. I was rattling around the kitchen, wanting to make something different for lunchboxes, when I noticed that there were a couple of lemons begging to be used. I put aside all notions of buttermilk coffeecakes and chocolate snack cakes, and even shrugged off the faint thought of gingerbread in favour of something that I actually have not made in a very long time.

I don't know what I was thinking. It's a fabulous treat, and it is quite low fat and easy to make. It's only a small loaf, so it will disappear in no time flat, but if you're wanting to prolong it's shelf life, it freezes beautifully, too. Cut into slices and wrap well with plastic wrap, and tuck into the freezer. If you do this enough times with enough different little bits of baking, you'll have quite a selection to choose from when it's time to throw lunch in a sac and run to work. Completely defrosted and fresh as a daisy (more or less, your opinion of daisies may vary) by coffee break.

Lemon Loaf
Adapted from Anne Lindsay's "Lighthearted Everyday Cooking"

1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup soft margarine
1 egg
2 tablespoons low-fat vanilla or lemon yogurt
1/2 cup milk(1%)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
zest of a lemon
1 teaspoon real lemon extract
pinch of salt

juice of a lemon
1/4 cup granulated sugar

Spritz a small (8x4") loaf pan well with canola oil and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a large bowl, cream the margarine and sugar together. Add the egg and yogurt, and beat well until very pale and light-textured. Beat in the lemon zest. Add the milk and blend until thoroughly incorporated.

Mix together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Beat carefully into the wet mixture until just barely blended - you don't want to overmix it and get tunnels. Scrape the batter into your prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let the cake stand in the pan for 3 minutes, while you make up the glaze.

Mix together the lemon juice and sugar very thoroughly. After the three minutes of the cake "resting" are up, pour the glaze evenly over the entire cake. In a few minutes, the cake will soak up all of the sweetened lemon juice. Let stand another ten minutes, and remove cake from pan. Allow the cake to cool completely, uncovered. Once cool, store in a cake-safe and use as needed.

This actually makes a lovely dessert, if treated like a pound cake - berries and freshly whipped cream, or a little ice cream - even a raspberry sorbet would be lovely.

February 06, 2006

Attention Subscribers!

Just in case I'm not able to successfully extract my mailing list from the crashed computer, please note:

If you were (or would like to be) a subscriber to the email mailing list notifying you of updates to the main Always in the Kitchen site, and you would like to continue to receive updates, please email me and let me know, so that I can add your email back into the list.

My apologies for the technological screw-uppedness.


February 05, 2006

Hummus / Hommus / Hoummos

I never really know quite how to spell it. Certainly, some of the variety of spelling comes from whether you are translating from Greek, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, or any of the languages from throughout the regions where the dish is consumed. I tend toward the most popular spelling, hummus, but I'm happy to eat it in any language.

Hummus is fantastically cheap and easy to make, and a little goes a long way. It is a favourite snack, alongside vegetables or pita bread for dipping, or smeared across a tortilla in a callous disregard for each cuisine's autonomy - or, fusion, as we like to say here on the west coast. I even have it on toast, for breakfast now and then. It packs easily for lunches, makes a terrific afterschool/work snack, and if you don't use an enormous amount of olive oil, it's a fairly healthy way to sneak a little non-meat protein into your life, your kids, your household. Plus, with raw garlic in there, I'm convinced that I'm getting some great health benefits, too.

There are an awful lot of different recipes out there, too. I've tried a lot of variations: with tahini, with nut-butter, with green herbs, with a miscellany of spices. I've made it fat-free, low fat, high fat, and with yoghurt. I tried Orangette's White Bean Hummus to my great delight, and I am quite likely to make a batch of hummus starting from dried chickpeas that I cook myself. However, I like to keep a can or two of the beans in my pantry, so that I can whip this most simple one up at almost literally a moment's notice. It's a lot leaner than the varieties that you get in Greek restaurants, but that's my intention. I'm happy to eat the rich stuff when I go out; at home, I want a dependable, tasty workhorse-recipe that doesn't go straight for the thighs.

Hummus from the Pantry

1 19 oz. can of chickpeas/garbanzo beans, drained - liquid reserved
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 lemon - juice only
1 tablespoon the best-tasting extra virgin olive oil you can afford (optional)
pinch ground cumin
pinch ground cayenne

In the belly of your food-processor, blender, or Multi-Quick chopper container (guess what I got for Christmas?), place the drained chickpeas, peeled garlic, lemon juice, spices, and olive oil. Pulse, chop, or blend on a low setting until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add about 1/3 cup of reserved liquid from the chickpeas, and process again. Stop, scrape the edges of the bowl, and continue to process until the mixture is smooth and creamy. If the mixture is very, very thick, add a little more of either the reserved liquid or fresh water, and continue to process.

If you are not using the olive oil, you will need to add a little extra water/liquid, as the dip will firm up considerably in the fridge. The goal is for a creamy consistency about the thickness of a sour cream-based chip dip, or a loose mayonnaise.

Taste, adjust for seasoning if necessary (I seldom add salt if I am using canned chickpeas) and remove to a lidded container to store in the fridge until needed. This makes about two cups.

Serve in a bowl with a sprinkle of cayenne or paprika, and, if you're feeling fancy, a little anointing of olive oil. Provide flatbreads or vegetables to scoop it up.

If you are using a blender, you will probably have to stop and scrape a little more than if you are using one of the other tools, but you will get a very fine texture, which is to be prized.