March 28, 2006

Bunny Redux

Do you remember that I had the larger part of two rabbits still in the freezer? Well, even well-wrapped, meat doesn't like to be frozen for too long, so we decided to greet the pretend-Spring weather that we've been having with a lovely little dinner of Rabbit in saffron sauce and, not so incidentally, break in my new cookbook Bones by Jennifer McLagan. The recipe was well-written and easily followed, and I did suprisingly little to tweak it to my own cooking reflexes. The technique of blanching the carrots, onions, and asparagus - while not new to me - was something I didn't have a lot of direct experience with. The result was incredibly tender vegetables that weren't at all mushy. I was surprised at how happy I was with the blanched asparagus, since I usually roast them to great effect.

The recipe also delighted me for one particular reason - it contained a mini-dish of seasoned rabbit livers on toasts as an accompaniment. Almost a play-within-a-play, really. I'm not the biggest fan of chicken or beef livers, but the rabbit liver is something special. Petrushka introduced me to rabbit livers pan-fried in butter, seasoned with a restrained hand, and devoured as the cook's treat - a little dish picked up from his chef-friends. I liked it much more than I expected. This dish, I daresay, is actually a little better, as the slight brightness of the parsley actually heightens the delicacy of the liver. Plus, little toasts make an adorable vector.

The saffron, an Iranian variety, was a gift brought back by family visiting the Middle East, and has been waiting patiently on a little throne in my kitchen while I blithered about deciding whether its inaugural use should be risotto alla Milanese, a Moroccan tagine, a paella, an Indian curry, or something else entirely. So, really, this dish was the meeting of several needs: to use the rabbit before it suffered freezer burn, to try a recipe from Bones, and to finally crack open the saffron.

Saffron is a highly distinctive, very unusual flavour, shockingly pungent for such a delicate thread-like spice. There is an almost bitter note that thoroughly permeates anything it comes even remotely in contact with, and contains a particularly strong dye that stains everything it touches (when wet) with a yellow, sometimes orangish hue. It is shockingly expensive - ounce for ounce the most expensive spice in the world. Naturally, it comes in very small containers.

Having broached the packaging, I think that I should probably move forward with some of those other saffron-notorious dishes I was contemplating. It would be a shame for the supply that I have to lose its potency while I vascillate over application. This is ever the challenge of delicacies - one must enjoy them while they are fresh, or risk losing out.

March 26, 2006

Trompe L'Oeil

Well, I may not be fooling anyone at all, I suspect, but at first glance this looks substantially more like an adorable little doughnut than an adorable little muffin. That is, however, exactly what it is: an oatmeal breakfast muffin made with buttermilk, grated carrots, ginger, wheat bran, and spices, all baked up in a NordicWare miniature Bundt pan that I received as a Christmas gift last December.

I've been playing with muffins, lately. I'm designing a bran muffin suitable for athletes, low in fat and sugar, and high in complex carbohydrates. I hope to be able to show the results of that soon. In the meantime, these little darlings also fit the bill, being naturally high in soluable and insoluable fibre.

These muffins are designed to have a low-to medium glycemic index, but I do not have the tools to measure either the index or the glycemic load exactly. They are not very sweet, so if you are accustomed to sweeter muffins - as most people are - and you aren't watching your sugars intake, you can double the honey in this recipe without making it completely unhealthy. In fact, even doubling the honey, this recipe would still probably qualify in the medium GI range. The idea of this recipe is to provide a good, long-lasting breakfast on the go or mid-morning snack.

Gingered Carrot Oaties

1 1/4 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup wheat bran
3/4 cup stoneground whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup finely grated carrot
1 1/4 cups low fat buttermilk
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger root
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup (scant) honey
2 tablespoons canola oil

Soak the oatmeal and the bran in one cup of the buttermilk. Let stand for 1/2 hour to let the oatmeal soften. The mixture will get very thick and a bit stiff.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly spritz a muffin pan with canola oil.

Add the grated carrot and grated ginger to the oats. Beat the egg, honey and canola oil separately, then add to the oat mixture. Stir well. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and ground ginger. If you want to add raisins or dried cranberries, go ahead and add a handful of them now. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of buttermilk to the oat mixture, and then carefully stir the flour mixture into the oats, adding half the dry ingredients at a time, and stirring until just combined.

Spoon into prepared muffin tins (smooth the tops if using mini-Bundt pan). Bake for 20 minutes. Let stand in the pan for five minutes, then turn out to cool on wire rack. Excellent with a little butter, or a smear of jam, but also delicious plain (see comments above recipe re: honey).

Should make 12 small-ish regular muffins, or 6 mini-Bundts plus two "cookies."

Which brings me to my other note - you can bake these simply as a drop cookie, using large tablespoons of batter on a lightly greased/spritzed cookie sheet. Bake for 12 - 15 minutes or until they bounce back slightly.

March 20, 2006

One Noodle, Two Nights, Two Dishes

I've been eating more pasta these days. This is partly because I'm doing a fair amount of quick-cooking, and pasta responds very well to that sort of thing - where you make the sauce or, to be more Italian, i condimenti, from simple ingredients while the water comes to a boil and the noodles cook. It is also because pasta is relatively low on the glycemic index, making it a more desirable food (as long as I don't compensate by eating monstrous portions, but that hasn't been a problem) for me as I strive to find the right foods to offset my health challenges.

When I was first cooking on my own, I still cooked for a family of three or four people, in terms of quantity. It was easier, more familiar, and I liked to have leftovers the next day. When I started getting tired of chewing my way through an enormous vat of chili or large casserole, pasta was one of the first dinners that I turned to for simple preparations for one or two people. At that time, I was all about the fettuccine. Preferably in a creamy sauce, thank you, which you can manage if you have a schedule that involves full time school, part time work, no car, and a fondness for nightclub dancing non-stop for four-hour stretches.

Linguine is a noodle whose charms I have only come lately to appreciate. I would flippantly dismiss it as spaghetti that got squished flat, and concluded that I might as well eat spaghetti as linguine. Subtlety, you might well have guessed - not my strong point. For the first time, a few years ago, I bought linguine under duress in an attempt to precisely follow a recipe in a magazine. This may have been because I had also recently read up on how it is very important to Italians to marry the correct sauce to each specific pasta shape. I worried that I had been going about it all wrong. Certainly, fettuccine was well matched to my creamy concoctions, but the linguini - ah, how to even express how much more elegant it was! Like the Linguine with Roasted Fennel recipe, it was an olive-oil based dressing that I made for the pasta. The noodles were slick, plump and shiny, without being weighed down by sauce. Each one slithered onto the fork almost of its own accord. It wasn't dry or uninteresting at all, and the amount of olive oil needed was about the same as is used in most more familiar pasta sauces just to saute the vegetables. Clearly, I was on to something.

I still enjoy a good cream sauce, now and again, and of course I am no stranger to cheese. The simplicity of a slick of good olive oil, a few fresh herbs, and a few vegetables has become my standby easy dinner. What I put in it - depends on what I have lying about. I might toss some vegetables on a grill, or roast them in a hot oven. I might have some shrimp lurking in the freezer, or a jar of artichoke hearts, or I might not have anything more exotic than button mushrooms and some parsley, but it's amazing what you can do with them. Especially if you have a few treasures squirreled away to brighten up any dish - a little bottle of white truffle oil...a small box of beautiful Brittany Sea Salt...a good hunk of parmesan cheese. The variety is infinte, and up to the limits of your imagination or your pantry, depending on whether you're willing to stock for the eventuality.

March 16, 2006

Prescription cheese

Today, my doctor told me that I need to get more calcium in my diet, and suggested increasing my dairy. Despite daily yoghurt infusions and a fondness for cheese, apparently I still need more. I was still ruminating on the ways I could possibly get more dietary calcium - running the list through my mind and trying to figure out if I was missing out on any major calcium sources - when I realized that I knew exactly what to make for dinner: something so rich, extravagant and dairy-laden that I tend to only make it once or twice a year.

Macaroni and cheese is a quintessentially North American dish but, sadly enough, most people make it out of boxes if they make it at all. This is a darn shame. This version uses real cheese and real butter, and it tastes out of this world. Not only that, but it doesn't take longer than the boxed stuff (you just have to do a couple of things while the water is coming to a boil). In a little nod toward Rob Feenie's splendid mac n' cheese with its cap of Irish-cured bacon lardons and four different cheeses, tonight I walked on the wilder side of macaroni and cheese: I added a little blue.

Macaroni & Cheese
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated February 1997

Serves 4

125 g. elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup evaporated milk (not condensed milk!)
5 oz./140 g. grated sharp cheddar (6 oz. if you're not using blue)
1 oz. /30 g. crumbled Danish Blue
1 egg, well beaten
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce (Tabasco is fine)
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground mustard seed
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

Put a pot of water on to boil. While it comes to a boil, in a small bowl whisk together the egg, 1/2 cup of the evaporated milk, the pepper sauce, salt, mustard seed, and white pepper. Grate the cheddar. That's pretty much your whole prep.

Add the macaroni to the boiling water, and cook according to preference - I don't need to tell you that's al dente do I? Drain the pasta and return it to the pot over a low heat. Add the butter and stir well until melted. Add the milk/egg mixture and stir until it starts to thicken. Turn the heat off, and start adding the cheese, a small handful at a time, finishing with the blue cheese. Do not turn the heat back on to make it melt faster, or it will separate out into a grainy, ugly mess that will make you cry. Be patient, stir for the couple of minutes that it takes, and serve.

This is bloody rich, so small servings are best, preferably with lots of veggies and maybe a slice of meatloaf or something. Hey, I need more iron, too, did I mention? I won't be having this weekly in the name of dietary calcium, but it's a lovely treat - and what better time?

March 13, 2006

Buckwheat Pancakes

I've been meaning to try making buckwheat pancakes for months, now, but somehow never really got it off the ground. Part of the reason is that I've not had them often, and I wasn't really sure where to start - what would make one recipe look better than the others as a jumping-off spot. However, I've had great luck with other recipes from Molly at Orangette, so it seemed like a great place to start. If I was going to put blind faith in a recipe, a fellow blogger with great taste seems like the best place to start. When I saw her recipe for Blueberry Buckwheat Pancakes, on Saucy, I promptly printed it out and stuffed it into my more serious file of Things I Must Try. Saucy no longer seems to be a going concern. I don't know what happened, but the recipe is still there, fortunately for those of you who haven't tried it yet.

One of the things that particularly appealed to me was that these seemed to be nice, substantial pancakes, as opposed to the crepe-like buckwheat creations I've seen from time-to-time in restaurants and cookbooks. This was exactly the kind of pancake that I was looking for. Slightly plump, golden-edged, tender, hearty, and simple.

As you can see from my efforts shown above, I did not follow through with the blueberries, but that was actually due to the current high prices as opposed to my inexplicably quirky iffy-ness regarding blueberries. I would not rule out blueberries on a subsequent attempt.

Now that I've possibly shocked you with the revelation that I don't rate blueberries at the top of the berry continuum, I suppose you won't feel anything but numb when I mention that maple syrup is not my favourite pancake-topper. No indeed! My pancakes meet their fate and my plate with variously peanut butter (very occasionally with a small amount of maple syrup on top of the peanut butter) or fruited yoghurt. Fruit preserves are also nice, if they're not too sweet. Fact is, it has been literally years since I bought a bottle of maple syrup. Part of this is because we tend alarmingly toward the eggy-savoury breakfast choices, and part of it is that when I do use syrup, I tend not to use very much of it. Indeed, I would rather cut a piece of pancake and dip one edge, than pour the syrup over top.

Sadly for food photography, peanut butter does not look sexy as a pancake topper - although I assure you it is delicious, so long as you like peanut butter - and yoghurt...well, let's just leave it as "unattractive." Thus, you get a picture of a naked pancake stack (ah, who am I kidding, I don't eat them in a stack, either, I devour them as they come off the frying pan).

One word to the wise - if you like the lacy golden look of the pancake surface, re-spritz the pan between batches of pancakes. The alternative, a dark, even brown, is certainly tasty but this way is more picturesque.

March 10, 2006

Palle's Jerk Chicken

Finally, at long last for those who commented and emailed:
The following post is Palle's - I'm merely the conduit. My own notes are at the end.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken

Makes 4 Servings

½ cup white vinegar
zest and juice from 4 limes
¼ cup canola oil
5 scallions, trimmed and coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 inch piece of ginger, coarsely chopped
4 fresh habanero (scotch bonnet) chilis, coarsely chopped and seeds removed *
2 tablespoons ground allspice
2 tablespoons ground dried thyme
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
3 pounds chicken, cut into 8 pieces
  1. Combine the vinegar, lime juice, lime zest, canola oil, scallions, garlic, ginger, chilis, allspice, thyme, cinnamon, sugar, pepper, salt and cayenne. Using a blender, or food processor, blend into a medium puree (not too smooth – this is isn’t French cuisine). I find I get better results if I keep dry and wet ingredients apart until just before it is time to blend. It will seem like a lot of allspice and thyme, but for Jerk it is correct.
  2. Place chicken in a medium bowl or other container.
  3. Pour marinade over chicken. Turn pieces well to ensure even coating and all pieces are covered.
  4. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Fours hours to overnight is preferable. Turn occasionally.
  5. Heat the oven to 350 F°.
  6. Place the chicken covered by marinade in a pyrex baking dish. Cook for 45 minutes.
  7. Eat.**

* A note on habaneros. If you can’t get fresh habaneros you may be out of luck. Other chilis do not make an acceptable substitute. You may make a yummy sauce, but it won’t be Jerk. Habaneros have a singular, irreproducible flavor. You may be able to get away with dried – but I’ve never tried. For a milder jerk use 3 habaneros, with pith and seeds removed. For a medium jerk use three or four peppers with about half of the pith removed, and all seeds removed. For hotter jerk leave in all the pith and leave in a few seeds.

** Resist the urge to add cilantro. Jerk goes well with rice, rice and beans, sweet potatoes or coleslaw.

Dawna's notes:

While the recipe calls for the more traditional bone-in chicken, we usually make it boneless - thighs and halved breasts - and reduce the cooking time to 35 minutes.

I have yet to be involved in the process of making this dish. My job here is strictly sides (and occasionally inventory). I am currently strongly hinting that this would be excellent with pork tenderloin, and I think that might be the next version.

March 06, 2006

Beef Barley Soup

It's a fortifying soup. Rich without being fatty, filling thanks to the chunks of tender beef and the plump grains of barley, not to mention the slightly exotic and ever-so-suggestively boozy shiitake mushrooms. This, my tongue informs me, is what soup is supposed to taste like. It isn't just a catch-all of leftovers shunted into a pot full of water or stock, it's a precision-strike in the kitchen, each ingredient calibrated to bring a specific characteristic to the party.

I am gradually shifting most of my eating patterns towards foods with a lower glycemic index - loosely, this means foods with "staying power" - that don't instantly get converted into glucose the moment they hit my stomach. I should note that I am not categorically shunning any food or category of food, but that I am making an effort to eat thoughtfully in such a way that my blood glucose levels achieve a kind of Tao - an even-keel instead of the sugar spikes and crashes that can be problematic with my particular health concerns. This means that I am increasing my use of the foods that achieve the slower digestion that will benefit me. One of the big players is barley.

I confess that it has been a while since I made anything with barley. I don't have anything against it, in fact I quite like the flavour, but to me it has never been anything other than soup or stew. I had a risotto made from barley and lamb broth at a restaurant in Scotland, and it was quite delicious - really almost more of a stew, but isn't that what risotto is? A kind of particularly creamy, luscious rice stew?

I thought I would start of small, though. A nice pot of the good old beef barley soup, perfect in the iffy weather of not-quite-spring. My mother made a lovely version using leftover roast beef, but since she was "cooking from her head" there was never any recipe written down. I decided to turn to the experts - Cook's Illustrated. I plugged the words Beef Barley Soup into their search engine, and it spat out the issue that contained the recipe - February 1998. From there, it was an easy saunter over to the bookshelf to extract the right slim volume (I am very proud to own every single issue of Cooks Illustrated magazine) and turn to the right page.

Here is my version of their recipe - although I used the considerable shortcut of the entirely servicable Pacific brand beef broth. I only made a half-recipe, since I only had one litre of broth, but next time I make this I will make at least a whole recipe - gosh, maybe even a double! It's that good, people. I tweaked the recipe here and there for other reasons, too, but as you can tell I'm very happy with the result. The following recipe is for the quantity that I made:

Beef Barley Soup
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated

1 lb. bottom blade steak, cubed into stew-sized pieces, lightly salted
1/2 cup white vermouth
1 litre beef broth (I used Pacific brand, and was quite happy with it)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 stalk celery, de-strung and finely diced
1 med onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled and cut into quarter-coins
6 large shiitake mushrooms, stem removed, sliced into half-slices
1/4 tsp powdered thyme
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup pearl barley
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons dry sherry to finish

Preheat oven to 350 F. Preheat cast iron skillet on stove top.

In a dry, preheated cast iron skillet, sear the beef in batches until all pieces have a good, dark golden brown on at least two sides. Do not cook all the way through. Remove each piece as it is ready to your empty soup pot. Deglaze the skillet with the vermouth, and pour over the beef pieces. Add all of the beef broth, and place soup pot, covered, in the oven. Let the meat and broth stew together for an hour and a half. Toward the end of the stewing time, start prepping the rest.

In your skillet, heat the oil and saute the onion, celery, carrots, and mushrooms. If the mixture is too dry, deglaze slightly with a little water or vermouth. Continue to saute until onions are translucent and celery is tender. Add the garlic, thyme, and tomato paste, again with a little water if necessary to prevent sticking.

Remove soup pot from oven, and scoop out the pieces of beef to a cutting board. Chop the beef to soup-sized pieces and return to soup pot, along with vegetable mixture and barley. Simmer on the stovetop for about 40 minutes, or until barley is fully cooked and tender. Adjust for salt and pepper, add the chopped parsley and stir through. Remove from heat and stir in dry sherry. Serve with a nice hearty bread for a surprisingly filling dinner.

Serves 2 - 4, depending on what else you're serving and how greedy/hungry people are.

March 05, 2006

Most Important Meal of the Day

I'm a breakfast kind of girl. Always have been. I know a lot of people who say that they cannot face food until they've been up for an hour or two, but I cannot really imagine it. I wake up hungry, and I usually want something involving eggs.

Weekdays are a bit rushed for much of a meal, since we both work, but I usually have something - toast is probably the most frequent flyer, although sometimes I find myself on a cereal kick. Lately I've been having oatmeal once I get to work, which certainly helps me through the morning without getting the munchies. Occasionally, I'll scramble up a single egg to top a piece of toast on a weekday breakfast, but it probably doesn't happen more than once a month. In the summer, my primary breakfast and snack is slices of fresh tomato on dry toast with a hit of salt and pepper, but tomato season is still a way off.

Weekends is where breakfast is really at. We usually go out for breakfast for one of the two weekend days, when the budget can stand it, and the other day(s) we make breakfast at home. We have our favourites - the scrambled egg quesadilla with hot sauce is both popular and relatively speedy, and we're quite fond of the fritatta. We both tend more toward savory rather than sweet breakfasts, so while I'll occasionally order pancakes or French toast in a restaurant, I don't often make them at home. I do go on little kicks - we'll have poached eggs with hominy grits a few weekends in a row, or I'll make a strata, if I have some time on my hand the night before. If you've read any of the preceding posts, you'll know that we're not vegetarians, so bacon and sausage are not infrequent players, although in the interest of preserving our arteries we don't default to them.

This morning, with a fridge full of raspberries from an unexpected sale-discovery and a hankering to use the blender-cup that came with my Christmas Multi-Quick, I set about making breakfast smoothies to fortify us while we sliced, diced, and whisked our fritatta into being. I was cooking without a recipe, just making it up as I went along, and we were pretty pleased with the results. I may decrease the yoghurt and increase the milk next time, as this was quite thick, but it didn't really suffer for the thicker texture. The inclusion of lime cordial was Palle's brilliant suggestion.

Raspberry Smoothies

170 g fresh raspberries
1 ounce lime cordial
1 1/2 cups low fat vanilla yoghurt (I use Astro)
1/3 cup 1% milk

Place all ingredients in your blender, or better still the blending cup of a hand-held immersion blender. Blend until smooth. Serves 2

I confess that I have always pooh-poohed the idea of breakfast smoothies as a quick-fix, but that is because using the traditional blender meant that there was quite a bit of clean-up. With the immersion blender, which cleans up lickety-split, all you dirty up is the blending cup, the stick from the blender, and measuring cups, if you use them - you could freehand pretty easily, I think.

We sipped away at our smoothies and chopped mushrooms, green onions, and peppers for the fritatta, and made some coffee to round out the meal. This ought to hold me through the day, or at least until we get back from the afternoon wedding we're attending.

March 04, 2006

Bunny dinner

I eat a lot of things that are considered iffy or even downright questionable here on the west coast. I'm not particularly squeamish or sentimental about food or animals, although I prefer that any animals that are rasied for food are raised and killed under humane conditions. If you think that rabbits make better pets than dinner, you may want to skip this post.

I like French food. Thus, I am ever drawn to dishes than include things like foie gras, and happy to eat steak tartare (from a reputable source, of course), and my enthusiasm for duck is well documented. Another favourite has got to be rabbit. My usual preparation for rabbit is Lapin Dijon, which is baked in a sauce featuring white wine, shallots, and of course Dijon mustard. It is a dish that goes particularly well with freshly roasted asparagus, and to me is suggestive of spring, although I'm not ruling out some unhealthy connection with Easter running through my ragged little brain.

I am fortunate in that Palle shares my culinary partialities, because while I know some couples who have wildly divergent dietary preferences are able to overcome the hurdle and live happily ever after, I don't know that I could do the same thing. I certainly wouldn't want to have to. Not only is he interested in eating good food, however, he's also interested in cooking it.

Armed with a copy of Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook, he set about making Lapin aux olives, a dish where the olives are so plentiful as to count as a vegetable rather than a garnish. This recipe also marked a first-foray into the world of demi-glace - the using thereof, rather than the making - and the resulting dish is entirely his. My main contribution was to dig out the instructions that I had made for him on the way to cook a perfect pot of jasmine rice, and to ask him if the tiny green picholine olives had come pitted; they had not. Fortunately, there was enough lagtime in the simmering process to give him time to get to work with on the olives, but it was certainly time well spent.
The recipe called for the hind legs only, and served four. Therfore, two rabbits were called for, and the remaining rabbit pieces are currently sitting in the freezer while we dither over whether to try the luscious-looking recipe from Book A, or the simple elegance of the one from Book B. At the moment, the forerunners are my new book Bones by Jennifer McLagan, and the always- wonderful D'Artagnan's Glorious Game Cookbook. I'll keep you posted with the winner, as always.