April 30, 2006

Taking Note

When one of my fellow food bloggers is so taken with a dish that she immediately needs to make it again, I take note. In this case, Linda from kayaksoup did such a great sell-job on Giada's Balsamic Chicken that I had to try it for myself.

How right she was, to be so enthused! I paired this tasty offering with lemon-orzo (still suffering from a little Greekitis, I guess), broccoli, and cumin-roasted yam cubes. I realized after I had taken the picture, that I hadn't yet sprinkled the lemon zest over, which was very pretty but by which point we were all starving - precluding the time for more photography.

This will be going into my repeat-file, too. Thanks, Linda!

April 25, 2006

A Sudden Surge of Greek

My neighbourhood is quite well known for its Greek community - restaurants, banks, poolhalls, specialty import stores - often these are Greek-owned-and-run. I have my favourites, of course, whether it's a place to hang out or a place I might go for one specific dish.

I keep kalamata olives on hand, most of the time. I'm very fond of feta cheese. I never want to run out of oregano. I really dig lamb. I'm growing surpisingly fond of spinach, even. It shouldn't be a surprise to me, then, that I occasionally suffer from a sudden surge of Greek cooking.

I am not Greek. Not even a little bit, and lord knows, I'm a little bit of a lot of things. I do, however, often get mistaken for Greek or (insert other Mediterranean culture). It's the dark hair and vigorously growing eyebrows, I think; an illusion. However, if you were to walk past my house and smell the unmistakable aroma of lamb simmering with tomatoes, onions, cinnamon and allspice as I layer my way, brow furrowed, through making a Pastitsio, you'd be excused for the mistake.The wonderfully complex-tasting seasoning of Pastitsio is a delicious hallmark of Greek cookery: the bold use of a number of spices that are often thought of as more sweet flavours, for baking, are mixed into a familiar blend of red meat and tomatoes to make a highly aromatic (yet not "spicy") flavour, completely unlike either an Italian pasta dish or an Indian curry.

This marks my first attempt at Avgolemono, a soup I have long enjoyed at restaurants, but never bothered to make. At its heart, it is really a Greek variation on good ol' chicken noodle soup. Chicken broth, a few minimal vegetables, and some orzo pasta. Where it departs from the standard is the generous addition of lemon juice and, in my case, lemon zest, too, and the use of egg. Avgolemono is a dairy-free soup, its subtle and creamy texture coming from beaten egg that is stirred carefully into the soup to create a texture more like crushed velvet than the rags of an Italian Stracciatella. After examining a number of recipes, I decided to go it alone based on the common principles of all the recipes I had seen, plus all the avgolemonos I've eaten.

It was shockingly easy. It was very tasty. And, the next day, for lunch, it was even better (and a teensy bit thicker).


Serves 4

2 teaspoons rendered chicken fat or canola oil
4 cups strong chicken stock
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into quarter-slices
1/2 teaspoon oregano leaves
1 bayleaf
1/2 cup orzo
juice of one lemon
3 wide strips of lemon zest
salt & pepper to taste
1 egg, beaten
1 cooked chicken breast, diced

Melt the chicken fat in a medium soup-pot. Add the onion, garlic and carrot, and cook and stir until the onion becomes a little translucent. Add the oregano and bayleaf, and stir. Add the chicken stock and orzo and simmer, stirring, for about 6 minutes, or until the orzo begins to get tender. Add the cooked chicken breast and reduce the heat slightly.

Remove about a cup of hot broth (avoiding any chunks) from the soup pot and add it slowly to the beaten egg in a small bowl, beating well (an immersion blender is great for this). Add the lemon juice and zest to the soup, lower the flame under the soup to very low, and add the beaten egg/broth mixture. Cook and stir over the low flame until mixture thickens, but do not let it boil, or you will have a raggedy look to the soup's texture. Taste and adjust for salt.

April 23, 2006

What's for Breakfast?

I usually try to make breakfast in at least once during the weekend. Not only is it a whole different range of cooking from my evening adventures, but it helps keep the budget under control. Like everyone else, I have my favourites - the frequent fliers that I turn to when adventure is out of the question - when the day is scheduled too tightly, for example. This is yesterday's breakfast - fairly self-explanatory in the main, but still worthy of a little explication.

I make steamed eggs fairly often - it is my go-to "basic breakfast" choice over fried, scrambled, or boiled. I often top the eggs with hot sauce before they go into the steamer - cooking in a layer of flavour. Yesterday, however, I wanted to try out my new Hawaiian Red Sea Salt, so the eggs remained pristine until they hit the plate. The verdict on the salt was - delicious! The crystals are much coarser than kosher salt, but with a flat, shingle-like appearance. Unlike my other fancy salts of the moment, Fleur de Sel and Brittany Organic Grey Sea Salt, the grains do not clump together at all, allowing for easy placement on a plated dish.

For those of you unfamiliar with the delights of a southern breakfast, the creamy mass shown at the bottom of the picture is hominy grits with cheese and sliced chile peppers. Enormously easy to make (I use Alber's Quick Grits, which I have to buy in Bellingham, because most grocers up here don't even seem to know what they are, let along stock them), grits fill in the role of potatoes in other breakfasts - although a true southern breakfast might have both, I suppose.

The first time I ever had grits was in New Orleans - at
Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. I wouldn't have naturally stumbled into a place that was clearly a tourist-trap in many ways, but the daily noon downpour had just begun, and we had ducked into the restaurant in time to get a seat rather than ride out the darkened sky and hour of skin-piercing rain huddled in the doorway looking hopeful and trying not to shiver. The menu contained "Shrimp & Grits" and it seemed like as good a time as any to check them out. I've become quite a fan. I can't even listen to Jimmy Buffett without thinking of grits, such is the power of association...

I should confess that I do not usually pile the bacon onto my plate with quite such abandon. I could tell you that it was for photographic purposes, as the two strips I usually have would look paltry in comparison, but the truth is that I was working from frozen, and didn't have the time or patiences to defrost the bacon to just use what I needed. I slung the extra few strips into the pan, and we simply forced ourselves to eat them! Fortification, you know, against a day where food would be something of an unknown quantity.

This leaves only the toast left for analysis:
Healthy Way's organic whole wheat bread, made without flour, but instead using ground, sprouted grain and vital wheat gluten to adjust the texture. The breads are good - although I fancy the Alpine Chipmunk Loaf more than the plain whole wheat, which may surprise those of you who are used to me avoiding anything whole or crunchy in my bread. There is no glucose/fructose (better known as High Fructose Corn Syrup) in either of these loaves, and no refined white flour. They are very tasty. The website linked above claims that the organic breads are only available in Atlantic Canada, but this is clearly out of date.

So, no smoothies, yesterday - I was out of fruit - so now I'm pretty much craving one. Perhaps today for lunch...

April 18, 2006

Easter Dinner - Cooking together

Much as I like ham, which was my family's traditional Easter dinner when I was growing up, I confess that these days I find myself leaning more towards the Australian tradition of lamb to celebrate the Spring. Of course, the Australian tradition usually involves roasting a great big leg of it, which presents much the same problem as a ham does in a household of two-plus-cat: too much leftover.

When one is not tied to unwavering expectations, however, one can feel free to walk on the wild side and do something completely different. So, with remarkably little discussion required, Palle & I settled on a lamb Daube Proven├žal as our dinner of choice.

Now, a daube is essentially a meat stew, and this one certainly was stewed for quite some time. 90 minutes, to be exact. Fortunately we had lunched well and further fortified ourselves with snacks in the afternoon before we got to cooking. Palle took point, and I took prep, so the dish is really his execution of the Daube Proven├žal from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook - his third recipe from that book.

So, Palle handled the batch-browning while I chopped, poured and wrangled the mise en place at kibitzed at him about raising or lowering the flame, when to add certain ingredients, and whatever else I could think of. He is always patient with my sometimes never-ending stream of chatter and general kitchen bossiness, and happy to let someone else do the prep for a change, I think.

More often than not it is he who helps me in the kitchen, deftly retrieving things from the fridge or freezer, opening, peeling, slicing, chopping endless amounts of mushrooms and peppers, which are among our most frequent fliers. I enjoy it when he steps out from behind the cutting board and cooks, which would probably happen more frequently if he had more reasonable work hours.

My contribution to the night's dinner was a pear and ginger cheesecake (from the latest issue of Eating Well) for which - alas! there are no pictures. It was quite nice, but the ginger flavour outshone the pear. Of course, if you choose to drink a little Poire William with it, you probably wouldn't notice...

April 10, 2006

Miniature = Cute

It's not my fault. I'm programmed to it - we all are. Miniature versions of things are just somehow more adorable. Even bran muffins. Especially bran muffins!

The secret to the amazingly light texture of these muffins is to soak the bran in buttermilk until it is fully hydrated. You can add the extras of your choice - walnuts, raisins, orange zest - but they're quite tasty plain, too. The recipe makes 12 regular sized muffins (not bakery-jumbo monsters) or 3 dozen miniatures - just a tad bigger than your average doughnut-hole, and much more satisfying! These are great for snacking, because I cannot leave a half-muffin to dry out, even if I don't want a whole one at any given time. This way, I'm snacking down on a whole (albeit tiny) muffin several times throughout the day.

Bran Muffins

Makes 12 regular-sized muffins
Total prep and cooking time: 40 minutes

1 1/4 cups wheat bran
1 scant cup buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons molasses
1 cup stone-ground whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Lightly spritz a 12 cup muffin pan with canola oil.

In a medium bowl, mix together the wheat bran and buttermilk. Let stand for about 10 minutes or until it has thickened.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, blend together the brown sugar, apple sauce, canola oil, egg and molasses. Add the bran mixture and stir well. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and spices. Stir into the batter until just moistened - don't over-mix. Stir in the raisins (you can also use blueberries). Divide the batter between the muffin cups.

Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, or until the tops spring back when lightly pressed. Let stand for a couple of minutes in the pan, then turn out to finish cooling on a wire rack. When completely cool, you can freeze them individually on a tray, transfer to a zippered plastic bag, and use as needed. A frozen muffin tossed into a briefcase or knapsack thaws beautifully in time for a morning coffee break.

They freeze well, too. Put them in a single layer on a plate and freeze until hard - a couple of hours will do it - then bag them up and defrost as needed. I just toss a couple of them into a Tupperware container and put it in my briefcase - by the time I get to work, they're completely thawed out and fresh. For added deliciousness, about 10 seconds in the microwave and a smear of cream cheese make them almost fancy!

The usual fat-reducing technique of replacing some of the oil with unsweetened applesauce is employed here - I keep my applesauce in the freezer, too, and defrost in the microwave as needed.

I also make these with double-the-sugar, which brings it to a whopping 1/2 cup(!) They still are nowhere near as sweet as cupcakes, but if you're looking for a little hint of sweetness, that's the way to go. They are still frightfully healthy, I assure you.

April 08, 2006

Again With The Chicken

I don't know why I've been cooking chicken so much lately - maybe it's because I stocked up so well the last time a decent sale came up. Tonight's recipe was Golden Chicken with Spicy Refried Beans from Eating Well magazine's online recipes. Any recipe that requires me to toss raw chicken into a pile of cumin and coriander has to be all right, in my books. To make matters even better, this recipe was finished in about 20 minutes - not including the time it took to chop up a little Turkish salad, which wasn't long either. Certainly, it was all done in less than half an hour.

The beans are simmered briefly in the same pan that the chicken cooks in, which adds a layer of flavour and eliminates the need to dirty another pan (always a plus). I thought they were very tasty - I had never had refried white beans before. They could have been a smidge creamier - you can see how dry they look on the plate - but they reheated beautifully. Next time, I'll add a little more water, or perhaps vermouth, and see how that turns out.

The dish turned out quite well overall - not as stupdenous as the first recipe I ever tried from EW (a braised, stuffed turkey breast with cider gravy), but a good weeknight supper dish. I was inspired enough to go get the latest issue, and have spent the day drooling over the four recipes for asparagus, within.

April 02, 2006

Simple Dinner

Sometimes, simple is best. One of the most stress-free dinners that I can think of is a roast chicken - happily, a meal that not only provides dinner, but also lunch (or another, convertable dinner the next day) and bones for making stock (or for tucking into the freezer for making stock in the future).

I am almost incapable of roasting a chicken without throwing a few whole (cut in half if they're exceptionally large), peeled cloves of garlic into the cast iron frying pan that I use as a roaster. When there is about a half-hour of roasting time left (I roast with a high-heat method, so 400 F minimum) I toss the garlic in and shove it around a little so that each clove gets slicked with rendered chicken fat. Then, I knock together a side-dish or two - if I'm feeling fancy - and dinner is pretty much ready.

If at all possible, mushroom fiend that I am, I like to place a few mushrooms around the roasting chicken, too. They like a little more time than the garlic, so you can prep them after the chicken has gone into the oven, and just add them when you're ready. They soak up the flavours of the chicken and the garlic, and if you're lucky they develop a little burnished crust of salty goodness. Even the humblest, most ordinary of mushrooms turns out extraordinary with this treatment. It is helpful to give them a stir part way through cooking, just so that the flavours distribute evenly. It prevents part of the mushroom from drying out and becoming chewy, and it encourages the absorption of garlicky juices.

I'm pretty much all about the pasta, these days, so the one shown here is simply mini-penne (pennini piccoli) tossed with a little butter, parmesan and parsley, and the carrots speak for themselves - simple, steamed, sprinkled with a little kosher salt.

A glass of wine, and Sunday supper is ready.