May 28, 2006

Stealth Cookie

It doesn't look like it's made with stoneground whole wheat flour. It doesn't look as though it was made with canola oil instead of butter. It certainly doesn't look low in fat. For the unswervingly chocolate-oriented, it may not even look all that delicious but, really, it is all of these things. This is the revised Oatmeal Coconut Cookie of my childhood. It has come a long way since the lumpy, dark-bottomed, dense-but-tasty little nuggets that represented the most commonly baked cookie of my childhood.

Occasionally, it would be studded with raisins or chocolate chips - perhaps even carob chips - but it is completely able to stand on its own, unadorned and golden. The coconut flavour is subtle but distinct, but if you wanted a more vigorous coconut flavour, you could use coconut extract, I suppose. I'm contemplating making them with rum extract, myself. Who could refuse a Malibu flavoured cookie?

The original recipe did in fact use whole wheat flour and canola oil, but I have tinkered with the proportions and technique to yield a leaner, crisper, flatter cookie. The proportions of rolled oats and flour are equal, making it almost a granola-bar of a cookie - very oaty, and the perfect thing to snack upon mid-morning or mid-afternoon, with a cup of hot tea or coffee, as you wish.

May 25, 2006

Last Vestiges of Winter

Spring is technically here, and the rains have certainly arrived, but the sudden chill after a week or so of warm, delightful weather has catapulted me back into a bit of a winter-cookery mode. To be fair, the real reason for making this recipe was because I got my grubby mitts on a copy of the much-lauded Zuni Cafe Cookbook. You see, I'd heard that they have a way with lentils, and I had a lovely little pouch of organic duPuy lentils mocking me from the fruit bowl, where I had unceremoniously plunked them in the blithe confidence that I would be using them straightaway.

They languished with the lemons and kiwi for about a week before I got to them, though, hence the mocking. Once I had the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, however, I really had no excuse. I found the perfect recipe, the one that simply demanded to be made with all haste: Lentils braised in red wine.

A trip to Oyama Sausage Company on Granville Island had equipped me with a pair of lean, rotund elk sausages, and another pair made of bison with rosemary. I roasted the sausages in the oven, alongside a pan of chopped fennel and whole garlic cloves. Fennel and sausage go so well together, whether the sausage is flavoured with fennel seeds or not. And garlic, of course, goes with everything.

As you can see from the picture, I didn't cut my carrot finely enough for the dish, but that didn't hinder the flavour at all. I realized at the time that the pieces should be smaller, but my problematic chopping hand was giving out and I did not have a, prep assist at the time. He showed up later, in time to slice cucumbers and trim radishes, for a much-needed fresh vegetable componant.

This dish could easily be made vegetarian. The original recipe uses olive oil rather than duck fat (I couldn't resist - it must be my French blood) and the braising liquid could be water (which I used) or veggie stock. The original also seems to think that fresh thyme is optional, but in my opinion, it is mandatory. I might try this again with the beluga lentils, since I usually have those on hand anyway, and I'm curious as to how different they would be. I don't think I'd try large green or brown lentils because, much as I love them in salads, I think they would easily turn to mush here.

Lentils Braised in Red Wine
Adapted from the "Zuni Cafe Cookbook" by Judy Rodgers

2 tablespoons duck fat
1 finely diced medium carrot
2 ribs finely diced celery
1 cup finely diced yellow onion
1 bay leaf
1 1/4 cups lentils (about 8 ounces) - French lentils or "Beluga" lentils
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup medium-bodied red wine, such as Sangiovese or Pinot Noir (I used a Tempranillo)
2 1/2 cups water, chicken stock, or a combination
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Warm the duck fat in a dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the carrots, celery, onion, and a good pinch of salt. Stir for about 5 minutes as the vegetables release their moisture and begin to hiss, then add lentils, bay leaf, thyme, wine and about a cup of the water and/or stock. Raise the heat slightly to achieve a gentle (but not too gentle, or it will take longer to cook) simmer, then cook uncovered, stirring as needed, as you would risotto, adding more water or stock as the last of each batch is just about absorbed, until the lentils are nutty-tender and just bathed in their cooking liquid (you may not use all of the liquid, or you may need a little more). Allow about 40 minutes. Taste and season with salt if necessary. Add the extra-virgin olive oil to taste and simmer for a minute longer to bind it with the cooking liquid.

Serves 4 to 6.

Leftovers travel well to work, and reheat splendidly!

May 17, 2006

Desert Flavours: Chicken Sahara

I like sunny weather as much as the next person, really, but I am also one of those who suffers easily in the heat. None-the-less, I find myself drawn to flavours and staples of hot-weather cuisine. Chicken, that staple that happily accepts all manner of rough-treatment from filleting to pan-frying, braising, poaching, roasting, grilling, or skewering (and surely more that I've left out) becomes a particularly useful canvas for taking your tastebuds on a journey.

My journey this time is to the north of Africa - using the lemon and olive combination from Senegal's Yassa au Poulet, and the cumin, turmeric and red chiles favoured in Morocco. This is Chicken Sahara (expired link removed --please see recipe in the comments below) a recipe that I highjacked, modified and drastically improved from a more expositorily named recipe in a collection from Cooking Light, and which fairly shrieks of sunwarmed sand and sharp and pungent flavours. It is feisty, but not dangerously so.

The cooking method is unusual - room-temperature liquid surrounds the chicken as it goes into the oven, uncovered. There, it sort of poaches, sort of braises, for an hour, at the end of which, the weirdly murky-looking sauce has transformed into a smooth, thickened, sunny yellow, lemony deliciousness.

Make more than you need. Leftovers re-heat beautifully, and the lemony sauce is fabulous on steamed carrots, asparagus, broccoli - you name it. If there's any sauce leftover, I just stir it right into the leftover couscous that inevitably gets served with this dish. Very tasty, very easy.

May 11, 2006

Creature of Habit

In many ways, I am a creature of habit. In other ways, since those habits do shift with a certain, shall we say, regularity, perhaps I could be better called a creature of jags. Sometimes I manage to have more than one jag going at any particular time, but that's another story for another time - perhaps one where we are discussing time management, for example

One of my most consistant habits is toast for weekday breakfasts. What I choose to put on my toast, however, is completely subject to the jag of the moment - in this case, avocado. As you can see, I am a fan of the avocado. Since avocados can ripen quite quickly when it is most inconvenient to make a big batch of guacamole, this leads to the occasional need to use them up promptly.

I have discovered that a cut avocado lasts quite well in the fridge if I have carefully flattened a piece of plastic wrap in full-contact with the cut flesh. This means that I can get away with using only a quarter-avocado on my toast, as it will happily keep for a few days.

Avocados are full of good things, but they are fairly rich, so I like to keep my intake somewhat discreet. At this time, a quarter-avocado sliced onto rye toast, sprinkled with a little fleur de sel or Brittany grey sea salt, a grinding of fresh pepper, and breakfast is ready. Even with my compressed morning schedule, I can manage that much. So, for the moment, I'm all about the avocados. When tomato season hits, though, tomato-toast will again reign supreme in breakfastland.

May 05, 2006

Cinco de Mayo (Red Adobo of Pork and also Black Bean Soup)

Last year, I had a Cinco de Mayo party; this year, I am not so organized. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory of the drastically outnumbered Mexicans over the Napoleonic army at The Battle Of Puebla in 1862. Although it is primarily a regional holiday in the state of Puebla, it has some recognition throughout Mexico, and in many American cities, too. It is not Mexico's Independence Day (September 16), but it is a celebration in a similar spirit.

While it may not be Mexico's Independence Day, it holds great significance in the establishment of a national identity for many Mexicans, and as such is perfectly in keeping with my interest in the food of cultural celebrations.

While I may not have managed any particular arrangments for this year, I have been cooking a lot of Mexican food lately, including Mayan-style black bean soup (note: expired link removed - instead, please see recipe in the comments, below) and these adorable little tostadas made of Mexican adobo of pork shoulder, some awesome spinach tortillas made by a local factory (you can actually taste the spinach!), a some feisty green salsa using Brandon's recipe (of Orangette-fame). The pork shoulder took an impressive three hours of simmering in first water and then a brick-coloured adobo sauce made with pureed ancho chiles, onions, garlic, and surprisingly minimal dried spices, such as cumin and oregano. This is all about the chiles, but it is not a particularly hot dish. Anchos are, as Bobby Flay likes to say, "like spicy raisins." There's an underlying sweetness that sets off the mild heat of the pepper, and contrasts beautifully in this recipe against the vinegar-edge of the adobo.

I'm already on the record as saying that miniature = cute, and these are no exception. The first night I served them, we left the tortillas soft (but warm) and adorned them with sliced peppers and a smear of refried beans, and the second night, I crisped the tortillas in a cast iron frying pan until blistered with gold and served them with just the salsa and a little cilantro. The tortillas are about a finger's-length in diameter, making these just a few quick bites each. You could make even tinier ones, just one bite each, and I probably would if I were serving them as party snacks. In fact, I might just have to have a party so that I can do so!

Red Adobo of Pork
(Adobo Rojo de Cerdo)
adapted from the excellent New Complete Book of Mexican Cooking by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz

7 ancho chilies, toasted, de-stemmed and de-seeded, torn into pieces and covered with warm water
3 lbs. boneless pork shoulder, cut into one-inch cubes
1 onion, peeled, halved, and stuck with 2 cloves
1 onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
398 ml./14 0z. canned, diced tomatoes
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lard, bacon drippings or corn oil
Black pepper

Start with the pork. In a heavy dutch oven, place the pork and the clove-stuck onion with enough lightly salted water to just cover. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to a very gentle heat, and cook (covered) for 2 hours. The meat will be very tender. In the final hour of the meat simmering, start the prep for the sauce.

Let the peppers rest in their warm bath for 20 - 30 minutes, until thoroughly soft. Remove the peppers from their water and place them in a food processor, along with the chopped onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, sugar and tomatoes. Process until you have a fairly smooth, heavy puree. In a heavy skillet, heat the lard, and add the puree. Saute the mixture over a lowheat, stirring constantly, for about five minutes.

When the pork has finished simmering, remove the pork pieces from the liquid, which has become a lovely pork-stock. Strain the stock, and reserve one cup. Freeze the rest for the next time you want to make black bean soup.

Thin the ancho mixture with the reserved pork stock, and transfer the mixture to your now-empty dutch oven. Add the pork back to the pot, add the vinegar, and stir well. Simmer uncovered over low to medium-low heat. The sauce will finish cooking and become quite thick. Taste the sauce, and add salt and black pepper as needed.

Serves 6. Leftovers make awesome burritos with beans, grated cheese, and salsa.