June 28, 2006

Odds and Ends

What do you make when you have a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and it all needs to be used up promptly? For my mother, the answer was variously soup or omelettes. For me, the answer used to always be "pizza." I've made pizza out of some astonishing things (leftover Dijon rabbit comes to mind). In the past year or so, I've become enamoured of quesadillas, and that took centre stage for a while. Pizza was out of the question, with the weather being entirely too hot to have the oven on at such a temperature, and I've been eating a lot of quesadillas, lately. What else is there?

Ultimately, when your ingredients are delicious fresh vegetables and a handful of frozen shrimp, the answer has to be that old college standby: the stir-fry. To complement the shrimp, I added ginger, and to complement everything, a lot of fresh garlic and some chile flakes.

I've had to replace my beloved jasmine rice (off the charts on the glycemic index, so a rare treat instead of my default choice) in my pantry, and have experimented with a number of different rices. Often, I choose basmati, but this time, I used simple parboiled rice (the kind I keep on hand for making Jamaican Rice & Beans, or jambalaya) , but served as seen here, the rice felt a little uninspired. After the camera was put away and I was sitting down to eat, I found myself mixing everything about so that the buttery juices of the shrimp and vegetables would be soaked up by the rice. It was the right thing to do, if a little less photogenic. Still, if hunger hadn't been the driving force at the late hour of my dinner, I would have photographed it, too - little brightly coloured gems of pepper and glistening jagged tops of asparagaus peeking through the white grains of rice - it was entirely tolerable, aesthetically.

Dinner on the table in 18 minutes. Take that, FoodTv! Plus, I managed to use up not one but three ingredients that were riding on the edge of their expiry dates.

June 22, 2006

Butter Chicken!

I am a sucker for Indian food (downright amazing, given my earlier fear of curry). I particularly like to experiment with hitherto unknown dishes when dining in restaurants, but for the most part my home cooking adventures in Indian cookery focus on known quantities. I like spicy food, and Indian cuisine has it in spades, but there are also more temperate dishes - full of spices and flavours, but not necessarily focused on heat.

Butter Chicken is a funny one, though. Almost every place you have it (and it seems to be available everywhere, it's that popular here), it's quite different. My local neighbourhood joint makes it mild and fragrant with coriander, and sprinkled with methi (dried fenugreek). I've had it richly tomato-y and red, mildly orange and creamy and, on myfirst attempt to make it at home, bright pink. I concluded pretty quickly that I had used too much tandoori paste on the chicken, and subsequent batches were less terrifyingly barbie-toned.

I have quite a few recipes for Butter Chicken, but most of them are eye-rollingly daunting, or involve and actual tandoor oven or other equipment that I am unable to really equal in my western kitchen. Eventually, I stumbled on the website for Mamta's Kitchen and got the bones of a workable version. My version has remained quite true to the nature of hers, but is tweaked for my own convenience. I am quite lazy, so I have no problem substituting natural cashew butter for cashews that have been soaked one hour, and then ground. Although, just for fun, I did do it that way once, my shortcut allows me to carve away a significant chunk of prep-time, which makes me that much more likely to make this on a weeknight.

June 15, 2006

Mission in progress

I do like lamb. A few years ago, I realized that I seldom ate it, which was attributable in part to the fact that my family never had it when I was growing up, and that most casual restaurants didn't have a lot of lamb dishes on offer. My lack of lamb was, in fact, the topic of one of my earlier essays. I set about a remedial program of lamb cookery for myself, and I have had no cause whatsoever to regret it.

One of the two prongs to my approach was to investigate lamb dishes from different cultures. I quickly found that Indian cuisine offered a broad selection to choose from and, after brief flirtations with biryani, settled on lamb bhuna as a favourite dish. The image above is my first attempt at creating this myself, from an Indian cookbook brought back for me by my Dad and his fiancee from their recent trip to northern India.

It's the second dish that I've made from the book - the first was a cauliflower dish that was adequate but not outstanding. This, however - fantastic. I used the shank end of a leg of lamb, and cut around the fat before slicing it carefully across the grain. It was unbelievably tender and delicious, and the slicing of the lamb took longer than the entire cooking process.

I will make this again, but my next foray into exotic lamb cookery will be Mexican. They do some mighty fine things with lamb, down there, and I have a passel of dried chiles that are languishing until I get on with it.

June 10, 2006

Al fresco amidst the vines

I've been a little bit AWOL, lately, this I know. Last week, I started a new job, and have been pouring non-food information into my head with a funnel until my brains were so full that I couldn't have answered as simple a question as "Do you want fries with that?" I think I've made the adjustment now, so while I still have a lot to learn on my plate, so to speak, I can once again spare a little attention to the delicious things in life.

Last weekend, in the narrow slot of time between finishing my old job and starting the new one, I went to see friends on Vancouver Island. The plan was to do a little tour of the growing number of wineries there, and have lunch at one of them. Since we were scheduling around the transportation challenges of not only our arrival from the mainland, but also our friends' seven month-old baby, it took a while before we were on the road. We failed in our mission to complete an actual tour, per se, but we succeeded in having an absolutely delicious and revivifying lunch on the deck of Vinoteca Resaurant, overlooking (and a part of) Zanatta Winery's vineyards.

After a quick tour of their wine varietals in the tasting room, we sashayed out to the lovely wrap-around verandah and gazed down the vineyards while waiting for our food. We had a bottle of one of their sparkling wines, the Fatima Brut, which boasted toasty flavours (our favourite, in a champagne-style wine!) and tucked into the elegant but simple Italian fare on offer from the kitchen.
My salad had crispy pancetta, strips of citrus zest, melon balls, feta, on a bed of assorted bitter greens. The dressing was fig and balsamic vinegar. There was a sweet and sharp and salty combination that worked perfectly as an appetizer, revving up my tastebuds for the main dish. I'm not one to order salads, usually, but this just sounded so refreshing that I couldn't say no. It was an excellent match to the sparkling wine, and the sunny-but-cool weather.

Moving along, my pasta was also delightful - with darker, more earthy flavours compared to the brightness of the salad. There was a mushroom broth, little strips of proscuitto, and black olives, with shredded sage. The pasta was almost defiantly al dente, and the last few pieces of pasta had soaked up the rich juices beautifully.

The two men both opted for the polenta cake with chorizo and red pepper sauce, served over mustard greens with a mighty shard of parmesan cheese. It looked good, and the little bite I got of chorizo was very agreeable, but I didn't try much of it, with a rather large lunch of my own to work at.

I was too full for dessert, although my companions had some. The custard and fig cake looked so outstanding that I had to steal a tiny bite, even though I was quite full. I wish that I had remembered to take a picture of it.

We were leisurely enough at our lunch (and I would not have rushed, anyway) that we only had time to make one more place to visit before it was time to head back to the house. We went to the Merridale Cidery, and had a walking tour of the cider mill before taking to the tasting room. After a look at the menu for their restaurant La Pommeraie, we immediately swore (despite our full stomachs) that we would be back to try it soon. We sampled quite a few different ciders, and picked up a Traditional Cider and a Winter Apple - sort of the icewine of ciders, sweet, rich, and heavy, and perfect for after dinner.

We didn't make it to Blue Grouse, or any of the other places on our list, but that can mean only one thing: another attempt at an Island wine tour is definitely required. Preferably, soon.

June 01, 2006

Some Like It Hot! (Creamed Eggplant)

Some like it hot. Good thing, too, because sometimes, at the end of a long day when one is a little bit tired but relentlessly pushing on with the new recipe anyway, one forgets that, when halving a recipe the spices should also be halved.

Ordinarily, I probably wouldn't have even noticed that the spices were a little feisty, since I like a good bit more seasoning in my food than many folks. This, however, was an Indian recipe by way of Madhur Jaffrey, and didn't really start life as a particularly subtle dish.

As it turned out, I wouldn't make it any other way. Yes, it's a zippy little number, but that's what raita is for, yes? I did add a smidge more cream than the recipe called for, to temper the additional spice, but other than that it worked out perfectly. It was fun to make, too, with the charring of the eggplant, and the tearing away of the blackened skin in leathery chunks. In deference to my occasionally-problematic right hand, I used my mini-prep to chop the onions and garlic, and I have to say that I was impressed at what a good job it did - without producing ragged mush, as some food processors are wont to do. I would probably still hand-chop for something that wasn't going to be cooked down (such as a salsa fresca) but this worked admirably on a day when I couldn't actually hold a proper knife in my hand.

Creamed Eggplant (India)
Adapted from World of the East Vegetarian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey

1 large eggplant
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped moderately finely
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek seed
1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seed
3 tablespoons tomato sauce
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
pinch of salt
1/4 cup half-and-half cream
cilantro to garnish

Line a sided-pan with tin-foil, and poke the eggplant with a fork - several times on each side. Char the entire eggplant under a broiler, until the skin is completely withered and black, and the flesh is soft. Transfer the eggplant to a clean sink and strip the skin away, carefully, under running cool water so that you don't burn yourself. Chop the flesh of the eggplant roughly and set aside.

In a medium skillet, over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the fenugreek and fennel and let it become aromatic before adding the onions and garlic. Stir and fry the onions until lightly golden. Then, add the tomato sauce and the rest of the spices, and stir and fry again until mixture is a little dry. Add the chopped eggplant, ginger, and salt. Stir and fry again until everything is well integrated (about five minutes), and then add the cream. Stir the cream through, keeping on the heat just long enough to warm it all nicely. Garnish with chopped cilantro.

Serves 4 as a side-dish

Makes a surprisingly tasty appetizer when rolled up in a tortilla and sliced into pinwheels!