November 10, 2007

Comfort Food: Chili Mac


If there's one thing that the chilly autumn weather and the battling of health issues have in common, it's that comfort food makes them recede a little into the background, leaving instead (if only temporarily) a swathe of warm, well-fed well being.

It's a little funny to me that this dish, Chili Mac, is a comfort food for me, because it is something that I never had growing up. However, we did have a lot of chili, and if this had occurred to my mother as an option, I'm certain she would have made it, and often, at that.

The type of chili necessary for this dish is the uber-basic ground meat and bean style chili, which can be made very quickly and without much fuss. My standard, go to recipe is called "20 Minute Chili" because it is really that quick to knock together, and while chili is always better the next day, it's pretty good as is, shored up with lots of spices. This kind of thick chili can be made from simple pantry/freezer staples, and it freezes most excellently itself, ready to be hauled out and used for anything from Chili Mac to chili dogs, or even as a filling for a fluffy omelette!

Assuming that one has the chili already in the freezer, Chili Mac is dead easy to make (even for someone whose hands don't always work very well). The meat, onions and peppers, and other things that require knife-wielding have, for the most part, already been done, and it becomes a simple skillet dinner of patience and stirring (topped with a little cheese, and maybe some green onion and/or cilantro).

You can use your own favourite ground-meat chili here. Heck, you could even use your own favourite vegetarian chili. It's very adaptable. It uses the absorption method, so you only mess up one pot, which is also good. It's sort of like making a risotto out of pasta, only much less fussy.

Chili Mac

3 cups prepared chili (defrosted)
1 cup uncooked elbow macaroni
2 1/2 cups low-sodium beef broth (or water)
1 cup tomato sauce

Optional garnishes:
Grated cheese
Sliced green onion
Chopped cilantro
Extra hot sauce

In a 12" non-stick skillet with high sides, heat up the chili until bubbly. Add the uncooked macaroni, the broth (or water) and the tomato sauce, and bring up to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, and cook and stir intermittently for about 10 minutes, or until the macaroni is cooked to your liking. The liquid should be mostly absorbed, but the dish should still be a little saucy. If your heat was too high, and your liquid evaporated to quickly, you may need to add a little more water (or, for example, if you like your macaroni well-cooked instead of al dente).

Dish up and garnish as you see fit. If there are any leftovers, they warm up nicely for lunch the following day.

September 24, 2007

Dzik

I'm always intrigued when I am exploring another cuisine, and I find that there is a common use of an ingredient that I do not associate with that culture. In Mexican cookery, I would never have guessed (based on the restaurants in my neck of the woods) that radishes play a frequent supporting role.

Likewise, I was not expecting to find such a thing as a cold beef salad, although when I did, it didn't surprise me at all that it was full of spicy habanero chiles. Palle, who has been to the Yucatan, fell in love with this dish, but didn't know what it was called until we saw it being made on a television show. Recipe now accessible, he wanted to make it right away. So he did.

The dish is called Dzik, and is also known more generically as Yucatecan salpicón de res. The recipe is from Rick Bayless's Mexico, One Plate at a Time (season 5). Because it is served cold, it is perfect summer food, and while summer is definitely on the way out, here in the Pacific Northwest, we squeezed in one last summery dinner.

The avocado should be sprinkled over the Dzik, but Palle doesn't like avocado as much as I do, so we left it on the side. Also, the Dzik should be resting on top of a bed of lettuce, but we didn't quite get around to doing that, although the presentation would be nicer. Thick, spicy black beans, hand-chopped fresh salsa cruda, and corn tortillas rounded it all out, and we enjoyed every little bit of it.

Next time, I think we will simmer the meat a little longer, to make it even more tender, and chop the red onion a little finer. Other than that - I wouldn't change a thing. Full of tangy lime juice, zippy habanero peppers, fresh crunchy radishes, and (for me) creamy avocado, it was tasty and satisfying, and definitely on the "let's make again" list.

I may not be able to wait until next summer.

August 30, 2007

Pirate Granola

Should I explain the name? Well, I'll try: Maybe it's because I'm soon going to be attending a pirate-themed party, and maybe it's because I've still got the image of Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow burned into my retinas, and maybe it's because I sort of highjacked the original recipe from the inimitable Alton Brown. Maybe it's just that the changes I made all sort of smacked of the Caribbean, and while I know there is more to that culture than pirates (cue Johnny Depp, again), it just sounded kind of fun.

But, really? It's very, very good. Lightly sweet, satisfyingly crunchy, and easy to make.

I did, in fact, start with Alton's ratios, but because I don't like my granola to be too sweet, I cut down on the amount of sugars going into this by quite a bit. Once I decided to use rum syrup instead of maple syrup, well, that along with the coconut was really the start of the theme. I added pumpkin seeds in place of one of the types of nuts that Alton used, and this was a good thing, because a well-toasted pumpkin seed is a delicious addition to many a snackfood.

This recipe is rather goody-heavy. It's not like those sad bags you can see in some markets which are ninety-five percent oats and sugar, with a few stray-looking nuts or raisins. This granola is laden with, ahem, booty. While it's not in the picture, I later added some banana chips, although I've since become horrified at the fat content of those, and won't be repeating that adjustment.

Pirate Granola
Severely adapted from a recipe looted from Alton Brown

3 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1 cup very roughly chopped almonds
1 cup raw pumpkin seeds
3/4 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
2 tablespoons golden brown sugar
1/4 cup rum syrup (recipe follows)
2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup raisins (chopped dates would also be good)

Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, nuts, pumpkin seeds, coconut and brown sugar.

In a separate bowl, combine the molasses, rum syrup, oil and salt, and stir well. Combine both mixtures and stir until thoroughly integrated. Pour onto one or two large, foil-lined (and oil-spritzed) sheet pans. Cook for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, stirring gently every 30 minutes to achieve an even colour.

Remove from oven and transfer to a large bowl. Add raisins and mix until evenly distributed. Once cool, seal in an air-tight container and keep unrefrigerated.

Yield: approximately 7 cups

Exellent as a topping for yoghurt, as a breakfast cereal, or - my favourite - as a coffee-break snack! I just pour a bit into a mug, sit at my desk, and much while I'm working, surfing, or typing.

Rum Syrup

1 cup brown sugar, not packed
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons rum extract

Combine sugar and water in small saucepan on stovetop, over a medium heat. Allow it to come to a gentle boil, and allow to cook until all sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, and add extract. Allow to cool, bottle, and refrigerate. Excellent on pancakes, or over ice cream.

August 26, 2007

Easiest Pasta Ever (Fettuccine Tapanade)

This is, really, the easiest pasta dish I've ever made. Barely more effort than packet pasta, really, and easy enough to accomplish when tipsy!

It's not even a recipe, really. It just sort of went like this:
  • Boil up water for pasta.
  • Throw in a good pinch of salt and about 200 g of fettuccine (aka "a good handful").
  • While the pasta comes back up to the boil, roughly chop up some capicolla found languishing in fridge. Haphazard chopping is okay.
  • Toss capicolla into nonstick skillet over medium heat, and let it frizzle a bit. Dump about half a cup or so of good quality black olive tapanade over capicolla.
  • Scoop al dente pasta out of boiling water and dump it on top of the tapanade. Give it a good stir. Add a clove of crushed garlic, if you're feeling fancy, and if the mixture is tight you can loosen it with a glug of olive oil.
  • Top with a fair bit of freshly chopped parsley, to give it a bit of a lift.
  • Dish up and devour.
This is going in the "Oh yeah!" pile of easy recipes. The cucumber on the side (barely visible) is a bare nod to the notion that olive tapanade doesn't really qualify as a vegetable, nor does parsley (except when used in tabouleh quantities).

I confess that I did a second version of this without the capicolla, but instead with some sauteed yellow and green zucchini and red peppers, and tossed it with tortellini. Slightly more effort, true, but a more well-rounded meal. You could easily make it a vegetarian or vegan dish, as it doesn't need (or want) any cheese atop.

August 04, 2007

French Skillet Dinner, or "Not Cassoulet"

I love French food. I like the flavours, the unabashed use of butter and garlic, the reliance on duck and rabbit as part of the cuisine ordinaire. I like the traditions of wildcrafting, and of seasonal eating - abundance of whatever happens to be in season. I like the rustic stuff, and I like the highly refined, elegant stuff.

There are plenty of simple French dishes, many of which (for example, a classic omelette) I make without stopping to think of them as French, per se. Then, of course, there are the dishes that simply use French accents - combining carrots and tarragon, or thyme with mushrooms.

I am also very, very lazy in my weekday cooking, and as such, I often look for ways to shortcut methods and still feel like I'm dining reasonably well. I'm also pretty big on variety, and cannot face pan-fried hamburgers in mushroom gravy three nights of the week on an ongoing basis (although, back in school, I suspected that I could).

Of late, we've been all about the skillet dinners. Assorted combinations of rice or pasta and some sort of meat (often chicken) and vegetables, and one-pan programming. You know, the sort of dinner that you can bang out quickly when you get home from work and you're kind of bagged, or you don't feel much like spending all night in the kitchen. There are, however, only so many variations of pasta and rice that can be made in a one-pot dinner, and I thought that I had run their course. Until, as it turned out, I was standing in the butcher shop staring at some lovely looking lean duck sausages, and a glimmering of an idea came about.

I've seen plenty of "easy cassoulet" recipes over the years, recipes which promise the rich, soul-satisfying taste of cassoulet in less time than the requisite two-day operation. I've seen one-day "cassoulet" and four-hour "cassoulet" but it seems a little disingenuous to claim them as the real deal. I suppose, what it comes down to, is that there are a lot of bean and sausage dishes, but not all of them are cassoulet.

I didn't have time to muck about with confit, and I didn't have any pork or fatty lamb handy, but I figured that, since the French themselves have such varied and vehement opinions as to what really qualifies as cassoulet, as long as I'm not claiming to make a particularly authentic dish, I can do what I want with the idea of it. Out of this perhaps somewhat arrogant reasoning, came dinner, in exactly 45 minutes from wandering into the kitchen and curling up on the sofa with a big old bowl in my lap.

I was somewhat shocked to realize that it is actually a fairly healthy dish, since the sausages that I used were not terribly fatty, and there was no added fat or oil in the dish. Quel surprise! I'll definitely be making this again.

French Skillet Dinner
aka "Not Cassoulet"

4 large duck sausages
1 large onion, diced
3 bay leaves
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 whole cloves (the spice)
pinch ground cloves
good pinch ground sage
pinch ground thyme, or sprig of fresh thyme
white pepper, to taste
2 - 3 cups cooked white beans, such as cannelini, white kidney, great northern, flageolet
2 medium carrots, diced
dry white vermouth
water
parsley

In a large, heavy, cast iron (or any not-non-stick) skillet, brown the sausages on all sides over high heat (no oil needed). Push the sausages to the side, and add the onions. Saute, stirring occasionally, until well caramelized, and add one of the cloves of garlic, and a good pinch of salt. Add the carrots, and saute and stir, adding a little vermouth from time to time if necessary to keep from burning.

The sausage should have developed a nice sticky brown fond on the bottom of the pan. Add about a half-cup of vermouth and scrape it up into the onion and carrot mixture. Add the bayleaves, whole cloves, ground cloves, white pepper, sage and thyme, all at once. Stir to distribute evenly. Add beans, and enough water to make a fairly loose stew. Simmer, uncovered, over a medium-low flame for about fifteen minutes, or until the gravy thickens and reduces.

Remove sausages and cut into chunks. Return sausage chunks to pan along with the second sliced clove of garlic. Stir well (but gently, so you don't mash all the beans). Taste the gravy and adjust for salt as needed. Drizzle an extra tablespoon of vermouth over the top, sprinkle generously with parsley, and serve with a nice glass of wine and a piece of crusty baguette.

July 11, 2007

Morels: A Tale of Two Dishes

I adore mushrooms. I even like the little white button ones, although I'll admit that they aren't the most flavourful thing going on their own. That, after all, is what butter and garlic are for, right? Wild mushrooms are always a treat, and I manage to enjoy cultivated specialties such as the oyster mushroom, the portobello, the shiitake on a fairly regular basis. Once in a while, I spring for chantarelles, when I can, or black trumpets. Special occasions, those, decidedly.

Two weeks ago, Saturday's Trout Lake Farmers' Market was, for once, not being rained out during the slow start to summer and, unlike my previous visit, this time I loaded up on enough cash to make sure I could buy all of the things on my list - not the least of which were the big, beautiful baskets of morels that were on offer. It must be the end of the morel season, because I know that they are something of a spring mushroom (and that they require a fire-seared ground to grow upon), and the mushrooms were getting a teensy bit bigger, and a teensy bit more costly than two weeks ago. None the less, I plunged ahead, and lugged home my bounty.

My first dish, since I had more than enough for two meals, was a simple pasta - fettuccine tossed with a little garlic and cream, a little sauteed pancetta, and some butter-sauteed morels. Simplicity itself, really, even with a bit of parsley over top. It so happened that I had the pancetta on hand already, which largely decided the course of the dish. I also had some asparagus, but to my dismay discovered that it had hung about too long in the bottom of the crisper (I have not yet adapted to my new fridge, and its vagaries), and was no longer fit to eat. So, the originally planned dish would have been even more luxurious, if the asparagus had held up, but it was not to be.

I have had morels before, of course - always as an accent to a dish where some other flavour held the supreme place of honour, and usually paired with other mushrooms, wild or domestic, to round things out a little. It is certainly an unaccustomed luxury that allows for making a dish that is devoted entirely to the morel itself. Arguably, the pancetta in my fettuccine was something of a distraction, flavour-wise, but the morel pieces themselves were plentiful enough that one certainly still got the sense that it was, essentially a mushroom dish.

Still, the purist in me, the girl that perked up upon reading Colette's assertion that morels should be eaten like the vegetable they are, simmered in champagne (!) for best effect, wanted to have a dish that not only highlighted the morel, but featured it in such wanton abundance that I could revel in morel flavour; in short, it would have to be a risotto.

I cut the pieces larger than I did for the pasta dish. Some of them were only slit open lengthwise, to ensure that the interior was insect-free. Some were coarsely chopped - there were a few monsters in there, truly, almost suitable for stuffing! All of them were sauteed until just tender in good butter, and then I simply proceeded per my usual Wild Mushroom Risotto recipe, omitting the porcini, or indeed any other mushroom than the morel.

Finally able to wallow unobstructed in morel flavour, I found it to be a curious sort of taste. It was earthy, certainly, but also...almost spicy? It is difficult to describe, but there was a sort of rich intensity to the flavour, while it still managed to remain subtle - almost familiar, but not in the way of other mushrooms. It evoked forest floor (in a good way), and trees, and at the same time was utterly unlike anything I have ever tasted before. The texture was mushroom-spongy, but in a good way. That is, if you like mushrooms, it was lovely, and if you find them an organoleptic nightmare, perhaps you should steer clear. The rough edges to the honeycomb caps made for an almost tripe-like look to the paler of the individual pieces, and sat strangely on the tongue before collapsing in buttery submission.

I'm looking forward to morels again next year - I suspect the season is truly over now, in the throes of July's suddenly summery heat - and perhaps next year, I will feel profligate enough to simmer my mushrooms in champagne, watching the bubbles dance through the honeycombed caps, as Colette assures us we must.

July 02, 2007

Quinoa!

I know that I am only the most recent in an awfully long line of people to discover quinoa, but I'm really quite excited about it! It is a grain that I have heard about for years, but never really gotten around to trying. Occasionally I would see it on a menu, but it somehow never managed to be paired with whatever I was in the mood for, or there was an ingredient listed that I didn't care for. In my quest for new side dishes and new salads - always a favourite hunt for the summer picnic table - and with my current trend away from most forms of refined flours and sugars, I decided that I needed to explore some of the alternative grains and seeds whose names were floating around in the back of my head.

I went hunting online for recipes, and there were certainly plenty to choose from! Quinoa as breakfast (in hot-cereal mode), quinoa as pilaf, quinoa as salad, and quinoa as curry, just to name a few. While the curry idea definitely piqued my interest, I thought that perhaps I should start off a little on the safe side, and simply substitute the main component in an already-popular salad (in our house, anyway), with quinoa.

This recipe for Couscous Salad is an outgrowth of Middle-Eastern tabbouleh, a parsley-rich dish usually made with bulgar wheat, and seasoned generously with lemon juice to give it some zing. While I am a big fan of tabblouleh, as well, I developed this recipe initially with couscous to speed up the prep time, provide a softer texture, and incorporate more vegetables. Changing back to a grain (quinoa - technically a seed, in fact) from a pasta (couscous) improves the nutritonal profile pretty tremendously, but mostly because, as it turns out, quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse! Not only is it protein-rich (although I include a little feta in my salad, which adds to the protein, also), but quinoa is also a good source of amino acids, dietary fibre, magnesium, iron, and is gluten-free.

My biggest hesitation, standing in front of the bulk-foods cannister, staring at the organic quinoa in front of me, was that I didn't have a clue how to cook it. A little online research solved that problem, too. It turns out, quinoa cooks a lot like white rice. So, with a shrug and a smile, I popped my well-rinsed purchase into the rice-cooker (a Tiger, if it makes a difference) with the same ratio of water as for basmati rice (my standard, go-to rice), set the program for "quick" white rice - laughably, about 40 minutes instead of the "usual" 48 minutes - to skip the initial soaking period that I wasn't sure was necessary for quinoa, and waited.

The quinoa cooked up just as I had hoped. Fluffy, tender, with its little spiral of bran arching delicately away from each grain. The flavour, since I couldn't resist trying it straight up, was nutty and complex, and unlike anything else I have ever had. It had a familiar-tasting quality that I am still trying to identify, but was wholly new-tasting at the same time. Still, it was very much a base-flavour, and it took in the seasoning that I usually put in the Couscous Salad beautifully.

I'm looking forward to trying other grains and seeds - perhaps amaranth will be next - but I'm also quite excited to try a curried quinoa dish - either as a hot side or a cold salad. And, of course, hot, plain quinoa would be a fabulous base for a wonderful vegetarian curry, all chock full of farmers' market-fresh goodness.

June 24, 2007

Palle Tackles Pasta

As strange as it may seem, given that he has cooked braised rabbit, Provençal daube, merguez sausage, an assortment of chilis and even his own hot sauce, this is Palle's first Italian pasta dish.

In what has become his usual research style, working without a recipe, he contemplated some favourite Italian flavours, and came up with prosciutto and radicchio. After that, some online surfing led him to asparagus, flat leafed parsley, garlic, and olive oil, as well as some simple preparation methods, and he set about making dinner.

When I came home from work, he was setting up his mise, something at which he is far more meticulous than I tend to be, measuring out some fettuccine, lining up balsamic vinegar and chile oil, and the rest of his ingredients, and all that was required of me was to stay out of the way. It's always lovely to come home from work to a home-cooked dinner that seems to appear like magic on the table. This one was delicious.

Palle has gone from King of the Stirfry (pretty much the only thing he had really cooked from scratch when I met him) to someone capable of either following an attractive recipe or hybridizing his own to good effect. Now that he's not working 18 hour days, he has more time and inclination to cook. In this new kitchen of ours, we might just both be always in the kitchen. Fortunately, it's a pretty big kitchen.

June 20, 2007

Hello, again

I didn't mean to go away. Really. A week or two hiatus, I thought, and I'd be back at it. Right after the move. I didn't mean for it to be a month!

The move was considerably more exhausting than anticipated, and I thought I was well braced for it. My last move, eight and a half years ago, was a comparative breeze, completed in under two hours, with the house fully set up by the next day. That was before I had so much stuff, of course, and before I had arthritis. I know better, now. Next move (not soon, I hope) I will hire professionals for the whole thing.
Meals have been a bit haphazard in the last while, too. A lot of eating out while packing up dishes, and then unpacking dishes, and of course, exploring our new neighbourhood - blessedly full of little cafes, diners, and coffee shops, with some attractive-looking more upscale places, too. We may no longer be a mere stroll from fine French restaurants, but there's an exciting upscale Mexican place that we're itching to try, and we can still make it to our old favourites by bus.

I'm starting to get into the swing of the new kitchen, and I'll unpacking the digital camera shortly. In the meantime, I'll leave you with two pictures of meals that I made just shortly before we packed up...

a repertoire favourite - Sausage and Hominy Chili


...and a highly experimental baked portobello mushroom, filled with the sort of spinachy-feta-garlicky sort of thing you'd use to fill a spanakopita. 20 minutes in the oven - delicious!

What you can see (almost) in the corner of the mushroom photo: a brand new, soon to be classic - Quinoa Salad (recipe coming soon!)

Cheers!


May 19, 2007

Surf & Turf

I've never been a big fan of the surf 'n turf platters in restaurants. When I have occasionally had them, they've been disappointingly cooked steaks with even more disappointingly dry, tough, overcooked, often tiny shrimp. I stopped trying them a long time ago.

While it seems strange to think of pairing seafood with beef, really, I think I understand the intent: both are luxurious items, so the combination must be even better, right? In the words of Homer Simpson, "I'll have your finest food, stuffed with your second finest food." Which, as you may know, turned out to be lobster stuffed with tacos.

I wanted a nice dinner for our anniversary. It's our tenth, so something a little special or unusual seemed the thing to do, but as we are saving money right now (and moving across town very shortly), we decided to stay in for dinner rather than go to one of our favourite special occasion haunts. Since I had a lovely bottle of Saintsbury Garnet Pinot Noir on hand, thanks to my sister, all I needed were a few items from the market to make a festive meal.

There aren't really recipes attached to this dinner - the tenderloin steaks started at room temperature, were seasoned with salt and pepper, quickly seared on both sides and placed in the oven for about four minutes to come up to temperature. As soon as they went into the oven, I melted some butter, added the freshly shelled, raw prawns, tossed once, added kosher salt and coarsely pounded black and white peppercorns, tossed again for a couple of minutes until they all started to pinken, then turned the flame off and added a couple of cloves of fresh garlic. The garlic softened and mellowed while the steaks rested on the cutting board. We ate a whole pound of prawns (well, that was their shell-on weight) between the two of us, since the theme was indulgent luxury. The asparagus were simply roasted on a piece of foil on a sheet in the oven for about seven minutes, so they still had a bit of a crisp bite. Ten minutes gets you silky, tender stalks.

Simple, and good. A fitting meal, we thought, for the ten years that we've spent together so far.

We had no room for dessert. The vanilla ice cream and limoncello drizzle would have to wait for another day.

May 10, 2007

Chicken & Rice


Arroz con pollo. Oyakodon. Murgh Biryani. Hainanese Chicken Rice. Risotto con Pollo. Chicken and rice seem to go naturally together, and just about every culture that eats both chicken and rice has some special dish that proves it. My mother's dish, expositorily called "Chicken and rice" was baked a roasting pan in the oven, and involved an entire dis-jointed chicken, and brown rice. We only ever had brown rice, that I recall. My sister remembers white rice when she was very young, but she is six years older than I, and our household diet definitely took a turn for the hippy-healthy by the time I was born.

The only vegetables I remember there being were onion, celery and carrots, but it was a flavourful, chickeny dish, and it was a big favourite with all of us.

Oh, how I loved that chicken and rice! Sometimes, in the summer, my mother would wrap up the roasting pan in old towels, once it was ready, and we would drive down to the picnic tables at the Provincial Park beach a few minutes down the road. We would pack up our bottle of soya sauce, the only approved condiment, inexplicably, and our dishes and head down to the rocky beach and watch the seagulls swoop and swirl, and run around on the big grassy area. We didn't usually swim, because the dinner was ready to eat now, and afterwards, of course, we had to wait for an hour (or so), and it was usually too cool, by then.

Since I am not cooking for a family of five, I don't make mine the same way. In fact, I don't use brown rice, either, but opt for parboiled rice to ensure that it doesn't turn mushy with stirring. I usually use the leftover, de-boned chicken from a roasted chicken, and I cook the rice in good, homemade chicken stock. But, I still use onion, carrot, and celery, and I still season it with soya sauce.

Chicken & Rice

Serves 2 - 3

Cold roast chicken meat - 1/2 chicken's worth, chopped
1 cup / 200 g. parboiled (converted, not instant!) rice
1 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock
2 teaspoons canola oil
2 bayleaves
1 large sprig fresh thyme, or a pinch of powdered thyme
1 small onion, diced somewhat finely
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
2 stalks of celery, washed, strung and sliced or diced, as you like
2 medium carrots, cut into quarter slices
salt
pepper
pinch of oregano, optional
freshly chopped parsley, optional

In a pot with a tight-fitting lid, sautee the bayleaves, onion, garlic, celery and carrots in the canola oil until the onion turns translucent, taking care not to burn the garlic. Season with a little salt and pepper, the thyme (stems and all), plus dried oregano (if using). I you want to get wild and throw a chile in here, that would probably be really nice.

Add the rice and stir around until the grains are all coated with the canola oil, and then add the stock, all at once. Add the chopped chicken meat (make sure any skin is removed).
Bring the stock to a simmer, place the lid on firmly, and reduce heat to absolute minimum.

Cook on very, very low temperature for about 20 minutes, or until the rice has fully cooked and absorbed the stock. Remove from heat, fluff, remove the bayleaves and thyme stems, and serve. Garnish with freshly chopped parsley if you like, and a sprinkle of soy sauce.


This heats up beautifully the next day for lunch, if you have leftovers or are thinking ahead enough to make extra. Since the proportions are at-will, you can play with the ratio of vegetables and chicken to rice based on your budget and still have a terrific-tasting dish. Remember to save the bones of the leftover roast chicken to make some stock to have on hand in the freezer, for next time...

April 28, 2007

Caught between two seasons (Beef Biscuit Pie)

Spring has been difficult, this year. I never know quite how to dress, and I oscillate between cooking for winter and cooking for spring. One day, the sun will be shining and the air smells green and fresh, and I suddenly want salad, and the next day we're back to the gloomy, rainy, dark and difficult dregs of a season we're long tired of.

I try to be pleased that I can fit in one more slow-braised beef dish, before it becomes hopelessly out of step with the season, and to that end the Biscuit Pie fits in quite nicely. The beef cooks slowly in the oven for a couple of hours before getting fitted with a thin biscuity topping and a high temperature just long enough to make the biscuit rise and crisp, and become slightly golden. It's really a pot pie, I guess, but with a biscuit top rather than a traditional or puff pastry crust. This is the way my mother used to make Steak & Kidney "pie" and since I like mushrooms more than I like kidney, I've made a simple substitution. Either way, the flavours are rich and tasty. You can outfit any kind of stew you like with a biscuit topping, though, and I've certainly made Chicken Biscuit Pies plenty of times, too, although they don't really need the long slow braise. Perhaps next winter (because, we are on to spring now, right?) I'll try a Lamb Biscuit Pie, because I think that would work beautifully.

Then, the sun shines, and I find myself wanting things light and fresh, and there is asparagus in the markets demanding to be taken home and steamed or roasted, or chopped into pasta. There is no recipe for the above dish, because I failed to take notes while I threw it together. The asparagus were simply spritzed with a little canola oil and roasted at 400 F for about 8 to 10 minutes, and the cherry tomatoes in the pasta were also roasted for about 10 minutes. I made a simple white sauce with a small amount of butter and flour, and stirred in some lemon zest, lemon juice, and fresh basil. A little shell pasta, and a little leftover ham that needed using, and the whole thing came together in about 20 minutes. The pasta was topped with a heavy-handed dose of fresh, lucsiously nutty shredded parmesan cheese, and, you know? It felt like spring was actually here, for a moment...

April 22, 2007

Pancakes for breakfast

I've been a little distracted lately, for a couple of reasons: One, we're looking for a new place to live, which is time-consuming and tedious, and two, I've been unable to update my non-blog site for Always in the Kitchen for a few weeks, due to some stupid glitch at Shaw. So, I was waiting to post this entry from a couple of weekends ago, because I wanted to link to the recipe on the other site. Since I don't know when that is going to happen, I'll simply post it here, and re-post it there when updates are once again possible.

Grrr.
I think that most people like pancakes of some sort... you may prefer crepes, or blintzes, or blini, but really, they're all in the same yummy family of food best served hot off the griddle and into waiting hearts and mouths. I am an ecumenical flatbread eater; I love them all. Flat or fluffy, as long as they're cooked through (cookie dough has nothing to fear from raw pancake batter). I'm happy to try any variant, any topping or filling.

A couple of years ago, I fell for buckwheat pancakes, and since I don't find myself making any sort of pancakes all that often (despite my fondness for pancakes I also tend to crave savory foods in the morning, and I'm not usually organized enough to be making pancakes and bacon at the same time), but when I do, they're usually buckwheat. My current favourite recipe is from Molly of Orangette fame, but as she posted her recipe to the now-defunct Saucy online magazine, I don't know if there is a copy floating around online that I can point you to.

However, although I seriously groove on the buckwheat cakes, I'm also pretty happy to eat just about any kind of pancake. My mother's pancakes where whole wheat, full of bran and wheat germ and local eggs and unpasturized milk, sturdy rather than fluffy, and small enough that an adept flipper could make three in one 10 1/2-inch cast iron skillet. They were very tasty, and very healthy, and there was, sadly, no recipe for them, which means that they are lost to the ages and the ever-more-distant memories of my father, my sister, and I.

When I moved to the big city, I discovered buttermilk pancakes. Many of the examples I found in restaurants and cafes were doughy and sometimes not cooked all the way through, or were full of blueberries which, while not a bad choice, certainly wasn't to my taste. Eventually I discovered some good ones, and then really great ones, and finally I set about learning how to make them for myself.

As a former helper in my mother's kitchen, I had the cooking part down, I just needed a good recipe to start from. I've fiddled around with a few, and settled on this as a solid favourite. It's very similar to Molly's buckwheat recipe, in fact. Sturdier than an airy pancake, fluffier than a "health" pancake, and with a certain something from the lemon (although, you could leave out the lemon zest if you wanted a more straight-forward pancake). If you want them to be healthier, reverse the amounts of the two flours.



Lemon-scented Pancakes


Serves 2

Total prep and cooking time: 1 hour 30 minutes (including 1 hour rest time)


3/4 cup unbleached white flour

1/4 cup stoneground whole wheat flour

1 tablespoon buttermilk powder

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 extra large egg

2 tablespoons canola oil

3/4 cup 1% milk

zest of one lemon

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Mix the flours, buttermilk powder (sieved), sugar, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. Stir with a dry whisk or a fork until well combined.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat the egg, canola oil, milk, lemon zest and lemon juice thoroughly with a whisk. Add the combined flour mixture to the wet mixture, and stir just barely until combined. Don't try to stir out all the lumps, they will take care of themselves.

Cover and let rest in the fridge for an hour (or overnight). Fry over medium heat on a non-stick skillet that has been lightly spritzed with canola oil. When the pancake is starting to look dry around the edges and there are bubbles breaking throughout (and a few are staying open), it's time to flip them over.

Make them any size you like - silver dollar-sized are adorable as part of a bigger breakfast, and larger ones heat up splendidly for a quick breakfast the next day...if you have any left over. This recipe makes about 4 to 5 large pancakes, perfect for two.

April 11, 2007

Just What You Always Suspected

This is a vegan pasta sauce. It was delicious.

When I was growing up, the go-to food of vegetarians was presumed to be eggplant, and the only things staving off protein-deficiency were mushrooms. I went to school with people who would automatically assume that anything that had one or the other was automatically "weirdo hippy food" devoid of flavour and necessitating a special trip the health food store. While it's true that I harboured some silly notions about vegetarian food myself, when I was a kid, I eventually found myself eating a lot of vegetarian meals - not because of any stance on eating animals, but because I had discovered so many tasty, inexpensive meals that happened to be vegetarian.

Vegan food, however, was still random and weird-seeming, primarily because I could not fathom an existence without cheese. I love cheese to such an extent that I could not possibly see myself embracing a cheese-free lifestyle without absolute dire need, and I am pleased to report that such need does not appear to exist at this time. Still, I've noticed that quite a number of my meals, or substantial courses thereof, are turning out to be vegan. I blame the lentil salads, myself.

So, when it turned out that the last of the parmesan was petrified beyond belief (let alone grating) I simply shrugged and sliced up more basil. The thing of it was - much as I adore a good parmesan - this pasta sauce didn't need the cheese. It was exactly what I wanted - light-tasting, chunky, flavourful, healthy, full of herbs, and deliciously satisfying.

If that's hippy and weird, sign me up - at least part-time...

Chunky Mushroom Spaghetti Sauce

The secret to this recipe is in the browning of the mushrooms

20 - 25 very small fresh cremini mushrooms
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1 cup canned diced tomatoes, with juices
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons dry white vermouth (or water)
salt & pepper, as needed
fresh basil, torn or sliced into chiffonade as you see fit
pinch of red chile flakes (optional)

Prepare your mushrooms by cutting the stems short and wiping with a damp cloth. If any are on the large side, you may cut some of them in half, but you want most of the mushrooms to be whole.

This comes together fast, so I usually start cooking when I've dropped my pasta. This is about the right amount of sauce for 225 g. / 1/2 lb. spaghetti.

In a large, non-stick sauce pan, over medium flame, heat the olive oil just until it crackles slightly when a drop of water is flicked on it. Add the mushrooms, caps-down, and let them sizzle, untouched for a couple of minutes, until the caps start to turn golden brown. Give them a stir, and let them sit in their new configuration for another minute or so, and then add the onion. Stir and saute until the onion is somewhat translucent, and then deglaze with vermouth. Add the vermouth all at once, and stir around briskly. Add the garlic and chile flakes (if using), stir, then add the three types of tomatoes. I try to have tomato paste in a tube on hand, just for recipes that use these small amounts. Let simmer for about five minutes, stirring periodically. If it gets too dry, add a little splash of water to keep it on the loose side. When it appears done, taste and adjust for salt and pepper. Add the basil and stir it through.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the pan with the sauce. Toss/stir well to combine, and then dish up. For a very Roman touch, add a little more extra virgin olive oil as a splash on top of the finished dish.

April 06, 2007

A Light Soup for Spring

I seem to go through phases of hitting the Cooking Light recipes pretty hard...usually when one of the collections comes out. This time, in honour of the slightly less-crappy weather we've been having, I thought I would coax Spring along with a light soup: Red Lentil Mulligatawny with Apple-Celery Salsa. It certainly is light...as in, it had better not be all you're having for dinner. It would, however make a splendid appetizer, or part of a lunch with a nice, big, freshly made sandwich on the side. I'm thinking grilled cheese, but I'd also allow myself to be talked into a BLT, or even a ATC (Avocado, Tomato & Cheese on toasted Squirrelly bread).

The thing that really makes this soup pleasantly different is the apple-celery salsa. If I weren't so bone-lazy, I would have chopped the ingredients a little more finely, but it was delicious even so. After taking the picture, I stirred the salsa throughout the soup, which added a fantastic crunchy texture, but perhaps cooled the soup off a little faster than I had intended. If I had used room-temperature ingredients for the salsa, that would not have happened, though, so, live and learn.

As I often find, I had to bump up the spices in this recipe. Mulligatawny should be at least feisty, if not downright fierce, and this soup was, as written, entirely too mild. Fortunately, my kitchen is pretty well stocked with hot sauces, fresh chiles, and a variety of spices to boost the tingle-factor. The shockingly lack of any chiles at all in this recipe had to be remedied, but I also increased the cumin (one of my favourite spices), and that did the trick quite nicely.

It may not be an entire meal unto itself, but I'd definitely make it again, especially if I needed it as a light appetizer for an Indian dinner. Exchange the chicken broth for veggie broth, and you've got a vegetarian - actually, vegan - version, without substantial loss of flavour. I may give that a try next time, since I do enjoy an Indian vegetarian feast now and then.

March 30, 2007

Cooking Light Chicken Cakes

This is from Cooking Light magazine, their Spicy Chicken Cakes with Horseradish Aioli. I'm not sure why they didn't just call these "chicken patties" - perhaps the intent was to evoke the notion of crab cakes. Certainly, they are more of a tapas-size than the sort of patty that one would put on a bun (although that is certainly easy enough to change, and these would make a rather good burger). Either way, they were pretty tasty and very simple.

I used pre-ground chicken breast, rather than mincing it myself in the food processor, which saved a little time (and the cleaning of one appliance). I certainly got a lot more colour on mine than the picture shown in the magazine (or on the above-referenced link), but deep golden brown is an acceptable colour for anything fried, as far as I'm concerned (omelettes notwithstanding).

They did stay nice and moist, and were not as subject to drying out as chicken breast often is, no doubt due in part to the presence of egg whites and light mayonnaise in the mixture. There is no filler, per se, in the recipe, which is a nice change from recipes that contain everything from rice to oatmeal to bulgur wheat to bulk them out and stretch the meat. Next time, in order to go with the Cajun spice theme, I would use a little more seasoning than called for, and probably add some hot sauce, too. I like things nice and spicy, as anyone will tell you...

March 24, 2007

First Attempt: English Muffins

I have been looking for a commercially produced English muffin that is not full of crap. By crap, in this case I mean high fructose corn syrup, but I'd also be pretty happy to find one that is made with only good ingredients (instead of chemical "dough conditioners" and preservatives), and in particular one that is made with real sourdough culture. Alas, they do not appear to be on the shelves of my local markets. I can get bread made from rice, gluten-free bread, and most recently bagels made without refined (or any) flour (thank you Silver Hills!), but the English muffin appears to still be under the stranglehold of Big Bakeries.

So, I dusted off my copy of Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, and discovered that, not only does it have a recipe for English muffins, it also is one of the few recipes that takes less than an entire day (or two, or three) to make. It calls for buttermilk, which in this case would be an acceptable exchange for sourdough, since sourdough and I have an uneasy baking relationship.

They look pretty good, I think, but they're definitely a work in progress. For one thing, they were a bit tall in the saddle - I had made the dough a little too stiff, I think, so they sat up nice and tall rather than expanding outwards as well as upwards when they rose. They also didn't have the characteristic bubbly texture in the centre, which I also attribute to the overly-stiff dough, as I've noticed with my pizza dough that if I make it too tight the bubbles don't form in the crust.

Finally, I think that my lovely cast iron pan was perhaps a shad hotter than strictly necessary, as they seemed to brown faster than I wanted. Perhaps I should have made a batch of pancakes first, since by the end of a batch I seem to have that perfectly seasoned skillet at just the right temperature, and then simply slid the muffins onto it then.

I will definitely have another whack at this recipe. I'm longing to make my own breakfast sandwiches, and I have some lovely merguez patties in the freezer to give it a go... I've been experimenting with adding semolina flour to my pizza dough lately, and since the recipe for the English muffins is very similar (VERY similar), and it makes it easier to make a good, tacky, soft dough, that may be the way to go.

If that doesn't work out, I may have to start a petition to one of the local bakeries to start making them.

March 17, 2007

Palle Makes Merguez

I'd been eyeing the recipe since I first unwrapped the book: Marcus Samuelsson's The Soul of a New Cuisine. The recipe? Merguez meatballs, which I've mentioned were on the hit-list before.

While the first dish to be made from the book was Chicken-Peanut Stew, I knew it wouldn't be too long before the meatballs would be on the table. What took me by surprise was the fact that I wasn't the one to make them. I bought the ingredients, and got started in the kitchen, but Palle came to help me out, and ended up doing all of the actual meatball creation and cooking, while I busied myself making rice and a somewhat less-spicy version of Spicy Carrot Coins. Why less spicy? Welll, because I wanted the spices in the merguez to shine through, and I didn't want too much cross-flavour contamination.

The meatballs were a resounding hit - the deliciousness of spiced lamb sausage, in super-easy meatball form...why hadn't I thought of this before? No fussing around with casings or extruding devices, just quick, simple and delicious. The recipe also made quite a lot of them. These are no demure soup-style meatballs, they're great, bloody golfballs, and densely meaty without any fillers. No problem, though - some were cooked up for dinner, some were frozen (raw) for a super-easy dinner at a later date, and some were flattened into thin patties for a home-version of that ever-so-famous english muffin based breakfast sandwich (more on that later).

At the end of the day, I'm glad that I scaled back on the heat of the carrot dish, because the merguez were not as spicy as I had anticipated. Neither were they quite as fiery-red as a merguez generally should be (in my mind, anyway). Simple enough to fix - next time I'll increase the harissa and the paprika, and both little quirks will be easily fixed.

I do wonder, though - plenty of the recipes in the book call for habanero peppers, without all the usual ensuing hand-wringing about how dangerous they are to work with. It made me think that the recipes wouldn't be dimmed-down for western palates, but now I'm not so sure. Certainly, the spicing seemed light when I examined the recipe, but I decided to go with the precise instructions. Merguez isn't usually the hottest sausage around, but I would like it to be a little bit peppier than our first go at this recipe. Next time...

March 08, 2007

Funny Little Salad

I have always liked salads that had a little more to them than the standard lettuces, and I'm particuarly amused by salads that have no leafy greens whatsoever. Greek salad, to me, is a hoot. You see, salad when I was growing up was such a leafy affair, that other kinds of salad, fancy kinds of salad, would have to have a disclaimer in order to qualify for the genre. Spinach salad, fruit salad, bean salad...these were all nifty, but decidedly off the radar as simply salad.

This particular salad is a peculiar take-off on the Waldorf (which my brother once called "Uppity Coleslaw"). In his honour, I think I shall call this Uppity Salad, and just leave it at that. Its antecedents lie in the Australian Women's Weekly Fruits & Vegetables Cookbook, but I've messed it about somewhat. It came about when I realized that I had most of the ingredients to make it, several of which were in dire need of using.

One of the glorious thing about salads, aside from the fact that you can vary them so much, is that you can really tinker about with the proportions of each item, as you see fit, with minimal ramifications. This is more or less what is needed:

Uppity Salad

2 stalks of celery, somewhat-finely diced
4 slices of bacon, fried crisp, drained and crumbled
1 banana, sliced or diced (sliced looks prettier, but I was on a roll with the dicing)
1 apple, somewhat-finely diced
2 - 3 tablespoons finely minced onion or sliced green onions
1 handful of pecans or walnuts, toasted if possible
1 lime - juice and zest
1/4 cup plain yoghurt, full fat (Mediterranean style is good here)
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

Mix the lime juice and zest with the yoghurt and mayonnaise and blend thoroughly. Toss in the rest of the ingredients, adding the bacon last. garnish with cilantro, if you like. Stir gently to coat. For a truly uppity presentation, serve it in a cocktail glass, but a lettuce leaf or obligingly shaped piece of kale will suffice to lift and separate it from other items on a plate.

Serves 2 generously.

It doesn't keep terribly well, as the banana goes a bit soft the next day, so do eat it all at once. In fact, it's hard to resist licking the bowl. It may seem like an odd combination, but the saltiness of the bacon, the soft sweetness of the banana, the two distinctly different crunches of celery and walnut and the zing of lime actually sing a pretty good harmony.

March 05, 2007

Orange Chile Chicken Stir Fry

I used to be a little bit afraid of stir fries. Oh, I was happy to eat them, but I was never happy with any that I made. I eventually stumbled on to a few secrets that have worked very well for me: don't put too many ingredients in, don't cut everything super small, give the sauce time to thicken and clarify, and always, always, add the onions last so that they don't overcook.

It was the last one that was the clincher. Putting ginger, for example, or chiles in an otherwise empty pan seemed like an odd thing to do, the first time, but the rewards for stepping out of my comfort zone were pretty substantial, as were the rewards of listening to Palle's advice, despite his at-the-time somewhat limited cooking repertoire.

Palle, who has only come fairly late to really enjoying cooking, mastered the stir-fry long before I did, and it was his insistance - backed with inarguable results - that convinced me to put the onions in last, as I have said before.

I don't often use any sort of recipe for stir fries - I just think of a flavour combination that I like and try it out. Sometimes I base it on something I've eaten in a restaurant, seen on FoodTV, or saw in a book, and I'm certainly not adverse to using a recipe, it's just that I enjoy throwing things together from the fridge, and the stir fry lends itself to that beautifully.

For this one, I tried something new: I zested an orange with my veggie peeler, being very careful to avoid the pith. This was easier to do than I thought it would be, which started the dish on an encouraging note. The zest was sliced into thin ribbons, some of which were cooked in with the stir fry, and some of which were flung on top as a sort of garnish. The juice from the orange gave a gentle flavour to the sauce, thickened with a teensy bit of cornstarch, but not the sort of overly sweet component that you can get if you use concentrated orange juice. Myself, I prefer the savory to the sweet, so it worked out just fine, with just a hint of sweetness. I used finely sliced ginger and dried red chiles to balance out the orange.

The rest was pretty straight forward: chicken, red bell pepper, green onions, and a little regular onion, just so I could add it last.

February 15, 2007

Taking it Easy

Just because this is listed in the Kiddie Feast section of Nigella Lawson's Feast, doesn't mean it isn't a delicious little supper for a big kid who doesn't want to work to hard to get it.

You don't even really need a recipe - everything you need to know is visible in the picture. A couple of hundred grams of pasta, a good handful of peas, and some cubed up ham. A little cream, to moisten, and a dusting of parmesan, to set it up nicely. Presto! Dinner in minutes.

I especially like Nigella's instruction to drop frozen peas into the pasta water a minute or so before draining - makes for a very tidy sort of recipe, without need for a separate sauce pot or frying or blanching steps. Very civilized, really, and just the thing when you're recovering from being flattened by a devastating head cold.

You don't have to eat it straight from the pot, of course. But I certainly wouldn't blame you.

February 09, 2007

Soup, glorious soup!

I'm a big fan of citrus in savory recipes, so I was really pleased to see the current issue of Eating Well magazine hit the stands (as an aside, how unfortunate, that a magazine with such consistently good recipes abbreviates to "EW"). As I strolled through the pages of the magazine, plenty of recipes jumped out at me, but the one that demanded immediate attention was this one: Yucatan Lemon Soup. Bright flavours, simple construction, and the promise of a sunny lift in dreary February more than spurred me to the market for the requisite ingredients.

The recipe calls for Meyer lemons, which I had never used before, but which I had noticed were available at Capers Market recently. I followed the recipe pretty closely, and I have to tell you that it was fabulous! This will be made again and again, in our household.

Two things, in addition to the basic goodness of the recipe, contributed to my overall success: One, I had a pot of fresh, homemade chicken stock made from an organic, free range chicken, and two, I didn't shortcut the shrimp. By which I mean to say, I started with raw, shell-on shrimp, and peeled the little darlings before tumbling them into the finished broth.

The results were so outstanding, that I think I will make this again before the month is out - while Meyer lemons are still in season, at least. I suppose in the Yucatan, such soup would really be made with lime juice, and I'm game to try that, too. However, the beautifully mild sweetness of the Meyer, offset with the earthy cinnamon stick and the brightness of the cilantro were a truly winning combination.

Serves four, indeed! Not in this household.

February 04, 2007

Dark Banana Bread

This is not your garden-variety coffee-shop fare. Full of dark flavours and, just for fun, little chunks of banana-y goodness, it is a perfect morning treat to get you through to lunch without compromising your healthy intentions for the day. It's made with stone ground whole wheat flour, a small amount of brown sugar, and has a mild hint of dark cardamom flavour. Oh, and did I mention rum flavouring? Rum and bananas are just the thing, I think. These squares are not at all dainty, but rather squat and homey - and just perfect for snacking.

Dark Banana Bread

1/3 cup canola oil
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
2 eggs
2 mashed bananas (from frozen is good)
2 teaspoons rum extract
1 1/4 cups stone ground whole wheat flour
1/2 cup quick oats (not instant)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 firm banana, diced

Preheat your oven to 35o F. Grease (or spritz with canola) an 8" square metal baking dish.

Beat together the oil, sugar, and eggs. Add the mashed bananas and rum extract and beat again until all nice and smooth.

In a separate, smaller bowl, mix together the remaining dry ingredients. Be sure to use quick oats, not instant or rolled oats, whose texture are quite different. Tip the dry ingredients into the banana mixture, and stir just to combine. Add diced banana and stir through gently.

Pour batter into the prepared pan (it should be a little lumpy looking) and bake for about 45 minutes or until dark golden brown, and a toothpick or cake skewer comes out clean. The cake/bread will have pulled slightly away from the sides, too. Allow it to cool in the pan, then slice into 9 squares. Freeze individual squares in plastic wrap for a stash of lunchbox-ready treats.

You could certainly add raisins or currants, or walnuts, if that's your fancy. You could also substitute the cardamom with cinnamon, but I think cardamom is nicer, here.

Next time, I'm contemplating adding a little coconut, for a full-on Caribbean approach.

February 03, 2007

The Soul of a New Cuisine

One of my Christmas presents this year was a cookbook by Ethiopian-born Swede Marcus Samuelsson - the beautiful The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. The recipes therein are quite gorgeous, and it was a bit of a chore to decide what to make first. Palle relieved me of that responsibility by deciding to make the Chicken-Peanut Stew (Samuelsson's own take on a classic combination found all over the northwest of Africa, inspired by descriptions from a dishwasher from Mali).

Classically, the dish would be served with yellow rice, we are told, but in the interests of keeping things simple, we opted for straight-forward basmati, steamed up in the rice-cooker untended, while Palle chopped, prepped and sauteed his way through the making of the dish.

We had shopped earlier that day, down at Granville Island market, a known source of fiesty scotch bonnet and habanero chiles, which the recipe calls for. We used two, trimming out the seeds and much of the incendiary pith, but the resulting dish was not as fiery as, for example, Palle's Jerk Chicken, which has been known to almost blind dinner guests. As you may guess, the man likes his fierce food.

The stew had spinach in it, which I am not accustomed to having in any other iteration of chicken and peanut stew. It was, however, a beautiful and perfect ingredient - added just at the last minute and stirred through, so it stayed jewel-bright and fresh tasting, and that single element really elevated the dish into something special. I particularly liked that, unlike many one-pot meals, this one had a variety of textures and a very well-balanced approach to starch and protein, and vegetables. While the recipe called for a combination of chicken breast and thigh, after making it that way I once again decided that stewed chicken should be all dark meat, whereever possible. It just gives itself over to the task that much better, staying juicy even in large chunks, browning beautifully when sauteed, and having a lot of flavour. For the small increase in fat to be found in the thighs, I'll take them over breast meat in most simmered dishes.

We both really liked the dish, although a couple of changes may be in order. The aforementioned all-thigh approach definitely strikes my fancy, and also, the amount of liquid seems a little higher than I thought ideal, especially for a stew as opposed to a soup. This is the sort of thing that can be very hard to gauge the first time one does a recipe, and moreso in a recipe like this where cooked onions and carrots are pureed into the liquid. Still, it's a good thing to note and adjust on a re-visit.

There are a lot of other dishes I want to try, in this book. There's an outstanding-looking lamb and chickpea sandwich, and a recipe for homemade merguez sausage - made into meatballs. That sounds just about perfect, to me, so I'm really looking forward to making it. I just need to decide what to serve with them...I suspect they are next on the list.

January 21, 2007

Quite Contrary

I have a tendancy to dig in my heels. To go in the direction I'm not supposed to. It is not a virtue, so much as it is a stubborn refusal to be led by the nose. This does not, of course, mean that I am bandwagon-free (nor does it mean that you can trick me into doing what you really want by suggesting otherwise), but it does mean that it shouldn't be a surprise that while newspaper and magazine articles would have us frantically making diet recipes in a last-ditch attempt to atone for December's excesses, I'm having ribs. Short ribs, to be exact.

Short ribs, for some mysterious reason, don't make an appearance at my local supermarket very often (although they are always available at the meat shops, they are usually the thinner flanken style), so when I do see a meaty set o' bones - one that hasn't been "pre-marinated for the grill" - I can't resist. Since these are cut across the bone, they are in fact flanken style, as opposed to English style, which are my preferred (and, for some reason, even less frequently seen in these parts), but they are considerably meatier and more substantial looking than most of the flanken variety that I've seen around here.

I had been craving short ribs for some time - since I found a recipe for Chimay-braised ribs in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, to be precise. However, since I didn't have any Belgian beer handy (or enough mustard for the glaze that recipe recommends), and I did in fact have a bottle of wine, I went with a simple red wine braise, full of shiitake mushrooms and chopped red onion and accompanied by some roasted fennel, carrots and brussels sprouts. The herbs were kept simple: bay leaves, salt, pepper, and whole yellow mustard seed, which creates a wonderfully deep background note for the beef. I'll have to go the Chimay-route with the next batch of ribs that I find. Maybe I'll even find a nice accommodating butcher who will cut English style for me. In fact, I'm starting to think that I should go on a mission... just, you know, to be contrary.

January 09, 2007

Too much milk

What do you do when you unexpectedly have much more milk left in the fridge than you anticipated? Well, if you're not prone to sitting down to a big glass of milk and are not in the mood for a rice pudding, you make paneer. Or, at least, I did. Oh, I had big plans for that milk: eggnog (some of which actually did go toward making eggnog, I confess), white lasagna (maybe next month...), bechamel for moussaka, and even cereal, which I am not terribly prone to, most mornings. However, the milk was skittering rapidly toward its expiry with none of these things having been made. Paneer was the fast, easy option. And paneer, of course, meant curry:


It's not difficult to make paneer. Heat milk until just boiling, turn off heat, and add a tablespoon or two of lemon juice. Cover, let stand for 15 minutes or so, and strain. Place a weight on the reserved solid curds, and the next day you have a nice brick of paneer. Even when you forget to weight it (ahem), paneer is delicious and easy to cook with (albeit more fragile).

With so much paneer at hand, I was planning to make a nice Shahi Paneer for dinner. Yet again, my plans went awry, when I discovered my wonderful thick yoghurt had, in fact, passed its expiry and gone on to produce several exciting new colours while waiting to be discarded. Undaunted, I turned to that ever-ready all-purpose curry base that I'm always happy to have: korma. The fact that there were still a variety of uncooked vegetables languishing in the fridge meant that, with the addition of some ready chickpeas, I had a very easy dinner at hand in only half an hour. For the sake of variety, I added a little cashew paste to the korma sauce, and used half-and-half instead of cream.


How surprised my teenage self would have been, had I known how much I would come to love curry!

January 07, 2007

And now, for something completely different...

I love the food at Christmastime. Maybe it's the stuffing. Maybe it's that we eat four times as much cheese as usual. Maybe it's the chocolate, or maybe it's just that there are a lot of food-centric gatherings of friends and family. However, when the decorations come down, it's time for something other than the Northern European food that I have been devouring over the past month.

Asian is an easy switch to make; here in Vancouver, there are plenty of the right ingredients to make it easy to make something far and away from roasted poultry, and there's always something that I haven't tried or haven't really had a chance to experiment with. And, what is the New Year for, really, if not experimentation?

I've cooked red rice once before, and I'm pretty sure that I will again. It has a firmer bite to it than white rice, and a nuttier taste than most brown rices. It looks pretty on the plate - not the purply colour of Forbidden Rice, but a lovely sort of warm, dark red that would look really good in a shoe (ahem).


As a plain heap of rice on the plate, it's alright but not a star. As a base for a delicious red Thai curry featuring chicken and most of the vegetables in the fridge that need using up, it's outstanding! It gives a certain heartiness to the dish that is very satisfying, and may well be my preferred application for this type of rice. Of course, there is a lentil-and-red rice patty recipe floating out there in bloggerland that I mean to make eventually, and sometime soon I'll get to it. In the meantime, curry foundation it shall be.