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.