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.

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.