November 22, 2009

Southwestern Skillet Dinner

I like one-pot meals. The clean up is easy, the leftovers transport well for lunches to work or school, and the potential for variety is infinite. That said, it's true that most of my skillet dinners feature rice or pasta or beans, or some two out of the three. Even so, this gives me choices ranging from creamy Tarragon Chicken Farfalle (influenced by French and Italian cuisines) to Southwestern Skillet Dinner shown here (nods to jambalaya, arroz con pollo, and the fabulous flavours of the American southwest).

The genesis for this recipe is from a previous dish I devised, the Southwestern Chicken Skillet, which suggests serving over rice or pasta. This variation omits the gravy-making slurry stage and the sour cream, and incorporates the rice right into the dish. Sour cream, of course, can be added as a garnish. A little cilantro right at the end wouldn't go amiss, either.

At Palle's request, we went with chunks of chicken thigh, rather than ground chicken for this version, and I really think that's the right call for an all-in-one dish like this. Served over rice, go with the ground or chunks, but with the rice mixed in, you want solid pieces of chicken.

When you get to the gravy-making stage, instead of making a slurry, simply add one cup (200 g) of parboiled rice, and one and half to two cups of water, depending on whether your pre-rice mixture is wet or dry and how soupy you would like the finished dish to be. I usually go with two cups. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover, turn the heat to very low, and let cook undisturbed until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid and gotten tender - 15 to 25 minutes, depending on how low your burner goes. If the mixture is still a bit wet, raise the heat and remove the lid for the last few minutes of cooking, and let the excess moisture evaporate away.

November 02, 2009

Scotch Eggs for dinner

This is technically also part of the Japanese cookery kick that I'm on right now.

I love Scotch eggs, but they're pretty few and far between on menus in these parts. Except, that is, for at Ping's, the funky little Yoshoku (western influenced Japanese comfort food) restaurant that opened up a year or two ago in my neighbourhood. Turns out, the Japanese are quite keen on the whole philosophy of Scotch eggs, and have embraced the idea of wrapping meat around a cooked, peeled egg and then dumping it into the fryer.

I don't tend to deep fry food at home, thanks to the mess and expense of the oil, so I had long considered Scotch eggs of any stripe to be out of my production possibilities. However, after seeing some pretty cute online versions that had been baked instead of fried, I figured the time had come to give it a whirl.

I figured I'd go with Japanese flavourings, so I used ground pork, which is what I had at hand, and seasoned it with a little ginger, soy sauce, white pepper, and garlic. I wrapped very thin patties around slightly under-cooked peeled, boiled eggs. Then, I baked them for about 25 to 30 minutes, rotating half way through. They stuck a bit while I was turning them, so parchment paper might be useful next time.

My sealing techniques were a bit dodgy, so some of the meat casing cracked along the seam where I had pressed the edges together, but overall the experiment was wildly successful. Delicious, in fact, and made even better by the fact of leftover Scotch eggs to take to work the following day. I intend to tweak this recipe over and over until I get perfect results on all the eggs. In the meantime, even the slightly lopsided ones are mighty good eats.

The rest of the meal sort of speaks for itself: simple onigiri (no filling, still practising the shaping side of things), a spinach and sesame salad (minus the actual sesame seeds which, it turned out, I was out of), and some beginner-level carved radishes, for a touch of kawai.

October 27, 2009

Chicken Teriyaki Donburi = Chikiteridon!

I had no idea that delicious chicken teriyaki was so darn easy.

I've become very interested in Japanese cuisine, of late. I learned how to make maki sushi years ago, but frankly it's not something that I tend to make at home. I have never been to Japan, so my assumptions about the cuisine are somewhat biased by the Japanese restaurants in Vancouver, and somewhat ruthless reading. I'm currently trolling for cookbook recommendations, if you have any suggestions, please leave me a comment or shoot an e-mail my way.

I recently purchased some Japanese rice, and have consequently been playing a little. I've always been fond of donburi - Japanese rice topped with assorted delicious bits - and I had some luck with an oyakodon (chicken and egg donburi) several years ago. Donburi is a favourite (and infinitely variable) and filling lunch when I'm out and about.

Chicken Teriyaki is one of those things that I tend to find, in restaurant preparations, rather too sweet for me, although I do like the flavours. Most of the attractive recipes that I could find specified a mixture of sake, mirin, sugar and soy sauce. Some had ginger and garlic, which doesn't seem to suit the smooth texture of the sauce. The most user-friendly recipe that I found was from Just Bento, a website devoted to the marvels of the bento lunch. This is also where I found the term "Chikiteri", which is quite wonderful. Here is my adaptation.

Chicken Teriyaki
Adapted from Just Bento

Serves 4
Total Prep & Cooking time: 45 minutes, including 30 minutes marinating time

Note: I didn't have mirin (alas! Next time!), so I made do with just sake. The good news is, it was excellent, so don't let a lack of mirin put you off making this as soon as possible.

¼ cup Japanese soy sauce (low sodium)
¼ cup sake
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon plain rice vinegar
6 skinless chicken thighs
1 Tablespoon canola oil
2 green onions, sliced diagonally

Mix the soy sauce, sake, rice vinegar and honey in a wide, shallow dish.
Remove any big fatty bits from the chicken and slice the thighs into chopstick-friendly pieces – I cut with the grain into pieces roughly the size of short, fat, carrot sticks. Add the chicken to the soy sauce mixture, stir well, and allow to rest for 15 - 30 minutes (or overnight, if you can plan ahead).

Drain the chicken in a sieve, reserving the marinade.

In a large, non-stick skillet, heat the canola oil over high heat. Once it is hot enough for a drop of water to sizzle, add 1/3 of the drained chicken to the pan in a single layer. Let it cook without moving the pieces for 30 seconds, then add half the remaining chicken in the spaces around the first batch. Allow to cook further 30 seconds undisturbed, then stir through once and add the rest of the chicken to the pan. Let it cook undisturbed for about a minute (you can keep an eye on the earlier pieces, and flip them if they look like they’re going to burn otherwise) and then stir everything through so that the chicken browns and turns glossy on all sides.

Add the reserved marinade and stir through. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is a lovely dark golden brown and the sauce has reduced to the desired consistency.
Serve with Japanese rice, and garnish with green onions. Stir fried snow peas and shiitake mushrooms make a lovely accompaniment.

Garnish with green onion. Serve with Japanese rice, preferably, and some crisply cooked vegetables (upon reflection, I should have added some ginger to the mushrooms above).

October 17, 2009

Sweet Potato & Chicken Bisque

Quick, delicious, and a teensy bit unusual: perfect raining weather food.

Sweet Potato & Chicken Bisque
Adapted from Eating Well Magazine, October 2009

Serves 4 – 6
Total Time Prep & Cook: 45 minutes

2 large sweet potatoes (orange)
2 boneless chicken breast halves*
3 cups tomato juice
2 cups vegetable stock
1 tablespoon canola oil
½ cup unsalted peanut butter
1 habañero chile, julienned
1 heaping tablespoon grated ginger
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground allspice
Cilantro or green onion for garnish

Poke the sweet potatoes with a fork and microwave them until tender (approximately 10 minutes, together). Allow them to cool while you begin the rest of your prep.

Heat the canola oil in a large soup pot, and sauté the onion and garlic until translucent. Add the sliced chile, ginger, allspice and tomato juice, and allow to simmer gently for about 10 minutes.

Peel and dice the sweet potatoes. Place half of them in a blender or food processor along with the peanut butter and just enough of the stock to moisten. Process until smooth, gradually adding the rest of the stock until it becomes a smooth, thick liquid. It will look a bit like nacho cheese sauce in colour and consistency. Add the puree to the soup pot, and stir gently. Add the remaining diced sweet potatoes to the bisque, and stir though. Allow the soup to return to a bare simmer, stirring as needed to keep it from sticking to the bottom.

At this point, you can serve the soup as a lovely vegan dish. However, if you want a more robust meal, slice some raw chicken into bite-sized pieces (or cube up some extra firm tofu) and stir it into the soup. Allow the soup to continue to simmer very gently on the lowest setting for another ten minutes, or until chicken is cooked through.

Note: If you have leftover yams from dinner, you can save a step and some time.

Further Note: It is correct that no salt is added to the soup. The tomato juice and vegetable stock are salty enough. If you want more salt, add a pinch right at the end. But you probably won’t need to, and if you used salted peanut butter instead of unsalted, you definitely won’t need to.

* Or prawns. Try peeled, raw prawns in place of chicken, especially if you are going to be eating it all up instead of freezing leftovers.

September 26, 2009

Potato & Radish Salad with Dill

A last little taste of Summer. Is it too late to still be talking potato salad? This one is pretty basic - steamed, halved nugget potatoes and sliced raw radishes, tossed with a mountain of fresh dill and a little good quality mayonnaise mixed with sliced green onion and a tiny amount of crushed garlic. The ideal side dish for getting one last barbeque or picnic in, even if it's technically autumn already.

I didn't follow a recipe for this, I just eyeballed the ingredients, going easy on the mayo (you can always add more). Sadly, I failed to take the photo before we had dinner, and this technically was just the leftovers (perfect lunch for the next day!), but it was a beautiful, big heaping bowl of delicious salad, and I kind of want some right now.

September 08, 2009

Spicy Cheddar Corn Muffins

These were really quite outstanding. Excellent with a big pot of chili, or as a mid-morning snack. Warm is best - hot from the oven is the way to go if possible, but a few seconds in the microwave ought to do it once they've cooled completely.

Spicy Cheddar Corn Muffins

Makes 12 regular sized muffins

1 ½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ to 1 teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 ¼ cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
½ cup fresh corn kernels*
2 serrano chiles, one finely chopped, one sliced into seedless rings
¼ cup melted butter
2 large eggs
¾ cup milk

Preheat oven to 425° F. Lightly spritz 12 regular sized muffin cups with canola oil.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, baking soda and baking powder, salt, herbs, and cheese. Short strands work best; toss the cheese well to keep the strands from clumping.

In another bowl, mix together the melted butter, eggs and milk. Stir in the chiles and corn kernels. Pour into a well in the centre of the flour mixture and fold together until just moistened. Do not over mix; the batter will be very thick and should not be completely smooth (but it should not have big clumps of flour).

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups. Bake on a centre rack for approximately 20 minutes, or until muffins are golden and toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove to a rack to cool or serve warm.

* You can use frozen corn kernels that have been rinsed well under hot water and thoroughly drained.

** Want a meaty variation? Add cooked, crumbled bacon.

September 02, 2009

Ruby Spanakopita

I am happy when my friends and neighbours over plant their gardens. When a co-worker e-mailed me to ask if I would like some chard, since her garden had exceeded her modest expectations by a significant factor, I was delighted. I didn't expect quite such a large amount, however. I didn't immediately know what to do with it all, until I remembered my mother saying that you could use chard wherever you used spinach, if you had young leaves and/or strong nerves.

I decided to give spanakopita a try. Chardokopita? Feeling rather fundamentally lazy, I decided not to make individual sized pies, but rather one big one to be sliced up for serving. As you can see, the ruby stems and veins give a pretty jewelled effect, even though most of the stems were removed prior to wilting.

I departed so thoroughly from the recipes that I found online that I must re-invent the instructions. This was well worth the effort:

Ruby Chard Spanakopita

9 to 10 cups cleaned, roughly chopped ruby chard leaves
1 medium onion, minced
2 green onions, sliced finely
3 cloves of garlic
1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
pinch of dry oregano leaves
pinch nutmeg (x2)
zest from one lemon
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup feta, crumbled
2 eggs
white pepper, to taste
small pinch of salt
about 10 sheets of fillo / phyllo dough

Preheat your oven to 350 F. Set the rack to the middle of the oven.

Saute the onions and garlic in a little olive oil until translucent, sprinkling with a tiny amount of salt to help them loosen up. Splash with a little water or vermouth, as you see fit, and add the chard leaves. Stir them until they are well wilted down. Remove them from the heat, and stir in the herbs, eggs, pepper, and lastly the cheese.

Line a 7 x11" glass baking dish with a layer of phyllo dough, coming up the sides of the dish. Mist/spritz lightly with olive oil (or canola, if you must), and repeat, overlapping the sheets a bit if necessary to make sure that the pastry comes all the way up on all sides of the dish. Repeat this a few times (each time spritzing with oil) until you have about five layers of pastry down. Sprinkle the lemon zest over the bottom of the pastry. Add the filling and smooth it with a spoon until it is flat and evenly spread about. Top with more layers of spritzed pastry, tucking the edges in nicely and finishing with a nice even spritz of olive oil and a good sprinkling of nutmeg.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until golden. Cut into six large squares and serve with a nice salad (or some souvlaki!), or allow to cool and cut into tiny dessert-sized squares to serve as appetizers (either cold, or, ideally, re-heated in an oven for a few minutes until crisped).

I re-heats quite well in an oven, even a little toaster oven. If you must freeze some, re-heat directly into a pre-heated oven without allowing it to thaw.

I am undecided as to making another one for the freezer with the chard I have left, or venturing into saag territory instead.

July 05, 2009

Tortillas, carnitas and salsa, oh my!

For Canada Day, we went out for British pub food. For America Day, we stayed in and made Mexican food. It seemed strangely appropriate.I really like Mexican food. There's even (finally) a few places in town where you can get the good stuff, if you know where to look. Don't get me wrong, I like Tex-Mex and Cali-Mex quite a bit, too, but real Mexican food is in a class of its own, and is pretty darn amazing.

I've been meaning to try making flour tortillas for some time. I had made corn tortillas once before, to intermediate success (I didn't have a tortilla press, and ended up using my cast iron frying pan to squish them flat), but I hadn't ventured into the realm of flour tortillas. This weekend, I decided that it was time.

I had bookmarked a Tortilla recipe on Orangette some time ago, and so I dusted it off (so to speak) and got going. I don't generally use vegetable shortening, but I would have used lard...except that I was fresh out. Lard is incredibly hard to source in my neighbourhood, so after a quick attempt to secure some, I decided to use the duck fat that I had standing by in the freezer. They turned out surprisingly well, and were as e asy as Molly (Orangette) suggested they would be. I think that next time, I might use a little less fat, as my other tortilla recipes are a bit leaner, and these ones were (deliciously) quite rich.

So, with a pile of fresh tortillas soon to be had, I needed to come up with a game plan for what to serve them with. I considered making tacos al pastor, since I have some fresh pineapple in the fridge, but lacked some of the other ingredients. I settled on carnitas, and chose David Lebovitz's recipe as my guideline. I note that I removed the cinnamon stick about half-way through the cooking process, because I didn't want it to overwhelm. It takes a while to make, but I was planning to be in the house attending to other matters most of the afternoon, so it worked out pretty well, timing wise.

For salsa, we went with a simple green salsa of garlic, cilantro, serrano chiles, and lime juice, with
just a touch of salt. Quick blitz in the mini-prep, and it was good to go, and hot as hell. You can find the inspiration for the green salsa in Brandon's comment on the Tortillas recipe link.
Finally, I figured a salad was in order. I combined roughly equal amounts of diced red pepper, radishes and avocado with corn kernels, a sprinkling of cilantro and the juice of a lime. A little salt was added at the table, to keep it from sogging out the dish, and to allow for individual tastes. It was remarkably good, and I intend to remember it the next time I'm wanting a salad for a potluck or picnic or barbeque-type event. Or, you know, the next time I'm making Mexican food.

To top things off, we had a little cocktail called the Capitan, which is essentially a Manhattan made with Pisco instead of bourbon. Lovely, really.

The very end of the evening, when we were lying around in a carnitas-induced coma, we dragged out the tiny bottle of Xtabentun, a fermented honey and anise liqueur that we brought back from our trip to the Yucatan in February. If only we had checked our baggage, we could have brought back more...

May 16, 2009

Strawberry Strata

The idea for this almost came to me in a dream. That is, the moment I thought of it, I couldn't figure out why I hadn't been making it for years - a complete no-brainer. It also seemed to be the perfect thing to make for breakfast in on a weekend when we had a houseguest who is vegetarian, and therefore unlikely to be receptive to my usual, sausage-laden stratas. Also, strawberries are just coming in to season, like some sort of strange culinary convergence.

The rules for strata are quite simple: it's a cross between french toast and bread pudding, and involves layers of lightly buttered bread, sandwiched with good things, and drowned in a royale made of 1/3 cup milk per egg, plus seasonings of your choice. You can see the basic, savoury recipe in the comments section below. The math is pretty consistent, if you need to serve more than the four people indicated there. Scale up as necessary.

However, for this slightly sweet, meat-free version, I had to throw out the playbook as far as the "good things" part went. The two layers of bread, okay, the egg/milk royale formula was okay, but how to replace the meats, cheeses, and vegetables for a fruit version? I eventually decided to spread the bread with softened cream cheese instead of butter, and that, plus slices strawberries, a mere sprinkling of sugar, and some cinnamon and ground cardamom, made up the middle layer. To prevent the strawberries from cooking to mush on the top, I reserved the sliced strawberries for the topping in a bowl in the fridge until ready to serve (macerating in a tiny amount of sugar). On the top of the strata, I dotted more pieces of cream cheese and gave another quick pass with the sugar spoon (my version was barely sweet, since I was very restrained in the amount of sugar that I used - less than a tablespoon all told - but your mileage may vary) and another hit of the spices.

I also added some vanilla extract to the royale, along with a tiny pinch of salt to coax all the flavours together. The royale was poured over the layers of strata the night before, and it rested in the fridge until morning. An hour and ten minutes later (the wetness of the strawberries required additional cooking time), out it came. For luxury's sake (and we did have company, after all) I topped the slices of strata with a big spoonful of Liberté's Méditerranée Coconut yoghurt, and then added the macerated strawberry slices. Creamy, silky goodness.

Next time, I'm going with sliced peaches, and mascarpone, with a shot of rum in the royale.

We had this on Mother's Day, according to the calendar. If my mother were still alive, I would totally make this for her.

April 18, 2009

Spicy Peanut Pasta

I have only been to The Foundation restaurant once, having been previously put off by stories of horrific service and, frankly, the dish-naming conventions (which I still find monumentally irritating). The service we got was fine, and the food...there was the real surprise. Excellent. Significantly superior to, for example, The Naam, to which it is frequently compared. However, I am not here to write a restaurant review. The dish that I ordered that night was called "Spicy Peenut" (sic). It appeared to contain things that I like, so I ordered it, and liked it so much that I immediately started conspiring over how to make it myself. It was a filling and satisfying dish, and I had to take some of it home. It actually re-heated fairly well, too.

Several weeks later, I decided to take a stab at it. The dish above is the result and, while it is not a dead-ringer, it was certainly a comparable and delicious rendition. I googled around to see if there were any recipes for it online, and came upon an entry for the sauce from Everybody Likes Sandwiches, and I had a good long look at her version before drafting my own.

Here it is:

Spicy Peanut Pasta with Cauliflower & Spinach

Serves 2
Total Time to Cook & Prep: 30 minutes

225 grams rotini pasta
1/2 head of cauliflower, cut into florets
150 grams homestyle fried tofu (atsu-age), cut into triangular slices
3 cups baby spinach, roughly chopped
1/4 cup roughly chopped roasted peanuts
2 green onions, sliced


1/3 cup natural peanut butter
200 mL coconut milk
1 - 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sambal oelek
1 teaspoon ginger powder
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
dash of salt (to taste - you may need more if you are using unsalted peanut butter or light soy sauce)

Prepare the pasta in plenty of boiling, lightly salted water. About 5 minutes from the end of the pasta's cooking time, add the cauliflower florets, and continue to cook until pasta is done and florets are tender.

Meanwhile, in a high-sided, 12" skillet, fry the tofu slices until golden in a little vegetable oil, and set aside (this step is optional, actually). Combine all of the sauce ingredients in the emptied skillet, and stir over low heat until integrated. Taste and adjust for seasoning. If the mixture seems thicker than desirable in a pasta sauce, add a little of the hot pasta water, about 1/4 cup, until you reach the desired consistency. Turn heat to its lowest setting.

Add the tofu slices back into the skillet, and stir gently. Use a wire skimmer to remove the pasta and the cauliflower from the boiling water as soon as it is ready, and add directly to the skillet with the sauce. Stir gently, again adding a little pasta water if necessary to thin the sauce. Add the spinach and stir through carefully. Plate up in large pasta bowls, and garnish with chopped peanuts and green onions.

This dish is a great reminder that vegan food is neither boring nor inherently tasteless. It's definitely getting a return engagement at our place.

March 29, 2009

For What Ails You (and Me): Chicken Alphabet Soup

Big surprise, it's soup again.

I am constitutionally averse to tossing out the bones of a roasted chicken. Even if I don't have any immediate need for soup or stock, I would feel too wretched about discarding good food to allow myself to simply bag them up and put them in the garbage. At the very least, if completely knackered, I'll wrap them well and toss them into the freezer for future efforts. I inherited this behaviour from my mother, whom I cheerfully blame for a lot of my culinary quirks.

In the throes of the latest rounds of cold and 'flu and other things that go "sneeze" in the night (as well as cough, *snork*, hack), I decided it was time to put some culinary prescriptions into play. After all, isn't scientific investigation itself proving the value of a good homemade vat of chicken soup? Is it called "Jewish Penicillin" for nothing?

Frankly, even if it contains no medicinal value whatsoever, it counts as fluids (always a plus for the ill and infirm), and is both warming and comforting. Really, there's no downside at all, other than that you have to feel well enough to actually make it.

Fortunately, it's not hard.

I bought a free-range, organic chicken from the market, and roasted it up for dinner. We ate the choicest selections with some creamy Parmesan orzo and some broccoli and when the chicken had cooled sufficiently after dinner, I pulled the remaining meat from the bones and set it aside in the fridge. I poured off the accumulated juices and fat from the cast iron frying pan (the vessel in which I always roast my chickens) into a container in the fridge, and then bundled up the skin and bones. I wasn't nearly well enough to begin stock making at that point.

The next morning was Sunday, which meant that I could take my time. I simmered the bones with filtered water, bay leaves, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a carrot, a bit of celery, a quartered onion, and some garlic. I didn't salt it, because there was already salt clinging to the skin, and you can always add more salt later. I brought the whole pot up to the barest of simmers, and let it carry on unmolested for a couple of hours, checking periodically to ensure that it wasn't boiling (which gives you a cloudy, opaque stock). Finally, I scraped away the chicken fat from the reserved drippings (reserve for later uses) and added the gelatinized dark goodness of the accumulated roast chicken juices into the stock.

When it was finished, I cooled it with the bones in the stock, then fished them out and strained the stock. One roasting chicken gave me about six cups of stock, but your mileage may vary depending on the size of your chicken.

From there, it was simple to assemble a classic comfort food. I still had some alphabet pasta left from my Alphabet Soup endeavor, so I went with that. The rest of the ingredients were, essentially, the same flavours that went into the soup. There's a reason for that - they are quite delicious. However, in the soup-making stage, they are cooked only until tender, not until exhausted. Simple soup-making: saute your aromatic vegetables and herbs in a little fat (the roast-rendered chicken fat, in this case), and once they are edging towards tender, add your stock. Add the pasta, bring it up to a gentle simmer, and once the pasta is cooked, add the reserved chicken meat, which you have chopped into soup-sized pieces.

Did I get better faster? Maybe. Did I feel better? Immediately!

March 14, 2009

Mexican Chickpea Salad

It may not seem like salad weather to everyone out there, with the sudden, aggressive return of sub-zero temperatures. The poor cherry trees are obviously trying to be on time with the pink blossoms, but winter's grim determination to keep a grip on us is thwarting their best efforts.

However, this may be when we need salad the most - especially those of us who recently returned from sunnier climes, and can hardly believe the rude shock of snow on the ground in March, for crying out loud. Best of all, this salad gives double value with the freshness of the spinach and the heartiness of the chickpeas, making it a good transitional salad/side dish for, oh say, a lovely achiote-rubbed pork tenderloin (which I failed to photograph, sorry).

This recipe was engineered by Palle, who has been researching traditional Yucatecan food since we returned from Mexico. Some tweaks and substitutions were necessary - for example, classically the salad would be made with chaya, an indigenous Mexican plant that is used for everything from stuffing chicken to being pureed into a sweet, lime-juice based cold beverage. Without access to chaya, he opted for baby spinach. I note that apparently chaya is toxic when raw, so I imagine that this recipe would be made with chaya leaves that had been simmered properly, first. Not under that restriction, we went with raw for the spinach.

Mexican Chickpea Salad

19 ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
¼ cup diced red onion

Dressing #1
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
¼ teaspoon finely grated lime zest
¾ teaspoon ground cumin
pinch of cayenne (or other hot) pepper
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 cups baby spinach leaves (or prepared chaya, if available)

Dressing #2:
3 tablespoons plain yogurt
1 tablespoons fresh lime juice
½ teaspoon finely grated lime zest
¼ teaspoon honey

In a medium bowl, combine chickpeas, cilantro and onion.

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, lime juice and zest, cumin, cayenne, salt and black pepper. Pour the dressing over the chickpea mixture and toss to coat evenly.

In another small bowl, stir together the yogurt, lime juice and zest, and honey.

Serve the chickpea salad over a bed of spinach leaves. Top with a drizzle of the yogurt dressing.

I'm pleased to report that any leftovers can be mixed all together and are equally delicious the next day. Also worth noting, the yogurt dressing on its own would make a delicious veggie dip, or even as a drizzle for kebabs, or in a nice pita sandwich stuffed with grilled things.

March 07, 2009

Rose Meringues to sweeten a milestone

A couple of weeks ago, I had a milestone birthday. It didn't exactly get lost in the shuffle, but it was a lower key event than I had originally contemplated - partly because I had just gotten back from a hectic ten days in Mexico, and was still doing laundry and catching up on sleep.

Fortunately for me, a friend was having a party the night before my birthday, so I got to see all of my friends with only minimal effort. Also fortunately for me, one week later, another friend was experiencing the exact same milestone, and she had a little get-together at her home.

I love to bring food to parties - no real surprise there. This time, I wanted something special, and because one member of the party-household is gluten-free, I needed a gluten-free special birthday treat. Ideally, one that I could put together relatively at the last moment.

Enter the meringue.

I don't tend to post much in the way of sweets, here. I really cut back on sugar a few years ago, and I tend not to do as much baking, anymore. My favourite kind of baking these days is where I get to make something fun and take it to share with other people, which helps regulate how much of it I end up eating. I still like desserts, but I like to share them.

These little babies are simply delicious - crisp shells with marshmallowy interiors. And, happily, gluten-free. Best made on a dry, sunny day, as meringue is hygroscopic, and will become a sticky mess if there's any humidity.

Rose Meringues
Recipe adapted from Laura Calder's French Food at Home

4 large egg whites
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon rosewater
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
2/3 cup icing sugar (if you want these to be gluten-free, check the brand)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 drops red food colouring

Whip the egg whites and salt into soft peaks that only just stands up on its own. Add the rosewater and continue whipping into stiff peaks. Combine the white sugar and the cream of tartar and add by the tablespoon into the egg whites, while continuing to whip. When the sugar has dissolved and the meringue is stiff, combine the cornstarch and the icing sugar and sift into the meringue, folding carefully until it is completely incorporated. Add the red colouring, and continue to fold until everything is a lovely pink and there are no streaks of colour.

Spoon the meringues onto a baking sheet lined with tinfoil (I got about 18 large meringues), and bake at the very low temperature of 225 F for 1 1/2 hours. The tops should be crisp when tapped. Allow to cool on trays (do not try to remove them from the foil until they are cooled, or you will probably wreck them). When completely cool, you can store them for a couple of days in an air-tight container. Theoretically.

These were readily marveled at and devoured by party guests, some of whom were fairly amazed at the sweet and clean floral taste.

February 28, 2009

Skillet Lasagna

Who doesn't like the classic flavours of lasagna? Unfortunately, it's a time consuming dish to make, and not really suitable for weeknights, although if you make two when you do take the trouble, you can freeze one and whip it out at a moment's notice (and an hour in the oven). Fortunately, it's really simple to make a delicious skillet dinner that riffs on the same flavours, and even relies on layering to achieve its goal: a lasagna-like experience in about 30 minutes (if you're motivated), using a skillet and your stovetop. Perfect for weeknights, especially if you want to take some leftovers for your lunch the next day. Assuming, of course, that there are leftovers (you can always increase the chances of leftovers by adding a salad and some garlic bread).

This can even be a quite healthy dish, if you use lean meats, and go with a more moderate approach to the cheese. I don't add oil to fry the meat, as it's not really necessary if you have a good non-stick or cast-iron pan. If the meat starts to catch too much on the pan, you can always splash a little dry vermouth or white wine (or water, of course) to zap the heat for a moment and loosen things up.

Skillet Lasagna

(Adapted from America's Test Kitchen)
Serves 4
Total Prep & Cooking Time: 30 – 45 minutes

1 lb meatloaf mix or any lean ground meat
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
Salt, as needed
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
10 curly-edged lasagna noodles, broken into 1½ inch lengths
28 oz can diced tomatoes plus extra water (see directions)
1 cup tomato sauce
¾ cup whole milk ricotta cheese, optional
¼ cup minced fresh basil
2 – 3 cups fresh spinach, chopped
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated, (plus extra for serving)

Pour the diced tomatoes, with their juice, into a four-cup measuring cup. Add enough water to the tomatoes to make 4 cups in total.

In a 12 inch non-stick skillet, break up the ground meat with a wooden spoon and fry over medium-high heat until it begins to brown. Add the onion and ½ tsp salt and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. If you are using optional seasonings (see below), add them now.

Sprinkle the noodle pieces evenly over the meat. Gently pour the diced tomatoes with their added water and tomato sauce over the pasta. Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to simmer, until the pasta is tender, about 20 minutes. You may peek! If any noodles are sticking out too far, push them back under. (The sauce should look watery after 15 minutes of cooking. If dry, add up to ¼ cup additional water to loosen the sauce.)

Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in spinach and ½ cup Parmesan. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Dot heaping tablespoons of ricotta over the noodles. Cover the skillet and let stand off the heat for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the basil and serve with the extra Parmesan on the side.

Seasoning Options:
Add any or all of the following seasonings: ½ teaspoon dried oregano leaves (not powder); 1 teaspoon fennel seed; ½ teaspoon dried basil leaves

Mushroom variation:
Add 6 large mushrooms, sliced or diced, once the onion is softened. Continue to cook over medium-high for about five minutes more before proceeding.

Further notes:

Because I found the original seasoning to be quite plain (despite the chile flakes) I add all of the seasoning options above, which give it that really classic familiar taste. I highly recommend the fennel seeds, particularly.

I confess that I don't usually go with the ricotta cheese, though it does make the dish a little more hard-core lasagna-esque. I don't tend to have ricotta on hand, and it feels a little tacked on, to be honest. Instead, I took an idea from my mother's baked spaghetti, and lay strips of provolone over the top just after stirring the spinach through, and covering until the cheese is melted (as shown above).

Finally, if you suddenly discover that you don't have that box of lasagna noodles that you thought you had, 200 grams of farfalle work beautifully in the dish, although the overall effect as a "lasagna" is kind of shot, at that point.

January 17, 2009

Salmon Corn Chowder

As promised.

This is the first fish dish that I ever became delighted to make again. Fish and I, we have issues (if not whole subscriptions). I cobbled the recipe together out of other recipes when I was still in University, and always on the lookout for affordable food with a big flavour payoff.

Living in Vancouver, salmon is probably more affordable to me than to folks further inland, so it might not be such a budget stretcher for people in, oh, say, the prairies. The recipe works best with a freshly steamed salmon fillet - even - a small one will do, but you can also used good quality pouch salmon, or Indian-style smoked salmon (as opposed to, say, lox, which wouldn't work so well). You don't need a lot of salmon to make a big, tasty pot of soup, though. The photo above does not show the tarragon, because I am an idiot who forgot to pick some up on my way home from work, and therefore did without. It was still tasty, by my gods, the tarragon adds something good. I added a big sprig of fresh thyme instead, which was pretty good.

Salmon Corn Chowder

Total Prep and Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6

1 large onion, diced medium
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 leek, chopped (or a rib of celery will do)
1 14 oz./400 ml can of creamed corn
1 to 1 1/2 cups corn kernels, frozen or fresh-cut
2 diced waxy potatoes (such as red bliss)
2 medium carrots, diced
1 small salmon fillet, steamed and flaked into chunks
1 14 oz./400 ml can of evaporated milk
1 cup water
1 bayleaf
fresh tarragon to taste (go easy, it's strong)
olive oil for sauteing

If you're a soup-maker, you probably don't need more than the list above, to work it out. If not, try these directions:

In a large soup pot, heat a little olive oil and saute the onion, garlic, carrot, and leek/celery until barely translucent. Toss in the bayleaf, a small pinch of salt, a little pepper, and the corn kernels and stir about. Add the creamed corn, the potatoes and the evaporated milk, and stir gently but thoroughly. Add water to get to the consistency you like - around a cup to start. Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, and allow to cook gently, uncovered, for about ten or fifteen minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed - I like white pepper for making the soup itself, and black pepper as a serving garnish, but suit yourself.

As the potatoes cook through, they will release a little starch and thicken the chowder slightly. It is important to use a waxy potato, because the floury, baking kind will become mealy-textured in the finished soup. If you decide to make this with all fresh corn, you may want to puree some of it before adding to the soup, to get the texture and level of, er, "corniness" correct.

When the vegetables are tender and just cooked through, add the small chunks of salmon, and a tablespoon or two of fresh, finely chopped tarragon leaves. Let the soup continue to cook gently for another five minutes, taste for salt, and serve with crackers (the classic pairing) or hot biscuits (my favourite). Contemplate other chowders you could make...bacon and scallops? Chicken and chorizo? The many faces of clam chowder (New England, Rhode Island, Manhattan)? Potato and cheese? Start making a list.

January 04, 2009

Soup for the New Year (Simple Tomato Soup)

It's official: I'm on a soup jag.

Today's soup is Alphabet Vegetable. It is the product of my Simple Tomato Soup (expired link removed - see recipe in comments section below) merged with extra chopped vegetables (this version includes finely chopped celery, carrot, red bell pepper, and corn kernels) and alphabet pasta, along with extra water to be absorbed by the pasta. I showered the bowls with chopped parsley, after the photo was taken, because I though all of the green bits would obscure the actual pasta.

The alphabet pasta was found at Granville Island, after a long, futile search in the supermarkets of Vancouver (well, I found some vegetable-dyed whole wheat alphabets, but they looked vile; I am not a fan of whole wheat pasta), and turns out to be alphanumeric, actually. I don't know if this is standard or not, since I never had alphabet soup growing up, but the numbers are a bonus, I think.

Adding stuff to my soup increased the cooking time by about ten minutes - the extras were all added post original recipe - which meant that the veggies still had some texture. Essentially, it is the variation for Tomato Vegetable that is listed at the end of the recipe, plus a half-cup of alphabet pasta and an extra cup of water. If you like the granular mushiness of canned vegetable soup, you might want to add another fifteen minutes (or more) to obtain the level of mush you desire. You may, of course, use any vegetables you want, including potato, parsnip, peas, lima beans...

We had this for dinner last night with toasted cheese sandwiches (i.e. not grilled, per se), and extra crusty bread for mopping the bowls clean.

Soup is such comforting food, and really lovely for the vertical weather we've been experiencing. So many of them also keep well for second days, lunches, or freezer-treasure. Next soup I've set my sights on? Salmon Corn Chowder. Stay tuned.