July 31, 2010

Chocolate Buttermilk Pancakes

I once had a lovely brunch that featured a bitter orange chocolate waffle with bourbon cream. It was chocolatey with out being overly sweet, and the bitter orange was a delightful counterpoint.

Since that day, I've been slightly haunted by thoughts of chocolate pancakes. Since my attempts at chocolatifying oatmeal cookies turned out so well, why not use the same adaptation for pancakes? I didn't have any orange, bitter or otherwise, but I figured that it should be pretty good anyway, especially with a little whiskey syrup poured over.

You can make these in a food processor! The metal blade continually slices through any forming gluten strands, preventing it from getting tough.

Chocolate Buttermilk Pancakes
Makes 8 or 9 medium pancakes, or 6 bigger ones

1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup dark cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of cinnamon (optional)

Combine egg and buttermilk in a food processor fitted with a metal blade (not a mixing hook) and blitz for about a half-minute to make sure everything is thoroughly integrated. Add the rest of the ingredients and process on high for one whole minute.

Pre-heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high flame. Spritz with a little canola oil. Ladle out pancake batter, making two or three pancakes at a time, depending on the size of your pan (I get three modestly sized pancakes in a 12" skillet). Cook, keeping an eye on the temperature, until bubbles start to form throughout the surface and the edges start to look dry. Then turn each pancake over, and cook for a couple of more minutes on the other side. Keep warm on a rack in a warmed oven until all the pancakes are ready.

Since I make three at a time, I like to sort of rotate where I put the batter to make sure I'm using most of the surface of the pan. This is mostly just to keep the pan from overheating where nothing is being cooked.

It is entirely reasonable to fry up some bacon in another pan, while all this is going on.

Why didn't I do this before? Next time, perhaps a little orange zest into the mix, or maybe just serve with a good bitter orange marmalade.

July 25, 2010

Mexican Bento

My worldwide bento lunch theme continues with Mexico.

The crumbly meat mixture is in fact picadillo, a ground meat filling used to stuff into things - peppers, tortillas, empanadas, etc. I made this one using the recipe from Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz's slim volume The Mexican Kitchen. It consists of fried up ground beef, onions and garlic, finely chopped green apple, tomatoes, pickled serrano peppers, raisins, cinnamon, ground cumin and black pepper. You can pretty much add as much of each ingredient as you want - I used one apple per one pound of meat, and just a small handful of raisins. It's very customizable. There is often a garnish of sliced almonds fried in butter, but I didn't have any, so I left mine plain, and stirred in a little cilantro instead.

The vegetably dish is the unimaginatively titled Green Lima Beans in Sauce (from the same book). I'm thinking of calling it ¡Hola Frijoles! It is delicious, and this coming from someone who was none-too-certain about the whole Lima Bean thing until very recently. I used frozen baby limas, and chucked them into a shallow sauce pan with a little water, a chopped onion, some garlic, and some tinned diced tomatoes. I added some chopped fresh jalapeƱos and stirred in a whole lot of cilantro. I cooked them, stirring frequently, until the water had evaporated and the tomatoes smudged down into a chunky sauce, which took about twenty minutes.

I was expecting a dish that was palatable but unremarkable (I restrained myself from adding cumin), but I had woefully underestimated the recipe. The flavour of the finished dish was surprisingly complex, and very, very Mexican tasting. It was an outstanding vegetable dish that stood up well to the rest of the meal, was good hot and cold, and re-heated beautifully for my bento the next day. (FYI, I do not heat food directly in my bento container, I use proper dishes. It's not safe to microwave the brand of bento boxes that I use.) I would recommend it to anyone, and especially to vegetarians wanting an interesting taco or tostada filling.

Finally, up at the top, you can see the edges of some homemade corn tortillas (recipe nominally also from the same book, except that I added a little lard, and a pinch of salt). I don't have a tortilla press, so I use my heavy, cast-iron frying pan to flatten them out, and that seems to work pretty well. I keep a small rolling pin on had to give them a quick go-over if they seem to need it, but usually they're fine.

More bentos to come...French, North American, (of course) Japanese, and many more! I'm in a zone.

July 21, 2010

Chocolate Oatmeal Peanut Butter Chip Cookies

Oatmeal Spice Anything Cookies - are so very adaptable that they've become a go-to staple whenever I need to whip up a quick batch of cookie goodness. I've made them with dried blueberries and white chocolate chunks, with cranberries and Christmas spices, pumpkin seeds and golden raisins, and an almost infinite variety of fruit, nuts, spices, and other goodies. So...why not chocolate?

Of course, I have already made them with chocolate chips - I'm not daft! But, it occurred to me that I don't often see recipes for cookies that are themselves both oat- and chocolate-based. Why not? Is there something mutually exclusive about the decadence of a chocolate cookie and the healthy image of the oatmeal cookie? Couldn't they be combined into a single, satisfying treat?

I had been toying with the notion for a little while, when I stumbled onto an ingredient that upped the ante considerably: peanut butter chips.

That did it. I bought some. I took them home. I squinted at my master recipe for a while, and finally, I made the adjustments that I hoped would satisfy everything that I knew these cookies could be.

Here they are:

Chocolate Oatmeal Peanut Butter Chip Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen (depending on size)
Total prep and cooking time: 45 minutes

1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup rolled oats
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dutch-process cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 cup peanut butter chips
Preheat your oven to 350℉.

Lightly spray two large cookie sheets with canola oil.

In a medium mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugars until thoroughly combined. Add the egg and vanilla extract, and mix again. You can do this by hand or with an electric mixer. Pour the oats over the wet mixture. Without stirring, sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and baking soda directly over the oats. Sprinkle the salt and the allspice over the flour mixture. With a wooden spoon, or on the lowest setting of your mixer, carefully begin to blend everything together. When it is starting to come together, add the peanut butter chips. Finish combining the ingredients until the peanut butter chips are all even distributed through the cookie dough.

Drop by tablespoon onto the prepared cookie sheets, leaving room for each cookie to expand a little. Use your fingers to gently flatten the cookies slightly. Bake at 350 F for 12-15 minutes, depending on size. Remove to racks to cool - they will be soft and flexible - downright bendy! - at first, but will firm up as they cool.

And, of course, they count as health food, thanks to the oatmeal, right?

July 18, 2010

Summer Fruit Salad

I adore fruit salad.

That is, I love fresh fruit. Fruit salad, as found in restaurants (often under the name "fruit cup" or simply arriving unannounced on the side of your brunch) is often lacking. The most heinous of the many crimes against fruit salad are as follows: too much filler (melon, canned pineapple, citrus sections from a tub), cut too long in advance (I'm pretty sure I've had some that were cut days before they got to me), fruits that don't complement each other (apples mixed in with soft stone fruits), the poorly cut (giant hunks of one fruit, tiny slivers of another) and, finally, what I think of as "interference" - some sort of nasty syrup poured over all as a "dressing".

Fruit salad is not difficult, and in the summer it need not be expensive. I eat fresh fruit year-round, when I can, and I therefore end up eating fairly seasonally, although I confess to occasionally succumbing to raspberries grown in Mexico in the dead of winter. In summer in Vancouver, there are explosions of local berries to choose from, and gorgeous stone fruits from the Okanagan. An embarrassment of riches, really.

While I'm not a hardened locavore (we don't grow papaya or mango around here), I do like to purchase the local version of those fruits that do well in our climate. The salad above contains local organic strawberries and blueberries, as well as papaya (not so local). I thought the combination of colours was pretty, and I find that generally three well-chosen fruits together make a very nice balance. I dressed it the way I dress most fruit salads (the non-dessert-y ones, anyway), which was simply with freshly squeezed lime juice. That's all you need, really, for most fruits.

This salad was made for a friend's bbq afternoon, and I was tickled pink when our host told me that it was the first time anyone had ever brought a fruit salad that wasn't full of things he hated. Perhaps that was luck, but I suspect it's because I didn't go the cheap filler route.

Now, before you think that I'm some crazed melon-hater, I should tell you that I rather like melon. We don't have it in the house due to allergy issues, but I have nothing against fresh melon, in season. I tend to prefer it on its own, but I've had melon-ball salads that were all different kinds of melon, and were absolutely delicious - but that's because it was someone using melon specifically to execute a particular effect, and not simply as coarsely-cut filler to reduce expenses. I also like fresh pineapple - one of my go-to fruit salads is the trio of fresh pineapple (diced small), kiwi, and blueberries - all drizzled with lime juice, naturally. Such a pretty combination of colours, with the green, yellow and blue. So delicious!

Getting back to restaurants, though, I know that one of the problems is that of suppliers. If you want the favourable, stable pricing from your supplier, you need to arrange a full-year gig, not just getting fruit in when it's not in season in your own backyard. This is why you can get limp, colourless tomato slices on your burger at the height of rioting tomato season. It's a tragic pay off, really.

So, in the summer, I eat a lot of fruit. I take fruit salads to work for my lunch as often as I can, and I take great delight in trying different flavours and combinations. It's pretty low effort for most fruit - maybe a bit of peeling and chopping, but for five or ten minutes' work, you get a splendid salad that cheers you right up at lunch time.

July 03, 2010

Using Up the Bits: Zucchini Balls

I do like zucchini, and I admire its versatility. My mother had an astonishing number of places to hide it when it overran the garden (and the neighbourhood), including a magnificent chocolate zucchini bundt cake and, more surprisingly, a sort of lemon curd whose bulk came from the skin-free pulp of the zucchini (not that you could tell).

As for me, I use zucchini in pasta sauces, in salads, as crudites, and of course the much-beloved Zucchini Fritters. Occasionally I stuff them, and that was what I was doing here...using a melon baller to remove scoops of zucchini flesh from the outer shell that would eventually house some meat-y rice-y affair. No photos of that dish, sorry; I got distracted by the fun possibilities of finding a way to use up the little zucchini balls that I had carved out. Half-balls, actually, as you can clearly see, since my goal was really just to empty out the shell of the zucchini, and I wasn't exactly heeding the form of the squash divots while carving.

I thought about tossing them into the freezer to be thrown in the next batch of curry or an upcoming pasta dish, but they were just so cute, and I couldn't resist doing something more immediate with them. So, I got out a wide skillet, heated a little olive oil until quite hot, and then threw in some cumin seeds. Once the seeds started to pop, I tossed in the little balls, and sauteed them briskly until they just picked up a little colour. A pinch of kosher salt, and voila! Tasty little side dish (or snack) that handily used up all the leftover bits, leaving me feeling virtuously waste-free and rather content at having a little extra something in the fridge.

Turns out, they were good both hot and cold, although a little slippery once chilled. This is definitely going to be the fate of the innards of the next summer squash that I feel the need to eviscerate. I'm betting that a few cherry tomatoes, and maybe some oil-cured black olives and some garlic would round this out into a perfectly wonderful dish all on its own.