September 30, 2010

Beans with Bacon

I'm a big fan of beans, and possibly a bigger fan of bacon. Fortunately, they need not be mutually exclusive.

I grew up eating Boston-style baked beans - sometimes the canned kind, but if we were lucky, the kind made from scratch, soaking the beans overnight and baking them slowly in the oven in a specially designed bean pot. Sweet and savory, hearty and comforting. Something that you wait for, and are rewarded for your patience.

I still like to make beans from scratch. Aside from the classic baked version, I developed a Stovetop version that only takes a couple of hours. It's not as good as the original, which takes about nine hours, but clocking in at under two hours, it's easier to wedge into my schedule (and it's still better than the canned kind).

The beans above, however, are not the "Boston" kind at all. They're a simple pot of pinto beans and bacon, with the flavour supplemented by onions and garlic, cooked with bayleaf and salt. It's a sort of foundation recipe, good on toast for a light supper, or to be seasoned up in the manner of your own choosing. I took inspiration from the Mexican dish called "thick beans", served as a protein/starch side dish, and often cooked with lots of lard. The lard in this recipe is only a little of the rendered bacon fat, but I've left the chunks of bacon in.

The thing that really elevated this dish was the quality of the bacon. My friend Rodney smokes his own bacon, and is extremely generous in sharing the bounty. I cut the bacon into thick lardons, and seared it quickly to render enough of the fat to saute some onions and garlic. Then I added the dried (washed) pinto beans, the bayleaf, and enough water to cover the beans generously, brought the whole thing to a simmer, and let it cook, covered over the lowest temperature on my stove until the onions and garlic dissolved, and the beans became tender. I checked on them periodically, topping up the water level as necessary as the beans absorbed the liquid.

The final stage was to add a little salt, and then mash up some of the beans and stir them back into the pot, thickening the gravy and cushioning the rest of the beans.

The beans were exactly what I wanted them to be (although I'm now contemplating making a spicy version, which would also be good). Even more, as the leftovers were turned into a delicious bean and bacon soup, which, on its own is a fine reason to cook up a big pot of beans.

September 26, 2010

International Bento (Japan): Tonkatsu Bento

As promised, a bento which ventures into Japanese content. In this case, the bento is an exact redux of the dinner from the night before (see below): tonkatsu, Japanese rice, miso-glazed carrots, and gingered daikon salad. The vegetable content was a little light, as I intended to combine the carrots with lotus root slices (very pretty together!) but failed to acquire the lotus root on my way home. Next time, I mean to do a combination of carrot, lotus, and burdock (gobo). The preparation is much like a kinpira, but with a little red miso mixed with water and sesame oil added in and reduced until it glazes the vegetable pieces. An extra vegetable, maybe something green to balance out the meal, too - perhaps a little finely chopped snow-pea "coleslaw", made in a vaguely sunomono-like fashion, would be a good addition here.

I'm very fond of tonkatsu, a breaded, shallow-fried pork cutlet, in this case made from a slightly pounded pork sirloin chop. The conventional flour/ dip in egg / dredge in crumbs is employed, using panko, the airy, coarse style of breadcrumb that gives Japanese breaded foods a delightfully fuzzy appearance. For the recipe, I refer you to Maki's excellent site Just Hungry, the sister site to Just Bento, which is a favourite resource for my forays into Japanese cuisine.

The little fish-shaped sauce bottle in the bento is filled with a Tonkatsu sauce which Palle assembled after perusing various recipes online and taking the best of them to form a hybrid (his favourite way to cook). I don't think he noted it down, though, so the next iteration might be quite different, depending on how well he remembers what he did. The little fish-bottle is one of a veritable school of fish bottles I got in a little box from a Japanese dollar-type store here in Vancouver. They are generally used for soy sauce, or other smooth and not-too-thick sauces that can be loaded by suction through the fish's "mouth". A bargain at two dollars for a box of them (if one doesn't make it home, I'm not too broken up by it).

If you recall my Fear of Frying post, you will know that this involves more oil and temperature control issues than I am strictly comfortable with, so making the Tonkatsu also helped me push my boundaries and further develop my frying skills. To be fair, I made a crash decision to shallow-fry the cutlets instead, using about an inch of oil in a large skillet, based on a different recipe that I found in a cookbook. The first two of the four cutlets I cooked were beautiful, but I had my predictable troubles controlling the heat for the second batch. The cutlets were all delicious, but the second batch were considerably less attractive.

More practice is clearly in order, but I was really happy with how well this turned out.

September 12, 2010

Jamaican Buffalo Pie

I don't get nearly enough pie in my life. One of the problems is that I am rather picky about the crust, and the leathery, greasy offerings of many of the pre-fab pies available are discouraging. Also, as is fairly well documented, I am quite lazy, so it is difficult to rouse myself up to make a double-crust pie on the spur of the moment. It can be done, however. It just takes a little craving.

My world is run by food cravings. It always has been, even at some fairly inopportune times. I am lucky to be able to indulge most of them. So, when an enormous craving for a savory pie hit pretty much juxtaposed with a wish for a Jamaican patty, I decided to combine the two: voilĂ , one double-crust pie, filled with a spicy, Jamaican patty-inspired filling, and less actual work than making a bunch of smaller patties.

I used ground buffalo meat, since that is what I had on hand, but a good quality beef would work as well, of course. I browned the buffalo with rather a lot of sliced green onions (white and green parts), seasoned it heavily with black pepper and allspice and lightly with hot curry powder and salt, added some chopped hot chiles and a generous slug of Matouk's Calypso sauce (I didn't have habaneros on hand, but the pie still had a big ol' kick). I thickened it with a flour-based slurry, but was careful to keep the amount of liquid really low, so it would act as a binder without sogging things out too badly. The seasoning was essentially just taste-and-tweak, so I'm afraid I can't impart the precise amounts.

Finally, since pies look more lovely with a shiny golden crust, I gave it a quick swipe of egg-wash, and loaded it into the oven on the middle rack at 375℉ for about 45 minutes.

Because this was done on a weeknight (and, see above re: lazy), there's a big flaw in the surface of the top crust (upper right quadrant) that I didn't bother to fix, but we successfully managed to ignore that and devoured the pie anyway, with coleslaw on the side.

I took a well-wrapped quarter pie to work the next day, to give to a co-worker friend whom I generally torture with descriptions of what I am cooking. It was received with great appreciation, and apparently re-heated splendidly.

September 07, 2010

International Bento (North America) Roast Chicken & Potatoes

I'm not heading back to school this week, nor am I sending a young person off to school. I will be going to work as usual, though, and at this time of year I find myself eagerly, even voraciously, reading up on all the latest ideas for packed lunches.

As those of you who follow this site know, I'm pretty enamored of bentos right now, along with most of the world, as evinced by the rampant proliferation of websites and cookbooks (many of which are very impressive indeed) dedicated to the art of the bento.

Since many, if not most, of my packed lunches are derived from dinner leftovers, working them into a bento format takes no great leaps of imagination. This bento was ridiculously simple - leftover cold roast chicken, which had been removed from the bone when it was still warm, and the attendant leftover roasted potato halves. I intended to either heat them up on a plate (my work has a microwave) or eat them cold, as is, but when lunchtime rolled around I realized that, with judicious application of the mayonnaise I keep in the fridge at work (for sandwich-related emergencies), I could make myself a tasty chicken and potato salad. So, that's what I did. I chopped up the potatoes a bit more, and the biggest pieces of chicken, and mixed them together with just enough mayonnaise to moisten them, and garnished heavily with black pepper. Very tasty!

The rest of the bento is self-explanatory: sliced cucumbers, and an assortment of fresh berries (get them while it's still technically summer).

My next bento will probably venture into Japanese territory, just for kicks, but stay tuned also for French bento, and more North American bento fun!

September 06, 2010

Chocolate Oatmeal Peanut Butter Chip Muffins

I was really very happy with my recent foray into the world of chocolate, oatmeal, and peanut butter. So much so, in fact, that I started thinking about other, non-cookie applications.

In a related note, I found myself picking gooey chocolate crumbs out of a muffin wrapper last week, having succumbed to the "chocolate muffin" at Tim Horton's. Yeah. Well. It wasn't so much a muffin, as a damp, massively sweet cupcake with an unstable texture. Looking at the online nutritional information, the only entry close to what I had is the "chocolate chip muffin", which is a whopping 430 calories, of which 16 grams of fat and 40 grams of sugar make up much of the payload. If it had been more pleasant an eating experience, and less of a crumby, sticky-fingered disaster, I wouldn't have minded so much, call that a muffin? Really? We must be speaking different languages. I'd have rather had a doughnut. Or, er, "donut."

It got me thinking - why can't there be a chocolate muffin that is, in fact, a muffin and not an also-ran in the sweets department? Now, maybe if they'd backed down on the sugar overload, or added a hearty, muffin-friendly texturizer to give the creation a little backbone...and, before I knew it, I was drafting up a recipe.

The results were very pleasing indeed. A perfect lunchbox treat, in fact, or a quick breakfast snack on the go. Dare I say, perfect for back to school lunches (for those schools which don't have a peanut butter prohibition)?

Chocolate Oatmeal Peanut Butter Chip Muffins

3 tablespoons soft butter
½ cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of cinnamon
1 cup all purpose flour
¾ cup rolled oats
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup dutch process cocoa powder
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 cup peanut butter chips

My own cryptic notes for assembly read as follows:
Muffin Method; 400℉ 20 minutes; 12 regular. Those of you who enjoy a little more specificity may want to follow these directions:

Preheat your oven to 400℉ with the rack set in the middle of the oven. Lightly grease (or spritz with canola oil) a 12 cup muffin pan.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat together butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla extract until smooth.

In a separate bowl, combine the oats, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cocoa powder, and cinnamon,

Measure out the buttermilk for quick access.

Add about a third of the dry flour mixture to the beaten butter/egg mixture and combine until just blended. Then, pour in half the buttermilk, and stir it gently through. Repeat with the next third of dry mixture and the last of the buttermilk. Finally, fold in the last bit of dry mixture and add the peanut butter chips, carefully stirring it through just until all the flour is incorporated, handling gently to prevent toughness.

Distribute the batter between the greased muffin cups. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, depending on your oven (check after 20, and if the muffin tops are dry and show a little resilience when gently pressed, remove from oven. Allow muffins to cool in pan on a rack for a couple of minutes, then lift muffins out of cups to finish cooling on the racks.

Store in a sealed container in the fridge, once completely cool, and re-warm in the microwave for 20 seconds.

The muffins are just sweet enough - the peanut butter chips are actually little sweet bursts of peanuty tastiness, and the oatmeal gives the muffin a sturdy, satisfying texture without being heavy or dense.

For those interested in how the nutritional info stacks up, I used an online calculator to come up with a count of about 220 calories per muffin based on this recipe, including 20 grams of sugar and 8.3 grams of fat. Plus, over three grams of fibre, if that's your thing. It should be noted that I couldn't find an ingredient listing for the Reese's peanut butter chips that I used in the recipe, so my calculations are based on using Reese's pieces instead, which will skew the results at least somewhat. Plus, I'm never entirely sure how reliable online calculators are. Your mileage may vary. Still, all in all, a considerable nutritional improvement on the commercial muffin I was lamenting above.