September 25, 2011

Caponata & Polenta

These two dishes make excellent friends. The starch of the polenta creates a filling sense of satisfaction, and its creamy solidness plays counterpoint to the vegetable frenzy that is the caponata.

Of course, you can tell (I'm quite sure) that the polenta rounds in the picture were not from a polenta that I had made myself, but rather from one of those prepared tubes that you can buy. We didn't find it an entirely acceptable substitute, by the way, but once we drowned the grilled-up rounds with the deliciousness of caponata, it sufficed for the evening. Homemade polenta would have made this absolutely heavenly.

The real story here is the caponata. I've been making this for a few years, now, since I first saw a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis for Caponata Picnic Sandwiches. I've tweaked it a little to reduce the oil, and upgraded it from side dish to feature, although any leftovers certainly do make wonderful sandwiches (particularly if you have some leftover garlic bread and bocconcini). I like a piquancy in my caponata, so I reduce the sugar, but your mileage may vary. More sugar emphasizes its sort of sweet-and-sour character.

Easy Caponata
Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis
Serves 4 as a main dish

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium Italian eggplant, diced
1 to 2 stalks celery, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 tablespoon dry white vermouth (optional)
1 medium red or yellow onion, diced
1 1/2 to 2 cups unsalted canned diced tomatoes (with juices)
4 tablespoons raisins
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
4 tablespoons Italian Red Wine Vinegar
1-2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon capers
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 - 2 branches fresh basil, stems removed

This dish comes together very easily. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the celery and saute a little, then add the eggplant and continue to saute until it begins to soften. Add the salt, and then the red pepper, and splash with a little vermouth if it is sticking (you can also use water). Stir and saute a little more, and then add the onion. Continue to saute, and once the onions are starting to get tender, add the tomatoes, raisins, oregano. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Taste, and season with salt and pepper to taste (I don't usually add any more salt here). Add the vinegar, one teaspoon of sugar, and the capers (rinsed and drained, please!), and stir through. Simmer very gently for a couple of minutes, then taste again. If needed, correct by adding more vinegar or sugar. Garnish with torn up basil leaves.

I note that this is much more colourful a dish than it may actually seem from the picture, which I blame on the inordinately, festively coloured (and busy) plate that I served it on.

That's it. Easy, right? And you can grill your polenta while it simmers, or you can make the caponata first, and serve it at room temperature once the polenta is grilled up - it's full of flavour and equally tasty warm or cool - and therefore, excellent picnic fare, as the recommended original application. You could also serve this warm over hot, soft polenta, rather than the firm version.

Now, I haven't mentioned the scruffy looking mushrooms on the other side of the plate, yes, I know. They are simply broiled mushrooms - tasty, but not very glamorous (or photogenic, apparently). Portabella mushrooms cut into slices, tossed with soy sauce and olive oil, and popped under the broiler until tender. That's it! Although, it does lead to another lovely possibility for serving the caponata: brush whole, gills-removed portabellas with a little olive oil and roast until tender, then fill with warm caponata, garnish with basil, and present triumphantly, perhaps with a nice crusty loaf of bread on the side.

September 11, 2011

Greek Shrimp Saute over Orzo

This is beautifully easy, but it's really only half a recipe: the shrimp half. You could serve this over rice, a creamy pasta, garlic toast(!), or baby potatoes, really it's entirely up to you. I chose to serve it over Creamy Parmesan Orzo, which has been a solid workhorse in my kitchen for the past six years, and it worked out just fine.

The recipe is almost embarrassingly easy, although I do need to give credit to Cooking Light's Fresh Food Fast cookbook: This was everything it was supposed to be: fast, delicious, and easy.

Greek Shrimp Saute
adapted from Fresh Food Fast
Serves 3 - 4

454 grams frozen peeled prawns
1 cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half
4 tablespoons Greek-style vinaigrette (lemon and oregano), ideally one with less fat*
10 Kalamata olives, sliced
1/4 cup torn basil
1/4 cup crumbled feta
1 clove garlic, crushed

Thaw the prawns under running water, rinsing well to remove any fishiness. Pat dry with paper towels. Toss with 1 tablespoon of vinaigrette.

Heat a skillet over high heat. Spritz with a little olive oil. Saute the shrimp for about three minutes, or until just barely cooked through. Remove to a bowl. In the emptied skillet, add the rest of the vinaigrette, the tomatoes, olives and garlic, and saute until heated through, about a minute or two, stirring constantly. Add to the shrimp, and toss to combine. Serve up the shrimp over your choice of accompaniment (in this case, the plated orzo), and sprinkle with basil and feta.

Could you add the rest of the Greek Salad components in here? A little red onion, some green pepper, maybe some cucumber, just for the textural kick? Absolutely. Or, you know, you could just make a Greek salad the way you like it, and top it with prawns sauteed in vinaigrette. I'm just saying.

*Here's a good simple version:

White Lemon Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano
1 pinch dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt

Combine in a sealable jar, and shake until combined. Or, combine in a measuring cup, and whisk the heck out of it!

September 04, 2011

Pineapple Thai Fried Rice

Summer has finally arrived in Vancouver, just in time for one little wave of sunshine before autumn officially hits. What this means for me, practically speaking, is that I now have a limited amount of time to wedge in all of the summery meals that I feel the need to visit every year, or else it will be as if summer never happened at all.

One of these summer favourites is Thai lettuce wraps, which I have posted about long ago again, strangely, just squeezing it in at the end of the season. While I'm eating it, I marvel that I don't make it every single week. The lettuce wraps are dangerous, in a fashion, because I will eat as much filling as I have made, no matter whether I plan to have some leftovers to take to work. I'm assuming it would travel very well to work, but I've never quite managed it. That notwithstanding, some sort of side dish is absolutely necessary, unless you want to make a filling that incorporates a starch as well, which doesn't exactly float my boat. The last time I wrote about it, I served it with spicy soba and gyoza in a sort of glorious cultural mishmash. This time, as of course you can probably guess, I chose pineapple fried rice.

I've made fried rice before, plenty of times, generally leaning toward the Chinese style that features char siu (barbeque pork), scrambled egg, and sometimes shrimp. I love it. Thai-style fried rice, however, I had never actually made at home, although I enjoy having it when I go out. Boy-howdy, there are a lot of different versions out there in Internet Land! I couldn't find one that exactly fit my needs, so I took the information that I gleaned from reading through a lot of different recipes, and put them to work on a sort of ad hoc basis. We were really pleased with the results, so I'm setting down the recipe for my own future reference, and of course, to share with you:

Pineapple Thai Fried Rice
Serves 2 to (theoretically) 4 as a side dish, or one greedy person as a main

1 cup jasmine rice
3 tablespoons coconut powder
1 large pinch lemon grass powder
water, as needed to cook the rice

Don't use too much water, you don't want the rice to become mushy. A little firm is better. Cook the rice using your usual evaporation method. It helps if you stir the coconut powder into the water and whisk to thoroughly combine. When the rice is cooked, turn it out into a bowl, carefully, and use a fork to gently separate out the grains, being careful not to overwork the rice, which will make it sticky. Allow to cool. If making this part ahead, cover and refrigerate until wanted.

1 tablespoon peanut oil
3 red Thai chiles, seeded and minced
1 Thai chile, seeded and cut into strips
2 green onions, sliced
2 tablespoons minced ginger
3 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
5 kafir lime leaves
1 cup finely diced fresh pineapple
1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce (omit for vegan version, obviously)
1 to 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce (use double soy sauce if omitting fish sauce)
a few fresh Thai basil leaves
lime quarters, for squeezing over top
chopped cilantro, for garnish

In a wok or, failing that, a large non-stick skillet, over high heat, heat the peanut oil. Add the garlic and ginger, and minced chiles, and stir fry for a few seconds, before adding the lime leaves and pineapple. Stir fry until the pineapple starts to caramelize, and then add in the rice. Use a spatula (or wok tool) to fold the rice in the dish, coating all of the rice with the oil and seasonings. Sprinkle with fish sauce, and fold the rice again. Add the soy sauce, and fold again. Add the chile strips, some torn up basil, and the sliced green onions, and fold again. Taste the rice and see if it wants more fish sauce or soy. You want a bit of separation of rice grains, here, so that each grain of rice gets a nice "fried" texture and flavour. In practice, it will still cling gently to its neighbours. Keep gently turning the rice until everything is evenly distributed.

Tweak the seasonings as desired, adding more fish sauce or soy, or a pinch of sugar if that rocks your world, I don't think it needs it with the pineapple, but you choose. Turn out the rice into a large serving bowl, and garnish with cilantro and lime quarters for squeezing over individual portions. The cucumber garnish is of course, entirely optional, but it makes for a nice presentation, and I love eating cucumber slices, so it makes good sense to me.

If this is your main dish, you may want to top it with a crispy-fried sunny egg for each person. If you want to make it hotter, there's always sriracha, or more chiles.

The chile-star garnishes, by the way, are supremely easy. Using those little red Thai chiles, and a sharp knife, slice lengthwise through the chiles in a sort of asterisk pattern, being careful to stop at the top end of the chile. Gently scrape out any seeds. Place the cut chile in a bowl of cold water, and watch it curl open into a star/flower. If it isn't opening up nicely after 30 minutes, check to see if you need to cut down a little closer to the stem. I like to do these up for rice noodle dishes, too - it's the first thing I do when I walk into the kitchen, since they take time to open, and the cold water keeps them fresh until needed.

I didn't have Thai basil at hand, this time, so I made do with Genovese basil, which was perhaps off-profile for Thai cooking, but still delicious. Next time, Thai basil for sure.