July 27, 2014

Caribbean Curried Chicken Skillet Dinner

It's been a while since I made a rice-based skillet dinner, so I thought it was time. You can easily adapt this recipe to use boneless chicken thighs, if you prefer, simply by shortening the cooking time and finishing the cooking solely on the stovetop. However, you won't get quite as pretty an effect, and of course, you won't get the crispy, delicious chicken skin.

Caribbean Curried Chicken Skillet Dinner

Serves 4

8 bone-in chicken pieces
1 tablespoon unbleached flour
2 — 3 tablespoons Jamaican-style curry powder*
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 cup parboiled rice
2/3 cup coconut milk
1 1/3 cups water
3 tablespoon shredded unsweetened coconut, toasted
2 large carrots, shredded
30 grams sultana or golden raisins
1/4 cup finely sliced green onions
1 — 2 Scotch Bonnet Chili peppers, minced

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Combine the flour, curry powder (and salt, if you are using an unsalted curry powder) in a shallow bowl, and toss the chicken pieces to lightly coat.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the peanut oil and add the chicken pieces, skin side down, working in batches if you need to. Sear the chicken until darkly golden brown on the skin side, about six to eight minutes, and then flip over to brown the other side, too (for about five minutes). Set the chicken aside on a clean plate.

While the chicken is browning, combine the coconut milk, water, and the remaining curry powder/flour mixture, whisking until smooth, and have it standing ready.

When all of the chicken is out of the pan, drain most of the fat (and any loose browned curry powder) leaving only a thin layer of oil in the pan. Add the shredded carrots, green onions, scotch bonnets, and raisins. Stir and fry for a minute or so, before adding the rice and toasted coconut. Stir around until the rice is thoroughly coated, scraping the bottom of the skillet with your spoon or spatula so that everything is evenly integrated.

Add the coconut milk mixture to the rice and stir well, to ensure that nothing is sticking to the bottom of your skillet.

Return the chicken to the pan, placing each piece skin-side up in a single layer so that the skin is not submerged in the liquid. Place skillet uncovered in the hot oven, on a middle shelf for 30 minutes. (check at 20 minutes to see if more liquid is needed).

Remove chicken pieces from the skillet onto serving plates, and spoon up the rice with a big serving spoon. The rice will be creamy-textured rather than pilaf style. If I have leftovers, I take the meat off the bones before cooling and refrigerating, to make re-heating in a skillet or microwave easier.

This dish can be pretty fiery and intense, so a fresh green salad will help provide a cooling counterpoint.

*Use a Jamaican-style curry powder if possible. Also, check to see if your curry powder contains salt; if not, you may want to add a half-teaspoon of kosher salt (or coarse sea salt).

July 20, 2014

Käsespätzle: Germany's Macaroni & Cheese

This is German comfort food, as evidenced by its remarkably frequent appearance on menus here. It sometimes has different names - for example, one of my favourite places for German classics calls their version of this "Brauerspätzle" (Brewer's Spätzle), but when you read the description, it's the same dish. You can even buy it frozen in bags in the freezer section of supermarkets, although I can't imagine the quality is that impressive.

There's a lot of room for personalization here. Käsespätzle can be served vegetarian or with tiny ham cubes, the latter being the most common one I've seen (Germany loves its pork, after all). It can be short, stubby spätzle, or longer, more uniformly thin ones. It can have crispy onions on top, or finely diced sautéed onions throughout. You can use Emmenthal, Gouda, Bergkäse, Edam, or a blend of whatever grated/grate-able cheeses you have hanging about in your fridge. I used a pre-shredded combination of Gouda and Tilsit, which was advertised as "cheese for gratin".

This took me about 70 minutes, start to finish, and makes a bit of a mess (but one that is mercifully easy to clean up).

Pro Tip: Have a sink or basin of cold water standing by for you to put the batter-goopy tools in as soon as you've finished the stove-top phase.


Serves 4-6

4 eggs
400 grams all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 - 1 cup water (or more, as needed)

For assembly:
150 - 200 grams grated tasty cheese
125 grams tiny ham cubes (Schinken Würfel, bacon, or similar)
3 tablespoons cream
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine flour and kosher salt in a medium-large mixing bowl or food processor. Beat the eggs and 1/2 cup of water together, and stir into the flour mixture. Add additional water until you get a thin batter, that falls in ribbons from the spoon or whisk. Beat/whisk/blend until smooth. If you can't get it completely smooth, pour it through a sieve and push any lumps through, otherwise you risk clumps of uncooked flour in your finished noodles. Let stand 15 minutes to allow the flour to fully hydrate.

Next thinly slice an onion, and set it to fry over low heat in the olive oil (with maybe a pinch of salt), until deeply coloured and crispy. This will take a while, and is low maintenance. It can finish crisping up while you're cooking the spätzle.

Preheat your oven to 400 F while you cook the spätzle.

While the batter is resting, get your onions and ham cubes (if using) cooking and set up your spätzle cooking rig. If you have a spätzle Hobel or spätzle Brett and know how to use it, carry on however you see fit. If not, here's my method:

Half-fill a tall saucepan with water. Ideally, the width of the saucepan will allow you to rest a four-sided grated over the top in a way that you won't need to hold onto it (although I do usually use one hand to keep it steady while I'm working). The batter is going to be pushed from inside the grater through the "large holed" side straight into the boiling salted water. You're going to want to lightly oil the grater (just the one side), inside and out, to help the batter fall more smoothly through the holes.

Place the grater over the gently boiling, salted water, with the largest round(ish)-holed side facing down. Use a large spoon to add a scoop of batter inside the grater. The batter will start to drip through the holes.

Using a flat-ended wooden spoon (you can use a spatula, but is easier to use a rigid tool), gently but firmly scrape the dough back and forth along the inside the grater, repeatedly, until all of the dough is pushed through.

Remove the grater from the top of the pot, and start using a spider-tool or other skimmer to remove the floating spätzle to a near-by waiting bowl. I like to use a large mesh colander over a plate, but a large bowl also works fine.

Return the grater to the pot and repeat the dough scooping and scraping, spoonful by spoonful, removing the cooked spätzle regularly with your skimmer, until all of the batter is gone. Remove the grater and any other batter-crusted tools immediately to a basin of cold water, and allow them to soak while you complete the next steps.

Loosen the spätzle with a fork, to de-clump it. In a 10 or 11-inch skillet (cast iron is terrific), rub a little butter or vegetable oil over the bottom, and then add a layer of spätzle. Top with a handful or two of grated cheese, and some of the ham cubes. Repeat until all of the spätzle are in the pan, ending with a layer of cheese or cheese-and-ham. I got about three layers of noodles, but your mileage may vary. Scatter the fried onions evenly over the top of the last cheese layer, and gently pour a couple of tablespoons of cream over all.

Place uncovered in the preheated oven for 15 - 20 minutes. Serve with a nice big salad (or at least some sliced fresh vegetables).

Spätzle also reheats quite well the next day, either in the microwave, or in a foil-covered dish in a moderate oven.

July 13, 2014

Strawberry Shortcake

There are generally two camps for Strawberry Shortcake lovers -- the biscuit camp and the sponge cake camp. As you can see here, I clearly fall into Camp Biscuit. In fact, it was not until I was in my late teens that I learned about the sponge cake variation. It sounded good, but was a little disappointing when I tried it. Sponge cake gives you a much softer overall dessert -- easily made in advance, and easily sliced and portioned for a crowd, for sure -- but the firmer, yet still tender, biscuit gives each serving of this dessert an individual, more impressive character: each biscuit becoming a small work of art assembled for each guest. The crisply sweet finish on the golden top crust, the squish of the top of the biscuit descending into the tender interior of whipped cream and macerated berries, feel more decadent to me.

The biscuit method for Strawberry Shortcake is almost laughably easy: make your favourite drop-biscuit dough with an extra teaspoon of sugar per cup of flour, and before baking brush the tops with cream and sprinkle with a little more sugar.

If strawberries are not your thing, plenty of other fruits also work beautifully: raspberries, or peaches, or my all-time favourite, the tiniest possible blackberries.

Strawberry Shortcake

Serves 4


3 - 4 cups sliced strawberries
2 tablespoons sugar

Toss the strawberries with the sugar and refrigerate, covered, for a couple of hours, stirring once or twice.

Shortcake Biscuits:

1 cup pastry flour
2 teaspoons sugar, plus extra to finish
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons butter
7 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon cream

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender (or use your usual method, if different), and set aside until you're ready to bake the biscuits, say... just after dinner.

Preheat the oven to 450 F, and lightly grease a baking sheet. Make a well in the flour mixture and add the milk all at once. Stir rapidly with a fork until it becomes a sticky dough without streaks of dry flour. Drop in four equal spoonsful to make four biscuits on your baking sheet. Lightly press the biscuit into shape, flattening the top slightly if necessary. Brush the tops with cream and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Bake for 12 - 15 minutes, or until risen and golden brown. Allow to cool slightly before assembling, so that the whipped cream doesn't melt.

Whipped Cream:
Whip 3/4 cup of cream with a teaspoon of sugar and a quarter teaspoon vanilla extract (or use vanilla sugar), until you have stiff peaks.

To assemble:

Use a fork to separate the biscuits into top and bottom halves. Spoon whipped cream onto the bottoms, top with berries, then another dollop of whipped cream before perching the lids on top. Serve immediately.

July 06, 2014

Smoked Duck Étouffée with Artichokes

I love Cajun food, which probably comes as no surprise to those of you who know how often I use chiles (and how many, and how hot) in my cooking. That said, there is a wealth of Cajun and Creole dishes that are not hot at all. They are often intensely flavourful without necessarily using loads of chile peppers.

This dish is one of those. The combination of a caramel-coloured roux, smoked duck breast, and artichoke hearts, along with the Cajun trinity of onion, celery, and green bell pepper and typical Cajun herbs and spices makes this Étouffée recipe decadent, richly flavoured, and incredibly satisfying, and is a unique dish in its own right rather than simply replacing seafood with duck in a Shrimp or Crawfish Étouffée. It does have the tiniest bit of cayenne in it, and you could add a drop or two of Tabasco sauce if you insist, but this recipe doesn't even remotely qualify as spicy.

Do not mess around when you are making your roux. It takes a bit of time, and patience, and stirring - generally around 25 minutes of stirring, but it's easy to do and your patience will be rewarded. Make sure you have completed all of your mise en place before you begin the roux. You can cook the rice separately during the simmering stage, which only requires intermittent stirring.

If you do not have access to duck fat to make your roux, use lard. If you cannot source duck stock, a strong brown poultry stock (such as roasted-bone chicken stock) will do, but do note that without duck fat and duck stock in this dish, you will be reducing the luxurious duck flavour significantly. If you've never made roux before, here are some links you might want to check out: Making Roux Step by Step (Allrecipes), and Master the Art of Making Roux (The Daily South). Making a roux is not difficult, but it must be done correctly -- no shortcuts or cowboy moves until you've mastered the basics -- at which time you'll understand why cowboy moves simply shouldn't be applied to roux.

Smoked Duck Étouffée with Artichokes
Adapted from Cajun-Creole Cooking by Terry Thompson-Anderson
Serves 4

1/2 cup duck fat
1/2 cup flour

1 large yellow onion, diced
1 medium green bell pepper, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
4 large garlic cloves, minced/crushed
600 grams smoked duck breast, diced (largish)
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/3 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/4 teaspoon dried sage
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
dash Tabasco sauce (optional)
1 cup duck stock (room temperature)
3-4 canned artichoke hearts, cut into sixths
2 green onions
handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Before you begin, prepare all ingredients so that they are ready to add to the dish. If your duck breast is skin-on, remove the skin and set aside for another dish - perhaps turn it into cracklings to garnish a pasta or an omelette or risotto, or tuck it into the freezer until you know what you want to do with smoked duck skin. Measure out your spices (they can all go into a single mise dish).

In a large Dutch oven, prepare your roux by melting the duck fat over high heat and add all of the flour at once (you can use all-purpose flour or cake flour). Whisk like mad for about a minute, to make sure you don't get any lumps. Then reduce the heat, change your whisk to a spatula, and stir over medium-low heat until it is all smooth and gently bubbling. Continue to stir relentlessly, regularly scraping the entire surface of the bottom of the pot, for about 25 - 35 minutes, or until the roux passes "peanut butter" (light brown) colour and moves on to "caramel" (medium-brown). The darker the roux, the easier it is to burn it, so be increasingly vigilant as you go along. Once the roux begins to darken, the process accelerates: you need to pay attention.

As soon as the roux reaches the right colour, add your onion, bell pepper, and celery (the "Cajun trinity") and the garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, or until they have started to soften. You don't need to turn the heat up - it's plenty hot already.

Add the spices (note there is no added salt in the recipe - there's quite enough from the smoked duck and the duck stock). Stir the spices through and allow to cook for a couple of minutes before adding the diced duck breast. If you are adding Tabasco sauce, add it now.

Add the duck breast, and stir until it is thoroughly coated with the roux.

Pour in the duck stock in a steady stream, stirring constantly, until it is all integrated. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover, and let simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. At this time, you can put your rice on to cook. We've used parboiled rice here, but long grain white or brown rice would also be fine.

At the end of the simmering time, add the artichoke heart pieces, the green onions, and the parsley, and cook for a further 5 or 10 minutes. Taste the Étouffée and add salt if needed (you probably won't need any, but it's good to check). When the artichoke heart pieces are heated through, you're ready to serve.

To serve, place about 3/4 cup rice in the middle of individual serving bowls, and spoon the Étouffée in around the rice. I like to use a round measuring cup (lightly buttered) to shape the rice --just pack the rice into the cup and turn it over into the middle of each bowl-- but it's certainly not necessary.