January 31, 2015

Cajun Chicken Fricassee

It's no secret that we love the food of New Orleans. Cajun and creole dishes are slowly but steadily seeping into our rotation, from the very first Jambalaya through Smoked Duck Étouffée, and of course further versions of Jambalaya, and all points in between, many of which I have yet to share with you.

The real trick is learning how to make a roux (some patience is required), and not balking at the amount of fat that goes into it. I do confess, though, that I often use less roux in my versions of recipes than is called for, to no discernible detriment to texture or flavour. Once you've got the roux down, the possibilities expand significantly. As an important public service announcement, I'm here to tell you that bacon fat makes a really delicious roux. So, if you like to save your bacon fat, this is a fantastic dish to squander it on.

This is a luxurious tasting dish, and seems more closely related to Étouffée than to its French cousin, also called Fricassee, a creamy, somewhat more subtle dish. Garnish with sliced green onions (not shown here) for maximum traditional bonus points.

Cajun Chicken Fricassee
Adapted from "Cajun — Creole Cooking" by Terry Thompson-Anderson

Serves 4 (with gravy leftover for another meal)

8 pieces of chicken (bone in, skin on, legs/thighs are optimal)
seasoned with salt, black pepper, and cayenne
1/2 cup cleaned bacon fat* or lard
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 medium yellow onions, diced
3 stalks celery, sliced or diced
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaf (less, if powdered)
OR 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
3 cups hot chicken broth or stock
4 green onions, sliced (garnish)

*If you keep salvaged bacon fat in a jar in the fridge, it usually ends up with stria of little burned flecks and lumps. Once you have a full jar of fat, it's easy to warm up it up until it becomes liquid again, and the impurities settle to the bottom. Then you can carefully pour off what you need, leaving the nasty bits behind. (Pour any extra into a clean jar to store in the fridge until needed.)

Once you start cooking, you will have no time to prep. Therefore, prepare and measure out everything that you need in advance, including heating your stock. This is your only warning.

Season the chicken pieces on both sides with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Open a window, if possible, so that the smell of frying chicken does not haunt you for days.

In a large dutch oven, heat the fat until it is shimmering (but not smoking), and fry the chicken briefly until golden on both sides (but not cooked through). I work in batches, browning the thighs first, then the drumsticks, removing the pieces to a paper towel-lined plate as they are done.

When all the chicken has been browned, turn the heat down to medium-low and sprinkle the flour over the hot fat, and get right in there with a whisk to smooth it into a roux. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir, pretty much continuously, scraping the entire bottom surface of the pan to prevent catching and scorching, for about 25 minutes, or until the roux becomes caramel-coloured. If the roux is really catching on the bottom of the pan, turn the heat down further, or remove it from the heat altogether (for a few minutes). Using bacon fat instead of lard gives you a jump start on colour, but don't trim the time, as it is necessary to cook the flour through properly and develop the flavour.

Once the roux is caramel-coloured, add the onions, garlic, and celery, and cook and stir for about four minutes, or until the vegetables are wilted and the onions have turned translucent. The roux will thicken rather a lot as this happens, so constant stirring is necessary. Add the remaining dry seasonings - bay leaves, cayenne, black pepper, thyme - and stir them through.

Add the stock, slowly, stirring constantly, until it is all integrated, and the gravy is bubbling nicely. Return the chicken to the pot, stir through, and once the dish is gently bubbling, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover, and let cook for an hour. If you are anxious, you can peek at it now and then, and give it a little stir. No biggie.

In the meantime, while the fricassee cooks, you have a chance to clean up a little, and make any side dishes. Rice goes wonderfully, but so do noodles, mashed potatoes, biscuits, or dumplings. Your choice. Shown here is Cajun Spinach Rice (adapted from the same book), and Ukrainian pickled tomatoes (because they are delicious).

When the hour is up, stir the dish through (there may be some chicken fat settling out on the surface, just stir it back in), and garnish with sliced green onion.

This recipe makes a lot of gravy, so after dinner I set aside the extra in a freezer container, ready to become a fast weeknight dinner by adding boneless chicken breast, and serving over biscuits, with some sort of extra vegetable on the side.

January 22, 2015

Devilled Eggs with Feta

Devil(l)ed eggs go in and out of fashion, party-wise. However, they are easy enough to make and, it seems, always gladly received, even when they are not at their most popular. Call them Eggs Mimosa, Russian Eggs, Dressed Eggs, or Stuffed Eggs if you will, add your favourite twist to the garnish, and customize them to your specifications, but do find a place for them on your appetizer table. Even folks so jaded as to roll their eyes and say "oh, devilled eggs, I see!" can seldom resist taking one...or two. And of course, if you have dyed easter eggs (thinking ahead here, obviously), you will find devilled eggs a delightful way to quickly use up the leftovers.

I guess it's not a real shocker that I like devilled eggs, since I've used a photo of them as the banner for this blog for years and years. Perhaps it is a shocker that I've never posted a recipe for them until now. While I do make several different variations, depending on the needs of the moment, this version which incorporates tangy feta cheese into the filling has been a stalwart of my bring-along arsenal for quite some time. The feta gives the flavour a bit of a lift, as well as adding bulk to the yolk mixture, enabling you to pile the filling up prettily.

Scale the recipe to suit your needs.

Devilled Eggs with Feta

Makes 8 pieces

4 eggs, cooked in their shells (plus an extra, for safety, if you like)
2-3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons mild Feta cheese
pinch white pepper
pinch mustard powder (optional)
dash Tabasco pepper sauce
1 tablespoon finely minced green onion (or chive)
paprika to garnish (optional)

Cook the eggs gently, so they don't become over-hard and end up with green-grey rings around the yolk. My favourite method is to put the eggs in a pan of cold water, turn the heat on high and bring to a very gentle simmer, cover, turn the heat off, and set the timer for 10 minutes. When the timer dings, drain the eggs and cover with cold water. Leave for about 10 minutes for the eggs to thoroughly cool, and then peel. To peel easily, tap each end on the counter to shatter the shell, then roll the egg gently under your palm to break up and loosen the shell around the middle of the egg. Usually it works great - sometimes it just won't, so it's a good idea to start with an extra egg, just in case one of them is a jerk.

Slice the eggs in half lengthwise, and pop the yolks into a waiting bowl, taking all possible care to avoid tearing the whites. Place the egg white "boats" on the serving dish (some folks like to put down a bed of chopped lettuce or green kale to help stabilize them, and if you're serving for a party, that's a fine idea. If we're just having them around the house, I don't usually bother). If you have a really well equipped kitchen, you might even have one of those lovely little platters with the specially egg-sized divots, in which case go for it, no lettuce required.

Place the yolks in a medium-fine mesh sieve, and use a spoon to press them through into a bowl below. Essentially, this works just like a big garlic press. The yolks will have a slightly stringy, slightly pellet-y look about them, but that largely dissipates once the other ingredients are added. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the sieve to make sure you get all of the yolk into the bowl.

When the yolks are pressed through, and consequently nicely aerated, do the same with the feta cheese. If you feta is mild, you will probably want the full two tablespoons for this many eggs, but if it is quite sharp, you might want to go with one tablespoon, at least to start.

Add the remaining ingredients, except for the minced green onion. Start with two tablespoons of mayonnaise, and add one more if it seems a bit dry, as much will depend on the size of the eggs yolks, how firmly they were cooked, and the type of mayonnaise you are using. Stir in the onion last. Taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary. With both mayonnaise and feta in there, you probably won't need any more salt, but you might want to adjust the amount of pepper or add a bit more green onion. If your egg yolks are very pale, you can always add a pinch of turmeric to the filling to strengthen the yellow colour.

Use a small spoon (or a cake-decorating syringe, if you're feeling fancy, and you like swirled ridges) to heap the filling back into the egg white boats. Garnish with a final pinch of paprika (smoked or regular) if you wish, or any other topping you please (although I wouldn't recommend caviar for these ones, since I don't think it would play nicely with the feta).

January 11, 2015

My Mom's Chinese Beef & Greens

My mother used to make a version of this quite regularly, served over brown rice as was the custom of our household. I don't know where she got the original recipe, or what modifications she might have made to it. As both her knowledge of and exposure to Asian cooking of any kind was severely limited during the time we kids were growing up, and the availability of such ingredients in our small town was quite restricted, her version did not contain either sambal, fermented black beans, or even fresh ginger, and it was thickened with flour rather than cornstarch or tapioca flour (my version still is). It still tasted wonderful, and was a family favourite.

As I began to make the dish for myself as an adult, I gradually added the black beans, sesame oil, and exchanged some of the ground ginger for freshly grated ginger root. Plain button mushrooms were switched for shiitake, straw, or shimeji/beech mushrooms (although I'll still use buttons if that's what is available to me).

Normally there's about twice the amount of bok choi that you can see in the picture - it turns out that I had less on hand than I realized when I went to make the dish. It was still excellent, but had slightly less greens than usual. The baby corn is the most recent addition to recipe, and it's an absolute keeper. This recipe continues to be requested on a regular basis in our household.

Mom’s Chinese Beef & Greens

Serves 4-6 (over rice)

500 grams extra lean ground beef
1 large onion, halved and sliced, pole-to-pole
3-5 cloves of garlic, sliced or pressed
200 grams mushrooms, sliced or quartered if necessary
1 large head of bok choi, washed & sliced or 4 heads of mini bok choi
1-2 carrots, peeled & sliced into coins
200 grams fresh baby corn, sliced once each horizontally and vertically (optional)
1 thumbs-length of fresh gingerroot, sliced, minced, or grated
1/2 teaspoon dried, ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2-3 tablespoons soy sauce (preferably a less sodium type)
1 tablespoon black bean sauce or Chinese fermented black beans, rinsed and mashed
1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other chile paste or chile oil
1 cup stock – beef, chicken, bouillon cube – whatever you’ve got
1 large tablespoon of flour
1/2 cup of cold water
1/2 teaspoon toasted pure sesame oil

In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or cast-iron pan, over high heat, brown the beef until any liquid has boiled off and the meat is frying gently. If you are not using extra lean ground beef, you may wish to drain any excess fat.

Add the chopped onions, garlic, ginger root, baby corn, and carrots, and stir well until the onions are translucent. Add the mushrooms, white pepper, ground ginger, black beans (or black bean sauce) sambal oelek and soy sauce. Stir well. Add a smidge of water if it’s starting to stick on the bottom, and/or lower the heat a little.

Let the mixture fry a little until the mushrooms start to get tender, and then add the stock or broth. Stir well, scraping the bottom of the pan so that nothing burns on. Bring to a gentle boil. Mix the cold water and flour together with a whisk, or shake together in a plastic lidded container until smooth. Pour into the meat mixture, stirring constantly, and bring back to a boil to thicken the gravy. If it gets too thick, you may need to add a little more water or stock. Reduce the heat and let simmer until the vegetables are tender.

Taste the gravy and adjust the seasoning to taste.

Slice the bok choi is sliced into large, bite-sized pieces (they will shrink a bit as they cook). Pile the bok choi on top of the meat mixture – don’t stir it in – and cover with a lid. Cook over medium-low heat for about five minutes, or until the greens wilt and decrease in volume. Then, stir carefully into the beef mixture underneath. Add sesame oil and stir through.

Taste to adjust seasoning, then serve over rice. My family liked to add a final drizzle of soy sauce at the table.

If you have leftovers, they can easily be reheated in the microwave or the stovetop, but my mother's usual approach was to combine the rice and beef mixture thoroughly, and then reheat it in the oven, covered, in a casserole dish (with maybe a tiny sprinkle of extra water to keep it from drying out. We liked it just as much on the second day as the first, even though we referred to it as "horse mash" because my sister thought the combined dish looked much like the cooked porridge that was fed to horses recovering from strangles (equine distemper), in the stables where she worked.

January 04, 2015

Cong You Bing: Chinese Scallion Pancakes (with bonus Scallion Pancake Duck Tostadas)

I learned about these lovely Chinese flatbreads while walking hurriedly through Vancouver's Chinatown, some years ago. The image of them being rolled out and fried, seen through a take-out restaurant window, stuck with me for quite a while and I regretted not stopping to try them. I eventually had to get some, of course, and became an immediate fan -- they were everything I wanted them to be: crisp, flaky, with a shimmer of sesame flavour and that satisfying mild green onion bite.

Here in my current location, a small city in Germany, good Chinese food is hard to come by. So, when the craving hit, I decided to learn how to make my own.

The first recipe I tried was for smaller, cocktail-sized ones, but had a dodgy methodology. They were tasty, but oddly fiddly and got oil everywhere. I ultimately decided to simply apply the proper technique for making the large ones, despite it meaning more work for me in terms of rolling, seasoning, coiling, and rolling again. While it did take a bit longer, the results were much better.

I'm sure that every fan of duck, and/or Chinese cuisines, is familiar with Peking Duck with Mandarin Pancakes. The pancakes in that case are soft crêpes, and comprise one of the traditional Peking duck courses. I enjoy them, but the overall dish is very soft, and often a little sweet for my taste. Instead, I imagined a version of Mexican Tostadas, but with duck and Chinese flavours, using the crispy, savoury, cocktail-sized Cong You Bing as a base. For the duck, I had leftover roasted duck meat, which we shredded and reheated - tossed with a combination of Hoisin sauce, sesame oil, golden mushroom sauce (you could use Oyster sauce instead) with a delicate hint of Sriracha (I would have preferred a Chinese-style chile oil, but had none to hand).

Top the freshly fried Cong You Bing with a little of the shredded duck, top with a bit more sliced scallion, and presto! Scallion Pancake Duck Tostadas. They were delicious, and they turned out exactly as I had pictured them (see photo below).

Cong You Bing

(Chinese Scallion Pancakes)

Makes: 2 large or 8 cocktail-sized pancakes

1 cup all-purpose flour (plus extra for rolling)
1/3 cup hot water

1-2 finely sliced scallions
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
coarse sea (or kosher) salt
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

2 tablespoons peanut oil (for frying)

In a mixing bowl, add the hot water to the flour all at once, and stir rapidly with a wooden spoon until it turns into a soft, pliable dough (add more flour if necessary). Turn out onto a floured board/counter, and knead for about 10 minutes until smooth and silky feeling. Place it back in the (now cleaned and lightly oiled) bowl, and cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let it rest for half an hour. It will not rise - there's no yeast - but it does need to fully hydrate the flour.

When the dough has rested, turn it out onto a floured work surface, and divide into either two or eight. The instructions after that are the same for either size. Yes, of course you could do four. Divide the dough as you will.

Shape the dough pieces into disks. Working with one at a time, roll a disk out as thin as you can. Roll it up into a tube, as though for a jelly roll or cinnamon buns, and coil the tube into a tight spiral, tucking the end under. Mash it flat with your hand, and then roll out very thinly again. Brush a little sesame oil over the rolled out surface, sprinkle with a bit of salt and a few sesame seeds, and scatter scallions over the surface. Roll up into a long tube again, coil it tightly again, tucking the end under, mash it with your hand again, and then roll out gently until it is a pancake thickness (about half the diameter of the thinly rolled dough you started with). For the smaller sized ones, that's about palm-of-my-hand sized. Do not worry if some of the green onions poke through - they totally will and that's okay. Transfer to a side board, and repeat until you have completed each pancake.

Technically, the first "empty" roll-out is not entirely necessary, but it does add a bit of flakiness to the final flatbread. If you're impatient, or pressed for time, you can skip that one, and go straight to filling them.

Heat the peanut oil in a large skillet until shimmering. Add one, or up to four small, pancake(s) and fry, turning frequently, until golden and crisp on each side. Remove to a paper towel to drain, and repeat until finished. For the larger ones, slice them into quarters to serve.

Serve with a soy-based dipping sauce (example below) or use as delicious tostadas.

Dipping sauce

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 small clove garlic, pressed
pinch freshly grated ginger
1 large pinch chile flakes (or cracked Szechwan peppercorns)
small pinch ground white pepper

Or any favourite Chinese dipping sauce you like.