Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wild Mushroom Risotto (Balls) with Black Truffle Oil

This is pure comfort food.

I admit I shy away from (or cheat at) risotto because of the time of stirring involved. I also more often have basmati or brown rice sitting around, neither of which are the perfect arborio rice required for traditional risotto, but it's Christmas, and exceptions must be made.

Traditionally a risotto is made of sautéd onions and garlic in olive oil, to which rice is added. After the rice is coated with the oil mixture and begins to stick, the pan is deglazed with white wine. Then broth or wine is added in 1/2 cup quantities until the rice is al dente, just tender. Apparently you can just keep adding wine from a bottle until it's gone, but more often I'll use what's leftover from a bottle of white in the fridge and then finish it with MSG-free vegetable or chicken broth. Still haven't mastered the home-made versions of these...broth that is, not wine. Maybe wine someday.

This recipe calls for a lot of mushrooms for flavour, and a recurrence of the white (or black) truffle oil used in the polenta. In restaurants risotto will often be partially pre-made, or ready to be re-heated, so the traditional parmesan or romano may already be added, but if you want (or need) to skip the cheese when making this at home, there should be enough creaminess from the slow-cooked rice and broth to satisfy. Maybe add a little extra salt if there's not enough in the broth to substitute for the salt in the cheese.

Dried wild mushrooms
warm water for soaking
olive oil
portobello or other fresh wild mushrooms (I love the Fromagerie Atwater's selection [Montreal] but stick to the brown crimini, which are a steal)
short grain rice (arborio)
vegetable or chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
white truffle oil
fresh parsley
parmesan or raw swiss cheese (optional. The swiss is what I ended up using as a dip for the risotto balls made out of the leftovers)

Soak the first wild mushrooms in warm water for 30 minutes while you chop the garlic and onion. Then drain the mushrooms through a strainer lined with a paper towel to remove the grit but save the liquid. Rinse and chop the mushrooms.

Sauté the onions and garlic until soft and add fresh mushrooms, chopped. Cook until the liquid has evaporated and then add the soaked and chopped wild mushrooms. Stir in the rice and cook a few minutes more.

Bring the broth and reserved soaking liquid to a simmer, so that with each addition to the skillet it doesn't need to waste time heating up before it is absorbed by the rice.

Add 1 cup of stock to rice and raise heat to medium high stirring constantly, but lightly(!), until liquid evaporates or is absorbed. Most of the liquid actually does evaporate but the flavour from the broth stays, which is why this tastes so much more intense than regular rice. Just be careful your broth doesn't have too much salt, or all you'll taste is sodium and the mushrooms will be wasted. Add all the rice in 1/2 cup quantities until the rice is tender, about 18 minutes. Remove from heat and add salt (or not, probably not), pepper, and truffle oil, and finally, parsley. Optionally stir in parmesan or other cheese.

This was such a good texture. Luxurious cream...but the flavour was hollow. I was disappointed. I think it was the truffle oil, but it was definitely missing something. We did try the risotto at this point but it was mostly left for the following day when it had dried out a little. We shaped it into meatball-size spheres and baked the risotto balls (instead of frying in butter). The risotto balls were served as hot hors d'oeuvres, brought around on platters with a small dish of raw, grated swiss cheese (unpasteurized, so acceptable for most lactose-intolerant people as the un-killed bacteria eats the lactose). The risotto was much better with the swiss cheese, mostly because it overwhelmed the hollow earthy flavour. Seemed like cheating, but was still very warm and comforting, definitely not heavy like it can be when you stir in the cheese. This way you get to taste the swiss in every bite, instead of having it melt into the ball's already-creamy texture.

Verdict: I'd make it again, but use white wine instead of all vegetable or chicken stock. Probably a dry white would work nicely.

Disgusting Smoked Trout Spread on Baguette

I should have left the poor baguette alone.

I love smoked trout (and smoked salmon, the recipe's substitute if no trout is available), I love dill, I like yogurt, lemon, chives and pepper, but this was gross. 50% of the testers of this spread disliked it violently.

I don't think I like horseradish. It's either this or the yogurt was too bitter or runny.

1/2 lb smoked trout
1 c. yogurt cheese or ricotta
lemon juice
salt to taste

This is a simple recipe. You blend the first 4 ingredients in a blender or food processor and then stir in the rest.

But I used plain yogurt instead of yogurt cheese. Yogurt cheese involves draining the excess liquid from the yogurt by using a cheese cloth. I also think ricotta would have worked better, but we made two versions of this, one with soy yogurt and one with probiotic yogurt and neither was particularly good. We used less yogurt in the soy version and it was better, but not even a little extra salt could save it. No one at the party disliked it, but lets just say that when I was testing it I didn't want to have to keep testing it after each subtle change, like adding a little more salt, or a little more lemon. We didn't have more trout to add, which may have worked better. I wish we'd just put out the trout as it was. There was nothing wrong with it. Poor trout, all coated in gross yogurt and horseradish. Simple is better. This is a good lesson.

Next post...risotto balls. Simple recipe, fancy presentation. Step in the right direction.

Wild Mushroom Bruschetta on Polenta Diamonds, variation on a recipe from Bonnie Stern's Heartsmart Cooking

I realized in the last post I gave pictures, but did not actually give the cooking process for the wild mushroom bruschetta with goat cheese (and the variation with lactose-free feta).

olive oil
portobello (or other wild) mushrooms
unripened goat cheese yogurt cheese or light ricotta (yogurt cheese is yogurt that has been strained through a cheesecloth to thicken...or just use a thick plain yogurt)
more garlic

This is a beautiful recipe. In a cookbook with five 'bruschetta' recipes, this is a nice variation on the traditional tomato recipe. The recipe does say it's okay to use other cheeses and the feta worked well, being not too salty. Feta does have less lactose than most cow's milk cheeses as it's mostly goat's or sheep's milk, but the lactose-free version here is more likely a 'miracle', or disgrace, of modern science.

Heat oil and sauté shallots and garlic for a few minutes (never heat olive oil over medium heat or it will burn. Canola oils and vegetable oils can go higher but don't contain the flavour or those much-lauded omega 3's). Add mushroom, thyme and a little pepper. I ran out of thyme...hilarious, I know. So I searched and decided on tarragon, a nice aromatic with the mushrooms and supposedly good for digestion. This is a nice effect when I use cheese of any sort as trusting my digestive system is often a bit of blind faith. Cook until liquid evaporates and stir in salt and parsley.

Then in a food processor add cheese of choice, a little more pepper, the second batch of garlic, and yogurt cheese or ricotta. This doesn't blend well. A food processor would be a better plan, especially when you're trying to get the spread out after it finally does blend. You can add more yogurt cheese to make it more spreadable, but it dilutes the flavour.

Then all you do is put a touch of the cheese mixture on the polenta diamonds and top with the mushroom bruschetta and a little sprinkle of parsley, or more tarragon.

Party Prep: Pastry, Peppers and imPerfect Polenta

With all the preparations for the 2nd annual family house party in full swing, I tackled the ''P's".

Fresh off my mousse mistakes, I decided to separate the great Mocha Buche de Noel into sections. This is first of all necessary, as the mousse needs to be frozen, the soufflé pastry needs to cool and all these layers need to not fall apart inside or outside of your freezer, and second of all good for my self-esteem. The pastry seemed by far the least intimidating step.

The idea for a Buche de Noel is you make a baking sheet of chocolate cake (in a low-fat chocolate cookbook this becomes a soufflé pastry to keep it light), a baking sheet of chocolate mousse (the good recipe for bittersweet truffle mousse rather than the dreaded mocha mousse), unpeel the chocolate layers from their respective baking sheets, roll them up, wrap it all in a meringue layer and stick it in the oven for 4 minutes like a Baked Alaska. The effect is one of frozen mousse inside, warm maringue coating outside, and the meringue looks like the bark of a tree, a Christmas tree, or "buche".

Cocoa Soufflé Pastry:
eggs, separated
cream of tartar
jelly-roll pan (the baking industry's money-grab item - it's only a baking sheet with a lip, as most have anyway)

This recipe from Alice Medrich's Low-Fat Chocolate Cookbook certainly got off on the wrong foot when no length of beating was suggested. In the last recipe I had undertaken, the dreaded mocha mousse, she was so adamant that under no circumstances should the beating time of 3 minutes be cheated, but here she did not say a peep? Well I beat it for 3 minutes and hoped there wasn't a third recipe somewhere hiding in the book which read "Actually, you never want to beat for 3 minutes as the egg yolks will turn white, become very scared of chocolate, and never, ever fold correctly, resulting in unsuccessful Christmas parties".

I had decided to make the pastry layer thinking it would be a nice break from mousse, but no, soufflé is just like mousse in the egg white/yolk separating, beating, and folding EXCEPT there's no need to make sure they get to 160 degrees because it's going to be safe no matter what once it's in the oven. Oh hurray! Soufflé now seems easy to me. The hardest part was after:

1. Beating the egg whites to soft peaks (still a bit of a guess) on MEDIUM speed,

2. Adding the remaining sugar, increasing the beating speed to HIGH until stiff but not dry (again, hope and a prayer),

3. Folding some of the egg whites into the yolks and then everything back into the whites after sieving the cocoa on top

you have to make sure the whole thing does not collapse as you fold and finally spread into a baking dish lined with aluminum foil. I've had a few too many soufflés collapse in the oven on me and if this happened, the buche de noel would be a little non-cylindrical, probably resulting in the mousse oozing out the sides. Not a bad thing, necessarily, as it would be the most delicious tree sap created since maple syrup, but no so good when trying to surround it, eventually, with meringue.

Well it didn't implode. The middle didn't sink. My self-esteem would last one more day until the next mousse-making.

On to easier tasks, or so I thought...

Polenta Diamonds

I doubled a recipe for polenta from Bonnie Stern's Heartsmart Cooking

10 cups of milk or water (I did a mix)
4 cups of cornmeal
white truffle oil

Seems simple, and it was. Bring the water/milk to a boil, add salt and pepper, whisk in cornmeal. Reduce heat to low and let cook for 30 minutes, stirring. Remove from heat and stir in truffle oil. I cooked it and stirred and poured it into baking dishes to cool. In Northern Italy polenta is everywhere. It's served as a porridge, with more liquid to cornmeal ratio, and then the leftovers harder up, some of the liquid evaporates, and are grilled, fried in butter, or baked into a cornbread-like consistency to be topped with other ingredients the next day. Kind of in the same way you take stale bread and turn it into bread pudding, or toss leftover dried-out rice into a soup. So my concept with the polenta was to cool it in pans, leave it to dry out and cut it into the diamond shapes you see everywhere in bars in Milan, and top it with:

1. Goat cheese spread and Wild Mushroom Sauté (and a version using a lactose-free feta)

2. Moroccan Cooked Tomato Salsa topped with scallions

(This worked well with the "layer" theme of the party), but the polenta did not dry up. Even after baking it for 20 minutes it stayed mushy inside, like a pancake that won't cook through. With assistance, I tried frying them in butter, only to come to the conclusion that the butter was used to make overly dry polenta softer after, not to make soft polenta harder. The outsides solidified but the second you move them from the pan they fall apart. It was still delicious, but you can't have layers if everything squishes together, and messy finger-food at a party is a recipe for disaster, and labour-intensive cleaning, neither of which are good.

So the polenta got left for two days to see if anything could be evaporated. In the end I think we baked all ten cups of it twice, tried frying 1/4 quarter or it and left the left to be scooped up with a spatula. It actually worked out alright. Instead of cutting the pieces individually, the diamond-shapes were made with a knife as guides for party-guests to try to scoop, and then each diamond was topped with a mound of the salsa or cheese and mushrooms. The colour contrast between the two layer toppings was beautiful and the diamonds weren't so mushy by the party.

Oh, for the white truffle oil, I did splurge and go to a specialty store. White truffle oil is olive oil infused with truffle, a mushroom. It's all very chi-chi, yes, and I'd never tried it before. It gave a woodsy-flavour to the cornmeal and is a nice touch as long as you don't overpower it with salt.

The Moroccan Cooked Salsa was so easy to make! Five ingredients:

Red peppers
olive oil
A head of garlic, separated into cloves and finely chopped
4 jalapenos
3lbs plum tomatoes or 3 cans drained and chopped

You broil the red peppers until their skins are black, let them cool and peel the skins off of them. This is not so fun sometimes. If they broil unevenly then all the skin doesn't blacken, and it's kind of hard to remove it all. Two tricks are to cut the peppers so the skin is equidistant from the broiler so it blackens evenly, and once broiled, leave them to cool in a plastic bag. I think this makes it easier to remove the skins though I'll admit I don't fully understand.

12 cloves of garlic? Seriously? It cooks down so it's not too strong. This is not raw garlic. Honestly, in the end, you don't really taste the garlic. The jalapenos you do taste, and feel, though. Dicing four jalapenos should be done in kitchen gloves. One is bad enough but four stays in your hands, can cause irritation, gets in your eyes, and generally overwhelms your kitchen. Also, don't skimp on the oil when you sauté them with the garlic or they'll smoke up your entire kitchen. Cook these a few minutes, add the tomatoes and cook 20 minutes. The taste would be completely different if you use fresh tomatoes, but it's December in Newfoundland, so you can get mush better quality from canned. Just don't add any extra salt in the end when the recipe says "salt to taste". I don't care if you're addicted to sodium, the extra salt would add nothing.

After 20 minutes add the reserved roasted peppers, which have subsequently been skinned and diced, and cook 15 minutes more. Also delicious on toasted or un-toasted baguette, instead of mush polenta.

2 dips down, 1 to go.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Sky fell back up (I destroyed a milk chocolate mocha mousse)

Back to Alice Medrich's "Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts".

Oh Alice, I'm not happy with you right now. I'm not happy with me, sure, but I'm not happy with you. Your bittersweet chocolate truffle mousse recipe is sublime - manageable and delicious. but your white chocolate mousse recipe which is also used for the milk chocolate mocha mousse I tried make yesterday) is not very good at all. It follows the same general guide to mousse-making (add soaked gelatin to chocolate mixture and let thicken, make safe meringue and then fold together) but the chocolate mixture doesn't have any egg yolks, which would help thicken it, and the meringue just didn't work the same way using a skillet as it did when I used a pot of water.

Take 1: the eggs I was using (brought to room temperature so they would cooperate), wouldn't separate, and I got yolk in my cream of tartar and water mixture.

Take 2: The water couldn't go up the sides of the bowl inside the skillet, and the recipe didn't say how hot the water should be, so even with incessant scraping and stirring to keep the egg whites from cooking, they cooked. Scrambled egg white mousse is not delicious.

Take 3: I lowered the heat of the water in the skillet and got assistance to hold the candy thermometre in place. The trick is that when you place a bowl of egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and water in a skillet of hot water, you need to stir quickly so the eggs don't solidify, but you don't want to over-stir and minimize the rising potential of the whites, which you'll need once you remove them from the heat. The whole purpose of this ridiculous method is to make sure the whites reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the possibility of salmonella poisoning, which is rare enough, but does happen. Does the end of not possibly getting sick from salmonella outweigh the pain of fussing with a thermometre while you try so hard to not cook eggs? Depends how much mousse you make in your life time, and how lucky you feel. I initially tried my tested method of stirring with the thermometre while waiting to see if the eggs were hot enough. Nope, they started scrambling. Quickly help came in the form of a friend holding the thermometre for me while I stirred. It was safe! Unfortunately I think the eggs can scramble at a lower temperature if you're not stirring, so just because they're starting to cook doesn't mean they've reached the right temperature. Quickly off the heat, I stuck the egg beaters in the bowl and beat at highest speed until stiff peaks formed. Well, see, that was tough to tell, because the eggs didn't rise. Like my naan, they had nothing left in them to give. I beat until it seemed like they may have been stiff and then let a mousse novitiate fold the chocolate mixture and whites together. It was a bit soupy.

So I decided to call it pudding. It was not light and fluffy. Like the naan, it was a bit dense. "Stunned as me arse", we'd say in Newfoundland. Once it refrigerated a bit, it did solidify a little, but there was certainly no more air getting into it. It was not a fluffy pillow on my tongue.

Well, mousse, I'll try again tomorrow. Christmas still needs three more meringues out of me. That's a lot of second chances. Lemon mousse cake, frozen chocolate mousse cookie filling and mocha buche de noel await.

Satisfaction and Christmas Eve Indian: Madhur Jaffrey's Kashmiri Lamb Rogan Josh, cabbage with peas (bund gobi aur matar), basmati rice and yes, naan

There are two recipes for Rogan Josh in Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking. I've made the first and was disappointed. the flavour was off, and it wasn't as full-bodied and epiphanal as it should have been, despite all the fresh spices. but I love this book and I decided it was worth trying the second one. The main difference is this one is stewed with the bone-in and uses no garlic or ginger, replacing it with fennel and way more yogurt (in my case almond breeze, because as miraculously as I can eat probiotic yogurt, once you boil it all the nice friendly bacteria are murdered and they're avenged by the lactose that quickly runs amok in my lactose-intolerant stomach. The almond breeze was thinner than the yogurt so I boiled off more of the liquid, looking for the right stew consistency in the end, the same way you can make evaporated milk).

To go with this there were two cabbages in the house, and two cabbage recipes in the cookbook.

I thought a bit of basmati rice would be lovely, and not trying to overwork myself for the day, decided to forego the undertaking of naan bread. but I got cajoled into it.

Kashmiri Rogan Josh
fennel seeds
plain yogurt (or almond breeze)
cinnamon stick
stewing lamb with bone
garam masala (this is just a blend of spices. Every Indian cook has their own blend, and uses different proportions, but the books' version calls for a mix of cardamom seeds, cinnamon stick, black cumin seeds, cloves, black peppercorns and nutmeg ground in a coffee grinder. I think I accidentally left out the nutmeg and peppercorns and used ground cumin instead of seeds. Oops, but it all worked out just fine)

Indian must be prepped. Grind the fennel in advance and set aside. Make the garam masala and set aside. Then portion out all the spices and combine the ones that go in at the same time. I would even go so far as to set them up in a line in the order in which it's all added. All this "1 second later add..." is ridiculous, but I am not Indian. Who am I to judge?

So with help, we cut two inch cubes off a huge chunk of lamb, which was...well, bloody, and harder than a chicken to butcher. I saw a guy at a market do it in 2 minutes...For me, it took 40 minutes to get the cubes cut and the fat trimmed. Then the fun started.

You grind fennel seeds in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle, set a bit of oil (way less than the called-for 6 tbsp) and add whole cinnamon and cloves, followed (exactly two seconds later) by the meat and 2 tsp of salt. 5 minutes later add the paprika and cayenne (I wonder if this was traditionally done with saffron but it's more expensive. You need a good paprika to make this work). Then add the yogurt slowly so it doesn't curdle. If you use almond breeze like me you don't have to worry so much about this, but this whole time the heat has been on high, so if you skimp on oil, as you should, I think, you need to make sure you're stirring very quickly up until this point. Without enough oil, the spices won't release their flavours very well. The stew is going to be fatty enough, just because it's a fatty meat. You don't get a lot of flavour from the vegetable oil, so I don't see the point.

Then add the fennel and ginger powder and then the water. Now leave the lid ajar (more ajar if you use almond milk or another kind of milk) and finally reduce the heat to medium. Let it cook 30 minutes, then cover completely and reduce to low for another 45 minutes. When it's all done, remove the lid and add a little garam masala, very, very little and either boil off excess liquid or serve immediately. Remember to remove the bones!

Oh wow it worked. So, so much better than the other recipe in the book for rogan josh. It's incredible what a slight difference in spices can make. Or, more likely, stewing with the bone in. All of a sudden you're transported to a world where your taste buds are happy to belong to you. They veritably sing.

The cauliflower dish was simple and beautiful and was underwhelmind compared to the rogan josh, but the sweetness of the peas and cabbage, was still nice. I think it would go better with fish, maybe chicken. Definitely something with lemon.

Bund gobi aur matar (cabbage with peas)
green cabbage
cumin seeds
bay leaves
cayenne pepper
hot green chili pepper
garam masala (the same as above)

this was simple and beautful. The prep was the most time-consuming bit, chopping the cabbage into fine, long threds.

Heat the oil, add the cumin and bay leaves (again, no cumin, so I added it later. Browning ground spices doesn't work well and you end up with burnt flavour). A few seconds later, once the bay leaves take on colour, add the cabbage and peas. 30 seconds later, the cayenne and turmeric. Cover, turn heat to low. 5 minutes later add the green chili, salt and sugar. Cover again and cook 2-3 minutes. Remove the cover and sprinkle with garam masala. Stir and serve. Remove the bay leaves! I love how the basic recipe is the same for most Indian dishes. Whether it's a 20 minute vegetable dish or an hour and a half meat dish, the concepts are the same. Ah, tradition. That's what Christmas is all about.

Basic recipe for everything Indian "stewed":

Heat a ton of oil
Add whole spices for a short period of time
Add meat or vegetables
Add other spices in a ridiculously precise order (potentially also add liquid)
Add fresh chilis and spices that have an immediate impact (salt, sugar)
Add garam masala. The freshly ground, uncooked spices, season everything (a more well-rounded generic seasoning than the Western use of salt and pepper)

Then I burnt the basmati rice. It didn't boil over. I'm an idiot. So I scraped the unburnt rice into another pot, add more water and cooked it on low until it was actually done. Blasphemous, I know. From a girl who respects the rules of proper-rice making, and even calls herself a sushi-maker, soaks, lets sit and tries so hard to perfect rice, this was embarrassing. The best-laid plans...

And the naan. I was nervous then, having messed up rice and meringue already that day. but my dad wanted it, so I set the yeast to sit in warm milk (almond breeze for 20 minutes). Maybe it was too hot. There was no temperature given. Anyway, it sat for a little over 20 minutes. How bad is that? I've only made bread maybe 3 times in my life. I'm no bread expert, yet. So I chastised myself a little and added the overly-soaked yeast and to the mixture of flour, salt and baking powder. Then I added the teaspoon of sugar (fully-refined sugar, so the yeast had a fighting chance, as opposed to a sugar replacer like xylitol or agave nectar with a low glycemic index), vegetable oil, soy yogurt and one beaten egg. I hate soy. It hates me. Mostly it hates me, but I used it here because there was really no alternative. Probiotic or soy, either way my stomach will be unhappy with me. The bacteria dies, but in retrospect I should have used probiotic to help the yeast along. The bacteria doesn't get killed until after the rising process. I kneaded, and kneaded and kneaded until it became "smooth and satiny" or so I thought. Maybe it wasn't long enough? Maybe it wasn't elastic enough? I shaped it into a ball, placed it in a bowl coated in oil, rolled it around, covered it with plastic wrap, and left it in a warm place to rise for an hour.

It didn't rise.

So many things could have gone wrong. It turns out there was a draft behind the stove. I couldn't place it in the oven at it's lowest temperature or even with the light on, because the bowl was plastic. Whatever the reason, it didn't rise. So the "punching down" process was short. The rest was fun, though. If you've never made naan, I recommend it for aggression. You get to knead, yes, but then you get to divide the ball into six smaller balls, roll them out one at a time and then "slap" them onto a heavy baking sheet. Put them in the oven, preheated to the highest possible to temperature, to recreate the heat of a tandoor clay oven. 3 minutes later put them under the broiler untnil they puff up and crack on the top. That is perfect naan. Mine were not perfect, but they cooked well, they puffed, they got slightly blackened craters and looked wonderful. They were just a bit...dense. Like excuses people make for children. Yes, it's true, I perhaps like naan more than I like children, even these naan.

Because they were beautiful and still tasted sweet and chewy, it was not a trial to use them to soak up the delicious juices of the rogan josh. Although the salty sauce soaked better into the basmati rice, there is something so natural, and fun, about scooping meat onto a big piece of flat bread. Bowl and meal in one. Messy, yes. Delicious, yes. This is not "proper" food. This is salt of the earth appreciation for the miracle of good food, good company and the entire experience of eating. So different from the French interpretation of the same mantra.

Despite the mistakes, the chaos, the time involved, this was an unforgettable meal. It finished perfectly, with the jarring contrast of a chocolate mocha mousse (pudding sort of), whose meringue didn't rise, whose chocolate didn't thicken, and which tasted absolutely delicious and satisfying none the less. Yes, satisfaction. That's the word I was looking for.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Great Expectations-Christmas Challange 2010

Perhaps I'm being a bit overly ambitious.

I am catering my family's Christmas party. This is not chips and dip. This is not even fruitcake and pigs in a blanket. To give you an understanding of what I have to live up to, last year my buffet and hors d'oeuvres menu was grouped into three sections: fish, fruit and cheese, and desserts. Oh, and a bunch dips and roasted vegetables (toasted asparagus, nutty cauliflower and broccoli to go with a miso honey dip) on other tables in the house. All with wine pairings. Fish included seared scallops, shrimp martinis, lobster sushi, and a smoked salmon sushi pizza. Fruit ranged from figs to blackberries. A wild mushroom and lentil paté, and two creamy leek dips (in addition to the miso, one version with honey and one with agave nectar). Cheeses were probiotic, lactose-free...or just really, really good and in excess. The hot hors d'oeuvres were bite-size corn and red pepper pancakes with jalapeno salsa and chicken (or vegetable) kebabs with mango chutney.

and desserts...oh desserts.

Fudge brownies with broiled coconut frosting, and a variation with a rich chocolate frosting. My family's traditional gumdrop cookies, blackbottom cupcakes, an assortment of chocolates and candies, and a chocolate fondue dip for the fruit. All, except the cupcakes, in vegan and non-vegan, but often lacto-intolerant-friendly forms.

Then the wine.

We started with champagne, because everything goes with champagne.

Then light whites with the fish. Pinot grigio to complement the touch of lemon on the scallops. Sauvignon blanc for the shrimp. An Alsatian Gewurztraminer and organic chardonnay for the fruit and some of the cheeses (goat's milk, brie, camembert) and cabernet sauvignons and pinot noir to go with the fruit and chocolate combination. Then merlot and shiraz for the richer chocolate desserts and finally port and ice wine to finish the desserts, or by themselves.

Also a slow-cooked mulled cider. I couldn't forget that.

but that was last year. This year I'm more ambitious. The theme is layers...

On toasted baguette:
Smoked Trout Spread
Wild Mushroom Bruschetta

On polenta diamonds:
Moroccan Cooked Salsa
Southwestern Brisket, optionally with avocado cream

On the side:
Arugula Salad with shrimp, roasted asparagus and fennel
Fruit, dried and fresh, for garnish

Hot hors d'oeuvres:
Lamb Koftas
Wild Mushroom Risotto balls

and desserts (this is where the theme of "layers" truly shines):

Lemon mousse cake
Blackbottom (white top) cupcakes
Thin oatmeal cookie sandwiches with either gumdrops, dried apricots, or bittersweet chocolate, filled with frozen chocolate mousse (vegan and non-vegan options) or fresh lemon
Mocha Buche de Noel

If I can make a mocha buche I think I will cry from joy. It involves making two meringues. The lemon mousse cake involves making a third, and a fourth will be made to be frozen for the cookie sandwich filling. That's a whole lot of opportunities to mess up. Fortunately, I planned for this inevitability, and figured the more people drink the less they will care. With this in mind, I brought home three Quebec dessert wines: a blueberry hydromiel (honey wine), a a blackcurrent wine, and a strawberry mistelle (a lot of fermented fruit juice and straight alcohol). And, of course, my dad's apple cider.

But wait! There's more. I also plan on making a traditional Indian dinner of lamb rogan josh, bund gobi aur matar (cabbage with peas), and basmati rice. but then I get interrogated: "Are you making naan???" *sigh* My non-mousse arch-nemesis, rising bread dough. Ah, we meet again, but I come well-prepared. Decent flour, good yeast, a lot of determination, and help.

So now, off to make the blackbottom cupcakes, then prep the lamb, saving the mousse and naan for last. These things don't combine...

and yet, it's a time of miracles. I'll skip the prayer, but keep my fingers crossed that it all works out.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Coq Au Vin: Bonnie Stern's "The Best of Heart-Smart Cooking"

I always thought I was supposed to be French. There are many factors involved in this, ranging from my love of homemade, fresh, rich, but healthy, food made from high-quality ingredients, to my idolization of a digestive liqueur that creates a seemingly bottomless stomach in which you can fit yet more delicious food. I also admire the café culture, where a good conversation can pass an afternoon, and lunch is extended to allow this to happen in miniature every day, independent of business and economics. I enjoy market culture, knowing the people in your city or town, the farmers, the boutiques, and the original 100-mile diet.

I do also, however, believe I should have been Japanese, Italian and Indian, mostly for culinary reasons, so I won't get too carried away.

The fact that I can explore all of these "should-have-beens", is what makes me truly Canadian. And in THAT tradition, I decided to use leftover red wine to make a Coq Au Vin.

2 chickens!
olive oil (or bacon)
brandy (I used amaretto)
24 pearl onions or shallots (exactly 24???)
24 garlic cloves!
1lb mushrooms (preferably wild)
red wine or stock
beef stock (I used extra wine and chicken stock)
bay leaf
fresh: thyme, rosemary, tarragon, parsley

The recipe called for two 3lb chickens cut into 4 pieces each! That's a lot of chicken! but I did as I was told and chopped them into breasts and drumsticks and removed the skin.

1st mistake: The recipe specifically says to pat the chicken pieces dry before putting them into the flour/salt/pepper mixture. Um, oops? You're supposed to end up with extra flour that you discard. I didn't have any extra.

Then sauté the chicken pieces in olive oil, five minutes per side (for the bacon eaters, brown the bacon, discard, drain fat from pan but don't wash it, and sauté the chicken in what's left.)

2nd mistake: my skillets were way too small for my large chicken pieces. I ended up using two skillets and two pots for the whole dish because there was so much. The upside of this was that I got to flambé twice! There's nothing more exciting than pouring sweet alcohol over a hot skillet and lighting it on fire. So doing it twice was like it was my birthday. The sad thing about the recipe is that it says that if the alcohol does not ignite, don't worry. The consolation prize is that the alcohol evaporates anyway. That sounds like a very bad birthday.

You then add the carrots (cut precisely on the diagonal, of course), onions, garlic and mushrooms and cook until brown. Then add the wine and bring it to a boil. Deglaze the pan by scraping the brown bits from the bottom. I love the idea of using alcohol to scrape up the brown, tasty bits created by previously adding alcohol.

After it boils, you add the stock (or stock and more wine, if there's extra), rosemary, thyme, and tarragon. Add the chicken, bring to a boil, and reduce heast and simmer for 45 minutes.

(Potential) mistake #3: I wasn't sure how much, if any I was supposed to stir the chicken while it was simmering away. It became very red from the wine where it touched it, and I wasn't sure if it was supposed to sit on top of the vegetables or be more like a stew. I decided to stir but not all over the chicken got covered in juice.

Now the upside of the excess flour (mistake #1) is that 45 minutes later when you remove the chicken and vegetables to a platter, and after you've skimmed the fat from the surface of the the juices left in the pan, the sauce thickens up very quickly. Instead of adding flour at this step, like you would do for a gravy, you just simmer the juices uncovered until thickened, and it takes no time at all. A lot of people have gotten antsy at large turkey dinners waiting for the gravy to thicken. No problem this time.

Then pour the sauce over the chicken (there's not much sauce left, but it's so flavourful that, in true French style, a little was more than enough. Top with parsley and serve.

Verdict? The dark meat was so moist. The white breast meat was a little dry, but the mushrooms stole the show. The red wine brought out the earthy flavours. I can only imagine if I had used wild mushrooms instead of brown cremini. Just don't use white button. It's too much of a taste sacrifice. I think I ate about half of all the mushrooms in my one serving of chicken (the recipe serves 8-10, and the amount of chicken certainly makes that believable), so four to five servings of mushrooms...mmm...the next time I have leftover red wine that isn't worth drinking, I will sauté mushrooms and onions and pour red wine over with a little salt, pepper and parsley for garnish.

I loved this recipe for the healthier version of a traditional dish. Skimming the fat, removing the skin of the chicken and sautéing in olive oil certainly lighten it up, while the rich taste of the wine, broth and braising of the meat does not make it feel like a compromise. Every bite of this dish was a guilty pleasure.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Sky is Falling (I made a passable lemon mousse)

I did exactly what should be never be done when making mousse...

...I multi-tasked. I was rushed and nervous and my egg whites started boiling, and I made a drastic substitution, but my goodness, it worked. The pillows of fluff that I tasted yesterday were enough to convince me that chocolate is not always the best kind of mousse, or cake, or guilty pleasure. I know it's blasphemous, but dear lord it was a mound of lemon-flavoured heaven. The meringue melted on the tongue, and it was so light because there was no dense chocolate to weigh it, or me, down.

Oh, Alice Medrich, you should write another cookbook. It will be my other favourite. It will be exactly like your other "Chocolate and the Art of Low-fat Desserts" from which I took my birthday toasted hazelnut and dark chocolate mousse cake, but this one will be all lemon recipes. In the introduction to the recipe Medrich even says, "Every dessert chef needs a lemon mousse recipe". This is it. I didn't even think I liked lemon that much. I usually skip over the lemon recipes looking for the next decadent chocolate one, but you have shown me to be naive, Alice. So many wasted years thinking mousse could only succeed in chocolate form.

Yes, I'm done waxing poetic about lemons. Ridiculous, I know.

I did almost everything right:

lemon zest
lemon juice
eggs, separated
cream of tartar
heavy cream

When I see 'heavy cream' in a recipe, I turn the page. So I had turned this page a lot. Heavy cream needs to be whipped and needs to expand. Almond Breeze, my milk substitute, does not expand. Basically I replaced heavy cream with milk. I thought my mousse would collapse. If I actually managed to get the egg whites to the elusive 'stiff peaks' stage it would all be for naught. Well, sometimes you just shrug and push your luck.

The recipe: You sprinkle the gelatin over cold water and set it aside until you're ready for it. Then combine the zest, juice and sugar in a saucepan. I really need a juicer, because it's a little cold these days and my hands are a little dry. Lemon juice all over dry hands is painful and only a little short of self-flagellation.

Here was my problem with the recipe: It said to heat this mixture on medium heat and bring to a simmer. In the meantime you beat an egg and egg white until light in a bowl and then pour some of the hot lemon mixture into the egg. Well my lemon mixture didn't simmer and then it boiled so I was extremely careful pouring it into the egg. I was not about to mess this up so early in the game by letting my eggs cook. Then pouring the egg mixture back into the pan, I checked the recipe to see that I was supposed to stir it until it barely started to simmer around the edges. Well it got to about a rolling boil in 5 seconds because I had waited so long for it to simmer in the first place.

This was Alice's fault, but the next part was my fault. I have a very small strainer and you're supposed to strain this mixture (which had thickened up probably too much) into a bowl to remove the lemon zest. This process took about 5 minutes because it had to be done in stages of pouring, straining, pouring, straining. In that time I was praying that the eggs didn't get stuck to the pan I ended up with lemon frittata. Miracle of miracles...

Then you add the vanilla and gelatin to the bowl, which is placed in a larger bowl of ice water. I was also worried that I had taken too long straining and adding the gelatin and vanilla now would be too late. I did it anyway. Perfection be damned.

Then meringue. See first blog-post ever re: chocolate mousse to summarize my fear of meringue. I don't own a stainless steel bowl. I own very nice and, I hoped, heat-proof, bowls but when you're dealing with temperamental (hah!) candy thermometres, 90 seconds, and the difference between salmonella and a happy stomach, it's a little risky to throw caution to the wind. So I threw it in the right direction, but threw it none the less. I whisked the egg whites, cream of tartar, and sugar with one of the beaters from my hand beaters (I need a whisk too I think) and held my breath while I put the beater down to get the thermometre into a cup of hot water by the stove (poor planning in advance on my part). The whites were okay. I don't trust my thermometre. It has wrecked or jeopardized my food in the past, so I stirred with it to help it along a little, carefully avoiding the bottom of the pan that would trick it into thinking it was hot enough. It got...well, close enough to 160 degrees. The book said a minute and a half and then check it. I hate removing the bowl from the water though because if it's not ready then it has all this time to cool down before you put it back in and start counting again. It seems like it'll never get to a safe temperature that way and your egg whites are losing their potential fluffiness...So again, wind/caution, and I removed the bowl without spilling the egg whites into the water in the pot (Oh, I used a big pot instead of a skillet to get more water boiling and heat the eggs faster through the thicker bowl) and beat to what I figured might pass for stiff peaks. Really it was all I could do because the bowl was just about too small for the quickly-rising egg whites. I always under-estimate the size of bowl I'll need for expanding egg whites, but once you're beating you can't stop and change bowls, you need to keep to keep going. So again, prayer helped and only a little egg white flew from the bowl onto various appliances. WAY better than my pumpkin pie disaster.

At this point I realized I hadn't added the milk to the lemon/gelatin mixture like I'd planned. So I hoped it wouldn't make it too runny to add it now, but what choice did I have? Leave it out? Leave milk out of a mousse? Hmm...even I don't have the courage for that yet.

Folding. After all this hard work, how much air would be lost from my meringue? How many clumps of egg whites would remain because I was scared of mixing? This is another reason lemon is better than chocolate. Mocha-coloured chocolate really stands out from white meringue, but lemon is much more forgiving. I tried a new folding technique - scooping under and letting the mixture fall off the spatula toward the back of the bowl, before rotating the spatula back toward me to make another incision. This made a whole lot more sense in terms of 'folding' the mixture over, as it created a nicer hill than when I rotated the whole mixture over and it kind of plopped down on top of itself. Basically I shoved the meringue off the spatula while it was still horizontal and instead of turning the spatula over to follow the falling meringue, I rotated it toward my body. It seemed to work anyway. The nice thing about no whipped cream was that there was one less folding step. It's hard enough beating part of the lemon mixture into the egg whites and then everything back into the lemon mixture.

Finally, it was done. Nothing collapsed. Nothing got salmonella. And the taste?

Oh it was so good. Organic lemons. Amalfi, the home of limoncello and the ridiculous rules for the selection of lemons for their alcohol of choice, would be proud.

So I beg you all. Try a lemon mousse next time.

I think that's enough religious imagery for one day.