Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Large Step Toward Better Granola

I have not yet quit life as my yoga teacher thought I should do, but neither have I made amazing granola...

At least it was better than last time. In a valiant effort to remedy my past granola mistakes I went to a new granola source. I followed this new recipe perfectly, including using the called-for 1/4 cup of butter which made my lactose-intolerant stomach and not-so-butter-proof thighs nervous. I figured that if the French ate granola it would be made consistently with this recipe, so that made it acceptable in my books.

5 cups oats
1/4 cup flour
A few handfuls of nuts, chopped
Maybe some seeds
ground cinnamon (I used a 1" cinnamon stick, but have been informed that the original recipe owner usually grinds a whole lot of cinnamon fresh. About a half cup, he says, but I don't believe him, and I love cinnamon)
1/4 tsp salt (but I might bump it up to almost 1/2 tsp next time. I use about 1/16th - a pinch - on oatmeal which corresponds to 1/3 cup of oats. For 15 times that many oats I really should be using almost a whole teaspoon, but I'll play it safe for now)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup molasses
3/4 cup honey
vanilla extract
almond extract (I didn't have any, but I used almonds in the 'nuts' category above, so I used extra vanilla)
Dried fruit (I used a few handfuls of raisins and a small handful of chopped dates)

The only difference with this granola and the granola that I horrifically messed up a few weeks ago is the first step.

1. Melt the butter with the molasses and honey. Simple, right? Well, sort of. I only had creamed honey, which was fine because it was going to melt, but I was a little concerned it wouldn't give enough liquid to the recipe and the granola would end up drying out. I also had the ingenious idea of using a whole cinnamon stick instead of ground cinnamon, and infusing the melted butter mixture with the stick, but I didn't really let it infuse very long so I kind of didn't take advantage of the potential potency of the fresh cinnamon. I know it should be so good, using fresh instead of ground, but only if I use it correctly, which I didn't. Cue the French woman hitting me over the head with a pot for not knowing how to cook with butter correctly. If she's elderly she's probably just throwing a croissant at me. High in butter, light enough to throw. More subtle point.

And my honey wasn't great. It just tasted like sweet. No real honey taste. There are so many good honeys in Quebec and I picked a boring one. Next time I'll go with one I trust, maybe a buckwheat honey, or a blueberry honey. Definitely liquid this time. The molasses I think was fine. If I went with a stronger-tasting blackstrap molasses it would probably have been too bitter...though I think the headaches I keep getting from eating the granola are a sign that there's more than enough sugar in this version.

So when the butter, honey, molasses and cinnamon were melted but under-simmered I took the pan off the heat and added a teaspoon of vanilla. Maybe I could have gone with more than a teaspoon? It was an estimate. It was pretty strong vanilla extract. Better yet would have been to use a vanilla bean and infuse it the same way I should have infused the cinnamon, for a good few minutes at least of simmering with the butter and sugars.

Then I went back to the previous recipe for the baking instructions. I combined the dry ingredients (flour, oats, nuts, salt, seeds) in a large bowl and poured the butter mixture over top. Maybe I let it sit too long before really stirring it in? It would have stirred more evenly if it was warmer and thinner? Definitely using salt was a good idea, though. The other recipe didn't have any and it makes a huge difference.

I spread the clusters evenly in a buttered pan and baked for 35 minutes at 325 Fahrenheit. Then I flipped it over and baked 10 more minutes. Then I topped it with the raisins and chopped dates, and back in the oven for 10 more minutes. It was looking a bit dry so I was worried about it burning. Since there was only one pan in there and it was starting to over-darken evenly on both ends I figured there would be nothing gained from rotating the pan, but if you make a double batch using two pans or your oven cooks unevenly, make sure you rotate front and back, side to side. For one large pan I found the middle cooked less and I liked that texture better than the crispy edges. So my suggestion to any gung-ho granola makers (whether or not you belong to a granola-making cooperative) would be to move entire sections of the granola around when you flip it over. I had been flipping little-black-book-sized pieces of granola over to exactly where they had lain before. Try flipping the outer pieces into the middle, or flipping the outer onto a plate, moving a middle piece to the edge and playing a tetris-type game to shift around the remaining pieces (make sure it's a tetris game where the bottom layer doesn't disappear, at least until fully baked...). I would also reduce the initial cooking time of 35 minutes to just 30, or slightly, ever so slightly, lower the oven temperature. There's no egg in this version so no food safety issues to worry about. The flour replaces the egg as a thickener. So baking at a lower temperature or for a shorter period of time is fine.

When the granola comes out, break it up with a spatula and either let it cool in the pan, or if it's looking a bit dark, transfer it to a bowl and eat the darker bits. They're good now when they're hot but when they cool they'll seem even more over-cooked.

Alternatively to this recipe, you could just make the first recipe properly...that would also work fine, unless you're me.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spicy Singapore Tibetan Thai Italian Jewish Not-So-Long Life Noodles

This time I was set on getting the noodles right. So I made them from scratch.

I started off with the goal of authenticity...Oh how far I fell. I went looking for a good noodle recipe in Beyond the Great Wall by Jeffrey Alfred and Naomi Duguid. There's a whole chapter on noodles. Surely I could find some long life noodles, or just some noodles I could make really, really long. I ended up taking the recipe for a type of Tibetan fettucine noodle called Gya Thuk. Basically I did this because I wanted to knead the dough in my pasta maker, and extrude it through the machine to save myself a whole lot of work. The Chinese recipe actually called for the same amount of flour (2 cups) as you're supposed to use in the pasta maker so it seemed like it would work fine. The only difference was the Chinese recipe had salt and no oil. Simple enough.

So I put the flour and salt in the pasta maker, turned it to 'MIX' and drizzled in the whisked egg through the convenient little opening in the top of the machine. Then I added the 1/2 cup of lukewarm water. This is where I got a little scared. In all the pasta recipes that come with the pasta maker you add the egg, oil and water at the same time, and it never seems to use that much water. Once I used way too much water by accident and spent the next 30 minutes trying to adjust with more flour. The result was tough, over-kneaded, under-egged pasta-like glue. Appetizing, I know. Since that mistake I've never added too much water again, being too scared to have to try and fix it.

But I trusted the book (come on, it has a whole chapter on noodles!) and threw in the 1/2 cup of water called for. Immediately I knew this was a mistake. The Italian pasta recipes always say the dough should become pea-sized lumps after 4 minutes and should not stick to the blades. Maybe Tibetans don't like following the same rules with their pasta makers...but I knew that when I switched from 'MIX' to 'EXTRUDE' all the noodles would come out separate but quickly clump together. So I took emergency action. I shut off the machine, took out the sticky dough and dumped in another 1/4 cup of flour. It's too bad because I'd wanted to extrude the dough through the "Chinese Noodles" pasta die (an attachment that shapes the pasta). Apparently to Italians there is only one kind of Chinese noodle. This is slightly larger than spaghetti. There are, however, about 25 other kinds of Italian pasta and corresponding pasta dice...ah, intercultural understanding...

I knew I couldn't add too much flour without adding more egg, and my eggs don't come in 1/2 teaspoons. So I was being stingy with the flour. I kneaded, added a little more flour, kneaded, added more flour, and when it wasn't too sticky anymore I put it in a bowl covered with plastic wrap and left it for 30 minutes, like the Chinese recipe said (though I didn't trust the recipe anymore...). I just hoped the dough wouldn't taste like glue. All I could picture were lumps of flour/water paste sitting in my stomach on little couches watching the Olympics, refusing to digest.

Everything got better from here. I made the sauce. I decided to go back to Bonnie Stern's Jewish American cookbook and give another one of her Asian noodle recipes a shot. Mostly I had exactly the right amount of curry paste in my fridge and no other use for it. So I made "Spicy Singapore Noodles". Kind of.

I skipped the tofu and bean sprouts. Everything else was right. I made a sauce with 1/3 c. homemade vegetable broth. It specifically said homemade. I actually had homemade, but it was frozen, and certainly not in 1/3 cup. quantities...So I hacked off some chunks of frozen broth. Now that I was covered in pasta and broth I figured the worst was done. Noodle soup's not such a bad thing to be.

Then I added 2 tbsp of tamari, 1 tbsp sugar, and 1 tbsp mirin to the now defrosted broth in a small bowl. I thought I had bought sesame oil, but no, I had forgotten that I indeed had not...Unfazed, I immediately went to the fridge. My roommate piped in here: "Probably not a lot of people have sesame seeds sitting in the fridge," to which I responded, "Toasted. I know, ridiculous..." They were actually also a little pre-crushed in my mortar and pestle, not too much, so they kept their freshness. What kind of 23-year old has a pantry stocked with things like slightly-crushed leftover toasted sesame seeds? So I took two teaspoons of the sesame seeds along with a teaspoon of olive oil, called it a tablespoon of sesame oil, and added it to the sauce...

I grated a few carrots, thinly sliced two leeks and 1 red pepper, diced a shallot (instead of green onions), 2 tbsp of ginger, and 2 cloves of garlic. I heated a little olive oil in a skillet and added the garlic, shallot and ginger, cooked it for 45 seconds and added the tablespoon of thai green curry paste in my fridge along with a teaspoon of my homemade Guidhou Chile Paste. Really, this should have been yellow curry paste and there shouldn't have been anything thai about it, but since China and Italy and North America had already played prominent roles in this meal, I figured one more country wouldn't hurt. I cooked the paste for 20 seconds and then added the leeks, carrots and red pepper. They cooked for 5 minutes and then I added the bowl of combined sauce.

At this point I had to turn off the stove and go back to the noodles. The dough was sticky again. I threw a layer of flour onto the clean counter and divided the dough into four pieces. Then I took a bottle of olive oil-turned-rolling pin and rolled the dough out into appropriately-sized lengths. By now I didn't really care to follow the book's specifications for 6"/14" rectangles. The noodles were going to be whatever they were going to be. There was so much stretch in the dough, though, that I hung them up while I was rolling each subsequent piece so they wouldn't shrink...

Then I took my mezzaluna (half moon) and cut the noodles into whatever length they wanted to be. They're were supposed to be 1/2" widths and that's almost what the double edge on the mezzaluna would give me. Good enough. The lengths then went back to hanging.

Then it got easy. Brought a big pot of water to boil, threw in the fresh pasta in batches, rinsed it under cold water when it got to my preferred 'al dente' state (a few minutes) and added it to the sauce and vegetable mixture which I had brought back to a boil.

Oh, it was so worth it. I was a bit covered in flour, the clean-up had been ongoing, and my laundry rack had to be dis-infected from the raw egg in the dough, but the pasta tasted like real, fresh pasta. The sauce was spicy, sweet and salty, and had a heat that you only felt afterward. It was satisfying and beautiful. A real model for World Peace.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Chinese New Year Long Life Noodles: Bonnie Stern's "Heartsmart Cooking"

There are three Chinese Noodle recipes in Bonnie Stern's Heartsmart Cooking. One is for Shanghai Noodles, one is for Singapore Noodles and one is for "lo mein" (any kind of noodle that's cooked and then mixed into a dish). You know, I have a whole book of Chinese Cooking that has an entire section on how to make fresh noodles and what sauces to put on them (Beyond the Great Wall), but I wimped out. I wanted North American flavour from a cook that I feel like I culinarily know. I didn't want to be surprised. I also didn't feel like messing it up.

It was Chinese New Year and I wanted to make an enormous dish of long life noodles.

Mistake #1: The recipe is actually very similar to one given in the link, but uses pork tenderloin for flavour. I skipped the pork tenderloin. If I was smart I would have thought to add more fat in the form of an extra tablespoon of sesame oil but I happened to run out of sesame oil just as I was making it, even though the recipe only called for a tablespoon to begin with.

Mistake #2: I wasn't sure if I could use rice vermicelli, but since I kept seeing Chinese New Year noodle recipes for all sorts of noodles, I figured I'd be okay if I substituted. They were what I had, they're so quick to cook since you just soak them in boiling water, and there are no preservatives or additives in them to upset my stomach or New Years festivities. Unfortunately my ingenious plan back-fired when the noodles soaked up all the sauce and left the dish way too bland.

Saving graces #1, #2 & #3: In an effort to make the noodles better in the end, I tried just about everything to give them flavour, from Guidhou Chile Paste (which didn't add a lot of flavour, just heat) to balsamic vinegar (the closest thing I had to Chinese black vinegar) to barbecue sauce (not so authentic, I know...but it actually worked the best because of all the sugar). Kind of made it a sweet and sour noodle dish.

1 1/2 packages of rice vermicelli noodles
1 tsp sesame oil (would have used more if I'd had it)
2 tsp olive oil (didn't have any other oil for stir-frying. Would have used sesame oil again)
garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp chile paste (I used home-made but Bonnie didn't expect me to. She probably thought I'd use rooster sauce full of sugar. Would have helped the dish from all the extra sugar)
1 cup sliced brown cremini mushrooms (They're supposed to be shiitake, but I don't really like shiitake)
3 carrots, thinly sliced on diagonal (some of them were less diagonal than others...)
1 1/2 c. chicken stock
1/4 c. hoisin (I found a brand with only a few preservatives and it tastes okay)
1 tbsp tamari
1 tbsp water
4 green onions, sliced on the same quasi-diagonal...

All you do is boil a pot of water and when it reaches a boil, take it off the heat and add the rice noodles. Let the noodles sit, covered, until you need them. Then drain them of excess water.

Then heat the olive oil on medium heat, and when the oil is hot stir-fry the garlic and chile paste for 20 seconds. Add the mushrooms and carrots and cook for 5 minutes. Add the stock, hoisin, tamari and water. Bring it to a boil and add the noodles.

I didn't add the noodles, though, because I knew they would just keep absorbing all the sauce. I've had this happen to me before. The first time I had takeout Pho', the server packed the soup in two containers - one for the broth and one for the noodles. If you don't, you end up with really watery noodles and you don't taste the broth anymore. So I thought I was outsmarting the recipe. There was even a lot of sauce, so I figured when I poured the sauce over the noodles and served it immediately, it would be swimming in sweet stickiness. After I'd drained the noodles from the pot where they were soaking with the hot water and added the sauce I knew immediately that the dish was going to taste like nothing. Somehow those noodles just sucked everything in. I mean, it wasn't bad if you like really, really mild flavours, but I wanted hot, sour, salty and sweet.

I now think dipping noodles in sauce is the way to go. It's the only way to ensure flavour in every bite. It's also messy, but that's how it's supposed to be. I also think I'll try a different recipe next time with rice vinegar, some kind of sugar or molasses. Fortunately Bonnie Stern gives me a few more options from which I can pick and choose. Maybe I will discover some hidden courage and try making noodles from scratch from "Beyond the Great Wall". Then at least when I mess up the sauce again, as is bound to happen, the noodles themselves will be my Saving Grace #4.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Too poor to be a food snob? Me too (Bacalao Cassoulet)

Despite the fact that I cook rabbit, bison, fish and splurge on dijon mustards, white balsamic vinegars and impossible-to-find New Mexico Chiles, I usually make a whole fish, a whole rabbit and less expensive cuts of meat slow-cooked to tenderness, instead of specialty cuts, even fillets, and I look for the best price:quality:taste ratio on gourmet products. My point is obviously that the Montreal Festival en Lumière can be ridiculously expensive.

There are cheaper, or free, options, like the Crossroads of Flavour, but the festival is all about upscale dinners with guest Portuguese chefs, Portuguese wines, and Quebec restaurants. So it's tough to know where to spend your money if you think these things are amazing. Really it's unfair. It's like a birthday where you misbehaved so you're not allowed to open your presents, and they just sit there, all wrapped up, in front of you. Taunting you. Except in this analogy you never get the presents. Your parents are apparently very mean...and decided to give your presents to your smelly cousin Teddy. You hate Teddy.

So, present-less (or dinner reservation-less), your only option is recreate a Gourmet Portuguese meal for yourself. Sure, you could pick up some chicken and fries at (insert your favourite Montreal rotisserie chicken place here. Touchy subject...) but this dish was shared by Canada and Portugal long before a chicken even thought about crossing the road to St-Hubert.

Bacalao Cassoulet

1 lb boneless, skinless salt cod fillets (you can get it with skin and bones, but it's a real nuisance trying to get them out of the cod after soaking it, so I thought it was better for my sanity to spend a few extra dollars for the pre-skinned and de-boned salt cod at Poissonerie Atwater

2 cups dried black eyed peas, cooked and drained, or use 2 540mL cans of black eyed peas or navy beans. Oh, the festival is also featuring Cajun cooking, and though I'm almost two months late for New Years, I'll consider these a Louisiana specialty. Just pretend Chinese New Year, which was last Sunday, is North American New Year...makes it a bit more legit)

2 tsp olive oil or butter
2 onions, diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks of celery, diced
5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 sprig of fresh rosemary, or 2 tsp dried
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
5 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine
Juice of one lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
1 bay leaf
1 cup whipping cream (or 2% milk, almond breeze, coconut cream, or your favourite milk substitute). Obviously the milk won't make the cassoulet as thick or creamy as the whipping cream, and the coconut cream will turn this into a Caribbean-flavoured dish, but any will work just fine)

So my reference to Canada and Portugal sharing this dish dates way back to the days of John Cabot as seen in the Canadian Heritage Moment where the fishermen lean over the side of their boat off the coast of Newfoundland and scoop up a baskets full of cod (1497-ish). Back in the day the Portuguese were fishing those waters, then the British, then whoever could get a boat over there. The cod got salted to preserve it for the long trip home. As much as it kills me to think that the cod I bought for this recipe may have been caught just outside Canadian waters, off the shore of Newfoundland, continuing to destroy the substantially-diminished Atlantic cod population (Giovanni, aka John, would not be having any more luck with the baskets), it's hard to know exactly where it came from, and it certainly won't be a regular occurrence. Like most fish, buy it in moderation, especially if it's relatively affordable. There's usually a reason it's less expensive...I'm talking about you Atlantic Sole and Provigo Tilapia.

Salt Cod, or bacalao in Portuguese, takes a bit of planning ahead to soak the cod, but there's no worrying about cooking the fish for exactly the right amount of time, like for fresh fillets. The really nice thing is that the whole dish will be very flavourful from all the salt, even after rinsing it as many times as you can remember to rinse it in a 24 hour period.

1. Rinse the cod under cold water, cut it into deck of card-size pieces and stick it in a large bowl full of cold water. Then put it in the fridge for at least one day, dumping the water and re-filling the bowl at least 3 times. The more you do it, the less salty the fish will be, but don't go crazy about it. Sometimes it's nice outside.

2. If you're using dried black eyed peas, soak them overnight in a bowl or pot with 6 cups of water. Drain them, and then pour them into a large pot with 8 cups of water. Bring them to a boil, skim off any scum that collects on the surface, and reduce the heat to simmer until the beans are not quite tender, but not yet mushy, about 50 minutes.

2. Heat the oil or butter over medium heat in another large pot. When the oil is hot add the onions, carrots and celery. Cook for about 8 minutes, then add the garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper and stir for 1 minute. Add the wine and stir for 30 seconds, or until the liquid has almost evaporated. Then add the black eyed peas (or the 2 large cans of your beans of choice), the stock, and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes, or until your biggest pieces of carrots and celery are tender.

3. By now your cod is relatively salt-free, so get it out of the fridge, drain it, and in yet another large pot bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Add the bay leaf. Now you have a choice, but you need to follow the instructions meticulously right up to the end of this paragraph. No skipping the last sentence. Either add the lemon juice and the bay leaf now or don't add it and serve lemon slices on the side of the dish. If you skip the lemon juice your whole home will smell like fish for much too long a period of time, but depending on how much you don't like the people you live with, that might be just fine. You won't smell it as much since you've been in the kitchen with it for awhile. Don't say I told you to do this.

4. Add the cod to the boiling lemon-optional water and cook, uncovered, just until the water starts to boil again. Then cover it and remove it from the heat. Let it sit for 15 minutes, then remove it from the large pot (finally, one LESS large pot) and flake it into small pieces with a fork. Remove the skin and bones if you saved a bit of extra money and knew you'd have your de-boning work cut out for you.

(If your vegetables are done before your cod is flaked, just turn off the heat on the vegetables and wait for the cod)

5. Add the flaked cod and the cream or milk to the vegetables and bring the pot back to a simmer, then reduce the heat just a little bit to medium-low so the milk doesn't boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, or until the cassoulet is a stew consistency you're happy with, stirring every few minutes to make sure the milk doesn't form a skin on the surface.

6. To make it really authentic and feel like a great Portuguese Chef, drizzle each bowl of cassoulet with olive oil. Don't tell anyone if the oil is Italian, not Portuguese. Lie if you need to. Like with International Water boundaries, you can probably get away with more than you think...

7. Eat with bread, maybe some kale (another Canadian and Portuguese shared specialty), maybe some Portuguese wine, and thank goodness you just saved at least $60 by not going to a Montreal Highlights Festival Restaurant.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Chile Paste Verdict

I'm finally back with the results of the Chile paste. I got to try the Guizhou chile paste on a lot of different foods - a Chinese New Year noodle dish, on a mild thai chicken dish, and on potatoes. The verdict?

Flaming lips-hot. Not a whole lot of flavour to the heat, but very, very spicy. I should have saved it for the Valentines Day post. "How (opt. "Ow") to leave your lover...speechless". When their lips won't move...

Maybe better to market it to those who wish their significant other would be a bit less verbose. The leaving part could be optional.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday Smoked Salmon Soufflé Roll

...well, I missed Pancake Tuesday, and like a good little non-Catholic, I fully planned to spend the day after the day you're supposed to use up all the dairy in your fridge making something with a ridiculous amount of milk. Don't worry though, my soul is safe, as it's not real milk. I had grand plans to use up most of an open container of almond breeze (milk substitute that only lasts a week in the fridge).

Basically I will try my best to not let anything delicious in my fridge go to waste (the not-so-delicious gets chucked when necessary), so I spend a lot of time looking for recipes that call for a lot of milk. Pancakes work perfectly. Shoot.

What else works perfectly?

Chocolate soufflé, but those recipes don't actually call for that much milk. I needed something that would use a lot at once. Usually my fall-back is rice pudding, but with 6 cups of risotto sitting in my fridge right now, the last thing I want to make is more rice. So I was left with quiche. I've been meaning to make quiche for a long time. Crust-less because I wanted a quick and easy protein source, but pie crust is long-term commitment.

I started looking for recipes and they all seemed fine, except they bake forever, and they just seemed pretty bland. Eggs just don't do it for me. Sure, put them in things, or scramble them over things, but when the focus is the eggs themselves, I just get sad. It's how I picture vegetarians who miss meat when they get a big bowl of beans or tofu put in front of them and the person next to them gets a pulled pork sandwich or barbecue ribs. A little part of your dies...but maybe that's just muscle mass. There's a reason the pork smells amazing and the other...well, doesn't have a smell. Sure, you can add a million things to beans or tofu (or eggs), but if they're not great to begin with, then they're going to be less great in the end (Please note, I actually don't eat pork. Does that make me more or less of a hypocrite?).

To get around this problem, I started thinking about all the great things eggs can do. They may not taste wonderful cooked as they are, but if you torture them a little with a whisk or mixer, they will succumb to your desires for flavourful food. Egg whites rise and egg yolks thicken, giving two of the world's greatest creations - soufflé and mayonnaise.

Since I was already acting like a horrible Christian, I figured I should head to Bonnie Stern's book which happens to have a lot of Jewish recipes. Smoked Salmon Soufflé Roll. Kind of cheating on my whole spiel about the miracles of eggs, just because the smoked salmon was what the recipe was all about, but I would get to try my hand at folding egg whites again (I hadn't done it since my overwhleming amount of Christmas mousse-making) and I'd get to make a quasi-quiche, kind of satisfying the little voice in my head which has been telling me to stop procrastinating on making it since about October. Finally, some peace and quiet.

3 eggs, separated
cream of tartar

thick yogurt cheese
1 tbsp dijon
smoked salmon
green onions, to garnish

This was supposed to use up two cups of milk but I only had 3 eggs, instead of the 7 the recipe originally called for, so I ended up making a half recipe. I whisked the milk in a saucepan with the flour. It said to bring to a boil slowly but that didn't happen. All of a sudden I had very, very thick porridge, but no clumps or burns, so it was fine. I removed it from the heat and stirred in the herbs and spices. Separating the eggs was also not so great. I got a bit of yolk in the whites, which is exactly what you're not supposed to do, as the whites won't rise as much, but again, no more eggs, so it would have to do.

So now the recipe said to beat the egg yolks, but after Alice Medrich's mousse recipes in "Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts", I'm spoiled by explicit instructions on how long and at what speed to beat. I didn't know if they were supposed to turn pale yellow, so I just whisked for a while instead of beating (Mostly I didn't want to wash the beaters before I had to use them on the egg whites) and then poured a little of the milk mixture in the yolks, then poured the yolks back into the milk pan and whisked again.

Now the whites. They actually rose! I beat them with the cream of tartar until they were "opaque and firm". Who knows what that means? Without a reference to soft peaks or stiff peaks, I'm lost hills and valleys of fluff. I assumed this "firm" stage was after the soft peaks stage, but they seemed to get awfully opaque awfully quickly. The recipe didn't tell me to worry about over-beating, so I figured a little more was better than a little less. Then I folded a quarter of the whites into the sauce, and then the sauce back into the remaining whites. I think I still suck at folding. Everything got combined in the end, and I didn't stir, but I don't think this was expertly done. By the time I poured this onto an oiled piece of aluminum lining a baking sheet the soufflé had definitely stopped thinking up.

Into the oven at 400 Fahrenheit for 18 minutes, or until firm but not dry. Well how exactly am I supposed to know if it's dry? No tooth-pick trick is mentioned. And you have to let it cool for 10 minutes. The first time I pulled it out it seemed a bit too spongy, but the second time it seemed browned enough and with this lovely slight crack on top that's so good for banana bread, but apparently so bad for soufflé. It immediately started to fall, like my spirits. It got pretty flat, but since this was going to be rolled into a log (like my Mocha Buche de Noel!!! but thank goodness it didn't need to be filled with anything frozen, iced and baked again) I figured flat was better.

Actually this was all a whole lot like the Buche de Noel. I inverted the aluminum onto a plastic cutting board (no tea towels available, Ms. Stern) and spread a tbsp of dijon (I didn't half that ingredient...) and all the yogurt that I'd managed to make into yogurt cheese (not much since my sieve lined with paper towel is exceedingly small. Certainly not the called-for 3/4 c.) on the soufflé. Then I placed a single layer of smoked salmon on top of the cheese and rolled up the log with the assistance of the plastic, bendable cutting board (same concept as a sushi roller or the rolling method of the Mocha Buche de Noel). Smoked salmon saved the day. Actually, to be fair, smoked salmon and dijon saved the day. They're so lovely.

The eggs? They were light and fluffy and rolled just fine, but they were a wrap for the delicious soufflé roll fillings. Oh, and a note about the smoked salmon. I couldn't decide between regular smoked salmon or double smoked salmon at the Poissonerie Atwater. The double smoked was dryer and less salty, but I didn't find the regular too salty at all, so I made half the soufflé with one type and half with the other.

This may look like a sandwich, but the consistency was very un-sandwichy. It was soft like a very light dough that stuck slightly to your fingers if you tried to pick it up. That's all egg with a little flour, more like the lightest omelette you've ever eaten. This would have been prettier if I'd done the full recipe and used all the yogurt cheese, but even as it was, the layers looked beautiful. It wasn't for a party so presentation didn't matter too much to me either. I am perfectly capable of imagining how the spirals of soufflé are supposed to look while I'm eating the best brunch I've had in a long time. Take that, pancakes.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

47 Other Ways to Leave Your Lover (Slow-Cooker Risotto with Pumpkin Seed Pesto)

It's true, I love Valentines Day, but there are more than enough forms of media that promote love and happiness and all the things you "should" feel, and do, and spend money on today. So I figured someone ought to cater to the rest of the world. You know, the group of people who spend today trying to figure out what they had liked about that other person in the first place, then start getting anxious, to the point where adrenaline fight-or-flight thoughts kick in, and the simplest escape is not necessarily the most obvious. Heaven forbid someone actually try to use a Montreal fire escape. Fortunately, the house or apartment probably doesn't even have one, so that's generally not a problem until there's a fire. So I suppose it would be much worse if that anxious person decided setting fire to the house was a good way out. No house, no relationship. Quick getaway...Bad idea. That's where advice becomes essential:

Step 1: Calm Down.

Step 2: Think about this rationally. Paul Simon gives you a few options, but apparently those only work if your name rhymes with a plausible escape route, like "the bus, Gus". So his 50 ways to leave your lover really only give you three real options. The bus, out the back, and by dropping off the key, and really you may drop off the key and still find yourself in the relationship, so this may need to be combined with the bus option to be completed successfully.

Step 3: Since Paul is potentially a disappointment, consider alternate forms of transportation. Metro, car, plane, train, bike, or a long, long walk. Consider ride share, or taxis, or hitch-hiking. That's 9 other options. I'm already doing way better than Paul.

Step 4: If none of these options are acceptable, then there are the more traditional, and mature ways of leaving (the relationship, not the city). If it needs to be done on Valentines Day and you can't fake love through the day, then so be it. Use 1 of 4 excuses/rationales:
  1. We've drifted apart (for long-term relationships)
  2. I need to take some time for myself
  3. Thanks, that was fun (probably not so appropriate for long-term relationships)
  4. I hate children (Abrupt. To the point. Hope it's true. Probably the best choice)
Do not say the following:
  1. Maybe we can get back together ( an undetermined amount of time)
  2. It's not you, it's me (Nobody likes that line, and even if it's true, just no)
  3. It's not me, it's you...(I dare you. Could be funny)
So we're up to 13 ways.

Then there are other types of leaving. You can leave the lover:

in a state of...
  1. ...confusion
  2. ...shock
  3. ...undress
16 ways! But the state of undress could definitely overlap with "Thanks, that was fun", and the emotional states could all correspond to the right or wrong kinds of conversations, so maybe these don't count.

I didn't make it to 47, but my point is, you have other options. To better understand these options, consider a recipe:


There are myriad ways to make risotto. Sure, there's the 'traditional' ways ("We've drifted apart"), which may or may not work out fine, depending on your skill with a spatula (motivational speaking), but there are a million other ways (at LEAST 47) to make the dish which will turn out just fine. Some will be quick and relatively painless and some will take hours and hours, but require little preparation, patience or finesse. As the cook (lover-leaver) you get to choose, carefully.

So here's a rough risotto plan:

Butter or oil or margarine
Onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, or mushrooms
Arborio, medium-grain, jasmine, basmati, brown rice or barley
White wine, red wine, chicken broth, or vegetable broth
Salt and pepper
Thyme, sage, savoury, parsley, oregano, herbes de provence, bay leaves, basil, saffron, or tarragon

Optional: Carrots, broccoli, beets, tomatoes, spinach, peas, chicken, beans, marrow, shrimp or scallops

Cooking methods: skillet, large saucepan, slow-cooker

To Garnish: parmesan, romano, firm cheese, nutritional yeast, pesto*, green onions, basil

It's like a choose-your-own adventure risotto (break-up). You can, for example, choose to sauté some garlic and mushrooms in butter in a skillet, add 2 cups of jasmine rice, deglaze with half a cup of red wine, then transfer everything to the slow-cooker along with 5 1/2 cups of broth (less if you like it less creamy), 2 bay leaves and a teaspoon of tarragon. Cook on low for 8 hours. Don't stir a thing.

Or you can sauté leeks in olive oil in a large saucepan, add 2 cups of pearl barley, deglaze with 1/2 cup of warm chicken broth and then stir for the next 40 minutes of your life, adding 1/2 c. more warm broth as the last broth addition is absorbed. You should be able to see the bottom of the pan when you make a line with your wooden spoon, then you know it's ready for more of your 8 cups of broth. You may not need 8 cups, but when it's just about ready, stir in a cup of spinach (the barley should be tender and the spinach should be bright green, not crushed or wilted, like your lover's heart).

Choose carefully. Either you'll be standing over a stove for a long period of time, unable to get away (like an awkward conversation), or your rice won't be as fluffy as it could be, since jasmine can't absorb the liquid the same way arborio can (some people are more sensitive to these things). It also takes a lot of attention to know when the rice needs more broth and when to keep stirring quietly (keep your mouth shut). This is not about you, this is about the rice.

My final advice:

Be respectful. It's impossible to be selfless, as you are presumably going to enjoy the rice (freedom), but there are all sorts of methods. So I beg you, whether or not your one-syllable name rhymes with a method of transportation, to consider more than Paul Simon's wisdom this Valentines Day. Also, try making risotto. Who knew it was so emotionally educational?

*Pumpkin Seed Pesto:
Blend or process 1/2 c. toasted pumpkin seeds [toast in the oven at 350 Fahrenheit until the pop] with 1 c. fresh basil, 1/4-1/2 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. pepper, 2 cloves of garlic. Add 1/4 c. olive oil and blend again. If not using right away, freeze in ice cube trays and transfer to freezer bag to store. Vary nuts, seeds and herbs as desired)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lentil Stew: "À La di Stasio"

"Cooking is an addictive game, one that is gourmet and so very sensual....Enjoyment is the key word of this book, one I've wanted to write for a long time and which is my own way of receiving you all at my table." -Josée di Stadio, À La di Stasio

Before I moved to Montreal I met a Quebecoise girl playing a Murray Schafer gig around a lake at sunrise in Northern Ontario. The whole thing may have been a sleep-deprived hallucination, but I vivdly remember a long conversation over lentil soup. The soup was fine, but it was the garnishes that were surprising. Fresh mint and toasted coconut. The coconut brought out the nuttiness of the lentils, and made you feel like you were eating a whole meal in a small bowl. Maybe also my stomach was fooled because lunch was at 8am and supper was at 2pm, but I'm pretty sure I started loving lentils at that moment. Until then I had only thought they were what vegetarians ate because they didn't know what they were missing. So from whom did the idea of toasting coconut come? They deserved an award. In fact, the mysterious chef already had six.

The recipe was explained to me by my Québecoise cabin-mate in a very French way. "You take some of this and some of this...add this...let it simmer, then just a little of this..." etc. It turned out that the coconut and mint revelation, as well as the initial inspiration for the soup, had come from a Quebec cooking show called "À La di Stasio". The show was hosted by one woman, Josée di Stasio, who presented beautiful, simple recipes with little tips that helped the cook-at-home along. There were also two cookbooks, but both were in French, and I couldn't find any of the episodes online or on television. Quebec television seems to like to stay in Quebec. Like it's a secret that the rest of Canada's not allowed to know, because if they did then we would have access to the secrets of amazing food. They would never allow it.

Flash-forward three years and many, many lentil soups with coconut later, and I find the first À La Distasio cookbook at Chapters in Montreal in English. Apparently the French have reconsidered and capitalism won out. A bit sad, but the book is beautiful. The recipe titles are hand-written, every recipe has variations, notes and serving suggestions (but just that - suggestions, not rules), and the recipes themselves are classic gourmet. Smoked salmon mousse, duck confit, panna cotta, but also simple ideas like fennel and apple salad. One of my favourite ways to judge a cookbook, though, is by the quality of its side dishes, and this one has an entire section lovingly devoted to them. This is not a book that only considers the meat and starch in a meal. It includes two pages on roasting (rendering useless my magazine roasting bible), and two on how to cut, cook and season various kinds of leafy greens so they're not just leafy greens (mostly salt, pepper, lemon or garlic. No need to make it fancy, but a need to make it interesting). There are also two pages on how to serve cheese (how very acceptable), a page with 9 variations on mashed potatoes, one with 5 on basmati rice, two pages on oysters, and another two on making a simple cocktail hour platter (the Québecois 5 to 7), none of which are intimidating to undertake.

My point was lentil soup. I was actually surprised that there was no lentil soup in the book. Maybe Josée di Stasio had only done the recipe on her show and not put it in her book? Then I saw that there was in fact a recipe for lentil stew, and at the end of the recipe there was a note that to make it a soup, just add more broth. Simple. No mention of the coconut or mint, but she needs a reason for people to watch the show. She's such a lovely lady that it's worth watching watching for her air of dignity and calm kindness.

In true French style, here's the gist of the recipe:

1. Bring a pot of water and lentils to a boil, and when it gets there drain the lentils immediately. French wisdom. Gets rid of the starch and makes it more digestible, though they'd never talk about that...It would be awful to foolishly think you could skip this step.

2. The recipe calls to melt duck fat and sauté onions, carrots, celery and garlic, but in case you JUST ran out of duck fat, olive oil or butter will do fine. You just want to sweat the vegetables, not stir-fry them, so keep the heat low for 10 minutes. They shouldn't brown.

3. Add the seasonings: stock, some bay leaves, something that seems French (I used thyme, sage and a little parsley)

4. Then add the lentils and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Four steps. Leaving lots of time for your cocktail, or to prepare the meat confit she suggests you serve with it, as the stew is actually labeled a "side". This also leaves time to chop fresh mint, the smell of which will take over the whole kitchen, or to put some shredded unsweetened coconut in a skillet over medium heat until it browns to sprinle on top. Serve as you wish.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Guizhou Chile Paste: "Beyond the Great Wall"

Getting a new cookbook makes me really excited. Opening it is like waking up on Christmas morning again and again because with each page turn there's a new recipe you didn't see before. I actually did get this book for Christmas, though, thus making Christmas even better. Combining my fake Christmas simile with real Christmas made for a pretty amazing morning.

"Beyond the Great Wall" book is much more than a cookbook. It's my first step into "culinary anthropology." Apparently that's a real degree offered at a University in Hawaii. Hawaii gets so many things right...not that I'm about to hop on a plane to Hawaii...but...

...the two authors of the book, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, are two curious travelers who spent upwards of 30 years trekking all over Asia, exploring food and customs. They were 2 of the first Americans to set foot in Tibet after it re-opened to foreigners in 1979 (After about 120 years of being closed) and to really delve into the lesser known parts of China. That's what this book is - recipes from "beyond the great wall", the food of the minority non-Han Chinese.

The recipes are arranged by type, from "Condiments and Seasonings", through "Noodles and Dumplings", "Breads", "Fish", "Lamb and Beef" to "Drinks and Sweet Treats". The photos make the book worth it by themselves, but the recipes sound so simple. Simple in ingredients, not in techniques. Chile paste goes on everything, soups and hot pots are flavoured by boiled meat and fish, and noodles are thrown in the broth after the meat is cooked. All that gets added to a whole steamed fish is salt, pepper, ginger, scallions and chile. Congee is water and rice, with optional chile paste or soy-vinegar dipping sauce. This is not sweet and sour sauce or kung pao Chinese. They do not believe in combos or complimentary fortune cookies.

So if I was going to make a recipe, I was going to use good ingredients. Otherwise, it would taste like a lot less than a North American is accustomed to, and as much as I usually keep my fish-steaming simple, I wanted to love this book. I want the first thing I eat from this book to be incredible so I can shout its praises, and say it's more than just stories and photos.

I decided I should start with the basics. This is supposed to be pungent..."Guizhou Chile Paste"

I bought a bag of Sichuan hot peppers, and a container of whole Sichuan peppercorns. The book says the peppercorns are completely different than black peppercorns. The book said to stem the chilis, but they didn't have much stem in the first place (to be honest I was a little scared because the book didn't specify the type of chili to use, whereas in other recipes it did, but I figured Sichuan hot peppers with Sichuan peppercorns?...When my tongue falls off I'll know, I suppose). You set the hot peppers in a bowl and pour over a cup of boiling water. Then let it sit for an hour.

When the hour's up, transfer it to a blender or food processor with a tsp. of salt. Then heat a skillet on high heat. No oil yet (I heated it with the oil but this turned out to be a mistake). When the pan is hot add 2 tbsp of peanut oil or vegetable (I used sesame, sorry. At least it wasn't olive. What a disaster that would have been) and reduce the heat to medium. Then added 2 tbsp of shallots, minced, with 1 tsp of ground Sichuan pepper, and sauté 3 minutes. The onion should get translucent, but it browned very quickly in my hot oil. If I'd added the oil only after heating the skillet, it would have worked better.

Anyway, after 3 minutes I added the chili purée from the blender, brought the pan contents to a boil and reduced the heat to simmer for 5 minutes. The liquid is supposed to reduce by half, and give you about 1/2 c. of liquid, but I ended up with a bit more, since the reference to half a cup isn't given until the end of the recipe.

Then I put the paste in a bowl and added a tbsp of rice vinegar. After the paste is cooled, transfer it to a glass jar and stick it in the fridge, not the cupboard. Since this isn't a pickled sauce that seals properly in a jar that's been sterilized, it doesn't last as long in the fridge, but the vinegar and salt will keep it around for awhile. The chilies also have preserving qualities. The recipe didn't say how long it was good for, but I'm going to guess at least a month. My tongue will be on fire by March 10th.

Tomorrow I'll try the paste and give the spiciness verdict. Big potluck. Lots to cook.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Slow-Cooker Rabbit with Smashed Potatoes and Swiss Chard

Funny, none of my recipe books have a recipe for rabbit. Or wabbit...Not even, ironically, my Looney Spoons Cookbook. So I figured it's a white meat, but maybe closer to veal than chicken and looked for appropriate recipes. Basically I had red wine left over so I looked for a recipe that involved braising the meat in wine, to practice up for Osso Buco.

What I came up with was:
2 kg rabbit (what I had bought had been skinned and left on the bones. It's funny, you don't usually see a whole chicken sold with the skin removed. At least it had no ears. I couldn't have cooked it if it had ears)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
2 large onions
2 carrots
10 cloves of garlic (peeled but not chopped)
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp cumin seed (the original recipe called for 2 tbsp ground cumin, but I ran out and figured since it would be braised that the whole spices would work just as well, if not better)
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 28 oz can of plum tomatoes
1 c. red wine
2 tbsp. chopped cilantro, to garnish (or parsley)

I love the basic recipe of heating oil in a large pot or skillet, searing the meat, removing it, and cooking onions and other vegetables in the meat's juices. Then deglazing, like gravy, with the red wine, adding a broth (in this case tomatoes), and pouring the whole thing over the seared meat. The searing keeps the juices in the meat as it braises, and it's so practical to sauté the vegetables in the meat's own juices. So simple.

So I followed this for the rabbit. All I did was season with salt and pepper and seared it on medium-high heat turning it every 4-5 minutes so all the sides browned. Then I stuck it in the slow-cooker to wait for the sauce. The beauty of the slow cooker is you can have the same effect of braising the meat for a few hours in the oven, but you don't need to be in the house waiting for it to cook, checking it, basting it, wishing you were allowed to leave. And it cooks for longer at a lower temperature, giving you generally more tender meat. More delicious with less effort. Yes, I am a Grandmother, but if you smelled the rabbit in the slow-cooker all day (when you pop back into the house, since you are allowed to leave), you might be okay with that too...

Then I added the sliced onions and whole garlic cloves, reducing the heat to medium and cooking until the onions were translucent. I added the cumin and oregano for a few minutes and then poured over the cup of wine (dry is better...mine was a bit fruity and sweet). I added the tomatoes with their juices and brought the mixture to a boil, breaking up the tomatoes with my spatula. Finally, I poured the whole contents of the skillet over top of the rabbit in the slow-cooker (It fit a little better than the lobster had in the soup pot...) and set the heat to high for 6 hours. I think this was overkill, but I really didn't know how long to cook it for, and if you undercook it in the slow-cooker, you're waiting upwards of an hour for it to finish. I didn't have the time luxury of cooking it on low, so I crossed my fingers and hoped my having seared the meat would save me.

6 hours later I got home and the lovely little slow-cooker had turned itself to the "keep warm" setting, giving me time to make the mashed potatoes and swiss chard. I figured I should just make all the potatoes I had left, about 2 1/2 lbs, and a mix of colours and varieties (blue, yellow, and white, new, etc.). I decided to keep the skins on because I don't like textureless mashed potatoes. This took a bit more time, though, to scrub the potatoes instead of peeling them. After the scrubbing and chopping into small pieces (they'll cook faster when they're smaller and evenly-sized) I threw them in a steamer. 20 minutes later I took put them in a big bowl with a bit of the steaming liquid and threw the swiss chard into the steamer to wilt while I mashed the potatoes. I actually turn the heat off on the stove now and just let the chard steam with the heat that's left in the pot. I'm not a good masher, so I knew they'd have ample time to wilt while I worked.

It doesn't help that I don't have a masher. I have a slotted metal spoon...I also have no patience because the potatoes didn't have to be perfect. In fact I didn't even season them with salt, pepper, garlic, dijon or butter because the sauce from the rabbit was going to flavour it, and the whole garlic cloves were going to explode into it. So I mashed a bit (hence calling it "smashed potatoes" in the title of the post, not "mashed").

So I scooped a bunch of the smashed potatoes out onto a plate, made a well in the middle and put a piece of the rabbit on top, pouring some of the sauce, onions and tomatoes over it all. The chard got to decorate the side of the plate. The rabbit had basically fallen away from the bone into my serving spoon. There was no knife involved. It wasn't like a pulled rabbit; it stayed intact, but the meat wasn't tough or dry like a Sunday roast beef. Thank God for the slow-cooker. The meat was...well, more flavourful than chicken. It's a nice substitute. I wasn't won over by the tomato and wine sauce. It was a bit bland, but the garlic cloves were a brilliant idea on the recipe's part, because without them the potatoes would have tasted like nothing. Even with a small glass of wine, the meat wasn't incredibly flavourful, but it was satisfying and good and home made, and much better than a lot of restaurants. This would definitely be good for a family Easter dinner. Just maybe add a little lemon juice when you add the tomatoes, and a bit more wine to deglaze. Maybe also a dryer wine. Or a dry white, since it is white meat. Happy hunting.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

My Yoga Teacher Thinks I'm Suicidal (Maple-Walnut Granola with Dried Cranberries)

Okay, a PG13 version of masochistic at best.

So granola's tricky. Maybe everyone has a different ideal for granola, but I believe it should be clusters of sweet oats and dried fruit. If it's crumbly, it's not granola. If it's soft, it's not granola. If it burns, well, it may have been granola once...

I'm also a frustrated perfectionist.

3/4 c. packed brown sugar, divided
1/2 c. maple syrup

1/4 c. egg whites (about 2 large egg whites)

1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 1/4 tsp. maple extract
1 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground allspice

3 c. old-fashioned oats
1 c. walnut halves (broken in half)

1 c. dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 325 Fahrenheit and position rack in lower 2/3rds of oven. Prepare a baking sheet with spray or butter. Stir half a cup of brown sugar with the maple syrup in a heavy, small saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolves, occasionally brushing down the sides with a wet pastry brush. Pour into a large bowl and let cool to lukewarm.
Whisk in the egg whites, spices and extracts. Add the oats, nuts and remaining 1/4 c. of brown sugar. Toss well. Spread the mixture evenly on baking sheet and bake for 35 minutes. Using a metal spatula, flip the granola over and bake 10 minutes more. Sprinkle with cranberries and bake about 10 minutes more, or until the granola is dry. Cool the granola completely in the pan.

I know a lady (who's a much better baker and cook than me) who gave me this recipe for her maple-walnut granola with dried cranberries. The first time I made it I followed the recipe exactly and the granola was incredible. Of course. Good cook (her), good recipe (hers), good granola (mine).

The second time I made it, I substituted agave nectar, honey, and sugar water for the maple syrup and cut down on the brown sugar, and it turned into bland, clump oatmeal mixed with dried fruit, even after leaving it in the oven an extra 30 minutes hoping, in vain, that the water would evaporate out and the granola would get crisp. Bad cook (me), bad recipe (mine), bad granola (Alas, also mine).

So yesterday I decided to try again. I was going to follow the recipe, really, I was, but it calls for 1/2 cup of maple syrup, and maple syrup and I don't get along. It makes me gittery and anxious and irritable. So I used a cup of white sugar- substitute (xylitol), a quarter cup of water, and a tbsp of molasses (White sugar + molasses = brown sugar, and the water would give the oatmeal the liquid it needed to coat the oats and to not burn). I think this was fine, but I didn't get the total 1 1/4 cups of intense combined sugar and syrup flavour that the recipe called for. I shouldn't have estimated. My friend's recipe would not lead me astray. Granola is ridiculously sugary, and it's a treat, and I should have just done what the recipe said and dealt with the inevitable anxiety attack.

Granola-making and yoga, peas in a pod. Two things that if I actually did well, I would move to Vancouver to pursue among my brethren. After eating disappointing granola for a day, being over-tired, and very, very stiff, I decided to go to a yoga class. A new studio opened by my house, so the need to be outside in the cold to get there would last no more than 2 minutes. The class was free because it was my first time there, and it would be hot. 42 celcius, to be exact. An hour and a half until loose muscles and real sugar/fake-sugar detox.

My granola had tasted hollow. It smelled deceptively amazing from the Mexican vanilla extract I used, plus the cinnamon and allspice, but the sweetness of the dried dates (a fine substitute for cranberries) added at the end really didn't make the oats themselves any better. "Hollow" is really the only word I can think of to describe the result. Well, maybe depressing, but I ate it anyway and accepted it. There was nothing I could really do to change it.

...No downward-facing dog. No sun salutations. Lots of contracting, spine-bends and corpse-pose. 20 minutes into the class I am exhausted (not physically from the yoga, but physically from not sleeping enough), 45 minutes in I figure it's half over and I have no idea what to expect, and 70 minutes in I'm lying down thinking that my back aches, I never learn that yoga is bad for me, and I should have listened to my physiotherapist 4 years ago and given up physical activity altogether. I'd be better off letting my body degenerate into the cripple it so longs to be, to paraphrase.

So the granola had had the right texture. Perfectly crispy and clustered. It looked right! But it wasn't. A clever façade...The walnuts were nice, and the dates themselves were good, but I need to apologize to both my recipe-giver and the recipe itself for my hubris. Bad cook (me), bad recipe (mine), slightly better but lacklustre granola (Eternally, mine).

So now I wonder, if I can't eat maple syrup and I am horrible at adjusting the recipe, how do I make good granola? Can I just give up on this recipe when I know it can be so good? Maybe it's not worth making granola. Does it make my life any better?

The yoga teacher talks very fast and it's stressful trying to keep up with him. I'm lying in corpse-pose wondering why I thought this was a good idea. I'm locked in a room for an hour and a half, not allowed to leave (they "strongly suggest" you don't), in pain, not calming down, not feeling better, not feeling like this will benefit my body, soul, chakras or qi in the least. There is no state of dehydrated bliss. No endorphins. Just self-loathing. I would be better off if I had never stepped foot in the studio. At this moment my teacher philosophically announces:

"The way you feel in the yoga studio is a reflection of the way you are in life."


Thus, if I am to believe him, I am "exhausted", "in pain", "stressed", "disappointed", and in a state of "self-loathing", wondering if I ever should have come into this world.

And then I laughed. Mildly violent shivers of laughter. Apparently I'm also cynical. Well, that's apt, which in turns makes the rest more believable. So I laughed harder.

Well I had to stop laughing somehow...I didn't want to disturb the class (That's something you're also "strongly suggested" not to do), and the only way to do that, was consider the concept of yoga studio as a microcosm of life. Did he mean that the way I feel emotionally while doing yoga is the attitude I hold in my everyday activities? Or the physical feelings (stiffness and range of motion) from the class are what we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis? Surely we can feel a wider range of emotions than what we do in class, and I certainly hope to not limit my feelings to masochistic or suicidal tendencies. As much as I wasn't allowed to leave that room, neither can I step out of life. I dealt with the frustrations of the class, but it is my choice to not go back. I certainly thought I would a get a bit of pleasure through yogic pain, but no. No more hot yoga. A definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Maybe I can't decide to quit life like I can quit yoga, but I can decide to not believe what one yoga teacher says, take my downward-dog-free karma, and eliminate a little bit of the self-torture from my life. The cynicism will stay, I suppose.

I'll take my anxiety, my gitters, and my irritability, thanks. I will get much more personal satisfaction from making maple-walnut granola with dried time.

I fixed the potato salad!

On my last chance, I added another 1/2 tsp. of garlic powder and another tsp. of dijon mustard. It made everything better. On the downside, I have about a tbsp of kozlik's dijon left and no way to sample my next dijon mini-investment until I get back to Toronto, whenever that is. I may have to choose from the smaller selection at La Vieille Europe and cross my fingers. It's just not the same as St. Lawrence Market. Maybe I'm just nostalgic after talking with another Torontonian yesterday about the differences between Montreal's Jean-Talon and Toronto's St. Lawrence. Oh I miss it.

On the upside, I found Sizchuan Peppercorns at a little shop in Plaza St-Hubert today and hope to make my first recipe from Beyond the Great Wall soon: Sizchuan Chili Paste. More dried chili adventures.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Potato Salad with Flavour

You know how potatoes kind of taste like nothing? It's a sad fact that most people probably don't think potatoes have a flavour besides maybe "starchy", and I hardly call that a flavour. The fact that you need to coat them in a large amount of some kind of fat to make them worth cooking is not okay to me. There's nothing like a home made mayonnaise, but when there's just one of me and a whole lot of egg yolk, I get a little discouraged from putting in all the whisking effort, and then figuring out what to do with the egg whites and leftovers that want to attack me with salmonella if I leave them in the fridge for a few days. Picture a little war in your stomach. I don't want that. I avoid conflict.

So in my fridge I had organic potatoes from a small farm on the Quebec/Ontario border owned by an Ethiopian man and his wife. These are beautiful potatoes. Basically the whole concept of the farm was that this man moved from Ethiopia and didn't understand why food didn't taste like anything here, so he looked into how farms generally produce vegetables here, and decided this wouldn't do. Now he has his own farm and sells a lot of his produce year-round at ridiculously good prices (especially for the middle of winter when anything organic in frost-filled Montreal could cost a fortune and people would fork it to speak). So I had a veggie co-op bag full of vegetables and ended up with about 4 lbs of potatoes. I love roasting them, but I got a craving for potato salad...creamy but dairy- and mayonnaise-free. Well, almost.

I took three recipes (one for a mustard pepper dressing, one for a creamy garlic dressing and one specifically for potato salad) and put together the best parts of each, then added a few extras:

1/3 cup green onions, diced (white part and a little bit of green)
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar (only because I ran out of red wine vinegar and worked fine though)
2 tbsp dijon (I love the strong flavour, but if you don't, bump it down to 1 tbsp)
1 tsp garlic powder (you can use one minced clove of garlic but I prefer the milder flavour of the powder)
1 tsp honey or sugar
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup thick plain probiotic yogurt (not a fat-free kind or you'll end up with potato in yogurt soup. Soup is usually comfort food, but this? Not comfort food...)
2 tbsp. fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped
1 tbsp. olive oil

Whisk everything together except the olive oil and then add the oil in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Adjust the flavouring. At first it was too acidic from the vinegar so I added more yogurt. Then it lacked depth of flavour so I added more olive oil and garlic. If you're Greek, add more olive oil and yogurt. If you're French, add more dijon. If you're Canadian...well, go about it diplomatically and politely by adding a bit of everything and getting nowhere...

Then just toss it with about 1 1/2 lbs of potatoes that you've chopped into 1/2" pieces, steamed or boiled, and drained. You can let the potatoes sit while you make the dressing so their cooking liquid evaporates a little. Again, you don't want potato yogurt soup.

Once the dressing was on the potatoes the bite of it kind of faded and I felt like it needed more dijon, but I generally always think things need more dijon.

The next day, though, all the zing of the dressing had disappeared. All I could taste was I tried to salvage it by adding more dijon. Nope. Then I tried adding a bit of white balsamic, mostly because I'd just bought it and wanted to see if it was any good. Nope, didn't work. It made it sweet and fruity. Oops. Well, it wasn't bad, and I'll try again tomorrow to make the leftovers better. I think I may succumb to mincing fresh garlic. I know salt would probably help, or I could cheat and add a little tamari, but I really think those things shouldn't be necessary...we'll see. Oh! lemon juice??? Hmm...

Moral of the post: Get some really good organic potatoes, scrub them, don't peel them, and find a way to make them creamy without mayonnaise. At least then when you follow the rule "Everything in excess, moderation is for nuns", you won't have to worry so much about your heart and blood pressure mutinying.

Osso buco suggestions?? Anyone else? Speaking of gluttony...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bison Osso Buco Recipe Challenge

I've never made osso buco before...but I've eaten it once, and it was incredible. The reasons for never having eaten it before are:

1. It's notoriously an Italian bistro or restaurant dish (The Italian term 'ristorante' meaning a fancier and more expensive restaurant than 'bistro'), and here in Canada it usually sticks to our upscale versions of the 'ristorante'. So it's not the easiest to find, especially on a budget.

2. Making it yourself involves hunting down a specific cut of meat, and unless you go to a good butcher, it may be difficult to find. You can substitute cuts that do not feature the namesake "Hole in the bone" (Osso=bone, Buco=hole), but then you miss whole attraction of eating the marrow from the bone.

But since I once had a bison osso buco (and I don't eat the traditional veal version), I've been wondering how I could recreate the experience. Sorry to any vegetarians, but there's just nothing like it. I spent three weeks in Italy wondering why Risotto alla Milanese necessitated bone marrow, and now I very much understand. There's a depth of flavour, an over-the-top gluttouny, that makes you appreciate every sinfully-creamy bite. This also comes from the traditional stick of butter used to fry the marrow...but mainly from the thickening nature of the marrow itself. Anyway, this risotto is the labour-intensive traditional accompaniment to osso buco. Since I'm a marrow novice, I think I'll stick to simple creamy polenta as an accompaniment.

But I really want to make osso buco. When I stumbled upon a huge frozen cut of bison osso buco at Jean-Talon market at the butcher that specializes in bison, I decided it was time to learn. I even bought a decent bottle of red wine so I could have a glass or two over the course of a week and then use the rest to braise the osso buco. The thing is, I've started looking at recipes and most of them are served with a gremolata, a mixture of Italian parsley, orange zest (or lemon zest) and garlic. I hate orange in cooked food, and even the recipes that say to use lemon in the gremolata often have orange in the braising liquid itself. I'm not going to wreck my first home made osso buco experience by purposely cooking with an ingredient I don't think I'll like. I also am running low on wine since I drink a little each night...but that's okay because I should have a dryer one for the braising anyway. You can rationalize anything.

Anyway, I have a request. To my seven blog followers (and other mysteriously anonymous readers), I'm looking for a recipe for osso buco that uses:

1. Red Wine, not white, since I'm using bison, not veal (maybe an osso buco recipe for lamb would feature this)
2. A braising method that I can do without a dutch oven (Ideally I could do the first searing and saute-ing in a large skillet or pot and then transfer to the slow cooker, but transferring it to a roasting pan and covering with aluminum for hours is also an option.
3. No orange (zest, pith, or juice). Preferably no juices but lemon. I saw a recipe with pomegranate...I'm not ready to branch out yet.
4. No other ingredients that will overwhelm the flavour of the meat itself. A sweet reduction or a savoury jus is perfect, but it has to be about the meat.

So please help. If you give me a recipe, I will try my very, very best to pull it off. Then you'll get to read all about how the recipe went. I'll be your own personal test kitchen.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Lobster Bisque

I did this as a personal challenge...I've never bought a live lobster in my life. In fact I didn't even like lobster until a few years ago. Once, my mom made lobster and I couldn't eat it. The antenna, the eyes. God, it had eyes. It was gross, and staring at me.

But that was a long time ago. Now I quickly get rid of the head, put it where I can no longer see it (like not looking at the needle when you give blood), and concentrate on getting every little morsel of lobster meat out of the shell. How quickly I became a barbarian.

Still, I'd never bought my own lobster and taken it home alive. This was another step along the 'being comfortable with lobster' path. So I took my bike to the market. I went into the fish place and asked for two lobsters. They were huge. That's what the recipe called for - 2 lobsters. 1 1/4 lb each. They all looked the same size to me...must be 1 1/4 lb. Surely all lobsters are sold around the same size? Apparently not, these guys were enormous. I'll get back to that...

So I took my bag of lobsters, held it at arms length from my body, without seeming like too much of a scaredy cat in front of the fishmongers, and got quickly back to my bike. I put the bag in my back basket and carefully, carefully walked the bike home. I mean, the lobsters were moving. I could just picture a lobster flying out of my basket if I tried to bike with it. They're getting jostled enough by my walking the bike. They're going to get cooked, sure, but I think they should be in good condition pre-bath. I thought I heard something about the lobsters tasting better if they're not stressed. This was certainly stressful.

So I got them home and quickly heated my biggest pot with 3 cups of water, 2 cups of clam juice and 1/2 cup white wine. I don't think I've ever opened a bottle of wine so fast, even when I was a caterer. Except my biggest pot isn't that big. It's certainly not a lobster pot, and these were huge lobsters. Are you supposed to put the lobsters in the fridge while you wait for the water to boil? How long are they okay out of water? At least someone had told me you leave the elastic bands on. I should have referenced the Joy of Cooking...

So now the pot was boiling and I've got to put the lobsters in. I really didn't want to touch them with my hands, despite the elastic on their claws, but I thought about it for a second and kitchen tongs certainly weren't going to cut it with these gargantuan sea creatures. God forbid I ever make octopus. At least that isn't alive when you buy it.

So I stuck my hand in and got a lobster. Didn't drop it - it was a miracle - and I put it in the pot. Except it didn't quite fit. I kind of put it in sideways and it slowly started melting into the pot like pasta...and I kind of helped the claws get inside...but the lid wouldn't close. This was a nightmare. So I kind of pushed the lid down, guiding the struggling claws into the pot...and I stuck a plate on top of the pot to keep it down. God forbid a lobster jump out at me. It was actually my biggest fear to have a lobster running around my kitchen floor. Kind of like a cockroach. Mice I can handle, spiders sometimes, but lobsters? Nope.

I have a habit of turning down the heat when something's boiling to let it simmer. I had to remind myself that I wanted to kill this thing as quickly as possible, so leave the heat up. At least it didn't scream.

I waited nervously for 10 minutes. Couldn't even prep the carrot, celery, onion and fennel. Too scared. I lifted the pot lid and the lobster looked bright red, like it was supposed to when done...but wasn't it already red? How am I supposed to judge subtleties in hue at a time like this? Is there a lobster colour guide somewhere? And what if this lobster was bigger than it was supposed to be and took more time? What if I didn't properly kill it? Isn't that cruel torture? Lobster rights?

Well it seemed much for rights. So I took it out and put the second poor guy in. Repeat fear, anxiety, maneuvering, putting the lid on, and pressing down with a plate...It was no less painful the second time.

10 minutes later, two lobsters down, and I felt like the grim reaper.

Then I started in on one the first lobster while the second cooled. I removed the meat from the tail and the claws and threw out the roe and tomalley, chopped the meat and stuck it in the fridge. Then I did the second one. This took forever, because I wanted every little piece. There were scissors involved and knives and I think some swearing.

At least now the hard part was over, and I had more than half a bottle of wine left.

Now I chopped and added 2/3rds of the carrot, onion, fennel and celery (about a cup each) to the murder weapon, aka lobster cooking liquid, along with the lobster shells, a cup of chicken broth, tarragon, thyme, parsley and bay leaves. I brought this to a boil, reduced the heat (finally!) and simmered, partially covered for an hour and a half.

Then I breathed a sigh of relief and had a quarter of a glass of wine.

Now the fun part, I melted a tbsp of butter in a large skillet and added the remaining half cup of carrots, celery, fennel and onion, along with 2 cloves of garlic. 5 minutes later I added a big splash of white wine and cooked until the liquid had almost evaporated. Now I drained the lobster broth through a sieve, discarding the solids. Then I sprinkled the skillet mixture with 2 tbsp of flour to thicken the bisque, and stirred to cook the flour for a minute.

Finally I got to add the lobster broth, which smelled incredible from the intoxicating lobster flavour, clam juice and wine. I also added a cup of chopped potatoes and cooked it all for 20 minutes. Then added a small can of diced tomatoes and cooked another 20 minutes.

By now it was getting late and I was starving. No time to make salad while I was massacring lobsters.

I did the fastest blending job ever, throwing batches of bisque into my blender and then into a large bowl without getting lobster juice all over me (any more than it already was from cracking open two enormous lobsters. I probably smelled like Newfoundland by now. Then back into the pot, where I could finally add the reserved lobster meat (tons!), a cup and a quarter of almond breeze (mmm...creamy...replaced the whipping cream and milk), and 2 tbsp of brandy (well, disaronno. Worked perfectly). Then I cooked it for 5 minutes over medium-low heat, low enough to not burn off the alcohol. No boiling now. I'd done enough boiling for the day. I skipped the chive garnish and sat down with a bowl, and nearly died.

It was absolutely amazing. Everything I hoped it would be. Every bite of lobster meat took about 3 minutes to chew despite being so tender, because there was so much flavour in every mouthful. The liquid was intense, and the disaronno added just enough sweetness without overpowering the lobster's flavour. It was all worth it just to have the lobster broth. Anything would taste good in the lobster broth.

This is another recipe that you want to make with someone else for two reasons:

1. Moral support
2. To make the lobster shredding go a whole lot faster

Last list: My great accomplishments of the day were:
1. Not having lobster running amok all over my floor
2. Not drinking the rest of the bottle of wine out of nervousness
3. Being patient enough to make it to the end of the recipe

If I can do it, then so can you. Really. Go buy a lobster or 2. What's the worst that could happen?

Mango Date Squares

Mango Date Squares is a variation on Bonnie Stern's more traditional date square recipe from Heartsmart Cooking. I've made it a few times and it's always good, but I like my version a bit better. You know the cough syrupy sweetness of dates? Sometimes that's nice, but mango is refreshing, especially slightly under-ripe cooked mango.

The other reason to use mango is a practical one. Mangos are a whole lot easier to slice and chop than dried dates. Bonnie makes a lovely suggestion to use kitchen scissors to cut the original 1lb(!) of dates into pieces. This takes an age. If I were a Grandmother making date squares I'd probably die before I got them all chopped. If I were a Grandmother making date squares, however, I probably wouldn't have the back strength to chop them with a good knife either. I probably also should not be handling a good knife at that age, so near death and all.

So for all able-bodied date square-makers, skip the scissors and use a good knife to chop maybe 4 or 5 dates at a time. When the knife gets sticky, wash it off and keep going. Repeat, seemingly endlessly.

1/2lb dates
1 mango, cut into 1/2" cubes
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 tbsp lemon juice

Crumble crust:
1/3 cup butter (Room temperature!!!)
1/3 c. brown sugar
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
2 tbsp. molasses
1 c. flour
1 c. oats
1/4 tsp. baking powder

The recipe actually calls for more sugar and no molasses, but the dates are going to overwhelm the sweetness of the crust anyway, so it's more important to use good butter and get a crumb-like texture, which is easier with molasses or agave nectar (Molasses will taste much better. You could also use honey, but again, not as good).

Chop the dates and mango.

In a saucepan combine the filling ingredients, bring them to a boil, and reduce the heat to simmer for 12 minutes or so, until it's thick. The dates thicken up quickly but the mango needs a bit of extra time and has more juice to evaporate. Set the pot aside.

In a large bowl cream the butter, then add the molasses. When it's combined add the sugars, beating for 2 minutes. If you add the sugars first the molasses will rebel and decide it doesn't feel like playing with the other kids on the playground (sugars). Then you need to force it with a spoon. It's

In a medium bowl combine the flour, oats and baking soda. Add it to the butter/sugars and stir to combine. If the mixture is too crumbly, (it should be a little clumpy like a topping for crisp, but shouldn't stick to your hands) you need to adjust the liquid. There are a bunch of ways to do this but only one way to do it now. Next time you can use more butter, or melt the butter, but all you really need is a 1/4 tsp. of water. Add and mix with your hands for half a minute. If it's still too sand-like add another 1/4 tsp. water. This way you don't change any flavours, but you get the right consistency really easily. If the mixture is too creamy and sticks to your hands, add a little more flour or oats.

Put half this mixture into the bottom of a prepared 9"/11" baking dish (Butter or parchment paper, or aluminum). Spread the date/mango filling on top, and top it all with the rest of the flour mixture. Don't pat down. The little bumps from the topping will get crispy and brown, and contrast nicely with the base texture.

Bake at 350 Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned. This makes 25 squares.

Variations on a variation: Segregate the mango and dates, so split the filling ingredients in half and cook the mango in a different saucepan than the dates. That way you can make squares that are half date and half mango down the middle. Two desserts in one.

Or dry other dried fruit. Dried strawberries are expensive but to die for. They work nicely combined with the dates. If you're not sure how something will work, combine a little of it with the dates the first time you make it (You can even use dried mango, but fresh is much nicer). Then try a bigger "other dried fruit to date" ratio. Or, if you're daring, dry using only that dried fruit.

Dried Apricot squares? Add Grand Marnier or Disaronno to the saucepan as you cook the apricots.

You can also try adding rum to the dates. They're already cough syrup. It can't hurt.