Thursday, September 30, 2010

My First Jam: Figs!

So maybe the title sounds a bit like a kid's story book ("My First Tooth"? I never read those...) but you could have given me a quarter and I couldn't have been any more excited than I already was.

Figs are in season now! Not here, I know, but in California and in Greece. So much for my locavore cred. It's actually my dream to eat a fig fresh off a tree in Greece. California I don't care so much about because it's about a quarter as romantic a notion. Not that I would turn down a trip to California. What am I, well-insulated? Nope. Montreal's cold! By the time the figs get here from foreign lands they're good, but my tongue knows from how good they are now that they could be that much better. It anticipates the sweetness tinged with the tiniest bit of acidity that brings out the flavour that's missing.

So I went to my fruit guy, Leopoldo, in Jean-Talon Market. He still doesn't know he's a my fruit guy. Sometimes I speak French with him, and sometimes I speak English with him, and I haven't gotten up the guts to speak Italian with him because me and him and romantic notions like speaking Italian don't jive. Just imagine us jiving...Ridiculous.

He had boxes of fresh figs from both California (green and black kinds) and Greece (just black). The Greek ones were larger, plumper, and looked juicier. The Californians were slightly cheaper and smaller. So I bought a basket of green Californians, a basket of black Californians, and a box of Greeks. Into my Granny cart the box went, and the delicate baskets over my shoulder. Of course, there was no way I was waiting the 50 minute commute home to sample the figs...they are sprayed because they're imported, I think, so I did find some clean running water first.

Leopoldo said his favourites were the Greeks, but this is the first time we disagree. The Greeks were the most beautiful inside, and the juiciest, but the flavour was lacking. Looks were deceiving because the greens were actually the most delicious, though the skin was thicker and thus the texture not as nice. It wasn't like these were going to go to waste, but my plan was to take the ones I liked the least and make jam out of them. So the Greeks got jammed...after I ate a few more, just to make sure I was right.

2 lbs fresh figs (you really have to buy a lot so you don't feel bad about cooking them. Just think of the fig jam you'll get to eat in the middle of winter when there are no fresh ones to be found. It's not about denying yourself now, it's about treating yourself later) 
1 1/3 cup cane sugar
zest and juice of 1 small lemon

Remove the tips of the figs if there are any. Some of the Greek ones didn't have any, so that was easy.
In a large saucepan combine the figs with the sugar, lemon juice and zest. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring often. This takes awhile.
Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Then remove the lid and continue simmering, stirring often, until the mixture thickens. The original recipe said nothing about chopping the figs, so they'd been cooking whole this entire time, but that's very un-jam-like. So after an hour and fifteen minutes I crushed them with a slotted spoon. It made the jam thicken up faster, but you really need to stir often so it doesn't burn to the pot. 
You want it to get to the gel stage, which is thicker than you think. To test to make sure it's done put a small plate or saucer in the freezer for a few minutes, then take it out and put a little drop of the hot fig mixture on it. Then put it back in the freezer for 1 minute. Take it out and press the top of the jam down lightly with a finger. If it wrinkles a little then it's done.
While figs are cooking, you need to prepare the jars and lids. Sterilize: Wash jars, lids, and tightening rings with hot soapy water. Put a big pot of water on to boil (a canning pot - it has to be big enough to fit about eight 125mL cans or four 250mL jars so that the jars are covered on top by 2 inches of water). Boil the rings and cans (not the lids) for about 20 minutes. Then just leave the jars in the hot water (you can turn off the heat but leave the lid of the pot on) until you're ready to fill the jars. 

Put some more water in a small saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Then reduce the heat to low and add the jar lids. You never want to boil the lids because they seal with wax and so you don't want to melt it all in the water. Always use new lids, but you can use old (clean) jars and rings. Leave the lids in the slightly simmering water until you're ready to use them. the recipe didn't say how long to simmer, but I figured 10 minutes was more than plenty. They're new so you don't need to sterilize them in the same way as the jars and rings I guess?

Have some cloth towels ready (or something onto which you can set the hot jars down) and remove the jars and rings from the hot water. My slotted spoon/tongs methods works well. None of this fancy jar lifter business. French women probably didn't have such contraptions when they started making jam. You kind of need to do this relatively quickly, but if you're slow, it's okay as long as you don't put the cooled jars back into boiling water directly. Since the heat is turned off on the large pot you should be fine.

Fill the jars to the bottom lip (1/2 inch headspace). Wipe the rims of the jars and the threads with wet paper towel. Place the warmed lids on the jars using tongs (don't touch the rims now) and then you can use your hands (but still preferably tongs) to put on the rings. Then you'll have to use your hands to tighten the rings, but that's fine since the rims are covered. 
You kind of need to create some sort of rack to put at the bottom of the large canning pot of almost boiling water that you used to sterilize the jars since the filled jars shouldn't touch the bottom of the pot. I used a vegetable steamer since my cake rack was too big. Cake racks should be circular, I've decided. One day I will design a circular cake rack that is multipurpose. Then my life will be complete. I can make jam and cake using the same rack. What else could a girl want? Well, not diabetes, I suppose. 
Place the filled jars back in the water on top of your make-shift or purchased rack and bring the water back to a boil (if it stayed at a boil from before you save time, you need to fill the jars really fast so that they don't have time to cool off before they go back in the water. Boil the jars for 10 minutes. Start the timer only when the water comes back to a boil.

After 10 minutes take out the jar and set them upside down. I don't know if this helps but I've seen it in some recipes and I figure it can't hurt. When the jars are cool, tighten the lids a little more, and you're done! Ooh! Labels! Just in case you get all the jams you make messed up...yeah...right...

Monday, September 27, 2010

This Is What I Apparently Can't Get Myself To Save My Life...

We're going to play a little game...
Do you know what these are?

Most people reading this have probably never seen them before. I bought them for the first time in Vancouver at a market and as they were rock hard and inedible, I let them ripen for a few days. They started getting darker brown, shriveling up, and oozing a little. Well, that looked gross, so I threw them out. I guessed it was too warm and they were going bad instead of ripening properly.

As it turns out, that's what they're supposed to do. See how some are darker than others? Their nectar seeps out as they become the more shriveled version of themselves that you may actually recognize.

Don't worry, it's not your fault, since they don't grow here. If you lived in Iran or Tunisia you might recognize them. I assume this is one of the main types of the myriad that are grown there. In fact, I've only ever seen fresh ones on sale here from Tunisia, and generally I prefer the syrupy sweetness of the Iranian ones. They're different varietals, after all. Still, the Tunisian ones are the ones you'll find in this state and can let ripen on your counter (or in the case of Montreal in Fall, you can wait...and wait...and wait...), eating one by one as they ripen. If you leave them until they're just starting to darken and burst the sweetness is mild and the inside is still a little starchy - a world of difference from the dried fruit they can become. Just like people who've never had a fresh fig think they all taste like the dried ones. Well, does a grape taste like a raisin?

What do you get if you solve this riddle?

Well, hopefully a little laugh. A chuckle maybe. It's not "ha-ha" funny, really...It's more like when I was at a farmers' market in the rain standing partially under a tent, saying "It's not bad in here," just as a huge downpour of accumulated water ran off the edge of the tent onto the side and back half of my body...See? Hilarious. My life is hilarious.

Raw Tomato Cream Sauce

1/2 cup Brazil nuts (soaked 8 hours or overnight, or soaked and dehydrated...or not? Peeled is best but I didn't care about a smooth texture, and there are healthy things in the skin, I think)
1/4 cup water
1 medjool date, pit removed (soaked or not. Again, didn't care about a smooth texture)
6-8 cherry tomatoes
pinch of salt
Optional: 1/4-1/2 an avocado, a little lemon juice (lime for a fake, mediocre, but satisfying Thai dish), parsley, basil, or other fresh herb for garnish (or blend it in), garlic or onion, balsamic vinegar (not raw, I don't think...)

Instructions: Blend. That's all. As fine or as chewy as you want. It won't be crunchy unless you cut down on the water and rehydrate the nuts (I'd actually toast them until they're aromatic...but I'm not raw)

This experiment in "raw" oxymoronic cooking was a huge success. I wanted a tomato sauce that could also work as a dip or maybe even a bruschetta topping. I had these beautiful, sweet cherry tomatoes and some soaked and dehydrated brazil nuts (there's a ton of conflicting info on this. Some places say soak 8 hours or overnight, and others say don't soak at all...), so I threw in one medjool date for sweetness, a quarter cup of water, maybe 6 cherry tomatoes, a pinch of salt and...I think that was everything. Sounds bland, but my plan was to re-adjust the seasonings after, maybe add some lemon, but I decided not to in the end since it didn't need any.

For a first attempt at throwing stuff in the blender and calling it a sauce I was pretty happy with it as it was. I don't like raw garlic or raw onion and the powdered stuff tastes either too weak or too metallic. Next time maybe I'll experiment with herbs - add (or garnish with) some chopped parsley.

It's the end of zucchini season. Really, it's already pretty much done, but I found a bunch of big ones at the Plateau Farmers' Market yesterday and these will be put through my handy metallic grating thing and turned into noodles. Raw tomato sauce are generally junk because they're more like chopped tomatoes than sauce, but the creaminess from the brazil nuts (could also have used cashews or pine nuts) makes it into a pesto-type sauce. It reminded me of the pad thai that was not pad thai, but wasn't bad, at Rawlicious in Toronto. Except mine cost pennies and I wasn't disappointed.

Oh, I should explain how to use this differently. For a bruschetta just dice the the ingredients instead of blending, or use a food processor to chop finely. Don't use the water.

You can dilute the sauce to your liking, but thicker is usually better so it doesn't turn soupy. It's easy to make it more liquidy, but hard to make it less so once you've added too much water. If you want it less creamy use fewer nuts. Or think about adding some balsamic vinegar.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Another Ridiculous Cake: Almond Angel Food Cake With Amaretto Cinnamon Figs and Honey Amaretto Cream

It was my friend's birthday and she made a joke that someone should make her a cake. I never joke about cake.

So I needed to find a recipe for a cake that was large, but traveled well. So layers were out, and icing would be tricky. I've always thought of angel food cake as nothing special, but Bonnie Stern proved me wrong. Add some toasted ground almonds and lemon zest as well as some amaretto and vanilla flavours, soak some figs in cinnamon syrup and add a tangy crème fraiche...and voila, the food of angels. Not something you buy in a grocery store. The texture is soft and light without being all air. It's practically without fat (it would be completely without fat except for the addition of the ground almonds and my use of a high-fat yogurt for the small drizzle of cream) and it's completely, amazingly delicious. Almost enough to make me want to convert to something. If it promised this cake as a reward (in writing) I'd consider it. Probably more likely that if someONE promised me this cake (again, in writing, or the form of a ring or band) I'd go along with him too.

1 cup cake and pastry flour (I used Première Moisson, which is all-purpose but works very well for baked goods)
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided (I used real, granulated sugar here to get the right texture. I was worried cane sugar would be too coarse)
1/4 cup almonds, toasted and ground (without skin. You can use sliced or whole and just grind them after you toast them in a small skillet or saucepan over medium heat until they start to turn golden brown and aromatic)
1 1/2 cups egg whites (the recipe says "about 12" so I just used 12. Not a great idea sometimes, but it worked. I hate fussing with egg whites since they don't like to be fussed with once separated from their yellow brothers)
1 tsp cream of tartar (a whole teaspoon! I've never in my life used a whole teaspoon at once!)
a pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
1 tsp lemon peel (I assume this is the same as zest?)

Amaretto Cinnamon Figs
3 cups water
2/3 cup honey or sugar (cane sugar is fine here since it melts. Honey is better)
2 cinnamon sticks
1/4 cup amaretto (or orange liqueur or orange juice concentrate, but why would you use those unless you don't drink alcohol and don't want to get stuck with finding something to do with the rest of the bottle? I think you can get a little taster bottle of Disaronno at the liquor store. The alcohol gets cooked off anyway)
1 1/2 cups dried figs, stems removed - just twist them off (you could also use dried, sulphur-free apricots - the darker ones - and the cooking time will be less in that case)
1 tbsp lemon juice (or to taste)

Amaretto Cream:
1/2 cup thick, unflavoured yogurt, strained through a fine-mesh sieve lined with a cheese cloth or paper towels...or just a thick yogurt. Low-fat if you want, but the higher fat ones are generally creamier (pinehedge!). I personally hate the zero fat Greek-style yogurt from Liberté but you could use that if you so chose to keep the fat down. Come on, though, it's an angel food cake. Reducing the fat even more is like overkill, and killing is hardly angelic. MORE killing is even less so)
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp amaretto (or orange liqueur or orange juice concentrate. I have a feeling you could also just use a tiny bit of almond extract)

So this takes an age, but it's SO worth it. It's elaborate and a little difficult, but the end result is heavenly, so to speak. You can do it.

 1. Step one is to make a pan. Yes, make a pan. If you don't own an angel food cake pan or a 10 inch (4L tube pan) that is. I used an aluminum 8 inch cake pan and some aluminum foil.
The aluminum part is important because it's a whole lot easier to remove the cake from the pan if you can tear the pan apart. It's kind of like a quasi-removable bottom. I toyed with the idea of doing two 8 inch cakes and then putting a frosting between the layers, but that doesn't travel well. If you wanted to do this, cut the baking time down to 18-25 minutes, or there about. Check it and be brave.
2. Toast the almonds and grind them in a blender or food processor or coffee grinder. Or just chop very finely. Add it to the flour and 3/4 of a cup of the sugar in a medium bowl and sift together. The almonds won't sift incredibly well, but don't worry. 

3. Separate the egg whites from the yolks. Put on some music while you do this to keep yourself entertained...Put the egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt in a large heatproof bowl (not aluminum) and don't get any water or yolk in the bowl. That will stop the whites from rising as much. To save the yolks from the garbage, add 4 1/2 teaspoons of sugar to them in a freezer-safe container, shake the container to mix, and put it in the freezer. Now you have lots of yolks for your next dessert. You can also do this with a certain quantity of salt if you want the yolks for savoury dishes such as mayonnaise. They'll also keep in the fridge for 2 days but 12 yolks in two days? There goes your heart. You can also freeze the egg yolk mixture in ice cube trays and then transfer to a freezer bag to have them in small quantities instead of struggling with a block of egg yolks the next time you want 2 yolks for a custard.
4. Set up a double boiler and bring a saucepan of water to a simmer. Place the bowl of egg whites on top and stir until they're warm (3-5 minutes). No need to stir for the entire time, just don't let them cook on you. So don't forget about them. Apparently if the egg whites are warm (at least room temperature) they'll triple in size. Cold whites won't do such a good job of expanding. Please, please, please, don't forget about them and let them cook. You just separated 12 eggs. You don't want to do that again. In fact, by now, you probably want to invest in an egg separator or use horrible liquid egg white products.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
6. When the whites are warm start beating them on low speed until they're opaque (if you beat on high they get too much air too fast and they're more unstable). Turn the mixer to medium and slowly beat in the 3/4 cups of sugar. Beat until the elusive soft peaks stage. Then beat in the almond extract and vanilla extract. Now get the bowl off the heat! You've come this far. No messing it up now!

7. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the egg whites as you fold it in. You can do this in 3 stages (add 1/3rd flour, fold; add 1/2 remaining flour, fold; add remaining flour, fold) but I like the pouring it in with one hand as you fold with the other because it keeps the flour separate. You can use a dry measuring cup to pour the flour if the bowl is heavy.
 8. Fold in the lemon peel (zest). Now you've got to work fast since the egg whites aren't getting any fluffier.
9. Gently spoon (I poured...gently) batter into the pan you created (or had) and lightly smooth the top before sticking it in the oven for 40-45 minutes. The recipe says check it with a cake tester to make sure it's done...does this mean a toothpick? I've never made an angel food cake before so maybe a cake tester is a fancy gizmo that I don't own. The mythical "cake tester" should come out clean and dry. Sure sounds like a toothpick to me. I don't I went with the other indication: when the cake springs back when gently touched.
10. Now a little bit of a scary part. Turn the cake upside down on a rack and let it cool for an hour. I had to cut down the sides of the aluminum foil. I was not about the have the centre of my cake fall out onto a rack. So I put a towel under the bottom of my cooling rack and placed the rack directly on top of the cake. Then a deep breath...and flip! Phew! Leave it in the pan for now unless you know it's going to come off easily and you don't need to travel with the cake. I just wrapped it up in its own aluminum foil and traveled with it as it was after cooling.
11. Now you have a plain white fluffy cake, but what are you going to put on that cake? Bring the water, honey and cinnamon to a boil in a large saucepan (large is better than medium since there will be more surface area and the figs will spread out more evenly). When it comes to a boil add the amaretto, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes.
Then add the figs and cook about another 30-35 minutes, stirring every few minutes to saturate the figs. When they're soft and tender add the lemon juice to taste (I liked more than a tbsp) and cook for one more minute. You're not going to serve the cinnamon sticks but leave them in there for now to let them keep infusing the syrup. If the syrup is too thick add more hot water.

12. For the drizzle, combine the strained or unstrained yogurt with the honey and amaretto.
13. The assembly: Peel the aluminum foil and aluminum pan off your cake or somehow remove it from the pan. A removable bottom is a good thing, but so are scissors. Turn the cake upright on a plate or serving platter. See how it's already sinking in the middle? Be careful with weighing it down and saturating it with liquid.
14. Place the figs in a pattern you like (I liked it kind of like a flower, but I'm not that artsy I think, and it was all I could come up with), and let some of the syrup drizzle down the sides. If you get too much of it in the middle the cake will collapse, so be careful not to weigh it down with the syrup or the figs.
15. Then spoon the amaretto cream over top. You can use a squeeze bottle but who has one of those? Just don't pour it or, again, the cake may collapse, and that would be a disaster. You made it to the end! Take a picture. Then dig in to an angelic dessert.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Herbes Salées and Roasted Potatoes

Salted herbs: take some herbs and add salt. Or buy a small container of minced herbs preserved in salt. I found a nice bottle at an organic place I like and decided to give it a test drive. Seems to wasteful, I know, but there had to be something special about it. See, there are vegetables in this herb mixture too, so I figured it would be a higher vegetable-to-salt ratio than if I just added salt by itself. So maybe the sodium content is actually lower than an equivalent amount of salt because you're diluting it with vegetables. Maybe not. Basically it's overpriced salt, but you pay for the convenience of not chopping and mincing all these vegetables yourself. Ah, modern day consumers.

I had some organic new potatoes that tasted divine, so I chopped them a little, threw them in a roasting pan with a teaspoon or 2 of olive oil and maybe 1/2 a teaspoon of herbes salées. That stuff is pungent. Or just sprinkle with salt, oil, and your dried herb of choice. You can also add other vegetables but good luck mincing them like those in my container of French salted things. Toss to coat and place in a preheated 400 degree Fahrenheit oven for about 15 minutes. Take them out of the oven, use a lifter (you may need to scrape) to turn them over, and stick them back in the oven for another 10-15 minutes. They should be soft. Test one and if it's soft enough for you it's done. If you chop them all the same size, they should all be done. If not, test a bigger one because if a bigger one is done, then the small ones definitely will be too.

You can roast at a lower heat for longer if you have the time, or higher heat (and watch them carefully so they don't burn) for shorter. It also depends on the size of your potatoes. The smaller they are the faster they'll roast.

Use good quality potatoes and you'll be very, very happy. Yes, potatoes taste like something, and small new potatoes taste sweet and smooth. A tiny bit of lemon juice is good to add at the end if you like a more acidic potato. Mediterranean-style. I didn't feel up to it. Felt more French. The French would cry.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I Pickled! Daikon Radish Threads and Easy Red Chilies

I feel like I'm one step closer to grandmother-hood. No, there is no man involved, or God forbid, children, but there is canning. I made my first canned things and if they don't get all mouldy in the next few weeks I'll feel an even great sense of accomplishment. So after an entire summer of twiddling my thumbs preserve-wise, I jumped on the canning bandwagon with two simple recipes:

Pickled Red Chilies and Pickled Radish Threads

Why not start with jam, you ask? That seems like where everyone starts. You get lulled into stuffing excess seasonal fruit into jars. Maybe tomatoes or peppers, but radishes? Who has an excess of radish? Apparently, I do.

Actually, what really happened is that I bought a really nice organic radish from the farmers' market and had some on a salad, only to remember that I hate daikon radish. I mean, a tiny bit is okay, but there was no way I wanted to force that whole radish into my body. So it was throw it out or find something fun to do with it. I also had a quarter pound of cayenne chilies sitting in my fridge from when I bought a huge bag of them a few weeks ago to make an amazing Vietnamese cooked hot sauce from VietWorldKitchen. The appeal of this recipe for pickled red chilies (not from the same website) was that I didn't have to remove the seeds from the chilies and I didn't need to chop them very much. They're pretty fuss-free as far as chilies go. They're also about 5 pages apart in one of my favourite books, "Beyond the Great Wall", a cookbook/travel book about the food and cultures of the ethnic minorities of China. It's a very interesting hybrid of recipes you may think of more as Korean, Thai, Afghani, etc. because of the outside influences and the vast terrain that is China.

Anyway, to pickle these things I combined all my just-learned canning knowledge. I had to adjust the process a little to be extra safe. Here was the method.

I brought a huge pot of water on the stove in my stock pot and put 3 empty (cleaned in hot, soapy water) jars and rings inside to make sure the water came a good 2 inches above the tops of the jars. You could double or triple these recipes to make lots, but I was just experimenting, and the recipes only made about 3 jars-worth of pickles. I brought the pot to a boil and boiled for 5 minutes. The bringing it to a boil stage took so long since there was so much water that I had time to prepare the rest of the recipe. I'd bought new lids for my recycled jars (skipping using the jar that had contained moose meat...) and washed those in hot soapy water too, being careful that my hands were very clean. I lay them on clean towels and didn't touch them again with my hands. I had another clean towel ready for my jars too.

Okay, then the recipes.

Red Chilies:
1/4 pound of long red ones, washed, stems removed, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces (measure out 1 packed cup)
1 cup rice vinegar
1 tbsp kosher salt (I had coarse sea salt. Apparently recipes call for kosher salt because it doesn't have the iodine or anti-caking additives of table salt that make the pickle brine go cloudy and the pickled things dark, but any salt is fine. It'll just look weird. My coarse sea salt may be fine since I doubt is has these additives)
1/4 tsp sichuan peppercorns
1 start anise, whole or in pieces

So you've got the chilies chopped and measured. Now bring the vinegar to a boil. While it's coming to a boil add the salt and stir to dissolve. Then add the peppercorn and star anise. Bring it to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer 30 seconds. It'd not like it'll go from a boil to just a simmer in 30 seconds, but just don't let it boil out of control. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm. You only want to add hot brine to your pickles so it can't get too chilly. Done.

Pickled Radish Threads
1/2 pound daikon radish, peeled and coarsely grated (or very thinly sliced, but it won't be "threads" this way)
1 scallion, minced (I figured they meant green onion here, but I didn't have any, so I skipped it and upped the onion below)
1/4 of a small onion (I used a small red onion that kind of had green onion ends. The ends weren't fresh anymore but I figured the red onion was enough like a shallot to substitute for both the onion and scallion in the recipe, so I used a bit extra)
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp kosher salt (here's that salt again. See above for what I did)
1/2 tsp dry-roasted sichuan peppercorns, ground (OOH I love these things. To roast, put them in a frying pan over medium heat for about 4 minutes, or until they're fragrant. Then grind them in a mortar and pestle, coffee grinder, or in a closed bag with something heavy like a pot. You can also skip them)
1 1/2 cups rice vinegar
I have this cool slicer thing that looks like a relic of the industrial revolution. It has fun attachments for grating things to different sizes. I used the small grater and made angel hair pasta sized radish threads. I then chopped the red onion but realized I should have just sliced those up too using the same size attachment on my contraption. Could have done the same with the ginger, but minced is nicer since it spreads better in the pickle.

Anyway, combine the radish, onion (scallion), and ginger in a large bowl and stir to combine. Roast the peppercorns and have the vinegar handy, at least at room temperature, but it would be better to put it on low to medium heat in a small saucepan. Canning safety and all.

Now just wait for your jars to be boiled for the five minutes. Rolling boil. None of this wimpy steaming simmer business. So I don't have a jar lifter. I have tongs and a slotted spoon. I figured women have been canning without jar lifters for ages, so so could I. They probably didn't have tongs either, but the point is they adapted and worked with what they had. I took the pot off the heat and carefully got my tongs under the lip of the first jar and my slotted spoon under the bottom of the jar. I got it out of the water and carefully poured out the water from inside the jar. With a little re-adjusting of the jar I then got it onto a clean cloth next to the pot. 1 down, 2 to go.

When all three were out I pout the lids of the three jars in the hot water to have a tea party with the rings that I just left in there. Out came my chopsticks (of my drawer, not the water. I cleaned them in more hot soapy water - really my hands are like prunes now - and got to work on my chilies). I stuff as many chilies as I could into a jar, filling it up to the first lip and stuffing them down to make room for some more. I poured the heated vinegar/salt/star anise over it to just a little below the edge. There was a little leftover of both the chilies and brine so I put that in another can. Then back to my tongs and slotted spoon since enough time had elapsed to soften the wax on the lids in the hot water. I got two lids out, one by one, and put them on top of my jars of chilies. The second jar wasn't full, so I wasn't really going to let it ferment like it should, but I figured I'd do all the rest of the process for practice. Then I got two lids out and tightened hand-tight. Phew!

Now the radishes. I took half the vegetable mixture and stuffed it into a mason jar (bigger than a normal jam jar but with the same size lid) since I only wanted to make one jar. Then I added 1/2 tbsp of kosher salt and all of the roasted and ground peppercorn. Then I added the rest of the radish mixture and then the rest of the salt. Finally I poured on the vinegar to just below the top. The jar was stuffed pretty full, as it should be. Back to my tongs and slotted spoon. Out came a lid, carefully placed on top and then a ring to tighten. Now you shake the mixture to distribute the salt and vinegar. Oh I also "bubbled" it after adding the vinegar. That means pressing down with chopsticks or a spatula to get air bubbles out and condense the jar contents. My only concern was that the radishes were threads so they'd spilled a bit over the rim and were tough to get into the jar, and I probably should have wiped down the rim with a clean cloth, but I used my chopsticks well to move things into the jar and I hadn't touched anything with my fingers except the body of the jar and the tightening ring. I never touched the lid. Done! Well, almost.
The recipes say now to leave the jars in sunny places, but after my canning workshop I wanted to be extra careful, so I put my jars (only the 2 full ones since the other was going to be opened right away anyway) back into my almost boiling water using my tong/spoon method, and brought the water back to a boil. When it got back to a boil (just a few minutes since it retained so much heat from before) I set a timer for 20 minutes. Ding! Tong/spoon and the jars were safely out onto a cloth to cool. Now it went to a sunny spot by the window for 2-4 days. Well, it went there for a few hours and then I figured it wasn't warm enough and so I put it in the oven with the light on. During these 2-4 days you're supposed to occasionally shake the jar. That's all there is to it. Keeps indefinitely if refrigerated and well sealed. What a miracle.

The chilies also got some window time before going in the oven with the light on. They get two days of light and then get refrigerated for 2 weeks. That mellows the flavour, takes away the heat and increases the sweetness. Mmm...My extra half jar got opened right away (it popped! but that doesn't mean it was properly sealed. With all that air in there it couldn't have been good, so it's good to know that a jar can pop and still not be okay).

A few notes: if you use a different kind of chili you can strip out the seeds to decrease the heat and emphasize the flavour.

I had extra vinegar brine for the chilies and that's apparently normal (says the recipe). Just use a funnel or a yogurt container with the bottom cut off to pour the brine into the jar. Pouring from a saucepan is not a great idea. I now have vinegar-ed kitchen cloths.

Maybe eating a quick-pickled cayenne is not a great idea, even if it is delicious. I took my half jar and had it with some potatoes and was good, but wow did my stomach and mouth burn after that one. A little goes a long way. Stop before the burn kicks in because by then it's too late.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How Do You Mess Up A Lemon-Butter Sauce?

There are really only two primary ingredients in a lemon-butter sauce. You'd think I could do it properly...

Mais non, with me, the easy things become hard and the "any idiot can do it" things become disasters.
I bought fish at St. Lawrence Market in Toronto at 4pm. That means everything goes on special. I bargained and asked if the fish guy would give me an extra discount on the black cod if I bought some smoked salmon. Sure, $3 off per pound. What that meant was I could afford the black cod. I bought one fillet. Just one. Enough fish for 2 people. It only cost about $8. This is still ridiculous but if you've had black cod you will understand. Really you don't need a sauce for this fish. The flesh itself already tastes like butter. Just add a little salt and pepper and grill, bake, roast or broil this fish to perfection. The only thing you can even do wrong is over-cook it. It should fall apart at the touch of your fork. To me, this is heaven.

So by adding a lemon butter sauce I was probably asking for trouble. Why mess with a good thing, right? I figured adding a tiny bit of butter would enhance the natural buttery-ness, and as long as I didn't add too much lemon, it would contrast the sweetness. I searched long and hard for a good lemon-butter sauce recipe, which is stupid because it's so simple, but I had vermouth, see, and I wanted a sauce that would use that as well. I also didn't want to add any cream because a little butter is all my poor lactose-intolerant belly can handle. Oh, and I had no chicken stock, the recipe had to be just lemon, butter, oil, salt, pepper, vermouth and capers (I bought some capers because those go with fish and lemon sauces, right?

I can't even find the recipe I used but it had way too much lemon juice (1/2 a lemon's worth I think), too many capers (my fault, I think. It only called for 1/2 a teaspoon or something way too small, so I doubled it and probably didn't drain them very well. So it was pretty brine-y), and just a dab of butter at the end. I should have dabbed more, probably. I deglazed with a splash of vermouth, as called for, but it evaporated in about 1 second even though my temperature was at the right level. So I added another splash to create some actual liquid. Probably there should have been more to balance the lemon juice.

Worst thing was I still managed to under-cook the fish, only slightly better than over-cooking it. I wasn't too worried about under-cooking it because of all the lemon and the anti-microbial properties thereof.

Still, it wasn't great. It was way too lemony to taste the exquisite black cod. Less is more, Amie. Skip the sauce entirely next time and let the fish flavour shine.

Or follow a proper recipe, one that's a book...or on a blog or website I trust. No more taking chances with black cod. It is far too delicious. At least the anise flavour from the top of the fennel was subtle enough.

I roasted some fennel and tomatillos. The fennel was perfect. The tomatillos made me cry a little, they were so bitter. I missed my Quebec tomatillos. No wonder no one buys them...they're often so disgusting...but my perfect ones from the market in Montreal...heaven.

Hits and misses, this meal. Maybe I'll get it right next time.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sticking Things In Cans (Well, jars, really...but it wasn't such a "jarring" experience)

Today I learned to can. I'm a very strange girl in her 20's who obsesses about things such as canning. I've been trying to find someone to show me the wonders of this jar-art all summer. Well, I understand already how wonderful it is, so maybe more the intricacies of canning was what I needed to learn.

And finally, an opportunity! The Concordia Sustainable Food Festival and a one-hour "learn to can" workshop. There was a hand-out. I sat in the front and was the overly eager student who asks a ton of questions, not even noticing the people around me and whether or not they were becoming pissed off. Fortunately there was a lot of time to ask questions, and nobody got to the point where they started yelling at me to shut up and watch. So that was good.

The jars were pre-sterilized before coming to the site (20 minutes at a specific temperature. Look it up! Or clean them in the dishwasher, or my aunt's method of 20 minutes in the oven at 220 Fahrenheit), which is not ideal, but they got warmed in boiling water so they wouldn't burst when put back in boiling water once stuffed with vegetables. The vegetables were all pre-sliced (raw) - carrots, cauliflower, green beans, zucchini, onions, garlic - and some standard spices (coriander, black pepper, and fresh thyme.

Important stuff:

When you warm the jars, don't wait for the water to boil and then put them in. That defeats the whole point. You don't want to shock the glass by putting them directly into the boiling water. Better yet, just leave them in the water after sterilizing them, until you're ready to fill them.

When you stuff vegetables you want to avoid touching the lip of the jar. That was important. That can cause contamination. That's why you want to sterilize immediately before stuffing, if possible.

Always follow a recipe! An online recipe is fine, but don't just wing it unless you're a Grandmother who's been doing this all her life, and even then you'd have to be a Grandmother who was okay with potentially dying from botulism. I mean, you really only ever want to be so old anyway, right?

Use an old yogurt container as a funnel to pour the brine of vinegar, water and salt into the jars stuffed with vegetables into the bottom of the jar lip. Stuffed - as in really full. All-you-can-eat sushi kind of full.

Once the brine is in the jar use a spatula or chopsticks or something pointy and thin to push any air bubbles out from under the vegetables. You want them as packed in as possible. The brine should come up a few centimetres above the vegetables, so it shouldn't overflow the jar, but make it pretty full.

Use tongs (or chopsticks) to take the heated and sterilized sealing lid (the tops that pop on jars of homemade things when you first open theory). Don't pick it up with your hands or all your careful sterilizing will be for naught.

Then you can use your hand to pick up the sealing ring (the thing that twists) and place it over the lid, and tighten it. Not too tight, but just closed solidly without too much extra tightening.

You've got to do all this before the jars cool off or they may explode in the boiling water. You can also put them into not quite boiling water and then start timing the 20 minutes to seal them once the water returns to a boil.

Boil 20 minutes on a high rolling boil. DO NOT lower the heat. It's like lobster - just let it boil.

Wait 3 or 4 weeks (or less depending on the vinegar, or the pickling method, apparently, since pressure cookers are different and different methods that don't use vinegar may give different times, or if the vegetables, sauces or fruit are already cooked they may not need much time.

To put the jars into the boiling water and take them out you're going to want to invest in just one item: a jar lifter. Not too expensive and well worth it.

Just make sure the jars are covered by at least two inches of water when you sterilize and when you boil them after stuffing. Very important.

Some places say turn them over when you remove them from the boil at the end to seal, but some don't, so just follow a recipe you trust. The workshop people recommended a blog called "Food In Jars" for lots of tips and recipes.

Why I love canning:
You can buy in bulk and eat local all winter if you can stand a ton of sugar or vinegar or lactic acid or oil.

You don't actually have to cook the vegetables! It's not "raw" food since some things get boiled (the vinegar and all and the vegetables sort of get cooked, but I'm sure it's better than boiling the heck out of the zucchini in the first place.

It's so versatile! Everything from sweet sauces to infused liqueurs, to jams, jellies, pickles, fruits, herbs, etc. Brilliant.

There are no preservatives!!!!!!!!!!!

It's so affordable and you can recycle jars (the jar itself and the tightening ring, but not the lids). So all those jars of preserves you didn't want? Well, if you didn't re-gift them on someone else you can suffer your way through them and then sterilize them and make something even more delicious. At then you''ll understand all the work that went into making them in the first place.

Next stop, chili peppers.

Happy,, happy disturbing canning?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Newfoundlanders' Shot of Chartreuse Verte

I did not make this. In fact, this is probably a heavily-guarded secret recipe.

Chartreuse Verte is delicious (whatever it's made of) if you like strong liquor. It’s mildly sweet, a little herbal, and very alcoholic. It’s also translucent green. To me, these are all very good reasons to drink this beverage. I first had it in a very good cocktail at L’Assommoir. Skip the salmon tartar and go for the cerf tartar, but either way, try a few drinks from their pages and pages of options. This is a place where mixology is an art. You want to see the show. They don’t really do drink discount specials, but when you have a bit of extra cash for a fun night or early evening, it’s a good place to come.

Anyway, I don’t often have a ton of extra money for splurges, so months and months after first trying a drink with Chartreuse Verte, I finally looked for it in a liquor store (SAQ). Actually it was Game 3 of the last Montreal playoffs series that I first tried it at L’Assommoir, a good restaurant/bar in the Old Port. It was August before I got to a liquor store. So you can figure out the time-line on that one. I was just curious what this stuff looked like…and how much it cost, of course.

Apparently there’s another kind of chartreuse (a different colour, presumably) that’s even better but the SAQ doesn't carry it. So I hummed and I hawed over the price of the green stuff, which really wasn’t that horrible since you certainly don’t drink a lot of this stuff at once, and decided it was time to splurge.
You want to serve it on ice, so you need a glass big enough for a shot of it plus some ice cubes. That's where my former roommate’s Newfoundland shot glass came in. It’s the size of four shots, so just the right size. It even marks off 1 oz if you’re a mainlander, 3 oz if you’re a townie, and 4 oz if you’re a bayman. Now I’m not from ‘round the bay. I’m definitely a townie since I’m from St. John’s, but I wasn’t about to have 3 oz of this stuff, so I downgraded myself to a mainlander, and a weak mainlander at that, as shown by the picture.

It was just enough. The first sip is very strong, but once the ice starts melting just a little, before it’s too diluted, the mix is perfect.

So get yourself a good shot glass, or a small, heavy tumbler and have just a taste of something delicious. Note: that does not necessarily mean Chartreuse Verte (they’re not paying me) and that does not necessarily mean something alcoholic. How about some fresh blueberry juice from some strained, crushed jam berries?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wild Blueberry Sauce, Or Jam, Or Pie Filling

I bought “jam” blueberries from Jean-Talon market. They were the cheapest wild blueberries I’ve seen in the city - $7 for about as many cups. None of this crazy $35 a basket business. I come from Newfoundland where you go out and pick your own gosh-darn blueberries. You maybe buy blueberries from the man who comes door to door selling them. Or maybe you buy the local ones at the grocery store to top up your own jam or frozen berry supply, but you don't go spending a fortunate on them.

So these were the only blueberries I bought this year. I will not bankrupt myself for the sake of over-priced fruit.

I’ve also grown up on blueberry pie. It’s nothing special. Homemade crust-making is in my blood. So that’s the last thing I wanted to do with my blueberries. Oh, “jam” berries just meant the berries were a little over-ripe, or should be used right away, so they were cheaper. They were just fine, though. Not even squished. So I washed them, froze about half, stuck some of the firm, less-ripe ones in my fridge to eat fresh on salads or yogurt or cereal, and put the rest in a saucepan on the stove with about 2 tablespoons of sugar, a few tablespoons of water, and a cinnamon stick.

I brought the pot to a simmer over medium heat, and then reduced the heat to medium-low for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure they didn’t burn. Next time I think I’d do this in the slow-cooker with way more berries so I could cook them longer at a lower temperature and get more of the cinnamon flavour into the berries.

After the 25 minutes I added a few tablespoons of lemon juice (succo di limone – bottled, not fresh, but still good. I’d been disappointed in my organic lemons lately. They seemed too sweet. I’d had to use way too much fresh lemon juice to make things lemon-y). Just add it to taste. I like it a bit more sour because it brings out the flavour of the berries. Wild berries are usually naturally more sour, but these were both sweet and flavourful – a rarity.

This “sauce” is perfect on its own – eat with a spoon…or you can serve it over ice cream, yogurt or on sponge cake, angel food cake, any white cake, or cheesecake. I also think it’d be great on a rich fillet (lamb, beef, venison, bison, or even pork). It’d even be okay with chicken and very good with fish – trout, char, salmon or even white fish such as swordfish or halibut. Ooh! Scallops! But don't expect to taste much of the fish if you're heavy-handed with the sauce.

Pancakes or crepes! Crème caramel…panna cotta, chocolate cake…zabaglione. Toast, bagels, croissants, French toast. It basically is jam, after all, just without the fridge life. There’s a world of possibilities.

So go to Jean-Talon, and find the vendor on the south side of the fresh market stalls selling jamming blueberries (the small berries in the plastic containers), I think across from Au Pain Doré or Frites Alors. Take them carefully home without getting them more squished. They’re good for making jam because you would squish them anyway as the first step in the jam process, but theyre just fine for pies, or anything cooked, and I like them fresh too. The saucepan mixture also makes a great pie filling, so you can put it into a pre-baked pie shell, or add a little flour or cornstarch and let the filling cook in the oven in an un-baked pie shell instead of on the stove. I suppose most people love blueberry pie. I'll just have the filling, thanks.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Other Way I Hurt My Back: Japanese Food!

After the Matsuri Japanese Festival in the Old Port of Montreal where I played big drums and made takoyaki squid balls with other like-minded people, all the volunteers were invited to the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre for an appreciation BBQ. There were hotdogs, yes, but there were lots of leftovers from the festival – mix for takoyaki, okonomiyaki and the accessories for Japanese hotdogs.
Someone asked me on a post I wrote where they could find good okonomiyaki. In Montreal, it’s hard, but L’Entoilage was determined to be the best bet, and it’s good quality.  Haven’t been there yet, but their food philosophy is very respectable. A small menu of home-made Japanese food – not just sushi – at an appropriate price. This is not a fastfood joint. I’m convinced it’s better quality than what we made at the Japanese Cultural Centre, but that had to be made en masse for the festival. The pickled ginger probably had some MSG in it, and the sauce that goes on top of the pancake was bottled and probably had some intense forms of sugar. These are things I cross my fingers that L’Entoilage wouldn’t use.
Still, it was fun to learn to make these Japanese street foods. Okonomiyaki is made with a pancake-like batter with tons of cabbage and some other bland but crunchy vegetables. Then you can add thinly sliced meat, a lot of traditional Japanese kewpie mayonnaise sauce and sticky sweet teriyaki-style sauce. The tricky part is flipping the messy thing over on the grill.

The takoyaki are a little more nit-picky. These are squid balls. You pour a pancake-like batter over an oiled, special 12-hole (half-spheres) grill pictured above. Then you stick a diced piece of squid in each, and then scatter some pickled ginger, green onions and tempura bits over the whole grill, not just the holes. Then pour over enough batter to cover the entire grill surface without spilling the batter on the counter.

Then the hard part. Take two chopsticks and drag the batter into each of the holes. It looks like a giant, soupy mess, but slowly, as the batter solidifies it’ll shape itself into the holes. Just keep scraping. Of course this is all done by peering over the oiled grill in poor light. It takes a good few minutes of careful scraping, piling and smoothing to get these into rough balls. Then you use the chopsticks to turn the balls around to squish all the dangling ends of the batter underneath the weight of the ball and to brown the other side. Then you just keep turning until you can pick the balls up with the chopsticks, they're not too mushy, and they're not burned. 

That's the tricky part. If you didn't work fast enough in the scraping step then the bottom of the balls may have burned a little. Then when you turn it it may not cook evenly on the opposite side because some of that batter cooked before you scraped it off the grill. It certainly won't brown evenly, anyway. Sometimes it takes an age for the ball to cook through, and if you scraped slowly, you're just extending the amount of time it's going to take to cook. The trick is to get the (probably) frozen squid piece to cook through. It should have thawed before you put it in there, but if it's still slightly frozen you're pretty screwed, since water will seep out of it and make the takoyaki cook much more slowly...and squishily. That's a word.

So I was straining my neck over the grill for a few hours...long enough to know I never want to work a grill. Or at least to know that it's a luxury to have big fat cooking utensils. None of this small chopstick business. Big chopsticks only...and good lighting...and counters at the proper height...and thawed squid...These are things that are are essential in life. I think that makes it an educational day.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Yellow Watermelon Bliss Massage

1.     Cart a watermelon home in a bag over your shoulder
2.     Cart a cantaloupe home in another bag over your other shoulder
3.     Cart lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers home in another bag in a sack over both shoulders...

…And think that your back is going to be okay. It won’t be okay.

In effect, this was the most expensive watermelon I ever caved and bought. the watermelon itself cost $5, a relative steal for organic fruit, but my back was shot for a week. I think I burst some blood vessels judging by the red splotches on my shoulders, and the cantaloupe wasn’t even very good. 

But the watermelon was incredible. There were even black seeds like all watermelon used to have! It as basically an heirloom watermelon. That’s what I dreamed about (the sweet flavour, not the seeds) while I was getting my first massage in a year.

Bliss Studio is a massage and yoga studio on St-Laurent south of Mont-Royal. I’ve had maybe four massages there. Really, the best thing about it the studio offers standard therapeutic massages, but they also offer shiatsu, reflexology, reiki, Thai yoga massage, hot stone massage, four-hand therapeutic massage, etc. They have a legion of practitioners that come in on different days and even if you call last minute you usually have a choice of massage type or massage therapist. I’ve had some hits and some misses here, but this time I knew I just wanted someone to beat the heck out of my back. So shiatsu it was.

Really it’s nice just walking into Bliss Studio. There’s a wonderful feeling of calm. Way too much money later you should feel relaxed and bruised. Next time I will not buy a watermelon without bringing my granny grocery cart. The massage was long enough to allow me to come to this conclusion. As wonderful as it was, this will not be a regular event.Yellow watermelon will, however, hopefully be a regular part of my life.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Anniversary Honeywine

It was exactly one year ago today that I posted my first recipe story. That was 187 posts ago, not including my posts at Interculturiosity and Midnight Poutine. I made my own birthday cake from Alice Medrich's Chocolate and the Art of the Low-Fat Dessert. Made = messed up but it was still delicious. This is the story of my life. This year I asked my aunt for rice pudding instead of birthday cake because it's gluten-free (for her sake) and dairy-free (for both our sakes). We didn't stick any candles in it and I didn't make a wish, but it was completely delicious. She, of course, made it perfectly.

After 1 year, these are the cakes rules I've learned but obviously still don't put into practice:

1) Room temperature butter
2) Real sugar unless it gets melted
3) Soft peaks happen before you think, get stiff quickly, and then go limp long before you would have hoped or expected. Thus egg whites, like life, can be very disappointing

Also exactly one year ago I went to the 18th Century marketplace in Montreal's Old Port and bought my first honeywine. I took it and soaked and glazed a sweet loaf in it. So in honour of a year of blogging I decided to go back to the marketplace and find the same wine.

I know I can actually buy this blueberry honeywine at the Marche des Saveurs at Jean-Talon market year-round, but that wouldn't be honouring the anniversary. I went and found the same vendor, tried the raspberry honeywine, the blueberry honeywine, and the cassis (blackcurrant) honeywine, and decided I didn't want to make the same recipe after all. That's not as fun. So I went with the gold medal winning cassis. The blueberry was better, but ah well.

My granola-making genius recipe-giver gave me the recipe for a lemon coffee cake she made as a bundt cake for a dinner party once. The cake was absolutely to die for. I figured I'd skip the lemon and use the cassis honeywine instead. I'd kind of put the two recipes together. Yeah, that was a disaster. Seems that one year has not made me a better baker.

I used a gluten-free flour mix, which would have been fine, except I used a sugar replacer (xylitol) that doesn't cream. I bought fresh Quebec butter for the occasion, trying oh so hard to not mess this up.

I creamed the butter until it was pale and then added the fake sugar. It seemed fine. Then I separated the eggs and added the yolks, patiently, one at a time as instructed. Then you're supposed to add the lemon juice, so I added the honeywine instead. The batter just didn't come together. It was lumpy. the butter hadn't been at room temperature. That was problem one. Then sugar didn't dissolve in it. That was problem two. I know better. I'm just stubborn.

In a separate bowl I combined the flour, baking powder and baking soda, and then I cleaned the beaters and whipped the egg whites to stiff peaks with the salt. I couldn't find the stiff peaks stage. They kind of got soft and then seemed like they were hardening and then just softened up again. So many women deal with this, I know, but I'm unforgiving. There was really no way to beat them again. So I gave up and just tried my best to follow the rest of the instructions.

Unfortunately once you mess up the creaming and the beating there's really no hope. I added the flour to the butter mixture and it became kind of tough and chunky. Then I had to fold in the sad egg whites. Hopeless. Completely hopeless. There ended up being little pockets of egg whites in the batter. I tried to salvage it by squishing the egg whites a little. This sucks all the air out of them (if there was anything left to suck out of them after the over-beating). I used my hands to massage the egg white pockets into the batter. Maybe that was better than stirring the air out.

I couldn't put enough love into those egg whites to keep them from giving up on life. I will never be a paramedic or a lifeguard.

I preheated the oven, stuck the pitiful dough into a loaf pan and resigned myself to bad loaf. Fortunately I could drink the open cassis honeywine to soothe my spirits. Then I remembered it wasn't great honeywine and I didn't really want to drink it by itself...not my day, apparently.

45 minutes later I had loaf...sort of. I got it out of its pan and a bunch of the topping crumbled off. It was kind of the consistency of properly kneaded uncooked, unextruded pasta...very much not a cake. I made a liquor soak of honeywine and sugar (the fake kind of sugar again that melts just fine, at least) and poured it over the loaf on a cooling rack over a plate. The plate catches the excess liquor and then you pour it back over the loaf again until it's all gone. That was fine.

Then I made the glaze, a simple mixture of honeywine and icing sugar. I brushed it all over the crumbling loaf. Again, fine.

You know what? It actually looked okay. It tasted weird because the egg didn't incorporate well, but it was just fine. I'd serve it with tea (or sweetened honeywine), or smother it in jam (blackcurrant). I destroyed the texture but there was nothing really wrong with it.

The moral of this story is that it's good to know that I started this blog with the intent of telling all my recipe stories - both the successes and the disasters - and I stuck with it. If I'd actually gotten better would I be as interested in continuing? Sometimes the mistakes are more entertaining than the successes. I'm no genius cook or baker, but I'll always have something to write about (and eat) as long as I keep trying different recipes...and maybe, just maybe someone who reads this won't make my mistakes.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Zucchini and Tomatillos Cooked In Chilies

I'm a big believer in using what you have. What I had was a pot in which I'd just made the most delicious chile sauce. The pot still held the remnants of the sauce and I hate wasting a delicious thing. I wanted every last bit of heat. So I quickly chopped some zucchini and diced some tomatillos. I figured the zucchini might be weird but the tangy sweetness of the tomatillos would be amazing. In general I think spicy fruit is highly underrated. Think Thai mango and papaya salads. They are heavenly. Sweet and spicy go together. If you can add sour and salty to that then all the better, and there was a little salt in the chili sauce and a little natural sourness in the tomatillos. Perfect.
So I deglazed the pot with a half cup of water and lightly boiled the tomatillos and zucchini. Then they became both a hamburger condiment and a salad ingredient. The salad needed a little more sour from some vinegar, as well as some oil to mute the heat, but it worked. It worked better on the hamburger though, because it was pretty pungent...

What's wrong with Toronto? Do they not believe in good tomatoes? I went to St. Lawrence market, my mecca of beautiful food, and bought a very inexpensive container of tomatillos. I figured they'd be just as good as the ones I'd been having in Quebec. Nope. They were junk. They were sour and either too soft or too hard, picked too early from the branches. I roasted them and they never got sweeter. The complexity of taste I'd come to expect was lacking. I wasted $2.00 that I'll never get back, but more importantly my respect for this little shop in St. Lawrence market that carries my favourite Pinehedge yogurt and kefirs, Niagara Foods, is much less.

Anyway, if you don't want to make the chile sauce recipe you can still recreate this effect for the purposes of creating a great hamburger condiment (much better than ketchup and pickles) by boiling a little water with a sprinkle of salt, sugar, a dash of vinegar and some crushed chilies or cayenne or other chile powder to taste. If it doesn't work out, though, don't blame me. Blame the chile powder. Then add some sliced zucchini and diced tomatillos (they can even be a little under-ripe since they're getting cooked). Cook about 5 minutes at a simmer and then drain the pot or remove them with a slotted spoon. Done.

Another great hamburger seasoning is grilled or broiled or baked tomatillo. Stick the whole tomatillo (or 3) in the oven or toaster oven at 400 Fahrenheit and let it cook until it's a little soft of the skin breaks. This generally gets rid of some of the tang and you'll end up with a very sweet hamburger topping. That is, unless you buy your tomatillos in Toronto. I challenge you to find a good tomatillo there. Maybe from an organic market? The roasted tomatillos (when ripe) are also great with rice, kind of like Middle Eastern traditions squeeze a regular grilled tomato over their cooked basmati for flavour.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ode To Vietnamese Chili Garlic Sauce

Just giving you a heads-up that this is not going to rhyme. I'm not that poetic.

There are two condiments I cannot live without: Dijon mustard and chili paste/sauce (you start to think of it in terms of being a sauce when you use it as liberally as I do).

I'm more than a little obsessed. I can go through a jam-jar sized amount of chili paste in a few weeks. Partly out of practicality because I sometimes don't know how long it'll take to go bad since the recycled jars weren't sterilized first, and partly out of addiction. Don't get me wrong, I hate the overwhelming "I want to die" kind of heat that happens when you eat too much, but I absolutely love the flavour of the chilies. So it's not so much the burn I'm going for, but the way the burn combines with the flavour and the way the paste combines with my meal.

I have a new favourite Vietnamese website - VietWorldKitchen. This woman is a good resource for all food things Vietnamese. She does a bit of fusion, but the classics are there. She's my go-to gal for pho info and I would trust her word blindly on dumplings and bun. Everything is authentic. So when I saw a few recipes for chili sauces I got a little giddy. I had just finished my last bottle of pickled chilies and had been turned off tomato-based sauces since a disappointing experience with the Wasselton chili paste from McGill's Organic Campus. Not that it was bad, but it just wasnt pure chili. I was craving some sweet heat and this was going to be it!

Basically, I'd been considering hot sauces for a few weeks and then when I went to the Mile End market last week I bought a huge bag of fresh chilies. The conversation went something like this:

"Do you have any hot peppers?" ("les piments forts" in French = "strong" peppers)
"Yes." The man turns around to get a bag. He starts taking some out.
"I'll take them all."
The man stops. He looks at me. He looks at the bag. I smile encouragingly.

$6 later I had at least three batches worth of peppers. This was a good idea I picked up from VietWorldKitchen. Buy a whole bunch so if one recipe isn't stupendous, you can try another. It's hard to find organic red chilies in Montreal. Really this is supposed to be made with red chilies that look like jalapenos, so shorter, rounder-edged ones, but I have absolutely no idea what these ones were. That's very dangerous when making a chili sauce because each pepper's heat can be completely different. Fortunately I like to live dangerously with pepper heat, and I can always adjust flavours later. You can also just use less of the stuff if it's hotter, or add a little more sugar or vinegar.

So I stuck my bag of chilies into my backpack, slung my purchased whole watermelon in a bag over my left shoulder and my canteloupe over my right and marched the 10 minutes to the metro, made the 25 minute trip to my stop and then marched the 7 minutes home. I had deep red marks in my shoulders but I had chilies and fruit. All in all I was a happy girl. What I do for fresh organic produce...

So VietWorldKitchen has a lot of chili sauce options and I plan to make it through all of them. I decided to start with the cooked homemade garlic chili paste. 


6 ounces of my long, red, hot chilies, stemmed and chopped (you can also use cayennes, fresnos, habaneros, jalapeno, long, serrano, Thai, or a combination, but good luck figuring out which is which. Often the vendors don't even know. They're all just "chilies")
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tbsp sugar (I used a sugar substitute, xylitol, because the sugar here doesn't really need to act like a preservative like it does in jams or other canned goods, I think.
1 1/2 tbsp brown rice vinegar (the recipe actually calls for distilled white vinegar but I figured I didn't want to go buy that and this would just add a little sweetness and flavour. I think it did)

All you do is stick everything in the blender and don't over-blend it. You want it to be kind of rough and a little chunky. The recipe says to take a whiff, but make sure you follow the American fish wafting instructions and use your hand to move the smell of the chilies toward your face. Don't stick your face right over the contents of the blender or you may be crying for awhile. Or sneezing, or coughing, or swearing at me. The wafted smell should be enough to make you tear up a little or sweat.

Taste and adjust the flavor by adding extra salt or sugar. (You can stop here and you've made the raw version of this, but I like the cooked version because it reduces the heat a little and emphasizes the flavour of the chilies). 

Transfer the blender contents to a small saucepan, bring it to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until it no longer smells raw (again, fish wafting technique). Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Transfer to a jar, let cool, and store in the refrigerator. Makes about 2/3 cup and lasts a few months. Unless you're me.

It makes the best ketchup...
Be careful, though, because it's really not ketchup.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Heartsmart Cooking": Multigrain Yogurt Bread

I'm currently obsessed with the sourdough bread from the Plateau Sunday Market. This is not it. This is the bread I turned into quasi-hamburger buns for my last post. It's still pretty great.

It's at the point where I want to ask "Son Boulanger" from "La Perle et Son Boulanger" at the market for some of his sourdough starter to make my own version of his magnificent bread. Making starter is a three-day process I will soon embark on, but the other day I wanted bread and it was Friday, and that's two whole days before Sunday. What's a girl to do?

Yes, I could go to Première Moisson where the bread is also amazing (but not quite as amazing) and buy a loaf, but that felt like cheating on my "boulanger", even if he does belong to the Pearl. So I made my own. There's something really nice about making your own bread. The kneading, the patience to let it rise, the baking...I was mostly convinced when I found a recipe that called for yogurt since I need to use up my kilogram of yogurt by the time I leave for Toronto this Friday.

So practicality and desire came together in the form of multigrain bread.
1 cup buckwheat flakes (or rolled oats. I just happen to have buckwheat because I'm like that)
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 cups boiling water
2 tbsp honey
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground fennel seeds (or anise. Is there a difference? There must be, but I don't know it. If you don't like the black licorice flavour, skip it)
2 tsp cane sugar
1/2 cup warm water
2 packages dry yeast
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups all-purpose flour (I used 4 cups of whole wheat, which is bad, but probably better than trying to use my latest gluten-free flour blend)
1/2 cup wheat bran or oat bran (or a mix of both)
Water and salt to glaze (or egg)

Plus honey and jam and things to serve (above: blueberry honey and apple butter), or toast the bread for hamburger buns.

This was just plain fun. It took forever, but I had the time.

I combined the buckwheat oats and cornmeal in a large bowl and stirred in the water, salt, oil, honey and ground fennel (I even ground my whole fennel seeds in my mortar and pestle. Yes, that was a little self pat on the back...but I so wish I had a coffee grinder. I live down the road from Canadian Tire but I'm stubbornly waiting to find one at a yard sale for even less. Apparently when Quebecers move they take their coffee grinders with them. They'll leave a brand new DVD player, expensive appliances, pots, pans, and juicers, but a grinder goes with them.

Then I set the mixture aside to let it cool for 20 minutes while I worked with the yeast.

I had one package of dry yeast and one package of dry instant yeast. These are not the same things. You add the instant yeast to dry ingredients, not to warm water, but the non-instant yeast needs to froth and bubble in warmth for 10 minutes. I also messed this step up. You're supposed to dissolve the sugar in the water first, then sprinkle the yeast over top. I added the sugar last and stirred it in. I didn't know if it was okay to stir the yeast but then I saw a TV show later that instructed you to do just that anyway. I breathed easier. What I don't know about bread could fill a book. Unfortunately, no one would buy it.

My yeast bubbled up, though, merrily. It got frothy and kept popping up like gnocchi out of the water, except the result looked like the top of a cappuccino, not pasta. Both are Italian, so both are good.

In the 10 minutes this whole bubbling thing took I mixed the whole wheat flour with the wheat bran and the instant yeast. It really didn't take 10 minutes, though, so I did some thumb-twiddling while I was at it.

Then I stirred the frothy yeast and added it to the buckwheat-cornmeal mixture. I plopped in the cup of yogurt and the whole wheat flour mixture and stirred it gently together. It was supposed to get to the point where it didn't stick to my hands, but that didn't happen. So I added a bit more flour...and it almost happened...I kind of sort of tried to knead for 10 minutes, but that didn't really happen either since it was all sticking to my hands.


I put the dough in my big oiled bowl and covered it with plastic wrap. Into the oven on the lowest possible heat with the door slightly open for 1 1/2 hours. It doubled! Miracle of miracles it actually doubled in size like it was supposed to! Usually bread only needs one package of yeast so the two packages must have been working well.

So to thank it for doubling I punched it down. I divided it in half and put one in a loaf pan and one onto a baking sheet to make a country loaf like I'd recently seen someone much better at bread than me do. The pans were lightly oiled too, just like they were supposed to be. Now that my bread had risen I didn't want to mess anything else up and ruin my good luck.

I covered it again with plastic wrap (loosely) and it let it rise for an hour.

It actually rose again! It was going to be voluminous bread! But then when I took the plastic wrap off and brushed with the glaze it started deflating. Oh no! The oven was preheating since the bread had been in there only at low to rise. What do I do? What COULD I do? Cry a little inside was about all.

When the oven preheated to 400 I put in the loaves and baked for about 45 minutes, until the centre of the bread registered 190 Fahrenheit on a meat thermometre. It was thinner baking sheet  loaf didn't cook as fast as my loaf pan loaf for some reason. The loaf pan temperature shot up on my meat thermometre but the country-style loaf took its time and even needed an extra 5 minutes. I have no idea how this is possible. Well, I took the breads out, let them cool, and enjoyed the wonderful whole wheat chew of Première Moisson flour in my under-risen but still delicious, homemade bread.
No one is going to complain about this bread.