Friday, May 30, 2008

There are Wednesdays and then there are Julia days...

A few weeks ago, it was my turn to conceptualize our Wednesday menu, and I thought – ooh, I'm still so excited about my new Julia Child books, and haven't had a chance to try many things from them yet. But after some couch time with the books that Tuesday night, I came to realize that Julia and Wednesdays just don't really mix. All the wondrous things she asks me to do demand much more time and patience than we have between running out of work and turning on the TV. So that night I put down MTAOFC and picked up a book that's been sitting neglected on my shelf for years, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. The first collage above shows its Tunisian Vegetable Stew, which we found to be incredibly quick, healthy and delicious, with a perfect balance of textures. But, because I don't want to deprive you of Julia, and because I'm equally enamoured with quick+healthy and slow+luxurious cooking, the second collage is her Coquilles St. Jacques À La Provençale. My mom, sister and I made this one weekend in April, and it was perfection. Recipes for both follow...

Moosewood cookbooks are well represented on my Mom's shelf, and this one has one of my favourite mom's-comfort-food recipes, Spicy Cauliflower Pasta, which will have to appear on a Wednesday sometime... I've been in the mood for simple food built from a few healthy fresh things lately. But usually when this mood strikes I just shop for the particular veggies I'm craving and make something up. Going back to cookbooks like this though can be worthwhile – in this case it encouraged me to use a veggie I don't much (cabbage) and reminded me how much of a difference garnishes can make because of the texture contrast they create (they're not just pretty!).

Tunisian Vegetable Stew
[from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home]
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced onions
1 tbsp olive oil
3 cups thinly sliced green cabbage
dash of salt
1 large green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cayenne
3 cups undrained canned tomatoes, chopped (28 oz can)
1 1/2 cups drained cooked chickpeas (16 oz can)
1/3 cup currants or raisins (optional)
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
salt to taste

[ garnish]
grated feta cheese
toasted slivered almonds

In a large skillet, saute the onions in the olive oil for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the cabbage, sprinkle with salt, and continue to saute for at least 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bell pepper, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, and cayenne to the skillet and saute for another minute or so. Stir in the tomatoes, chick peas, and optional currents or raisins, and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes, until the vegetables are just tender. Add the lemon juice and salt to taste. Serve on top of couscous (we used whole wheat couscous – yum) and garnish with feta and almonds
A note about the optional raisins: they're so good! I think they really make a difference here, but others disagree, so we cooked the dish in two pots, one raisin-free, ha ha. What do you all think, are raisins wrong in savory dishes? I remember when I was a kid, my uncle Ken looked after my sister and I one weekend and afterwards we couldn't stop talking about how he was the coolest because cooked raisins in the rice. So good.

And then there's Julia... Her techniques are definitely a departure from my usual throw it together and see what happens kitchen approach, but man do they produce good results. Our Scallops Gratinéed with Wine, Garlic, and Herbs (which we didn't gratiné, as we skipped the swiss cheese) were so so so delicious. Together with steamed asparagus and Israeli couscous and navy bean salad, they were one of the best meals we've ever made. There's just a difference between a great, delicious, simple homemade meal and a meal in which every bite is classic and special in a way that makes you think about the luxury of our lives and our incredible luck in being able to eat this way... Okay, I guess I feel lucky like that while eating every great meal we make, but there is a special feeling French food taps you into, isn't there? Try making these and let me know where they take you!
Coquilles St. Jacques À La Provençale
[from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck]
1/3 cup minced yellow onions
1 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tbsp minced shallot or green onions
1 clove minced garlic

Cook the onions slowly in butter in a small saucepan for 5 minutes or so, until tender and translucent but not browned. Stir in the shallots or onions, and garlic, and cook slowly for 1 minute more. Set aside.

1 1/2 lbs washed scallops
salt and pepper
1 cup sifted flour in a dish

Dry the scallops and cut into slices 1/4 inch thick. Just before cooking, sprinkle with salt and pepper, roll in flour, and shake off excess flour.

2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
A 10-inch enameled skillet

Saute the scallops quickly in very hot butter and oil for 2 minutes to brown them lightly [we did this in several batches, as they didn't all fit in the skillet at once].

2/3 cup dry white wine, or 1/2 cup dry white vermouth and 3 tbsp water
1/2 bay leaf
1/8 tsp thyme

Pour the wine, or the vermouth and water, into the skillet with the scallops. Add the herbs and the cooked onion mixture. Cover the skillet and simmer for 5 minutes. Then uncover, and if necessary boil down the suce rapidly for a minute unitl it is lightly thickened. Correct seasoning, and discard bay leaf.

At this point, Julia has you spoon the scallops and sauce into scallop shells, sprinkle them with grated Swiss cheese and run them under the broiler for 3 to 4 minutes. This would probably be great, but they were still amazing without.

So, the question is – simple food or luxury food? Is it possible to have an equal passion for each, or is this a point of division among foodies? And, if Julia doesn't do it for you, who do you turn to for your luxury?

Tomorrow I head off to Toronto, and hope to spend a week eating both simply and luxuriously!

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Spanakopita Revisited

Well, it was the kind of day that called out for pastry. Have you ever experienced that sort of day? I suppose it would be a very bad day indeed that couldn't be brightened up by some kind of pastry, and I had been reading my Jamie at Home again, thinking of a dish to choose for WeDine. I glanced briefly at the rustic tart with asparagus (it's so good right now! and relatively cheap!) but balked at the amounts of cream and cow's cheese Jamie called for. Instead I thought a tummy-friendlier spanakopita, with goat feta and chevre (and copious amounts of spinach) would be tasty. And, I must admit, lots of buttery layers of flaky phyllo pastry! Mm.

Reading up on phyllo was a little worrying, however, as I soon discovered that it needed a lot of thawing time. One site called for two whole days, which seemed a little excessive, but I'm assuming that was from completely frozen. It was already around two o'clock on the day that we would be cooking together (Wednesday, of course), and so I rushed out to the Marketplace and picked up two packages of phyllo that (thankfully) only required 3 to 4 hours of thawing time – which was perfect.

Our special guest this week, Kari, met us at Choices, and helped us gather together the ingredients for the spanakopita: two 1 lb packages of baby spinach, already washed, a bunch of dill, a bunch of parsley (flat leaf), a package of chevre and about half a pound of feta cheese (goat). I was going by Bittman's recipe from his ambitiously-titled but very useful How to Cook Everything, in which he refers to spanakopita as 'Spinach-Cheese Triangles,' which, although fairly prosaic, is certainly accurate: Wiki tells me that "Spanakopita (Greek "σπανάκι + πίτα", spinach + pie)."

Kari and Michelle sauteed (wilted?) a whole lot of spinach at two frying stations while the other ingredients were assembled, diced, julienned and otherwise prepared.

The filling required the spinach to be chopped after it was wilted, and added to a mixture of the feta, chevre and 3 eggs, whisked. We added the dill and parsley chopped, and then preheated the oven to 350 degrees. Oh, and there was a pinch of nutmeg in there. I don't know why, but people tell me it's indispensable. Seasoned with salt and pepper, the mixture was whisked until the feta crumbled and the whole thing achieved some sort of uniformity.

The phyllo sheets were unrolled from their package and layered, one on top of the other, with melted butter brushed between them (though there was such a thing as too much, as I began to discover when overbuttering). We layered three sheets together and then cut the resulting rectangle into three long strips (see diagram). A spoonful or two of filling was dropped on the top of each strip, and then it was folded into a triangle to ensure the filling was properly contained. The whole thing was then brushed with butter (what else?) on top for that crispy golden effect.

A salad would need to be pretty sturdy and flavourful to stand up against all that flaky filled-pastry goodness, and we found one that fulfilled those requirements – a beet and apple slaw. Meg julienned 2 red beets, one golden beet and 2 tart green apples. That was a lot of julienning! They were dressed by Alisha with the juice and zest of one orange, 3 tsp of cider vinegar, 1/2 cup of olive oil and 1 tbsp of caraway seeds. The caraway seeds may not be in your regular repetoire, but they were well worth it, we thought – they added a unique bite and flavour. You could also add about a tablespoon of chopped chives, but we had chive-finding problems, so they didn't make it into our finished salad.

And here is the finished plate! The red wine, a XOXO merlot/shiraz blend, was very nicely provided by Kari. The spanakopita took less time to cook than Bittman predicted – after 20 minutes they were done, and nicely golden. We were all starving, so ate them immediately, but I think they were better with a little cooling time.

My pastry cravings were fulfilled – and there were enough for lunch for all the next day!

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Arugula salad, two ways

I've been really into arugula and roasted veggie salad lately. I'm not sure exactly how it started, but I've come to believe that arugula tossed with roasted tomatoes and asparagus and some torn basil leaves is just about the best thing ever. Then tonight, I tried a new variation – arugula with roasted peppers, kalamata olives and lime-mint vinaigrette. Mmmmm, yum. Maybe it's the bitterness of the arugula combined with the sweetness of the roasted veg. Or maybe how the arugula is sturdy enough to not mind being wilted a bit by the warmth of the just-out-of-the-oven morsels. Whatever the source of its perfection, the result is delicious, healthy, and kind of elegant I think. I urge you to try it!

Arugula, Asparagus, and Tomato Salad
a few big handfuls of Arugula, washed and dried
one bunch asparagus spears, woody ends snapped off
two handfuls of cherry tomatoes, whole
Basil leaves, torn roughly into pieces
olive oil
balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place asparagus in a pan and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle on salt and pepper, toss to coat. Do the same thing with the whole tomatoes, in a separate pan, and put both in the oven to roast. The asparagus will take less time than the tomatoes – you want it to be just tender. The tomatoes should roast until they've puffed up and the skin is broken. But really, you can roast each just as long as you feel like.

Cool the roasted veggies a little bit, then toss with arugula and the basil. I pour the oil, vinegar, and tomato juices from the pan in to act as a dressing, and then add a bit more oil and vinegar only if it seems to need it. Done!

Arugula, roasted pepper and olive salad,
with lime-mint vinaigrette
a few big handfuls of Arugula, washed and dried
3 bell peppers (I used 1 red, 1 orange, and 1 yellow)
a handful of kalamata olives, roughly sliced off of the pit
juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 bunch fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1–2 tbsp agave nectar (previously) or honey
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Wash peppers and place whole directly on oven racks. Roast until the skins are quite blackened and puffy (20–30 min), then remove and place in a plastic bag or sealed container for 15 minutes. Peel off the skin and discard. Slice the peppers into large-ish bite-sized pieces. Toss peppers with arugula and olives. Mix together lime juice, olive oil, agave nectar, mint, and salt and pepper. Taste and adjust if necessary (as always from me, these dressing quantities are very approximate – mix it to your own taste). Pour dressing over salad just before serving and toss to coat.

And, as a bonus... you may have noticed a curious blue and white container in the photo above. That is where the Challenge 100 part of this post is lurking. Darryl and I went to Les Amis de Fromage (previously) on the weekend – he'd never been there before, which was a horrible thing that had to be corrected immediately, I thought. He actually managed to resist their temptations, but not me of course. I found something new! Liberte Fromage Frais! It's goat and it's so delicious. Quite a bit like ricotta in texture and flavour. The woman who sold it to me suggested that many like to use it as sour cream, which inspired the whole green mole taco dinner for which the argula salad was a side. And it was tasty as a sour cream substitute, but my favourite thing is to eat it directly from the container with a spoon. I can't stop... must buy more. Now.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

The WeDine Sixty Dollar Goat Friendly Deluxe Mac & Cheese

'I need something substantial' were the words spoken by Laura last Wednesday, in describing her personal requirements for the evening's dinner. I concurred. Meg was in Minneapolis at the time, which left Laura, Michelle and I to our own devices. I'd brought the Rebar cookbook to work, thinking that there would be something suitably healthy and hearty to inspire us, but after reading recipe after recipe calling for multiple forms of cheese, I began to deflate. And then I thought to myself, 'what the heck, why not live dangerously?'

Being lactose intolerant, I've been avoiding macaroni and cheese for years. It's one of those foods, like lasagna, that I just couldn't imagine tasting acceptable using goat cheese. But for some reason, this day made me want it so so much that I thought we should give it a go. Little did I know that a goat-friendly aged-cheddar-substitute (which was aptly named 'drunken goat') would set us back twenty three dollars! But hey, you only live once, right?

What follows is the Rebar recipe, altered to suit our needs. (Strangely enough, the original recipe was meant to serve ten - every other recipe in the book serves about four or six, but apparently Rebar's macaroni and cheese is meant to feed an entire children's soccer team. We did reduce the quantities by half, and it still made enough for about eight people, so please be prepared.)

The WeDine Sixty Dollar Goat Friendly Deluxe Mac & Cheese
3 cups dry macaroni pasta
1/8 cup olive oil
1 small yellow onion, minced
1 tsp salt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano
2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup chpped italian parsley
1/8 cup butter
2 cups milk (we used lactose-free milk, but soy could work too)
1/8 cup unbleached flour
2 cups aged white cheddar (we used an aged goat cheese)
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated parmesan (we used romano)
1/4 cup pine nuts

1. Cook pasta until al dente. Strain and toss with olive oil.
2. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in skillet and saute onion for 5 minutes. Add half of minced garlic, 1/2 tsp of salt and saute until garlic is golden. Transfer to bowl and stir in half of chopped herbs.
3. Make a roux for the cheese sauce: gently heat milk and keep warm; set a saucepan over medium heat and melt butter; sprinkle in flour and whisk constantly; gradually add warm milk and 1 tsp salt and whisk thoroughly; heat until sauce thickens (about 10 mins).
4. Add sauteed onions/herb mix and grated cheese to roux. Season to taste.
5. Make topping: combine breadcrumbs with remaining garlic, herbs, parmesan (or romano), pine nuts, 1/2 tsp salt, cracked pepper, and 3 tbsp olive oil. Mix thoroughly.
6. Preheat broiler. Assemble noodles and cheese sauce in a bowl and mix well. Pour into a baking dish, cover with breadcrumb topping and bake uncovered until browned.

Pictured above is the mac & cheese prior to baking. It was perfect: creamy, flavourful, tangy, cheesy, and full of fresh herbs. Unfortunately, the pasta was then covered with the breadcrumb, pine nut, and romano cheese topping and baked in the oven for about half an hour, which, though it does sound delightful, made the pasta dry out substantially in the process.

I plan to make this dish again, and would advise using a small amount of topping and baking it only for a few minutes under the broiler. I'm pretty sure that's how Giada does it, and I trust her wholeheartedly.

Here is the finished plate, along with a lovely green salad featuring julienned carrots, red onion, and a homemade balsamic dressing.

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Challenge 100: Candied Ginger and Mint Chip Ice Creams

My ice cream maker has reached new heights – delicious, creamy, irresistible new heights – in the past few weeks. I decided to put aside my doubts and try adapting an actual ice cream recipe, with a custard base, for non-dairy ingredients. And it worked! Up until now I'd just been making fruit sorbets, frozen yogurt, and that one vegan chocolate raspberry recipe which was really awesome but has now been totally surpassed by these real ice creams I've discovered I can make. These sent us into an elaborate ice cream dream, in which we were manning a freezer at the farmers market every Saturday this summer, and happily spending our week nights inventing new flavours to please our adventurous customers... that could happen, right? At the moment I'm only concerned with making another batch for myself, mmmmm.

The following two recipes are from A Passion for Ice Cream by Emily Luchetti, with non-dairy substitutions added.

Candied Ginger Ice Cream
1 3/4 cups heavy (whipping) cream or coconut cream
1 1/2 cups milk or almond milk
2/3 cup sugar
3-inch piece fresh ginger, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
7 large egg yolks
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 cup (or less) finely chopped candied ginger

Combine the cream, milk, 1/3 cup of the sugar, and the fresh ginger in a medium, heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until almost simmering. Whisk together egg yolks, the remaining sugar, and the salt. Slowly pour the cream into the egg yolks, whisking as you pour. Return the mixture to the pan and cook, stirring constantly with a heat-resistant or wooden spatula, over medium-low heat until the liquid reaches 175 degrees F and coats the spatula (I haven't been measuring this temperature, and it's worked fine). Strain into a bowl, discarding the ginger, and cool over an ice bath to room temperature. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight (this chilling time may seem unimportant, but it really is crucial – we tried to skimp on it once and the ice cream refused to thicken in the machine... impatience and ice cream making do not go together I've discovered).

Put the candied ginger in a bowl and put it in the freezer (this is important, I discovered, as the warm ginger melts the ice cream otherwise). Churn the chilled custard in an ice cream machine. Fold the ice cream and ginger together. Freeze until scoopable, about 4 hours.

Mint Chip Ice Cream
(With real mint leaves – absolutely the best ice cream I've made so far)
2 1/2 cups heavy (whipping) cream or coconut cream
3/4 cup milk or almond milk
3/4 cup lightly packed mint leaves
1 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks
1/8 tsp salt
8 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped

In a medium, heavy saucepan, heat the cream, milk, mint , and 1/2 cup of the sugar over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until almost simmering. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and steep the mint in the cream for 15 minutes. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, and the salt. Slowly pour the hot liquid into the eggs, whisking as you pour. Return the mixture to the pan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a heat-resistant spatula, until it reaches 175 degrees F and lightly coats the spatula. Strain the mixture into a clean bowl, discarding the mint. Cool over an ice bath until room temperature. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.

In a food processor, using on-off pulses, grind the chocolate into small pieces. Put the chocolate in a bowl in the freezer. Churn the ice cream base in an ice cream machine. Place the ice cream in a bowl with the chocolate and fold the two together. Freeze until scoopable, about 4 hours.
With 75 more ice cream recipes in this book, and all of them now open to my coconut/almond substitutions, it's gonna be a yummy summer!

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