Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy and Merry!


I do apologize for being remiss. It's been a little hectic around here.

Here's hoping that your holidays, so far, have been relaxing and merry. And may the New Year be filled with love, joy, peace and friendship.

And lots of good food (seasonal and gorgeous!); new recipes; culinary adventures; and lovely, lovely company with whom to enjoy it all!

Cheers to all! I hope to see you in the new year!



Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Something With Heft


I meandered about on my way to the market. The people on the streets were scurrying, many looked harassed. It was a pleasantly mild day, so it couldn't have been the weather that had them frowning and ducking against an invisible foe. It was my day off, so the only thing to be tweaking my mind was what to have for dinner. I did not have any particular cravings and I was not especially hungry, so something simple was in order. Something that I can whip up with the flick of the wrist.


Une tartine, as the francophiles would say. Or crostini, for those of Italian persuasions. 'Open-faced sandwich' may be the proper English term, but it sounds so mundane, so... flat. Nothing like a good and proper tartine or crostini, which can range from light lunches to hearty meals. A simple meal, the perfect tartine is ideal for busy weekday dinners, and can be easily assembled from anything you happen to have in the cupboard.


The foundation for a properly satisfying tartine is the right bread: you need something with heft -a country loaf, a rustic sourdough, or a chunky multi-grain; a bagel might even fill in the spot, but sliced white will not do. Ideally, the bread will be a day or two old, because you do not want the bread to be too tender nor too moist. It needs to hold up to a generous topping after all. Some bakeries sell day old loafs at a reduced price, and if you are in a pinch, a supermarket country loaf will do. Slice it yourself; you want the bread to be stick-to-your-ribs-thick, it should be proportional to whatever it is that you will piling on top: 2 cm/ ¾" thick slices are generous enough for any adult, yet not so much that it will throw off a child. When you buy the bread, slice it all, keep what you need, and freeze the rest: it will be ready and waiting for you the next time you are short on inspiration. Toast each slice to a golden sturdiness; if the bread is fresh, toast it twice on a lower setting to dry it out a little. Once you've got your crusty crostini, scrape a peeled, raw clove of garlic on each slice, and you are ready to let your imagination loose.


My favourite toppings are leafy greens, sautéed in butter or olive oil, and generously seasoned with salt and coarsely ground pepper. But anything goes: a generous mound of thinly sliced raw ham (prosciutto, Serrano...), lightly crisped in a hot pan with olive oil, a quartered persimmon, and slivers of hard cheese; canned sardines in oil, warmed in a pan with grated carrots, a few sprigs of watercress added for good measure at the very end; buttered baby spinach, sliced crisp apples, and chunks of sharp cheddar... Here are a few more suggestions:


Watercress, Caramelised Apples and Cheddar

Wash and trim half a bunch of watercress (cresson en français).
Peel and quarter an apple. Cut into thick slices.
In a frying pan, melt some butter over medium high heat. When it starts to brown add the apple slices. 
Do not stir the apples, you want them to brown nicely, without rendering too much juice. 
Flip the slices over, and let the other side caramelise.
Remove the apple from the pan, and pile in a single layer on the toast.
Return pan to heat, add a pat of butter, if needed. Throw the watercress in the pan.
Sauté cress until it it completely wilted.
Season with salt and pepper.
On the toasted bread, layer the watercress over the apples.
Garnish with a few shavings of cheddar, or any other firm cheese.
Serve immediately. 

* I am personally not a fan, but it is the season for black pudding (boudin noir). For those in need of an iron booster, omit the cheddar, and top the watercress with crumbled (removed from casing), pan-fried black pudding. A marriage made in heaven (so says the vegetarian!)



Kale, Cannellini Beans and Peccorino

Wash and strip a bunch of kale.
Blanch the kale in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Keep a close eye on the kale: if the kale is imported from a warm region, it will cook in under 3 minutes; if it is a cold-season toughie, let it cook for a good 5 minutes.
Save about a cupful of cooking water before draining the kale.
Rinse under cold water, then squeeze out any excess water. 
Chop kale into manageable bits.
Over medium heat, warm some olive oil. Add a slivered clove of garlic.
Gently cook the garlic, but do not let it brown. Add kale to pan.
Sauté for 3 to 5 minutes.
Drain and rinse a can of cannellini beans (white kidney beans), or any other white bean.
Add to the pan. Gently fold everything together, as you do not want to crush the beans.
If the mix seems a little dry, add the saved cooking water, a few spoonfuls at a time.
Remove from heat, and pile onto awaiting toast.
Coarsely grind some pepper, but do not salt, as the beans should bring enough flavour.
Smother with shards of Peccorino or any other hard yew's milk cheese, if desired.
Drizzle with more olive oil.
Enjoy with gusto.


Arugula, Chèvre and Warm Chutney 

Smear a slice of garlicky toast with fresh goat cheese (or any other soft, creamy cheese).
Heat some olive oil in a pan, and briefly wilt half a bunch of roquette.
Mound the wilted greens atop the cheese.
Return pan to heat, and warm a heaping spoonful of chutney (this chunky homemade ketchup or this onion marmalade would be scrumptious, but any jarred chutney will be just as tasty).
Drizzle the tartine with warmed chutney.
Dig in.

Two generously topped crostini would satisfy most appetites, but you can serve a salad or a soup on the side to fill in any gaps. Devour with your hands, or nibble with a knife and fork. It is as you wish. The above are merely ideas to get you going. Open your cupboards and fridge, look at what you have. A jar of roasted peppers, whizzed in the blender, makes a divine platform for any vegetable or meat; soaked sun-dried tomatoes will bring summer back into your plate, pile on the arugula and basil pesto, and you'd almost believe you were basking in the sun! Switch up the greens, stack on the roasted root vegetables... The possibilities are endless.

Bon app'!





Monday, December 20, 2010

Solstice


Tomorrow's the Winter Solstice. And you know what that means: daytime will start lengthening again! It also means that there are only four days left to Christmas shopping. If you are still looking for gift ideas, and would prefer giving a tangible present, how about giving a cookbook?

Even though I own hundreds of cookbooks, there are very few that I would consider essential. In a pinch, if my house were burning down, I probably attempt to save my copy of Laurel's Kitchen and Mastering The Art of French Cooking. I would also try to save my new favourite book: The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper

I first heard about The Splendid Table through Tara Austen Weaver's blog Tea and Cookie. I listened to a few podcasts, and was hooked. I knew I would enjoy the book, so up it went on my wish list. And it arrived in the mail last week! (Thank you HS and N!) I've already read it from cover to cover. I know I'm terrible! I couldn't wait 'til Christmas. I devoured it whole. It got dragged on my commute to work. I even read it before going to bed.

It is that fascinating. How to Eat Supper is more than just a cookbook: besides the interesting -and easy to make- recipes, the book is filled with funny anecdotes and useful tips. It is a great reference for the beginner cook, but it will enthral even the most experienced cook. It reads like a novel, and is rather inspirational. 

It's a must-have!



P.S. There will be a lunar eclipse tonight. At the solstice. The last time this occurred was in 1638! And it should not happen again before 2094. If you can, sneak a peak at the night sky tonight. On the East Coast, the lunar eclipse will begin around 1am; West-Coasters will not have to stay up too late to see this once in a lifetime occurrence.



Thursday, December 16, 2010

One to Reckon With


It's hard to believe that we're still 6 days away from the official start of winter! I am in complete holiday mode. My list of gifts has been checked-off and tucked away for weeks; I've been cooking and baking on my days off; I've taken the boxes of Christmas decorations out from storage (but have yet had the time to take them out). Then it hit me: I still haven't wrapped and sent off the parcels that are supposed to have been mailed weeks ago!!! Oh dear me. I sometimes forget that there are only so many things I can do at the same time.


Anyway, we are all running around like headless chickens at this point in the month. If it isn't the -soon to be- last minute shopping; parcel posting; marathon gift wrapping sessions; then it is the menu-planning and cooking. Well, perhaps I can lend a hand in this department (you're on your own for finding a gift for you Great Aunt Sally!) The following recipe is perfect for a potluck dinner; a holiday brunch; or just to have hanging around the fridge for late-night snackers. Yes, it is yet another bean salad, but one can never have too many of those up one's sleeve. It's somewhat of a more winter-friendly version of this bean salad, what with the stalwart beet and other hearty root vegetables, but I can safely venture that -except for the eponymous trio- all the ingredients are optional and depend entirely on your likes, pocketbook and cupboard. So it is versatile, and easily adapted throughout the year. Do try it, it is a surefire winner.


When making a bean salad, it is best to cook your own beans, since you can control the degree of done-ness you desire. However, if you are really in a pinch, by all means, use canned beans. Do make sure to rinse out all of the canning liquor, as it often has a tinny flavour, and can be overly salted. You can also drastically cut-back the cooking time by using sprouted beans instead; they only take 10 minutes in the steamer. Since I do not own a pressure-cooker, the cooking time indicated in the recipe is for chickpeas cooked in a regular pot. If you prefer cooking beans in a pressure-cooker, set your timer so that you obtain a just-barely tender pea, you do not want mushy peas for this salad. Another tip: if you prefer home-cooked beans, but find it a hassle, cook extra-large batches; cooked and drained beans freeze beautifully. The best part is that you needn't even defrost them to use, just shake out what you need and you're ready to go.


Ideally, dried beans should be soaked overnight. But you can get away with a two hour soak: in a large pot, cover the beans with enough cold water; bring up to the boil; remove from heat, and cover pot; let soak for two hours. Drain the peas, and proceed with the recipe. Whether you go for an overnight soak, or the express route, the soaking water should be discarded: although you do lose some of the dried bean's nutrients, you also remove some its 'disagreeable-ness'. However, this soaking water is great for watering your houseplants with.


Chickpeas, Beetroot and Orange Salad
Yields enough to feed an army

400g/ 2c dried chickpeas
2 medium beetroots
2 navel oranges
3 green onions/ scallions
1 small celeriac (or ¼ of a medium one), optional
1 carrot, optional
half a pomegranate, optional
125ml/ ½c olive oil
30ml/ 2 Tbs red wine vinegar
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp salt 
pepper

Soak the chickpeas in a large pot: the peas should be covered by at least 5cm/ 2" of water.
In the meantime, prepare the root vegetables:
Roast beets in a 375'F/ 190'C oven for 45 minutes.
Peel celery root, and chop into 1cm/ ½" cubes. Set aside in a bowl of water.
Peel carrot, cut into cubes, if it is large enough, or slice into 5mm/ ¼" rounds. Set aside.
When the beets are cooked, and cool enough to handle, peel and cube.

 
















With a sharp knife, peel the oranges so as to remove the peel, pith and outer skin: remove each individual segment, cut into chunks. Save the juices.
Drain the chickpeas, rinse briefly, and cover with fresh water. Add the cumin seeds.
Bring up to the boil. When the peas are boiling vigorously, cover pot, and turn heat down to low.
Leave to simmer for 20 minutes,  add the carrots and celeriac..
Cook for another 10-20 minutes: the garbanzos should be just barely tender, if there are a few al dente, it's okay: they'll continue cooking while resting.
Remove pot from heat, and set aside until completely cooled.
Drain the chickpeas, and rinse in cold water a couple of times. 
Combine with the beetroot, chopped green onions, and pomegranate kernels.
Add the red wine vinegar, saved orange juice, season with salt and pepper. Toss until the salt is dissolved.
Drizzle with olive oil. 
Let the salad marinate for at least 30 minutes before serving.


This salad is rather pretty: if you use red beets, they will bleed and tint just about everything with a pink to magenta hue. If you prefer not to have a red salad, you can always use yellow or di Chiogia beets, but red beets are a bit more in keeping with the season. Little cubes of rutabaga or turnips (raw or coked) would also be lovely in the salad. Like any bean salad, this one will improve with age: if you are bringing it to a party, make sure to make it a day in advance. It will easily keep a week in the refrigerator.

Bon app'!


P.S. I had originally intended to write about homemade marshmallows... They would be soooo perfect as gifts or roasting by the fireplace, but Tara at Seven Spoons beat me to it. So you will have to wait a wee bit longer for my take on this treat. (I'll even give you the vegetarian version!)





Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sweetness Abounds


'Tis the time to be mad-rushing about, trying to figure out what to get for Aunt Bess; Cousins Johnnie and Kate; the neighbour who is always shovelling your driveway; and the postman...  Donations made in the names of loved ones are thoughtful gifts that perform a double, nay, triple duty: you feel good, your friend feels good, and a stranger is helped. Homemade gifts of food are always appreciated, even more so when they tug at nostalgic heart strings. Really there is no need to buy presents: the holidays are all about love, and nothing says Love like the gift of food.


I love honeycomb taffy: I have a weakness for anything with a loud crunch, so this old school sweet is right up my alley. It it isn't half-bad when it is coated in chocolate, but do use a dark/ semi-sweet chocolate, anything else would be sugar-overkill.


The following recipe calls for glucose or corn syrup: these can be left out altogether, if so desired, however, you will have to be extra vigilant when cooking the sugar (the syrup slows the caramelisation process).  I tried substituting maple syrup for the glucose, but the trial was somewhat of a failure: the taste was lovely, with the maple ringing through the sweetness, however, the resulting taffy was crumbly instead of brittle. While the cooking of sugar is easiest if you have a candy thermometer, it is not absolutely necessary if you do not own one.


Honeycomb Taffy

255g/ ¾ c glucose or corn syrup 
285g/ 1¼c sugar
30g/ 3 tsp baking soda, sifted

Line a 23cm/ 9" square pan, or even a baking tray with baking parchment.
In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan (2 to 3L/ 2to3 quarts), mix the sugar into the glucose to evenly distribute it.
Bring up to the boil. Do not stir the sugar at this point, as it can seize
Place candy thermometer in the sugar so that it doesn't touch the bottom.
Let boil for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the candy thermometer reaches 150'C/ 300'F.
Remove from the heat: the syrup should be boiling vigorously, but barely coloured.
Add the baking soda, and whisk thoroughly to break up any lumps.
The taffy will swell up to about four times its original volume, and will take on a beautifully dark golden hue.
Pour into lined dish. Leave to cool for about 2 hours.
Break into chunks -you will probably need a knife- and dip in melted chocolate, if so desired.


Kept in an airtight container, placed in a cool, dry spot, the taffy should keep for about a week. If you are giving the sweets as a gift, place them in a zip baggy before wrapping them in a tin or box with a tight fitting lid. For extra insurance against the damp, fill a square of fabric with a tablespoonful of powdered milk, tie with some string, and leave in the baggy with the treats. When mailing fragile goodies, make sure you wrap them in bubble wrap before putting in the box, it will stop them from rattling around and breaking.

Bon app'!



Monday, December 13, 2010

In All Simplicity


I am not a fan of chocolate. Some of my friends snigger when they hear me say that; they assume that I am just a chocolate snob. While the years I spent in a pastry kitchen has taught me to appreciate the subtleties of a good chocolate, I truly am not a chocoholic. However, I understand that a good part of the rest of the world does adore the food of the gods (the cacao tree's Latin name is Theobroma, which translates to 'food of God'), and that it is often associated with special occasions and the holiday season.


So in honour of the coming holidays, I am sharing a foolproof recipe for a chocolate tart that will please keen chocolate lovers and children alike. The chocolate filling is a simple chocolate ganache, a versatile sauce that can be used as a filling, icing on a cake, and as a dipping sauce. The secret to a fine ganache is to use the best chocolate you can afford: said chocolate need not be particularly expensive, a very good baking chocolate will do the trick, as long as it is a chocolate you would enjoy eating out of hand (I would avoid a chocolate with more than a 75% cocoa content.) Also, make sure that it contains cocoa butter, and not vegetable shortening, otherwise the ganache will not set properly. Personally, I like to skulk around the candy aisle in drugstores and supermarkets: bars of fine chocolate often go on sale, and are -sometimes- cheaper than buying professional-grade chocolate in bulk.


The tart's crust is a sweet short crust that is so easy to make, you will want to make it your go-to crust for all your sweet tarts. This short crust was the first recipe I learnt in my pastry class, and I have been using it ever since. It is so simple to make, even an admitted pie-crust-dunce like myself cannot screw it up. It can be made in a food processor (use the plastic blade, if you have one), by hand, or in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. The best part of this recipe is that all the ingredients can (should) be at room temperature, and the dough needs to be kneaded: no pussy-footing about, no need to fear overworking it, easy-peasy. A real cinch.


The clincher to this tart... are the crushed peppermint candy canes. What is there not to like about that? Chocolate and mint are a classic pairing, and the candy brings extra crunch to an already delightfully crisp tart. It will be a hit with everyone. You can leave the peppermint sticks out if you prefer; replace them with chopped, toasted nuts if you like; or just go for plain chocolate Nirvana. I, myself, am kind of partial to toasted pumpkin seeds, rum-soaked raisins and dried cranberries.


Ganache
Yields enough to fill one 20cm/ 8" tart

190g/ 7oz dark chocolate, more or less 1cup when chopped
190ml/ ¾ cup heavy cream

Roughly chop chocolate into  chunks about the size of a stack of 4 quarters (10p/ 20E cents). Set aside in a large bowl.
Bring cream up to the boil. Pour over chocolate, set aside for about 10 minutes.
Stir chocolate until every last bit is melted, and completely combined with the cream: the ganache should be shiny and smooth.
Set aside, at room temperature, until ready to use.


Pâte Sucrée (Sweet Short Crust)
Yields enough dough to make two 20cm/ 8" tarts

70g/ 2 small or 1 extra-large egg
100g/ 1 cup icing (confectioner's) sugar, sifted
2g/ ½ tsp salt
250g/ 1¾ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
100g/ ½ cup butter, room temperature

In the mixer's/ food processor's/ mixing bowl, place eggs, sugar, salt and flour.
Mix until everything is almost completely combined. Add butter.
Mix until butter is fully absorbed by the dough, and there are no visible bits remaining.
The dough might be slightly sticky, but it should be smooth and somewhat stretchy..
If you are mixing dough by hand, mix until a ball is formed, scrape out onto a floured surface, and knead the dough with the heel of your hand. 
Flatten dough out into two 2cm/ 1" thick disk. Wrap in plastic film, and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 45 minutes.
When the dough is completely chilled, roll out onto a floured surface as thinly as possible, no more than 3mm/ 1/8" thick.
Place dough in tart mold, making sure that every nook is filled and the sides adhere to the dough.
Chill the tart shell, at least 30 minutes. Trim the edges once the dough has fully chilled and relaxed. 
Pre-heat oven to 190'C/ 375'F.
If the dough is fully chilled, it should not require pie weights, but you can use them for added security.
Blind bake for about 12 minutes, or until the crust has a nice golden tan.
If the sides colour faster than the bottom, cover with foil, leaving only the centre uncovered, and bake until the bottom is fully cooked.
Leave the crust to cool down completely before filling.

Sprinkle the bottom with crushed peppermint candies. (Make sure they are crushed quite fine, you wouldn't want anyone to break a tooth!)
Pour ganache over candies.
The ganache should be just barely warm when filling the tart: if it is too hot, it will dampen the crust; too cold, and it will not have a smooth surface.
Leave in a cool place to set, about 45 minutes to an hour, but do not refrigerate.

The filled tart is best eaten the day it is made. Once the ganache is fully set, it can be refrigerated, but its sheen can be affected by the humidity in the fridge. Ideally, the tart should be kept in a cool room. Any left-overs will still be scrumptious, but expect the crust to soften with time.

Bon app'!




Thursday, December 9, 2010

Warm Embrace


My eyes are veering towards the window as I type this post... It snowed. Like, really snowed! Finally. It hasn't stopped since Monday, and I am ecstatic. Almost overnight, the landscape changed. Everything is covered with the plushest, fluffiest blanket of pristine snow. I must be one of the few people in Montreal jubilant at the sight of snow (we have the average age of ten...)


I don't know what it is about snow that makes me revert to childhood, but it puts a big, goofy smile on my face when it comes sprinkling/ tumbling down from the sky. I just can't help it. While I no longer build snowmen or snow angels (but I just might when next I see my nephew!), and even less snow forts (although, I suspect that if I actually owned a snowsuit, I just might...) I practically bubble over when I grab a shovel and clear a path through the fresh snow. I know, crazy, right? I'm practically dancing in the snow, while everyone else has a grim look of determination on their faces, like the snow is the first obstacle of the day.

My jubilation at the sight of snow has everything to do happy childhood memories of winter wonderland: snow days; Sundays spent cross-country skiing; the holidays; and all that food! My family isn't Christian, so Christmas does not have any deep, spiritual significance for me. However, the holiday season was always about family, friends and food. The gatherings have changed over time, but the food remains.


The following recipe for Jewelled Rice first appeared in the November 2004 issue of Gourmet Magazine, and has been an old standard ever since. It is a beautiful dish in its own right: lovely to look at, and divine in the mouth, it is a delightful sidekick to a gorgeous turkey, but will dazzle just about any meal. The killer, for me, is the brown crust at the bottom of the pot: typically, white rice in most Asian households is served snow-white. But every now and then, a brown crust is formed at the bottom of the pot. While some see this crust as the cook's failing, it is actually a delightful treat for many Asian kids: it is crispy and crunchy, with a hint of toasted smokiness; drizzled with soy sauce, it's just like a rice cracker.


While Gourmet's recipe tries to remain close to the traditional Persian method, I've adapted it, made it simpler so that it can embellish even a weekday dinner. This method does not always result in a brown bottom crust, but if you use the amount of butter and dried fruit listed, you shouldn't be disappointed. The dried fruits listed are mere suggestions: use whatever you have on hand, or like. You can even change the fruits' proportions. However, the quantities for rice, water and salt should remain the same. I also like to add pomegranate kernels as a garnish, along with the nuts. Admittedly, there is little to this dish, besides the dried cranberries, that is 'local', but it is seasonal, and oh so festive.

 

Jewelled Rice
Makes 4 to 6 portions

2 cups/ 400g Basmati (Indian) or Jasmine(Thai) rice
2 cups/ 250mL water
½ tsp salt
5 cardamom pods or ¼ tsp ground
3Tbs butter
¼ c/ 50g dried cranberries
¼ c/ 40g golden raisins
¼ c/ 40g dried apricots or mangoes
3 slices candied ginger
¼ c/ 30g pumpkin seeds
¼ c/ 40g cashew nuts
¼ c/ 30g pistachios, unsalted and shelled
pomegranate kernels

Chop apricots, if using, into cubes about the same size as the raisins and dried cranberries. Chop the candied ginger as finely as possible. Set aside.
Rinse rice in abundant water, until it runs clear. Drain thoroughly in a colander.
Place rice in a large enough pot (the rice will double in volume, so use a 2L/ 2quart pot) with a tight fitting lid, add the 2 cups of water, the dried fruits, 2Tbs of butter, salt, and cardamom.
Cover pot, and bring up to the boil.
When steam starts escaping from the covered pot, reduce heat to medium-low, and let simmer for 15 minutes. DO keep an eye on the pot: if you hear it sizzle violently, and a stream of blueish smoke, turn off the heat! Let it rest for what remains of the cooking time, and it just might be rescued.
In the meantime, roughly chop the pistachios and cashew nuts.
In a frying pan, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter over medium heat: when the butter bubbles, add the nuts and pumpkin seeds.
Toast until the nuts take on a golden sheen. Leave to cool on a paper towel.
When the rice is cooked, remove from heat, but do not uncover. Let rest for another 10 to 15 minutes, before fluffing up the rice with a fork.
Serve in a communal dish, garnishing the rice with the toasted nuts and pomegranate seeds, and bits of golden crusty rice -if there is any.


Rinsing the raw rice is a very important step. Most rice eating cultures deem it to be the foundation for a perfect bowl of rice. Washing the rice removes excess starch and any residual bran; while it does not really reduce the cooked rice's stickiness, it will prevent the rice from becoming stodgy. Each grain of rice becomes perfectly plump and shiny.


Bon app'!




Sunday, December 5, 2010

Turmoil


I think 2010 was a difficult year for a lot of people. I'm still spinning from all that happened this year; there was so much.  A real roller-coaster ride, a whirlwind, and a tornado all wrapped up in one. I'm still reeling, but I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe it's because the year is coming to an end, or it might just be the approach of the holiday season, but it no longer feels like a downward spiral, more like a direction-less push and pull -something akin to the wash cycle in a washing machine. I just can't wait to find a strip of dry land so that I can finally stand firm on my two feet. But for that to happen I have to know where I want to be going. Wherein lies the problem: I no longer know where I want to be heading; things seem to have been engulfed in a haze, and I no longer can see clearly. I'm keeping my eyes wide open for an arrow sign, pointing to anywhere.

When I get into an emotional knot, I turn to food. Not to say that I'm an emotional eater -quite the opposite, actually- cooking, especially for others, focuses my mind, occupies my hands, and my thoughts get filed away. Perhaps not the most mature way to deal with one's problems, but it has allowed me to deal with difficulties in a calmer mind frame. 


Warm Lentils and Beet Salad
Serves 4 to 6

1 cup/ 210g lentils
1 medium sized beet, cooked
1 carrot
1 small onion
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp or 5 sprigs thyme
½ tsp fennel seeds, optional
1 large clove garlic
¼ cup olive oil
1 lemon, juiced or 2 Tbs red wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard, optional
salt and pepper 

Sift through the lentils to remove any obvious foreign object (dirt clod, rocks, or wheat berries).
Pour lentils in a large saucepan with enough water to cover by at least 5cm (2"). Add cumin seeds, thyme, garlic clove and fennel seeds, if using. Bring up to the boil.
Meanwhile, peel and cube the beet, carrot and onion. Set aside, separately.
When the pot of lentils is boiling, turn the heat down to medium-low, and cover. 
Let cook for 10-15 minutes. The lentils should be cooked, but still firm. If they are too hard to chew comfortably, cook for an extra 5 minutes. However, they will continue to cook while they cool off.
Remove from heat, but do not drain.
In another pot, or pan, heat oil. Add onions.
When the onions are partially cooked, add the carrots. Sauté for about 5 minutes.
Drain the lentils over the onions and carrots, pouring just enough water to cover the vegetables.
Cook uncovered until the carrots are tender, and most of the water has evaporated.
Drain the lentils completely, and discard cooking water. Add lentils to the onions and carrots, warming them through.
Stir in vinegar/ lemon juice and mustard -if using- until everything is combined.
Remove garlic clove, or crush it into the dressing.
Add the cubed beets. Mix, garnish with some chopped green-stuff, if you have some on hand.
And serve.


It is really important that you do not overcook the lentils, otherwise they will only be good for soup. The better lentils for this salad are the brown and green ones; pink lentils (the ones in the top picture) are pretty lovely, but as they are peeled, they can easily overcook, if you absolutely want a pink lentil salad, check the legume's doneness after 5 minutes. Serve the salad as a starter, as the partner to a roast, or even as the star of your meal. Make sure you have plenty of crusty bread at the ready, as you will want to sop up all the juices and dressing.


This lentil salad is a variation on a classic French recipe that usually calls for cured pork strips (lardons) or disks of cooked sausage. If you want to add the meat, you can omit most of the oil (use just enough to get the meat going in the pan), and use the rendered fat to sauté the onion and carrot. The pork products do add extra savouriness and a heady smokiness, but are not necessary. The beets bring their own earthy goodness, and combined with lentils, they pack a real tonic punch, providing a healthy shot of much needed iron. Any left-overs will only improve in flavour, and are great brown-bagged. However, if you opted to add meat to the salad, it will need to be re-heated, otherwise the fat will be unappealingly congealed.


While red wine vinegar is the classical acid in this recipe, lemon juice will add a seasonal brightness; you can add extra winter pizzazz with some orange zest and juice. Vary the flavours by using celery root or parsnips instead of the carrots and onions; substitute sprouted beans for part of the lentils. The sky -or, at least, your fridge and pantry- is the limit to the flavour combinations. You can even leave the beetroot out... Nevertheless, I do believe they go beautifully with lentils: their earthiness is grounding, and only serves to emphasize the lentils' gravitational qualities. This salad, for me, is like having my two feet firmly set on stable ground. An anchor in stormy weather. My little bit of dry land.

Bon app'!



P.S. Pictures are coming soon... I've been waiting for better light. Am enjoying the salad in the meantime. Hope it doesn't run out before the sun comes out, because I'm out of lentils!



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Saturday, December 4, 2010

New Features!

The Calendar is up! Finally.

To consult, you can either click on the tab above, or go to the link in the margin. I've also added a Recipe Index, and a contact e-mail, just to make things a little simpler.

Enjoy!

Oh! And I found a new directory of Canadian Food Blogs. Here's the link (there is also a permanent link in the margin):


Beer and Butter Tarts is hosting the first ever Best Canadian Food Blog Awards. They are now accepting nominations...


...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Descent into the Deep Freeze

Oh dear. Winter really is inevitable this year, isn't it? The snow in Montreal has all but melted, but you know it's going to be a cold, cold one when the West Coast has already received several snow dumps. The fields are definitely bare across Canada at this time of the year, except for the few crops that are left for later harvest. But there are few seasonal treats to look forward to. Most of them are local to us Northerners, but they are welcome just the same.

Citrus
Oranges, lemons and limes are now available year-round, but there was a time when winter was the  only time one got to see these beautiful nuggets of southern sunshine. Winter is when these fruits are in season in the northern hemisphere. It might be the fact that they travelled shorter distances to get to your table, or that citrus really do appreciate the cool temperatures of winter, but oranges in winter just taste better than at any other time of the year. California oranges have already started to trickle onto market shelves, those from Florida will follow close behind; the lemons on offer this week are larger and thinner skinned than those available only a few weeks previous; and the limes are much juicier than anything you would have found during the summer. And who could resist the clementines from Morocco?
Key limes and Meyer lemons are real seasonal treats, only available in December. They can be hard to find, but if you do see them, you might want to grab a few to make a special dessert or to whip a batch of marmalade.
We can't all have friends with citrus, or access to a glasshouse, but we can all have a taste of the sun's rays in the dead of winter.




Pomegranates
Pomegranates has gone from being virtually unknown to being the It fruit over the past few years. I suspect it partly has to do with the fact that its status as a superfood has made the pomegranate are more interesting cash crop... But my cynicism aside, pomegranates have long been known to be a wonderful fruit, after all it was the food of the gods in Greek mythology.
Pomegranates can be difficult to pry open; some will suggest breaking up the husk under running water (or in a bowlful to minimize waste), but I find it can still get messy, so I usually just wear dark cloth, an apron and go at it. Score the fruit's rind like you would an orange, and slowly split it apart. Juices will spurt, hence the need for dark clothes and an apron, but it will be worth it. The kernels can be munched on their own, but the add colour and bright flavour to a winter fruit salad ( add them at the last minute) or a bowl or rice pudding. Pomegranates are also lovely in savoury dishes, and are often sprinkled over meats and rice in Moroccan cuisine. If you are not feeling that adventurous, try them in a salad (how about substituting pomegranates for the cranberries in a beet slaw?)

Chestnuts
Chestnuts truly signify the winter holidays for me. There is something extremely festive about a roasting pan of chestnuts, whether it is over the kitchen stove, or an open fire: I have fond memories of my family huddled around a dish full of red-hot chestnuts, prying out the tender flesh from the scorched hulls.
Chestnuts do grow across most of Canada, but the one found at the supermarket and in specialty stores are most often imported as the local crop is too small to be commercially viable. I believe that British Colombia is the only province that sells its own productions, both farmed and wild. Wild chestnuts (real one, not horse chestnuts or conkers, which are toxic to humans) can be found in wooded areas of southern Ontario and Quebec. The chestnuts are tiny, and very difficult to find as wild animals are more wily than humans, but if you do spot a tree, visit it regularly from the end of September to November, you might just be able to pick enough to enjoy the concentrated goodness of the nut.

The Calendar
It's not a new fruit... But I am finally getting around to compiling a calendar of produce seasons (that is the whole point of this blog after all!) There will be a link to it in the right-hand column, so keep an eye out for it!

Bon app'!




Round Corners


Yay! It snowed over the week-end, just a little wee bit, but enough to lift the doom and gloom from my soul.  The sun even made a showing to shed a little light in a few dark recesses. Nevertheless, I am still on a comfort-food buzz, and hankering for something soft and creamy, smooth and enveloping. Tout en rondeur as the French say. I've reached my saturation point for mac and cheese, so I'm moving on to another favourite: polenta!


The first time I heard about polenta, it sounded so complicated and time-consuming to make (one hour of constant stirring, turning only in one direction with a wooden spoon...), yet fascinating all at once. Turns out, polenta is really easy-peasy to make. Polenta is basically an Italian corn mush -I know, doesn't sound too appealing in those terms, but that's exactly what it is- made with cornmeal or grit, instead of fresh corn (like its South American counterparts). You can buy imported polenta meal, but locally produced cornmeal is a perfectly acceptable substitute: while a coarse meal (corn grits) is closest to authentic, I prefer fine to medium grind cornmeals because the results are smoother, creamier, and cook in half the time.


My favourite use for polenta is as a creamy medium for saucy dishes like a goulash; smothered under a chunky tomato sauce; or even on its own with a sprinkling of cheese. However, you can also let it set in an oiled container; cut into wedges or slabs, dredge in a little flour, and pan-fry the polenta, you will have the best of two worlds: crispy brown the outside, and creamy-runny on the inside. Or better yet, make a double batch, enjoy part as a creamy sauce mop, and the rest as a crispy side dish. 


Creamy Polenta
Serves 2 to 3 as a side dish

2 Tbs butter or oil
½ cup/ 85g medium or fine cornmeal
2½-3 cups/ 500-750ml milk or water, or a combination of both
salt and pepper

Melt butter (or heat oil) over medium-high heat.
Add cornmeal, stir with a whisk to get everything coated with butter.
Toast the grits until a few of the grains begin to colour.
Pour milk or water gradually while whisking constantly to prevent lumps.
When the polenta starts bubbling, lower heat to medium-low.
Let simmer gently, stirring from time to time, for about 15-20 minutes.
Check the seasoning. 
The polenta is cooked when the grains are no longer gritty. Aim for the consistency of loose porridge: add more liquid if it is too thick, or cook for a while longer if the polenta is too runny.
Serve immediately, or leave to set for at least two hours before cutting into slabs, and frying.


Occasionally, the polenta will not set hard enough to cut cleanly, when that happens, you can either cook it down until it reaches the consistency of stiff oatmeal, or you can freeze it before slicing it. If you aren't in the mood to fry the left-overs, polenta can easily be re-heated to its creamy goodness over gentle heat, you might need to add a drop of milk or water to help it along. I go through single food kicks, and can be perfectly satisfied with a bowl of polenta for dinner, but I know that not everyone has my unique eating habits. Even though creamy polenta is plenty liquid in and of itself, it is the perfect foil for any saucy dish: it will soak up all the run-offs from your main course, whether a gorgeous roast, a divine stew, or lovely vegetables (especially leafy greens). Consider it an alternative to good old reliable mash.

Bon app'!




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