July 27, 2009

blast from the past

The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

This is my first Daring Bakers challenge and it was definitely a blast from the past, or at least half of it was. I've never had a Milano cookie but the marshmallow puff was a childhood staple.

We used to live across the street from my grandparents when we were growing up and we could always be assured that they would have a box of marshmallow cookies in the cupboard. Our absolute favourites were wagon wheels but good old viva puffs would do just fine too. So I was very excited at the prospect of making my own.

I decided to make the Milan cookies first. My first batch was disappointing - like many other Daring Bakers, my cookies spread more than I anticipated and I ended up with gigantic blobs. I managed to salvage a few from my second batch and, frustrated by my failures, for my third batch I decided to use my madeleine tins. I'm not sure if I didn't bake them enough but these cookies were quite cakey and soft where I was expecting something more crisp although, never having tasted a Milano cookie, I don't know why I thought that would be the case. Oh well, they weren't very pretty but they were still tasty.

Then I tackled the mallow cookies. OMG! Where to begin? The base was similar to a crumbly shortbread with a hint of cinnamon, topped with a cloud of homemade marshmallow and coated with dark chocolate. A grown-up version of the viva puff!

And this is why I love these challenges - quite frankly it would never have occurred to me to make mallow cookies at home. Now that I have I've been spoiled forever because once you've had the homemade version there's no going back!

Thank you Nicole for taking me on this nostalgic trip back to simpler times!

July 22, 2009

spaghetti with garlic shrimp

I had a dentist appointment this afternoon. You have to understand that, despite the fact that my dentist is one of the gentlest professionals you will ever meet, I really despise going to the dentist for any reason, even a cleaning, and this visit was far from that.

You see, I have been unable to chew on my right side for the better part of a week and was putting off visiting my dentist, hoping that the pain would somehow go away by itself even though I suspected that I had cracked my molar. When my jaw started hurting from the lopsided chewing I finally capitulated and made an appointment. Turns out I was right about the molar and I had to have some reconstructive work done with likely more to come.

You can imagine, then, that when I got home I was not in the best of moods but I was starving and I craved comfort food. That's when I spied the shrimp in the freezer and I knew exactly what I was going to make - garlicky shrimp tossed with spaghetti and fresh parsley.

This is absolutely a family favourite and it just doesn't get any easier or any tastier than this. Unfortunately I made this dish so quickly (and it disappeared just as fast) that I didn't have time to take many photos but suffice it to say that the photo doesn't quite do it justice!

Pam of Sidewalk Shoes is hosting Presto Pasta Nights this week - the roundup will be posted on Friday. After you've taken in all the wonderful pasta dishes, I highly recommend taking a few minutes to wander around her lovely blog.

Spaghetti with Garlic Shrimp
Serves 4

320gr (11oz) spaghetti
20 large shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
pinch of pepperoncino or hot pepper flakes (optional)
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 tbsp white wine
2 tbsp chopped parsley

Cook spaghetti according to package directions.

While the pasta is cooking heat olive oil, garlic and pepperoncino or hot pepper flakes in a non-stick skillet over medium heat. When garlic is fragrant add shrimp and cook until golden brown on one side then add white wine to the pan, flip shrimp to cook on the other side and remove from heat immediately. Cover skillet and allow the residual heat of the pan to finish cooking the shrimp.

When the pasta is cooked, drain and add it directly to the skillet containing the shrimp. Add chopped parsley and toss. Serve immediately.

July 16, 2009

pesto trapanese

With my first harvest of summer basil I made a basic pesto, also known as pesto genovese as it is characteristic of the cuisine of Genova in the region of Liguria in northern Italy.

The name, pesto, is a generic name for any raw sauce which is made from crushed fresh ingredients, often including basil, and is likely derived from the method of preparation for this sauce: "pestare" means to pound or to crush and this sauce is traditionally made with a mortar and pestle ("mortaio e pestello").

Pesto genovese is the most famous pesto but is by no means the only great pesto to be found in Italian cuisine and with the rest of my first basil harvest I decided to make pesto trapanese using a recipe from Lidia Bastianich, one of my favourite Italian chefs. Her recipes are authentic, simple and always delicious and this one is no exception.

Pesto trapanese is a delightful change of pace from the pesto most North Americans are familiar with and comes together literally in minutes.
Instead of pine nuts, this Sicilian pesto calls for almonds - many recipes suggest using blanched almonds but I took my cue from Lidia and used raw whole almonds. Unlike the pine nuts which virtually melt into the pesto genovese, the almonds here retain their personality and crunch, adding texture to the sauce.
Pesto trapanese also contains tomatoes, which add sweetness and emulsify with the olive oil to create a textural contrast to the crunchiness of the almonds. Basil, of course, is omnipresent.
When the pasta is tossed with the pesto, the residual heat warms up the tomatoes, almonds and basil and releases an intoxicating fragrance that will bring summer into your kitchen no matter the time of year.

Hop on over to Eats Well With Others where Joanne is this week's Presto Pasta Nights host - the roundup will be posted on Friday.

July 14, 2009

alinea challenge

The July Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Sketchy of Sketchy's Kitchen. Sketchy challenged us with a foray into molecular gastronomy, choosing a dish from Alinea by Grant Achatz: skate, traditional flavours powdered. Thanks Sketchy for such a spectacular challenge!

I have to admit that when this month's challenge was revealed I was a little freaked out. If you read my blog you know that I am all about simple food and the recipe seemed like anything but - what seemed like a million steps and just about all of the techniques foreign to me. With my sister's wedding and out of town guests the last couple of weeks I was very tempted to take a pass but I was a little embarrassed about wimping out on my very first Daring Kitchen challenge so I reminded myself that the whole point is that it is supposed to be a challenge and decided to forge ahead.

I won't lie, this dish takes a very long time to create, mainly because the ingredients for the powders need to be completely dehydrated and there are a lot of different components to the dish, but it was not nearly as difficult as I had feared. Once you have the powders done (and you can definitely make them ahead of time, in fact I highly recommend it), the dish comes together relatively quickly.

Not having a dehydrator, I dried the ingredients for the powders at a very low temperature in the oven, which took several hours. You can find a really helpful description of the process and other tips here.
Once completely dried, the ingredients need to be crushed into a fine powder and passed through a fine-mesh sieve. Since I don't have a coffee grinder, I used a combination of mortar and pestle and, for the harder ingredients such as the lemon peel, a mini food processor. I would definitely recommend using a coffee grinder if you have one - it was pretty hard to get a fine powder out of some of the ingredients without it.

I was surprised at the intensity of the flavours in the powders - I was expecting them to be dry and awful but they really popped and added incredible dimension to the fish. I made 4 different powders, staying true to the flavours of the original recipe: parsley and cilantro, caper and onion, lemon, brown butter and banana chips.

All of these flavours are pretty traditional with fish, right? Until you get to the banana. It appears in this dish both in the powders and as fresh slices under the poached fish. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical but I kept an open mind and was pleasantly surprised to find that the banana actually worked in the finished dish.

After an afternoon of preparing the powders I pressed on to finish the dish and serve it for supper. In retrospect that was probably overly ambitious but I figured that if I didn't do it right away, with all the craziness of my life over the last several weeks, I would never get it done. Let's just say we ate dinner very late that evening hence my recommendation to make the powders ahead of time!

The only change I made to the recipe was to use cod instead of skate as it was what was fresh and available from my fishmonger. The fish was poached in a butter emulsion (beurre monté) and was incredibly tender. Unfortunately it fell apart in the poaching liquid. I thought I had been pretty gentle with it but clearly not enough! I managed to piece it back together for the photo and frankly no one cared that it was flaking apart, it was that moist and delicious.

The big question: will I make this again? The truth is, I don't know. It was really good, restaurant quality (if I had been able to hold the fish together that is), but it's very far from my usual style of home cooking. I will use the poaching method again and maybe even use the same flavourings because they really worked well together, but I will probably use them in a more traditional way, without creating the powders.

I really want to thank Sketchy for prodding me out of my comfort zone in my first Daring Kitchen challenge and introducing me to the wonders of poaching in a butter emulsion! I have to admit that for my first challenge it was a doozy but I am so glad I completed it.

Check out other Daring Cooks who participated in the challenge. Their efforts were truly inspiring as I worked my way through my first attempt at molecular cuisine!

July 12, 2009

presto pesto

I took this picture of my potted basil mid-June.

One month later...

Despite the miserable weather we have had so far this summer, the basil has grown to gigantic proportions over that period! Normally I am much more vigilant about keeping it pruned but, with my sister's wedding and our out of town guests, I've been neglecting it the last few weeks and it had started to flower, which really isn't a good thing.

So when I saw Pam's post at Sidewalk Shoes it was as though she was speaking directly to me - a very timely reminder to cut back my own basil and inspiration to make pesto.

Basil, olive oil, garlic and toasted pine nuts. Into the food processor for a few minutes until puréed and it's done. Like Pam, I intend to freeze the pesto for later use so I will stir in some Parmesan just before serving. I also always add a thin layer of olive oil over the pesto in the jar to keep it fresher.

Pesto is so easy that you can eyeball the amounts of the ingredients and adjust the proportions to taste but if you are looking for a good recipe Pam has posted Mark Bittman's pesto recipe.

July 10, 2009

chard gratin

In my family greens are a staple - always have been and always will be. You can always count on my mom having a pot of greens simmering away on the stove or tucked away in the refrigerator.

Generally, I tend to prefer spicy greens so swiss chard, one of the milder greens, often gets overlooked in my own kitchen but it's one of my mom's favourites. It also happens to be a nutritional powerhouse, containing high concentrations of many vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, K and C as well as iron and dietary fibre. One cup of cooked chard contains more than the recommended daily value for vitamin A and almost one-quarter for iron!

If that's not enough to turn you on to this lovely green, this gratin by Laura Calder will make you a convert. Layered with cheese and bechamel, what's not to love? Trust.

Cook the stems and leaves separately and layer with gruyere in a buttered gratin dish. I added ham but it's definitely optional.

Make the bechamel. A tip from Laura: make it extra thick as the chart will exude liquid in the oven.

Top with bechamel, more gruyere and a sprinkling of parmesan for good measure. Cook until bubbly and golden then devour!

Chard Gratin
Adapted from French Taste by Laura Calder
serves 4

1 1/2 cups milk
1/4 onion
1 bay leaf
1 garlic clove
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
1/4 cup sour cream


1 bunch chard
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, sliced
1 ham steak, chopped (optional)
100 g Gruyere, grated
Finely grated Parmesan to taste

July 8, 2009

July 1, 2009

lessons in speed cooking: spaghetti and turkey meatballs

My sister is getting married on Saturday, my dress is an unmitigated disaster and we have family in from out of town. Yikes!

What do you serve guests when your stress levels are off the charts and you have no time to grocery shop or cook? At my house there is only one possible answer to that question: pasta ... and copious amounts of wine.

My style of cooking generally involves simple uncomplicated food but this particular meal set a speed record, even for me, and took less than 30 minutes start to finish.

I threw these meatballs together using ground turkey, a handful of bread crumbs, an egg, parsley and a bit of milk. I couldn't even be bothered to saute them - I just set them out on a baking sheet with a film of olive oil and rammed them into the oven. That's when I finished my first glass of wine.

When they were golden brown I pulled them out and unceremoniously dumped them into a tomato sauce that I started when I put the meatballs in the oven. That simmered while the pasta cooked and I started on my second glass of wine.

I knew that I had officially lost it when I tried to convince everyone that this one looked like a sad dinosaur. Maybe that third glass of wine wasn't such a great idea? Oh well, I redeemed myself with the pasta - it was delicious!

For more pasta inspiration, head on over to Daily Unadventures in Cooking on Friday where Katerina will be hosting this week's Presto Pasta Night from Vancouver.

spaghetti with turkey meatballs
serves 4 - 6

turkey meatballs:

500gr ground turkey
1 egg
1/2 cup fine breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Lightly beat egg with milk, add breadcrumbs, salt and pepper. add ground turkey and mix gently by hand, until just combined.

Take approximately 2 tbsp of mixture (the size of a golf ball) and roll gently between your palms to form a ball. Place on lightly oiled baking sheet. Repeat with remainder of meat mixture.

Bake in 350°F oven until golden brown, approximately 20 minutes. Don't worry if the meatballs are not completely cooked through as they will finish cooking in the sauce.

tomato sauce:

500ml (2 cups) canned tomatoes
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
salt to taste

Heat olive oil in a skillet over moderate heat, add garlic and saute briefly until fragrant (approximately 1 minute). Add tomatoes and simmer, salt to taste.

Add meatballs to simmering sauce and continue to cook until meatballs are fully cooked through (approximately 5 - 10 minutes - do not allow sauce to go above a bare simmer or the meatballs will be tough). Serve over spaghetti or your favourite pasta.

wordless wednesday: wish i were there