Monday, September 20, 2010

Roasting vegetables

I popped into Chapters the other day to get a birthday present for one of my spuds, and somehow I drifted over to the cookbook section. When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a cool new cookbook! This one is from two guys named Frank (I know a guy who should be named Frank, so I call him that all the time) who own an Italian restaurant called The Frankies Spuntino. It's a lovely looking book (like a Bible!) with gilt page edges, nice line drawings, and even photos. The recipes look wonderful too!

I was interested in the little section on roasting vegetables. I had this Brussels sprouts recipe that I misplaced somewhere, and was looking for some advice on roasting times and temperatures. These guys have a little table in the the book with half a dozen roasting candidates and their specifics. Nice! I also wanted to do some beets, and they're there too. I felt kind of guilty about giving Brussels sprouts and beets a bad rap yesterday when I said they weren't the best things to add to a chicken stock (they aren't, but still). So this is kind of a redemption song.

Brussels sprouts, by the way, are a pretty recent addition to the world's vegetable repertoire. They appeared about 500 years ago when some savoy cabbage near Brussels mutated and started growing these little cabbages in it's leaf axils (this according to Vegetables of Canada by Munro and Small). They weren't always all that popular however, and were blamed in medieval times for causing "fetid humors" -- farts, I presume. It was so bad, they were even called "the devil's hell-ball" and I don't think you used the word "devil" lightly back then. So much for my redemption song. But onwards!

I chose some small beets for roasting. This is a nice option since the skins aren't ridiculously tough and you don't need to remove them. If you use older and bigger beets, the cooking time will almost double and you'll have to wait until they are cool enough to handle to peel the skins off.

Give the beets a scrub and trim the heads and tails. Then dry them off. They need a coating of olive oil to roast properly, but if they're wet the whole "oil and water don't mix" issue is going to make coating them with oil a big messy, ineffective hassle. Don't use the family heirloom tea towels for this, since beets are great at staining everything.

Once they're dry, give them a coating of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and add a splash of water (about 1/4 cup) to the pan.

Then cover them up and pop them in the oven at 350 for about 50 minutes. You can use a baking sheet if you don't have a roasting pan with a lid -- just cover tightly with foil before putting it in the oven. Part of the reason I liked the recipe in The Frankies  is the low roasting temp. You often see vegetable roasting recipies (well, I do) that recommend temps of 450 or even 475 for vegetables. This is past the smoke point of a good olive oil, so using it for those recipes would be pretty dodgy (and I wanted to use olive oil for these guys).

To prepare the devil's hell-balls, cut the stem end a bit so you can easily remove the outer layer of leaves. (This makes washing them unnecessary.) Leave enough stem though so that when you slice them in half they stay together.

Coat the sprouts in olive oil too and season with salt and pepper. When there are 25 minutes left on the beets, put the sprouts in the oven to keep them company.

And then voila! All done!

Serve up with an extra sprinkle of salt and/or pepper. The beets can benefit from a vinaigrette if you like, but I like them all earthy and plain. This would be great alongside a meat pie or some other hearty fare. Another great vegetable to try is cauliflower (brilliant roasted! It takes about 45 mins too).

Enjoy your hell-balls! Hopefully my colleagues at work tomorrow don't have to cope with any fetid humors from me.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

One pot meal taken to the extreme!

I had the good fortune to meet Jennifer McLagan yesterday. She's the author of the cookbooks "Fat" and "Bones" -- which have pretty self explanatory content (i.e. not vegan). She was at a book signing at the opening of the Manotick Village Butcher, which seemed like a great spot. I didn't manage to buy anything because they'd been pretty much cleared out by the time I got there, but I did get to snag a few seconds talking to Jennifer about confit of duck...

...and of course she signed my books!

So, naturally, I had to do a post from her cookbooks. I chose one from the Bones book called Poached Chicken with Seasonal Vegetables. I'd been thinking of finding some way to cook up extra chicken so I can have it on hand for sandwiches, and this looked like just the ticket. I also had a carcass lying around (well, in the freezer) and was planning to make stock anyway, and since the chicken poaches in stock, I figured I could combine all this into one massive chickeny explosion. I am glad I did.

The first step is to make some chicken stock. We already know how to do this, of course.

Make sure the stock will be pretty much done about an hour before you want to eat. Strain it as usual, but put it right back into the stock pot afterwards -- we're gonna cook the chicken in there now.

The recipe calls for a whole chicken, but I couldn't find one yesterday (!) so I went for parts instead. Actually, I think this works great too, since you don't have a big empty chicken cavity taking up all the space in your pot. It also calls for various seasonal vegetables. I chose leeks and carrots (and corn on the cob!) because I like those things. The sky's the limit here, although if you go for colourful stuff like beets, or strongly flavoured stuff like Brussels sprouts, the stock you have at the end of the recipe might look or taste a little weird, respectively.

So, just chuck all your stuff in the pot and let it simmer gently for an hour (most of it sinks, as you can probably guess from the photo).

If you decide to use corn on the cob, chuck that in about 5-10 minutes before the hour is up.

Then fish out all your goodies, serve up on a platter (as you can see, I don't have one, but we do what we can), and dig in! (If you use a whole chicken, Jennifer [note the first-name basis] recommends tying a cheesecloth handle on the bird so you can get it out of the pot without all the pieces falling apart in a general mayhem sort of way.) This is so brilliant: a couple of kinds of vegetables, meat, and you can even serve the stock as a first course soup if you skim the fat off. You could probably even cook a pasta in there too (although I guess fishing it out would be a trick, but still!).

And the verdict? Well, the leeks were brilliant; the corn, stellar; the chicken breast, lovely; the legs, out of this world; and the carrots, freakin'-A.

And of course the great side effect of this recipe is that you have a mountain of awesome chicken stock to (somehow) fire into the freezer for future genius recipes! Remember to leave all the fat in there until after it spends a night in the fridge cooling down -- keep your options open, my friend.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to pour a glass of Scotch (I presume McLagan is Scottish, but even if it isn't I'm going to do it anyway) and watch a Star Trek movie (just to hear Mr. Scott, of course -- and there's the "Bones" connection too. Holy synchronicity!). Cheers!!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

More than you want to know about tea.

Tea comes from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). This may sound a little obvious, but it underlines the fact that anything made of something else -- no matter how much it looks like tea -- isn't tea. Of course, it doesn't pay to be pedantic about it; it sounds pretty dorky to say "Hi, may I have a peppermit tisane please?" So I think it's fine to play fast and loose with the word "tea" as long as you know what you're doing.

The "sinensis" part of the latin name for the tea plant indicates that it's a native of China (from Sino). Although you can't always count on this, since they named the habanero pepper species Capsicum sinensis even though it's a native of somewhere around Bolivia (someone made a guess, everyone believed it, and here we are). So, the tea plant is native to China, but it's grown all over the place now: India, Japan, parts of Africa, etc. Different varieties of tea are created depending on the age of harvest, the way the leaves are treated before drying, how they are dried, and what gets done to them after they are dried. According to one legend, people have been making infusions from this plant since 2737 B.C (give or take 3 minutes).

Tea leaves can be picked at different stages of maturity. White teas are picked when the tea plant first starts sprouting little fuzzy leaves after it's dormant period. These leaves are dried immediatley and yield a tea that some people can't distinguish from plain water (it is a little subtle). Older leaves get treated in one of several ways, yielding teas that run the spectrum from green to black. The darker the tea, the more the leaves have been allowed to sit around before they are finally dried. Green teas are dried before the leaves have a chance to oxidise (rot, basically), whereas black teas are allowed to oxidise all the way. If you've ever tried to dry mint and had it turn all brown, this is exactly what happens to tea leaves. If they are dried fast or are kept in an arid environment, they stay green; if they're kept in a humid environment for long enough, the leaves start breaking down and turn brown. This can be a good thing, since it creates new flavours; a black tea has quite a different taste profile from a green one, for example. If it's too humid for too long, you get a slimy mass of mould, so you clearly have to be careful here.

Halfway (more-or-less) between black and green teas are the oolongs. These are teas whose leaves have been allowed to oxidise to a greater or lesser extent to produce a whole new combination of flavours. Oolongs are my favourites, but it is easy to buy crappy ones that will make you think: "what's Joe's problem, this sucks!"

Japanese green teas are in a class of their own. The leaves of the most common of these, sencha, are steamed soon after harvest. This prevents the leaf from oxidising, and allows it to be dried in a way that preserves its green colour more than the Chinese methods which heat the leaves with dry heat (often in a wok or something similar). I'm not a big fan of these teas (except for genmaicha, which I like a lot) because to me they taste like that green gunk in the back of a lobster.

Here are some green teas. The one on the left is a Chinese new harvest. In the middle is Chinese "dragon well" which is dried in such a way that the leaves stay flat, and on the right is a Japanese genmaicha which is a sencha tea combined with popped rice.

Green teas are nice to brew in a ceramic teapot,

or in a cool cast iron Japanese-made tetsubin.

Here are a bunch of different oolong teas. The leaves are rolled into balls before heating and drying, and they all look pretty much the same, but once they open up in the teapot you can see varying degrees of oxidation in the leaves -- some have a tinge of red on the rim, others are much darker. These varying treatments can yield some surprisingly different flavours, and they can have a real thickness (I can't think of a better word to describe the taste).

Oolong teas are traditionally brewed in Yixing teapots. These are made of clay from a certain region of China. The walls of these pots are porous, and gradually absorb the flavour of the teas brewed in them. There are many cool varieties of these, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my long suffering colleagues at work who have let me duck into every teapot store I come across whenever we get shipped off to China. If you're in the market for one of these, make sure it's a real one (these cost around $40 and up) since there are cheap-o knock-offs out there that won't pour properly and will be made out of who knows what.

Here's another oolong. See how the leaves are whole? Not the crumbled up dust in a typical teabag. Keeping them this way takes special handling and is part of the cost of a fine tea.

Finally a couple of dark teas. On the left is a darjeeling from India (which can be green or black depending on the variety). On the right is some Kusmi tea from the local tea shop -- this one has spices and other things in it to add a whole 'nother dimension to the tea experience.

Ceramic pots are great for these teas, since the different flavours don't seep into the pot.

Dedicated tea shops are good places to look for quality tea. Expect to pay more than $10 for 50g-100g for decent stuff. Teaopia, which has been springing up in malls lately, has sold me some nice oolong. If you're in Montreal, check out Camellia sinensis -- they have a cafe on the side where you can try their offerings. These shops will also be able to advise you how much to put in a pot, how hot the water should be, and how long it should brew. I'm pretty lazy about all this though, and pretty much use a palm full of tea, near boiling water, and three minutes for everything. But then again, I am a wild and crazy guy.

And, if you happen to be in Beijing near the silk market, check-out this guy across the street. He is the gem of all gem tea purveyors (in my humble estimation!).

Happy brewing!

If you want even MORE info (believe it or not, we've only scratched the surface here), check out Fun Alliance -- a great site with info on brewing, pictures of cool Yixing pots, and lots and lots of tea.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Abbey bread

This is another recipe from the Belgian cookbook. You may think I'm a little obsessed with this, and, well, I kind of am, so let's leave it at that.

I can't imagine how anyone came up with the idea of bread. I mean, imagine this conversation:

Pre-bread person 1: "I just had an idea."

Pre-bread person 2: "Oh, yeah?"

Pre-bread person 1: "Yeah. I was thinking we could grind up a bunch of wheat seeds, then mix them with water and let them sit around a while until they get all frothy. Then we can add some more ground-up wheat seeds and mush it around until we have these nice elastic balls of, oh, I don't know, let's call it dough. Then we could let these dough balls sit around for a while, and while they're doing that we could build a big fire in the oven and get it really hot. Then we could put the dough balls in the hot oven and cook them for a while, and once they're cooked we could take them out, slice them, and make sandwiches."

Pre-bread person 2: "Screw-off."

Pre-bread person 1: "What-EVER!"

See? How did it happen?!

ANYWAY, the first part of this recipe is the poolish we made the other day. Poolish is a pre-ferment, which means you make a sort of starter dough before you do the real one that will become your bread. If you're making sourdough, poolish is the name of the game since this is how you collect wild yeast from the air to make your sourdough starter (what pre-bread person 1 was up to by letting the water and flour sit around for a while until it got a bubbly). This recipe shortcuts the yeast harvesting and uses commercial yeast -- it's still a worthwhile step though, since your bread will have more character than if you make the whole loaf from start to finish in one go.

So, the day BEFORE you want to make the bread (remember Henry Blake and the bomb? "But first...") make your poolish with 75 g of rye flour and 75 g of bread flour mixed with 1/2 teaspoon of yeast and 2/3 cups of water. Stir this around until it's mixed and let it sit, covered on the counter for a day or so. (You need a scale for this recipe, by the way! From what I understand, weighing is the only way to ensure a bread recipe works properly. Personally, I think this is a bit misleading, since bread making is a pretty organic process, and you can vary things and use your judgement until your dough feels right. However, I have a scale, and a recipe with weights, so here we are weighing stuff.)

Check your poolish the next day. It should be all bubbly. If you left it for a couple of days, it should still be ok too (put it in the fridge if you're planning on totally ignoring your bread project for a while). Give it a sniff, though -- if it smells weird, start over, if is smells yeasty and bready, carry on!

About an hour before you want to make your bread, put 1/2 cup of flaxseeds and 1/2 cup of warm water into a bowl. The flax seeds need to soak for a while, otherwise they are not so digestible, and I presume they'll sail straight through you (I dunno for sure, but I'm not about to second guess my cookbook).

Next is the dough. Measure out 250g each of whole wheat, bread, and rye flour. I like to measure it straight into the mixing bowl. Then add 1 tablespoon of salt.

It's also time to proof your yeast. I've heard that this isn't necessary, but I do it anyway. You don't want to discover that your yeast is no good AFTER you've made the dough and waited an hour for it to rise, only it didn't. So, put 1 tablespoon of yeast in 1 1/4 cups of warm water. Add a pinch of sugar, and a few minutes later you should have...

...little yeast volcanoes, telling you all is well in microbe-land.

The recipe says to mix the flours, water, flaxseeds, and poolish in stages, but I'm a dump it all in there kind of guy, so I did (except for the poolish, which I noticed I'd forgotten somewhere near the end ... so I got it in there eventually and soldiered on!). I used the bad-boy Kitchenaid for the mixing. You could do this by hand, but it is a really heavy dough, so unless you have Dwayne Johnson pipes (or are working on building them), go for the mixer.

After 5 minutes or so, your dough should form a ball (this takes a bunch of scraping down the sides to ensure it happens -- please turn the mixer off first!) Note that you should keep the mixer on speed 2 for dough -- I've heard of a bunch of people wrecking these things by cranking them up to max to work bread.

Once you have a dough ball, flour a work surface and start kneading! The recipe says to knead for 10 minutes. Good luck. I lasted maybe 5. The key is to gradually work flour in as the dough becomes sticky, but not to work so much in that you end up kneading (and baking) a rock. So, as I mentioned above, use your judgement. I find that the kneading is usually done at about exactly the time that I am fed-up with kneading.

Oil the dough, and put it back in the mixing bowl. Cover it with a plate and put it somewhere warm to rise for an hour. Naturally, it got cold the day I decided to make bread, so nowhere is warm ... except! ... the oven with the lightbulb on! This is a prefect spot for dough on cool days.

An hour later it should look like this (i.e. bigger than it was an hour ago).

Get two loaf pans ready (you could use rectangles if you like). Spread some oil around the surface, and then add a dusting of flour -- tilt the pans around for even coverage.

Cut your dough in two, ...

...and make two nice loaves from it.

Then get another plate, cover both loaf pans, and put them in the light-bulb-on-oven for another half hour.

Take the loaves out, and start heating your oven to 450. Let them rise on the counter while you're waiting, and then make three slices in the top just before putting them in the oven. This keeps them from blowing up just anywhere when they bake, and ensures they expand along these fault lines.

Bake for 40 minutes -- you know they're done if they sound hollow when you tap them (SEE, another judgement thing.)

Once your babies are done, pop them out of the oven and out of the pans (they SHOULD "pop out" if you were diligent with the oil and flour) and let them cool on wire racks. (Look at that cheeky one in the front: it blew up anyway! Looking back at the photos, I see it wasn't totally smooth to start with. Ah well, it'll still be dee-lish!)

Now get ready for some GREAT sandwiches!!

Bon App├ętit! Eet Smakelijk!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Belgium strikes again! (Mustard sauce ... mmmm....)

I had a fun day today. I went on a little road trip down to Rednersville to visit a friend's art exhibit and gallery. I took highway 7, and scooted down through Tweed to get there. A lovely drive, if you happen to be in the neighbourhood!

Here's a sample painting (pardon the copyright infringement, Brandy!) just to get you in the mood for a great meal!

So, I had plenty of time to think on this drive today (like 6 hours) and decided that the mustard sauce I saw the other day (in my glorious Belgian cookbook) had to go for a test run. You're welcome to join me....

This is a pretty basic sauce recipe -- the technique transposes to most pan sauces, so it's useful to have in your repetoire. I also cooked up a side-order of kale, and this is also a useful basic technique, so here we go! Basictechnique city, and we're the mayors!

The kale is the cavolo nero that miraculously survived in my garden last winter. It did set seed, by the way, so I'll be sure to start working on a winter hardy strain of this beautiful vegetable (as I threatened before, cavolo Joe will be available at a market near you in, oh, 20 years or so). 

I had a flash-back that suggested I had already done this recipe before, but I was mistaken. I did post a collards recipe that is quite similar, but this version skips the blanching step because kale is WAY less leathery.

ANYWAY, the first step is to get some bacon going. I tend to use too much bacon all the time, but I like it, so there.

Once the bacon has fried up a bit, add some shallots to the pan and stir those around for a minute or two.

Pop the kale in the pan and give it a stir.

Add some salt and about 1/4 cup of water, and...

...pop the lid on. Drop the heat down to fairly low and set your timer for 15 minutes.

Now, for the mustard sauce (which I probably should have mentioned goes on pork chops!).

Get your pan warmed up and add some oil. Once the oil is warm, get some butter in there and let the water sizzle out of it.

(A note on the pan! You don't want non-stick -- I don't even have one! The whole idea behind this kind of pan sauce is to create a fond which is a fancy French way of saying crispy-brown-bits-stuck-to-the-bottom-of-your-pan. You can't do this in non-stick pans since, by definition, nothing sticks. Cast iron works great, but lately I've become partial to my de Buyer blue steel pan which is nice and heavy, supposedly manufactured in some kind of "environmental" way, and does a kick-butt job of frying up pork chops in a fond-friendly way. If you find one, snag it! -- you won't be disappointed! That cute rubber "B" in the handle can be popped out whenever you need to stick the pan in the oven too -- how genius is THAT?!)

Whew. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Salt the pork chops and drop them in the pan. They'll need about 3-4 minutes per side depending on how thick they are and how hot your pan is -- mine is on 6 heat (one over medium).

While these babies are sizzling away, you can prepare your mustard sauce. The basic idea behind a pan sauce is to fry something up, leaving behind a nice fond (a.k.a. crusty bits). Then you de-glaze the pan (i.e. loosen up the crusty bits) with some kind of liquid (preferably, and usually, booze), reduce the liquid, add some kind of fat (cream or butter), warm that up, and serve. So, that's what we're about to do!

The fat used in this sauce is cream. It gets mixed with mustard to give a bit of punch (other sauces use fruit instead of mustard -- blueberries are AWESOME, for example). I found a source of organic whipping cream in bottles (how great is THAT!). For mustard, I recommend a grainy one. If you can get Meaux mustard from the Pommery family, then go for it -- it's my favourite!

The official recipe calls for a cup of cream. I used about half a cup since I was only cooking two chops. It also calls for two tablespoons of mustard -- in the spirit of halving, I used one. Whisk these two merry friends together.

The booze portion of this recipe can be beer or wine (or chicken stock if you are under some kind of prohibition, or vegetable stock if you are under some kind of vegetarianism -- you should probably skip the pork and bacon in that case...). I was about to go for wine, since I find it such a shame to dump beer into a frying pan instead of a glass, but OH FRABJOUS DAY! I discovered that I had about 12 bottles of Betelgeuse hiding in the basement. I MUST have hit my head to have forgotten about these. Admittedly, they aren't exactly "Summer" beers -- they clock in at 9.1%, so swilling back a couple of pints while at the BBQ can lead to serious problems (like fires, burns, and charred food -- with side benefits of euphoria, but that's beside the point). So, to make I long story short (well, to make a short story shorter), I went for the Betelgeuse.

Holy diversions! Ok. Once the chops are cooked, remove them to a plate and cover. :D I'm smiling because there is ANOTHER beer in the picture! How did that get there?!

REMEMBER, you don't need to use foil or plastic!

Ok, now here's your fond! (I am so fond of fond.)

Pop some chopped shallots in the pan. (I guess I should have done one of those ingredient shots at the start that I usually do. If you're a read the whole recipe type, then you should be ok, if you're a fly by the seat of my pants and wing it disaster type then start chopping! I confess a fondness for the latter, but am not unsympathetic to the former.)

Once the shallots have softened for a few minutes, fire the beer in there. Again, I failed to measure -- basically you want enough to coat the pan (this leaves most of the bottle for slurping down later). This is the de-glazing part, so use your spatula to loosen-up all the crusty bits right now!

Sizzle the beer down until it makes a glaze (ok, i know it's weird to de-glaze to make a glaze, but bear with me). You know you're in the ballpark when your spoon leaves tracks.

Ok. Now the hard part. Adding cream to a hot pan can lead to disaster -- a.k.a. separated sauce. I used to work at The Wellington Pub in Kingston for awhile, and the cook (Dusty Street -- yes, that is his real name: he showed me his driver's license) and I were talking about such sauces one night and he told me about tricks using ice cubes etc. to remedy a separation. Frankly (and Frank, this means you!), I prefer to avoid the whole problem. So what am I getting at? Well, I'm getting at "drop the temp." Your pan is hot, and too much heat will separate your cream into fat and water yielding a gross sauce that looks like cottage cheese. If you drop the element down to lowish (say 3?) the heat will fall enough when you add the cream to keep the whole thing together (I hope).

So, drop the temp and add your cream. I read somewhere (once, I have no idea where or when) that a proper cream sauce requires the cream to get a little cooked. A raw cream flavour will not get you into the zone. So cook the cream down for a couple of minutes so all the flavours can mingle properly.

And you're done! Serve up with your nice kale.

If you have left-over sauce you can save it for breakfast or something. I, however, went back to the pan and ate it all up. It's too good. It's wonderful. It's Galliano chicken good! This may not be heart-healthy, but it sure is soul-healthy, so dig in if your soul needs a boost!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go do the dishes. Yes, dear reader, I left all that crap in the sink in my enthusiasm to share this great culinary achievement! (This is a bigger deal than it sounds, since I am pretty dorky about keeping my kitchen clean, but my desire to share recipe greatness trumps all! Good grief -- this is getting sappy, must be the Betelgeuse.)

Peace, brothers and sisters! And get down to Rednersville if you can.