Monday, November 29, 2010

Bourbon banana bread

I've been looking for a decent bourbon banana bread recipe for some time, and to no avail. They all bombed. I'm not sure why I wanted to make bourbon banana bread, it just kind of resonated with me somehow. Well, yesterday I had these bananas that were about to go mushy, and some bourbon in the cupboard (go figure), so I decided to get this monkey off my back and sort this puppy out once and for all!

Part of the inspiration for this recipe came from a local restaurant called Petit Bill's. They make this Screech Cake there that is basically a pound cake drowned in a bottle of Screech. (And yes, it's every bit as awesome as it sounds -- a perfect follow-up to a plate of their lobster poutine, oh yeah!) I wasn't sure if this would work with a banana bread, but guess what -- it does! YES!! And this booze soak solved the main problem I had with other failed attempts at this recipe -- namely, none of them had any bourbon taste at all (this has it in spades). The problem as far as I can tell is that bourbon just boils off when you put it in the oven, so soaking the loaf post-bake avoids any of this nasty evaporation. And it makes me smile!

I started with the banana bread recipe from Joy of Cooking. You'll need 1 1/2 cups of flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Mix those dry things together.

If you're inclined to go over the top (and I hope you are) you can soak a handful of raisins in some bourbon for adding later (just for flavour of course).

Then dig out your mixer and combine 2/3 cup of sugar, 3/4 stick of softened butter, and 3/4 teaspoon of lemon zest (I used more like a tablespoon -- see below for why!) until nice and fluffy.

I finally broke down and bought one of those microplane zesters from Lee Valley. Holy awesome! I got about 6 cups of zest off of one lemon! (Ok, maybe this is a slight exaggeration, but not much.) There's no going back to regular zesters now -- except for a dose of nostalgia, of course, when I want to use my granny's old zester thingy.

Blend 2 mashed bananas (the recipe says 2-3, but I wanted this a little drier because you know what we're going to do later!) and 2 eggs into the fluffy butter and sugar. Once that's all mixed up, dump your dry ingredients in a cup at a time until each addition is combined.

Fold in about 1/2 cup of chopped nuts (I used almonds), your soaked raisins (leave the bourbon in the bowl for later), and a handful of currants too if you like.

Ease all this into a greased loaf pan and fire it in the oven at 350 for an hour. (Note that this is one of the first times EVER that a banana bread actually finished baking in the time required by the recipe -- I guess cookbooks that have been around for almost 80 years have earned their stripes!)

Once the loaf is baked, take it out of the oven and let it cool in the pan for about 20 mins.

Then poke the loaf all over with a wooden kebab skewer (try and line up your poke holes so that you can cut slices between them later -- if you go all higgly-piggly, your slices will fall apart later when you cut them). Then remove the loaf from the pan (a pie server is useful for scootching down the sides of the pan to loosen any stuck spots).

Add enough bourbon to your raisin-soaking dreggs to make about 1/4 cup, and gradually spoon this over the loaf. (It's a good idea to have something underneath to collect any spills, but it's an even better idea to do this super slowly and to not spill anyting.) Let it cool completely, and then get ready to smile! Have some tea or coffee too -- maybe with Bailey's? Who knows?

This yields a loaf with a pretty decent punch (fun to take to work for a snack!). You could use a little less booze, or try rum, or add a bit of sugar to temper the fire, or wait a day and let it mellow. Up to you, just make sure you try it!

Bye for now!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bastible bread

The bastible is an iron cooking pot with legs that was an essential part of the traditional Irish kitchen in the days before electric ovens took over the world. I've been wanting to get outside and play with fire before the snow sets in, and cooking something up in a bastible sounded like just the ticket.

I don't have an official bastible, mind you, but they sound a lot like the camp ovens I do have, so ... here we go!

This is a soda bread recipe from Darina Allen's Forgotten skills of cooking (one of the cookbooks I'll be sure to grab on the way out of the house if this place ever burns down). Soda bread has four ingredients and takes about 10 seconds to put together. There is a whole Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread out there, and you should support them because it's a worthy cause -- seriously, could they have an awesomer idea? So bake some soda bread today! The basic recipe is pretty plain, and you can consider adding some currants to it -- only then you'll have to call it spotted dog or railway cake (depending on if you put eggs in there too). Complicated, eh? Who knew?

The first job is to cut a piece of parchment paper to fit in the bottom of your camp oven. This will help get the bread into the pot and out of it later. Keep the parchment in the kitchen while you get your oven heating.

You could use coals from a fire if you want to be super authentic about all this, but I didn't happen to have a fire going, so I used briquettes for this job. They have a pretty steady burn rate and reliable dimensions, so they take some of the guess work out of figuring out how hot your bastible is. There are charts available that tell you exactly how many coals you'll need to reach a certain oven temperature, but the variables of wind, outdoor temperature, humidity, etc. make them a general guideline at best. Basically, you need a number of briquettes equal to about two times the size of your pot in inches to get 350 degrees, and three times the pot size to hit 450. This recipe calls for the bread to bake at about 450, but looking back at my pictures I see that I only used the 350 quantity of coals and it all worked just fine. So my advice is just wing it and see what happens!

One thing that is important when baking is to put about 2/3 of your coals on top of the oven, and 1/3 underneath. This is because it is easier for heat to rise than it is for it to reach down into the pot. So pick a number of coals that you can divide by three (like 21 for a 10 inch pot). It's a good idea to start a few extra in the chimney too, since you'll want to leave a few behind so you can keep a reserve burning -- just add a few extra briquettes every now and then so you have replacements available when the ones on the bastible burn down.

 Ok, enough of all that. Fire up your chimney starter with however many coals you've come up with.

When the coals are ready (ashing over) put 1/3 on the ground under your oven and 2/3 on top. Make sure the ones under the bastible don't touch it or you'll get burn spots on the bread. Keep them all at the outside edge of the pot too. If it's cold and windy,  find a sheltered spot for the oven to help it stay at a steady temp. While the bastible is heating, go make your dough.

To make the dough, you'll need 3 1/2 cups of flour (half white, half whole wheat), 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, and 2 cups of buttermilk.

Mix the dry ingredients, then make a well in the centre of the flour mix and pour in the buttermilk. Stretch out your fingers and stir your way from the middle to the edge of the mixing bowl. By the time you get to the edge, you should have a nice ball o' dough.

Turn it out onto a floured surface and work it into a little round disk about 2 inches thick. (You can see I snuck some caraway seeds in there.)

Cut a cross in the loaf, and prick the centre of each section to let the fairies out. Put the loaf on your parchment paper, and head outside to put it in the oven (did I forget to mention that you should do all that charcoal stuff outside?).

You'll need a lid lifter to get the lid open without getting ashes all over your bread. An iron spider is also nice since it gives you a spot to put the lid when you remove it.

Pop the loaf in the oven,

get the lid back on, and let it bake away for about 40 minutes -- or until you smell burning, whichever comes first. Every 10-15 minutes, give the pot a 1/4 turn and the lid a 1/4 turn to ensure that any hot spots get rotated. Replace any coals that have gone out (being less dilligent with the bottom ones towards the end to prevent burning your bottom :D) and keep the chimney reserve alive by adding a few extra briquettes every now and then. (You could, of course, do all this in the oven at 450 and skip the whole charcoal extravaganza if you like, but where's the fun in that?!)

When the time's up, pull out your marvel (two wooden spoons helped me out here). Then slice it up and enjoy with lots of butter, some marmalade maybe, or a beer, or whatever else strikes your fancy. Eat it all up if you can, since two days from now it will be a block of cement.

Bain taitneamh as do bhéil!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Toad in the hole

My buddy Rick popped into my office the other day, and for some reason that escapes my memory we launched into a discussion about toad in the hole. Rick is quite a character. From what I gather, he was expelled from the U.K. for a parking ticket, hung out with Cat Stevens, stole a tie from Frank Sinatra, and also had toad in the hole every Friday at boarding school (right after the weekly beating). I don't know if I’ll have it every Friday, but this recipe is definitely a repeat.

Toad in the hole is basically roasted sausages that get doused in Yorkshire pudding batter and the whole thing cooks up into a kind of sausage cake. I presume the name hails from the way the sausages look like toads poking their heads out of the mud, but for all I know, and knowing England, maybe it was really made with toads at one time. (Don't tell Mr. Jackson, although I'm sure Mrs. Tittlemouse would be relieved -- appropriately appalled, but relieved.)

As I write, I realise that Rick actually hails from Yorkshire, so this is all the more intriguing. In fact, the beer I am about to have is from there too! Rumour has it that dear Rick’s elementary school was right beside this very brewery. This explains a lot, I think, but we’ll leave it at that and get on with the recipe.

This particular recipe is a mash-up of a couple from the web. The rosemary idea is from Jamie Oliver, the batter is pretty standard, and the gravy from the BBC. First thing is to get the oven heated to 450.

Oil your pan and roast the sausages for about 20 minutes. I recommend cast iron pans here -- you never can tell with ceramic (just like bees), especially when you're going to dump some cold batter on there later. Toss some onions on top if you want. I used some nice andouille sausage from The Piggy Market. English bangers are an obviously good choice, but pick whatever you like, I’m sure it will all be brilliant. Our dear friends at the BBC suggest wrapping each sausage in bacon, which I am profoundly in favour of. It suits my over-the-top approach to cooking and eating just fine! One bit of advice, poke the sausage casings with a toothpick (that comes all the way from China – if you have one) – this will help prevent an explosion in the oven.

While the sausage is plugging away, whip up some Yorkshire pudding batter. This is basically a thin pancake batter that’s extra eggy so it puffs up a lot – it cooks up a lot like our old friend the Dutch Baby pancake. You'll need 115 g of flour (hilarious, this is just less than a cup), 285 ml of milk (even more hilarious -- try and measure that! -- aim for somewhere between 275 and 300 ml), 3 eggs (I am surprised it isn't 2.87 eggs), and a pinch (a gabillion molecules) of salt. Mix the eggs and milk first, then whisk in the flour. Put it in a big measuring cup while you wait for the rest of your 20 minutes to go by -- this will make it easier to pour.

There are a couple of schools of thought on Yorkshire pudding batter. One says it's essential that you let it rest for half-an-hour or so, the other says it makes no difference. I belong to the Whatever school which states that if you have about half-an-hour to wait anyway, you might as well make the batter early, then if there is a benefit you get it and if there isn't then it doesn't matter. Right? Right!

When the sausage is ready, get your oven mitts on (and keep them on) and haul the pan out.

Pour the Yorkshire pudding batter over the sausage, toss about 4 sprigs of rosemary on there, and fire the whole mess back in the oven (good thing you kept your oven mitts on). Don't worry about that ocean of fat -- it makes the Yorkshire pudding better. Honest. By the way, this is another one of those moments when it’s wise to wear an apron -- you may want to wear one while you eat too, just in case. Let this bake away for about 30 minutes.

While that’s happening you can make some gravy – this is British after all. You'll need an onion, some mustard, about 2 cups of chicken stock, a bit of flour, and some Worchestershire sauce (I spelled Worchestershire right the first time! but I spelled sauce wrong right after). See how fast this recipe is? My beer isn't even done yet!

Thinly slice the onion and fry it in about 2 tablespoons of oil over medium low until it starts to get soft and brown.  Then add 2 teaspoons of flour and mix that in evenly (this is basically a bechamel kind of sauce).

Mix 2 teaspoons of English mustard with 2 teaspoons of Worchestershire sauce and some of the chicken stock, and add this to the frying pan. Mix that around a bit, and then add the rest of the chicken stock and let the gravy simmer down over medium heat for about 15 minutes.

I didn't happen to have any English mustard on hand, and was about to go for Grey Poupon, but realised that this would never cut it (nice stuff, but too frou-frou for this dish). So, I went 50/50 with G.P. and a Russian mustard. If you've never had good Russian mustard, I HIGHLY recommend you try it. The first blast as it blows through your nasal passages will make you think death is the only possible outcome of the experince. If you live, you'll have some good laffs!

And voilà!!! I laughed out loud when this came out of the oven -- it is so completely awesome (ok, I don't see the whole toad thing, but whatever)! You can serve with some red cabbage, and/or mashed potatoes, or if you want to be truly authentic, peas that have been boiled into oblivion. I’ll leave all that up to you – my preferred side dish is … a beer!

Cheers, Rick! Shall we do kippers next?

p.s. If you happen to be attending the Resource Modelling conference that Rick is hosting in Ottawa this coming summer, you may know by now that I have volunteered to be the barbecue pit boss at the event. This is exacly the kind of heart-healthy fare you can expect, so bring your nitro glycerine tablets, Pepto Bismol, Tums, and minty gum and get ready to party!!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Speed bomb

Every now and then you have no time, no ingredients, but no desire to eat crap either. So, put down that bag of Doritos and do a riff on some recipe that lets you scrape the bottoms of your pantry and fridge barrels!

You may recall a few posts back the Salade Liégeoise I made (ok, maybe you don't -- if I call it freakin' awesome bean and potato salad maybe?!). ANYWAY, I like this salad a lot. I had some spuds on hand (from my wee garden!), and some green beans, but no bacon (but bacon fat! YAY!) so I did a quick improv and came up with the following.

First off, I sliced the spuds into 1/4 inch slabs (so they cook faster). My plan was to steam them, and steam the green beans at more-or-less the same time to a) save time and b) avoid dishes (steaming is great since the pots are mostly clean at the end -- they're sterilised anyway).

Pop the spuds into the double boiler steamer that you should use more often and set your timer for 15 minutes.

Then get a skillet going with a good slab of bacon fat in there -- don't be shy, Jennifer McLagan says bacon fat is as good for you as olive oil and I believe her. If you buy good bacon, then saving all the fat is an obligation! I pour the leftovers from brekkie into little bowls like the one on the left (it comes with a lid -- cool!) and keep them in the fridge for just such an emergency.

Pop (I say "pop" a lot) some sliced shallot into the skillet and fry it up. The recipe should have bacon in it but for some inexplicable reason I ran out (ok, it is explicable, I ate it all). To compensate, give the shallots a good toasting, just make sure they don't burn since, as you know, burnt onions suck.

Throw the beans in with the spuds when the timer is down to 10 minutes (if the beans are big fatties) or 7 minutes (if they're thinner).

When you have 2 minutes to go, splash some sherry vinegar into the skillet and swirl it around. Crank the heat a little to encourage it to boil down some.

When the timer dings, check that the spuds are done with a toothpick. This toothpick, by the way, came all the way from China (I bought it in Chongqing -- along with 500 other ones that look just like it). This makes me want to paraphrase Leonard Cohen "He checks his spuds with toothpicks that come all the way from China..."

Ok, sorry. Dump the steamer contents into a bowl and add salt and pepper.

Pour your vinaigrette out of the skillet into the bowl and give it a gentle but thorough stir. Then serve up and enjoy! Twenty minutes from nothing to something great!

This post is dedicated to my last bottle of limited edition Betelgeuse. Rest in peace dear brew. Until next time...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fire-roasted salsa

I chose this salsa to go with the ¡hot, hot tamales! I posted yesterday. I really like this salsa, not just because it's delicious, but also because it's one of the few occasions that you get to use a propane torch in the kitchen! ¡Ay, caramba!

You could go for one of those frou-frou torches they sell in kitchen stores, but my preference is the $10 model they sell at Canadian Tire -- that way you can use it on frozen pipes and stuff too!

This recipe also comes from the ¡Cocina! cookbook that the tamales hailed from. Ingredients are a small onion, 6 roma tomatoes, 2-3 chiles, a big pinch of salt, and a lime or two worth of lime juice. The recipe uses habanero chiles, but they looked pretty miserable at the store. Plus, my ají limón plants on the front porch are still alive (bless their souls!) in spite of getting hit with some light frosts and a dump of snow the other day. I wanted to go for the ajís for another reason, namely because they are native to South America, and this whole dish was supposed to be a tribute to Chile in the first place.

Ají is an Arawak Indian name, and is used generically for chile peppers in much of South America. The term is used elsewhere as the common name for the Capsicum baccatum species of peppers which, you may recall, is my favourite of the domesticated chiles. The baccatums are native to Peru or Bolivia and, if the archaeological evidence is correct, they've been domesticated since about 2,500 B.C. -- i.e., they've been in the Andes for a while. I could see the Andes out the window of my hotel room, so I figure we're on the right track putting them in this salsa. (The Andes connection may also explain how those troopers are still chugging away on the front porch in spite of the weather!)

So, there you are. The first thing to do is to start the fire roasting. The idea here is mainly to blast the skins off the tomatoes and the chiles, with a side benefit of adding some nice flavour. Ideally, this should be done over a nice charcoal fire for ultimate flavour, but I've only got 20 minutes before my tamales are done, so speed is of the essence here. I usually just stick the stem end of my tomatoes into a fork (not a good fork, mind you) and blast away. For chiles, I hold them by the stem with tongs. If you go from the stem end up, the skin will basically unzip as it blackens.

The tomatoes should look like this when they're done;

the chiles, like this.

As each tomato is done, put it into a bowl and pop a lid on it to help it steam away while you work on the other ones. (Just a bit of friendly advice here, but if you have to put the torch down for some reason, try to make sure it isn't pointed at the cupboards, or you, or anything else that might not like a 1,200 degree flame. It's probably also a good idea to open a window. And maybe keep a candle burning, so you can re-light it quick if it happens to snuff-out. This is as much fun as it sounds, but please don't burn your house down.)

Once you're all done, peel the skin off the tomatoes -- it should come off easily, but don't sweat it if there are a few black specks left here and there (this stuff is pretty sticky, so there will be LOTS of black specks all over you and the kitchen, but trust me, it's worth it!). You don't need to peel the chiles.

Somewhere during all this you have to mince the onion and saute over medium heat until it is softened.

Put one tomato and your chiles into a food processor. The idea here is to ensure that the chile gets finely chopped and evenly distributed throughout the salsa.

Whir that around for a couple of pulses.

Add the rest of the tomatoes, the lime juice, the salt, and the sauted onion.

And whir that around too! Whee!

Serve up and enjoy! Note that this salsa tends to separate on a plate, so if you use it as shown make sure it goes on just before you serve. Otherwise, it's a good idea to put it into little bowls to keep it nice and tidy. This one is great on everything: chips, grilled meats, and of course, ¡hot, hot tamale!