Saturday, February 26, 2011

Potimarron squash soup

I came across this recipe in Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan -- you know, the book with the elf on the spine that keeps startling me. I was instantly captivated, and set out to make it as soon as possible. Since I was not sure I could source the Red Kuri squash it calls for locally, I set out to order some seeds and grow my own (this is one of those long-term recipes). I found a batch at West Coast Seeds, and they arrived a week or so ago.

I thought I was all set until yesterday when my Seed Savers Exchange catalogue showed up in the mail. While I was flipping through it, I came across a squash called potimarron, and I knew that this is what is really called for in the squash soup. Dorie suggests that Red Kuri and potimarron are the same thing, but the picture was nothing like any Red Kuri squash I'd ever seen. As the president said in The Fifth Element, ``General, I have a doubt.``

So naturally, today I ordered another batch of seeds. I may grow both, but my money is on the potimarron since SSE notes that it is a chestnut flavoured pumpkin (hence the name: marron = chestnut) which is just the way Dorie describes the one called for in her recipe. I should have my seeds in a couple of weeks.

I`ll keep you posted on the progress. It should be about 6 months from now that I finally make the soup, but there are a few steps between now and then. I know I`ve mentioned how I like recipes that start along the lines of ``On day one...,`` but this is on the verge of ridiculous. Welcome to day one, anyway!

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Kimchi is a Korean fermented pickle. Pickling is an ancient way of preserving food, but it also creates new flavours in the process. Modern pickling relies on vinegar to produce an acidic solution that preserves food. In the old days before you could just head to the store and buy buckets of vinegar, you had to find a way to create an acidic solution from scratch. Kimchi belongs to the latter class of pickling. Essentially, you douse your vegetable with salt to keep most of the food-spoiling nasties at bay, and then let lactic acid bacteria kick into gear (they can take the salt, it seems) so they can produce the food preserving acids for you. The brine that swirls around in this pickling soup adds all kinds of nice flavours to the finished dish.

This recipe is for paechu (nappa cabbage) kimchi, and comes from the Momofuku cookbook by David Chang and Peter Meehan. Momofuku is a Japanese word that I don't think they ever translate for us (hopefully it means something much different from what it sounds like in English), and is the name of a group of restaurants in New York City. There's a lot of funky stuff in this cookbook, but this is the first dish I've gotten around to trying. (I love the wood grain cover, no matter what's inside!) I'm supposed to be in the Big Apple in April, so I'll be sure to pop in and report back (if I can get a seat!).

Phase one of the dish is salting the cabbage. You'll need 2 tablespoons of kosher or sea salt, a cabbage (surprise!), and 2 tablespoons of sugar.

Cut the cabbage in half lengthwise, then cut each half crosswise into slices about an inch wide. (Chuck any nasty outer leaves first.)

Mix the chopped cabbage with the salt and sugar.

Then cover the cabbage and pop it in the fridge for a day (you may have to move some beers around). If you use a lid that's a little loose like I did here (pot lid on an unrelated bowl), your fridge will get really smelly (which explains why those Korean farmers in that M*A*S*H* episode were burying their kimchi pots out in a field -- ok, probably they wanted to keep it cool, but I'm sure the stinky factor was part of the whole decision tree).

The next day, you need to prepare your pickling brine. You need 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup of Korean chile powder (they only seem to sell 10 pound bags of the stuff around here -- impressive, but impractical -- so I went for chile flakes), 1/4 cup of fish sauce, 1/4 cup of light soy sauce, and 2 teaspoons of jarred salted shrimp (I didn't have any of these and couldn't find them either, so I went for a handful of dried fish flakes that I had kicking around from some failed attempt to get into Japanese cooking). You'll also need to add to this 20 minced garlic cloves (!), 20 slices of fresh ginger, 1/2 cup of one-inch scallion pieces, and 1/2 cup of grated carrot.

Mix all that gunk in a bowl -- is should be quite soupy, so add a bit of water if it seems too thick to mix easily (I didn't need to add any water to my batch).

Take the cabbage out of the fridge and drain it. Then mix it with your brine and put it in a container (I recommend one with a good lid). Pop it in the fridge and ... wait. You can dig in after 24 hours, but according to Chang and Co. it is better after a week, best at two weeks, good for another two weeks, but then gets "incrementally stronger and funkier" after that -- you've been warned.

Here's what my batch looked like after 3 days. (Didn't I tell you that I love recipes that start: "On day one..."?)

Serve on the side with (or in!) a sandwich, put it on scrambled eggs, use it in the classic Korean dish beef bulgogi (marinated fried flank steak that you eat like a burrito only you use lettuce instead of tortillas and coconut rice instead of cheese -- yum! -- and nothing like a burrito, in retrospect), or eat it straight up. It's brilliant. You get mowed down by the garlic in the first second, then the saltiness hits before you get the one-two punch of the chiles and the fish flavour, then the heat reaches a crecendo and you settle into a garlic afterburn that will last for the next 24 hours at least. God knows what happens next. Just don't plan any long road trips with people with whom you want to remain friends. (Paula, I think you have an inside joke running with some buddies along this line -- I'll leave it to you to decide how much fun you want to have here!)

Kimchi rocks! Peace. Out.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chicken Divan Casserole

I'm baaaaack! My 4 hour computer repair is finally done (two weeks later). Time to get that backlog of recipe pictures off of my camera! I hope I didn't leave anyone stranded with their pepper seeds during the blackout. More seed starting coming in a little while, but for now, let's eat!

This recipe comes from Saveur 98. I dug the magazine out of my "to read" pile (and am a little embarassed that number 98 was issued in December 2006 -- it's a big pile). It sure is a nice issue though, and this feature on casseroles is the star of the show. It is a detialed article with several casserole classics (many of which you can snag straight from the Saveur website! BONUS!). It even has a nice discussion of Corning Ware (who knew it also makes great nose cones for guided missiles?!). Finally, it documents the rise and fall of the casserole empire (which we are told was conquered by T.V. dinners and Hamburgur Helper). Great stuff! A classic!

ANYWAY, here we are at Chicken Divan, named for a New York City restaurant called Divan Parisien where it was a specialty. You'll need two chicken breast halves, a head of broccoli, about 5 tablespoons of butter, 1/4 cup of flour, a cup of chicken stock, a cup of milk, a splash of sherry (ok, 3 tablespoons -- and a bit more for tasting), some nutmeg, about 1/2 cup of grated parm, 1 cup of slivered almonds, and 1/2 cup of whipping cream. I'm exhausted just typing all that out, but don't worry -- this recipe is easy and fun! (In true 1970s casserole spirit, you could probably replace most of the middle stuff with a can of mushroom soup, but we won't do that, will we?)

The first task is to fry the chicken. Just pop it in a pan over medium and sizzle away in a blob of oil for about 15 minutes. You just want to cook it through and brown it up a little. You may as well fire-up the oven to 375 before you forget (like I always do).

Pop the chicken on a plate to cool while you do everything else.

We're going to make a bechamel sauce -- a pretty basic sauce that you can use for all kinds of stuff. The idea is to melt a bunch of butter, add some flour to make a thin paste (or roux if you prefer), then add milk to dissolve that paste and cook it down a little to create a thick, creamy sauce. So, lets melt that butter (4-5 tablespoon ballpark here).

Then whisk in 1/4 cup of flour a little at a time.

Once the flour is thoroughly incorporated into the butter, you're ready for the milk.

Gradually add the cup of milk while whisking constantly. Then add the stock, half of the parm, some salt and pepper, and a healthy grating of nutmeg. Interestingly enough, I dug Saveur 134 out of my "to read pile" a day later, and they have this whole feature on nutmeg in there. Did you know Grenada has nutmeg on their flag? I thought we were freaky for having a leaf, but nutmeg is take-the-cake cool. This sauce needs to bubble away and thicken up for about 10 minutes on gentle heat. That gives you time to whirl-wind through all the following steps.

First, chop your chicken breasts on an angle into nice slices. Then steam your broccoli for about two minutes and...

...put it down as the base layer in a buttered casserole dish.

Then add the other half of your grated parm.

Put the chicken on top of that.

Sprinkle on a layer of slivered almonds, and get ready for the final steps of the sauce by...

...whipping the 1/2 cup of cream (THERE'S WHIPPED CREAM IN THIS! COULD IT BE BETTER?!)

Stir the sherry into your bechamel (I hope you've been sipping the sherry too. My Gran said that Harvey's Bristol Cream was always a reliable way to get her appetite back whenever she was feeling down. All I can say is that I think it's great stuff, and I can confirm that I was pretty hungry after a few belts too). Stir the whipped cream into the sauce while you're having all of these great thoughts.

Pour your rich and yummy beyond belief sauce over the casserole.

And bake it at 375 for 30 minutes (if your casserole dish is a little shallow, something to catch any bubble-over is a good idea).

Dish up and enjoy with rice or egg noodles. This dish was a hit with the kids. I found the broccoli cream combo to be somehow comforting and a little weird at the same time. The almonds are a key part of the dish, by the way -- they give a nice little crunch to what would otherwise be a big bowl of goop. Are you sold yet? I was, and it's a repeat for sure. 

Afterwards, please reward yourself with a well earned beer (to wash down all that sherry and stuff). How do you like my cool new beer jug from Beau's? It holds almost 2 litres! Oh yeah!! This will be a joy on the picnic table, where the beer will be kept cool and out of the sun. Where do these genius people keep coming from?

Bye for now, and bon appetit!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Starting peppers from seed...part 2

Ok! I have now realised this will be completely unmanageable in one post, so I am splitting it into two. Part 1 was all about germination, Part 2 (this one!) will be about planting and getting them growing, and maybe there'll even be a Part 3 on getting them outside. (Ok, I'm splitting it into 3.)

My computer is still roasted, but I've managed to find a temporary solution. So let's get on with it!

If you've had your peppers in a nice warm place, you should start to see little white roots emerging from the seeds after a week or so (be patient, this can take a looooooong time for some varieties like C. chinense and most of the wild cultivars of the other Capsicums). If you have nothing after a month, your seeds may be in deep dormancy (or REALLY deep dormancy, i.e. dead), or the spot you have may not be warm enough: remember that around 85F is optimal.

The first thing to do once you have roots is to make sure the soil in your pots is nice and damp (with warm water, of course) and make a little hole for each seed. I make holes with the back of my tweezers, since I'll be needing the front bits in a second.

Then you gently remove your pepper seeds from the bag (put the bag back after, so more seeds can germinate). Be super careful about the root -- if it breaks, you're done. I grab the seeds at the back end as far from the root as possible, and don't squeeze to hard (but don't be so wimpy that you drop it, which is worse).

If your seed is farther along (i.e. you weren't checking them every day) you can still take them out by scootching the tweezers under the stem and carefully lifting them. Watch-out here though, because the root hairs can embed into the paper towel if you wait too long. Don't tug on the stem if this happens, just use your tweezers to tear the paper towel out around the roots so that the paper comes with it -- that way you don't damage the roots, and the paper just decomposes in the soil as the pepper starts growing.

Place your seed into the hole you made, and make sure the root points down. The seed needs to be just below the surface -- deep enough so that the seed coat can be pushed-off, but not so deep that it can't make it out of the dirt. (Note -- if the seed coat doesn't come off it's not the end of the world: I've seen peppers pop them off after they emerge. You can help this along though by keeping the seed coat moist by spraying it now and then so it doesn't dry out and entoomb your little pepper leaves.)

I cover my seeds with fine sand at this point. It drains well, doesn't from a crust, and is heavy enough to help the seedling shed the seed coat. There is usually enough moisture in the soil to dampen the sand once it is poured in (go very slowly though, since big gobs of sand have been know to fall out on the peppers of inattentive people). You can also just use the soil you have in the pots, but I find that peaty stuff can lift up with the seed coat causing stressful remedial efforts like the misting above, so it isn't as good as sand.

Once the seeds are planted, get them under some lights. I use 4 foot fluorescent light fixtures from Canadian Tire. They're cheap to buy, energy efficient, provide a little warmth, and they work really well. Make sure the pots are as close to the lights as possible to ensure maximum brightness -- as you can see, this takes some engineering sometimes. You could grow them on a window sill too, but I find the sunshine is too unreliable around these parts at this time of year (and window sills are too cold) to keep the peppers in a state of optimal health and growth.

After a few days, your seedlings should make an appearance and you're off to the races. Keep the soil damp (but not soaking wet) and gradually move the plants lower as they start to grow (but always try to keep the leaves only a few inches away from the lights).

In a couple of weeks, the seedlings can be pricked-out to grow in individual pots. It's better to do it that way than to start in big pots from the beginning because there is a tendency for the soil in the bottom of a larger pot to get all compacted and gross before any roots get down there. If that happens the pepper won't thrive (they don't like cold wet feet -- who does?), so it's best to move them gradually to a larger pot and keep them chugging away in perfect rooty bliss. I'll post the potting-on process once the time comes. 'Til then:

Peace through peppers!