Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, Weblog!

It's erev Christmas, and I am home alone, plague monkey that I am. Unwilling to broadcast my illness far and wide, I am quarantined with my cats, some short ribs braising in the oven, and eager anticipation of Alan Maitland's reading of The Shepherd on the CBC.

This is evidently becoming a tradition for me, only last year, I was screwing up my first ever batch of ice cream, and this year, I can churn ice cream like it ain't no thing. In my year of sporadic weblog postings, ramblings and incoherent ravings, I have, apparently, made progress, in some sense of the word. I am getting my learn on at Chef school, for one thing. Finally, I can tell the front of a chicken from the back, once the legs are off. Puff pastry is no longer an abstract and theoretical challenge. I can (with every ounce of concentration I can muster) produce springrolls that in no way resemble pregnant worms. I am becoming proficient at all kinds of things I wouldn't have imagined possible, this time last year. With my accumulating confidence and experience, I realize that the mountain of all things gastronomic that I don't know is actually growing, even as it seems less insurmountable. Nice to see that an old dog such as myself can learn some new tricks, I guess.

I wish you all a restorative and joyful holiday season, a happy and healthy New Year, and peace (and peas) in your hearts.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jewish Penicillin vs. Dirty Stratford Germs

I had been fighting a cold all week, and my body graciously granted me a stay while I finished up my exams before heading home for the holidays. No sooner did I disembark from my overbooked train to Kingston, however, than the invading Stratford germs executed a coup, and felled my school-addled self.
I don't remember the last time I was this sick, and while I will spare you the nasty details, suffice it to say that I am a mess, and am best left to my own devices until this plague clears up.

I was less sick yesterday, when I committed to making brown veal stock. My plan was to turn it into a demi-glace base for a sauce diable, sauce chasseur, or sauce charcutière for the chicken I also picked up whilst at the butcher. I cursed myself over and over today, lying in bed, half-blind. Here I was with a chicken, some vegetables and a vat of veal stock for an elegant chicken sauté, but all I wanted, nay, all I needed was my mom's chicken soup. I couldn't see my way to leaving the house to pick up dill, the essential missing ingredient.

I rallied with an equine dose of cold capsules, pain killers and antibiotic eyedrops, and managed to produce a chicken sauté with local shiitake mushrooms, a port-demi reduction and baby potatoes roasted in duck fat. I even managed to put away the bulk of the bottle of sauvignon blanc I was cooking with. All in all, not a bad effort, but it paled in comparison to the restorative magic that my mom's chicken soup would have wrought.

This is the best thing you can do, if you or anyone you care about, is sick:
1) Get a chicken. A kosher chicken is the best for soup, because they're saltier (and therefore tastier, IMHO). Barring that, see if you can get your hands on an older stewing hen. Beyond that, just get a chicken, or even a bag of dismantled chicken parts (to save yourself the trouble of butchering the thing, if you don't know how, or are too sick to wield a knife safely). Remove any organs like heart, kidneys and liver, because they will make your soup a) bitter, and b) a funny colour. There are tons of delicious things you can do with these morsels, but if you're illin', don't worry about them- deal with them later, or feed them to your pets.

2) If it hasn't been done for you, cut up the chicken into large pieces (breasts, thighs, drumsticks, halve the remaining carcass). Leave the skin on, but remove any pin feathers sticking out. This may require tweezers, which will then require careful disinfection.

3) Put the chicken in a soup pot, cover with cold, clear water by about 2 inches. Set on the stove top, and slowly bring to a boil. Once the water has boiled, turn the heat down to a simmer. Now you can prepare your vegetables. My family's tradition dictates that the only acceptable vegetable accompaniments for chicken soup are: carrots (either peeled and coarsely chopped into chunks, or the baby shaped carrots), celery (strings removed, chopped into pieces roughly equal in size to the carrots), and dill (added as a bunch, then fished out once the desired level of dill-ness has been attained). Black sheep that I am, I embellish on tradition, and add potato, leek, lemongrass, lime leaf and white turnip (if I can find any. The waxy yellow rutabaga has too strong a flavour for the delicately flavored soup). I also chop the dill before I add it, and leave it in. I really like dill.

4) You want to let the chicken simmer for a while, though, before adding the vegetables. These should only be added in the last 45 minutes of simmering, so they retain their structural integrity. The exception, of course, is the lime leaf and lemongrass, which can be added early, to extract the maximum flavour. The secret to a clear soup is careful skimming- all the scum, fat and impurities that rise to the top should be ladled off, without removing too much soup. If the soup is at too vigorous a boil, the excess fat and schmutz will emulsify into the soup, which will them be cloudy, and muddy-tasting at the end.

5) How to know when to add the vegetables? Taste the soup. It should be flavorful and alive with chicken-y goodness, but not very strong- remember that unless you are using a kosher bird, the only salt in the pot will be the natural salts occurring in the bird itself, which aren't that potent. Wait until the end to season the soup- if you salt it, and then reduce it too much while cooking, it will be overseasoned. Better to be patient.

6) Once the vegetables have been added and simmer until tender, you can season your soup with salt and pepper. Your pepper choices are many. Black pepper tastes amazing, but the black flecks may distract you from the golden perfection of your soup. I use black pepper. My mom does not. A really good way of getting the clear pungency of black pepper would be to tie some up in a sachet of cheesecloth, suspend it in the simmering broth, and discard at the end. You could also include: bay leaf, parsley stems and thyme, if you wanted. These seasonings (peppercorns, bay leaf, thyme and parsley stem) can also be tied up in a leek leaf, for the ultra-traditional bouquet garni, which is a generally nifty trick to have up your sleeve for imparting subtle aromatics to all manner of stocks, soups and sauces.
But I digress.
To avoid pepper flecks, you could use white pepper, although I find it generally tastes like ass, and I try to avoid it. What my mom does, is not season the pot of soup with pepper at all, and instead, she passes a shaker of celery pepper at the table. This is the only seasoning ever on the table at my mother's house. It is made of celery seed that has been ground with black pepper. It is commercially available, or you can make your own.

7) Now I like to remove the chicken, discard the carcass and skin, and shred the meat, returning it to the pot for a really hearty, chunky soup. I also boil small pasta shapes (I am partial to stars and alphabets) separately, and add them to the bowl (not the pot- they will get ultra-soggy) to serve. My mom usually leaves the chicken out altogether, saving it for cold lunches, and refrigerates the soup overnight so that all the fat congeals at the top and can be discarded easily. I never have this much forethought. This is something I am working on. Aside from pasta, you can add matzo-farfel, dumplings (potato or meat-filled kreplach), matzo balls (which, when I am sick, are way too much to ask of me), and soup mandlen (which are basically little puffs of choux paste, probably made on water rather than milk so they are pareve).

My mom calls this Jewish Penicillin, with good reason- a homemade chicken soup can cure all manner of ailment, from a common cold to a broken heart to whatever ungodly illness I managed to pick up in Stratford. I should have sucked it up and picked up some dill, which is exactly what I plan to do tomorrow, assuming I am more ambulatory.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Internet silence, explained.

The long and short of my sporadic posting: I have way less free time than I would have thought possible.

I thought that being on my own in a new town, in school full-time meant that I was going to have tons of time on my hands, that my weblog was finally going to be picture-rich, that I was going to knock off some knitting projects that have been dragging, that some pressing paperwork was finally going to be dealt with.

As it turns out, I was mistaken.

Those of you that know me, know that I am in general, fairly organized, and an accomplished multi-tasker. I can shoulder a heavy load, and can get incredible amounts of work done cheerfully and efficiently. And yet here, in Stratford Chefs School, I am nearly drowning in my workload. The work is not particularly difficult, but there is a lot of it (and I mean, A LOT). For the most part, it is fascinating, and every chapter, every assignment, totally deserves my fullest attention, and completely rewards that attention with an incredible amount of knowledge that I would be hard-pressed to gather for myself, unguided.

And so, I have written encyclopedic treatises on boiling, poaching, pan-frying, sautéing, stir-frying and pot-roasting (which is not what I thought it was!). I am reading beautifully written work about food by important authors. I am learning about classical menu design. I am familiarizing myself with the principles of nutrition (and the Canada Food Guide is damaging my self-esteem). I am learning to serve guests graciously (a stretch. I am mostly serving them awkwardly, but hope springs eternal). I am coming to understand wine. And colour theory. And the history of industrial agriculture. And the history of food culture. And the rudiments of food costing. I am tasting, trying and learning.

But I am not knitting, I am not dispensing with my paperwork, and I (unfortunately) am not taking pictures for this weblog.

I am drowning in my workload, and I couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs

This is the way you make a french folded omelette, if you are a Michelin-starred Italian chef/demigod who trained under Alain Ducasse:

First of all, you should, at all times, look cool and composed. Your immaculately white neckerchief should stay tucked in, as it is largely for show: sweat wouldn't dare break on you.

Your pan and butter rise to the perfect temperature under your gaze, and your whisked and seasoned eggs leap into the pan just to please you. You can, apparently, communicate with the eggs telepathically, because all you have to do is wave a fork at them, and they are perfectly fluffy, and they don't even dream of browning.

When you are ready to flip the omelette, you nonchalantly tilt the pan, and with your free hand, gently drum on the panhandle, and the omelette turns itself over, and you slide it onto the plate, like it ain't no thing.

This is the way you make a French folded omelette if you are a first-year apprentice in week three at SCS:

8 attempts later, I have no idea.

There was no part of Chef Camanini's demonstration that I could replicate. I get that the omelette is devious in its simplicity. With so few ingredients, and no elaborate filling, sauce or garnish to hide behind, the execution of the omelette must be perfect.

I did not attain perfection.

My butter browned, the eggs wouldn't flip, and when they did, they were either over- or undercooked.

I ate a lot of omelette today. For those of you that know me, it wasn't a pretty sight. I couldn't stomach the thought of that much perfectly good food going to waste (plus: free meal(s)). As it turns out, I could stomach the omelettes even less.

Fortunately, most of my classmates were in the same boat- collectively, we scrambled, flipped and burned our way through well over a case of eggs.

This Saturday night will be remedial omelette-making, with a few of my delightful classmates. I'm living a wild and crazy life, here in Stratford.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The word is...overwhelmed?

A little over a week ago, I uprooted myself from comfy old Kingston, and headed to Stratford, Ontario, to attend Stratford Chefs School. The decision to go to culinary school was not easy- there are loads of pros and cons, and every chef, cook and dishwasher has an opinion one way or the other (and this is not a group of people that is reticent!). Once the decision was made, however, the choice of school was easy- SCS is, simply put, among the best cooking schools in North America. It is tiny in comparison to some of the big name American schools: think fewer than 80 students across both levels, compared to the nearly 3000 at the Culinary Institute of America, but it is mighty, and its curriculum packs a wallop, let me tell you.

I have an incredible course load- I am in practical cookery 4 hours per day (except for Thursdays, when I am in practical pastry for 4 hours); theory-wise, I have Food Costing (math), Gastronomy (food history), Food Style (art, design and concept), Nutrition, Writing, Wine, Commodities, Kitchen Management, and a surprisingly intense aerobics and movement class called Body Moves, which I swear to you, is going to transform me into a beautiful, graceful butterfly.

Oh yeah, and one of the school's restaurants, the Old Prune, is open during the school year, but is staffed by a rotating schedule of second year student chefs, who execute and expedite a nightly four-course menu. The dishwashers, servers and buspeople? First year students, i.e: me. Serving actual haute cuisine to actual paying customers. Granted, these customers are generally aware that they are participating in a learning experience and so are somewhat more forgiving than they might otherwise be, but it has been some time since I've been out of a kitchen, and the tidy hair and tucked-in dress shirt is so disconcerting. I'm not on dinner service every night- just once or twice a week, which is plenty, thank you very much!

All of this is in the interest of giving us a well-rounded education in the culinary arts.

And now, back to my Commodities reading. Please stay tuned for reports on my Michelin-starred chef-instructor, the ultra-cute town I'm living in, and my beyond creepy accommodations.

I miss you.

Friday, October 29, 2010

I'm sure Dr. Seuss has something to say about this...

Hi folks,
I'm still around.
The weeks leading up to my departure from Kingston went by so quickly, I haven't had time to write anything worth reading, nor have I had time to cook anything at home worth telling you about.
But now I'm here, and it's better, funner and more challenging than I thought possible.

Please stay tuned for a description (with photos) of where I am, and what 'it' is.

Miss you,

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cooking my Feelings

I've had a remarkably frustrating week.

I think it's telling that all I was looking forward to on my (long anticipated) day off was nesting, visiting the butcher and the market and spending some time in the kitchen cooking.

In previous iterations of what I thought I wanted to be when I grew up, I never unwound from stressful days by philosophizing or thinking deep thoughts. What I do now, and plan to continue to do is, evidently, what I crave doing, and what makes me happiest. I feel pretty lucky to have hit on that thing.

I've got a fabulous oldies station blaring, dulce de leche on the go in the oven, heirloom beets and potatoes blanching on the stove, lamb shanks getting ready for a braise and duck breasts marinating. These things will come together in two elaborate dinners (tonight and tomorrow) that will leave me relaxed, refreshed and ready to face the world again. Until then, I may not leave the kitchen.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Showdown at the Brisket Corral

My mother has always made a darn good brisket, and she has always made it the same way- brown the meat under the broiler, season it (with black pepper and garlic powder, never salt. Kosher meat is generally plenty salty), rest it on a bed of carrots, celery and potatoes (a few years back, mom started putting mushrooms into the brisket mirepoix, which knocked my world off its axis a bit, but I recovered and they're delicious), cover it and throw it in the oven at 350F for 20 minutes and then at 425F until it is fork tender. Once done, slice, cutting across the muscle fibers, and reserving the lean tip for Dad. Serve alongside the vegetable mirepoix that is so reich and delicious from sitting under the meat that it hardly resembles vegetable matter anymore.

Which takes forever- brisket is a tough cut of meat from the front of the cow, below the chuck. If you cook it forever, the collagen melts and the tough, stringy muscle fibres become soft and heavenly. Because of the length of preparation time (not the complexity; it's pretty easy), brisket, in my mama's house, is usually part of a festive meal- the festive Rosh HaShanna brisket, the festive Passover brisket, etc. Mom never adds any liquid to the roasting pan- the meat lets out a ton of its own that doesn't evaporate thanks to the covered pan, and the rich resulting brisket juice is used to reheat leftovers, never to make gravy.

Allow me to digress on the subject of gravy. I LOVE gravy (please take the caps as an indication of sincerity and enthusiasm). I generally can't get enough of it. I love all manner of pan-jus, thick gravies enriched with wine and butter, red-eye gravy (a strange and delicious pork fat and coffee sauce), and I won't even turn my nose up at even the vilest canned or powdered gravy mixes. I always make pan gravy with roasted chicken or turkey. A guilty secret: for leftover sandwiches, I spread congealed gravy on the bread in place of mayo. I'm not that ashamed. I wasn't raised in a gravy-eating family- my mom, who did most of the home cooking, never made any, and I'm not sure why. It could be that it seemed like too much extra work, or too fattening, but most likely (in my humble opinion) that my mother always felt that her meats were perfectly seasoned and juicy as they were. There were never salt and pepper shakers on the table, either.
I'm done now.

Anyway, we've had a couple of briskets at work in the last month. One, a smoked brisket to celebrate the local blues festival, and the other, just this week, was braised with thyme, hot peppers and red wine. Plus, I was just in Montreal for Rosh HaShanna (the Jewish New Year), and so was treated to easily the most exceptional brisket my family has ever produced. I restrained myself when selecting my leftovers to take back to Kingston with me; my pregnant sister-in-law, a notoriously picky eater had declared a liking for the brisket (who could blame her?), and I didn't want to deprive my unborn niece of a solid, festive meal. Big mistake. I have an unsatisfied hankering for brisket, which I am soothing with a 6 1/2 lb brisket purchased from my local butcher on my way home.

I am following my mother's cooking method, with a few alterations: I salted the meat liberally (incidentally, Mike loves salty food {oversalted, really}, and there is always a dramatic variety of salt on the table, over here), I didn't use any garlic powder (I don't have any, and plus, think its weird), and in addition to the traditional Rudner vegetable accomaniments, I threw the following under the meat: a handful of fresh shiitake mushrooms, an ounce or so of dried porcini mushrooms (the Asian Market has them for ultra-cheap), 2 tomatoes cut into wedges, a jalapeno pepper cut into long slices, and 4 really potent new crop onions, cut into wedges. And also, the dregs of a bottle of Italian red wine we had been enjoying a couple of nights ago.

The plan: eat brisket tonight (should it ever finish cooking) my mom's way, and tomorrow, the way we do at the restaurant, in which the meat is served not sliced, but rather in a large chunk, and reheated in the braising juice (we use quite a bit of liquid in the braise at work), which, as it simmers to heat the meat, reduces into a gorgeous, thick gravy, which dribbles into the accompanying mashed potatoes.

A brisket showdown, that's what this is. Stay tuned for the results.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Best ice cream of the summer, right here.

I have had some winners this summer, both at home and at work- personal favorite up until this point was the Damson plum ice cream, and crowd favorite was the Venetian dark chocolate and burnt sugar caramel gelato. The ice cream I made at home last night takes the cake (figuratively, although it would accompany a simple fine-crumbed chocolate cake swimmingly.) It was a stupid amount of labour, and so is unlikely to be replicated at work, where I get paid for my time. This is what I made:

Toasted coconut and vanilla bean ice cream with different nuts.

The ice cream base comes from the best ice cream book in the world, The Perfect Scoop, by the incomparable David Lebovitz. If you are new to homemade ice cream, this is the only book you need. Not only is his technique flawless, but his flavours will inspire you. His toasted coconut ice cream has toasted, unsweetened coconut and real vanilla bean steeped in milk, sugar and cream for an hour or so, then strained out, and the rich, heavily scented liquid becomes the starting point for a beautifully textured custard ice cream.

While the sweet cream and coconut were steeping, I oven-roasted the following kinds of nuts in the following ways:
1 cup of pecan halves, broken up, and spiced with salt and ground cayenne pepper, and slicked with maple syrup.
1 cup of sliced almonds with some honey that I let out with a bit of water to make more of a glaze.
1 cup of walnut halves, broken up, salted, and coated in more maple syrup.
1 cup of coarsely grated coconut (the pieces are about as wide as tagliatelle, or ribbons), coated in egg white and white sugar, which kind of candies them. Coconut is not actually a botanical nut, but the American FDA categorizes it as a tree nut, for some reason.

Each of these nuts are roasted separately at 350F until they are crisp and very sticky- you want them to dry out as they cook so they retain their sweet coating and stay crunchy in the ice cream. If the honey is wet, for example, it will dissipate into the ice cream, instead of staying on the sliced almonds. Once they are cool and dry, break up the clumps, and try not to eat them all before they make it into the ice cream.

When the ice cream is churned, you can swirl in the nuts, either by hand as you remove the ice cream from the machine, or by tossing them into the machine with the motor still running. Remove this bit of heaven and freeze in an airtight container. Treating the nuts separately was a gigantic pain, and probably unnecessary (you could just as easily douse them all with maple syrup and throw them in the oven together), but this ice cream really was the best of the summer.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Glorious, easy summer dinner.

When I mentioned the idea I had for dinner, both Mike and my parents had the same response: ""No Meat?""
Generally, when I have time on my hands, the dinners I produce at home are fairly elaborate and usually star some beautiful piece of meat, either exotic or luxurious. I'm an oxtails or prime rib kind of girl- not a lot of boneless, skinless chicken breasts here.

Allow me to digress from the glory of the vegetarian summer dinner for a second, and rant about the cost-effectiveness of carefully selected meat: A crappy rib steak from food basics costs a little more than $10 per pound, and the meat is always meh- poorly marbled, thin, not aged well. 3 blocks away, the small butcher has beautiful prime rib for about $20 per KILO, which works out to about the same. The meat is so tender, it melts when you look at it. Granted, it's hard to come by a piece of the prime rib weighing in at less than a kilo, but it's enough meat for 4, with a salad, starch and vegetable side. And you have to take a side trip, but it's so worth forgoing the convenience of one-stop shopping at basics for a dramatic improvement in quality. Same goes for ground meats, pork, and especially veal, lamb and variety meats. You just get better stuff for the same price or even cheaper, if you look to your specialty shops. And this gets magnified the further you look outside the downtown core (in Kingston, at least)- there are butchers, bakers and cheese shops offering quality that far surpasses the meager offerings at Basics, and at prices that make 'special occasion' products, like prime rib, double-cut veal chops and lamb racks, accessible for every day. You just have to get there. Support your local butchers.

I'm done now.

Anyway, for a filling, quick (almost, but not quite, half-assed) summer dinner, this is my favorite:

A sandwich (for dinner? The shame!) made on fresh focaccia from Pasta G, one piece per person (this is a hearty sandwich), spread with La Bomba, a spicy, oily eggplant condiment (again from Pasta G), nice slices of fresh, local eggplant, green and yellow zucchini that have been salted and fried until golden brown in olive oil (drain them well on paper towel- eggplant sucks up TONS of oil), whole leaves of fresh basil, sliced heirloom tomatoes (hands down, the best tasting tomato anywhere is the Brandywine, but you could go for a Black Krim, a yellow Big Rainbow, or whatever you see in the market or in your backyard), great big chunks of Mozarella di Bufala, fresh mozarella made of buffalo milk. It's crazy expensive, but if you're accustomed to having the protein in your meal cost more than everything else on the plate, you should relax and enjoy the sweet, salty creaminess that is not easy to imitate. Finish the sandwich with crisp romaine hearts. A knife and fork is in order; this is a heck of a sandwich.

This time of year, corn on the cob is the best thing to eat alongside this gigantic, messy sandwich. I feel that corn is fine to eat raw, but it's nice to cook it a bit to release some of the starch and to get it hot enough so that the butter melts. Get a pot of water boiling- make it large enough to fit the corn, (or cut the cobs in half), and add some salt and sugar to the water. Add the corn, and cook just to heat the kernels through and soften them up a bit. Drain and toss with salted butter.

For dessert? In almost no time, you can slice juicy peaches, fry them in butter, when they're almost cooked through, toss in some brown sugar and a splash of Amaretto, and eat them as is, or better yet, spooned over ice cream, and garnished with some fleur de sel or Maldon salt.

No meat, no problem!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Tiger, tiger, burning bright/In the forests of the night

Tiger tail ice cream is my very favorite.

It's a very creamy orange ice cream base, with a black licorice ripple. It is an unusual flavour combination, but it works way more harmoniously than it sounds like it ought to. Baskin Robbin, conveniently located 3 blocks away from my parent's house in Montreal, used to make a delicious one, but doesn't seem to offer it anymore, and most commercial brands available in my neck of the woods pale in comparison.

I'm told that President's Choice released the flavour this summer as part of a 'nostalgia' collection (including pink bubble gum.... is it weird that the choking hazards of my youth are now retro, or nostalgic? Am I right to feel old?) In any event, I don't have access to PC products at the grocery store in my 'hood. So I made my own.

I made an ice cream base that tasted like orange creamsicle, rather than super citrusy orange- I wanted more of a muted sherbet flavour, and less of a bright and citrusy one. To keep it light, I made it 'Philadelphia' style, rather than with a custard base, I used both orange juice and zest for a nice, full flavour, only 18% table cream, rather than 35% heavy cream for a lighter mouth-feel, and some sour cream, to keep it zippy. The resulting ice cream was delightful; it had a really natural orange flavour, and would be amazing on its own.

The licorice ripple was a little more challenging for me, and I ate a lot of different kinds of black licorice to find the one I wanted to work with (poor me, right?). I settled on 'Panda' brand soft licorice candies, as the flavour was strong and true, and not that sweet. I melted them on my stovetop, and used a heavy simple syrup (1:1 water to sugar) to let it out, which is why I had been looking for a less-sweet candy. I couldn't melt it smooth enough, so I put it through my food processor.

This was unfortunate for two reasons: while the resulting texture was perfectly smooth and thick and sticky, it changed the colour from black to brown, which I wasn't hoping for, and by some food processor magic, it really emphazised the molasses flavour in the candy, also unintended. If I had had the resources at my fingertips, I would have rebalanced the flavour with some aniseed oil or licorice powder.

Once the orange ice cream was churned, I alternated scooping it into a container with drizzles of the licorice ripple. I let it set in the freezer, and then sampled it. It was delicious, almost 100% what I wanted, but it would have been better if the ripple was a stronger licorice flavour- the molasses notes that came out during the food processing of the licorice were not enough of a contrast to the orange.

Another thing, and I'm almost ashamed to admit it, is that the colour of the orange ice cream tasted off. I'm so used to bright, artificially coloured orange ice cream in a Tiger Tail, so conditioned by industrial food production to expect that anything orange flavoured from a popsicle to a soda should be Orange with a capital 'O'. My pale yellow, naturally coloured and flavoured orange ice cream tasted like the wrong colour.
First of all, colours don't have flavour, and second of all, maybe next time, in addition to boosting the licorice ripple, I will add some food colouring to the orange ice cream. How stupid is that?

PS: This is the best time of year to live in southeastern Ontario. There are peaches, flowers from right outside that look like they come from the tropics, corn, blueberries, and in short order, tomatoes. Have a nice long weekend.

Friday, July 16, 2010

If you can't stand the heat...

Last night, I cooked dinner at home for the first time in what seemed like forever. Sure, Mike and I eat here regularly, but it had been some time since I'd made any kind of effort. Blessed with a sunny day off, and only laundry on the 'must do today' list (everything else got shuffled off to a mythical day off in the future), I had time to visit the market, the butcher, the italian grocery, the cheese shop, and prepare a nice dinner to enjoy at home.

This is what we had:

*A salad of Patchwork Gardens Asian greens with strawberries and an aged balsamic-maple-curry dressing. In years past, Patchwork's Asian salad mix (mizuna, tatsoi, mustard greens, etc) have been really spicy, so I wanted a sweet dressing to tone it down, plus strawberries and aged, syrupy balsamic vinegar love each other. As it turns out, the greens I got were pretty mild, so on the whole, the salad was pretty sweet, and very refreshing.

The dressing is the easiest: combine 3 parts e.v.o.o., 1 part aged balsamic vinegar (this stuff is way more mellow, and less brassy than regular balsamic. It's thicker, too. And it's very costly, so I try to save it for drizzling on salads, meats and fruit. I use the cheaper stuff for any kind of preparation that involves the application of heat, like making sauces and grilling vegetables), salt, pepper, a sprig or two's worth of fresh thyme, a glug of maple syrup, and enough curry powder to add some heat and depth of flavour, but not so much that the flavour of cuurry is immediately identifiable. I like the mystery. This is one of my go-to vinaigrettes, and a good one for intensely-flavoured greens.

*A pan-roasted, double-cut veal rib chop, with teeny-weeny roasted new potatoes, yellow beans, heirloom carrots and a pomegranate sauce. Pretty simple, straightforward food, but really satisfying.

The meat was a real find- it was what I had woken up craving, and randomly found at the butcher (where I had never seen it before). A really thick veal chop is an incredible treat- it stays moist and tender, even if you cook it too long. It is pretty lean and has a really fine grain.

The sauce was not a winner. Last weekend, one of my co-workers made a truly remarkable pomegranate sauce for duck breasts, and after quizzing her on her preparation, I tried to recreate it at home. The magic just wasn't there. As we sat down to eat, I realized where I had gone wrong- I think the trick is to cook all the sauce ingredients into an initial simple syrup (2:1 sugar to water, heated to dissolve the sugar), so that the shallots, garlic, orange zest and pomegranate seeds get candied together. I sweated the shallots and garlic in butter, added the pomegranate, cooked it for a bit, then tried to sweeten it at the end. The flavours got muddied, and the fruit lost its jewel-like brilliance. No matter. Mike thought it was tasty, I left my share aside.

*Finally, strawberry-sour cream-amaretto ice cream for dessert. I had wanted to make popsicles, but could not find popsicle molds downtown (and I truly had no interest in improvising, when making ice cream is such an appealing alternative). This is the easiest sort of ice cream- a bit time-consuming (it requires several hour-long rest periods), but no fussing around with custard. Plus, with only 3/4 cup of sugar in the whole batch, and made with both heavy cream AND sour cream, the strawberry flavour is very clear, and not at all too sweet. Which justifies it as a breakfast food, as far as I can tell!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cookies and Cream, Italian style

I really like cookies and cream ice cream.
I like how the cookie bits get soft, like they've been dunked in milk, without being unbaked (I find cookie dough-flavoured ice cream repulsive. Furthermore, I am not an eater of raw dough of any description. Nor do I drink milk, for that matter, so the appreciation for dunking cookies in it is largely theoretical. Give me biscotti to drown in espresso or marsala any day.)

I had a hankering for cookies and cream when I arrived at work to devise some desserts to see us through the weekend. I work at an Italian restaurant, though, so I wanted to put a Mediterranean spin on the classic. I made the ice creamy background lemony, though not overly so- I used only lemon zest, no juice, and steeped it in the cream, then strained it out. The lemon flavour was very soft and muted, not the clear, bright lemon flavour I generally go for.

Cookie-wise, I crumbled some Amaretti, and swirled them into the just-churned ice cream. Amaretti, served in the restaurant alongside espresso, are little bitter almond-flavoured cookies, with a texture like a cross between a meringue and a macaroon. They are crisp and light, and melt in your mouth. The flavour is similar to that of Amaretto liqueur.

As a cookie, they are obviously a sweet treat, but they also have a natural affinity for butternut and acorn squash, and to my way of thinking, they are always a welcome accompaniment to simply roasted squash, or squash ravioli with parmesan and a sage and brown butter sauce. The sweetness of the cookie matches the squash, and the bitter almond flavour and crunch adds complexity and textural intrigue.

Still no home cooking to speak of. Maybe tomorrow.

Monday, July 12, 2010

All work and no play....

....makes for dull home cooking.

I have been working a zillion hours a week, in a kitchen that feels like the surface of the sun. Which has been amazing- I'm learning tons, but I have been somewhat less than inspired to cook when I get home. I'm still really feeling frozen treats, and until I can come up with something interesting and blog-worthy to prepare at home, please see the following list of delicious ice creams, gelatos and granitas I have been working on, by way of proof that I'm still trying:

Zabaglione gelato (lemon and marsala flavoured, inspired by the traditional Italian egg white froth)

Fresh strawberry ice cream (spiked with cherry brandy)

Strawberry-rhubarb granita

Mascarpone gelato (served with fresh strawberries in lemon syrup)

Fresh mint-stracciatella ice cream (mint-chocolate ice cream is totally different when the mint flavour is real, and the colour is not neon green)

Cantaloupe granita (this one was a winner. Waiting until the cantaloup was a shade past ripe gave it a really full and bloomy mouth-feel)

My goal for the week: cook something at home that I can write to y'all about.

Monday, May 17, 2010

When the cat is away...

Mike made plans with his dad tonight, so cooking-wise, I'm left to my own devices. Meaning, I don't have to take anyone's food preferences or issues into account. Mike is not especially picky. That thing about risotto is weird, but it stems from a childhood trauma. He is, however, iffy about fish, so fish it will be, tonight.

I have procured a whole, dressed rainbow trout. It has its head, but no guts. I'm going to make trout en papillote, with asparagus, fiddleheads and new potatoes, and also a lemon meringue pie. The pie is for when Mike and his dad come over for dessert after their dinner. This is an easy, no-mess (except for the decapitation of the fish) and nearly foolproof way of preparing fish. For those of you that care about such things (and I'm not one of them), it is also nearly free of added fat.

One whole trout is enough for 2 people (you'll have to split it in 2), or you could figure 1 filet per person. Get your oven set to 400F. You'll need one 16" square piece of parchment paper per trout filet. Fold the parchment square in half, then open it back up. Along half of each square, arrange 4 or 5 very thin slices of lemon, then put your fish on top, skin side down, then drizzle with 1 tsp evoo (all things considered, as far as I'm concerned, that's almost no fat), season with salt and pepper, and a sprig or two of thyme (or half a stem of rosemary, if you like).

Fold the parchment over top, fold the edges over each other, and then fold them again to really seal the package. If you seal it well enough, the parchment will puff up all sexy-like when the fish is done. But you should put the packages on a baking sheet with a raised edge, so that if you didn't seal the fish package well, you won't have a trout-y oven mess. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the fish is just opaque and flaky- trout, like salmon, is good to eat just shy of cooked all the way through. Like a medium-medium rare.

And the juices in the packet? Liquid gold. Pour them over the fish, to serve.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sodium Intake and Hypertension

Today is a day off.

Hungry for lunch, I came to the unpleasant realization that I have more kinds of salt in my kitchen than actual foodstuffs. These are the kinds:

Regular iodized table salt (mostly Mike uses it to over-season his food).
Kosher salt (for cooking).
Sea salt (for salting water for boiling pasta or blanching vegetables).
Fleur de sel (for garnishing, and for salting sweets, like Dulce de Leche).
Sour salt (for making Bubby Mona's Halishkes, a sweet and sour cabbage and meatball dish).
Smoked salt (mostly for Latin American food, but also some roasts).
Pink Himalayan salt (er... pink is my favorite colour?).
Coarse pickling salt (I make pickles in the summer).
Coarse gray Brittany sea salt (a really complex, minerally flavour. Also, I used to wash my hair with it).

Pathological, right?
At least I'm not hoarding shoes.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Monday is the new Wednesday

Monday is the new Wednesday, pink is the new black, 50 is the new 30, and 30 is the new 20.

But all that is changing.

Mostly the part about my days off, and the nights on which I will be able to cook at home, instead of for the slavering hordes.

Tonight, Mike and I will feast on:
*Juliette cheese from the Salt Spring Island cheese company, out in B.C. I've written about them, and this cheese in particular, in the past. They do good work, and this is their finest example, in my humble opinion.
*Mango and avocado salad with a nuoc-cham dressing.
*Quail braised in red wine, with tomatoes and mushrooms, over polenta.
*Coffee ice cream (Store-bought. Can't be helped.) with homemade Dulce de Leche. Which is so good, I may not share any.

Quail are small, silly birds, in the pheasant family. The meat is quite tasty, but there's not lots of it. They aren't very expensive, either. I wanted the sauce to be very rich and mushroom-y to complement the meat, but I didn't have any dried mushrooms to create that depth of flavour. Pasta G is closed on Mondays, and the Asian Market was too far out of my way. So I substituted white truffle oil, drizzled on top.

I generally always braise the same way: brown the meat, deglaze the pan with wine, sweat a mirepoix, then bump up the total liquid volume with heated tomatoes and stock, and finally toss in some bay leaves and herbs. In this case, I browned mushrooms before I sweated the mirepoix (a mix of cremini and white button), I used more wine and no stock, and didn't use quite enough tomatoes. I think a little more would have thickened the sauce a bit.

Dulce de Leche is a miraculous thing, and quite frankly, the very best use of canned sweetened condensed milk, as far as I can tell. It is a milk caramel sauce or spread of Spanish origin, and it's common in Spanish, Portugese, Mexican, and Argentinian confectionary. You can peel the label off a can, poke a hole in the top, set it in a pot of water that comes nearly to the top, and simmer it for hours (like 4). The result is a light brown, sticky caramel that is so heavenly, you'll want to drizzle it on anything that stands still. Stove top dulce de leche-making, however, can be dangerous if you let the pot of water boil dry. You can, of course, make it from scratch, cooking sugar, milk and vanilla very slowly, for a VERY long time, stirring almost constantly, until the water evaporates out of the milk and the sugar caramelizes with the milk solids.

Here's an easier way:
Crank your oven to 425F. Scrape the contents of a can of sweetened, condensed milk into an oven-safe glass dish (like a pie plate, or loaf pan). Salt it with sea salt, or fleur de sel (this will emphasize the caramel flavour over the sheer sweetness). Cover the pie plate tightly with foil, then set it in a larger pan filled with enough hot water to come up 3/4 of the way up the sides of the pie dish.

Pop it in the oven for 75 minutes, topping up the water level as it boils off.

Be so careful taking it out of the oven- there is boiling water, steam, and boiling hot caramel, all of which hurt like the dickens if you slosh it on yourself. You could leave it to cool, but what I like to do is: fish out the pie plate, and carefully pry off the foil. There will be a pond of water on the top of the surface of the caramel. Carefully pour it off- the resulting dulce de leche is fairly solid, and won't slide out of the pan too easily. Vigorously whisk the caramel to break up the lumps, and to make it the best ever, whisk in 1 tablespoon or two of butter. Let cool, refrigerate.

Delicious, rich, smooth, complex flavours, all from a can of nasty old sweetened condensed milk!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Finally, a dinner worth writing about!

*Canary melon, speck and arugula salad
*Rack of Ontario lamb with asparagus, new potatoes, pine nuts, chevre and basil pesto
*Vanilla ice cream with warm rhubarb compote

Such a delicious dinner, and finally one worth writing about! For starters, speck. I used Italian speck, not Jewish speck, which is not really available anywhere anymore (it is the spiced, smoked and grilled fat cap from a pickled brisket, and is incredibly delicious, possibly still available by special order from Schwartz's.). Italian speck is smoked prosciutto, and is delicious in its own way, plus, if you squint your tongue, you can kind of imagine the delicate smokiness of the ham calling on the smokiness of smoked meat from Schwartz's, a nice mouth-memory activity for two completely unrelated items. Cantaloupe is an ultra-traditional accompaniment to prosciutto, but the football-shaped canary melon, with its white flesh and sweet, gentle taste, was a nice foil to the more aggressive speck.

I generally don't like basil pesto, a byproduct of having had to make too much of it at my last job (we used to make enormous batches of pesto and freeze it, and one spring, the farmers that grew the basil for us brought us 15 ultra-husky garbage bags of basil plants. I made pesto for 17 hours, and since then, have been a little iffy on the taste, not to mention the smell. I avoid it wherever possible, and find the store bought kind particularly cloying). I really wanted to make a mint-hazelnut pesto to accompany the lamb, to bring out the spicy-sweet notes of gamy Ontario lamb, but I couldn't find mint at the erstwhile Food Basics. I made the pesto without cheese, and with rather more pine nuts and oil so that it was saucier and less pasty than it would otherwise have been. Drizzled over the perfectly medium rare lamb, and topped with crumbled chèvre and scattered pine nuts, it was perfect.

Saucy, no cheese pesto:
In a food processor, grind one large clove of garlic, the add 1 cup clean basil leaves. Pulse until basil is in small bits, then add 1/3 c. toasted pine nuts, sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and whizz, while drizzling in enough olive oil to make the mess loose and saucy.

And, medium-rare rack of lamb:
Preheat your oven to 400F. Have your meat sitting out at room temperature for an hour or so, then liberally sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides. Sear in hot oil, about 1 minute each side, so that the outside fat turns brown and forms a caramelized crust. Pop it in the oven for 18 minutes, then remove it from the pan, and let it rest 10 minutes before separating the individual bones. If you separate them and find that the meat in the center of the rack is too rare for you (this has never happened to me), you can turn on your broiler and bring the meat up a shade or two, watching carefully to not overdo it.

As for dessert, rhubarb compote is dead easy: cut the rhubarb stalks into inch long pieces (never use the toxic leaves), put into a pot with enough water to leave the rhubarb uncovered by 2 inches. Add 1/2 cup of sugar per pound of rhubarb, 1/2 cinnamon stick (which you can take out when the compote is cinnamony enough), and the juice and peel of 1/2 lemon. You can take the peel off the lemon using a vegetable peeler, so it stays in large strips that you can fish out at the end. Let it all come to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer until the rhubarb disintegrates into fibrous strands, and the juice thickens into a tangy-sweet syrup. Freeze, or refrigerate, and use as a topping for ice cream, pancakes, or even as a base for a sauce for meat- rabbit comes to mind.

Also, I'm not much of a photographer, and in real life, the meat was way pinker, and the pesto and asparagus were way less brown. I don't particularly know how to take pictures of food so that the food looks as delicious as it actually was. I am open to suggestions.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What's cookin', good lookin'?

I'm trying to think of something interesting to cook at home, so I can write about it here, and regale you with tales of the exotic ways I managed to arse it up. I'm taking suggestions.

Seriously, in the last month or so, I've been incredibly busy, and have been subsisting on very plain meat-and-potatoes sorts of meals (cooked by other people whenever feasible) that are easy, nourishing, not in the least bit stressful, and completely un-blogworthy. Except for the ice cream. I have been making increasingly complicated ice creams that are totally taking the edge off my lack of inspiration elsewhere in the kitchen.

I hate the word mojo, but will return to the weblog once I get mine back. This should be soon- I don't think I can take any more plain roasted chickens!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Twice-Baked Potatoes and a Condiment for all Seasons

After my gnocchi-making extravaganza of last week (they were incredibly good, and worth every ounce of effort), I had some russet potatoes left over, not my favorite kind for roasting or boiling, and not enough to make more gnocchi. For a lazy Sunday night dinner after an interminably long and hard week, we had a pan-fried rib steak and twice-baked russet potatoes. Not much in the way of culinary challenge, but very cozy, very easy, and very, very good. (And perfect for those on a meat-fast or gluten-free restriction.)

Preheat your oven to 400F
Stab your potatoes with a fork, all the way around- this a) lets steam out, so your inside potato matter is drier and fluffier, and b) relieves any anxiety (possibly instilled by my mother) that an unpricked potato could explode in the oven. Bake the potatoes in their skin, directly on the oven rack, not on a pan, until they are soft when you squeeze them, then take them out, cut them in half lengthwise, and let them cool slightly. You want to work with them when they are hot, but they are positively thermonuclear when first out of the oven. Spare yourself some agony, and let them rest open for 5 minutes.

Using a spoon, scoop out the potato innards into a bowl, and mash them gently: a ricer is ideal, a pastry cutter (one of those semi-circular 5-wire gizmos with a handle cutting off the half-circle) is next best, and a regular potato-masher or fork last best. You don't want to make the potato gluey, but you do want it smooth. Mix the fluffy, smooth potato with salt, pepper, butter and cheese (cheddar is nice, chèvre is better). Spoon this back into the potato skins, and put in them on a pan, and back into the oven just long enough to melt the cheese. You can turn the broiler on at the end to crisp up the top.

So good. Eat them with everything. Dunk them in sour cream, or better yet, aioli, my new favorite condiment.

Aioli is a homemade mayonnaise flavoured with garlic. It is better and more versatile than store-bought mayo. Ideal for sandwiches, as a dipping sauce for potatoes, pizza or steamed vegetables, aioli is a cinch to make (and it really is marvelous to watch disparate and incompatible liquids emulsifying in your food processor). Here's how:

In the bowl of your food processor, grind 1/4 cup of garlic until fine. Add 1/4 cup of lemon juice, a good spoonful of dijon mustard, 1/2 tbsp of salt, a good grinding of black pepper (omit this if the appearance of speckled mayo would annoy you), 1 whole egg, and 1 egg yolk. Whizz these all together, and then slowly, with the motor running, drizzle 3 cups vegetable oil in. More traditionally, olive oil is used, but I often don't like the taste of olive oil, so I substitute a more neutral canola.
It will turn thick and white. Do the drizzling slowly, so all of the oil gets to emulsify, and you're not left with big globules of oil on the surface. The eggs act as an emulsifier, or mediator, if you will, allowing the oil to hang in suspension with the lemon juice, as a homogenous mixture. Kind of like how if you add eggs to a red-wine and olive oil dressing, you get a smooth caesar-type of dressing, instead of a vinaigrette that splits into its component parts.

Put it in a jar, and slather it on everything that will stand still long enough. Keep in mind, though, that there are raw eggs in the aioli, and so it has a definite shelf-life in a way that store-bought does not. You can cut the recipe in half, if you like. The way to halve a recipe that only calls for one yolk and one whole egg is to whisk the two, then put them in a measuring cup (or better yet, weigh them), and use only half.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Two Raves, and a Rant

1. The Raves:

I definitely cooked some tasty food these past two weeks at home.
On Sunday night, we had ribs in a very tasty, homemade spicy/sweet chipotle barbeque sauce. I rarely have the forethought to slow-cook ribs all day, so I short-cut via blanching the meat in salted water to get the cooking and softening started quickly. Then sauced, covered, and into a 375F oven until cooked through and falling apart, then sauced some more and cooked uncovered, turning and basting once, to caramelize the sugar in the sauce and make the ribs sticky, messy and delicious.

Last Wednesday night, I randomly found a fresh leg of lamb at the butcher. Not a whole leg, mind you, but a good chunk of one, on the bone. Fresh lamb is rarely available at retail outlets in Kingston, so I snapped it up, even though it was not what I had in mind. The meat was so lovely and tender that it really could have been marinaded and dry-roasted, but I braised it until it fairly fell off the bone and into its rich sauce.
This lamb was from Alberta, which I had not, to my knowledge, tried before. I like very gamey lamb, and consequently prefer Quebec lamb to the milder New Zealand lamb, and local lamb has a pretty strong flavour, making it hard to pass up at restaurants, but not easy to find at the store. This western meat was very tender, and was quite mild. Even the fat, which is usually the wooliest-tasting part, could have been mistaken for something else. The leftovers were shredded into the super-flavourful braising sauce and eaten over rigatoni.
On the whole, this braised lamb business was just delightful, and I am pretty happy to get in a few more wintry braises before Spring is really upon us.

Furthermore, last night, I made a plain old roasted chicken, with plain old potatoes, and plain old asparagus, AND THE BEST ICE CREAM I HAVE MADE EVER!!! I made milk chocolate ice cream with black pepper, creme fraîche and ruby port. Seriously. The port adds depth to the sweetness of the chocolate, the creme fraîche adds a zippy richness, and the pepper? Coarsely cracked whole peppercorns added textural interest, a bit of spiciness, and when combined with everything else going on in the ice cream, actually added a licorice-like smoothness to the flavour profile. I suspect that the awesome ice cream will be a tough sell if it's called 'milk chocolate and black pepper', but once I've forced it on the unsuspectingly lucky victim, there's no turning back. Mike, who is normally conservative with what he thinks is going to be tasty, admits that this ice cream is surprisingly outstanding. I call that a win.

2. The Rant:
I went back to the gym last week. It was way harder to think about doing than to get off my arse and actually do. Once there, I quite liked it, and went 3 days in a row. I felt bad about not going the 4th day, but laundry had to be done and I work early on Thursdays. Since then, I've gone back to the gym every day that seemed reasonable (ie: not after marathon weekend shifts).

The following is a short, and by no means exhaustive, list of things I like to do(aside from cooking, that is. By far, that is the thing I like most):
Hanging out, knitting, chatting, reading, visiting, looking at cats, having cocktails and luncheons, napping in front of movies, snuggling.

These are all fairly sedentary activities, and even though I stand and sweat in a kitchen all day, I am a fairly sedentary person. When I have down time, I never get in that 'crazy hiking mood'. I am not particularly outdoorsy. Don't get me wrong: I like outside, but mostly from a seated, comfy position, with nice company and nice wine, and probably cheese and a cozy fire. I generally have no urge to actively investigate it. I prefer a more gentle, passive appreciation.
When my sedentary lifestyle is examined in combination with my appreciation of animal fats (exhibits #1-18: the entries on this weblog), it should be plain to see that periodically, I need to go to the gym to stay healthy, and fit in my pants.

And plus also: it has come to my attention that I am not getting any younger, and that maybe my skeletal system would like some weight-bearing exercise to complement all the calcium I intake from fancy cheese and ice cream. Just saying.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Epic Fail and a Lesson Learned.

Friday night dinner: Prosecco, cheese (Figaro again; Mona Lisa again; Migneron de Charlevoix, a firm, tangy washed-rind from Quebec that really fills the mouth; Cambozola) and crackers.

Our post-work 5 à 7 went on for quite some time, and so I was really feeling the Prosecco when I went to prepare the main event: New York Strip Loin with Green Peppercorn & Port sauce and asparagus. I managed to steam the steaks to rubber while trying to keep them warm whilst preparing the sauce. Having forgotten that the sauce required beef stock (I meant to make some, and then didn't...), I thought I would substitute chicken stock (which was nice and rich when I made it), but it smelled off when I retrieved it from the depths of the fridge. Should have frozen it into stock cubes, I guess.... Rather than using a bouillon cube, I tipsily opted to substitute water.

Let this be a lesson:
Beef stock does not equal water, in taste, texture, or colour.

The sauce was thin, bright purple, and its balance (or lack thereof) heavily tipped in the direction of the sweetness of the port. Blech. When unceremoniously dumped on the rubbery strip steaks, this easily took the award for worst meal I've prepared in the last year. The asparagus was nice, though.

Dessert was just fine: a fresh raspberry tart with lime creme fraiche. Hard to argue with that.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Still life: roasted chicken with lemons

This is something I feel strongly about: everyone should be able to cook at least one reasonably impressive (or at least presentable) dish, that they are confident and comfortable making. This dish should not be stressful- you should be able to putter away at it while entertaining guests, without feeling crazy about them distracting you from your cooking. I think this is particularly true for folks who are not generally comfortable in the kitchen, or who are not passionate about cooking. They're still going to have to one day cook for a date, or a partner's parents, and it's nice to have something decent to serve that isn't a lot of work, mental or otherwise.

A shockingly simple dish to have up your sleeve is chicken roasted whole, with lemons. It's so juicy and flavourful, and best of all, requires almost no effort.

This one's for you, Meredith.

Set your oven to 375F.

Get a whole chicken, and wash it well in cold water, inside and out. If the thing is trussed with string, you can get rid of it (unless you don't have toothpicks. In that case, take a look at how the string is tying the bird together, and remember it for later). Try not to puncture the skin. If there are giblets, and especially a neck, inside, save them for later.

Drain the bird well, and let it sit tipped in the sink for 10 minutes or so, so the inside dries out. Pat the outside with paper towels.

Put a fair bit of salt and pepper all over the chicken, and use your fingers to rub it into the skin, and into the cavity. Remember that raw chicken can carry bacteria, and you want to make sure you don't cross contaminate raw chicken into any other foods, so be aware of the surfaces you're touching with chicken hands, and clean up well afterwards.

Wash 2 whole lemons well in cold water, then roll them around on your counter, applying downward pressure, to burst some of the internal membranes, releasing the juice. Using a toothpick, knife, or similar, poke at least 20 holes in each lemon. Shove them into the cavity. Then, seal the cavity shut, either with toothpicks spearing the flap closed, or reapply the trussing string to hold the legs closed. You don't want to make an absolutely air-tight job of it, otherwise the chicken may explode in the oven.

Put the chicken in a roasting pan, BREAST SIDE DOWN, and into the upper third of the oven. No need to add any extra fat; the bird is self-basting, and won't stick to the pan. If the skin is unpunctured, it will balloon out, which looks awesome, but is actually hard to achieve, so if it happens, you win, and if it doesn't, you win a delicious chicken anyway. After 30 minutes, turn the chicken over, to have the breast face up. Roast another 30 minutes.

At this point, turn the oven up to 400F, and cook for another 20 minutes or so. The chicken should be done at this point. Here's how to check: the leg and wing joints should be loose at their point of connection to the body. When you puncture the flesh of the thigh, close to the body, the juice should run clear. If it's not there yet, throw her back in the oven.

Here's how to dismantle the chicken for eating: Let your chicken rest for 5-10 minutes. Make sure your knife is good and sharp. Remove the wings and thighs/legs by slitting the skin, to better see the meat, then cut through the joint closest to the body. Remove the lemons from the cavity of the beast, being very careful because they will a) be scalding hot, and b) squirt. Save them to drizzle any remaining juice into the pan gravy that you're about to make, or over the meat itself. Examine the body of the chicken You'll see that there is a backbone right in the middle of the back. Run your knife along either side of this bone, and around the belly side, to release the breasts. These can then be sliced for a party, or left whole for a smaller group. Great Success!

Now: what of all the delicious juices left in the pan? They're awesome as is, but are improved with added fat and thickening agents. Here's a basic (and delicious) pan gravy to serve alongside your confident, accomplished chicken:

If there were giblets or a neck inside the chicken, set them in a small pot, and cover them with water or chicken stock by an inch. About when you flip the bird, set this pot to boil, and then lower it to a simmer. Turn it off when the water seems brothy and flavourful. This will be awesome for your gravy. If you don't have any giblets, you can use straight chicken stock, and even a bouillon cube (diluted to half-strength).

While your chicken is resting, in a saucepan, make a roux, by combining equal parts fat and flour. You want your fat to be hot, before adding the flour. Butter is better, but vegetable oil is ok. Melt 2 tbsp butter, and then add 2 tbsp flour. Stir constantly over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes, until the roux is golden in colour, and it has lost its raw flour taste. Slowly add the giblet juice, stirring, until you have a gravy that is slightly thicker then what you want to end up with. Pour off most of the fat from your roasting pan, and then put the juice from the pan into your gravy. You can further let it out with more giblet juice, if you want. Check the seasoning, adding salt, pepper, and juice from the chicken lemons, and thyme, if you want.
You're done!

Serve this beauty with roasted or mashed potatoes, some veggies and a salad.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Short and Sweet

Last night, some of my very favorite people were over to dinner. This is what we ate:

Cheese! We had the Juliet again, from Salt Spring Island, in B.C. It's finally back in stock at Cook's, and well worth every cent. Also on deck, Le Douanier, a semi-soft cheese from Quebec, with a thread of ash (the burnt stuff, not the tree) running through it; Mona Lisa, an extra-aged Gouda from Holland; Wishing Tree, a hard sheep's milk cheese from Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, in Prince Edward County; and finally, one of my favorites, Figaro, a soft, bloomy rind cheese from Glengarry Fine Cheese near Cornwall. This cheese is delightful - soft and creamy, with a distinct horseradish aftertaste. This nutty spiciness doesn't appear in any of the tasting notes I've read about this cheese, so it may well be just me, but worth a try anyhow.

Also, a pomegranate/blood orange/spinach salad, with a lemon-shallot dressing.
Then, duck confit with parsnips and brussels sprouts sautéed in duck fat.
And a poached pear and frangipane tart with brown sugar ice cream.

But enough about food for now: the Knitting Olympics have started, and I'm competing. With a cardigan that likely will shorten my life.

Citius, Altius, Fortius, yo.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wednesday Night Dinner & Associated Technical Problems.

I'm usually really clear about where I leave my things, and consequently, I'm usually really clear on where they are. I don't generally lose, or even misplace, my belongings, and I'm also usually in charge of locating Mike's keys, wallet etc.

It is driving me around the bend that I can't find the cable to connect my camera to my computer to make the pictures of last night's glorious dinner visible to all. However, our apartment is not enormous, and it must be here somewhere. I have looked in all the likely spots, and will root around some more, later.

Anyhow, dinner! Mike and I now have diametrically opposite schedules, and really are only able to see each other for any length of time on Wednesday and Friday nights, and considering the fact that there are other people in the world that I would like to see sometimes, too, we've reserved Wednesday nights as our 'date' night. Which, last night, amounted to a glorious dinner eaten as a picnic on the floor, watching the recap and season premiere of 'Lost' (a television programme that totally rewards commitment. It started to suck at the beginning of season 3, but if you muscle through, as I did, you'll rediscover how rad it really is.)

Glorious dinner (sadly, with no visual aides) was:
P.E.I mussels steamed in white wine, with a garlic, thyme, fresh tomato and butter sauce.
Prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast stuffed with arugula and chèvre, with lemon asparagus and potato cake.
2 kinds of gelato, coconut and lemon, with starfruit. The gelato was purchased, expensive, and kind of crappy. Homemade is much better, and that'll teach me to be lazy.

Mussels are awesome. They are inexpensive, fun to eat, and when perfectly fresh, are sweet, tender and slightly briny. Plan on purchasing only as much as you want to eat immediately, and pick through them, discarding ones that have broken shells. You want to cook only those mussels that are still alive in their tightly closed shells, as mussels become toxic very soon after they die. If any shells are open, whack them against your counter. A living mussel will draw its shell closed when disturbed, which a) is pretty neat to watch, and b) makes me feel a bit bad for disturbing the thing in its home.

Splitting a kilo of mussels among 2 people for an appetizer is plenty, but given how delicious they were, I kind of would have preferred to have had more, and maybe a smaller main course.

Get a pot large enough to accommodate all of your mussels, with a tightly fitting lit. Get the empty pot good and hot on the stove top, and then pour in 1 cup of dry white wine and throw in 2 sprigs of fresh thyme.

When the wine comes to a boil, dump in your mussels, and put on the lid. Mussels steam in a matter of minutes, and while you don't want to overcook them (they get rubbery), some of the shells are stubborn. You'll want to discard steamed mussels that don't open their shells, yet you don't want to have to throw out mussels that are perfectly good, but slow to open.

When the mussels are open, scoop them out with a slotted spoon, and to the cooking liquid and mussel liquor, add 4 cloves chopped garlic, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomato. I used quartered grape tomatoes, but anything will do. Cook until the wine reduces, the garlic gets tender, and the tomatoes start to disintegrate. Remove from heat, swirl in 1/4 cup of salted butter, and ladle the taste explosion over the steamed mussels.

You'll want to have acquired a nice baguette for sopping up the sauce, which is wicked tasty.

Mytilus edulis, I love you.