March 15, 2015

Roasted Chicken with Mandarins & Ouzo (Plus: International Bento: Jerusalem)

One of our Christmas gifts this year was the gorgeous cookbook Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I've been petting the pages for weeks now, but finally got it together to make something from it. This was a wow-factor recipe, turning simple chicken parts into a feast.

As I didn't have a lot of time to source Arak, the ingredient in the original recipe, I went with ouzo (mentioned as an acceptable substitute, and super cheap in these parts) and have zero regrets. I didn't have true clementines, but the Spanish mandarins were a bit tart, and a surprisingly good substitute.

I served this with an easy version of jewelled basmati rice - cooked basmati stirred through with butter, lemon juice, lemon zest, raisins, and a pinch of salt, and it played very nicely with the flavours of the main dish (and, mixed together the next day with some of the leftover fennel and orange slices (chopped up) it made a fantastic salad, too.

The original recipe calls for a whole, disjointed chicken, but I went with three whole chicken legs, and simply divided them into drumstick and thigh pieces.

Wonderfully, this dish can be prepped in advance, so you just need to tumble the marinated chicken into a prepared (ie. lightly oiled) roasting tray (a BIG one), and cram it into the oven.

Roasted Chicken with Clementines & Ouzo

Serves 3-4

100ml ouzo (or arak, per the original)
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons raw sugar
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed (fronds reserved)
3 whole chicken legs, thighs and drumsticks separated
3 mandarin oranges, sliced (unpeeled) into thin rounds
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
2 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds, half-crushed
salt and pepper
Fennel fronds, to garnish

Combine the ouzo, olive oil, orange juice (I just squeezed some of the extra mandarins), mustard, and sugar in a bowl, and mix well to combine.

Slice the fennel bulbs (each one into 8 wedges) and the mandarins, and place them in a big bowl with the chicken pieces. Pour the marinade over the chicken, fennel, and orange pieces, and then sprinkle with the crushed fennel and fresh thyme. Turn everything about to get it evenly coated, and then cover and let sit for a few hours (or overnight).

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Spread the chicken pieces (skin side up) and the fennel and oranges in a single layer in a large roasting pan. Pour the extra marinade evenly over the pan, then sprinkle the whole dish lightly with coarse sea salt (or kosher salt).

Bake for 45 minutes.

Remove the chicken and other solid items to a platter, and pour the juices from the tray into a saucepan or small skillet. Cook over high heat until the juices are reduced and become a syrupy textured pan sauce. Serve the chicken with the fennel and orange pieces onto individual plates, and drizzle with the pan sauce. Decorate with reserved fennel fronds, and a good grinding of black pepper. I served this with a slightly fancy rice, but a plain one would be beautiful, too. Couscous would probably also work very nicely.

Reheats wonderfully the next day (it's a good idea to remove any meat from the bones before putting leftovers away), as in this international bento below:

March 08, 2015

Roasted Vegetable Bowl with Tahini Dressing

This wonderfully veggie-packed, one-pan meal was inspired by a number of different online recipes, including Smitten Kitchen's Warm Butternut Squash and Chickpea Salad and also generally by the amount of reading I've been doing about tahini (aka tahina)and the growing realization that I really, really like the flavour of sesame.

There's a bit of prep and chopping involved, but you can also do that part in advance and hold the prepared vegetables in the fridge for a day or two, ready to be seasoned and put in the oven. Doing the prep ahead of time makes this a reasonable dinner to make on a weeknight when you might be wanting something both easy and healthy. The above iteration was made using Hokkaido squash (aka Red Kuri), but butternut is also really nice (and a bit less intense).

You could probably describe this as "steam roasted", since there's a bit of liquid in the roasting pan, which hastens the process of the vegetables becoming tender. You could make this without that bit of liquid, also, simply omit the water from the instructions relating to the squash and cauliflower. You may, in that case, require a little longer of a roasting time (ten minutes or so).

Roasted Vegetable Bowl with Tahini Dressing

serves 3-4

1 small butternut squash or Red Kuri/Hokkaido squash
1/2 head cauliflower
400 grams cooked chickpeas (1 small can)
1/2 red onion
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon your favourite curry powder
coarse salt to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
toasted sesame seeds for garnish (not shown)

Tahini Dressing

3 tablespoons tahini
2 big cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon of olive oil
big pinch of salt
Enough water to make a smooth sauce

Prepare the squash by cutting in half, removing the seeds/strings/guts, peeling, and dicing into bite-sized chunks. Store in the fridge in a bag or freezer-type carton if not using immediately.

Prepare the cauliflower by cutting into medium-small florets. Store in the fridge in a bag or freezer-type carton if not using immediately.

When you are ready to cook, turn your oven on to 400 F/ 200 C, with a rack in the middle. Get a large, open roasting pan prepared with a thin film of olive oil.

Place the cauliflower, cumin, a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of olive oil, and a tablespoon of water into a large bowl, and gently stir until the cauliflower is lightly coated with the oil/water/spice mixture. Carefully spread the cauliflower out on one side of the roasting pan. Pour any liquid in the bowl over top the cauliflower.

Rinse out the bowl, and place the squash chunks, curry powder, pinch of salt, a tablespoon of olive oil, and a tablespoon of water, and gently stir until the squash is coated. Spread the squash out on the other half of the roasting tray. Pour any liquid in the bowl over top the squash.

Roast the veggies for 20 minutes. You can prepare the chickpeas and onion while the vegetables are roasting:

- Drain and rinse the chickpeas
- Peel the red onion, and slice into short lengths (I slice thinly in one direction, and then cut into thirds, crosswise)

After the vegetables have roasted for the 20 minutes indicated above, scatter the chickpeas and red onion evenly over the cauliflower and the squash. Put the tray back into the oven and roast for another 10 - 15 minutes, or until the cauliflower pieces are tender, the chickpeas are heated through, and the sharp edge is off the onions.

Once everything is in the oven for that last 10 minutes or so, make up the dressing. Crush the garlic (or press, or pound with a mortar and pestle), and add it to the tahini. Add the lemon juice, the olive oil, and a good pinch of salt. Stir well. You will notice that the mixture starts to become thick and then appears to separate. Do not panic! Simply add cold water, one tablespoon at a time, as needed, stirring until the mixture become smooth and silky. Taste, and decide if you want to add more salt or lemon juice.

Once the vegetables are out of the oven, drizzle a third of the dressing over the pan, and gently stir to (partially) coat the vegetables with the dressing. Dish up into bowls, and drizzle with the remaining dressing. Scatter a few toasted sesame seeds over the top for texture and visual appeal (not shown, sadly).

Leftover reheat very nicely in the microwave.

March 01, 2015

Pasta & Cauliflower with Brown Butter and Sage

Sometimes really great dishes come simply out of the desire to avoid wasting food. I can't remember quite what I was cooking last week, but I do know that I turned my back on it for a moment, and the butter I was melting turned nutty and golden brown. Which was exactly what I didn't want. While inventing new curse-words, I poured the hot, browned butter off into a shell of tinfoil, wiped out the pan, and started again. Then later, when I was cleaning up, I looked at it and thought - there's got to be a use for that.

There's rather a lot of browned butter recipes flying around on the internet - everything from muffins to frosting to ice cream, but I wanted something simple - something I could do on a weeknight, when I get home at seven o'clock, starving and wanting easy answers. Pasta naturally sprang to mind.

Pasta with brown butter sauce (and sage) is a classic Italian dish. In my experience, it is almost always long noodles that are served this way, and that was my original plan, too. Then I realized that I had a half-head of cauliflower that was quietly aging in the crisper, and decided to go for a short, chunky pasta instead.

It's a pity you cannot see the sage in this - it seemed to mostly drift to the bottom of the skillet (probably because I shredded it), and what didn't hide beneath the pasta and roasted cauliflower, quickly got snowed under with a thick blanket of parmesan. If I had been less hungry, I might have arranged it more attractively, but nope.

This was a dish that used up leftover cauliflower (freshly roasted), accidental brown butter, and a weird pasta shape that I had already lurking in my refrigerator. The fact that it was also delicious made it into end-zone dance category.

I also served this with lamb cutlets (not pictured), because it seemed like a nice combination. They were delicious, but probably unnecessary. If I were serving this as a a vegetarian entree, I think I might add a few toasted pine nuts, as well, for heartiness (and delightful crunchiness).

Pasta & Cauliflower with Brown Butter and Sage

Serves 2

100 grams short pasta
2 tablespoons browned butter
1 small handful fresh sage leaves, in chiffonade
1/2 small head of cauliflower (freshly roasted with olive oil and a good pinch of salt)
parmesan cheese for finishing

Cut up the cauliflower until the pieces are just slightly chunkier than the pasta you are using. Toss well with a little olive oil and a big pinch of coarse salt, and roast at 400 F for 20 minutes or until tender when pierced with a fork (and ideally, golden brown where they touch the pan - a metal pan works best for this).

While the cauliflower is roasting, heat up the water to boil the pasta, and warm the browned butter (or, starting from scratch, brown the butter) in a medium skillet. Add the sage leaves to the butter once the pasta is almost cooked.

Cook the pasta to your preference (remembering to salt the water), and then, using a wire skimmer/spider spoon it into the brown butter and sage. Stir well. Add the roasted cauliflower to the pan, stirring gently but thoroughly to get everything coated with the browned butter. Dust thoroughly with freshly grated parmesan, and serve.

Leftovers reheated beautifully in a microwave.

February 23, 2015

Pita Bread

My Ful Medames post included home made pita bread as a serving suggestion, so it seems reasonable to follow it up with a recipe.

Pita bread tends to be either a thick, soft, solid-piece flatbread, or a thinner bread with a pocket created by steam pressure. You could of course use either style quite handily for serving with your Ful, but this version is for the pocket-style. It is tremendously fun to watch through the door of the oven as the breads slowly inflate before your eyes into bread balloons. When you pull them out of the oven, they immediately start to deflate, leaving behind the pocket created by the ballooning effect.

This recipe is really very close to my pizza dough recipe, and you can in fact use that one (just follow the instructions here for rising and baking).

Pita Bread

Adapted from The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Rheinhart

Makes 4 large pocket-style pitas

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1/2 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup room-temperature water (plus extra)

Combine the flour, salt, and yeast in a mixing bowl. Drizzle the honey and the olive oil over the flour. Add the water gradually, stirring with a big wooden spoon (depending on your flour, you might need less than 1/2 cup or you might need more - I needed a couple of tablespoons more). When the flour and water come together into a fairly firm dough, turn it out onto a counter and knead for about ten minutes, or until smooth and silky feeling. If it is too wet (ie. sticky), add a bit more flour as you go.

Return the dough to your cleaned and lightly oiled mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand at room temperature for about 90 minutes - the dough should double in size.

Put a large, clean, dry baking sheet in the middle of your oven, and preheat to 500 F. The pan must be very hot for the pita-pocket effect to work properly.

Turn the dough out onto the counter, and gently press the air out of it. Divide into four portions, and roll each one into a ball. Flatten each ball into a thick disk, and cover three of them loosely with the plastic wrap.

Take the remaining piece of dough, and gently roll it out until it is very thin - not paper thin, but no more than 1/4 inch thick (a bit thinner is better). This means a round of dough that is about seven or eight inches across.

Carefully peel the disk of dough from the counter, slip on an oven mitt, and place the round of dough on the oven mitt. Open the door and slap the dough onto the hot baking sheet, quickly closing the door again.

Watch through the window of your oven in astonishment as the dough rises before your eyes, becoming fully inflated in about two minutes. When it is fully inflated, let it continue cook for the slow count of ten, and then remove from the oven (using a spatula). Place the hot, puffy (and rapidly deflating!) pita on a rack to cool. If you like a bit of colour on your bread, you can simply use a spatula to flip it onto its other side instead of pulling it out right away, and let it stay in the oven for an extra ten seconds or so.

Prepare the next round of dough, and repeat, until all four pitas are cooked. Once all the pitas are done, wrap them loosely in a clean kitchen towel so that they stay soft.

Serve right away, or allow to cool completely. When completely cool, pop them into a plastic bag to keep them from drying out. If you want to use them as pockets, cut them in half, and gently pull the two sides open to fill as you wish.

February 15, 2015

Ful Medames

Ful Medames (also transliterated as Foul Mudammas, or Fuul Medammes, amongst other spellings), commonly referred to simply as Ful (pronounced "fool"), is a middle-eastern bean dish that deserves broader recognition in the western world. It is a popular breakfast dish in Egypt, but its reach extends easts through Saudi Arabia, north throughout the eastern Mediterranean countries, and south into the horn of Africa. It is cheap, filling, and delicious.

As can be expected from a dish that reaches through so many disparate cultures, there are countless iterations. The essentials appear to be fava beans, olive oil, cumin, and lemon juice, but there are variations that include any of (or a combination of) garlic, chopped onion, parsley, tahina, and even chopped tomatoes.

Ful is most commonly served with flatbread, which is used as a utensil to scoop up the beans. The type of flatbread used is going to vary by whichever culture you're in - the good news being that you can safely use whatever flatbread you've got on hand. I served mine with freshly made pita bread (because it was Sunday and I had no choice but to make it if I wanted it), but you could easily use lavash, Somalian canjeero, or heck, even tortillas or chapati. You can also spread it on toasted sandwich bread.

Ful is often served on its own, but equally often as part of a larger, tapas-style meal, especially at lunch or dinner.

While sometimes other beans are used to make Ful, depending on culture and geography, the fava appears to be dominant. Fava beans are a bit more intensely flavoured than chickpeas. They are quite earthy tasting, and therefore pair really well with cumin, and stand up very well under the pungency of fresh garlic and the sharpness of lemon.

You can store it in the fridge for a few days without ill effect, simply adding a little more water to loosen it up as you reheat it. I find that I can make a double batch on Sunday, and have it for breakfast for the rest of the week.

Ful Medames

Adapted from Serious Eats

Serves 2 - 4

2 cups cooked fava beans (or a 400 gram can)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 small cloves garlic, lightly smashed
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
juice of 1 lemon
1 1/2 tablespoons tahina (aka tahini, aka sesame paste)

In a small skillet, toast your cumin seeds until fragrant, and then carefully pour them out onto a cutting board (or into a mortar).

Into the emptied, unwashed skillet add your beans (with their liquid if they're canned, otherwise with about 1/3 cup water) and heat over a medium flame.

On the cutting board, add your garlic cloves and a pinch of salt, and run your knife through a couple of times until the garlic is finely chopped (or, in a mortar, pound the garlic and cumin together until the garlic is a smooth paste). Scrape the garlic/cumin mixture into the beans, and stir through. If you like things spicy, feel free to add in a few chile flakes, too.

The beans should be gently bubbling away at this point. Once the garlic and cumin have been stirred around a few times, add the tahina and olive oil, stir through, and continue to cook, stirring. At this point, you can mash up some of the beans against the side of the skillet, to make a thicker gravy, or if your skillet is looking a bit dry, you can add a little more water to thin it out. Add a tablespoon or two of the lemon juice and stir through. Taste, and decide if it needs more salt (if you use canned beans, probably not, but if you cooked them up from dried, probably yes). Stir and mash the beans as needed until everything looks well heated and the texture is somewhere between baked beans and thick soup. I know, that's a lot of leeway, but you really do get to choose how thick or thin you want this to be. This shouldn't really take more than about five minutes total cooking time.

Pour/scrape the beans into a bowl. At this point, you can add any final finishing touches that you like (an extra drizzle of olive oil, Egyptian style, or a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper, Syrian style, for example, or maybe some carmelized onions, or some parsley).

Serve with warmed flatbread.

February 07, 2015

Prawn & Pumpkin Risotto

This is the traditional Hallowe'en dinner in our household, but really, you can make it all winter long when the winter squashes are cheap and plentiful. I've used a butternut squash here, but you could of course use any cooking pumpkin with firm, dense flesh (acorn or muscat squash might not be at their best here, because they would likely turn to mush with all the stirring). The final colour of the dish will depend greatly on which squash you decided to use, but usually ranges from an intense yellow to a vibrant orange.

For the shrimp, please check out this Oceanwise resource page for prawns/shrimp if you need help making an informed choice about sustainable harvesting.

If you're vegetarian/vegan, or just not a fan of seafood, you can omit the prawns and still have a beautiful, delicious side dish. Either way, don't drown in in cheese at the end - it really doesn't want or need it.

Prawn & Pumpkin Risotto

Serves 4

4 cups diced-small pumpkin or winter squash
250 grams risotto rice (arborio, carnaroli, or similar)
1 small onion, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
4 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup white vermouth or dry white wine
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
250 grams raw prawns or large shrimp (frozen is fine)
Hot water from a recently boiled kettle (just in case)

If you've read my other risotto recipes, you will know that I am extremely particular about the size of ingredients in my risotto. My theory is, broadly, if it's not a featured ingredient, it should be no bigger than a (cooked) grain of the rice that you are using. Basically, onions, I'm looking at you. Because the squash and prawns are features, they get to be bigger, but I do find having a small dice for the pumpkin here makes a more visually and texturally pleasing choice.

First step, as always, is get your mise en place ready: Peel, clean, and dice your pumpkin, and set aside. If you have a little less pumpkin than 4 cups, it's still fine, although 4 cups gives the best result. Finely dice your onion, and mince your garlic. Warm up your broth and keep it on a low flame on the stove, so it's ready to be ladled into the rice. Clean the shrimp, removing shells (if necessary) and veins. If frozen, rinse them in a sieve under cold running water until they are mostly defrosted. Basically, get all ingredients prepared, measured, and standing by, because you get no further time to prep once you've started cooking. Be sure to boil a kettle, and have the hot water standing by in case you need it later.

In a large saucepan, heat the butter or olive oil over medium heat until quite hot, and then add the shrimp and quickly sauté them until they just barely change colour. Remove to a nearby plate/bowl to add into the risotto later.

In the same saucepan, without cleaning it, add the onion and garlic, and sauté just until the onion begins to turn translucent. Add the salt and white pepper, and stir through.

Next, add the rice and stir well, to get a nice, thin coating of fat on the rice grains. Add the tomato paste, and stir through until it is completely integrated and there are no streaks of red running through the rice. Add the diced squash, and stir it through gently. (You can also reverse the order of adding the rice vs. the squash, no biggie as long as everything is nicely coated in the end. I find it easier to add the tomato paste before adding the squash, though, to get it evenly distributed.)

Add all of the wine/vermouth at once, and stir, carefully scraping up the bottom of the pot so that nothing sticks. Lower the heat to medium-low, and begin to add the warm vegetable broth, one ladleful at a time, stirring gently but pretty much constantly in between each addition until the liquid has been absorbed before adding more. It should take about 25 - 35 minutes to add all of the liquid, and that variable is based on how hot your burner is.

If you get to the end of your broth and find that the rice is not quite cooked enough to your taste, add a little of the hot water from your recently boiled kettle, and continue until the texture is just right - a little bite to the rice, but not crunchy. Next time, you might want to lower the heat a bit more.

When the rice is ready, stir the prawns gently into the risotto. If you want an especially luxurious dish, add in another tablespoon of butter or olive oil, but it's not strictly necessary. Cover the risotto, and remove from the heat. Let stand for five minutes, and then spoon into shallow bowls and serve. Feel free to add a garnish of parsley if you like, but steer clear of the parmesan.

January 31, 2015

Cajun Chicken Fricassee

It's no secret that we love the food of New Orleans. Cajun and creole dishes are slowly but steadily seeping into our rotation, from the very first Jambalaya through Smoked Duck Étouffée, and of course further versions of Jambalaya, and all points in between, many of which I have yet to share with you.

The real trick is learning how to make a roux (some patience is required), and not balking at the amount of fat that goes into it. I do confess, though, that I often use less roux in my versions of recipes than is called for, to no discernible detriment to texture or flavour. Once you've got the roux down, the possibilities expand significantly. As an important public service announcement, I'm here to tell you that bacon fat makes a really delicious roux. So, if you like to save your bacon fat, this is a fantastic dish to squander it on.

This is a luxurious tasting dish, and seems more closely related to Étouffée than to its French cousin, also called Fricassee, a creamy, somewhat more subtle dish. Garnish with sliced green onions (not shown here) for maximum traditional bonus points.

Cajun Chicken Fricassee
Adapted from "Cajun — Creole Cooking" by Terry Thompson-Anderson

Serves 4 (with gravy leftover for another meal)

8 pieces of chicken (bone in, skin on, legs/thighs are optimal)
seasoned with salt, black pepper, and cayenne
1/2 cup cleaned bacon fat* or lard
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 medium yellow onions, diced
3 stalks celery, sliced or diced
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaf (less, if powdered)
OR 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
3 cups hot chicken broth or stock
4 green onions, sliced (garnish)

*If you keep salvaged bacon fat in a jar in the fridge, it usually ends up with stria of little burned flecks and lumps. Once you have a full jar of fat, it's easy to warm up it up until it becomes liquid again, and the impurities settle to the bottom. Then you can carefully pour off what you need, leaving the nasty bits behind. (Pour any extra into a clean jar to store in the fridge until needed.)

Once you start cooking, you will have no time to prep. Therefore, prepare and measure out everything that you need in advance, including heating your stock. This is your only warning.

Season the chicken pieces on both sides with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Open a window, if possible, so that the smell of frying chicken does not haunt you for days.

In a large dutch oven, heat the fat until it is shimmering (but not smoking), and fry the chicken briefly until golden on both sides (but not cooked through). I work in batches, browning the thighs first, then the drumsticks, removing the pieces to a paper towel-lined plate as they are done.

When all the chicken has been browned, turn the heat down to medium-low and sprinkle the flour over the hot fat, and get right in there with a whisk to smooth it into a roux. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir, pretty much continuously, scraping the entire bottom surface of the pan to prevent catching and scorching, for about 25 minutes, or until the roux becomes caramel-coloured. If the roux is really catching on the bottom of the pan, turn the heat down further, or remove it from the heat altogether (for a few minutes). Using bacon fat instead of lard gives you a jump start on colour, but don't trim the time, as it is necessary to cook the flour through properly and develop the flavour.

Once the roux is caramel-coloured, add the onions, garlic, and celery, and cook and stir for about four minutes, or until the vegetables are wilted and the onions have turned translucent. The roux will thicken rather a lot as this happens, so constant stirring is necessary. Add the remaining dry seasonings - bay leaves, cayenne, black pepper, thyme - and stir them through.

Add the stock, slowly, stirring constantly, until it is all integrated, and the gravy is bubbling nicely. Return the chicken to the pot, stir through, and once the dish is gently bubbling, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover, and let cook for an hour. If you are anxious, you can peek at it now and then, and give it a little stir. No biggie.

In the meantime, while the fricassee cooks, you have a chance to clean up a little, and make any side dishes. Rice goes wonderfully, but so do noodles, mashed potatoes, biscuits, or dumplings. Your choice. Shown here is Cajun Spinach Rice (adapted from the same book), and Ukrainian pickled tomatoes (because they are delicious).

When the hour is up, stir the dish through (there may be some chicken fat settling out on the surface, just stir it back in), and garnish with sliced green onion.

This recipe makes a lot of gravy, so after dinner I set aside the extra in a freezer container, ready to become a fast weeknight dinner by adding boneless chicken breast, and serving over biscuits, with some sort of extra vegetable on the side.

January 22, 2015

Devilled Eggs with Feta

Devil(l)ed eggs go in and out of fashion, party-wise. However, they are easy enough to make and, it seems, always gladly received, even when they are not at their most popular. Call them Eggs Mimosa, Russian Eggs, Dressed Eggs, or Stuffed Eggs if you will, add your favourite twist to the garnish, and customize them to your specifications, but do find a place for them on your appetizer table. Even folks so jaded as to roll their eyes and say "oh, devilled eggs, I see!" can seldom resist taking one...or two. And of course, if you have dyed easter eggs (thinking ahead here, obviously), you will find devilled eggs a delightful way to quickly use up the leftovers.

I guess it's not a real shocker that I like devilled eggs, since I've used a photo of them as the banner for this blog for years and years. Perhaps it is a shocker that I've never posted a recipe for them until now. While I do make several different variations, depending on the needs of the moment, this version which incorporates tangy feta cheese into the filling has been a stalwart of my bring-along arsenal for quite some time. The feta gives the flavour a bit of a lift, as well as adding bulk to the yolk mixture, enabling you to pile the filling up prettily.

Scale the recipe to suit your needs.

Devilled Eggs with Feta

Makes 8 pieces

4 eggs, cooked in their shells (plus an extra, for safety, if you like)
2-3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons mild Feta cheese
pinch white pepper
pinch mustard powder (optional)
dash Tabasco pepper sauce
1 tablespoon finely minced green onion (or chive)
paprika to garnish (optional)

Cook the eggs gently, so they don't become over-hard and end up with green-grey rings around the yolk. My favourite method is to put the eggs in a pan of cold water, turn the heat on high and bring to a very gentle simmer, cover, turn the heat off, and set the timer for 10 minutes. When the timer dings, drain the eggs and cover with cold water. Leave for about 10 minutes for the eggs to thoroughly cool, and then peel. To peel easily, tap each end on the counter to shatter the shell, then roll the egg gently under your palm to break up and loosen the shell around the middle of the egg. Usually it works great - sometimes it just won't, so it's a good idea to start with an extra egg, just in case one of them is a jerk.

Slice the eggs in half lengthwise, and pop the yolks into a waiting bowl, taking all possible care to avoid tearing the whites. Place the egg white "boats" on the serving dish (some folks like to put down a bed of chopped lettuce or green kale to help stabilize them, and if you're serving for a party, that's a fine idea. If we're just having them around the house, I don't usually bother). If you have a really well equipped kitchen, you might even have one of those lovely little platters with the specially egg-sized divots, in which case go for it, no lettuce required.

Place the yolks in a medium-fine mesh sieve, and use a spoon to press them through into a bowl below. Essentially, this works just like a big garlic press. The yolks will have a slightly stringy, slightly pellet-y look about them, but that largely dissipates once the other ingredients are added. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the sieve to make sure you get all of the yolk into the bowl.

When the yolks are pressed through, and consequently nicely aerated, do the same with the feta cheese. If you feta is mild, you will probably want the full two tablespoons for this many eggs, but if it is quite sharp, you might want to go with one tablespoon, at least to start.

Add the remaining ingredients, except for the minced green onion. Start with two tablespoons of mayonnaise, and add one more if it seems a bit dry, as much will depend on the size of the eggs yolks, how firmly they were cooked, and the type of mayonnaise you are using. Stir in the onion last. Taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary. With both mayonnaise and feta in there, you probably won't need any more salt, but you might want to adjust the amount of pepper or add a bit more green onion. If your egg yolks are very pale, you can always add a pinch of turmeric to the filling to strengthen the yellow colour.

Use a small spoon (or a cake-decorating syringe, if you're feeling fancy, and you like swirled ridges) to heap the filling back into the egg white boats. Garnish with a final pinch of paprika (smoked or regular) if you wish, or any other topping you please (although I wouldn't recommend caviar for these ones, since I don't think it would play nicely with the feta).

January 11, 2015

My Mom's Chinese Beef & Greens

My mother used to make a version of this quite regularly, served over brown rice as was the custom of our household. I don't know where she got the original recipe, or what modifications she might have made to it. As both her knowledge of and exposure to Asian cooking of any kind was severely limited during the time we kids were growing up, and the availability of such ingredients in our small town was quite restricted, her version did not contain either sambal, fermented black beans, or even fresh ginger, and it was thickened with flour rather than cornstarch or tapioca flour (my version still is). It still tasted wonderful, and was a family favourite.

As I began to make the dish for myself as an adult, I gradually added the black beans, sesame oil, and exchanged some of the ground ginger for freshly grated ginger root. Plain button mushrooms were switched for shiitake, straw, or shimeji/beech mushrooms (although I'll still use buttons if that's what is available to me).

Normally there's about twice the amount of bok choi that you can see in the picture - it turns out that I had less on hand than I realized when I went to make the dish. It was still excellent, but had slightly less greens than usual. The baby corn is the most recent addition to recipe, and it's an absolute keeper. This recipe continues to be requested on a regular basis in our household.

Mom’s Chinese Beef & Greens

Serves 4-6 (over rice)

500 grams extra lean ground beef
1 large onion, halved and sliced, pole-to-pole
3-5 cloves of garlic, sliced or pressed
200 grams mushrooms, sliced or quartered if necessary
1 large head of bok choi, washed & sliced or 4 heads of mini bok choi
1-2 carrots, peeled & sliced into coins
200 grams fresh baby corn, sliced once each horizontally and vertically (optional)
1 thumbs-length of fresh gingerroot, sliced, minced, or grated
1/2 teaspoon dried, ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2-3 tablespoons soy sauce (preferably a less sodium type)
1 tablespoon black bean sauce or Chinese fermented black beans, rinsed and mashed
1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other chile paste or chile oil
1 cup stock – beef, chicken, bouillon cube – whatever you’ve got
1 large tablespoon of flour
1/2 cup of cold water
1/2 teaspoon toasted pure sesame oil

In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or cast-iron pan, over high heat, brown the beef until any liquid has boiled off and the meat is frying gently. If you are not using extra lean ground beef, you may wish to drain any excess fat.

Add the chopped onions, garlic, ginger root, baby corn, and carrots, and stir well until the onions are translucent. Add the mushrooms, white pepper, ground ginger, black beans (or black bean sauce) sambal oelek and soy sauce. Stir well. Add a smidge of water if it’s starting to stick on the bottom, and/or lower the heat a little.

Let the mixture fry a little until the mushrooms start to get tender, and then add the stock or broth. Stir well, scraping the bottom of the pan so that nothing burns on. Bring to a gentle boil. Mix the cold water and flour together with a whisk, or shake together in a plastic lidded container until smooth. Pour into the meat mixture, stirring constantly, and bring back to a boil to thicken the gravy. If it gets too thick, you may need to add a little more water or stock. Reduce the heat and let simmer until the vegetables are tender.

Taste the gravy and adjust the seasoning to taste.

Slice the bok choi is sliced into large, bite-sized pieces (they will shrink a bit as they cook). Pile the bok choi on top of the meat mixture – don’t stir it in – and cover with a lid. Cook over medium-low heat for about five minutes, or until the greens wilt and decrease in volume. Then, stir carefully into the beef mixture underneath. Add sesame oil and stir through.

Taste to adjust seasoning, then serve over rice. My family liked to add a final drizzle of soy sauce at the table.

If you have leftovers, they can easily be reheated in the microwave or the stovetop, but my mother's usual approach was to combine the rice and beef mixture thoroughly, and then reheat it in the oven, covered, in a casserole dish (with maybe a tiny sprinkle of extra water to keep it from drying out. We liked it just as much on the second day as the first, even though we referred to it as "horse mash" because my sister thought the combined dish looked much like the cooked porridge that was fed to horses recovering from strangles (equine distemper), in the stables where she worked.

January 04, 2015

Cong You Bing: Chinese Scallion Pancakes (with bonus Scallion Pancake Duck Tostadas)

I learned about these lovely Chinese flatbreads while walking hurriedly through Vancouver's Chinatown, some years ago. The image of them being rolled out and fried, seen through a take-out restaurant window, stuck with me for quite a while and I regretted not stopping to try them. I eventually had to get some, of course, and became an immediate fan -- they were everything I wanted them to be: crisp, flaky, with a shimmer of sesame flavour and that satisfying mild green onion bite.

Here in my current location, a small city in Germany, good Chinese food is hard to come by. So, when the craving hit, I decided to learn how to make my own.

The first recipe I tried was for smaller, cocktail-sized ones, but had a dodgy methodology. They were tasty, but oddly fiddly and got oil everywhere. I ultimately decided to simply apply the proper technique for making the large ones, despite it meaning more work for me in terms of rolling, seasoning, coiling, and rolling again. While it did take a bit longer, the results were much better.

I'm sure that every fan of duck, and/or Chinese cuisines, is familiar with Peking Duck with Mandarin Pancakes. The pancakes in that case are soft crêpes, and comprise one of the traditional Peking duck courses. I enjoy them, but the overall dish is very soft, and often a little sweet for my taste. Instead, I imagined a version of Mexican Tostadas, but with duck and Chinese flavours, using the crispy, savoury, cocktail-sized Cong You Bing as a base. For the duck, I had leftover roasted duck meat, which we shredded and reheated - tossed with a combination of Hoisin sauce, sesame oil, golden mushroom sauce (you could use Oyster sauce instead) with a delicate hint of Sriracha (I would have preferred a Chinese-style chile oil, but had none to hand).

Top the freshly fried Cong You Bing with a little of the shredded duck, top with a bit more sliced scallion, and presto! Scallion Pancake Duck Tostadas. They were delicious, and they turned out exactly as I had pictured them (see photo below).

Cong You Bing

(Chinese Scallion Pancakes)

Makes: 2 large or 8 cocktail-sized pancakes

1 cup all-purpose flour (plus extra for rolling)
1/3 cup hot water

1-2 finely sliced scallions
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
coarse sea (or kosher) salt
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

2 tablespoons peanut oil (for frying)

In a mixing bowl, add the hot water to the flour all at once, and stir rapidly with a wooden spoon until it turns into a soft, pliable dough (add more flour if necessary). Turn out onto a floured board/counter, and knead for about 10 minutes until smooth and silky feeling. Place it back in the (now cleaned and lightly oiled) bowl, and cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let it rest for half an hour. It will not rise - there's no yeast - but it does need to fully hydrate the flour.

When the dough has rested, turn it out onto a floured work surface, and divide into either two or eight. The instructions after that are the same for either size. Yes, of course you could do four. Divide the dough as you will.

Shape the dough pieces into disks. Working with one at a time, roll a disk out as thin as you can. Roll it up into a tube, as though for a jelly roll or cinnamon buns, and coil the tube into a tight spiral, tucking the end under. Mash it flat with your hand, and then roll out very thinly again. Brush a little sesame oil over the rolled out surface, sprinkle with a bit of salt and a few sesame seeds, and scatter scallions over the surface. Roll up into a long tube again, coil it tightly again, tucking the end under, mash it with your hand again, and then roll out gently until it is a pancake thickness (about half the diameter of the thinly rolled dough you started with). For the smaller sized ones, that's about palm-of-my-hand sized. Do not worry if some of the green onions poke through - they totally will and that's okay. Transfer to a side board, and repeat until you have completed each pancake.

Technically, the first "empty" roll-out is not entirely necessary, but it does add a bit of flakiness to the final flatbread. If you're impatient, or pressed for time, you can skip that one, and go straight to filling them.

Heat the peanut oil in a large skillet until shimmering. Add one, or up to four small, pancake(s) and fry, turning frequently, until golden and crisp on each side. Remove to a paper towel to drain, and repeat until finished. For the larger ones, slice them into quarters to serve.

Serve with a soy-based dipping sauce (example below) or use as delicious tostadas.

Dipping sauce

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 small clove garlic, pressed
pinch freshly grated ginger
1 large pinch chile flakes (or cracked Szechwan peppercorns)
small pinch ground white pepper

Or any favourite Chinese dipping sauce you like.