December 27, 2014

Scalloped Potatoes

Scalloped potatoes are one of my favourite holiday side-dishes. They're quite cooperative - you can generally cook them at whatever temperature you are already using for your ham or turkey or other festive fare (simply adjust the time), and require little minding once they go into the oven. Classic, simple, and satisfying.

These are the antithesis of fast food - a slow-baking, satisfying dish that yields the unexpected dividend of being a terrific breakfast dish the next day - topped with a sunny-side or poached egg, or diced and turned into Spanish tortilla (in which case, add more garlic).

Made with milk rather than cream (but no less creamy), and with a nice sprinkle of cheese at the end, these are richer tasting than they really are. If you're having a large holiday feast with many dishes, you can easily get six servings out of this, and if you're having a pared-down holiday dinner, it serves four generously.

Scalloped Potatoes

The way my mother used to make them

Makes a 9x9 inch baking dish
Serves 4 - 6

1 kilogram half-waxy potatoes (such as Yukon Gold)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (approximately)
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup coarsely grated parmesan cheese
Kosher or coarse sea salt

Prepare your 9x9 baking dish by lightly buttering or oiling it. Preheat your oven to 350-375 F if you don't have anything else already requiring a specific temperature.

Peel the potatoes and slice them thinly, but not quite paper thin (I disagree with the venerable Martha Stewart on that one). Peel and dice the onion. Place 1 tablespoon of flour in a very fine sieve and have it within easy reach.

Place a layer of potatoes in the baking dish, slightly overlapping the edges like fish scales. Sprinkle sparingly with salt, add about a third of the onions, and use the sieve to dust a small amount of the flour evenly over the entire dish. Repeat until you have run out of potatoes (no need to flour the final, top of the potatoes, though a further pinch of salt there is fine). You shouldn't need more flour for the layering stage than the initial tablespoon - go easy, to prevent the dish from becoming gluey.

Shake together the milk and the other tablespoon of flour, and pour it gently over the potatoes, making sure the whole top layer of potatoes gets wet with the milk. The milk should only come up about half way through the stack of potatoes - they should not be swimming in milk!

Cover the baking dish with foil, and place in the oven (I like to put a drip tray under it, in case the milk boils over) to bake for 45 minutes to one hour (test with a knife - it should slide easily through the potatoes with no resistance). If, due to the varied times and temperatures of your other dishes, your potatoes are done earlier than you need, simply remove them from the oven and hold them aside (still covered with foil) until about 15 minutes before you want to serve them (perfect resting time for a roast chicken, or duck, for example), before going on to the next step.

Remove the foil, and sprinkle evenly with the cheese. Sprinkle a delicate, tiny amount of nutmeg over the whole dish, and return, uncovered, to the oven to cook for another 15 minutes or until the top is lightly golden on the edges (or more deeply browned, if that's your preference).

Use a flipper-type spatula to loosen the edges, cut into portions, and serve.

December 21, 2014

Kartoffel Eintopf: German Potato Stew

Potatoes play a fairly important role in German cuisine. Spring, Summer, Fall, or Winter, there's a potato dish (or several to choose from) for every season, every occasion. At the very least, the humble "Salzkartoffeln" (often manifested as a simple, peeled, boiled potato) is an all-purpose and upstanding accompaniment in a land that has not fallen prey to the fear of carbohydrates.

Potato soup and potato stew are stalwarts of the restaurant menus around the Rhine, especially in Fall and Winter. They come together quickly, don't take a laundry list of ingredients (and can often be made entirely with items already in the German pantry), and are satisfying for lunch or dinner, or as a first course.

There are a ton of recipes out there, and a zillion (roughly) variations. With or without meat, and with or without dairy are the biggest party lines to be drawn, and quite frankly, I see merits to all of these. Here is my recipe for Kartoffel Eintopf (with ham, without dairy) which can be on the table in less than 30 minutes any day of the week.

Kartoffel Eintopf

Serves 2 - 4

3 large potatoes (Yukon Gold or similar)
3 large carrots
1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 bay leaves
75 grams ham
2 cups vegetable broth or stock
celery salt to taste
white pepper to taste
pinch marjoram or thyme
1 tablespoon flour
water as needed

1 stalk of celery or 1/4 celeriac
1 leek
(technically, the ham is also optional)

Coarsely dice the potatoes, carrot and onion. Finely dice the garlic, celery or celeriac and leek (if using), and ham.

In a moderately large soup pot, heat the olive oil. Add the onions, garlic, and bay leaves, and saute until the onions start to turn translucent. Add the ham, celery salt, white pepper, and marjoram, and stir through. Add the potatoes and carrots and stir about until everything is lightly coated with the oil. Add the vegetable broth, and if necessary, enough water to 3/4 cover the vegetables. Bring up to a simmer.

Make a slurry of cold water and the flour (I shake mine together in a plastic lidded container until smooth), and add to the soup. Bring up to a simmer, reduce the heat, cover, and let cook for about 20 minutes. Remove lid, and if necessary, continue to cook until the liquid thickens into a light gravy.

If you are using ham and vegetable broth, you probably will not need much more if anything in the way of salt, but do taste and add a little if necessary. Serve with a hearty, crusty bread, and maybe a nice salad.

December 14, 2014

Christmas Treats: Kalte Schnauze

This is one of the most beloved of all the Christmas baking of my childhood. I love the shortbread, mincemeat tarts, my sister's candy cane cookies and other classics, absolutely, but this was always the most hotly anticipated item - partially because of the chocolatey richness, and partially because my mother always made it at least three weeks before Christmas, and insisted that it took three weeks to "cure". In reality, she was merely spacing out the Christmas baking, but wanted us to leave it alone until the middle of the holiday season.

Kalte Schnauze means "cold nose" in German. By the time we got our Canadian hands on it, it was spelled "Kalter Schnautze" and I'm really not sure how it came into our holiday tradition, or who gave us the recipe. It is written out in pencil on a slip of paper that was in my mother's recipe box. It might have been our Dutch neighbour, or possibly some of the Mennonite relatives, but I do not recall; I only remember that it bumped Nanaimo Bars from the number one place in our chocolatey hearts. When I arrived in Germany, I found that it has a whole host of other names, too - Kalter Hund (Cold Dog) for example, Kellerkuchen (Cellar Cake) - presumably because you store it in a cool place - and Kekskuchen (Cookie Cake), for obvious reasons. There are versions ranging all over northern Europe, and parts of the United Kingdom, as well.

I've encountered some debate online as to the inclusion of, variously, eggs, rum, and coffee. My version has all three, and as it is a long standing family favourite, that's quite good enough for me.

One final note: the use of coconut fat is original to this recipe, and not some flavour-of-the-moment substitution. It's essential to the creamy and melting texture of the finished dessert.

Kalte Schnauze

Makes an 11x7 baking dish

225 grams solid coconut fat
2 cups powdered sugar/confectioner's sugar
1 cup cocoa powder
2 eggs
1 tablespoon instant coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon rum
2 tablespoons very hot water
1 package of thin "German Social Tea" style biscuits (or Butter Kekse)

Line the baking dish with waxed paper (ensure it comes up over the sides, to make removal possible later). You can also use plastic wrap - this doesn't actually go in the oven at any point.

Pour the hot water over the vanilla extract and the rum, and let stand.

In a large mixing bowl, mix the eggs, sugar, coffee, with an electric mixer until thoroughly combined. Add the warm rum/vanilla mixture and mix again.

Melt the coconut fat over low heat. Add a quarter of the melted coconut fat to the chocolate mixture, stirring/mixing well to combine, and repeat until all of the coconut fat is smoothly integrated.

Place the bowl with the chocolate mixture over a pan of hot water, so it does not set up too fast while you are working.

Pour/scoop enough chocolate mixture into the prepared pan to just cover the bottom. Take your tea biscuits, and lay them in a single layer over the chocolate, leaving a small space between each biscuit. Top with a layer of chocolate mixture, and repeat. You should have a minimum of three layers of biscuits, as shown here, ending with chocolate on top. I used large, square biscuits for this one, but I remember using smaller, rectangular ones as a kid. The advantage of the smaller ones is that you can alternate direction of the biscuits, which results in small, creamy, bonus deposits of chocolate in the finished squares. If your biscuits do not fit nicely into your baking dish, break or cut them into smaller pieces to get full coverage. You will never be able to tell, once it's done, or if the biscuits didn't break cleanly.

The amount of biscuits you need is going to depend on the size of your pan and the size of the biscuits themselves. I've never needed more than one package of any size (and often much less than a whole package), but if you're nervous, get two.

Allow to cool completely, then cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand someplace cool (do not refrigerate) for a couple of days before you dig in. The biscuits, so crisp when you lay them into the chocolate, soften and become quite easily sliceable after a day or two of rest in their chocolate bed.

These are very rich, so cut them small and treat them like truffles. I note that if you cut them all into squares at once, the biscuit edges will start to dry out, which you can see here. It is better to leave them in a solid piece, cutting off only the number of squares you wish to serve at any given time.

December 07, 2014

Arroz con Pollo, Chorizo, y Choclo: Rice with Chicken, Chorizo, and Corn

Rice-based skillet dinners (or other one-pot meals) are very rewarding to make and to eat. I grew up on my mother's iteration of chicken and rice, but as an adult, I've discovered the joy of so many different versions from all over the world. Takikomi Gohan in the Japanese style, for example, Chinese Chicken Fried Rice, Caribbean Chicken & Rice, Italian Chicken Risotto, Russian Chicken Plov, and of course, the many, many versions of Arroz con Pollo - Chicken and Rice to our Spanish speaking friends.

My version plays up the Spanish and Latin American flavours, with saffron and chorizo that you might find in Europe, and the corn that you might find in a Peruvian variation. The method is rather like an oven-finished paella (in the Mark Bittman style); a quick weeknight meal that you can put in the table without a lot of fuss.

I have used fresh corn, cut off the cob, but you could as easily use frozen kernels.

Arroz con Pollo, Chorizo, y Choclo

Serves 4

1 3/4 cups short grain rice, such as Bomba
400 grams boneless chicken, chopped
1 - 2 cups sliced cured chorizo
3 1/2 cups water or chicken broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 fresh corn cob worth of corn kernels (approximately 1 1/4 cups)
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 pinch saffron, brewed
2 teaspoon paprika
splash of dry sherry

Preheat your oven to 400 F., with the rack in the middle or lower-middle slot.

To brew your saffron, grind it with the back of a spoon in a small dish, and add a tablespoon or so of near-boiling water. Let stand for about 10 minutes while you prep the rest of the ingredients

In a 30-centimetre skillet, heat the sliced chorizo in the olive oil, and quickly sauté the chicken pieces until lightly golden on the outside, but not cooked through. Add the diced onion and sliced garlic, and stir through. When the onions have turned translucent, add the paprika and the brewed saffron, and keep stirring through. Add the tomato paste, and a splash of sherry, and stir again.

Add the rice, and stir it through until every grain of rice is coated in the rich, golden colour. Add the corn, and stir through until evenly distributed. Add the water or broth (or stock), and stir through once more. Bring the liquid just to a light boil.

Carefully move the (very full!) pan to the oven, and bake uncovered for 20 minutes. Check to see if it needs a bit more liquid, and add up to a quarter cup if it does. Turn the heat off, and continue to cook with carryover heat for another 10 minutes. Test a few rice grains to make sure they are done. Scoop into shallow bowls, and serve with crusty bread and a salad on the side.

You can garnish with freshly chopped parsley if you like, or a pinch of pimentón - Spanish smoked paprika.

There are so very many more chicken and rice recipes out there to try, from the simple to the far more complex! Biryani, Jollof Rice, Oyakodon, Clay-pot Chicken Rice, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Zereshk many wonderful dishes yet to come.