Tag Archives: cooking

“Somewhere in the Mediterranean” Chicken Dinner

Some days dinner should be simple, like a sandwich or something. That is what I was hoping for last night but I had some fresh local zucchini beauties I needed to use up and there was a pack of chicken thighs already defrosted in the fridge. Sigh… I was not in the mood… Mood or not, I really had to find my mojo and get cooking. What to do, what to do??? Too lazy to browse through my collection of recipes saved everywhere: online, on paper, bookmarked, in magazines, in e-mails… Too tired to want to try something totally new… I also wanted to cook something that wouldn’t radically bust the calorie count; I didn’t want to ruin my “9km walking dowtown” day. Soooo, I opted for familiar with what I had on hand: onions, zucchinis, garlic, tomatoes, sweet peppers and parmesan. A never fail pairing with chicken. The combo worked and by the time I had my ingredients sorted out, I found my second wind. It smelled divine in the house and we couldn’t wait to dig in.  I served myself just a little wee bit of pasta but the King, who has been blessed with a “piss me off” good metabolism, piled it on his plate with reckless abandon (his plate in the picture). I drooled with envy over his copious serving and cursed the gods of curvy bodies… He gobbled it up with a guilt-free conscience,  adding a few slices of über fresh sourdough bread from Bread and Sons, generously slathered with a thick coating of  Riviera Salted Butter (my new heart throb). Lucky man… Not fair… He had seconds… I went to water my plants lol!

Ok, enough with the pity party!! I could have ended up with a hard boiled egg and a sliced tomato… Instead, I got to enjoy a respectable serving of this really yummy and healthy meal! I hope this recipe inspires you: the instructions may seem long but I added a lot of details to help those who are really new in the kitchen. Don’t be intimidated, this meal is super easy to make…

“Somewhere in the Mediterranean” Chicken Dinner

Because nothing evokes the Med life better than tomatoes, zucchinis and garlic simmering together…

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What you need:

  • 5 good size zucchinis, diced in big chunks
  • 1 generous tbsp olive oil
  • pepper
  • 6-8 boneless and skinless chicken thighs
  • 2 tbsp cornstarch or flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 red, yellow or orange sweet pepper, diced
  • 5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 2tsp oregano
  • 1/2 cup white wine (optional)
  • 1 big tomato, diced
  • 2 cups canned diced tomatoes or crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tsp salt
  • pepper
  • pasta or rice, enough for 4 servings (optiona)
  • grated parmesan

How to make it: 

I roasted the zucchinis first while I prepped the rest. It does cut some of the cooking time a bit plus add just that umph of flavour. I was able to cook everything else while the zucchinis were taking on a nice roasted flavour. I like to crank my oven up to 450F on convect roast to get a good char going on… For more ideas on how to maximize the use of your oven, I invite you to read an older post dedicated to this subject. You can skip this step and add the zucchinis with the onions and peppers at step 6.

  1. Preheat oven to 450F and set grill rack to the upper middle position
  2. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicon baking sheet. Toss the zucchinis with olive oil and pepper. Spread even,y on baking sheet and roast for about 30 minutes. The zucchinis will be ready when they start to have a nice brown outer edge
  3. Mix the cornstarch with 1 tsp salt and some coarse ground pepper. Add to the chicken and coat well, set aside
  4. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in large and deep skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat; add the chicken, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for about 8 minutes on each side. You want to achieve a nice golden crust and cook the inside without over cooking.
  5. Meanwhile, chop the onions, sweet peppers, garlic and tomatoes. Gather the remaining ingredients. Set your water to boil if you are cooking pasta or get started on the rice
  6. Once the chicken is cooked, remove from pan and set aside. Add the onions and peppers to the pan. You shouldn’t need any additional oil. Sauté until the vegetables start to caramelize then add the garlic and oregano. Toss a round a little until the garlic starts to soften without browning. If using, add the white wine and cook down until nearly all evaporated, 3-5 minutes. If you are not using wine, skip to the next step
  7. Check on the zucchinis… If they have a nice brown colour and have softened, they are ready to pull out of the oven
  8. To the skillet, once the wine has reduced, add the fresh & canned tomatoes and the  tomato paste. Stir to mix well.
  9. Add the zucchinis, stir and taste for seasoning. I added 1tsp of salt and some black pepper
  10. Nestle the chicken pieces on top of the vegetables without burying completely in the sauce. Bring to a gently bubbling simmer, cover and cook for an additional 8-10 minutes
  11. While the chicken is simmering, cook the pasta or rice (optional)

Serve with a generous shower of freshly grated Parmesan although asagio, and romano would be honourable substitutes and fresh mozza, crumbled feta or goat cheese would easily enhance as well.  Everyone is happy 🙂

Side note: if in Ottawa, you must visit Bread and Sons on Bank Street, it is worth discovering!  I am not receiving compensation from these businesses, just sharing my appreciation for what they offer.

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When fall returns to haunt June weekends… Fragrant Moroccan Chicken Stew

Note: this dish can be entirely adapted to accommodate a vegetarian diet. In lieu of chicken, double up on the chickpeas and replace the chicken broth with vegetable broth.

It’s been cold, damp, windy and simply unspring like over the past few days… You are not playing nice Mother Nature! This kind of weather begs for a warm hearty serving of some sort of simmer. Not that I necessarily wait for cooler days to make this beautifully fragrant dish: I do not own a BBQ in my city home therefore summer grilling is reserved for the cottage. I must admit that not having a BBQ at home is a bit of a challenge, especially when the mercury hits the sizzling hot zone. On those days, I wish I could simply throw a chunk of meat of the grill, serve it with a huge salad and call it a day. Easy grilling days not being a dinner option in the city, my stovetop remains my “go-to” cooking tool, even in the middle of the summer. When the work days wipe any dinner creative energy out of me, on those days, our go-to easy summer meal is more likely to be a sandwich or an omelet. And I am very grateful for air conditioning which permits me to cook with abandon using a hot stove or oven even during heat waves.

For the most part, I cook a full meal nearly every night of the week. Well, ok, maybe not every night, that would be a slight exaggeration! I often tend to make enough to have left overs for at least a second meal… Sometimes we even get tired of eating the same stuff a few days in a row… Oh well, even though he is The King, he can’t expect to eat like one every single day!!! Like come on now, a girl needs to do other things once in while other than working and cooking right? Although Jamie Oliver and a few others try to makes us believe a fully cooked dinner from scratch can be dished out in 15 minutes, I beg to differ. There is absolutely no such thing as a 15 minute meal unless there are little minions living in your house who gather ingredients, portion the meats, wash all the produce, take out all the required ingredients and clean up the entire mess after you. I have no such minions, do you? I consider myself a pretty skilled cook, with solid organization and planning strategies. I can handle a knife with certain ease (although not a pro) yet dinner prep in my house averages at about 1 hour. I clean up as I go usually leaving only the service dishes and pots for the after dinner clean up crew (luckily, I have one of those). I do not mind that 1 hour prep time at all. I never set myself up for disappointment since I never, ever expect to make a meal under an hour… Except when there are recipes such as this Moroccan Chicken Stew! So simple and so easy to throw together that you wonder why you don’t make it more often!!! This one truly takes maybe up to 30 minutes to assemble including prep AND cleaning up as you go. And then, it takes maybe 30 minutes to cook (which allows me plenty of time to check what is going on in the world via my beloved I-Pad). When I last made this dish, it was ready to serve in less than one hour; almost faster than firing up the grills!

In Morocco, the weather is warm nearly year round and although they can whip up some fantastic grilled meats, some of their most famous dishes are slow simmers using tagines. Tagines are clay cooking pots with lovely cone shaped lids which allow the steam to build up, get caught up at the top of the cone, condense again and the trickle back down to the food, constantly bathing what is cooking inside and infusing all the flavours and aromas. I do not own a tagine (yet) but I have had the pleasure of eating delicious Moroccan food cooked in this traditional utensil. So even though the weather is very hot in Morocco, I bet these stews are popular not only because they are so delicious but most likely because they are very economical to make: they yield large portions of food using humble ingredients while showcasing masterfully blended spices such Raz el Hanout. Here is a interesting little tidbit info capsule that may also explain the popularity of tagines: fresh bread is sacred in this country and baked daily in wood burning ovens. Although the dough is prepared everyday at home, the raw loaves are brought to a communal oven where the master baker bakes all the loaves. These ovens are quite large and will retain residual heat for a long time even after the rush of bread baking has come and gone which is where the tagines end up later in the day to simmer slowly. Such stews, served piping hot over a bed of couscous, are always a crowd pleaser! My Moroccan Chicken Stew may not simmer slowly in a tagine nestled in a wood burning oven yet it still manages to evoke images of Marrakesh, white washed homes, blue mosaic tiles frescos and bustling spice markets.

I have adapted this recipe from Everyday Food by Martha Stewart which has now become a family classic because it is super healthy, packs a ton of flavour yet is so easy to make. There is no “heat” to this recipe either, for those who are sensitive to spicy foods.

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Moroccan Chicken Stew

serves 4 generous portions

What you need:

Don’t overlook making this dish because the ingredient list seems too long. Apart from the spices, there are very few ingredients needed and very little preparation required. You can replace Ras el Hanout with chili powder and garam masala (1 tsp each). Sumac and parsley add an extra dimension but can easily be omitted

  • 8 pieces of chicken, skinless, bone in
  • 2 cups of carrots peeled and cut into 1.5 inches long pieces then halved or quartered depending on the size of the carrots
  • 2-3 medium yellow onions, thin sliced
  • 1 small can stewed tomatoes, whole or diced (14oz or 400ml)
  • 1 small can chickpeas, rinsed or 2 cups cooked chickpeas (14oz or 400ml)
  • 2 cups chicken broth (500ml)
  • 1.5 cups dried fruits of your choice: figs, prunes, raisins, apricots**
  • 1 tbsp. fresh grated ginger or 1 tsp. dry
  • 2 heaping tsp. Ras el Hanout***
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp. sumac (optional), adds a citrusy flavour
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • Plenty of pepper
  • 2 zucchinis cut the same way as the carrots
  • The juice of 1 lemon (preserved lemon pieces would be a great substitute)
  • A generous handful of fresh chopped parsley if you like but not necessary
  • Couscous

* I like to use a combination of thighs, drumsticks and halved breasts with the bone in because it yields maximum flavour. This dish can also be done with boneless chicken pieces of your choice which will slightly reduce the cooking time.

** I like to use figs and prunes which I cut in half.

*** Ras el Hanout has become much easier to find recently although if at all possible, I strongly recommend sourcing a good blend from a small spice store instead of a grocery store. Raz el Hanout’s personality varies from one master spice blender to another. It is the North African equivalent to India’s garam masala. It evokes sun drenched spice markets of the Mediterranean.

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How to make it:

  1. Now this is where it gets really easy: add everything to a large pot except the dried fruits, zucchinis, the lemon juice and the parsley.
  2. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 25 minutes (15 minutes if using boneless meat).
  3. Add the zucchinis and fruit, simmer for another 10-15 minutes until the meat is cooked through.
  4. Meanwhile, prepare couscous according to package instructions. Couscous is normally ready in about 5 minutes.
  5. Stir lemon juice and fresh parsley in the stew
  6. Taste and adjust salt if needed.
  7. Ladle over couscous and serve.

Empty Nesters and Corn Chowder

The youngest Prince has left the nest… I thought I was ready yet tears flowed freely and frequently over the last few weeks. As long as the “child” (he is turning 21 in May) was under my roof, I could pretend he was still a child. As tall as he is, broad shoulder, bushy beard and all, it is not that picture I see when I look at him. I still see my little bright eyed baby; “mon petit rayon de soleil” as I have been calling him since forever. My little ray of sunshine… Once the most difficult and sloppiest eater ever, he is now my partner in crime when it is time to dig into sushi, pho, biryani and anything smothered in black bean sauce. He is my noodle maniac and chocolate thief; he has found every single secret hiding spot for my private chocolate stash and can deplete my jar of chocolate chips rather quickly which drives me insane because he never leaves enough for me to make a batch of cookies! He is my baby… Always will be! He is now ready to fly solo… I should be happy! I will no longer rip his head off for leaving his dirty dishes on the counter instead of dropping them in the dishwasher. I will not have to nag until the cows come home that he should eat some piece of fruit, any fruit as long as it is a fruit not a fruit flavoured gummy! I will no longer trip over his back pack he insists on leaving in the front entrance. There will be room for boots and shoes in the front hall too and empty drawers in the main bathroom.  Although it is time for him too to be who he needs to be, I can’t help my heart from being twisted all around.

My friends tease me a lot about my «sad mommy» reaction since he only moved next door. Literally! He moved in with his brother in the apartment right next to ours! Yes, drama queen mother here… Whatever hahaha! I still think that it doesn’t matter how far they move away: once they leave the parental home to fly on their own, it means my role as a mom is completely changing; it is taking a brand new direction and throwing me in a brand new category of parenting… Eeeeek, not sure if I am even ready for that stage in life since I am still trying to figure what I will do when I grow up!!!

Hard to believe he is almost 21
Hard to believe he is almost 21
Messy Eater
Messy Eater

And so the last few weeks have been a bit of a blur and flurry of activities getting our young man settled into his new space. It has also been a month of exploration of Ottawa’s foodie scene for the King and I: Ottawa sure has a lot to offer and although there are many exquisite restaurants. I really, really should take the time to talk about some of the amazing local restaurants we have had the pleasure of visiting recently. Crazy few weeks it has been! Between going out a lot on weekends, getting things sorted out at the house with our young lad and also going through competition for a new position at work, I have not taken the time to play much with new recipes. Instead, I opted to focus on some of the Prince’s favourite dishes. And even at that, I had to restrain myself from spoiling him with too much of “mom’s cooking” as he has diligently been following a weight loss program. For the most part, and when I was cooking,  I stuck to familiar foods like roasted chicken, homemade soups, favourite pastas and muffins. Although I am not afraid of trying  new and intricate recipes, my culinary strengths revolve around comforting «slow» foods such as braised meats and soups. I love those recipes that have survived the test of time, that have been lovingly passed on from one generation to another and that evoke, in one sniff or one mouthful, the joy and memories of sitting at a family table, surrounded by loved ones. This corn chowder fits the bill for comfort food; it has that «stick to your rib» quality that makes everyone reach for a second ladle full. And since I am a tad sad (to say the least) at closing this chapter of my adventures in motherhood, I feel the need to cook up some “wrap me in a blanket” kind of food. The stuff that sooths the soul and brings everyone back home in their heart!

Corn Choder

Corn Chowder

Although it is not easy to find fresh corn on the cob at this time of year in the North Hemisphere, I have seen some recently grace the produce aisles from those countries on the other side of the equator. If you can’t find any fresh corn, frozen is solid option: you may simply have to skip steeping the naked cobs in the milk as suggested in the recipe.

What you need:

  • 4 cobs of fresh corn
  • 3 medium to large potatoes peeled and diced to yield 4 cups
  • 5 slices of thick cut bacon, cut in small cubes. Double smoked bacon is even better
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 red pepper, chopped in small dice
  • 3 tbsp butter, at room temperature
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper

How to make it:

  1. With a sharp knife, slice kernels. Set the kernels aside
  2. Placed naked cobs in a saucepan with milk and water. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn heat off and let sit with cobs until ready to use.
  3. Chop the onions and bacon; dice the potatoes and red peppers, setting each aside separately
  4. Make a «beurre manié» by mixing butter and flour until well combined. Set aside
  5. In a large pot over medium heat, cook the bacon pieces until they start to brown slightly without becoming crisp. Add onions and cook to soften. Then add the corn, potatoes and thyme. Cook 5 minutes while stirring frequently.
  6. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer until the potatoes are cooked. Skim the foam that forms on top of the broth: this may have to be done a few times.
  7. Add red peppers
  8. Pour 1-2 cups of the hot broth over the beurre manié and whisk until smooth. Pour this mixture back to the pot whisking until well combined.
  9. Remove and discard cob ears from milk then add the liquid to the soup. Bring back to a gentle boil, reduce heat and simmer a bit more
  10. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.

Note: you can make this soup even if corn on the cob is not in season. You can use canned or frozen corn instead. Simply skip the step which infuses the naked cobs in milk and water.

Use fresh or frozen corn
Use fresh or frozen corn
Cobs taking a milk bath
Cobs taking a milk bath

Red potatoes

All that is left is to thicken it up and add the warm milk
Before the milk is added

 

Pressure Cooking Love and Genius Recipes

imageOk my peeps, I have to tell you about this big mama tool of mine. It’s an 8qt Power Pressure Cooker “as seen on TV”.  Its cousin, who is just as cute, is the Instant Pot. I hear the extended family come in other brand names and looks but essentially, they all offer the same features. I bought mine last summer to help me with my canning projects and didn’t use for anything else since. I own a traditional pressure cooker but since it is not recommended for use on a glasstop tove, I have not cooked with it in years. I forgot how quick and efficient a pressure cooker can be.

Recently, thanks to my friend Chantal, I was introduced to a FB group of avid electric pressure cooker fans. It inspired me to pull out my owner’s manual and start having some fun. Beside the Asian pork recipe I wrote about last week, I made a traditional yellow pea soup with 2 hours of soaking and one hour of cook time in total. Massive success! Instead of overnight soaking and 3-4 hours on the stove, I soaked the beans at breakfast on Saturday and we were having soup for lunch. I spent about 15 minutes in prep total, the machine did the rest. Impressive no? No stirring, no checking temperature, no bubbling over! I would say this is pretty fantastic. Last night, I made a brown rice pilaf which was ready in 20 minutes (plus onion sautéing time). It turned out perfect, which is not easy when it comes to brown rice.

I am sold! It is super easy to use and to clean. You can sauté and brown directly in the appliance, so no extra pots and pans needed. Tough meats cook in anywhere between 45 to 75 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. Online reviews on my model or on the Instant Pot are very good and I see why. Storage is a bit of an issue but I will have to find a way and a place to keep it near to the counter top in my small kitchen.  I am not endorsing a brand name however, after this artcile, I think I should contact the company to let them know I am now a walking commercial for this appliance lol!

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French Canadian Pea Soup. In this pictures, the peas have already cooked for 40 minutes, the vegetables will be added and cooked for an extra 15 minutes.

Beside the pressure cooker, I want to tell you a bit about the cookbook called Genius Recipes by Food52. With a title like that, I thought this book was dedicated to Einstein type chefs. You know, those who can whip up complicated recipes without breaking a sweat? Well, my initial assumption couldn’t be further from reality. I bought this book because it had pretty great reviews, I love Food52, I am a cookbook junkie and I was hoping to become a genius chef myself. The only genius I get out of taking so long to figure out this book’s worth is actually figuring that out!!! It is “genius” because it brings together some of the most simple yet amazing recipes: roasting the perfect chicken at super high heat, making a luscious cake out of almond and flour using a food processor (I’ve made that one: so easy and delicious p.239), making the perfect brine for chicken, the perfect pan-seared steak, easy vinaigrettes and more. In fact, this book should be one of the first to grace a novice’s book shelf. It is a collection of some of the best known chefs in the world such as Nigel Slater, Dan Barber, Yotam Ottolenghi, Mark Bittman and many others, including Julia Child. Alongside the brown rice pilaf I made last night (recipe from the pressure cooker owner’s manual), I made Chicken thighs with Lemon (p.108). I am not at my first chicken thigh dinner but this super easy technique was one I never knew of; it yielded extra crispy skin and juicy meat. Changing my way of cooking thighs that is for sure!

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Chicken Thighs with Lemon, Genius Recipe p. 108
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Orange and Almond Cake, Genius Recipes p. 239

 

So here you have it, my latest “coups de coeur” as we say in French which is a bit like saying my new heart throbs :).

Happy belated International Day of Happiness and an official welcome to spring!

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Mishmash of cooking fun on an ordinary weekend

Although spring is really pushing through these days with the snow melting and the birds singing mighty glory to the morning, the wet drizzly stuff that is hanging over our heads call for more warm and hearty foods no? This post is about a bunch of stuff: recipes by others that I tried, visits to our local food providers, exploring new tools, tips on this and that…  It’s really about a simple, joyful and ordinary moments in my little world.

I was playing in the kitchen this past weekend (as I normally do since it seems obvious I really have nothing better to do in life than to cook, read about cooking, dream about cooking and write on Facebook &  in my blog about cooking), trying to maximize the use of my pantry items before going grocery shopping. There were ripe bananas on the counter and fresh walnuts I wanted to use up but I was out of milk, yogurt and buttermilk. All I had on hand was half a tub of sour cream: could this work?  I swaped the buttermilk for the exact same measurement of sour cream in my Banana Chocolate Chip muffins and  it sure did work!!! Crispy tops and moist, tender centers, just like we love them. Experiment succesful, yay!

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Last Sunday was one of those epic early spring days where the sun is warm and the breeze is gentle. The King and I, our tummies full of warm muffins and strong coffee, grabbed our shopping cart and set out to the Byward Market by foot.  It was too glorious a day to pass by… We were not alone in seizing spring: many cafés, restaurants and bars had their patios opened. The world in downtown Ottawa was happy! After much debate on where to grab a bite to eat, we enjoyed a lovely Vietnamese lunch at Saigon on Clarence Street (no website) before doing our usual food store rounds. Our regular stops included: The Byward Fruit Market, The House of Cheese, Le Moulin de Provence (best sourdough bread), Your Corner Butcher, Continental Delicatessen and the Market Organics. There are a lot of other shops we like, such as La Bottega, but the above are our go-to main food suppliers. We took our time, enjoying the sun and doing a bit of people watching  before returning home several hours later with over 8.5km on our trackers. Blissful day 🙂

After such a long walk, Sunday dinner was kept simple as I wasn’t looking for anything requiring too much prep time. Nothing fancy yet über comforting: roasted chicken (lemon, honey, rosemary, garlic) with mashed potatoes, roasted carrots, roasted spaghetti squash, pan gravy and coleslaw. Yup, you have guessed it, we are huge fans of roasted everything! Throw in a little  glass of vino and voilà! A perfect Sunday dinner!

Monday was a vacation day for me; I decided it was time to discover the many possibilities my pressure cooker has to offer. I purchased this tool last summer for the sole purpose of helping with my canning projects.  I had not yet taken the time to further explore its various cooking features. It offers a lot more than I actually thought: it can slow cook as well as pressure cook, it can cook rice, it can actually sear meat and it can steam vegetables. Pretty cool if you ask me! There are even Facebook groups dedicated to the joy of owning a pressure cooker! It was high time I did more with it than seal summer crops in jars right? Pressure cooking promises to cook  in record time and it delivered: I ended up making a braised Asian pork shoulder with cabbage and potatoes in about 1 hour plus a bit more for minimal prep time the recipe required. I adapted a slow cooker recipe by Ricardo to use the Pressure Cooker instead: I had to tweak the cook time since I was going from super slow to super fast. Although I made a few rookie errors such as adding the potatoes and cabbage in a little too early, the finished product was delicious. The recipe’s flavours were bang on. I will probably try this one again, maybe in my slow cooker this time just to compare the results:  Ricardo’s Pork and Cabbage Stew

Continuing on the Ricardo love fest bandwagon, I made his slow cooker milk rice pudding from his book: Ricardo’s Slow Cooker and this dish also turned out great. Two for two Mr. Ricardo Larrivée!  Although I did add my own footprint by throwing in raisins and cinnamon which I think brought it up a notch. All the recipes I have tried from this book on slow cooking have been successful. I find slow cooking a lot more complex than I ever imagined: the right proportion of liquid and aromatics to meat/legumes/vegetables definitely impacts the end results. I have been left more often than none with watered down bland meals in the past…  Ricardo’s book has become my «go to» resource when I feel like trying something new in the slow cooker. What a crazy day this turned to be with both my slow cooker and pressure cooker going at the same time!

My cooking day didn’t end there:  a huge batch of comfy beef vegetable soup was concocted using ground beef, a rich beef stock made a while back and the last jar of homemade tomato juice from last August canning extravaganza. The soup started with the usual trinity: onions, celery and carrots to which were added zucchinis & red peppers. The taste profile had  Italian undertones thanks to garlic, oregano and basil. But the umami of this dish was reached by adding a generous splash of balsamic and red wine vinegars as well as some sumac. To make this soup nearly stew like, a generous cup of pasta was added near the end. Sumac is new to my spice pantry;  is broadly used in Middle Eastern kitchens. It has a tart citrusy flavour which begs to be discovered and is not «hot» spicy at all. I have started adding a splash of vinegar (mostly balsamic) to soups and pasta sauces recently, after reading somewhere that it is that little secret oomph thingy that make people ask what is THAT flavour? It fills the need for the acid notes  in a recipe.

Tip on herb storage: who doesn’t love to cook with fresh herbs? Yet most spoil so quickly… My mom discovered this cool herb saving gadget that works beautifully and I bought it upon her recommendation. My mom has been my first mentor in the kitchen and still rocks our world when she cooks for us! So when she tells me something, I listen LOL! And this gadget is fantastic!!! Especially for delicate herbs. The pictures show cilantro after 6 days in the fridge and then again after 11 days in total!!! Impressive :).  I bought mine at Zone on Sussex Drive but have seen it in many kitchen emporiums. It takes very little room in the fridge when it is closed. Brand name is Prepara Kitchen Tools. This gadget is perfect for delicate herbs such as cilantro, oregano, basil, tarragon etc.  The downside is that it cannot accommodate thick bunches. And although parsley does very well in it, it is difficult to squeeze an entire bunch in the tube.

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Herb Storage Solution by Prepara

So for sturdier herbs such as parsley, I make my own mini refrigerator greenhouse. In the pictures below, the parsley on the counter is 2 weeks old. To make a herb greenhouse, all you need is a  glass jar, water and a clip of some sort. With scissors, trim the stems a bit just like you would fresh cut flowers. Keeping the bunch tied, rinse well under cold water and get rid of any spoiled bits and leaves (if any). Shake the excess water and set in the jar. Add enough water to cover the stems. Use the bag it came in to cover up leaving air in. Keep in fridge and pull branches as needed. I changed the water once and I find it amazing at how long the fresh herbs have lasted.

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Parsley Greenhouse

My two days of kitchen projects delivered great results:  delicious meals, snacks and a fridge full of leftovers to make the working week easier to handle! I managed to use up some pantry items before the end of their shelf life, discovered that sour cream can replace dairy in a muffin recipe and that sumac adds a wonderful citrus note to a soup. I got to explore the various uses of my pressure cooker too while trying a brand new recipe created by someone else!

 

 

Rolling in the Deep Dead of Winter with Cabbage Rolls

It’s January. It’s cold. It’s dark. There is nothing better than cooking up comfort foods and family favourites. Especially those casseroles that are easy on the budget and not too bad on the calorie count. The first time I ever ate cabbage rolls I was 23 years old. Yup, I had been living in the dark ages up until then… Cabbage was hardly, if ever served at home when I was growing up. I am not sure why. I suspect my mom’s distaste of the cruciferous globe may have had something to do with it. And to think of it, I am not sure that she disliked cabbage, I simply think she didn’t like cooking with it much.

At any rate, I never tasted the little parcels until I met my King. One of our first get away together was at his family’s cottage. It was January (we had recently met in December) and we were completely gaga over one another. Yes, already! To celebrate our newly found love, the King had invited me to spend some quiet alone time at the cottage (yes, the same cottage I refer to frequently in this blog). Although the cottage is more a house than a cabin, it does get closed down completely for the winter months. It requires a bit of work to get it going and habitable during this season: other than electricity, there is no running water and no instant heat. A big cast iron woodstove eventually keeps every one warm and cozy (until the fire dies out in the middle of the night) and water is lugged in from a hole dug through the ice on the lake. We need this water to clean dishes, tend to basic personal hygiene and flush the toilet. In the winter, the cottage is half rustic and half city slicker!!! It didn’t take me long to get accustomed to cottage life, regardless of the season but on that very first romantic get away, the King planned everything himself. I guess he was trying to impress! He went ahead of time to get the place all toasty and comfy, to dig the hole in the ice, to clear a pathway from the road to the front door and to bring up the edible supplies we would need. He then returned to town to pick me up… Such chivalry!!! Amongst the dishes he brought along for our sustenance were these magnificent cabbage rolls. One bite and my heart was 100% conquered. It took me a while to discover that his mother, not him, was the real cabbage roll master. I simply assumed he had made them and he simply didn’t elaborate. Oh well, one small omission of truth on his part lol! And by the time the truth finally came out, we were already a solid item! It didn’t matter much to me if cooking was not his thing: since he could still clear the path, dig the hole for water, split the wood and keep me nice and warm in the deep dead of winter, I was than happy to take over kitchen duties. Yes, I have very fond memories of our first weekend together. I knew then that not only would I end up spending a long time with this wonderful man, I also knew that one day, I would learn to make these little gems of cabbage, meat and rice!

It is my understanding that many, many families have their own cabbage roll recipes. Depending on the recipes’ origins, cabbage rolls can be made with fresh cabbage or with sauerkraut. Some recipes have tomatoes and others don’t. Some have more rice and others more meat. The truth is that I have never tried a homemade cabbage rolls that I didn’t like! There is just something über comforting about these plump pockets of meat and rice. This recipe is the exact recipe I had fallen in love with so many moons ago. It is very economical to make although it does require an investment in time. Since they also freeze very well, I tend to double the recipe and freeze the leftovers for quick and easy meals. It is bound to warm your heart.

Pretli Family Cabbage Rolls

Cabbage Rolls
Cabbage Rolls

 

What you need:

  • 1 large green cabbage or Savoy cabbage
  • 1 cup white rice
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 yellow onions, finely chopped
  • 3 lbs lean ground beef (1.3 kg)
  • 2 tbsp sweet Hungarian paprika
  • 1 ½ tbsp salt
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper or hot paprika
  • 4 cups tomato juice (1L)
  • ½ cup tomato ketchup

How to make it :

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  1. Set to boil a large deep stock pot with salted water
  2. Using a small sharp knife, remove the core of the cabbage while leaving the cabbage whole with all the leaves attached
  3. Place the cabbage in the pot, keeping the water to a soft boil
  4. Using kitchen tongues, remove cabbage leaves one by one once they are cooked. You will need a bit of patience to get to the center of the cabbage and you do not want to undercook the leaves. The cabbage should be tender enough to be pliable without being overcooked. Overcooked leaves will break easily
  5. Deposit cooked leaves in cold water to stop the cooking process
  6. Meanwhile, cook rice covered with plenty of salted water, maybe 2 inches above rice. Bring to a boil and cook for 9 minutes. Drain rice but make sure to keep cooking liquid. The rice cooking water will be used to help bind the meat mixture.
  7. In large bowl, mix together: beef, onions, garlic, cooked rice, Hungarian paprika, salt and cayenne. Once well blended, add just enough reserved rice cooking liquid to moistened meat mixture. The texture should resemble that of sausage meat.

Stuffing the leaves:

  1. Drain cabbage leaves well and remove any excess water. With a paring knife, remove or trim down the coarse rib of each leaf.
  2. Reserve 2 or 3 large cabbage leaves
  3. Lay one leaf at a time on a flat surface and add a generous scoop of filling, approximately the equivalent of an ice cream scoop, not quite in the middle of the leaf. If you were to separate the leaf in 3 imaginary zones, the filling would go on the first third closest to where the rib was. Start rolling from this end, folding sides over the center, tucking the leaf snuggly in the ends.

    Cabbage Rolls Filling
    Cabbage Rolls Filling
  4. Proceed until all the meat has been used
  5. Coarsely chop the remaining cabbage, except for the reserved leaves.
  6. In a large and deep casserole dish*, spread half the chopped cabbage. Layer cabbage rolls on top, then spread the remaining chopped cabbage over the rolls.
  7. Whisk together the tomato juice and the ketchup. Pour over the cabbage rolls. Lay the large leaves on top, pressing down slightly to help the liquid spread evenly.Cabbage Rolls 1
  8. Cover and bake at 350°F for 1 ½ hours

*I like to use a deep covered roasting pan, especially if I make a double batch.

Cabbage Rolls 2
Cabbage Rolls 2

My Kitchen’s Work Horse

I often get asked how to decide which setting and temperature to use in the oven so I thought maybe I should share a few tips. This post will probably be more useful for North Americans since we use Farenheit for temprature; slightly odd since everything else in Canada is centigrade… Many home cooks have told me they are confused with the different options newer ovens offer. At this point, you may think this post may be a waste of time… and sure, it is not the type of post that is full of cooking inspiration, mouthwatering photos and romantic kitchen anecdotes. Nope, this post is purely technical. However, being regularly disappointed with your end results when baking, roasting, braising or slow cooking may be even more frustrating than spending a little bit of extra time getting really familiar with your own kitchen work horse. Over the years, I have found these types of articles the most useful in perfecting my skills in the kitchen which is why I decided to write an entire post on the «oven»!

So what is the difference between bake, convection bake and/or convection roast? And why isn’t 350°F the temperature to use on everything? 350°F seems to be the standard suggested temperature for many, many recipes. It provides an even and deep heat without burning. It is great for preparations that need time to cook through before caramelizing on the edges (the Maillard reaction). It is also quite forgiving if you happen to leave your food in a little longer than expected. But 350°F will not give your food that deep caramel colour you may be looking for or yield the perfect results when baking things such as shortbread, meringue or deeply roasted vegetables. For instance, I have this amazing chocolate chip cookie recipe: these cookies are thin & crisp & chewy at the same time. I was baking these for years always with success. Then I bought a new range and I was having a really hard time getting these cookies to bake just right. After several «missed» batches, I noticed that the manufacturer’s temperature setting was off by several degrees. These cookies are made with a lot of butter; because of the higher than normal temperature, the butter would melt quickly before it had time to bake properly with the flour. Another «miss» when I first got this oven happened when I was cooking a nice and lean sirloin roast using the convection roast option. The roast completely dried out on the exterior before it was properly cooked on the inside. We were left with a mediocre roast that featured overdone ends and a thick dry outer edge…

Over the years, I “played” a fair bit with my oven settings, discovering many cool features. When we moved two years ago, my now “best friend” in the kitchen had to stay behind as it was sold with the house. Needless to say, I had to buy the exact same oven: thankfully, that particular type and brand was still available! Still, it took a few trials and errors to get the settings right.

I have yet come across a cookbook that offers extra information on how to efficiently use an oven. It is quite unfortunate because the heat source will directly affect the end results of any recipe. Heat varies from moist to dry and from low to intense. This is why a char broiled steak on the BBQ tastes different than a pan seared one. Getting to know your oven really well will increase its potential and will ensure you deliver perfect results every time you use it. That is especially sweet when you wish to impress your guest with the perfectly cooked roast!

First and foremost, if you use your oven a fair bit, it may be wise to buy an oven thermometer¹ to see if the temperature set by the manufacturer is indeed the one indicated on the setting pad. Many ovens are not heating up to the desired temperature and it most certainly will affect the end results. Most ovens offer the option of reprogramming the temperature setting so that when you expect 350°F, it is exactly that. This information can be found in your owner’s manual. If you have misplaced your owner’s manual, most can be found online on the manufacturer’s website. All you need is your model number.

When should you use Bake over Convection Bake? The major difference between those two setting is air circulation in the oven. The second biggest difference between the two settings is a pre-set temperature:  most convection ovens will pro-rate the temperature about 25 degrees lower when selecting convection bake. However, most ovens will also offer the option of overriding manually the pre-set automatic temperature drop. I always override the pre-set drop in temperature; I personally do not find my oven fan strong enough to compensate for the drop in degrees.

Convection bake mode is best used for baked goods that require a short bake time, with crispy edges and soft centers. Cookies, biscuits, puff pastry, meringues (on a low temp setting) and pies, for example, bake extremely well with the convection bake mode. Most home ovens do not have powerful fans such as commercial convection ovens do, so contrary to popular belief, using the convection feature may not really reduce the total baking time as anticipated. However, it is always best to check a few minutes earlier than the proposed bake time since each oven has its own personality!

Standard bake mode is best used for cakes, breads and sweet loaves. Since these items spend a bit more time in the oven, using convection setting may dry them out before they are completely cooked in the center. Banana bread, for instance, is best when baked traditionally: it will bake evenly and the edges will not go dry and crisp.

Combining standard bake mode with convection bake mode: It is possible to start baking using the standard bake mode and finish with convection. This works particularly well with pies, quiches and breads (amongst other things): it will yield a moist baked center and crisp the outer edges in the final stages. For example, I first start on standard baking mode then I  manually switch to convection mode when I am ready to do so, usually for the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking time. I particularly like to use this feature with lasagna: once I am ready to switch to the convection mode, I also increase the temperature slightly to make sure I have bubbling golden brown cheese on top.

Convection roast VS regular bake mode. The 2 main differences between convection roast and convection bake are: your oven convection roast setting probably does not automatically pro-rate the oven temperature to 25 degrees less than what you ask (as it does when selecting convection bake mode) for AND most importantly, the top element fires up as the main source of intense heat. The fan, depending on your oven model, may also run at a higher speed, circulating more air. When using convection roast, it is important to gage where your rack should sit: for a quick roast and deep sear, such as steaks and smaller roasts, the rack should be closest to the top. For larger roasts, the middle to the bottom of the oven probably works best. I use convection roast mode on meats that have a fair bit of exterior fat: prime rib, lamb, chicken, pork roasts. One word of caution: roasts with a nice coating of exterior fat should be placed closer to the bottom of the oven to prevent excessive burning and smoking. I normally start my roasts at a very high heat, between 450°F to 500°F for the first 15 minutes. I then reduce the temperature to 375°F to 400°F, depending on the size of my roast (higher temp. for larger roasts), until it reaches the desired internal temperature. As well, I like to make sure my kitchen is well ventilated during this process as the high temperature setting used to sear the meat at the beginning is bound to create a bit of smoke.  I also love to use convection roast mode for roasting vegetables. Since I like roasted veggies deeply browned with a crispy edge, I tend to roast at a high temperature, normally 450°F, and I place my vegetables on the middle rack.  For meats that require a longer cooking time such as braised meats, very lean meats (sirloin, filet, chicken breasts, etc.), I prefer using regular bake mode.

My favorite oven tools: because I use my oven a fair bit, even in the thick of summer, I have invested in really good products.

  1. For years, I used flimsy cookie sheets that would instantly buckle up in the oven under the stress of the sudden temperature change. That drove me insane! I invested in thick commercial grade aluminum baking sheets which I line with Silpat™ sheets. Over the years, I have bought 3 sheets with 3 Silpats™ which helps me seamlessly bake a sheet, cool a sheet and prep a sheet, all at once. I also use the cookie sheet lined with a Silpat™ to roast all my vegetables, make crispy chicken and even bacon. Silpats™ can be used at very high temperatures. I have tried other brands but none have ever compared to this original brand.IMG_0068
  2. Enamel coated cast iron, such as Le Creuset™: nothing beats Le Creuset ™ for delicious braised meats: I like the deep covered cookware also referred to as a Dutch oven for my stews, cabbage rolls, osso bucco etc… I particularly enjoy being able to use the same apparatus to sear the meat on the stove top and then to braise in the oven. Cookware like Le Creuset™ is pricey and I spent a big chunk of my cooking years without one. I only manage to score one a few years ago, as a Christmas gift, thanks to my beloved King who values and appreciates what is placed on his plate at dinner time.IMG_0071
  3. Stones: I enjoy working with stones especially for foods that taste best when the outside is nice and crispy but the inside still juicy and moist. I particularly like that I can pre-heat a stone to high heat when making pizza and I also appreciate that the stone will retain its heat once removed from the oven. It is a good quality when serving pizza: it remains warm as you dig into it (or for those who arrive late at the dinner table)! I also enjoy using stones for chicken pieces (wings especially), fruit crisps (they stay warm long after being pulled from the oven), pies and frittatas/quiches. However, I do not enjoy baking cookies and cakes with stones for the exact same reason: they take too long to cool off.IMG_0070
  4. Deep and flat roasting pan with removable rack. Another wonderful gift from my King… He has figured out at a very early stage in our marriage that keeping the cook happy is an extremely rewarding thing for him! I have scored many a great kitchen tool with this type of bribery!!! What I enjoy about a flat bottom roasting pan is the ability to use it on the stovetop to sear the meat before transferring to the oven. It also allows me to make a sauce using the pan drippings and little brown bit bursts of flavor, once the roast is done and cooling. The rack is not only made to easily remove the finished roast from the pan, it also lets the meat cook without boiling in liquid.
  5. Long sleeve silicone oven mitts: I love my silicone covered mitts for their heat resistance and their anti-slip properties. They are also super easy to clean up.
  6. Parchment paper and non-stick aluminum foil

I hope this post proves to be useful for many of you:)

¹Buying a thermometer: it may be wise to make sure the thermometer you will use to test your oven temperature is graded properly. To check my food thermometers, I always rely on the boiling water test. The temperature of boiling water is 212°F or 100°C. It is then easy to add or subtract the difference between the readings of the thermometer you are using to the actual «real» temperature.

Does the world need another bolognese sauce recipe?

Yes it does! Yes it does! Once you read the way this rich and luscious “spaghetti sauce” comes together, you will understand it is not your average run of the mill bolognese sauce.

Last weekend, I finally tackled my obscene pile of recipes… I don’t think there are enough meals left in my life to try them all but I still keep on hoarding recipes (as if I didn’t have an impressive library yet). To be completely honest, my motivation for this clean-up had nothing to do with organization: I was actually trying to locate a few “heirloom” recipes from the “Mothers” of my family that had gone missing in action. Eureka!!! I was thrilled to finally dig out a few priceless hand written jewels of our family’s cooking heritage. Phewee, what a relief: they have now been secured properly in my little recipe “black book”, ready to eventually be typed and stored in my computer. One of the little gems I dug out is my mom’s most flavourful bolognese sauce which she makes to create her Roman Lasagna. I think this sauce is good enough for any pasta, not just lasagna, and this evening, it will be served piping hot over tiny spaghettini. My mom is 100% Quebecoise, but with an impressive classic French culinary background; not one bit of Italian heritage there… So maybe I should rename this sauce “Meat sauce à la Québécoise” before a real Italian mama screams bloody murder at this imposter!!! Well, wether it is truly a Roman style recipe or simply another imitation, if you were to walk in my house right now, you would just simply want to dig right in: it smells divine in here!!!

My mom’s “Roman” bolognese:

The sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1 finely chopped onion
2 minced garlic cloves
1 large can chopped tomatoes
1 litre (4 cups) of your favourite marinara sauce, homemade or jarred*
1 tsp each dry basil and oregano
1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
* do not use a sweet jarred pasta sauce, the results won’t be as good

In a large pot, heat oil and sweat the onions until tender. Add garlic and stir an additional minute or two. Add the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for about 15 minutes.

The meat preparation
While the sauce is simmering, gather the following ingredients in a large bowl:
1lb each ground beef and ground pork ( ground veal can replace the beef)
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil (or parsley)
1tsp dry oregano or 1 tbsp fresh
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/3 cup grated fresh parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

Once the sauce has simmered for 15 minutes, add the meat preparation and stir to blend well. Let simmer uncovered for 40 minutes, stirring regularly. Adjust seasonings. I like to add a good handful of freshly chopped basil.

Delish…

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