Saturday, 31 December 2011

Poule de Luxe Cupcakes

Just as my dislike of Christmas is well-known (refer to the blog entry about gingerbread cookies), my love for friends, good times and good food is equally famous. And since the Holidays are supposed to be about sharing, every year I organize a pot-luck for my friends. Everyone brings a little something and we have a great time geeking out.

Obviously, I make cupcakes for that pot-luck. Because I. Have. To. Make. Cupcakes. It's kind of an addictive thing to bake... This year, Sam (who is becoming my muse for the "out of the box" cupcakes) suggested I try to bake eggnog cupcakes. I vaguely remember taking a sip of eggnog from my grandfather's glass when I was little and going "yuck!". But now that I am older, I can appreciate a rich, creamy and boozy nightcap on a cold winter night. I faced a few skeptical eyebrows, but come on! Cream, rhum, nutmeg? Can you really go wrong with those guys?

I was stunned by the quantity of recipes I found researching these. I found this one on Sharyn Carlson's blog, Living Artfully, and it sounded so yummy, I didn't even modify it!

1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup dark rum
1 cup eggnog (regular, low-fat or soy)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F and line a cupcake pan with liners. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and nutmeg. In a separate bowl, combine the rum, eggnog, vegetable oil, apple cider vinegar and vanilla extract together. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and beat just to combine. Fill the cupcake liners. Fill about 2/3 of the way if you want flat cupcakes and 3/4 of the way if you want rounded tops. Bake for about 18 minutes, until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.

1/4 cup unsalted butter (or nonhydrogenated margarine), room temperature
2 to 2-1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
3 tablespoons eggnog
2 tablespoons rum
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

In a large bowl, using a stand or electric mixer, whip the butter for a minute or two, until light and fluffy. Slowly add the confectioners sugar, mixing as you add the sugar. Continue adding sugar until the mixture becomes stiff. Add the eggnog, rum and nutmeg, and whip until combined. Frost cupcakes as desired.

I doubled the quantities, because my friends can be just like a swarm of locusts when they get hungry. Better safe than sorry, especially with a few gluttons on the guest-list! The cake turned out moist and chewy. For those who haven't tried, rhum flavored desserts are delightful and extremely tasty.

I was also pleased to see how easily veganized the recipe is, so anyone can enjoy this little Holiday sweet!

I must confess that I got a bit too heavy-handed with the eggnog in the frosting, so it turned a little more runny than I wanted. If you want to have perfect, stiff frosting, keep a close eye on your quantities... but what's the fun of baking if you can't make a sugary, sticky mess? They still looked adorable sprinkled in freshly ground cinnamon.

The verdict was that those cupcakes were were good but very sweet. Since they are full of eggnog and rhum, this is no surprise. My personal opinion was that I preferred the cake to the icing, and that I am greatly looking forward to making rhum-cakes with vanilla icing!

Also, I realized that I love to bake with booze! The little tasty and decadent hints of the rhum you get in every bite was just (for lack of a better word) sexy. I can't wait to make other boozy cupcakes with more alcohols and liqueurs I like.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Shepherd's Pie

In Québec, every family has their recipe for shepherd's pie (commonly known here as pâté chinois - more on that in a minute), and they will each insist that their version is the real shepherd's pie. In that aspect, people here are very much like Italians, who all claim to make the original (and the best) minestrone or bolognese or pizza, or whatever. Every version is probably delicious, but family traditions are big deals in Italy, as they tend to be here in Québec.

It's no wonder that this dish became popular here after the massive waves of Irish immigrants settled in Canada after the potato famine, as it's very similar to Irish cottage pie. But it is called pâté chinois because during the railway construction in the late 19th century, English bosses taught their crew's cooks how to prepare it for the workers, who were predominantly Chinese. Those workers brought the recipe back to the cities and villages, and tada! It became known as Chinese pie.

Nothing says "homey winter food" like a steaming plate of shepherd's pie. It's one of those staples of Québec cuisine that makes winter a little easier to deal with. Hearty, filling and comforting; those recipes are priceless when the harsh January weather is around the corner (like today's -31).

This recipe is the bare-bones, uber-simple comfort food dish that my mom makes. We are a weird family, so we stray from tradition by putting the corn on top of the potatoes. Crazy, huh? It serves 4 to 6.

2 1/2 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup milk
2 to 3 tablespoons butter
1 pound ground beef (or a mix of ground beef, pork and veal)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 (24 ounce) can creamed corn
Olive oil
Sea salt and ground pepper
Bread crumbs (optional)

Place the potato chunks in a large pot and cover with water. Boil until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Drain in a colander and put back in the pot along with the milk and butter. Mash until creamy and set aside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Preheat the olive oil a frying pan over medium heat. Add garlic and onions and sauté until the onions are soft and golden. Add the ground meat, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until crumbling. In a Pyrex or casserole dish, put the meat and onion mixture in a layer. Cover with the mashed potatoes. Spread well to cover the meat. Add the creamed corn as the top layer. Sprinkle with bread crumbs, if using. Place in the middle of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the top layer is golden and bubbling. Serve with ketchup, if you must.

This is the way my mom taught me to make it, but it's easily spiced up. Here are some ways to shake it up:
  • substitute one pound of the Russet potatoes for sweet potatoes
  • add another clove of garlic and use ground lamb instead of beef (technically, it is shepherd's pie only if mutton meat is involved - the proper name for this dish with beef is "cottage pie", not that anyone cares...)
  • add a small can of corn nibblets to the creamed corn
  • sprinkle with grated aged cheddar or Gruyère before putting the dish in the oven
Shepherd's pie can easily be frozen and re-heated later. It's surprisingly delicious reheated in the frying pan. Now, I know some other shepherd's pie recipe make a very firm casserole that you can artfully cut out and get a perfectly layered piece in your plate. Mine isn't like that at all, as you can see.

But the messy look has it's advantages! I prefer to generously sprinkle my plate with freshly ground pepper and vigorously mix the whole thing so that I can have a bit of every ingredient on my fork in every bite. If you want a nice, more photogenic shepherd's pie, I am told that the key is to bake it at a lower temperature, for a longer period of time.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Coconut Snowball Cupcakes

Yes, I know that coconut is not a traditional Christmas flavor. No, I don't really care. I happen to love coconut, but I also decided to make these specific cupcakes for my family's Christmas lunch because here in Montreal, we barely got any snow so far this year. And with shredded coconut on the icing, these cupcakes look like little snowballs! It was the least I could do to give my family the illusion of a white Christmas (of course, it started snowing the minute I got around to baking these, thus defeating my original purpose... but what can you do when Mother Nature steals your thunder?).

No one can say I am not trying to get into the Christmas spirit!

I sneaked the original recipe from Cupcake Rehab, but I substituted the buttermilk for 1 cup of good old milk, to which I added a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. Since I have very few recipes in my arsenal that call for buttermilk, I never buy it because I know I'll end up loosing a ton (and I hate wasting food). This simple little substitution works just as well (just let the mixture sit for 10 minutes before using it in your recipe), and works with non-dairy milks, too. Thanks for the tip, "Vegan with a Vengeance"!

Coconut cupcakes:
¾ pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs at room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons pure almond extract
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
14 ounces sweetened, shredded coconut

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs, 1 at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and mix well. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In 3 parts, alternately add the dry ingredients and the buttermilk to the batter, beginning and ending with the dry. Mix until just combined. Fold in 1 cup of shredded coconut. Line a muffin pan with paper liners. Fill each liner 2/3 of the way. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the tops are brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Remove to a baking rack and cool completely.

Coconut buttercream:
½ cup unsalted butter
½ cup shortening
4-5 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
3 teaspoons coconut extract
4 to 6 tablespoons milk

Cream the butter and shortening in a large mixing bowl. Add 4 cups of the sugar and then the milk, coconut extract and vanilla. On the medium speed of an electric mixer, beat until smooth and creamy, about 3-5 minutes. If too stiff, add some milk and if too liquid, add confectioners sugar until desired texture is reached.

You'll get 20 to 24 cupcakes with this recipe. Decorating them is quite easy: leave what's left of your shredded coconut in it's bag, add a few drops of food coloring and shake the bag up until the coconut becomes lightly colored and spread it in a large plate. Frost the cupcakes, then gently dunk and roll them in the tinted coconut.

Voilà! Cute little snowballs that you can eat! Coconut lovers everywhere will go mad for these at any time of the year! But you may want to warn them about these cupcakes' highly addictive taste...

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Mrs. Scrooge and the Gingerbread Men

I am not a Christmas person. At all. Several years of working retail during the Holidays and being subjected to Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas" twenty times a day left me with some permanent psychological scars. Here is a short list of Christmas-y things that I genuinely love, despite my allergy to the most wonderful time of the year...
  • Frank Sinatra singing Christmas songs. In my worldview, only Frank should be allowed to sing those sappy songs, and sadly, he's dead. Others who attempt to emulate him ought to have their lips sewn shut (I'm looking at you, Justin Bieber!).
  • Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (especially the Muppet version). Ironic, I know, given the fact the I am Mrs. Scrooge herself. But this story is about the true spirit of the Holiday, i.e. sharing and caring for each other. That Christmas spirit has been flat-lining for a while, as far as I can see when I look at the rabid masses of consumers who soured the season for me. I am sad to say that I can count the people who hold that old-school Christmas spirit on the fingers of one hand.
  • Holiday baking. Although, that's really just my gourmande streak speaking, as I bake all year long. But I do admit to having lots of fun with Christmas-themed baking (two cupcake recipes with special Holiday flavors are coming soon!).
Which brings me to my all-time favorite Christmas goodie: gingerbread cut-out cookies. I am ginger-crazy, so my love for those cookies goes without saying. But I am especially fond of gingerbread men (and women; I don't discriminate) because I can go all Dexter on them! I just love to dismember, decapitate and waterboard (or milkboard, in this case) my gingerbread men before eating them.

Yes, yes, I have issues, I know. But come on! Didn't you love the Gingy torture scene in "Shrek"? Now you can do that at home! This recipe was originally from "Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar", then reworked by Marilla of Cupcake Rehab, then played around with a little by me. Whew!

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 to 1½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg
½ cup molasses
1/4 cup milk

Unroll a fairly large piece of plastic wrap and sprinkle lightly with flour. Set aside. Cream the butter & sugar until light and fluffy. Mix flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice and ginger together in a medium bowl; set aside. Add egg and molasses one at a time to butter/sugar mixture, beating after each until combined. Add flour mixture gradually, until a sticky dough forms. Add the milk and mix well by hand. Form a dough into a ball the best you can and place it on the plastic wrap, rolling it up tightly. Chill for an hour or two. Remove dough from fridge and if too firm, let sit for 20-25 minutes before rolling out. The dough will be quite sticky, so have flour on hand. Preheat oven to 350° degrees. Roll out the dough onto lightly floured surface to about ¼ – ½” thick. Using cookie cutters, cut out shapes and using a thin spatula, carefully place onto cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. The cookies will be soft and sticky, so be careful if you want the shapes to stay nice. Re-roll the scraps left over until you haven’t got enough left to use. Just be careful to give your cookies plenty of space on the sheet and don't place them too close to the edges of the pan (bake in multiple batches, if needed). Bake for 8 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool on the sheet for 5 minutes, then move to a wire rack to cool completely.

I can't warn you enough about how sticky this dough gets. You will curse, and may require help. I thought that ball of dough would never let go of my hands. But once it was chilled, working it on the floured surface was no problem. Re-roll it into a ball and dust it with flour as soon as it becomes temperamental and you'll win.

They don't expand that much, but the shape gets funny if they are too close together. Also, when they come out of the oven, the cookies will be soft. Give them a few minutes to cool and they will solidify. Do not be tempted to overcook them, or they will lose their chewy bite. Depending on how thick you make your cookies, and how big your cookie-cutters are, you'll get 24 to 36 cookies out of one batch of this dough.

Of course, you can use cookie-cutters of any shape, and go as crazy or as minimalist as you want with the decoration. I did not have a lot of time of my hands, so I sprinkled red sugar, rainbow and chocolate sprinkles on the cookies before putting them in the oven. Easy-peasy. But if you want to go crazy with decorating, I suggest making some of the following simple royal icing, and getting your hands on a few different colored sugars. I personally love the white icing with brightly colored sprinkles on top.

4 cups powdered sugar
4 tablespoons milk or water
4 tablespoons meringue powder

Mix all ingredients together in a medium bowl. If too thick, add more liquid, if too thin, add more sugar. Add food coloring if desired.

Keep the cookies in an air-tight plastic container when they are not being tortured and eaten.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Chicken Breast with Asparagus and Cherry Tomatoes

And the "Lazy-Ass Roast Chicken Breast" technique is back! And it features some of my favorite things in life: asparagus, cherry tomatoes and white wine. Who says laziness doesn't have it's rewards?

The evening my Christmas vacation started, I was delighted, but exhausted. All I wanted was my plush robe, my cat and a drink (it happens to punks, too). But I was also hungry... Lucky for me and other lazy bums out there, this dish comes together in a matter of minutes; then you toss it in the oven and eat it. Plus, once you have that bottle of white wine open, why not drink what you don't use to cook?

Asparagus are one of my favorite veggies: crunchy yet soft, with a delicate flavor. I generally prefer them steamed with a squeeze of lemon juice, but the roasting gives them a nice crunchy bite. As for cherry tomatoes, can you find a cutest vegetable than these guys? They are some of the only tomatoes out there that still tastes of anything (unless you grow them yourself). You can toss them in salad, pasta sauce or just pop them as a snack. What's not to love?

This recipe serves one, but it is easily doubled and can make a great romantic meal! It's simple and elegant, and it's so delicious that no one will ever guess it was so easy to make. The chicken is great by itself, but a bit of wild rice makes a perfect side-dish. Originally from "Cook with Jamie", by Mr. Oliver:

1 boneless chicken breast
8 sticks of asparagus, trimmed
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small bunch fresh rosemary
Olive oil
Sea salt and ground pepper
Dry white wine (C'est La Vie chardonnay-sauvignon is my favorite wine for this recipe)
Balsamic vinegar

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the chicken breast in a large bowl. Add the sticks of asparagus, the cherry tomatoes and the leaves from 1 sprig of rosemary, plus a whole sprig of rosemary as well. Drizzle some olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss everything with your hands. Put the vegetables at the bottom of a small, square Pyrex dish, and place the chicken and the whole sprig of rosemary on top. Season well. Add a few glugs of dry white wine and cook in the middle of the oven for 25 to 35 minutes. Serve drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

You can give it a Greek twist by adding a handful of pitted Kalamata olives to your veggies, then crumble some feta cheese over the chicken when it's fresh out of the oven.

When I cook chicken like that, it is always incredibly tender and juicy, and the little tang of the balsamic vinegar balances out the sweetness of the vegetables, of which there are plenty to feast on. The cooking juices get soaked up in the rice... So yummy! The meat will dry out if re-heated, however, so only makes as much as you need.

Keep this recipe up your sleeve for nights when a quick, nutritious and awesome meal is called for... or for when you want to seem like the greatest chef ever without lifting a finger!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Infinite Possibilities of Marinara Sauce

I used to eat a lot of jarred pasta sauce. I know, I know! What was wrong with me? I used to be really lazy about food, which, in retrospect, is no excuse, as the amazing and versatile recipe I am sharing today is so easy and quick to prepare. I now see the errors of my former ways, and I redeem myself with my marinara sauce!

Jokes aside, it is easy to be seduced by the convenient aspect of jarred sauces. I'd be lying if I said I didn't agree with the fact that when you are in a hurry, the stuff comes in pretty handy. But then I think of the preservatives, the high salt content, the bland taste… and I think it's worth 20 minutes of my precious time to make "real" sauce.

Marinara is one of the simplest pasta sauces, and you dress it up or down depending on your appetite, or the contents of your fridge. According to folk tales, the sauce was invented by Neapolitain sailors shortly after the tomato was introduced to Europe in the 1600's, and originally contained nothing more than tomato, onion, garlic and a few spices. The high acidity-level of tomatoes made it practical for long voyages at sea, as it kept very well. Hence the name alla marinara - the mariner's way!

The recipe below contains very little fat and very little salt, so it's super-healthy, to boot. I first found it in Isa Chandra Moskowitz's "Appetite for Reduction" and tweaked the spices a bit.... I tried many of her variations (and combinations of variations, because I am outrageous like that), and I was never disappointed. I'll start with the uber-basic, and move on to creative additions.

The quantity of sauce serves about 4 and goes on any type of pasta. Play around with complementary shapes and tastes, and forget about boring pasta-nights! No such thing exists!!

1 teaspoon olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon savory
1 tablespoon thyme
Freshly ground pepper
1 (24 ounce) can of crushed tomato
1/2 teaspoon salt
Red wine vinegar

Preheat a 2-quart pot over medium-high heat. Sauté the garlic in the oil for about a minute. Add the herbs and some pepper and sauté for a minute more, adding a splash of water if necessary. Add the tomatoes, salt, and a splash of red wine vinegar, and stir everything together. Cover the pot, leaving a little gap for steam to escape, and cook for 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if necessary, and serve over al dente pasta.

Once you've made this once, you'll want to try lots of other options. Here are my faves:

Spicy: add 1/2 teaspoon of chili flakes at the same time as the garlic.

Marinara Olivada: add 1/4 cup chopped kalamata olives when you add the garlic.

Mushroom Marinara: after preheating the pot, sauté 16 ounces of finely chopped cremini mushrooms in the oil; add splashes of water if needed; stir in the garlic and proceed with the recipe.

Roasted Red Pepper Marinara: when you add the tomatoes, also add finely chopped roasted red bell pepper.

Sautéed Onion Marinara: before adding the garlic, sauté a small, finely chopped yellow onion for 5 minutes; add splashes of water if necessary; proceed with recipe.

Spicy Cajun Marinara: add 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes along with the garlic, add 1 tablespoon Cajun spice blend along with the tomatoes and add hot sauce at the end, to taste.

From there, you should be able to go nuts with whatever extra ingredient tickles your fancy (eggplants, cauliflower, lentils and peas are great ideas!). And combining those variations can give spectacular results. Pictured here is spicy mushroom and onion marinara, with some fusilli.

Use the basic version in a lasagna, serve it with meatballs (or beanballs!) or over simple pasta like I did here. Jarred sauces will loose all their shine once you get a taste of this fresh and flavorful sauce. Salute!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Aubergine Parmigiana (Some Assembly Required)

My love of eggplants is no secret. This recipe is one of my favorite ways of enjoying them; it also has a special place in my heart because cooking this dish led me to two very important realizations.

The first time I made eggplant parmigiana was when I was just starting to see cooking as something more than just boiling water or preheating the oven. I carefully prepared this dish and when I sat down and took a bite, it knocked my socks off. I was impressed with how delicious it was, but also by the fact that I had cooked this little plate of Heaven myself. Wow! I had never known I could do that!! I had never known this was so fun and rewarding! Eating my first home-made eggplant parmigiana taught me that not only could I cook, but I also loved it. Talk about a glorious start to my punk-housewifery!

The other thing I realized as I was stuffing my face with this glorious mess of melt-in-your-mouth veggies and cheese was that I could never be vegan. Vegetarian, maybe. But life without cheese?! Life without mozzarella, Brie, Jalsberg, goat cheese, Camembert, havarti, Gruyère? My French and Italian blood told me that would not be a life worth living. Don't get me wrong: I totally respect veganism and enjoy more than a few vegan dishes on a regular basis. But cheese is something I would never be able to give up. And a helping of eggplant parmigiana sealed the deal for good. My love affair with cheese will endure until my dying day.

There are many recipes for eggplant parmigiana out there. Some people think you should fry your eggplant, others swear by grilling. I side with the latter, not just out of concern about oil and fat, but simply because I prefer the texture. Some people also prefer to purée the tomato and onion sauce, but I like the chunky veggies bits. I leave those details to your discretion, but I find a thick sauce gives the dish a more rustic flair, which I just love. I also dig the crunch of the onion and the savory burst of tomatoes. If you want to have a smooth sauce, just pulse it with an immersion blender before layering the dish. Easy as π!

This recipe is loosely based on the one in "Jamie's Italy", and serves 4 as a vegetarian main dish, or 6 to 8 as a side-dish. It's to die for with lamb roast, but I like it just by itself, with some crusty bread to mop up the sauce and a glass of strong red wine (namely, some Dogajolo, because I'd drink that with everything Italian).

2 large eggplants
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons Italian herbs
1 (24 ounce) can whole tomatoes
1 large handful fresh basil leaves
5 to 6 large handfuls of grated Parmesan cheese
5 to 6 large handfuls of grated Mozzarella cheese
olive oil
sea salt and ground pepper
Red wine vinegar

Remove the stalks from the eggplant and slice them into 1 cm thick slices and sweat them in a large plate. Set aside until the have sweated a thin layer of water; pat them dry. While the eggplants are sweating, preheat 2 glugs of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, oregano and Italian herbs, and cook for 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and the garlic is lightly colored. Put the tomatoes in a bowl and break them up with your hands into small chunks, then add to the pan. Give the mixture a good stir, put the lid on and let it simmer for 15 minutes.

While the sauce simmers, preheat a grilling pan over high heat and grill the eggplant (in batches of 4 slices) until they have nice char marks on both sides.

Preheat the oven at 375 degrees. By this point, the sauce should be reduced and sweet. Season it carefully with salt and pepper and a small glug of red wine vinegar, and add the basil leaves. In a large Pyrex dish, layer the ingredients as follow: one thin layer of tomato sauce, a layer of eggplant, two handfuls of Parmesan and two handfuls of Mozzarella.

Repeat until you have used up all the eggplant, and cover with a bit more sauce and what is left of the cheeses, topped with a sprinkling of bread crumbs. Place in the oven and bake for half an hour, until golden, crisp and bubbly.

Obviously, choose good-quality cheese, and your dish will be so good you'll want to marry it. The ideal is Parmgianno Reggiano and buffalo mozzarella you grate yourself. Kraft Parmesan and Petit Québec mozzarella just don't cut it; you can easily do better than that without having to step in a fancy fromagerie.

Since my baby-brother doesn't like eggplants, we almost never ate this dish at home. But now that I mastered it, I make it for company and people go crazy for it. Oh, the delights those eggplant-phobics are missing. You can make this dish with zucchinis instead of eggplants, but treat yourself to the real deal at least once. It can be eaten hot or cold, and reheats quite well. Not that you'll have leftovers, but you know…

Monday, 19 December 2011

Tikka Masala Chicken

As I mentioned before, my boyfriend loves spicy food, and he introduced me to the wonder that is curry. Of course not everyone handles spices like he does: some of us have sensitive taste buds that could be shocked into oblivion by a first encounter with an extremely hot Indian treat. Luckily, there are plenty of mild curries out there that can warm us from the inside out without making us feel like we are going to self-combust. Even when it comes to the spicier curries, I prefer to tone it done a wee bit because I love to taste the great variety of different flavors within a dish. And many yummy things are thrown in a curry; it would be a shame to drown out any of those flavors!

Curries make amazing winter food (and comfort food, for that matter), not just because of the spices, but also because they are generally really rich and full of chunks of veggies. Served with rice, they can be a complete meal, totally satisfying and very tasty. I prefer the creamier ones with chicken and the more robust blends with pork or lamb, but all the curry recipes I post are easily veganized by substituting the meat for tofu. I've veganized all my curries at one point or another, and I always loved the result. Just adjust your cooking time, as tofu doesn't need to cook as long as dense meat cubes! I'll usually make sure my pieces of tofu are nicely browned on a few sides, and let the curry simmer for 15 to 20 minutes: it does the trick.

Tikka Masala is a lovely mild curry that can make a great introduction to making Indian food at home. You need few ingredients and the method is very simple. It's a curry that is incredibly popular in Britain, so the Indian authenticity of tikka masala is as debated as the true blue Chinese origins of General Tao chicken. But hey, they both taste awesome, so let's enjoy!

As with my previously posted Kashmiri Masala, I recommend you use Patak's curry paste for this recipe. The main spices in Tikka are chile, paprika and cayenne, and the paste in wonderfully fragrant and gooey.

Use this curry when you need an elegantly presented, super-easy to make meal. It's incredible what some slivered almonds, a dollop of plain yogurt and some lemon wedges can do to make this dish gorgeous!

4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 medium yellow onions
1 fresh red chile
1 thumb-size piece of fresh ginger root
1 small bunch of fresh cilantro
Peanut of vegetable oil
1 teaspoon of butter
1/2 cup Tikka Masala paste
Sea salt and ground pepper
1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (14 ounce) can coconut milk
1 cup natural yogurt
1 small handful of sliced almonds
1 lemon

Slice the chicken breasts lengthways into 3/4 inch strips. Peel, halve and finely slice the onions. Finely slice the chile. Peel and finely slice the ginger. Pick the cilantro leaves and set aside, then finely chop the stalks. Put a large casserole-type pan on medium heat and add a couple of glugs of peanut oil and the butter. Add the onions, chile, ginger and cilantro stalks and cook for 10 minutes, until the onions are soft and golden. Add the curry paste and the chicken strips. Stir well to coat everything in the paste, and carefully season with salt and pepper. Add the tomatoes and the coconut milk. Fill one of the empty cans with water and carefully pour it into the pan and stir again. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 20 minutes with the lid on, stirring occasionally. Add water if it seems to be drying out. When the meat is cooked and tender, taste and add a bit more salt and pepper if necessary. Serve with basmati rice, a few dollops of yogurt, a sprinkling of almonds, the cilantro leaves as garnish, and lemon wedges to squeeze over.

I was out of yellow onions that night, so I used a red onion, which gave the dish a pink hue, and a slightly sweeter taste than usual, but I do love the piquant taste of red onions, so there were no complaints. Cooked in this rich and creamy sauce, the chicken strips become very tender. It's a beautiful dinner for a cold evening, and it tastes delicious reheated, so save the leftovers for the next day!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Hot Stuff Cupcakes

Lately, I have been obsessed by the taste of dark chocolate and chili. Whether it's the Lindt Excellence Chili bar or David's Tea's Chocolate Chili Chai, bring it on! I just can't get enough of the chocolaty sweetness and the little spicy bite that creeps up on your taste buds. Divine!

It's the commonly held belief that the Mayans were the first to blend cocoa with chile, and we still get so many recipes from Mexico that blend the two flavors (I'm working on some chili al mole... stay tuned!). That was definitely a stroke of genius on their part! Most people aren't used to it, and it does take an adventurous palate to really enjoy it, but that spicy chocolate taste grows on you, and before you realized what happened, you are hooked.

As I was browsing on Cupcake Rehab (an awesome baking blog written by a fabulous lady; check it out at, a recipe for vanilla-cinnamon cupcakes with Mexican hot chocolate frosting caught my eye. I bookmarked it, got busy with stuff and kinda forgot about it... until a coworker asked if I could bake some cinnamon cupcakes for her going away party.

Insert maniacal laugh here.

Those cupcakes turned out not only to be a roaring success at the going-away party, but the frosting became my favorite chocolate frosting... like, ever! Sweet and creamy with that amazing spicy aftertaste that lingers at the back of your mouth with every bite.

If you are looking to spice up the classic vanilla-chocolate combination, this is the perfect way to go, but it is not for the faint-hearted! The spicing is not overpowering, but it is very present nonetheless. If spices are not your thing, stick to safer, times-tested flavors. But if you want to experience a whole new world of chocolate-awesomeness, get your hands on:

1 cup unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Cream the butter in a stand mixer until smooth and light. Add sugar and continue to mix until fully incorporated and fluffy. Add 1 egg at a time, beating well after each addition. In a medium bowl sift together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Preheat oven to 350° degrees. Combine milk and vanilla. Add portions of the flour mixture and milk mixture to the electric mixer, alternating, starting and ending with flour. Pour evenly into cupcake pans lined with paper liners, about ½ – ¾ full. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until cupcakes spring back to the touch.

Mexican hot chocolate frosting:
1 cup unsalted butter
4 to 5 cups confectioner’s sugar
¼ cup milk
½ cup cocoa powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons brewed coffee

Cream butter in the bowl of an stand mixer. Add 1 cup sugar, cocoa powder, chili powder, cayenne pepper, coffee and ¼ cup milk. Mix until thoroughly combined. Add 2 cups sugar and vanilla. Mix. Add the rest of the sugar, 1 cup at a time, and mix. If needed, add ¼ cup more milk, or 1 cup sugar. Continue until consistency is satisfactory.

Once your cupcakes are cooled, frost and sprinkle with some freshly ground cinnamon.

This makes enough batter and icing for approximately 24 cupcakes. They disappeared in the blink of an eye at work and at home, so don't be afraid to make the full recipe; you won't waste any!

I want to stress the "freshly ground" aspect of the cinnamon used through the entire recipe: I know how tedious it is to ground cinnamon sticks on a microplane grater. But take my word for it, the reward of the incredibly fresh flavor is well-worth the effort (and possible injuries). When you buy ground cinnamon, half the flavor has already evaporated during the packaging process and it's just so disappointing. Microplane graters are cheap (20$ at Stokes) and really user-friendly. I didn't know I wanted one until I had mine, but now, I wonder how I used to live without it. Go get one!

The cake tastes delicate and has a light texture, complimented oh-so well by the bold icing. Next time I make this icing, it will be to frost chocolate cupcakes, and get the ultimate Mayan chocolate cupcakes. I am really looking forward to that!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Bacon Cupcakes?! Oh yeah, baby!

Cupcakes are my péché mignon. That expression was really made for cupcakes, as it translates literally into "cute sin", though it is the French way of saying guilty pleasures. But I never feel guilty about eating cupcakes, so I'll stick to the literal translation on this one! I am actually surprised that I haven't posted a cupcake recipe here before, but since I started this blog, I had precious little occasion to bake some. As the Holidays are approaching (and as people around me have cupcake-worthy things in their lives - like new babies, going away parties, etc.) I am on a cuppy-cake baking spree for the month of December!

This is really good news to me because cupcakes are my all-time favorite thing to bake. They are just so damn cute, delicious and irresistibly comforting. And with a little creativity, you can make a unique cupcake for every occasion imaginable… I first started baking them one sad, lonely evening when I had a massive craving for something sweet. Now I own a ton of cupcake cookbooks, I follow 3 or 4 different cupcake-blogs and I collect pastry-bag tips, liners, obscure ingredients and extracts, and I have a massive stack of cupcake recipes with a "to try!" label on them. (Psst! I am so cupcake-obsessed that I own cupcake-jewelry and I have a bad-ass cupcake tattooed on the nape of my neck…)

But let me tell you why I decided to bake this very unlikely cupcake recipe.

I think we all have a bacon-crazy friend. Mine is named Sam, and though he likes all kinds of food, bacon has a special place in his heart (his birthday party theme was Epic Meal Time; this is how insane this bacon fixation is). And Sam was in need of a little cheering up. So what is a devoted friend to do for a bacon fanatic with the blues? Why, bake him some bacon cupcakes, obviously!! When I saw this recipe on Chockylit's cupcake blog, I knew I had just the thing to make Sam very happy, if only as long as he was eating the cupcakes. And I had no doubt he would eat them.

I invited Sam over, dubbed him my sous-chef and lent him an apron. The rest is history, or rather, the strange result you have when you get two crazies in a kitchen with baking supplies and booze. Oh, come on! A baking lesson wouldn't have been half the fun without beer!

It may seem weird to some to mix super-sweet stuff like chocolate-covered toffees and maple syrup with bacon, but they go surprisingly well together. In Québec, when we go to the sugar shack in the spring, we douse all kinds of breakfast meats in maple syrup and it's awesome!!

I really had no idea what these would taste like, and to tell you the truth, I was a bit apprehensive... but holy cow were they delicious! The cake was obviously very rich and chocolatey and the icing had a great sweet cheesiness and creamy texture. The bacon flavor in the cake was unusual, but freakishly addictive. One of my lovely friends who had first declined to try them ended up asking for an extra one she could take home!
I guess Sam was right and that the awesome-level of everything is heightened exponentially when you add bacon!

Here is the recipe, altered slightly from the original featured on Cupcake Bakeshop by Chockylit. I got 16 cupcakes from it and a huge amount of icing.

Toffee, chocolate and bacon cupcakes:

1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
3-1/2 slices cooked bacon, cut into chunks
1/3 cup chopped chocolate covered toffee (I used whole Mini Rolos)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line a muffin pan with cupcake liners. Beat butter until softened. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg and beat until well combined. Measure the flour, baking powder, baking soda and cocoa powder into a small sized bowl and whisk to combine. Measure out the milk and vanilla and stir to combine. Add about a third of the dry ingredients to the butter/sugar and beat to combine. Add about a half of the milk/vanilla and beat to combine. Continue adding, alternating between dry and wet and finishing with the dry. Gently fold in the bacon and toffee chunks. Scoop batter into cupcake cups about 1/2-2/3’s full. Bake cupcakes for about 22-25 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Frost with the icing and garnish with a small chuck of bacon or a chocolate covered toffee.

Maple cream cheese frosting:

2 packages cream cheese
1/2 cup butter
4 cups sifted confectioners sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup

Bring butter to room temperature by letting it sit out for 1 or 2 hours. Sift powdered sugar into a bowl or onto parchment. Beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed until creamy. Add 3 cups of the powdered sugar and half of the maple syrup. Beat until combined. Add more maple syrup and confectioners sugar until desired flavor, consistency, and sweetness. Refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes before frosting.

This makes enough frosting for 24 to 30 cupcakes, so it can easily be halved, or saved in the fridge for a few days until you bake another batch of cupcakes to pipe it on.

I used a disposable plastic pastry bag, because I just wanted to pipe on a generous blob of icing and it worked like a charm. I topped the little guys with a Mini Rolo and they looked so cute!

Obviously, no substituting the real bacon for bacon bits! No, no, no! Use the real deal, being careful not to let it get too crispy when you cook it, because getting regularly-shaped chunks is impossible if the bacon slices are cooked too stiff. But you definitely want the smokey flavor in there, so I suggest using thickly sliced, old-fashioned bacon. President's Choice makes my favorite, but use any brand you like.

And while bacon cupcakes may not be the cure to the blues, they do make people really happy as they stuff their faces!

Monday, 5 December 2011

Carrot Soup... and Some More Carrot Soup

Carrot soup is a concept that was a really hard sell for me. It brought up images of the puréed carrots that are fed to babies and I have to admit that the thought made me queasy. I remember the stuff my mother used to prepare for my siblings when were younger, and it wasn't always pretty. I can safely say that I have outgrown baby food.

I was also afraid of how underwhelming the taste would be. Let's face it, carrot juice tastes bland and, while that may satisfy some hippies, my taste buds need a bit more stimulation than that. Don't get me wrong, I'm more than happy to eat healthy but please, make it taste good! And make it look good too!

However, since carrots are little sticks of health, packed with vitamin A, antioxidants and dietary fibers, it's really worth trying to give them back a bit of glory and preparing them in ways that are really appetizing (and a little more varied than baby carrots dipped in hummus…). I confess I got lazy in that endeavor because my chopping technique is deeply flawed. Cutting up the little orange buggers generally ends up with carrot pieces flying all over the kitchen so I usually chicken out of cutting them by grating them to use as a garnish for salads and a few Asian dishes.

So when my dear friend PL requested I post a carrot-orange-ginger soup recipe, my first thought was: "Not those damn carrots again!!". But, ginger and orange are a match made in Heaven flavor-wise and if you take the great nutritional value of carrots, combined with the vitamin C of the oranges and the wonders of the ginger, you get a winning combo as far as winter soups are concerned. It also turns out to be very low in calories and fat, so I had to concede that the idea was genius (who can say no to low-fat when winter love-handles are starting to show?) and I started working on the perfect combination of flavors.

While I hunted down a good recipe to combine those ingredients, I ran across another delicious blend of flavors I wouldn't have thought to mix with carrots: coconut milk and curry. It's obviously not as low-fat (though low-fat coconut milk is a great choice, as it won't sacrifice the taste), but the spicy kick is great and it has a lovely creamy texture.

My boyfriend and I also couldn't agree on which of the two we liked best so I tried again and again to combine the two recipes and create one ultimate carrot soup, but it was never quite right.  I finally decided to keep the two recipes in my collection and to use whichever one I had the ingredients for in the fridge when I fancied a good soup. Both are easy and quick to make, yummy and comforting. It would be criminal not to share them in the colder months of the year.

The first recipe is based on the one found in Jeanelle Mitchell's "For the Love of Soup", but modified to death. It resurrected into the most awesome wintery comfort food; something to be served to people afflicted with a cold, and to ginger-lovers!

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large sweet onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
4 cups carrots, peeled and chopped
1 thumb-size pieces fresh ginger, chopped
2 cups vegetables broth
1 cup orange juice
1 cup water
1 tablespoon cardamom
1 tablespoon tumeric
Sea salt and ground pepper
2 tablespoons cilantro or chives, chopped
1/2 cup sour cream or plain yogurt (optional)

In a large saucepan or stock pot, heat up the olive oil. Add the garlic, onion and carrot and sauté until the onion is soft and golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the ginger, tumeric and cardamom, and fry for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the vegetable broth and orange juice and water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, until the carrots are tender. Remove from the heat and let cool for about 5 minutes. Using an immersion blender, pulse the soup until smooth and creamy. Put back on the heat, season with salt and pepper to taste and simmer until heated. Serve with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream and a sprinkling of cilantro or chives.

Obviously, omit the yogurt or sour cream, and you have a gorgeous vegan soup. I find the garnish doesn't add or subtract to the equation, so it really is up to personal taste and to whether or not you count the calories.

The second recipe is from my dear Isa Chandra Moskowitz's "Vegan With a Vengeance". As it has a creamier texture than the previous one, it somehow feels a bit more elegant. You can save the fancier bowls for this one, but it tastes just as great in the more casual ones.

4 cups carrots, peeled and diced
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons peanut or olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Ground pepper
3 cups vegetable broth
1 (13 ounce) can coconut milk
1 tablespoon maple syrup

In a stock pot over medium heat, cook the carrots and onions in the oil for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the onions have browned. Add the garlic, curry powder, salt and a few dashes of ground pepper. Sauté for 1 more minute. Add the broth, cover and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the carrots are tender. Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Turn the heat off. Use an immersion-blender to purée the soup until it has the desired texture. Stir in the maple syrup and serve.

Double the curry powder if you want it spicy. I prefer to keep it moderate because I don't want to drown out the coconut flavor, but that's just me!

Beef them up with a slice of nice crusty bread and an uber-simple salad of mixed green or a garden salad. You can't get a healthier meal than that! Since both recipes wield 4 to 6 servings and reheat very well, I love to take those soups as lunches alongside a sandwich. You can double the quantities and freeze your left overs; they will keep for a couple of months in a sealed plastic container.

A very big thank you goes to PL, for breaking my prejudiced idea that carrot soup is boring. Now I know that a bit of original spicing takes it from "uninspiring" to "divine"!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Bolognese Sauce, or Why Mothers' Recipes are Timeless Classics

Since I moved out of my mother's house, I got the occasional craving for her amazing bolognese sauce with some spaghetti. When that would happen, I would face the long bus ride back to the 'burbs, sneer at everything, but go back home with a full belly and a big smile. But it was inevitable that sooner or later, I'd decide to grow up, make my own damn bolognese sauce and save myself the bus ride. In an act of rebellion, I figured I'd make a recipe that wasn't my mother's.

That was mistake numero uno.

Mistake numero dos was assuming that since I'd found a few really great recipes in Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution", they would all be equally awesome and that his bolognese would be delicious. My mamma and my nonna never put any veggies in their sauce, but I figured "what the Hell", and went through the trouble of chopping some carrots and celery into tiny pieces and throwing them in there. He also added bacon to his sauce, but then he adds bacon to almost everything...

Despite the great variety of ingredients in the pot, the result was watery and bland. My boyfriend was also far from impressed, so I tried a few additions and subtractions, but I was forced to the following dreadful conclusion: my mother's sauce tasted a million times better. All those veggies simply don't have their place in a honest meat-sauce: save them for the salad you serve as an entrée! And bacon, well that was just Jamie being British. No Italian in his right mind puts bacon in a sauce where it's taste will get drowned with that of the beef and spices.

Of course, trying to replicate a parent's recipe is a wild goose chase, unless you inherit the pot and stove along with the recipe. You first need to accept that it will never taste exactly the same. Then you have to modify it slightly until it's delicious, albeit differently so from your mom's. This is what I came up with after many experiments with various spices: the balance of savory, oregano and basil with a hint of chili heat just works so well... and it tastes almost exactly like the stuff my mom still feeds me from time to time.

I was lucky enough to inherit my grandmother's Le Creuset 5 1/2 quart Dutchoven. It's bright orange, beautiful, in perfect condition and has been used by the women in my family for 3 generations. Good as new. My nonna made everything in that Dutchoven and I love it to bits. My bolognese doesn't taste exactly like hers, but making it in Betty-the-orange-Dutchoven gives it a nostalgic touch that adds to the taste (or maybe I suffer form psychosomatic delusions). This sauce can be served on pasta (4 to 6 helpings), used in a lasagna or to fill cannelloni. It keeps in the fridge for 4 days, and in the freezer for about a month (if stored in a good air-tight plastic container, of course).

2 medium yellow onions
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
Olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried savory
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 pound lean ground beef (or a mix of ground beef and pork)
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (14 ounce) can tomato paste
Sea salt and ground pepper
1 small bunch of fresh basil
4 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Red wine vinegar (optional)

Peel and finely chop the onion. Preheat a large casserole-type pan (or amazing Dutchoven) on medium heat. Add a couple of glugs of olive oil, the onions, the garlic and the spices. Cook the onions until soft and slightly golden. Stir in the ground meat and cook for a few minutes, until the meat crumbles. Add the diced tomatoes and the tomato paste. Fill the tomato paste can with water and carefully add about 1/2 cup of water to the mix. Stir in a good pinch of salt and a lot of freshly ground black pepper. Mix well, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 45 minutes, with the lid on, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid and simmer for another 15 minutes. Pick the basil leaves and put them aside. Remove from the heat and add a swig of red wine vinegar and half the Parmesan (if using either). Tear the bigger basil leaves and stir them in. Mix well, taste, adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve sprinkled with the rest of the Parmesan and garnish with the smaller basil leaves.

As a general rule, when I buy canned tomatoes, I get the Eden Organic brand, as they don't add any salt to their goodies. But their diced tomatoes do not have enough big chunks, which were a staple of the traditional sauce served by mom. So for this recipe only, I ignore my rule and get a big can of Les Compliments brand diced tomatoes (lowest sodium content I could find with the appropriately sized pieces of tomatoes). Feel free to use whole canned tomatoes instead of diced, but make sure you break them up well with a wooden spoon. If you can, use the tomatoes canned with a bit of basil or garlic to add a bit of extra seasoning.

If you feel bold, try the variation alla Max: instead of water, add 1 cup of red wine with your tomatoes and tomato paste, and omit the red wine vinegar at the end! It adds a richness to the taste that makes my boyfriend go crazy!

If you are a spice freak, you can definitely use a tablespoon of chili flakes instead of a teaspoon, or 1/2 a fresh red chile, finely chopped; but I would advise against adding anymore than that. The star of the show in this sauce is ground beef. It should be the main flavor you enjoy with this sauce, so be careful not to drown it in chile. Just sayin'. My aunt used to add a few drops of Tabasco to her plate, and if my grandmother or mother would catch her in the act, she'd get a sharp wooden spoon whack on the head. Don't make me do it to you!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Pastis Chicken

As much as I am obsessed with Paris, I am also totally fascinated with Provence. This undying love started when I was about five years old, and I got my little hands on Marcel Pagnol's books about his childhood (yes, I could read at a creepily advanced level quite early, thanks to my linguist mother and school teacher grandfather: the sadists used to give me dictations for - their - fun when I was less than 3-foot high). His descriptions of the country where he grew up are so loving, evocative and vivid that I just fell head over heels in love with everything Provence-ish. I find the accent so beautiful, the wines so amazing, the cuisine irresistible… I can never get sick of looking at pictures of the lavender fields, calanques (sea-side natural formations of stunning beauty) and papal palaces. When I need a solid dose of undiluted beauty, I go to my drawing room and take out the now dog-eared Pagnol or Jean Giono books and read until I am in tears of literary ecstasy.

(If a certain Russian hottie is reading this, there is a major hint about travel plans that could be devised in the foreseeable future… Just sayin'…)

But Pagnol is hands down my favorite French writer, and I have devoured his books, plays and movies. I know his work by heart. In his pages (and in the lines of his movies), there are very frequent mentions of the typical Provençal aperitif, pastis. I was in hysterics when I realized the S.A.Q. (Quebec's liquor store chain) carries the Ricard brand of pastis, and I make sure I get a bottle every summer, as it is the ideal summer drink, light and refreshing, with a little taste of sunlight and cicadas (no, it doesn't literally taste of cicadas, but you know what I mean). It's a liquor made from anise seeds, and tastes like sweet licorice. The proper French ways to drink it is in a old-fashion glass, diluted with flat water and a few ice cubes.

I was horribly insulted when I did an internship in France and was told by people my age that pastis was a drink for "les vieux cons" (an expression which basically means "lame old men"). Screw that; I kept ordering it anyway. I love it. If that makes me lame, I can deal with it.

I dig Provençal cooking, which is the perfect hybrid between French and Italian cuisine. So many of the ingredients I love are grown and produced there: olives (and their precious oil), tomatoes, onions, artichokes, eggplants, pine nuts, lemons, apricots, almonds… They also produce amazing cheeses and wines, and the most amazing cooking herbs like savory, thyme and oregano. It's by the sea, so they have a million ways of cooking fishes, mussels, shellfish… And all their cuisine is amazingly healthy, rich in vitamins and low in fat. Sounds to me like Provence just may be Heaven for the gourmandes like myself (again, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, baby!).

I've played around with Provençal recipes several times before, but it had never crossed my mind to cook with pastis. When I found the recipe below (in the brilliant Mireille Guiliano's "French Women For All Seasons"), I almost smacked myself because I cook with wine and spirits regularly, but it had never occurred to me to use pastis in food. Dummy. All the other ingredients also got my taste buds' attention. I just had to try it, and I had the last of this year's Ricard left from the warm days (I was so good this year, I barely finished a bottle). I also love any recipe that I can cook in Betty-the-Dutchoven;  it just makes me feel awesome and old-school.

2/3 cup pastis
1/3 cup and 3 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and ground pepper
1 3-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 onions, peeled and sliced
4 tomatoes, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
2/3 cup black olives, pitted and chopped
1 cup fresh basil, slivered

Mix the pastis and oil. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Arrange the chicken pieces in one layer in a shallow dish. Drizzle with the marinade and cover the dish with plastic. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours (up to overnight). Warm the last 3 tablespoons of oil in a Dutchoven over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes, garlic and fennel seeds. Continue cooking for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chicken and the marinade to the Dutchoven. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes. Add the olives and 1/3 of the basil. Cover and continue to cook until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with rice, garnished with the rest of the basil.

I loved this recipe on top of wild rice (President's Choice sells an awesome blend of brown rice and wild rice that works very well with saucy chicken dishes like this one). The book also suggested noodles, but I can't really see that as anything else than messy. On the other hand, baked potatoes would absorb the delicious cooking juices. So would couscous or quinoa, of course, so don't be shy to go down that more exotic road.

Do use a whole chicken: the fat from the skin and bones will absorb much more flavor that way, and keep the meat nice and tender. I tried substituting the whole bird for 4 chicken breasts, and they turned out a bit dry. The taste of the marinade is subtle, so don't be shy to add plenty of fresh pepper, and season it more generously with the herbs if you want it very fragrant.

And of course, you can drink pastis with it, but as it is more of a pre-meal drink, I suggest picking up a well-balanced white or rosé wine. Too dry would clash with the sweetness of the pastis, and too sweet would be off with the salty olives and onions.

Saturday, 26 November 2011


Scones are wonderful, doughy biscuits that are, as the British have known for a long time, the perfect thing to nibble on while enjoying a cup of tea (or coffee, if it's before 10am). I like to make them on Saturday mornings, providing us with yummy breakfasts for a few days. A wonderful advantage to this recipe is that it takes less than 10 minutes to prepare. You then throw them in the oven, and 20 minutes later, you can enjoy freshly baked scones!

I found this recipe in "Vegan With a Vengeance", and I have yet to find an easier, or more delicious scone recipe. The basic version is great, but I love to play with it. In the summer, I add all kinds of fresh berries to my scones, and in the colder months, nuts, chocolate chips and chopped dried fruits find their way in the mixing bowl. Scones never have to be boring! The ones pictured below are a variant I found on the Post Punk Kitchen blog: chocolate chunk and ginger! How could I resist trying that?

This recipes makes 12 to 16 scones, depending on how big you make them. They freeze really well in a plastic bag, so feel free to double the recipe, and keep a stash in the freezer that you can reheat in the microwave as needed.

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil (canola)
1/2 cup soy cream or soy milk
3/4 cup soy milk mixed with 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Preheat over to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Add the oil, soy cream and milk. Mix until just combined. Using a baking measuring cup or ice cream scoop, drop by 1/4 cupfuls onto the baking sheet and pat the top just a bit to round them up; sprinkle with a bit of sugar. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until slightly browned on the bottom and firm on top. Transfer to a cooling rack for a few minutes, until they can be safely handled.

Berry scones: fold 1 1/2 cup of fresh berries in the batter (raspberries work especially nicely, and are my ultimate favorite).
Chocolate chips scones: add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract to the liquid ingredients, ad 2 tablespoons of sugar, fold in 1 cup chocolate chips.
Maple walnut: add 2 teaspoons of maple extract to the liquid ingredients, add 2 tablespoons of sugar, fold in 1 1/2 cup walnuts.
Ginger-chocolate (pictured): add 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and a pinch of allspice to the dry ingredients, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract to the liquid ingredients and fold in 1/2 cup chocolate chips and 1/4 cup of chopped crystallized ginger.

Words of warning: this dough is very sticky! Flour your hands well before handling it, and grease the measuring cup (if using) before you scoop the dough out of the mixing bowl, or baking may turn into a wrestling match.

Oh, and to the lazy bums out there: yes, the cooling rack is important!! You can cool baked goods on the baking sheet, but the bottom won't cool and/or solidify if it stays on that surface. I use the rack that came with my roasting pan, 'cause I am thrifty like that. If you are stuck, you can simply flip your scones upside down to give the bottom a chance to cool, but finding some sort of cooling rack is a good investment if you like baking. You can't really flip cupcakes upside down to cool, now can you?

All the variations of scones described up there are awesome with a pat if butter (if you are into such things, though it ruins the scone's vegan cred) and a steaming cup of black tea. I recommend a good Earl or Lady Grey, though they will still be awesome with any nice brew. They also make a great, light dessert to bring along with your lunch.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Chicken Breast with Lemony Bombay Potatoes

This little gem of one of the infinite variations of what I like to call the "Lazy-Ass Roast Chicken Breast" technique. You take a chicken breast (or 2, if you have another mouth to feed), season it along with a few veggies, throw it in the oven, wait about 30 minutes and eat. No meat to trim and arrange, no marinade or sauce to prepare, and only one Pyrex dish will get dirty (unless you want to make a bit of rice to go with it, in which case one small sauce pan will also get used)! And so far, every variation I tried turned out just awesome. That's what I call genius.

There is a page in "Cook With Jamie" with 4 basic ideas for single servings of roast chicken breast: this is the most "complicated" one, as you need to parboil the potatoes, but in the colder months of the year, who can really resist a roast potato? I know I can't. And I can't resist an absurdly simple and complete meal at the end of a crazy work day (or after a long walk in the crisp autumn air). Chicken cooked like this is tender and juicy, and the spices give a warm and tangy flavor that brightens something as plain-sounding as chicken and potatoes.

The quantities below serve one, but they are very easily doubled as needed. It's perfect for a simple and intimate dinner: my younger brother keeps this recipe up his sleeve to impress girls who eat at his place for the first time. What a rascal!

1 large handful of potatoes
1 heaped teaspoon tumeric
1 lemon, halved; one half juiced and zested, the other half thinly sliced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 pinch saffron
5 sprigs fresh cilantro, chopped
1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, cut into matchsticks
1 chicken breast, bones and skin removed
Olive oil
Sea salt and ground pepper

Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch chunks. Place them in a pot of water and bring to a boil. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. When the potatoes have boiled a minute or so, drain them and set aside. In a large bowl, put the tumeric, lemon zest, cumin, saffron, cilantro and ginger. Add the lemon juice, potatoes and chicken to the bowl. Toss together with a splash of olive oil, some sea salt and some freshly ground black pepper (the potatoes will still be hot, so use salad tossers). Remove the chicken and put the potatoes in one layer in a Pyrex dish, top with slices from the last half of the lemon, and put the chicken on top. Drizzle with a bit more oil and cook for 25 to 30 minutes.

If you wish to vary the vegetables, I suggest substituting half the potatoes for other roots like carrots or turnips. Also, zesting lemons can be a very frustrating experience if one tries to use the small holes-side of a box grater. It's time-consuming and difficult to clean. I highly recommend acquiring a Microplane zester, which is infinitely more practical and precise. Put it over a bowl or clean cutting board and grate the lemon until you get to the white skin below the peel. Obviously zest the lemon before juicing it; doing it the other way around is not only frustrating but also doomed to fail.

Oh, and don't worry: more variants of the "Lazy-Ass Roast Chicken Breast" technique will appear on this blog soon enough. Who am I to deprive the world of delicious and easy recipes?

Friday, 18 November 2011

Caponata or How I Beat the Eggplanspiracy

I mentioned it before: I love eggplants. It's a gorgeous, versatile veg with which one can cook an infinite number of scrumptious dishes. Their odd shape and color seems to intimidate a lot of people, but I am faithful to their deliciousness, and I always look forward to trying a new way to cook them.

Unfortunately, I seem to be the victim of some Machiavellian eggplant conspiracy: when I find a recipe with eggplants and get all excited about it, I can't find any of the damn veggies in any of the grocery stores in town! And of course, when the last thing I think about is cooking with eggplants... they. Are. Everywhere. In massive quantities. Oh, the irony. I can't find where this conspiracy stems from or why I am being targeted; please let me know if you are also a victim of this horrible plot. Maybe we can fight it together, like eggplant-vigilantes.

My strategy, to beat the eggplanspiracy, was to stack up a pile of recipes involving eggplants and to buy the purple beauties every time I found some. That way, I am never out of ideas on how to prepare those cuties. Ha!

This week, I bought a plump eggplant, and decided to make caponata, as a side dish to some pasta (for those who liked the tomato-basil spaghetti, these two recipes go oh so well together; I urge you to try it!). Caponata is an Italian antipasto (or entrée); some people call it a stew, but I find it's more like a chunky chutney. It's full of all the stuff that make Italian food awesome: tomatoes, olives, onions, olive oil, garlic, oregano… A whole bunch of stuff I love to eat, all thrown in the same pan and cooked together. Awe-some.

It's also pretty versatile, being good either hot from the pot or cold. I like it on a nice piece of bread as a snack, or next to my pasta. Perfection on a plate. If you have leftovers and you want a healthy and easy lunch (or if you are trying to avoid O.D.-ing on pasta), eat it with some quinoa; it's a little hippie-ish, but super tasty and it makes a complete meal if you have a lovely yogurt for dessert.

This recipe is a re-working on the one I found in "Jamie's Italy", by Mr. Oliver. I like to keep my caponata simple, but if you feel inspired to add more Mediterranean-cuisine inspired stuff in there, go right ahead. My advice is to make a basic one once, so you get an idea of the flavors and textures, and then get a bit more experimental. Artichoke hearts, anchovies (if you're so inclined) and capers all fit in nicely with the other ingredients. Add them at the same time as the olives.

1 large eggplant, cut into large chunks
1 heaping tablespoon oregano
Sea salt and ground pepper
1 red onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and stems chopped
1 large handful green olives, pitted
1 large handful Kalamata olives, pitted
2-3 tablespoons herb vinegar (or a combination of red and while wine vinegar)
3 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons slivered almonds (optional)
1 handful pinenuts (optional)

Put the eggplants chunks in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Let degorge for 20 to 30 minutes, rinse and drain. Heat up a bit of olive oil in a large pan. Add the eggplants and oregano, a bit of salt and freshly ground pepper. Toss around to coat the eggplants with oil; cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the eggplants are getting golden, add the onion, garlic, parsley stem and continue cooking for a few minutes. Throw in the olives and drizzle with a bit of herbal vinegar. When it has evaporated, add the tomatoes and simmer for 15 minutes, or until everything is tender. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Sprinkle with the parsley leaves, almonds and pinenuts, and serve hot or cold.

I used black olives instead of green ones, but I think a mix of both is my favorite way to go. If out of herbal vinegar, fear not! A bit of red or white wine vinegar does the trick.

As you see, there is nothing very complicated about this recipe. I am an advocate of sweating your eggplant before you start cooking, as it will absorb more flavor and less oil that way (and therefore, won't get mushy and nasty-looking). For those who've never done it, simply put your cubed eggplant in a colander, sprinkle with salt (don't freak out, you're going to rinse it off), toss the cubes around and let it sit there for 20 to 30 minutes. You'll notice the eggplant will degorge, i.e. the water will come out. It actually looks like little sweat beads. Then, simply rinse the contents of your colander under cold water, and pat them dry with a paper towel. It was a mandatory step back in the days before eggplants were cultivated to have fewer seeds (which can make them bitter). I still like to do it, but it does add half an hour to your prep time, so if you are in a rush or starving, skip this step without feeling too guilty about it. It won't spoil the dish if you eggplants don't sweat.

Carnivores rejoice, it also makes a great side to grilled and roast meat, especially lamb and beef (or delicious fish, as pictured). A nice, robust red wine is the perfect match for this, as it's a fairly rustic fare. My favorite is Dogajolo. Salute!