Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Beauty of Pasta (or Tomato-Basil Spaghetti)

Being Italian on my mother's side, I must have eaten tons of pasta in the last 27 years. I know I am not the only pasta-lover out there, as recent surveys say they are the most popular food item on the planet! So I am going to indulge in a little rave about how awesome pastas are.

For a couple of years, as a broke musician with a tiny kitchen, I wouldn't have gotten very far without dry pasta. They are inexpensive (the recipe below costs about 5 bucks of basic ingredients and serves 2 generous helpings!), very easy to prepare and can be served in an infinite number of ways. People who think pastas are boring really lack imagination (if you know them, redirect them to this blog immediately). Pastas are like a blank canvas, and it's up to the spoon-holder to chose how simple or elaborate the final master-piece will be. In fact, they are a great way to practice cooking creativity without making too much of a mess. You can whip up something as simple as the following tomato-basil spaghetti for a movie-night in, or serve something as elegant as a spaghetti con calamari without breaking a sweat, and fooling friends and family into thinking you are a spectacular chef.

There are a few basic rules to follow if you want to cook great pasta. First off, pick good-quality pasta. Most grocery stores stock decent enough stuff, so stay away from Catelli. If you are stuck in a no-man's-land, try gourmet groceries, or hit Little Italy and stock up. Dry pastas don't go bad, so you won't be wasting it. My personal favorite brand is Giovanni Panzani, but anything that is imported from Italy usually does the trick.

Bring a large (as in big enough to swirl your pasta around freely) pot of water to a boil. When you get nice big bubbles, throw in a small handful of coarse sea salt (about as much salt as you'd put in the equivalent quantity of soup). The bubbles will get crazy from that salty action; it's time to add the pasta. Make sure they are submerged, and stir from time to time with a pasta spoon (a slotted spoon with teeth; best thing for strings like spaghetti, cappelini or tagliatelle). You'll need to leave them for 5 to 10 minutes in the water, depending on the type of pasta, to get them al dente. You want them to soften, but with a bit of a firmness to the bite. If they fall apart, your plate will be a gooey mess, and that's just not appetizing. If you add them to a sauce, you can even under-cook them slightly, and the heat from the sauce will finish the cooking. Drain them in a colander and save a bit of the cooking water in case the pastas need to be loosened up later.

Many people add a few drops of oil to the water so it doesn't stick, but I find that a bit silly. Well-looked after pasta simply doesn't stick. Give them a gentle stir from time to time, scraping the bottom of the pot and everything will be peachy.

I cannot go for more than a few days without pasta, so I am constantly looking for new ways to serve them, but this is my favorite lazy pasta: I love it on Friday evenings, when I am tired and hungry... with a big glass of red wine as a side-dish. You'll find a few variations (inspired by the ones in Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution") that are just as simple and delicious as the basic sauce. Each version takes about 15 to 20 minutes to get on the table if you time your pasta cooking properly, which is good news for the hungry. Serves 2 ravenous eaters, or 4 people if you serve it with a salad or as a side-dish to a grilled piece of meat or fish.

2 cloves of garlic
1/2 fresh red chile
a small bunch of fresh basil
1 (14 ounce) can of diced tomatoes
sea salt and ground pepper
1 bag of dry spaghetti
olive oil
Parmesan cheese

Peel and slice the garlic. Finely slice the chile. Pick the basil leaves off the stalks and reserve. Finely chop the basil stalks. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the spaghetti and cook according to package instruction, until al dente. While the water is heating, put a large sauce pan on medium heat and add 2 glugs of olive oil. Add the garlic, chile, basil stalks and stir. When the garlic begins to brown lightly, add the diced tomatoes and the basil leaves. Stir for a minute or two, and season with salt and pepper. Drain the spaghetti in a colander, then transfer the pasta to the sauce pan and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide in pasta bowls, sprinkle with Parmesan and garnish with fresh basil leaves.

So absurdly simple and soooooo good and deeply satisfying.

You can also do the following:
- add and handful of baby spinach leaves to the sauce when you add the pasta; when the leaves have wilted, remove from the heat, and serve with crumbled goat cheese sprinkled on top
- add a few handfuls of cooked shrimps and chopped arugula and the juice of 1/2 lemon
- add a can of tuna, drained and flaked, into the sauce with 1/2 a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, some pitted black olives and the juice of 1/2 lemon

After trying a few of those, you will look at jarred pasta sauces at the grocery store and wonder why anyone would want to buy them. That easy and that tasty.

Now, I know pastas have a bad rep as fattening food. I can't deny that they are a source of carbs, like any other bread product out there. But they contain very little fat, and if you eat them with a sauce containing meat and veggies, it's a pretty complete meal. The trick to enjoying pasta is like with any other carbohydrate-rich food: be reasonable in regards to portion size, and don't eat it every day. Also remember that the more active you are, the more your body needs those carbs to stay properly fueled. Carbs, just like fat and sugar, are things your body needs despite being demonized by various skinny freaks; just don't go overboard with the quantities, and you'll be fine. Moderation is the key. If you are paranoid about your weight/health, buy whole-wheat dry pasta instead of the regular white flour pasta, or try making your own pasta dough (recipe to come as soon as I've given it a try)! Also beware of oily and cheesy sauces (Alfredo sauce, for example, is nothing but delicious fatness; for special occasions only), and you'll be able to enjoy them as much as those high-metabolism bastards out there...

Of course, my mamma, my zias and my nonna would all shake their heads at this sort of talk, put a huge plate of tortellinis in front of you and say: "Eat, eat! You're so skinny! How are we going to marry you?". What they mean is basically: "go on, live a little".

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


Today, I am sharing a beloved family secret: my dad's recipe and method to create delicious crêpes! It's got a bit of everything that makes cooking awesome: they are very easy to whip up, taste great and can be stuffed with almost anything that crosses your mind. They can be breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack!

I had a late morning today and wanted something that could be both breakfast and lunch, as I would need sustenance running all over the island to make my appointments. And let's be honest, I also had a sweet tooth... I have an almost obsessive love of maple syrup, and of all the sweet tasting things in the world, nothing beats it as far as I am concerned. I wanted something I could drown in the golden-brown wonder and devour. Crêpes were just the thing to make me finish my coffee and run to the stove.

Fun fact: in Paris, they have crêpe-stands in the streets, the same way you have hot-dogs carts in New York City! They give it to you rolled up in parchemin paper, so you can stuff your face with a warm crêpe full of chocolate spread and banana slices as you walk down the Champs-Élysées! I confess that this luxurious snack left a lasting impression.

My dad is the son of a French innkeeper, so this technique is old-school French crêpe-making (or so I am told). I used to consider them a treat, but once I got the hang of it, there was no stopping me from making them every weekend. The quantities given make enough batter for 4 to 6 crêpes about 10-inches across, which is perfect for 2 people to pig-out on at brunch. However, it is very easily doubled if you have company.

I found a great non-stick crêpe pan at Stokes, for about $25. It's worth every penny if crêpes become more than an occasional treat in your kitchen. They distribute the heat evenly, and make flipping the buggers with a flick of the wrist very easy, if you plan on looking impressive and professional. A good old frying pan works just as well; just make sure to give it a quick spray of non-stick cooking spray (too much greasy stuff in the pan will make your crêpe congeal), and use a thin spatula to flip the crêpes.

Also, let's not confuse crêpes, which are thin and flexible, with pancakes, the thick American breakfast food that is similar in some aspects (i.e. they are cooked in a pan and generally served under lots of maple syrup). I will tackle pancakes in the future, but this morning, let's make some crêpes, baby!

Here are the ingredients, and method:

1 tablespoon butter
approximately 2 cups all purpose flour
approximately 2 cups milk
2 eggs
1 pinch sugar (if making sweet crepes)
1 pinch salt (if making salty crepes)

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and set aside. In a large mixing bowl blend the butter, the eggs, the sugar or salt, and 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of milk. Mix well with a whisk and progressively add the rest of the flour and milk, mixing well, until the batter is a lovely cream color, and thick but not firm or stiff; it must still drip from the whisk. At this point, you can cover your bowl with plastic wrap and leave it to chill in the fridge for 30 minutes to an hour. Just make sure to let it get back at room temperature before you start cooking.

Preheat a crêpe pan over medium heat. Let it get as hot as you can; it will make your life easier. Give it a light spray of non-stick cooking spray (light!). Spoon the batter on the pan with a ladle; 1 ladle-full should give 1 crêpe. Quickly swirl the batter in the pan so that it form a thin layer that covers the entire pan. Let it cook until it is easily flipped with a wide spatula. Flip every minute until it is lovely and slightly golden on both sides. This should take about 2 minutes for each crêpe.

This should yield 6 to 8 crepes, depending on how big and thick you make them. Feel free to use non-dairy milk if you want to: the crepes will be just as creamy and tasty!

I also experimented with a vegan crêpe recipe, from "Vegan with a Vengeance". Family bias aside, the end result was good, though perhaps a little bland for plain crêpes; these babies fare better stuffed with fruit (spectacular with banana slices and maple syrup, as pictured). If you plan on eating them by themselves, I would suggest adding a sprinkle of nutmeg to the batter.

1 1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
1/2 cup chickpea flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups water

Combine the flours and salt in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the water and olive oil. Blend until completely smooth, by hand or with an electric mixer. Cover the bowl in plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge for half an hour. Preheat a crepe pan over medium-high heat and spray lightly with cooking spray. Use a ladle to pour the batter in the pan; tilt and rotate the pan so that the batter covers the bottom of the pan. When it looks like the top of the crepe is set and the corners of the crepe are beginning to brown lightly, flip over with a thin spatula and cook on the other side for a minute.

Although good, I find these are a bit harder to work with than my dad's batter. They tend to stick together a bit more, and the taste of flour is more present. Still, as far as animal-free alternatives go, I've yet to find a tastier recipe.

Here are a few ideas to make your crêpes memorable morning (or, you know, whenever) feasts:

Sweet crêpes ideas = any of the following garnishes: sliced fruits (strawberries, bananas, mangoes) or whole berries with whipped cream, Nutella, English cream...
Salty crêpes ideas = any of the following garnishes: steamed asparagus, sautéed mushrooms, cheddar or Swiss cheese, prepared ham.
Or for sweet and salty experiment, serve crêpes with sliced Granny Smith apples, Brie cheese and candied Pecan nuts.

Now, keep the following in mind: the first crêpe is the test-crêpe. Use it to judge if your batter needs more milk or flour. If it spreads thickly or unevenly, add a splash of milk, blend well and try again. If it's so liquid it won't "catch" and cook, add some flour, a small handful at the time. You can only really tell from experience, and it's worth tearing a crêpe or two to get a good end result. You should see it cook pretty clearly if your batter has the right consistency: the edge will curl up very slightly, the surface will brown evenly and it will be easy to flip.

I can eat plain crêpes with maple syrup every day (for every meal, in fact), but if you plan on garnishing, have everything ready BEFORE you prepare your batter. Chop the fruits, sauté or grill veggies, prepare the cheese. Speaking of cheese, the secret to a lovely, uniform coat of melting cheese at the heart of your crêpe is: pre-sliced! Buy a pack of neatly, thinly sliced Swiss cheese and cut the little squares in half and carefully place them in a long strip in the middle of your crêpe for the last minute in the pan, just to let it get warm and melty. Top with asparagus, mushrooms, ham, etc.

Unless you own a huge crêpe pan, keeping the crêpes perfectly folded for a fancy presentation can be tricky, as they tend to slip. A naked toothpick is a bit unsightly, so I suggest camouflaging it. A whole strawberry upside down is always cute, but anything you stuff your crêpe with can work: a mushroom cap, a chunk of banana... or go tropical with a cocktail umbrella!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Spicy Peanut Butter and Eggplant Soup

It's a soup! It's a stew! It's the winter-blues slayer!

Excuse my enthusiasm; I live in Montreal, where we spend 8 months of the year shivering. Warming, comforting food is a staple of the regional cuisine. The only way I can hold on to my sanity in the middle of winter is by having something warm, rich and comforting to eat, while I sit at my kitchen counter, wrapped up in layers of hoddies, scarves and thermal socks.

I noticed this recipe in my copy of "Veganomicon" (by the great Isa Chandra Moskowitz and the equally awesome Terry Hope Romero), when I was looking for fall and winter dishes that would make nice lunches to take to work the next day. I am quite the eggplant fan, because they are such a versatile veg: you can throw them in almost any dish and they are always yummy. The idea of combining them with spicy peanut butter was interesting, so I flagged it and waited for the weather to get colder… And now, the evenings are just crisp enough to make a warm bowl of soup seem like the height of sensual pleasure.

Now if you are an eggplant-phobic, like my little brother, you could always substitute them for zucchinis or another squash… But do yourself a favor and get to know eggplants. I understand if a visit to a bad Greek restaurant left you traumatized, but I assure you there is a world of difference between the mushy, greasy things some places try to sell as eggplants and the tender, melt-in-your-mouth pieces you'll simmer in a soup pot for this wintery treat. Don't be afraid, they won't bite. Also, keep in mind that you don't have to peel them; their skin is delicious, and full of lovely vitamins. A cool substitution I totally approve of is switching the regular eggplants for Chinese eggplants. Their amazing purple hue is a bit lost in the soup, but their flavor still shines!

The long list of ingredients and complicated instructions shouldn't intimidate you, as it actually comes together pretty quickly once all the veggies are cut. It's a meal-soup, a bit too thin to be a stew, but so full of lovely pieces of vegetables that it's no ordinary potage. It is also very rich, so please do not read "vegan" as "low-fat" in this case. I like it just by itself, in a cute Asian soup bowl (especially if I get to eat it curled on the couch watching "Dr. Who"… oh, guilty pleasures…), but feel very free to serve it along some jasmine rice, or a simple green salad, dressed with a light and fruity dressing. Also, if you hit a perticularly harsh cold snap, double the spices and/or don't seed your chile before throwing it in the soup; the result will warm you up from the inside out.

Oh, and do not skip the degorging part of cooking with eggplants! Even if modern eggplants are cultivated to be less bitter, the salting process will still reduce the amount of oils and fats absorbed by the veggie. It required a bit of patience, granted, but your waistline will thank you.

1 pound eggplant, chopped in 1/2 inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt
5 large scallions, peeled and sliced very thinly
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 fresh red chili, seeded and minced
1 inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon Cayenne (optional)
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon tumeric
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 (16 ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juice
5 cups water or vegetable broth
1/2 to 3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Chopped roast peanuts
Whole cilantro leaves

Toss the eggplant cubes with the teaspoon of salt in a colander. Allow to sit for 30 minutes to soften, then gently rinse the eggplant with cold running water and drain. While the eggplant is being brined, chop and mince the other ingredients. I also like to measure out the required quantities of peanut butter, tomato paste and broth, so that when I need to add them, I am not running around.  

Preheat a large stockpot over medium heat. Sauté the scallions in 2 tablespoons of the oil for about 20 minutes, until they are very brown and softened, and slightly caramelized. Scoop the scallions out of the pot and set aside in a medium bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to the pot and add the eggplant, stirring to coat with the oil. Stir and cook the eggplant for 12 to 15 minutes, until slightly tender. Transfer the eggplant to the bowl with the scallions. Add the remaining oil to the pot and allow it to heat, add the ginger and chili, and fry for 30 seconds. Add the spices, and fry for another 30 seconds, then add the onion. (Another way you can make your life easier is to pre-mix all your spices in a small bowl or plastic container; this way, you only have to pour the contents of your little bowl in the stockpot once your ginger and chile have fried. This is a good trick to keep in mind when you prepare dishes where several spices need to be added at the same time in a hot pan or pot, because going fast is the best way to make massive messes. I don't like those, especially not if I have to pick them up.) Stir and fry until the onion is slightly soft and translucent, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir-fry the mixture for another minute. Add the diced tomatoes, water (or stock), eggplant, beans and scallions to the pot. Stir well and  raise the heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes, then lower the heat and simmer. 

In a separate bowl, stir the peanut butter to incorporate any separated oils. Add a ladleful of hot soup. Stir the peanut butter with the soup until creamy; the peanut butter should be completely emulsified. Scrape the peanut butter mixture into the rest of the simmering soup, stirring to mix. Simmer the soup over medium-low heat, covered, for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the eggplant is very tender. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Salt to taste after the soup has cooled for an least half and hour. Serve topped with chopped roast peanuts and cilantro leaves.

This soup will fill the kitchen with a lovely, warm aroma. Prepare it when you need a comforting dose of warmth, or if you plan on ensnaring a lad (or lass) who doesn't like the cold too much! There is about 6 servings in there, and like any good soup, it's delicious reheated. Bring it to lunch and make all your co-workers green with envy!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Chicken Fajitas, Chunky Salsa and Guacamole

It was gray and rainy outside on Friday. I love rain, but giving up summer is never easy for animals who thrives in warm weather... such as myself. It isn't cold yet in Montreal - we actually had a beautiful Thanksgiving weekend. But the days are short enough to keep us on our toes. I actually had to stock up on stockings (that are not fishnets... *sigh*), because wearing skirts in bare legs is no longer an option.

I got home wanting to eat something with a little bit of sunshine in it, so I decided to kiss summer good-bye on a nostalgic note: chicken fajitas is one of my favorite summertime dinner meals. It's delicious and deeply satisfying. Something about those spices, crisp veggies and fresh flavors always brings to my mind the hot, lazy summer evenings that I enjoy oh so much. It also gives me a wonderful homey feeling of sharing, as we pick out stuff straight from the pan onto our plates, and sometimes end up feeding each other the little bits.

Yes, my boyfriend and I have disgustingly cute moments like that. When you are done puking, read on.

I don't know why Mexican food feels so festive to pasty Canadians such as myself, but I generally crave those flavors when I have something to celebrate, even something as silly as the end of the week. And a celebration quickly whipped up is even better - once you have the chopping done, you can have these on the table in a snap. Also, using a grilling pan will let you get rid of a lot of fat from the chicken, so if you use whole wheat tortillas and light sour-cream, you've got yourself a filling and healthy meal, especially if you make your salsa and guacamole yourself.

This recipe, originally found in "Jamie's Food Revolution", is for 2, but can easily be doubled if you have friends over. However, I would advise against serving those to in-laws; no one looks poised eating fajitas...

1 red bell pepper
1 medium red onion
2 chicken breasts
1 tablespoon paprika
1 pinch of ground cumin
2 limes
4 or 6 large whole wheat tortillas
olive oil
sea salt and pepper

Halve and seed the red bell pepper and cut it into thin strips. Peel, halve, and finely slice the onion. Slice the chicken lengthwise into long strips, roughly the size of the pepper strips. Put the bell peppers, the onion and the chicken into a mixing bowl with the paprika and cumin. Squeeze over the juice of one lime, drizzle in olive oil and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Mix well by hand.

 Let it rest for a few minutes, while preheating a grilling pan on high heat. Use a pair of tongs to put all the pieces of bell pepper, onion and chicken in the pan. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the chicken is golden and cooked through. The pan will be quite hot, so keep moving the pieces around to get lightly chargrilled.

Warm up the tortillas in a dry frying pan, then divide them into serving plates. Put the grilling pan on a heatproof surface on the table, and squeeze more lime juice on the sizzling food. Carefully help yourself straight from the pan. Add salsa, guacamole, sour cream and grated cheese (aged Cheddar and/or Monterrey Jack are the obvious choices) to taste.

For a vegan version, use grilled tofu marinated with the same spices, a bit of olive oil, the juice of 1 lime, and a sprinkling red pepper flakes. Slice the tofu in 4, width-wise, marinate for 1 to 4 hours, flipping the pieces every half hour. Grill them 3 to 4 minutes on each side, to get nice charred marks. Let sit for a minute or 2, then slice into long strips. Grill the veggies separately, so the tofu doesn’t crumble. Omit the sour cream and grated cheese at serving.

I was never a fan of bottled salsa - even the hotter ones still taste bland, boring and, well, bottled. I am a sucker for fresh tomatoes, so I was eager to try the following little recipe, also from "Jamie's Food Revolution". It was such a success that some people who don't like salsa at all told me they loved it. Ha! Home-cooking kicks packaged food's ass once again!

3 cloves of garlic
3 to 5 scallions
1 to 2 fresh red chiles
6 ripe tomatoes
1 small handful of fresh cilantro
2 limes
olive oil
sea salt and pepper

Peel and finely chop the garlic. Trim and finely chop the scallions. Seed the chile and finely chop (1 chile for mild salsa, 2 for hot!). Pick the leaves off the cilantro and chop the leaves and the stalks. Chop the tomatoes is small pieces (or slightly bigger, depending on how chunky you want your salsa). Add all the ingredients to a bowl and add the juice of both limes, and a drizzle of olive oil. Mix well, taste, and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Now this makes a ton of salsa. It keeps in a sealed plastic container in the fridge for 3 or 4 days, so if you are making some for a quiet dinner for two, I recommend using a dozen cherry tomatoes instead of the regular tomatoes, 3 scallions, 1 or 2 garlic cloves and 1/2 a chile. Adjust the lime juice to taste. You'll have enough for your fajita feast, and won't waste any leftovers.

Now, a word of warning about cooking with fresh chile. The first time I made this salsa, I had no idea what I was doing, so I just sliced away, and added everything to my bowl, seeds and all. To make a long story short, my hands and upper lip felt like they were on fire for 2 days. Chiles are hot, ladies and gentlemen: handle them with plastic gloves (I often use simple sandwich bags, as I don't keep plastic gloves around the house... shocker, I know), remove the seeds and white skin from the inside and quickly wash every surface that came into contact with the chiles, hands included. I've heard horror story of people who were careless and rubbed their eyes, or even worse, went to the bathroom after handling fresh chiles unprotected. Trust me, you don't want to do that!

If you buy some chile with an obscure name, say Scottish Bonnets, and you have no idea how hot they are, refer to the Scoville scale ( before randomly throwing them in your food, and dose according to the info provided by the scale. You may just save yourself an ulcer!

According to the awesome "Veganomicon", the key to a good guac is great avocado. It shouldn't be too mushy or too hard; the fruit should just start to give when pressed gently. Their recipe is perfect for 2, but it is very easy to double or triple according to your needs. In case you live under a rock, a quick reminder to only make as much guacamole as you need, as it doesn't keep and turns brown and unappetizing if not eaten quickly!

1 ripe avocado
1 lime, juiced
1 small yellow onion, minced
Sea salt and ground pepper

Run a knife lengthwise all along the middle of the avocado. Firmly grasp each half and twist to separate the halves. Remove the pit by gently but firmly hacking a chef knife into the pit, gently twisting the knife and pulling it away from the avocado. Separate the peel from the avocado halves and place the flesh in a medium bowl. Drizzle with lime juice, sprinkle with minced onion, salt and pepper. Mash it all up with a fork to the desired consistency.

Add one or more of the following along with the onion, salt and pepper if you feel like pimping up your guac:

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
1 ripe tomato, seeded and chopped
1 pinch ground cumin
1 fresh jalapeno chile, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped

If your friends are as insane as mine and organize Fiesta Fridays when the mood strikes, and you want to bring them some fajitas goodness, here's what you do: double your quantities of chicken and vegetables and put the slices in a large plastic container; add your spices, lime juice and oil, put the lid on and shake vigorously to coat everything. Prepare your salsa, and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to go. Make the guacamole once you get to the party, because it will not take kindly to being carried around in a hot car or subway train. You can use a regular frying pan if you don't have access to a grilling pan; the ravenous masses will still be satisfied.

Serve these with sangria or Mexican beer to give your table an authentic hacienda feeling. A rosé wine, or a dry Spanish or Argentinian red wine would also make a fine complement to the bold paprika, lime and chile flavors.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Kashmiri Masala Tofu

Punk Housewife will go through a little revamping quite soon: my friend and photographer extraordinaire, JD, took some rather brilliant pictures of me in my lovely kitchen. They will soon be on this little blog's background. As fun as it was, please don't imagine I usually cook in such fancy outfits; it's more often jeans and Threadless t-shirt than a cute dress and platform heels. But it was awesome!

Now while he took those pictures, I couldn't just stand there and be pretty, so I got busy and whipped up a lovely Kashmiri Masala tofu for my awesome crew! Although, I confess I did make them chop the onions, for fear that I would ruin my make-up. And need I say I loved watching them do it! I took care of everything else, and JD took great pictures of that, so I will show them off along with the recipe, because they really are beautiful shots. I wish he could take pictures of every meal I cook so that I could post them here, but I imagine his living in my kitchen might upset his fiancée...

I have my gorgeous Russian boyfriend to thank for my appreciation of curry. I can't handle as much spice as he can (freakin' ex-smoker stainless steel taste buds...), but the comforting heat and flavors of a lovely tomato-based curry such as this one are a constant hit with me. I have not yet attempted to make my own home-made curry paste, but it's high on my to-do list. In the meantime, I use Patak's pastes. One little jar contains enough paste to use about 4 times, and I have yet to be disappointed with the different kinds I have tried. Some grocery stores carry them, but if you can't find it at yours, hit a gourmet or Asian market.

Kashmiri Masala literally means "blend of spices from Kashmir"; this paste is mainly chile and garlic. I doubt the tofu is traditionally Indian, but it goes oh so well here, as it absorbs the flavors of the paste in chewy little bites of spicy goodness. The yogurt at the end is optional; it softens the heat without drowning the flavor, and makes the texture creamier. You can either mix it in at the very end like the recipe says, or dollop a spoonful or two on top before serving.

I love this curry recipe because it is very simple and basic; it's my "I-dunno-what-to-cook-but-want-something-tasty-that-can-be-made-with-the-almost-nothing-left-in-the-fridge" solution. And as we are now moving in the colder months of the year, a little spice is never a problem. It is not my spiciest curry, but dose the paste carefully if you don't want to cry while enjoying your plate.

Kashmiri Masala (for 4 to 6):

1 clove garlic, minced
1 yellow onion, diced
1 heaping tablespoon Kashmiri Masala paste
1 pound tofu, pressed and diced or cut into small triangles
1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes
3/4 cups water
1 cup plain yogurt

Preheat a large pan over medium heat. Fry the onion and garlic in a glug of olive oil. When the onion is soft and golden, add the curry paste, and mix well so that the onions are coated in the paste. Add tofu, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the tofu is slightly browned on a few sides. Add the tomatoes, and mix well. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the liquid has reduced a bit. Carefully add the water, give the mixture a good stir, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, stir in the yogurt and serve with basmati rice and naan bread.

If you are going to substitute the tofu for chicken or lamb (two delicious alternatives), add the tomatoes when the meat is browned, and simmer until cooked through and tender, so you may need to adjust your simmering time. I would say 25 minutes for chicken, and 30 to 35 minutes for lamb.

As you can see, JD is an amazing photographer! Check out his website! He rocks!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Pad Thai

I am a quintessential city-girl. The country is too quiet and the suburbs scare the beejesus out of me. I love the concrete jungle, the city life, the urban landscapes. Restaurants, bars, shops, cultural effervescence, freaks, geeks, squares and yuppies… And, like most typical city-slickers, Chinese, Thai and Szechuan food are an important part of my diet. What's not to love about it? Spicy, filling, cheap and often available even after the bars are closed, when you really need a snack…

The problem with many of North Americans' favorite Asian take-out foods is that they are as greasy as they are yummy. Not to mention the eternal cliché of those small restaurants' cleanliness standards… I am by no means a germ-phobic person, but even at my punkiest moments, I prefer to eat food that had been prepared in a clean wok. As such, I am always more than happy to treat myself to my favorite Asian food at home, where I can control how many times the stuff is fried, and decide exactly what veggies I get as a side-dish (why always green bell peppers and bok choy, why?!).

I am hooked on the hot, bitter kick of a good Pad Thai, but I was never a fan of throwing eggs in there, so when I found Isa Chandra's Brooklyn Pad Thai recipe in "Vegan with a Vengeance", I could hear the hallelujah chorus in my head. Unlike many cookbook authors out there, Ms. Moskowitz is not afraid to use spices liberally, and one taste of her delicious and absurdly simple sauce had me convinced.

Be sure to have your sauce and all your ingredients ready when you turn the heat on your wok, because once the process is started, it all goes quite fast! I suggest putting all the ingredients that go in the wok at the same time in the same bowl; that way, you can throw a bowlful in at the time without making a mess.

1 pound thick rice noodles - I like medium noodles such as these:

For the sauce:
6 tablespoons tamari
6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons Shriracha
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons lime juice

For the Pad Thai:
6 tablespoons peanut oil
1 pound tofu, pressed and cut into very small triangles
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced lemongrass
2 cups bean sprouts
5 to 8 scallions, sliced
2 dried red chili, crumbled
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Lime wedges

Prepare the rice noodles according to package instructions. Whisk together the ingredients for the sauce.

Preheat a large wok over moderate-high heat. Pour 2 tablespoons of peanut oil in the wok, and heat, then quickly add the tofu. Stir-fry for 4 to 5 minutes, until the tofu is crispy on the outside.

Remove from wok and set aside. Pour 2 tablespoons of peanut oil in the wok. Add half the red onion, and stir-fry for 30 seconds.

Add half the garlic and half the lemongrass, and stir-fry for another 30 seconds (I like to add mushrooms to my pad thai; if you want to do the same, this is the point at which you should add them for them to have time to get brown and juicy).

Add half of the sauce and when it starts to bubble, add half the noodles.

Cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, then add half the tofu, bean sprouts, scallions, chilis and peanuts. Stir for 30 seconds.

Transfer to 2 serving plates and garnish with cilantro and lime wedges. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.

My boyfriend has the steel taste buds of an ex-smoker; if that's your case too (or if you just like it nice and hot), add another tablespoon of Shriracha to the sauce. Also keep in mind that the dried chile can be substituted with 2 tablespoons of chile flakes. Lemongrass can be hard to find; if you have some, great! If you weren't able to find any, the Pad Thai will still be very tasty.

I prefer wider rice noodles to the vermicelli type, but ultimately, the result is the same; they will absorb a good part of the sauce and become tangy and delicious. There should still be a bit of sauce left, to coat your tofu and which ever veggies you feel like trowing in there. I like baby corn (as you can see from the pictures), snow peas, shitake mushrooms and steamed broccoli, for variety. Feel free to substitute the tofu for chicken and/or shrimps if you fancy a more authentic Pad Thai; just make sure they are cooked through!

If you want something more classy than Japanese beer to drink with your Pad Thai, I would recommend a rosé wine that isn't too dry. A little liquid sweetness will balance out the piquant flavors of the Pad Thai beautifully. Cheers!