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!

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Comfort of Chocolate Chip Cookies (and a Rant)

My mother used to call me Cookie Monster: she'd buy a bag of Chips Ahoy, and my brother and I would make the contents of that bag vanish before she had time to put the rest of the groceries away. It was impressive, but then, we were growing adolescents... To this day, I still eat my cookies like a kid, curled up on the couch or in my reading chair, with a big glass of milk. The only difference is that I now content myself with 1 or 2 cookies, instead of scarfing down half the bag. Oh, the wisdom that comes with age and with a slowing metabolism...

The past few weeks at work have been on the crazy side, and I decided that a little home-made, chocolate-y comfort food was in order. Also, the days getting dramatically shorter make me want to curl up at home and pout. I miss the sunlight, and even if cold weather gives me the opportunity to whip up stews, soups and other awesome rich winter dishes I sometimes long for in summer, I still miss the days where my hoodie is something I put on to take an evening stroll, not a clothing item I wear all day long. So a little "pick me up" treat with loads of sugar was in order.

My last attempt at baking cookies was not exactly successful, probably because I got ambitious and picked a rather elaborate recipe that my baking-skills were not quite ready to tackle. Somehow, making cupcakes is much easier for me than making cookies. Go figure. So I decided to go with a very simple and classic cookie, something almost fail-proof: chocolate chips!

I had one ingredient I absolutely wanted to add to my cookies, and that ingredient is white chocolate. I know, I know: white chocolate is nothing but sugar, with very little of the healthy cocoa found in the good dark chocolate that nutritionists recommend we eat. But when I am flattened with exhaustion on my couch, the nutritional concern goes out the window and I just want to bask in the sinful deliciousness of the white chocolate. I am a sugar-bug deep down inside, and I love the intoxicating sweetness of white chocolate. It's my crack.

Now a little disclaimer about cooking in general, particularly baking. I had to deal with some rather narrow-minded remarks when people realize that I love my kitchen time. As if being inked, having purple hair and listening to the Dead Kennedys automatically meant that I was some sort of culinary-inept bum. As I mentioned before, nothing is more punk-rock and DIY than home-cooking. Also, cooking is an amazing and rewarding way to spend time. I don't know how other people feel when they are cooking, but it can be almost meditative: you have to be in the here and now (especially with baking)! It keeps me focused, on top of being a creative and experimental endeavor. I'm always learning, always having fun, and I eat delicious meals all the time.

The "housewife" in this blog's title is ironic, because of all the archaic stereotypes associated with the word. I use it to poke fun at the idea that people who like to cook and enjoy their homes are Martha Stewart drones. Hopefully, some prejudice somewhere will be destroyed by bad-ass chicks who can bake up a storm.

Now let's make cookies!

I got this chocolate chip cookie recipe from "Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar", which also contains a whole wheat version. I baked the classic recipe mostly because I didn't have any whole wheat flour at home. Oops! And obviously, I substituted the classic semi-sweet chocolate chips for white chocolate ones. Feel free to got nuts (no pun intended) with the chips: use whatever chocolate you like and add dried fruits and walnuts if the mood strikes. Even butterscotch chips could work here, if you want to be insanely decadent, but the cookies may no longer be vegan...

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
2/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk
1 tablespoon tapioca powder or cornstarch
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets. Combine the sugars, oil, milk and tapioca flour (or cornstarch) in a mixing bowl. Use a strong fork and mix really well, for about 2 minutes, until the mixture resembles smooth caramel. Mix in the vanilla. Add 1 cup of flour, the baking soda and salt. Mix until well incorporated. Mix in the rest of the flour. Fold in the chocolate chips. The dough will be a little stiff, so use the hands to really work the chips in. Roll the dough into ping-pong ball-sized balls. Flatten them with the hands to 2 1/2 inches. Place 8 on each baking sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until they get just a bit browned around the edges. Let cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before serving.

I make big cookies, so I get anywhere between 12 and 16 with this amount of dough, but you can make them smaller and get 24. If you do make smaller cookies, reduce the baking time by a couple of minutes, or they will get very crunchy. Also, this dough is sticky, so I recommend flouring your hands carefully before making your dough balls, otherwise, they will stick to your fingers very stubbornly. Your reward for the flour-mess will be delicious cookies that are just sweet enough, with a crispy outside and a moist inside. This is also a practical recipe, because the mixing is all done in one big bowl, which means less dishes to clean; something I never fail to appreciate.

The big glass of milk is not mandatory, but it's wonderfully comforting. Besides, doesn't it just make you giddy, dipping a big cookie in some milk and chomping down on it like a rabid maniac? Is that just me?...

Store those babies is a air-tight plastic container to keep them fresh and double the batch if you have company. These cookies disappear alarmingly fast!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Gratin Dauphinois

Does any dish scream "French" more than the gratin dauphinois? It is one of those staples of French cuisine which brings to mind lovely bistro tables and accordion music. Rich and creamy potatoes covered in melted cheese; it doesn't get much better than that!

The recipe's name refers to the Dauphiné region in France, where this method for preparing potatoes originated. And as with any other so-called classics, there are about a million versions out there, varying with regions and personal taste. Of course, everyone is convicted that their version is the ultimate gratin dauphinois. I have tried a few, and I find that a balance of the creamy texture of the potatoes, strong taste of cheese and subtle seasoning is the goal one must aim for with this gratin. It is not meant to be the main course of a dinner, but a luxurious side-dish to a roasted or grilled meat (even if it will steal the spotlight if prepared properly), so it can't have an overwhelming taste. It must be just like Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face": easily overlooked at first sight, but fallen madly in love with after a small taste. Yes, I just compared the divine Audrey to a potato gratin. I am a monster.

My point is that it does require quite a bit of preparation, so you might not want to serve it as a side to another dish that is laborious to prepare (unless you spend your days at home cooking, lucky you!). A lamb-roast is amazing with gratin dauphinois, because of the taste, and because it pretty much takes care of itself in the oven and won't have you fussing with a bunch of pans. I also like to serve it with some marinated fish or chicken (or lamb chops!), cooked in the grilling pan. Less is more in your marinade here! A bit of lemon juice, a handful of tarragon and thyme and some olive oil. Period. Forget heavy and sweet marinades here; the gratin is rich enough. A lovely pepper steak is the ultimate low-maintenance protein to serve as a main course with your gratin. It is a week night, so that's what I did.

The gratin dauphinois below is my favorite, found in the pages of Patricia Wells' "Bistro Cooking"; the spice of nutmeg and the robustness of Gruyère make for a really amazing blend of tastes. And of course, I just love potatoes. The cream and milk give them a great texture; they all but melt in your mouth… Note that it's totally worth it to go to a fromagerie to buy real Gruyère. The Swiss cheese you get in supermarkets is not bad, but there is something about the strength of Gruyère that will take this dish to another level. I used one from Fribourg, Neuchatel for the gratin pictured below, and I got the bang for my bucks.

3 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced
2 cups whole milk
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 bay leaves
Freshly ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups freshly grated Gruyère cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with the milk and 2 cups of water. Add the garlic, salt and bay leaves. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally so that the potatoes do not stick to the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring from time to time, until the potatoes are tender, but not falling apart, about 7 to 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer half of the potatoes in a large gratin dish. Sprinkle with the nutmeg, pepper, half the heavy cream and half the cheese. Cover with the remaining potatoes, and sprinkle again with nutmeg, pepper and add the remaining cream and cheese. Bake the gratin until crisp and golden on top, about 1 hour. Serve immediately.

Remember that as with most potato-dishes, this reheats like a charm, so grab the leftovers for your lunch the next day with a salad or a sandwich. To die for!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Penne Alla Vodka

I am blessed with a boyfriend who is wonderfully open-minded when it comes to what I feed him. My cooking experiments never worry him, and as he says it himself, he'll eat it once, just to see if he likes it. As nice as it is, I still am the happiest girl in the world when he really loves what I cook, and the little recipe below was a huge hit (at least it was, once I found the proper flavor balance). Aside from being a fearless eater, my man is also Russian. I knew very little about the culture, and even less about the cuisine, when I met him. Turns out there is much more to it than potatoes, Tchaikovsky, organized crime and frozen tundra. Russian cuisine is perfect for Canadian winter, as the basic idea behind most of it is to keep you going (and keep you warm!) through endless, bitterly cold winter days.

Now, this recipe is not Russian (but fear not, I will get to traditional Russian dishes soon enough; it's getting cold in Montreal!). At all. It's not even Italian, in fact, but I had a feeling he might like it, because like any self respecting Rouski, he loves his vodka. Pasta alla vodka was created in New York, during the 50's, when the now-omnipresent Eastern European spirit became hugely popular in North America, and people started using it in everything. There is now hardly an Italian restaurant where you won't see this on the menu. It is traditionally served on pennes, but any tubular pasta does it justice. Pictured below are some rigatonni, which I had on hand at the time.

If you allow me to wax romantic for a minute, I have to confess I have a soft spot for this recipe because it's a perfect example of how the combination of two very different cultures can make something absolutely divine. At the end of the day, no matter what our cultural background is, we all want to eat. We all have our particular way of cooking, and when we dare to put our heads together and combine our knowledge, we can create pure happiness, at the very least in our plates. As exasperated as I am with some Americans (the insane ones; the sane ones reading this are cool, obviously), I have to admit that some gems came from the (sometimes unwilling) cultural clashes of their melting pot areas; in this case, Brooklyn. My hat's off to the Russian who spilled his vodka in some Italian cook's saucepan. The result is neither really Russian nor really Italian, but it is fabulous!

For those who need reassuring, you can't get drunk eating this dish (sorry to my alcoholic friends!). Wine and spirits are used very often in cooking and baking, and almost all the alcohol evaporates in the heat. All that's left behind is the taste and a subtle je-ne-sais-quoi… This recipe makes a creamy tomato sauce, with a tangy seasoning and the subtle heat of the vodka. It's so easy and so delicious that you clearly have no good excuse not to run to your pots and pans as soon as you've read the recipe. Even vegans have no excuses, because the cream can be substituted for slivered almonds, and it will still taste awesome! Find yourself 3 other people to feed and go get:

2 teaspoons olive oil
4 cloves minced garlic
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup vodka (I use Moskovskaya, because it's my man's fave)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup cooking cream (15% is just perfect)
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil, plus extra for garnish
1 package dry penne or rigatonni

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. When the water is boiling, cook the pasta according to package instruction. Preheat a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the oil, garlic and crushed red peppers to the saucepan and sauté for about a minute, until fragrant, being careful not to burn. Add the crushed tomatoes, vodka, thyme, oregano, salt and black pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes, then stir in the cream and simmer, mixing constantly for a couple of minutes. Cover and turn the heat down a bit to bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the basil leaves to the sauce, and mix the sauce and pasta together in the pot. Serve, garnished with a little basil on top.

To veganize, replace the 1/2 cup of cream with 1/2 cup slivered almonds, and pulse the sauce with an immersion blender until it’s creamy (Isa Chandra Moskowitz has a version in “Veganomicon” that works well) before adding your chopped basil leaves.

Serve this with a cute spinach or mixed greens salad with a clean-tasting dressing and a nice, fruity red wine, like a merlot, and you have a quick, yet incredibly classy evening meal.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Asian Marinade for Grilled Tofu

Hippies rejoice! This is an uber-healthy recipe, and it is delicious!

There are many ways to cook tofu, which is one of the things I love about it. You can fry, bake, stew, scramble it... But grilling it is one of the most simple and quick ways to cook it. I love the chewy texture of grilled tofu, and if you use a grilling pan, it will look so cool with the little charred marks!

Marinating it is also the easiest way to infuse your tofu with flavor. I'll concede it; in and of itself, tofu doesn't taste of anything. But once drained and pressed, it will do a great job of absorbing the flavors of a marinade, or anything you cook it with. Another reason to make friends with tofu if you haven't already; the possibilities are endless!

Maybe it's a vague patriotic fiber, but my favorite brand of extra-firm tofu is Liberté. The plain or fine herbs varieties are both great, and the texture makes it really easy to prepare. Check the expiry date when you buy them, but they usually keep almost a month in the fridge, and tofu can be frozen. Just pop it in the freezer, still in it's package. You can keep it there for a few months. Defrost the package at room temperature until completely thawed, drain and press, and cook!

I whipped this marinade up one night, out of what I had left kicking around the pantry; it's basically my favorite Asian-y flavors all blended together. Sesame, ginger (of course!), lime and soy sauce make for a juicy, salty and zangy tofu.

1 (1 pound) block extra-firm tofu, pressed
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 limes, juiced
1 thumb-size piece of ginger, peeled and minced
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
Sesame seeds, to sprinkle

Cut the tofu widthwise into 4 equal pieces and place the pieces in a Pyrex dish. Mix the marinade ingredients together well, and pour over the tofu. Let it marinate for 1 to 4 hours, flipping it every half hour.

Preheat a grilling pan on medium-high heat, then spray with nonstick cooking spray. Use tongs to place to tofu pieces in the pan, and use them to gently press them down on the ridges. Cook for 3 minutes on one side, then flip and cook for another 3 minutes.

Flip again, and turn the tofu pieces 90 degrees to get a lovely crosshatched pattern. Cook for 2 minutes, then remove from the heat and place them on a cutting board. Cut each piece diagonally across in 2 triangles or in long strips. Serve drizzled with the marinade, and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

It's perfect with some jasmine rice or vermicelli, and steamed veggies, especially broccoli. Don't forget to leave the soy sauce and some Sri Racha on the table!

This dish is an extremely easy complete meal, and once the marinating is done, it takes 10 minutes to get on the table, and will leave you stuffed and utterly happy with life.

If you get home from work or school starving and don't want to wait the hour to press the tofu, then the hour to marinate it, here's what you do: when you get up in the morning, press your tofu while you are going through your morning routine. Pour the marinade over the tofu, and put the Pyrex dish in the fridge. Then shoo, go about your business. The tofu can sit there all day, absorbing flavor. You don't get to flip it, but it'll be just as good once it lands on your plate.