Monday, 31 December 2012

It's Not Easy Being a Green Tea Cupcake

There is something amazing about a cup of nice green tea: it's soothing and tasty, it will get rid of toxins, hydrate you just as well as a big glass of water, boost your brain power and your immune system... It really is a gorgeous magic potion for the body and for the soul. My favorite is David's Tea Dragon Pearls: I drink two cups of the stuff every day I can, and every drop feels and tastes wonderful. Living in the real world would be very tough sometimes if there was no green tea... and no adorable mugs to drink it from - thank you Mel and Matt for the cutest Christmas presents!

December is always synonymous with madness at work, and while chocolate is wonderful to keep stress under control, I could not have made it without my green tea, and in that spirit, I wanted a zen little dessert I could bring to my in-laws' Christmas lunch. Why not turn my magic potion into a tasty sweet? My mother-in-law is as much of a tea fan as I am, so I knew those little cupcakes would be received enthusiastically at her table.

This recipe requires you to get your hands on some matcha green tea powder: you can easily find it at tea shops, but if that fails, try to hit Asian stores or Chinatown. Matcha is the tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony: its made from a specific kind of green tea and ground into a very fine powder, then whisked with hot water to create the traditional beverage. It's worth noting that it contains three times as much antioxidant as regular green tea, so these cupcakes are just as much health food as they are dessert! Or at least, that's what I keep telling myself... they disappeared in the blink of an eye...

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons matcha green tea powder (I used Matcha Matsu from David's Tea)
3/4 cup (1 1/2 stick) butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
A few drops almond extract
A few drops vanilla extract

Preheat the over to 350 degrees, and line a muffin pan with cupcake liners. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl. Mix the milk and matcha powder and reserve.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at the time, beating well after each addition, finishing with the egg yolk. Mix in a few drops of almond and vanilla extract (1 teaspoon of extract in total does the trick). Add a third of the flour mixture and half of the milk and matcha mixture, and mix well. Add another third of the dry ingredients and the rest of the wet ingredients, mix and finish with the rest of the flour. Mix until just incorporated.

Spoon the batter in the cupcake liners and bake for 22 to 25 minutes, until the top of the cupcakes springs when touched, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Let the cupcakes cool in the pan 5 minutes before moving them to a baking rack, and let them cool completely before icing.

You can add a few drops of green food coloring if you really want your cupcakes to pop bright green, but that is entirely optional: as you can see, the matcha makes the batter quite green without any coloring! They will be perfect Halloween or St-Patrick's Day cupcakes with that gorgeous color...

I am a huge fan of green tea desserts, with green tea ice cream being at the top of my list, and I was delightfully surprised when I tasted the batter and it had that exact delicate-yet-rich flavor: not too sweet and with no hint of the bitterness you sometimes have with green tea. Just the smooth, sophisticated green taste... Those cakes have a soft and moist crumb, and their subtle flavor is absolutely delicious!

I chose a simple green tea glaze (inspired by the recipe in "Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World") for the batch I brought my in-laws:

2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon matcha tea powder
1 to 2 tablespoons milk
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 drop vanilla extract

With a fork, beat the butter until fluffy in a small bowl. Mix in the confectioners’ sugar and matcha to form a crumbly mixture.

Slowly beat in 1 tablespoon milk, almond extract and vanilla extract. If the icing is too thick to spread, pour in additional milk a teaspoon at the time and mix until the desired consistency is reached.

Use a tablespoon to pour glaze into the center of each cupcakes and spread it out a bit with the back of the spoon. Let the glaze set before serving (refrigerating your glazed cupcakes can help there: place them in an air-tight plastic container and chill them for 30 minutes).

While this glazing is simple, easy to make and very tasty, you could ice these cupcakes in many different ways. A classic cream cheese or buttercream frosting spiked with 1 tablespoon of matcha powder (and colored a brighter green, if you wish) will make spectacular cupcakes!

I made another batch for my New Year's party, and since my friends are chocolate fiends, and since chocolate and green tea are a match made in decadence-and-stress-reducing-heaven, I whipped up a simple but oh-so-rich chocolate ganache to frost the second batch:

9 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon dark rum (optional, but awesome)

Put the chocolate in a medium, heat-proof bowl. Bring the cream just to a boil in a small sauce pan (keep a close eye on it!). When the cream reaches the boiling point, pour it over the chocolate and whisk it until its smooth. Stir in the rum (if using). You can either let it cool slightly before pouring it on the cupcakes (starting in the middle and letting it drip), or if you want a fluffier frosting, let it cool until thick, then whip it up with a whisk until it has the desired texture.

And voila! A lovely, elegant and delicious dessert that should not be over-looked in favor of flashier cupcakes! Remember:

"It's not easy being green,
It seems you blend with so many other ordinary things
And people tend to pass you over 'cause you're
Not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water
Or stars in the sky

But green's the color of spring
And green can be cool and friendly-like
And green can be big like an ocean, or important
Like a mountain or tall like a tree

When green is all there is to be
It could make you wonder why, but why wonder why
Wonder, I am green and it'll do fine, it's beautiful
And I think it's what I want to be"

(Yes, I sing silly songs when I bake and I LOVE the Muppets)

A very happy New Year to all my lovely readers! May it be filled with health, love, prosperity and delicious treats! xxx

Monday, 24 December 2012

Friday Night Garlic, Shrimp and Mushroom Pasta

Friday night was the first evening of a long awaited vacation: sixteen glorious days of rest, reading, cooking, eating and spending time with friends and family. I got home hungry, but tired, and I was about to prepare some very simple garlic pasta, but inspiration struck and I whipped up an improvised dish that rocked!

This is the sort of magic that can happen when you decide to throw all kinds of stuff you like in a pan and end up with a plate of goodness: the perfect start to my holidays, that I washed down with a glass of champagne (I am completely addicted to bubbles, and Asti sparkling wine is affordable and tasty for every imaginable occasion)!

1 package dry pasta
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 to 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 package cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 cups small cooked shrimps
1/2 lemon, juiced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Parmagianno Reggiano

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions. Meanwhile, preheat the olive oil over medium heat in a large pan. Add the garlic and the chili flakes, and cook until fragrant, 2 minutes.

Add the mushrooms and cook until their have rendered their liquid and are shiny, about 5 minutes.

Add the shrimps and stir until they are heated up, about 3 minutes. Add the lemon juice, a pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper.

Reduce the heat to low and keep the mixture on simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Toss the freshly cooked pasta to the pan and mix well.

Serve generously sprinkled with freshly grated Parmigianno Reggiano.

Just a bit of heat, a hint of lemon, the tickle of the pepper, the earthiness of the mushrooms and the screaming garlic-ness: delicious!!

This simple recipe was a wonderfully satisfying way to getting the vacations started: it took less than 20 minutes to make and combined a whole bunch of my favorite ingredients! I can now power through the holiday cooking and baking marathon!


Sunday, 16 December 2012

General Tao Tofu

Oh my goodness, I realize it's been a while since my last post, and I must apologize: the end of the year turns my office into an asylum. There was also our big company Christmas party last Friday, an event which requires as much planning and organization as a rocket launch. Spoilers: it's basically like a huge prom for grown-ups!

When I got back to my humble little kitchen, I wanted some of MY traditional holiday grubs: General Tao. Yes, you read that right: I come from one of those weird families that hasn't had a traditional turkey for Christmas in over a decade. Our Nativity celebration generally involves take-out and a "Star Wars" marathon. I kinda like it! It's fun, totally uncomplicated and I can be shameless about wearing a geeky t-shirt and my Converse shoes. Don't get me wrong, it's a lot of fun to get dolled-up and eat fancy food with my colleagues, but the slouchiness is much more my style.

This little recipe is a treasure I found browsing on Appetite for China. I tweaked it a bit, but it's still very simple and quick to get on the table, and it tastes better than any restaurant General Tao I have ever tried. I have a chicken version of this recipe, but since it requires the chicken cubes to be rolled in batter and fried, this is the version I use when I don't want to wait too long, or make too huge a mess. It's also much lighter than (and nowhere near as greasy as) the chicken version: something to consider after all those rich Holiday meals you may have already started eating...

Remember to give your tofu plenty of time in the pan: a good General Tao needs a chewy bite, so you really want the soy curd to get golden and crispy to get the perfect texture.

1 pound extra-firm tofu
Peanut oil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger,
2 to 4 scallions, white and green parts separated and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon white sesame seeds (for garnish)

3 tablespoons tomato paste (or substitute ketchup for a slightly sweeter sauce)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons Sri Racha sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons sugar

Drain and press the tofu, then cut into 1-inch pieces. Prepare the sauce: in a small bowl, stir together the tomato paste, soy sauce, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, chili sauce, sesame oil, and sugar (it won't look like a lot, but remember that this sauce should coat the pieces of tofu, and not drown them too much).

Heat 2 tablespoons of the peanut oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl to coat the bottom. Add the tofu in one layer (you may have to do this in batches) and allow it to sear on the first side undisturbed for about 1 minute.

Then use a spatula to move the tofu cubes around until they are golden on half or most of the sides, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Transfer to a plate and set aside. In the same pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of peanut oil. Add the dried chilis, garlic, ginger, and scallions and stir-fry until just fragrant, about 30 or 40 seconds.

Pour in the sauce and stir until thickened, about 1 minute. Add the tofu and carefully toss to coat with the sauce.

Transfer everything to a large serving dish. Sprinkle the sesame seeds and scallions greens on top and serve with rice and steamed vegetables on the side.

The sauce has the perfect blend of spicy, tangy and sweet you want from a good, satisfying General Tao. Honestly, this is quite literally an awesomesauce. The tofu gets perfectly coated in the mixture, giving you a chewy bite of piquant Asian yumminess. If you like it saucy, go ahead and double the sauce, especially if you want to throw some veggies in the wok along with your tofu, like some broccoli, snow peas or bell peppers.

I am looking forward to making a huge batch of this amazeballs recipe and sharing it with my urban family along with some Tzingtao beers! Have lovely Holidays everyone: enjoy food and drink, and don't forget to tell the people in your life that you love them!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Roasted Tomato Soup

When you poke your nose out of the door in the morning and there's frost on the cars in the street and you can see your breath, it's soup season! Which, in Montreal, often feels like it lasts 8 months a year...

A good soup recipe is very precious: it can generally easily be doubled, frozen, taken to work as a light lunch, slurped as a midnight snack, nourish a poor cold-afflicted body and it generally tastes almost better reheated than it did fresh from the stockpot.

I had never made tomato soup before stumbling on this recipe on Hot Pink Apron, which is an aberration, really, given how much I love tomatoes. But this recipe was so simple and sounded so tasty that I felt compelled: November is finally over, and it has got to be the suckiest month of the year (long, dark, cold and we don't get Remembrance Day off in Quebec - what a sham), and a nice bowl of soup sounded like Heaven after a long work day. Bring on the comforting treat! We deserve it, if only because we survived November.

My grocery store carries lovely tomatoes on the vine; they are as tasty as tomatoes get (at least until I start growing my own on the balcony next summer!) so I got a nice bunch. I also had a new basil plant with gorgeous big green leaves that were just begging to be massively added to this soup. Is there a better food match than tomatoes and fresh basil? I think not! Note that I also added more garlic than the original Hot Pink Apron recipe: my man and I can never get enough garlic...

Olive oil
6 to 8 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 small red onions, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 (28 ounce) can of crushed tomatoes
4 cups vegetable broth
1 large bunch fresh basil leaves
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Set the oven to broil. Grease the baking pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Chop up the tomatoes, onions and garlic and toss on the baking pan. Sprinkle with a healthy dose of coarse sea salt and the dried oregano.

Broil the tomatoes and onions for 10 minutes. Rotate the tray. Lower the heat to 350 degrees and roast the tomato mixture for another 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, add the crushed tomatoes, broth and the basil to a large stock pot; bring to boil and simmer on medium-low heat.

Add the roasted tomato mixture to the stock pot and simmer for another 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and using an immersion blender, purée the soup. Put back on low heat until the soup is reheated, add a pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper, and serve with crusty bread and a sprinkle of grated sharp cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano rocks here).

I used fresh Campari tomatoes, very flavorful little fruits that taste good virtually everywhere you'd use tomatoes: they are quite small, so I used a lot more than 6. The trick seems to be keeping a ratio of 3/2 between the fresh tomatoes and the red onions. By the way, this is a great recipe to make if you have slightly mushy tomatoes that have been sitting in the crisper a bit too long!

Such an easy, straightforward recipe deserves a huge shout-out: the kitchen smelled absolutely heavenly while the tomatoes and onions were roasting. The basil keeps the soup from getting the bitter tomato aftertaste I was dreading, and the final texture is luxurious, just thick enough - yet silky.

I am so in love with this soup! Crusty bread is an absolute must: I usually stick to one slice per meal, but I just had to get a second one. Bread soaked in that lovely fragrant soup was just too darn irresistible. Garlic bread would be the ultimate side with which to clean up a bowl of this red wonder, unless you are as crazy as I am and enjoy dipping... grilled cheese sandwiches in your soup!! Oh yeah, baby!

Great minds think alike, by the way: check out Closet Cooking's grilled cheese croutons. Genius.

This recipe earned a spot on my favorite-soups roster: I am gonna whip up a batch every time I need a reminder that tomato season will be back... eventually...

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Alex's Ultimate Pancakes

I am very lucky to have amazing foodie friends. They are a great source of inspiration and I just love bouncing ideas off them and picking their brains for cooking tricks. My friend Alex is one such foodie; baking is his specialty, and he gets my mouth watering every time he mentions his latest experiments.

I am very honored to have his permission to reproduce this pancake recipe he spent years perfecting. When he announced he had created the ultimate version, I knew I had to try it.

This is literally a copy-paste of the recipe he sent me, so you'll find the narrative style a bit different from my usual prose; I thought that the best way to detail his recipe was to use his own words.

Dry ingredients:
3 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder (do NOT put too much)
Dash of salt

Wet ingredients:
2 large eggs
3 cups of milk
6 tablespoons of vegetable oil
Splash of vanilla extract

Mix the dry in one bowl. Mix the wet in another bowl. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet. DO NOT WHISK! DON'T EVEN USE ONE! Mix with... GASP! a SPATULA! Fold and gently mix until well incorporated but still with some lumps. Luuuuumps. We like dee LUUUUUMPS!

Let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes (no less, not too much more). LIGHTLY stir with the spatula. The flour will have expanded and the lumps should have moistened and will come apart. PRE-HEAT a pan to medium heat (4/10... 5/10... depends on your stove). I use an ice cream scoop to make sure my pancakes are the same size (I'm anal about pancake stacks). You need to flip when they bubble and the edges look dry.

They are soooooo fluffy they DRINK up butter/margarine. We get "Celeb" which is Maxi's house brand of Becel. 2$ less and tastes EXACTLY the same (buttery, with less guilt). I put a lot on them; it melts and the pancakes soak it up. Then I finish with the DARK maple syrup we found this spring at the Marché Jean-Talon. C'est de la tire en canne, c'est tellement bon!

Add 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and half of that of nutmeg to the batter for a comforting yummy nutty kick!

*If they are not browned enough increase the heat and let the pan warm up.

*Note that a perfectly smooth batter means you over-mixed and hence developed gluten. SHAME! Your pancakes will not be miraculously fluffy, but they will still be delicious. Smile. Just be careful next time!

I followed Alex's instructions very carefully. I used my stirring spatula to gently mix the batter, I preheated my crepe pan with a light psssht! of non-stick cooking spray, measured the batter with my ice cream scoop and used a thin slotted spatula to flip the pancakes. By the way, pancakes are very much like crepes: the first one is always a mess, so don't get upset. Just keep going, the second pancake will already be a huge improvement.

Besides 2 flipping incidents (my hand-eye coordination sucks early in the morning), making these pancakes was quite simple. They are ready to flip rather fast, so give them your full attention if you don't want to overcook them. If they start bubbling too quickly, lower the heat to medium-low: giving the pancakes time to set properly will make them easier to flip and will reduce batter splashing - they will also rise higher if they cook more slowly.

The fascinating part is that once flipped, you can see them rise before your eyes! They have the perfect texture and density to stack up high on a plate and drench in butter and maple syrup, just like in movies and 24-hour diners.

My ice cream scoop is small, so I used 2 scoops of batter per pancakes, and I got 16 little fluffy wonders. Alex usually makes bigger pancakes, and gets about 8.

And they really DO drink butter! A little nub of butter on one of these hot pancakes goes "slurp" and disappears. I am definitely a real butter kind of gal (my dad being French, I was brought up to think margarine was the devil's lube, and therefore, not something fit for human consumption), and when it comes to maple syrup, I like to use a lot. The pancakes drank up the butter and the maple syrup like little sponges, making each bite deliciously oozy.

Given the impressive quantity of pancakes wielded by this recipe, I suggest halving it if you are making them for 2. While they were delicious plain, I am sure a handful of fresh berries or banana slices would make them stellar.

Thank you so much for this wonderful recipe, Alex! You are ze baking-master!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Kashmiri Masala Tofu, Take 2

Recipes are not static. They evolve, and they change as you learn about new ingredients and new cooking techniques. I've blogged about my favorite go-to curry before, but like any good old recipe, I ended up tired of always making it the same way and had fun throwing a few different things in it.

Recipes (mine, and everybody else's) are not gospels. Quantities can be changed, spices can be omitted, ingredients can be substituted. That's what's awesome about cooking: unless you are baking (and therefore conducting a chemical experiment requiring great precision), you can be as creative as you like. Make a recipe one way today, then make it with different veggies tomorrow. Just taste as you cook; trust your taste buds, nose and eyes.

No one's perfect, and everybody cooks duds every once in a while. Everybody burns food, cuts fingertips, ruins cooking pots. It is not a tragedy, and despite how I feel about it when it happens, no one dies from fucking up dinner. Cooking means learning from your mistakes as much as it means enjoying your success.

Enough philosophy! Here is my re-vamped Kashmiri Masala tofu!

2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped
1 yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup Kashmiri Masala paste
1 pound tofu, pressed and diced or cut into small triangles
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 cup plain yogurt (optional)

Preheat a large pan over medium heat. Fry the garlic, ginger, onion and bell pepper in a glug of oil.

When the onion is soft and golden, add the curry paste, and mix well so that the onions and bell pepper 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, stirring often, until the liquid has reduced a bit. Bring the mixture to a boil, give the mixture a good stir, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove from the heat, stir in the yogurt (if using) and serve with basmati rice.

This curry never fails to be satisfying and filling: big chunks of veggies and tofu in a fragrant, spicy sauce; can't go wrong there! This version has red bell peppers, giving it a lovely crunch, and the extra diced tomatoes make it super-saucy. With the cold days right at our door, the vitamin C from the bell peppers and the powerful immune boosters and anti-oxidants of the ginger, garlic and other spices will be much appreciated by your body! Use cubed chicken breasts instead of the tofu for a meaty bite; just let it simmer 25 minutes instead of 15, to make sure the chicken is tender and cooked through.

Have fun with your recipes: the only risk you are taking is being pleasantly surprised with the outcome!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Meat and Mushroom Lasagne

I have been working on this lasagne recipe for a while. I had started experimenting with it in the spring, but when the hot weather arrived, I thought this monument of a recipe was a bit too heavy to cook. Who wants to slave over 3 different steaming pots when it's 35 degrees in the shade? The pesto lasagne was more weather appropriate, but now that the evenings are colder, I felt like trying my meat and mushroom sauce again.

Baked pasta dishes have an aura of intense comfort food to me. Filling, rich and covered in melty cheese. It can't get much better than that in my world, especially if I have a big glass of red wine to wash it down with. And just like non-baked pasta, it seems the possibilities are endless when it comes to combining flavors and textures. I wanted to replicate the signature sauce from my favorite little Italian restaurant, Napoli Pizzeria: meat and mushroom sauce. When I went to school a few block from that restaurant, I used to gorge myself on this delicious mixture. Now I wanted it at home!

By the way, if you are ever in Montreal and appreciate kitsch decor and perfectly done pasta, please run to this little family-owned restaurant on St-Denis street in the Quartier Latin. The prices are very reasonable, there is a about 100 different pizzas on the menu and if being serenaded by an odd Mariachi band is not a problem for you, you will have a blast.

Of course, I don't have the original Napoli Pizzeria meat and mushroom sauce recipe, so I improvised a bit, made a lovely mushroom bolognese (that I have preciously shared here), a ricotta mix laced with savory herbs and assembled a lasagne. Here is the result!

10 to 20 lasagne noodles, pre-cooked (or no-boil lasagne noodles)

Meat and mushroom bolognese:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
8 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 pound ground beef
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 (14 ounce) can garlic tomato paste
1/3 cup red wine
Freshly ground black pepper

Ricotta blend:
1 pound fresh ricotta cheese, room temperature
1½ cups grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup whole milk
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 (340 gram) package of pizza mozzarella, grated

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-heat. Add the garlic and onion and sauté until the garlic is fragrant and the onions are soft and slightly golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until they have released their liquid and are getting colored (they will also shrink and become nice and soft).

Add the ground beef, breaking up the big pieces with a spoon, and cook until the meat crumbles, about 7 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste and mix well to blend everything. Add the red wine, stir and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer, cover and cook for 30 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Preheat the oven to 375°F and grease a 9- by 13-inch pan. Combine the ricotta, Parmesan, milk, basil, thyme, and rosemary in a medium bowl; season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread about a ladleful of the bolognese sauce in the bottom of the greased pan. Arrange about 1 layer of noodles over the  sauce (it’s okay if they overlap slightly), then cover the noodles with more sauce, followed by about ½ of the cheese mixture. Repeat once. Add a final layer of noodles, cover them with the remaining tomato sauce, and arrange the mozzarella in a single layer on top. Wrap tightly with foil and bake for 30 to 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes, until the noodles are cooked through and the cheese is golden.

I highly recommend you use pizza mozzarella to top your lasagne: it has the most awesome stretchy texture. The ground beef, while delicious, can be left out for a vegetarian mushroom-and-cheese pasta treat. Oh, and by the way, this recipe does makes a ton! Use the largest baking dish you have (or a few small ones); I got 8 helpings from this recipe.

As I explained in my previous lasagne recipe, the cooking time may vary depending on whether you use traditional or no-boil noodles. It always take a bit longer with no-boil noodles, but it is important to not over-cook a lasagne; check it after 30 minutes, testing the noodles by poking the lasagne with a fork. If it gets to soft, your beautiful pasta construction will collapse when you put it on a plate.

I was out of ricotta the night I decided to make this, so I switched the cheese and herb mixture for some creamy bechamel: that will take your lasagne to another level of richness!

4 (1/4 cup) tablespoons butter
4 cups milk
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon white pepper

In a heavy medium saucepan, melt the butter, without letting it brown. Remove from the heat. Whisk in the flour, 1 tablespoon at the time until it is incorporated. Heat up the milk in another cooking pot until just about to boil. Add ladlefuls of the milk to the butter and flour mixture. Put this mixture back on medium heat and whisk. Add the nutmeg and white pepper. When the milk is absorbed, add more, a little at the time and stir until all the milk is used up. Keep whisking until the sauce is velvety. If the sauce doesn't thicken, add some flour, one scant tablespoon at the time, stirring constantly until the desired texture is achieved (I sometimes add up to 4 extra tablespoons of flour).

If you are going to use the bechamel, build your lasagne as follows: 1 layer bechamel, 1 layer bolognese, 1 layer noodles. Repeat until you run out of noddles, top with more bolognese and cover with grated mozzarella.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Pan-Grilled Salmon with Asian Dressing

Home-made condiments are tragically underrated, and yet, they can make very simple meals spectacular. Why do those condiments not get the credit they deserve? They may not be as glamorous as other recipes, but they have their own subtle glory that needs to be acknowledged. Today, I am sharing one of my underdog recipes: my everything-tastes-awesome Asian dressing.

This little sauce/dressing/marinade can be used on salads, grilled meat and steamed vegetables. My favorite way to use it is with a lovely piece of salmon and some steamed veggies. It's the sort of super simple but utterly delicious stuff I like to whip up at the end of a long work week, when I want to feel like a top-notch cook without breaking a sweat.

Here is how to make a minimalist and tasty Asian-themed dinner:

2 (1/2 pound) salmon fillets, skin on
1 thumb-size piece of fresh ginger, grated
1 garlic clove, grated
1/2 to 1 fresh red chile, finely chopped
1 or 2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 or 2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 lime, juiced

Put the grated ginger and garlic in a small bowl. Add the sesame and olive oil, the soy sauce, lime juice and balsamic vinegar. Whisk together. Taste, and adjust as needed to balance the saltiness of the soy sauce, sweetness of the balsamic vinegar, tartness of the lime and heat of the chile.

Grilling fish in the pan is also very easy: preheat a grilling pan over medium heat and lightly spray with non-stick cooking spray. Put the fillets in the pan, skin-side down and baste with the Asian dressing. Cooking fish in the pan like that makes it easy to tell when it is ready to flip over, because you can literally see it cooking before your eyes. When it looks half-cooked, flip the fish fillets and let cook for another 3 or 4 minutes (depending on how thick the fillets are, and on how done you like your salmon). Serve the fillets with steamed veggies and rice, and use the leftover dressing on the fish and vegetables.

See? How easy it that! Here is how you can make it even easier: don't even think about grating garlic and ginger (or nutmeg and cinnamon, for that matter) or the small hole-side of a box grater. Just don't. Get a microplane grater: it will change your life.

Another good trick: ginger is much easier to grate if it's been frozen. I love ginger, so I always make sure to have tons of it around, and there is always a few big chunks in a freezer bag, just waiting to come out to be grated and added to recipes such as this one.

This recipe may be small and easily overlooked, but seriously, give it a shot; you won't believe how awesome it tastes!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Bloody Hell!

I have a big soft spot for Halloween (and British curses... actually, make that British slang, period)! The cheesy B-movies, the psychobilly music, hours spent preparing kinky costumes for a late-night "Rocky Horror Picture Show", universal permission to binge on sweets...

Any excuse to bake cupcakes is a good excuse for me, so I volunteered to bring a batch to my office's Halloween lunch, but I wanted something a bit more out-of-the-box than the traditional pumpkin cupcakes (I find pumpkins very cute, but not especially tasty). So when Marilla of Cupcake Rehab posted these, the "Dexter" fan in me could not resist whipping them up!

I wanted the blood stains to really pop out, so I opted for one of my favorite combos: vanilla cupcakes and cream cheese icing (although I did seriously consider red velvets).

Vanilla cupcakes (24):

2 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 2/3 cup sugar
5 egg whites
2 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line a muffin pan with paper liners. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed for 30 seconds. Gradually add sugar, beating well after each addition and scraping the bowl occasionally. Beat 2 minutes longer. Add egg whites, one at the time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. On low speed, alternatively add flour mixture, about 1/3 of mixture at the time, and milk, about 1/2 at a time, beating until just blended. Divide batter in the lined baking cups, filling them about 2/3 of the way. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Wait until completely cooled to frost.

Cream cheese frosting (yes, I know, I have an addiction...):

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, at room temperature
1 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
4 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract

Using the whisk attachment, whip the butter and cream cheese on high speed for about 5 minutes, scraping the bowl down as necessary. Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the powdered sugar until all is incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix to combine. Increase the speed to medium high and whip for a few minutes until the frosting is light and fluffy, scraping the bowl as necessary.

And the finishing murderous touch is some gel food coloring, diluted in warm water until it has the perfect bloody, gooey consistency; you then dip the wider end of a chop stick in, and go Jackson Pollock on the cupcakes! Beware: concentrated food coloring stains, so cover your work surface in garbage bags and wear gloves if you want to avoid the unpleasant experience of cleaning up a crime scene (or going all Lady Macbeth... unless that's your costume!).

A big thank you to Cupcake Rehab, for the coolest Halloween cupcake idea EVER! You rock! These were a blast to make, and were a huge success with the Halloween lunch crowd!

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Some Like It Hot: Penne Arrabbiata

This is a recipe that quite literally spices up a simple pasta night! It is very easy and quick to make, and its absolutely delicious: but be warned! It is HOT!

My boyfriend loves spicy food, and he recently brought me a rather large quantity of very hot peppers. I've been trying to use them up by cooking curries and other Asian dishes when it occurred to me that I had never made my man any arrabbiata. Shame on me for neglecting to treat my beloved to a steaming bowl of fiery hot pasta!

The word "arrabbiata" comes from the word for "angry" in Italian. It's a rather poetic way to describe the intense heat of this inconspicuous little sauce.

The chiles we usually get are scotch bonnets, a particularly intense hot pepper. I always handle them very carefully, never letting them touch my skin, removing all the seeds and inner white skin, and scrubbing the surfaces the chile touched with soapy water. That may sound crazy, but I learned my lesson the hard way the first time I used them! When you buy hot peppers, research their type, and find out where they stand on the Scoville scale: handle them accordingly.

Now here is how to make your volcanic pasta!

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 or 2 fresh chile, thinly chopped
1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes
4 or 5 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
Brown sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 package dry penne
Parmesan cheese, grated

Pour the can of tomatoes in a large bowl and crush them by hand.

In a large frying pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add crushed garlic and chile. Sauté for 3 to 4 minutes.

Pour the tomatoes in the frying pan, stir, then add the torn basil leaves, a pinch of brown sugar, a pinch of sea salt and some pepper to taste. Simmer for 10 minutes. Bring a large boil of salted water to a boil, add penne and boil until almost ready. Pour the pasta in the tomato sauce and mix for a few minutes using tongs.

Serve with Parmesan to garnish.

A good arrabbiata sauce should make your lips pleasantly tingly, and NOT make your eyes water uncontrollably. So dose the heat nice and easy at first; taste, then add more spice if you can take it. My boyfriend is an ex-smoker, so he can take a lot more spice than me. I like using 1 big chile, which I think does the trick; he prefers 2 chiles. My advice is to try the recipe with 1 chile first, and if you feel you can handle more, make it with 2 chiles the next time. Unless you are fighting a cold, in which case, skip ahead to the 2-chile level immediately!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Red and the Black... Beet, Barley and Soy Bean Soup

Whew! The past few months have been intense! I will not bore you with work and health related details (this is, after all, a food blog), but let's just say there is a reason comfort food has been the culinary theme in my kitchen for the past little while. Luckily for my sanity, things are finally simmering down. I've also been reading a lot, which is always a good way to keep me sane and happy.

I don't remember mentioning it before, but I am what you may call a book junkie: I love reading all kinds of books and I have an actual library in my apartment, where I spend as much time as possible, away from electronic devices. Books (along with music) have been my escape and pleasure for as long as I can remember, and I tend to get them by the cart-load. I recently stocked up from my Amazon wish list, using the excuse that colder weather means I'll spend more time inside, reading (though when it's warm, I spend a lot of time outside, reading).

For some reason, I am on a classic literature kick lately: Dickens, Austen, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Thackeray, Tolstoy... These guys treated language with incredible respect, as something truly beautiful, and made prose that you can read out loud and it just... flows. I'll grab one of their books, make myself a nice pot of oolong tea, sit in my big reading chair, and off I am! But I do get hungry every so often, and while the books feed my soul, my stomach needs more substantial sustenance.

I got inspired by "Anna Karenina" (and by "Vegan with a Vengeance"), and I whipped up a big pot of this lovely soup. Filling, comforting, nourishing. Just the thing to keep me reading until the wee morning hours! It also feels great with the chilly weather we have been having lately.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons dry tarragon
Freshly ground black pepper
8 cups water
6 medium-sized beets, cut in half, sliced 1/4-inch thick
3/4 cup pearl barley
1/4 cup tamari
1 (15-ounce) can black soy beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill

In a stockpot over medium heat, sauté the onion in the olive oil for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, tarragon and a few dashes of black pepper; sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add the water, beets, barley and tamari, cover and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the beans and simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent the barley from sticking together, or until the barley is tender.

Add the balsamic vinegar and the dill. Serve hot, with croutons and extra fresh dill for garnish.

OK, I cheated: I used regular black beans, because I couldn't find black soy beans... and I had no croutons, but my boyfriend found a wonderful Russian bread (rye, molasses and malt give traditional Russian bread a rich, dark color, which my boyfriend equates with the darkness of the Russian soul... but mostly, it just tastes really good) that tasted so awesome with a big bowl of this soup.

While my boyfriend and I are enamored with more traditional, minimalist borscht, this soup is more filling, and make a perfect lunch, with enough nutritious goodness to keep you going until dinner! The color is simply gorgeous, and it tastes great reheated (perhaps even better than fresh, to be honest).

The wonderfully comforting smell of beets is something thrilling when the days get shorter and colder. For some reason, it really reminds me of my grandmother's kitchen (even if she seldom cooked with beets): homey and safe. Enjoy this soup whenever you want an escape from this crazy world, into a warm and fuzzy place.