Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Pasta Con Broccoli

I have a short-term memory disorder when it comes to this dish. Every time I set out to whip up some pasta con broccoli, I find myself thinking "oh, this is gonna be a boring meal!" until I eat my first bite... and then I can barely restrain myself from licking the pot.

Life without pasta would not be worth living. I don't think one needs an Italian mom to agree with me. But sometimes, thick red sauces can be a bit repetitive. Deliciously repetitive, granted, but spicing things up never hurt anyone, did it? This sauce is an easily over-looked wallflower of a recipe, but it's low-fat, piquant and healthy.

 Broccoli and garlic lovers will go nuts for a plate of these pasta (one of my coworkers attempted to steal my lunch the last time I brought some to work - office workers can be savages). It's perfect for weeknight dinners, because it takes about 30 minutes from start to finish: turn the heat on for your pasta water as soon as your start your sauce and everything should be ready at the same time.

From "Appetite for Reduction", spiced tweaked:
1/2 pound dry pasta (linguini and rigatoni are my faves)
2 teaspoons olive oil
6 to 8 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon chili flakes
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 cup vegetable broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 head of broccoli, tops cut into small florets, stalks thinly sliced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Several pinches of ground pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the package’s instructions. Preheat a large skillet over medium heat and sauté the garlic, chili flakes and thyme in the oil for a minute or two, then stir in the vegetable broth, wine and salt. Add the broccoli, turn up the heat to bring to a simmer and cover the pan. Cook for 8 to 13 minutes, depending on how soft you want the broccoli to get, stirring occasionally. When the pasta is done cooking, drain and add to the pan, using a pasta spoon to toss them around for 3 more minutes, making sure everything gets coated. Mix in the balsamic vinegar. Serve with a generous pinch of black pepper, and make sure to spoon the leftover garlic from the pan on the plates.

This dish's simplicity gives it all it's charm. It makes a nice, filling-yet-light lunch that you can enjoy at room temperature. But if you eat this dish at home, drink the rest of the white wine with your pasta, and don't forget some crusty bread to clean out your plate.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

My World-Famous Spicy Thai Peanut Butter Chicken

This is another one of my home-made Chinese take-outs! I've been making this one for years, because I am a peanut butter fiend. And honestly, what's more awesome than a creamy, spicy, rich Hunan sauce on a stir-fry or on some dumplings?

I may have a severe addiction to that spicy peanut-buttery taste, so I began to experiment with the flavors until I got the following stir-fry sauce. It's probably highly inauthentic, but it's a universal hit: my boyfriend loves it, coworkers have been known to beg for the recipe and my brother requests it constantly.

This is one of those cases where one can say: "authentic - shmauthentic"! This dish is a lovely comfort-food, rich, creamy and spicy. The sauce can be as thick or as liquid as you want; just add more broth or water. If it separates, as peanut butter tends to do, just stir until it gets nice and smooth again. Lime is not mandatory, but it gives the sauce a fruity zing that I just can't resist.

2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into finger-sized strips
2 small yellow onions, diced
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
8 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
Shriracha sauce, to taste
1 to 2 cups vegetable stock or water
1 or 2 limes, juiced (optional)
Peanut oil
2 tablespoon chili flakes
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
Sea salt and ground pepper
Toasted peanuts

In a large bowl, put the peanut butter and slowly pour the broth or water, gradually mixing it with the peanut butter. Add the lime juice, if using. Blend well until the mixture is creamy. Add more water if needed, until you get a thick, smooth sauce that pours easily from a wooden spoon. Add the Shriracha 1 tablespoon at a time, mix well and taste to make sure it doesn’t get too spicy. Preheat a casserole-type pan over medium heat. Add a glug of oil to the pan and sauté the garlic for a few minutes, until it is golden. Add the onions and fry for 5 to 6 minutes, until they are soft. Add the chicken to the pan and cook another 10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked and slightly golden. Pour the sauce over the chicken and blend well to coat everything. Mix in the chili flakes, cardamom and add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pan and let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. When the chicken is tender and cooked through, remove from the heat and add a handful of toasted peanuts to the pan. Mix well and serve with jasmine rice and steamed vegetables.

I sometimes mix it up by adding some shitake mushrooms along with the chicken (regular button or cremini mushrooms work well, too). You can add any veggies you like in a stir-fry: bell peppers, baby corn... You can also substitute the chicken for some tofu! Use 1 block of extra-firm tofu, diced, and stir-fry it until crispy and voila! The chewy texture of the tofu goes so well with the thick sauce.

As the rich texture of the sauce hints, this isn't a low-fat dish, whether you use chicken or tofu, so keep it for those days when you need to give yourself a finger-lickin' good treat!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Borscht or Detox by Beetroot

The other day, I went to visit my mother. We talked, drank tea, watched "Dracula" and I made her some of my pork and cider stew - which she loved! In return for the meal I made her, she gave me... a bag of beets. I know some of you will think that this is a weird way of being grateful, but what you don't know is that I had decided to try my hand at making borscht, so those beets were very enthusiastically received! Thank you mom!!

We are having intense soup-weather lately, and as I have mentioned before, the Russians are good at tasty winter comfort food. Borscht is technically a Ukrainian recipe, but most Eastern European countries have their own variants, hot and cold. I can't vouch for the authenticity of the recipe below, as I found it within the colorful pages of Nadia G.'s "Bitchin' Kitchen Cookbook". She showcases it as an excellent soup to cure hangovers, which makes sense, as beets are packed with vitamin C and powerful antioxidants.

I also learned that beetroots are great veggies to munch on to promote a good cardiovascular health because they contain betaine, a very cleansing nutrient that breaks down fatty deposits (of cholesterol on the heart and of alcohol-damage on the liver). Nadia G. was right: party-animals out there ought to stock up on beets and learn to make borscht.

I wasn't hungover in the least when I decided to make this: I was just cold and grumpy. So was my boyfriend. Making my kitchen look like a murder scene was very therapeutic and the smell of the cooking beets and the celery was oddly soothing. It was the perfect night for borscht.

6 beets
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 large red onion, minced
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3 big pinches brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 celery stalk, halved
1 carrot, halved
1 big pinch dried dill
Sea salt and ground black pepper
1 handful fresh dill, chopped
Sour cream, for garnish (optional)

Peel the beets and chop them into equally sized pieces. Boil over medium heat, in 3 cups of salted water, covered, for 30 minutes. Strain the beets and reserve the cooking liquid. Heat the olive oil in a large pot on medium heat. Add the minced garlic and sauté until golden, about 3 minutes. Add the onion. Sauté until the onions are soft, about 8 minutes. Add 2 cups of the beet cooking liquid, along with the stock, brown sugar, cider vinegar, celery, carrot, a big pinch of dried dill and salt and pepper to taste. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Simmer, covered, for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Discard the carrot and celery. Add a handful of chopped fresh dill. Throw the cooked beets back in and top with a dollop of sour cream, if desired.

Now listen closely: beets stain. Hardcore.

Wear dark clothes or an apron when peeling and slicing, and if you have decent cooking gloves, use them, or you will look like Dexter. And do not slice them on a nice wooden cutting board: use the crappy plastic one that's been sitting in a dark corner since your last move.

This soup is great if you are the kind of crazy person who works out regularly, as it helps keep all your organs clean. It's also great if you are nursing a cold or dieting, because of the high content of anti-oxidants. See, not just good for the party-animals!

On a cold night, the sweet and earthy flavor of this soup is wonderful and comforting. I also loved the dark red color. If you like it hot, perhaps you'll like it cold, too! Borscht can be served cooled in the hotter months of the year, like a gazpacho. Whatever temperature it's served at, a nice piece of rye bread and a glass of strong red wine are very good friends to borscht.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Scrumptious Sweet and Sour Chicken

I am a total city-girl, so it goes without saying that I lurve my Chinese food. That's right; not love, LURVE. But I confess that lately, my favorite places to get Asian food fixes have been very disappointing. Like this sweet and sour chicken that was rubbery and way too sweet. Not to mention the overabundance of mushy bok choi. Everywhere. And may I ask why dishes like General Tao chicken need to be fried twice? Once wasn't enough? Granted, the Chinese food that is very popular here is considered street food over there, which is never a very healthy kind of sustenance. But there must be a way to improve on the quality of the dish without sacrificing the bold flavors I love so much!

Such deep philosophical thoughts have led to me to experiment with making classic take-out dishes at home, where I can control the frying and the bok choi. And the first wrong I decided to make right was the aforementioned sweet and sour chicken.

As much as I love pineapple, I am usually not a fan of their presence in savory dishes. Maybe it's the Italian blood in me, but pineapple on pizza gives me nightmares about people in grass-skirts invading Rome. So, so wrong. However, when you want some pucker-your-lips sweet and sour-goodness, I have to admit pineapples infuse the dish with an unmistakable and exotic charm. So I make an exception and use plenty of the lovely fruit in this recipe. But there has to be more than pineapples to make this dish awesome! I give you sweet and sour chicken alla Gabriela, with 3 ways to cook the chicken: that way, you choose how much you clog your arteries!

Serves 4 to 6.

2 cups rice wine vinegar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup cold water

In a medium pot, mix vinegar, sugar, ketchup and soy sauce together; bring to a low boil on medium heat. In a small bowl, mix cornstarch and water, then gently stir into the boiling pot. Cook and stir until thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes. It may seem like it's taking a long time, but just keep stirring until you've good a nice gooey consistency. Cover and set aside.

Now for the stir-fry:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into cubes
Peanut oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 fresh chile, chopped
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cups pineapple chunks
Sesame seeds, for garnish

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large wok. Sauté the garlic, chile, ginger and onion until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken and pepper to the wok and fry until the chicken is well cooked, about 10 minutes. Pour the sauce in the wok along with the pineapple chunks. Mix well, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the flavors well blended. Serve over jasmine rice and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

You can also choose to fry or bake your chicken, in which case you will need the following:
1/2 cup cornstarn
1 egg, lightly beaten

Roll the pieces of chicken in the cornstarch and drown in the egg.

To fry, heat some peanut oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, fry the chicken in batches, until lightly browned and cooked through. Place on some paper towels to absorb the oil and reserve. Proceed with the recipe.

To bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Brown the chicken in the frying pan, just to seal the meat. Then place the chicken pieces in a single layer in a large baking dish. Bake for 1 hour, turning the pieces every 15 minutes, and proceed with the recipe.

The downside of this recipe (if you don't consider chopping lots of stuff up a downside) is that the sauce requires an entire regular bottle of rice wine vinegar, which isn't the cheapest condiment out there. You can substitute it for regular white vinegar, which is much more affordable and comes in rather big bottles. I can't lie: the taste will be a bit different, but the dish will still be very good. However, if you love cooking Asian food, I highly recommend hitting the grocery stores in Chinatown, where you can get a huge bottle of rice wine vinegar for an excellent price. It's a sound investment for stir-fry addicts!

Don't be shy to use pork or tofu cubes instead of the chicken. All three cooking techniques work well for those proteins, too!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Mighty Vindaloo

Montreal has been buried under a ton of snow and freezing rain has made walking in the streets a very dangerous activity. Oh, the joys of winter in my city… When I am cold and miserable (getting drenched in freezing rain and being in a crowded grocery store does that to me, go figure), there is no better cure than my favorite curry, devoured while watching "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World".

I wasn't a fan of pork until the first time I tried this delicious vindaloo recipe, but cooked like this, it becomes so tender and tasty that I need a responsible adult to make sure I don't wolf down the entire pot. The fresh ginger and tomatoes in the broth also make me happy beyond reason, and the intense heat from the chile is ideal for cold weather. Be warned: this is one hot-hot-hot curry (some Indian restaurants don't even carry it, because most customers can't handle it)! But what I love about it is that the flavors are balanced perfectly; the spices do not overwhelm and you get to enjoy every element of the tasty combination! I cheat and smooth it out a bit with a few dollops of plain yogurt, but that doesn't hide any of this vindaloo's glory.

I served it to my friend Michael, who is very British (the Brits are experts on curry, so I figured he'd give me constructive commentary), and he cleared his plate and declared it "bloody good!", which was the highest compliment I could have hoped for. But don't take his word for it: the Ramones literally sing vindaloo's praise in "I Just Want to Have Something To Do"!

A bit of history: vindaloo is a bit of a bastard curry, i.e. it is not purely Indian. It was originally derived from a Portuguese dish of pork, cooked with wine and garlic. This recipe made it to Goa, India, where the wine was substituted for vinegar, and chiles and other traditional spices were added. It's often made with chicken or lamb, instead of pork, and potatoes are sometimes added to it. The recipe below is as close as possible to authentic Indian vindaloo, though perhaps a bit less fiery. I'll leave the dosing of chile to your discretion.

I will repeat my old chile warning: if you are working with a type of chile you haven't tried before, go with very little at first, and adjust to your taste as you go along… cuz once it's in the pot, there is no taking it out! Also make sure you handle them carefully with plastic gloves, wash your hands and every surface the chile came in contact with. Better safe than on fire and very, very sorry to have rubbed your runny nose.

From "Jamie's Food Revolution", this wonder-curry feeds 4 to 6:

2 medium yellow onions
4 cloves of garlic
1/2 fresh red chile
1 thumb-size piece of fresh ginger
1 small bunch of fresh cilantro
4 ripe tomatoes
1 3/4 pound of diced pork
1/2 cup of vindaloo curry paste
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
a pat of butter
peanut oil
1 cup natural yogurt

Peel, halve and finely slice the onions. Peel and finely slice the garlic and ginger, Finely slice the chile. Pick the cilantro leaves and finely slice the stalks. Cut the tomatoes into quarters, an cut each quarter in half lengthwise. Get a casserole-type pan on medium heat and add a couple of lugs of peanut oil and the butter. Add the onion, garlic, chile, ginger and cilantro stalks and cook for 10 minutes, until the onions are soften and golden. Add the pork and curry paste. Stir well to cover everything in the paste. Add the tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, honey and 1 cup of water (don't be tempted to put more or you'll drown your curry!) and stir again. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and let simmer for 45 minutes with the lid on. Check the curry regularly to make sure it is not sticking to the pan. When the meat is tender and cooked, carefully season with a bit of salt and pepper. Serve with basmati rice and a few spoonfuls of natural yogurt on top, and the cilantro leaves.

As you can see, once everything is chopped up, this curry comes together in a snap and you get to sit with a good book until it's ready: another reason to love it! The acidic bite of the balsamic vinegar with the ginger is unusual, but highly addictive. Try it with lamb, chicken or tofu, if pork is not your thing. It never fails to be delicious. Just be mindful to adjust the cooking time: 30 minutes for the chicken and 25 for tofu (the cooking time for lamb and pork will be pretty much the same).

If you want to serve a wine with this, go with a crisp white, such as C'est La Vie chardonnay-sauvignon, that will shock your palate with a cool feeling before you go for the next bite of spicy goodness. A nice blond beer is also a great idea.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

My Aunt Marguerite's Macaroni

This recipe is a bit legendary in my mother's family. It was supposed to be my aunt Marguerite's special recipe, but I never met said aunt, and I believe she might have been dead long before my mother learned to cook it herself, so our exact relations to this mystical woman are fairly nebulous.

I have a vivid imagination, so I imagine she must have been part of the Italian family that wound up here (in which case, she would have been zia Magherita), far from home and from the food she knew, so she probably improvised with whatever ingredients she could get her hands on. She realized our tomatoes were not half as tasty as the ones she used to enjoy back home, and as she was probably broke, she got the cheapest tomato sauce she could find, the cheapest meat available and drowned the whole thing in lots of fresh black pepper. And her recipe makes a ton of pasta because she probably wanted to feed as many family members as she could all from one pot.

Maybe I am completely wrong about her story, but her macaroni was ever the crowd pleaser, so we keep making it and eating it! Her legacy will never fade away, thanks to this easy and cheap meal!

4 cups dry tubular pasta (macaroni or tortiglioni are my faves)
Olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon savory
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon chili flakes (optional)
3 cans tomato soup
1 pound lean ground beef
Sea salt and ground black pepper

Boil a large pot of salted water. When boiling, add the pasta and cook according to package instruction. Preheat a large pan over medium-high heat. Fry the garlic and onion in the oil until soft and golden, about 5 minutes. Add the spices and mix well. Crumble the ground beef in the pan and fry with the onion until the meat is browned. Pour the tomato soup in the pan, and mix well with the meat and the onion. Check your pasta: when they are still a little bit firm, drain them and transfer to the pan of sauce. Blend well so that the noodles are well coated in sauce. Lower the heat, cover and let simmer for 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adjust if necessary and serve.

I love grating fresh mozzarella on top of my pasta and let it melt and get all gooey, but you can also turn easily turn this recipe into a baked pasta casserole. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. After you have mixed your pasta in the sauce, take it off the heat and generously sprinkle it with freshly grated mozzarella and place it in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes, until the cheese has melted. Broil the dish for 2 minutes to make the cheese golden-brown, remove from the oven and serve.

For some reason, despite the fact that this is one of the easiest, cheapest-to-make recipes I know, it's a universal hit. Kids love it, grown-ups love it, cats love it. Maybe because it's got that Chef Boyardee-type of meaty pasta appeal (except that you actually WANT to eat it because it isn't made of unidentified canned ingredients). Maybe because everybody thinks it tastes just like something their mom used to make. Or maybe just because everybody secretly wishes they'd had an aunt Marguerite...

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Pesto and Salmon Parcels

In my book, pesto is right up there with nectar and ambrosia, as the food that the gods stuff their faces with on Mount Olympus, when they are not busy seducing mortals or sending them on absurd quests for golden fleeces. This little miracle of delight comes from the region of Genoa, in Italy (I know Olympus isn't in Italy, for the record, but since the ancient Greeks and Romans shared a pantheon, I figured it wasn't such a stretch of the imagination), and is made by grounding together fresh basil leaves, toasted pine nuts, Parmesan and garlic, and binding the result in a creamy paste with olive oil and, sometimes, a bit of lemon juice.

It is traditionally done with a mortar and pestle, but us, time savy urban cooks, prefer to use the miracle of technology that is the food processor. Nothing beats the freshly home-made recipe you'll find below (mostly because you get to control the Parmesan and lemon juice quantities and make it exactly to you taste), but in emergencies, I prefer the Fontaine Santé brand of store-bought pesto. I find it tastes fresher and is easier to work with than other brands, because of it's lovely gooey texture.

I will provide you with a delicious classic pesto recipe, and two of the most simple, yet elegant and delicious ways to serve it.

Now, a small ingredients lecture. I am a bit of a snob when it comes to getting certain top-notch ingredients…

If, like me, you keep a basil plant on your window-sill, picking the leaves you need for this recipe straight from it might reduce your plant to a sprout. Since I use fresh basil regularly, I keep my plant for when small quantities are required - 1/3 cup to 1 cup. When you need more than 1 cup of fresh basil leaves, buying a packaged bunch from the grocery store is a good idea, unless you plan on waiting until your plant grows back before using some again. Also, pine nuts are pricey, because they are actually individually extracted from the pine cones. My suggestion is to buy them in bulk, and freeze what you are not using in a sealable plastic container. Parmegginano regiano is an absolute necessity for an authentic pesto. Either grate it yourself or buy it grated, from a fromagerie or a quality grocery store cheese counter. I'll paraphrase the bombastic Nadia G. about this; if it doesn't have to be refrigerated, it's not cheese!! And finally, "olive oil" means "cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil". This liquid gold is worth every penny, both for it's taste and health benefits. My favorite brand is Olio Tribeca, but when I can't find it, I apply a price-quality selection similar to what I'd use buying wine: if you pay less than $ 15, expect to get what you pay for… Target gourmet or ethnic grocery-stores to find the real deal, imported from Italy, Greece or Portugal.

Now that we have established quality standards, let's get cookin'! This pesto is from Jamie Oliver's "Jamie's Dinners", with a few adjustments.

2 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 large handfuls of fresh basil, leaves picked and chopped
1 handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 large handful of grated Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Sea salt
1 squeeze of lemon juice

Pulse the garlic and basil in a food processor with a pinch of salt. Add the pine nuts to the mixture and pulse again. Transfer to a bowl and add half the Parmesan. Stir gently and add olive oil slowly; you need just enough to bind the sauce and give it an oozy consistency. Season to taste and add most of the remaining cheese. Poor in more oil and taste again. Keep adding cheese and oil until you are happy with the taste and consistency. Add a little squeeze of lemon juice at the end.

Toasting pine nuts is quite simple: put your little guys in a small dry frying pan, over medium heat, and toss them around a few minutes, until they are lightly colored, and transfer them into a bowl until you add them to the pesto.

Of course, you can keep everything in the food processor until the pesto is done; I do that mostly because I don't like to clean more dishes than I need. Be careful to get your taste-test with a spoon: there are sharp blades in that food processor! Don't freak out if once pulsed, it looks like you don't have enough basil in there. Once you add the oil and the other ingredients, this recipe will give you four helpings.

It took a couple of attempts before I balanced out the garlic/cheese flavors to my taste (too much garlic drowns the basil taste and too much cheese can make the pesto a bit biter), but practice makes perfect! Even a slightly flawed pesto is a lovely thing so don't be afraid of not reaching perfection on the first shot.

Pesto can be kept in a sealed container in the fridge for up to a week. If you know you won't use it right away, freeze it and simply defrost it overnight in the fridge before using. Yes, this means you can double or triple the recipe and make yourself a pesto stash! Of course, if you start doing that compulsively, you may want to seek a 12-steps program; we can go together!

Now, we all know how delicious pesto can be as a sauce to any pasta dish. My personal favorite way to serve it is to cube two chicken breasts and cook them in a pan with a bit of olive oil, then add them to some freshly cooked penne, and top the whole deal with pesto. Death by delicious. 

But if you are both lazy and love salmon, here is something I found in "Jamie's Food Revolution" and that I am now severely addicted to. The method is for individual portions, but if you have someone to impress, such as in-laws or colleagues, you can use the same steps with one of those huge, long salmon fillets. I am going to assume you already know that salmon is positively full of omega-3, vitamin D and good cholesterol, and spare you the "why you should eat lots and lots of fish" talk…

2 handfuls of green beans
2 lemons
2 7 ounces salmon fillets
4 heaped tablespoons pesto
olive oil
sea salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Trim the beans by cutting off the stalk ends but keeping the wispy tips. Halve one of the lemons. Take a yard of aluminum foil and fold it in half to have two layers. Put a handful of green beans in the middle and lay a salmon filet, skin side down, across the beans and spoon over 2 tablespoons of pesto, to cover the fish well. Drizzle with olive oil and squeeze the juice of one of the lemon halves, season with salt and pepper. Pull the aluminum foil together and scrunch them to make a parcel. Repeat these steps for the second parcel and place both on a sheet pan. But the pan in the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it stand for a minute before carefully unwrapping and checking if the salmon is cooked to your liking. Serve the parcels on plates, with lemon wedges.

I like to have a bit of still-pink fish at the heart of the fillet, but if you like it cooked through, leave it in the oven for 5 more minutes.

Keep some crusty bread around, to mop up the oil and pesto that will remain in the parcels; no waste! It makes quite a filling helping, but it's lovely with a few steamed baby potatoes if you want to add a bit of carbs to the ensemble. A crisp white wine is great with this; my pick would be Vivolo di Sasso, or any nice sauvignon blanc that you like.

This post is dedicated to the loving memory of my friend Alex, also known occasionally as the Mad Macaque, who loved pesto even more than I did, and who passed away 2 years ago. I think of him every time I make a fresh batch, and every time I listen to Bad Religion's "Raise Your Voice" and NOFX's "Stinkin' In My Eye". I miss you, you big moron. Love!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Moroccan Chickpea & Zucchini Stew

My hearty winter comfort food so far has been very rich. Potatoes, cream and meat galore! There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But I get more sedentary in winter, and despite walking half an hour every day and always using the stairs, I sometimes feel like my warm and comforting food shouldn't knock me on my ass... or add padding to it. So today, I give you a filling and warming stew that's very different from the last!

After all the Holiday baking (and once my boyfriend and I got through the metric ton of dessert leftovers we ended up with), I reached for my copy of "Appetite for Reduction", an amazing collection of low-fat vegan recipes. As redundant as "low-fat vegan food" may sound to some, I have to say that when I feel like my body is in need of a little veggie delight/detox, I reach for this book hungrily. It is full of surprisingly filling and satisfying recipes, and Isa Chandra Moskowitz knows her spices!

Zucchinis are one of those veggies I am never really sure what to do with. This recipe is a great blend of flavors and texture, and it made me really appreciate this poor little underdog vegetable. I recommend this recipe as a winter dish, but really, you can make it all year long, whenever you find yourself asking the deep philosophical question: "What the devil do I do with all these zucchinis?!"

Even if this stew contains no meat, I love to make it in my beloved Dutchoven. The blend of cumin and coriander is warming and exotic, which makes a great cure to the occasional winter blues.

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 small yellow onion, sliced thinly
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon coriander
a generous pinch of ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup baby carrots
2 zucchinis, sliced into 1/4 inch half-moon
1 (24 ounce) can whole tomatoes
1 (25 ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint, and some whole leaves for garnish

Preheat a 4-quart pot over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion in the oil until translucent, about 4 minutes. add the garlic, ginger and chili flakes and sauté for another minute. Add the remaining spices and salt and sauté for about 30 seconds. Deglaze the pot with the veggie broth and mix in the carrots. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat to a simmer and let cook for about 10 minutes. Add the zucchini. Break up the tomatoes with your fingers and add them to the pot, including the juice. Mix in the chickpeas. Cover the pot and bring to a slow boil. Cook for about 15 minutes, the adjust the lid so that there is room for some steam to escape. Cook for another 15 minutes; the liquid should reduce a bit, but not too much. Add the mint and let sit for about 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaves, taste for seasoning, adjust if necessary. Serve over couscous or quinoa.

Don't be daunted by the long ingredients list; they are very easy to come by and the generous batch of stew you'll have will give your body a (possibly) much needed detox from all the Christmas calories. I love all those chewy vegetables and I am mad about chickpeas and cumin.

If you have a carnivorous significant other like me, you can appease their ferocity by serving this along a couple of grilled merguez sausages. It's naughty, but delicious (and a few proteins never killed anyone - just make sure to use a grilling pan, so that the fat collects in the pan and not on the merguez)!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Beef Stroganoff

Even if I lived in Montreal my whole life, I never seem to get used to winter. If I had my way, I would hibernate or spend 4 months soaking my frozen bones in a hot bath. Instead, I take out a warm coat and sturdy boots, grind my teeth and make comfort food.

Thanks to globalization, we can still eat almost anything we want all year 'round, but cold weather such as what we have been experiencing lately will inevitably make me crave rich and filling dishes. Since they also get pretty brutal winters, the Russians have devised some truly delicious wintery comfort meals. I set on to explore some of those, out of curiosity, and to please my very own cute Russian.

I originally doubted the authenticity of beef Stroganoff, wondering if it wasn't to Russians what General Tao is to the Chinese, i.e. a complete bastardization of their traditional cuisine. But after a bit of research, I accepted it as real Russian cuisine, since the first recorded recipes for it date back from Imperial Russia (most likely named after some member of the aristocracy who liked to serve it to his guests in his huge winter palace...). It became massively popular in America, France, China and everywhere Russian exiles fled to after the Revolution. That makes quite a bit of sense, and the regional variations are relatively minimal.

1 pound of beef, cut into thin slices
1 tablespoon butter
1 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 (8 ounce) package cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 cups red wine
1 (5,5 ounce) can tomato paste
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon dried dill
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Sea salt and ground pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped

Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. Sauté the beef until it is no longer pink, about 5 minutes, and set aside. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the beef, wine, tomato paste, mustard, paprika, dill, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the meat is tender, about 60-90 minutes. Mix the flour in. Bring to a boil and cook while stirring until it has thickened, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the sour cream and dill.

As you can see, it is a pretty simple recipe to make, so even with frost bitten fingers, anyone can whip this up. My boyfriend likes it better with rice (because all the yummy sauce gets soaked up by the rice) and I dig it over some egg noodles (because it's fun and messy), but either way works. You could even serve it over a couple of baked potatoes, if you fancy.

Sirloin is the preferred cut of beef to work with, but any cut will work, really, as long as it can be prepared into strips. Stewing cubes may be a bit too rough (they are generally from a rougher part of the animal, and take a longer stewing time to cook to the proper texture); if that's what you have at hand, try cutting them in half to make them a bit thinner.

It took me a couple of attempts to balance out the seasoning, so I feel like I can make the following Captain Obvious-statement: this dish isn't supposed to be spicy, but it shouldn't be bland either. Season subtly with garlic, paprika and dill to highlight the mushrooms and beef.

You can also substitute the red wine for beef stock (most of the recipes I've read actually call for beef stock specifically), but I love cooking with wine and find the taste much richer. I tried both ways and the wine version was a million times better. Besides, a Russian dish without booze: that doesn't make sense, does it? You should still taste the tartness of the sour cream, so once you add it, taste and adjust very carefully before serving. Your sauce should have a silky and pleasantly pink creamy texture.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Pork and Cider Stew

Stews may be the oldest dish on Earth. Every culture and local cuisine has one or more recipes for stews, which is essentially meat and vegetables, slowly cooked in their own juices. Cassoulet, tagine, goulash and chili con carne are all examples of stews. Old and versatile!

What's wonderful about stews is that once you master the basic principles, you can throw virtually anything in a Dutchoven (or slow-cooker, if you swing that way) and get a rich and delicious meal after a few hours of simmering. Tougher cuts of meat are preferred for stews, as the long simmering softens it better than other methods of cooking. A savy way for cooks to make sure no meat is wasted!

In the colder months of the year, knowing a few stew recipes comes in very handy, because a proper dosage of meat and vegetables will give you a complete and satisfying meal with relatively little effort. A stew is obviously more filling than a soup, so if you are going to serve it with a side dish, keep it nice and light.

This recipe has a British taste to it: pork, sage and cider are a traditional match. Add to that a few chunks of potatoes, carrots and onions and you have yourself the kind of food served by every self-respecting pub in England (or self-respecting Irish pubs in Montreal). You can either cook it in the oven or one stove top. I prefer the latter technique, if only to have the enticing smell fill the kitchen!

From "Jamie's Food Revolution", slightly altered.

2 large Russet potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
Olive oil
1 heaped tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes
Sea salt and ground pepper
3 sprigs fresh sage
1 pound diced stewing pork
2 cups medium-dry hard cider (I used L'Éphémère cider, from Unibroue)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, if you plan on cooking the stew in the oven. Put a Dutchoven over medium-heat. Put all the veggies and herbs in with 2 lugs of olive oil and fry for 10 minutes. Add the meat and flour. Pour in the booze and canned tomatoes. Give a good stir, then season with a teaspoon of sea salt and a few grinds of pepper. Bring to a boil, put the lid on and either simmer slowly on your stove top or cook in the oven for 2 and a half hours. Stir occasionally. Remove the lid for the last hour of simmering, also stirring a couple of times. This will reduce the liquid and thicken it. Add a splash of water if it looks a bit dry. Remove herb stalks, taste and adjust seasoning as needed and serve.

I like to keep my veggies chunky, but even if you like them smaller, try to chop them in equally-sized pieces so that they cook evenly. The cider and sage give the pork a nice, rich and comforting taste. I love the texture of the meat cooked this way: it becomes very tender and breaks apart so easily you can almost say it melts in your mouth.

My boyfriend and I enjoyed this as our New Year's dinner, with a garden salad, crusty bread and a few slices of Bois Blond cheese. A dry red wine goes very well with this stew (we had Celeste, a delicious Spanish red).