Sunday, 29 April 2012

Pineapple Fried Rice

I've been on a Thai food kick lately: the traditional flavor blend of sweet, hot, bitter and salty never fails to seduce my palate. Inspired by Nancie McDermott's books "Real Thai" and "Real Vegetarian Thai", and by a huge tub of fresh pineapple chunks, I decided to whip up my own version of a dish I have always enjoyed: pineapple fried rice.

As I was getting everything ready, it occurred to me how versatile this recipe is: whether you are omni, vegetarian, or vegan, you can make yourself an absolutely delicious and completely authentic pineapple fried rice. I have included all the possible options in the recipe below, and I urge you to try which ever version seems tasty to you.

First, a few things to keep in mind. Fried rice strikes me as a leftover dish, since it requires small quantities of most of the ingredients. I usually save it for the day before I hop to the grocery store, to get rid of a couple of lonely veggies. A lot of stuff is delicious in fried rice, so don't feel obliged to follow the ingredients list: grab whatever you have lurking in a corner of the fridge before it goes bad. Simply add the firmer vegetables early in the stir-frying process, and the softer ones at the end.

My grocery store carries fresh pineapples that are already peeled and cut into a nice big cylinder. But if you are not as lucky and you find peeling and chopping pineapples too complicated, or if you live in a place where you can't get canned pineapples (hello, Martians!), mangoes are a great substitute! Make sure to use a mango that's still firm enough for the pieces of fruit to keep their shape, and you are good to go.

Also, remember that cooked rice and uncooked rice do not have the same volume at all! I made that mistake the first time and got stuck with a monstrous quantity of rice. White rice almost doubles in volume when cooked, because of all the water it absorbs. If you want 3 cups of cooked rice, prepare 1 1/2 cups, and you should have plenty (though that changes slightly between brands, so go easy the first time).

Finally, a stir-fry cooks itself very fast, because the heat is quite high. To avoid accidents, messes and burnt fingers, I recommend grouping all the ingredients that go in the wok at the same time in a small bowl, and line up your bowls of additions next to the stove in the order in which they go. Mix your sauce thoroughly and have it ready as well, and all with go smoothly.

Traditionally, a lot of Thai stir-fries included a beaten egg, but I was never insane about that, so I omitted it. I also had tons of tofu in the fridge, so that's what went in the wok the first time I made it. I tried it again a few days later with shrimps and it was just as good! This recipe wields 4 generous helpings as a main course, and 6 to 8 helpings as a side-dish.

1 tablespoon peanut oil
4 to 6 scallions, sliced diagonally
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 red chile, chopped
1 bell pepper, diced small
1 egg, lightly beaten (optional)
1/2 cup cashews or peanuts, roasted
3 cups cooked jasmine rice (preferably a day old, or let it sit in the fridge a couple of hours)
1 1/2 cup pineapple, cut into bite sized pieces
1 cup small shrimps (cooked) or tofu, cut into bite-sized pieces (optional)
1/2 cup peas, fresh or frozen
1 cup shredded carrot

3 tablespoons vegetable broth
3 tablespoons fish sauce or soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 to 2 teaspoons Sri Racha sauce
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Extra pineapple, cut into wedges, for garnish

Put all the sauce’s ingredients in a small bowl, and mix well. Set aside. Heat the oil in a wok or large pan over medium-high heat. If using the tofu, stir-fry in the oil for a few minutes, until nice and crispy, set aside, and add a bit more oil in the wok. Add half the shallots, the garlic, chiles and bell pepper and stir-fry until fragrant, about a minute. Add the egg (if using) and stir-fry for a minute. Add the sauce and stir well to coat everything. Add the cashews and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the rice, break up any clumps and stir-fry for a few minutes. Add the pineapple, shrimps or tofu, peas and carrot and stir-fry to mix them in. Remove from heat and serve garnished with chopped scallions, cilantro and pineapple wedges, with extra soy sauce and/or Sri Racha sauce.

If using neither shrimps or tofu, use 1 container of fresh mushrooms, quartered, (or the equivalent quantity of Chinese eggplant, cubed) and add along with the bell pepper. Dose the chile and Sri Racha to taste, but don't omit them completely, as a little spicy bite really rounds up this dish.

Despite all the chopping, this is a quick dish to make, so it's perfect for weeknights, and the leftovers are delicious reheated for lunch the next day. It also make a bright and colorful plate!

If you want to create a spectacular presentation, here is a trick requiring you to use a fresh pineapple. Cut it in half, lengthwise. Hollow out each half carefully. Make a small slice on the outside of each half, to create a flat base for the hollow pineapple to hold steady on it's side, and pile the hot rice in!

Monday, 23 April 2012

Cherry Tomato and Olive Penne

Cherry tomatoes have got to be the cutest vegetable ever. So small and plump. They also happen to be some of the few tomatoes that still taste of something, and are therefore really great to make light pasta sauces with!

I always keep my eyes peeled for new pasta ideas. As much I love my old favorite sauces and enjoy preparing them over and over again, trying out new ones is so exciting (wow, that makes it sound like my life is so boring...)! I ran across this one browsing, and being crazy about olives, I just had to try it.

Having a variety of quick pasta sauces in your repertoire comes in handy on weeknights, and leftovers make simple and delicious lunches. This one strikes a lovely balance between the sweet cherry tomatoes and the tangy olives, and serves 4.

1 pound penne rigate
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium white onion, chopped
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1 (5 ounce) can tomato paste
1/3 cup white wine
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red chili flakes, to taste
Sea salt and ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
1/4 cup grated Parmesan (optional)

In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the penne until it is almost al dente (just barely undercooked - the pasta will finish cooking in the sauce). Reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion, and cook, stirring, until the onion is slightly soft (don't let the garlic brown). Add the cherry tomatoes and cook 3-4 minutes. Add tomato paste, white wine, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat until the tomatoes begin to break down, about 8-10 minutes. Add the penne, olives, and the Parmesan (if using) to the skillet and toss to combine. Add some of the reserved pasta water and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until heated through and pasta is perfectly al dente. Serve with more Parmesan if desired.

I used a combination of cherry and grape tomatoes, having both handy at the time. It made for a fresh and lovely plate of pasta, lightly coated in garlicky-tomato goodness. I guarantee olive-lovers with lick their plates and ask for seconds!

Serve it with a nice robust red wine, that will balance out the flavor of the cherry tomatoes and heighten the salty bites of the Kalamatas.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Perfectly Simple Vanilla Cupcakes

A good vanilla cupcake is the pastry equivalent of a little black dress: it's perfect for every occasion. Birthday party? Vanilla cupcakes! Baby-shower? Vanilla cupcakes! Easter lunch? Vanilla cupcakes! Girls night in? Vanilla cupcakes!

O.K., I'll admit that when PMS-ing, chocolate cupcake is more de rigueur, but for pretty much everything else, vanilla cupcakes work.

I strongly object to anyone calling vanilla cupcakes (or little black dresses) boring! When did vanilla get such a bad rep as dull and conventional? I'll take classic, creamy vanilla ice cream drizzled with a shot of limoncello or maple syrup any day over ridiculous and overly sweet flavors. Same with cupcakes: I prefer Audrey Hepburn to Lady Gaga, even in pastry-metaphors.

Classics never get old, and as Leonardo Da Vinci himself said: "Simplicity is the greatest elegance". Anyone who enjoys baking needs a basic vanilla cupcake recipe they can play with, use to test out various icing experiments, or get ready in a jiffy when unexpected reasons to pig out suddenly arise.

I sneaked this recipe off, since I had such a success in February with the red velvet recipe I found on that site. I wanted a no-muss no-fuss vanilla cupcakes recipe, that I could make with stuff I already had at home (not in the mood to hunt down non-self-rising-cake flour, thank you very much, Ms. Stewart)... and I really wanted to use my new stand mixer again!!

Yes, I recently gave myself a big and shiny present, in the shape of a giant KitchenAid stand mixer. It's beautiful and so efficient that I feel completely lazy using it to bake, because I have nothing left to do besides measuring ingredients. I love it to bits and I intend to use my Easter break to try my hand at making some home-made bread!

But enough about my toy, let's get back to the cupcakes:

1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick), room temperature
½ cup sour cream
1 large egg , room temperature
2 large egg yolks , room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin tin with paper liners. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Add butter, sour cream, egg and egg yolks, and vanilla; beat at medium speed until smooth and satiny, about 30 seconds. Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula and mix by hand until smooth and no flour pockets remain. Divide batter evenly among cups of prepared tin. Bake until cupcake tops are pale gold and toothpick or skewer inserted into center comes out clean, 20 to 24 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from tin and transfer to wire rack; cool cupcakes to room temperature before frosting.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I can't get enough of cream cheese frosting, so I whipped up a batch to crown my lovely classic vanilla cakes with!

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
2½ cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon 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.

A lot of my coworkers have their birthday in early April, so I baked a double batch and got 24 innocent-looking, but devilishly delicious little white cakes! The flourishes of the icing seemed decoration enough for my little creations, so I left them plain; their moist, sweet crumb was all the ornament they needed!

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Vegetable Madras Curry

I recently had the urge to go vegetarian when I went to the supermarket and everything in the meat section was overpriced. And I mean even the lousiest imaginable cuts. I am not counting pennies, but I do respect my budget, and these prices were completely absurd. Besides, I can't deny the health and ecological benefits of reducing meat consumption (I may enjoy meat, but I am nowhere near deluded enough to think we can keep eating it at the rate we do without causing serious harm to the planet). And while I am lucky that my boyfriend eats tofu willingly, there is only so much soy curd I can cook in the same week before he'll start asking for a bit of variety, which is perfectly understandable.

I had a lovely eggplant in the fridge and a can of giant fava beans that had been sitting in my pantry for a while, so I improvised a vegetarian curry that contained no tofu whatsoever. A vegetarian curry does not have to contain a meat substitute to be delicious and nutritive. After all, isn't the word "vegetarian" derived from the word "veggie"? Time to make them the star of the show, don't you think?

A Madras curry is a thick, red stew, spiced with chile, tumeric and ginger, and given a sour kick with lemon or lime juice, or vinegar (but not both!). It turns out that although Madras curry was not invented in the south of India, but in the kitchens of England, it respects the culinary traditions of the region it's named after: it's hot! In fact, it seems to me that the further south you go in India, the spiciest the local cuisine gets. That region is also mostly Hindu, so it's safe to say that they would cook vegetarian curries.

I am not sure whether or not they have eggplants in southern India, but a veggie curry generally contains one (for lack of a better word) beefy vegetable, such as sweet potatoes, turnips, etc., that will take well to being slowly cooked in a spicy sauce, and other veggies to complement it. Eggplant is great in curry because it gets very tender and silky, and it absorbs the flavors of the sauce (but if you do not like eggplants, use carrots, or other firm root vegetables, like parsnip). You can either leave the skin on or peel them; if you do peel them, they will break apart and make your curry very saucy.

I added beans because I wanted a bit of protein in this dish. Giant fava beans were what I had on hand, and they are definitely meaty, but red kidney beans would have worked great here as well (though you can skip the beans entirely if you wish: I just loved the toothy-bite in contrast to the eggplant's texture).

1 pound eggplant
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 (19 ounce) can fava or red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 medium yellow onions, diced
1 (18 ounce) can diced or crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup Madras curry paste
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root, finely chopped
1/2 fresh chile, finely chopped
1 lemon or lime, juiced
Peanut oil or ghee
Plain yogurt
1 small bunch fresh cilantro leaves
Lemon wedges

Cube the eggplant and place in a colander. Sprinkle with salt, toss around and let sit for about 30 minutes. Rinse under cold water and set aside. Preheat a large pan over medium-heat. Fry the garlic, ginger and chile in some peanut oil or ghee, until the garlic is lightly colored, about 3 minutes. Add the onions and the bell pepper, and fry until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the curry paste and mix well to get everything coated. Add the eggplant and cook, tossing around, until lightly browned on a few sides, about 5 minutes. Pour in the tomatoes, stir in the beans and add 1 cup of water and the lemon juice. Give a few good stirs to mix and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to simmer, and cook, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is tender. Serve over basmati rice, garnished with cilantro leaves and lemon wedges, dotted with plain yogurt to taste.

I do not usually expect get a success on the first try of a recipe I create in the spur of the moment. But this curry was heavenly! Spicy (but not too hot), tangy, with an awesome mix of textures.

I read that you can also use 1 can of coconut milk instead of the water, if you want a creamier version of the curry; something I shall experiment with as soon as I get a chance. I tried it, and though it makes the curry softer on the palate, it doesn't change much to the overall taste. Personally, I prefer my original version, but adding the coconut milk might be a good idea for those of you who are more sensitive to the spicy heat.

I tried it with tofu and with chicken (both versions were delicious, especially with chickpeas!), but the eggplant was so melt-in-your-mouth tender and tasty that it is still my favorite version. It actually makes me quite curious to try my other curries with this veg!

Like with most curries, I find something cold and slightly fruity is the best kind of drink to wash the spicy bites down with. Try a light beer, or a surprisingly nice Italian white wine I recently discovered: Soave. Awesome funky bottle and it tastes great with almost everything!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Lavender-Iced Brownie Cupcakes

I am a very anxious person. One could probably pull out a lot of clich├ęs about how dysfunctional urban lifestyles can wreck your nerves, but sadly, I've been dragging that problem since I was in grade school. Finding ways to relax is extremely important if I want to keep my zen without running to a bottle of (strictly medicinal) red wine. Reading and cooking are two of my favorite ways to un-wind. The first, because it gives me a break from the reality that's shredding my nerves and it occupies my mind with something else, so said-mind doesn't spin out of control. The second, because it also keeps my mind and my hands busy, and I get the reward of delicious, lovingly-prepared food at the end.

As my very wise and elegant friend Valerie likes to remind me, "stressed" is "desserts" spelled backwards. Have you ever seen one of those little notebooks that says "Keep calm and make cupcakes" on the cover? Well, that's my mantra. I should probably get it tattooed on somewhere, come to think of it.

When I saw this recipe in "Martha Stewart's Cupcakes", it struck me as a beautiful and tasty way to soothe my delicate nerves. After all, chocolate is a wonderful way to remind oneself that life is definitely worth biting into ferociously. I had tried a few recipes involving flower essences before, and I had felt that even when dosed extremely carefully, stuff like rose water made my cookies taste a bit like perfume. But this recipe calls for the flowers to steep in milk, providing a natural and subtle flavor (instead of feeling like you are eating a bottle of Chanel #5). And since lavender is a time-proven relaxant, icing fudgy-chocolate cupcakes with pretty lavender icing sounds like the key to serenity to me.

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 2 1/2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces, room temperature
3 1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the icing:
1/3 cup milk
1/2 teaspoons dried lavender
3 cups confectioner sugar
violet gel-paste food color

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line muffin pans with paper liners. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Melt the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water; stir until smooth. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Beat the chocolate mixture and the sugar until combined. Add eggs, one at the time, beating each until incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in the vanilla. Add flour mixture and mix until just combined. Divide batter evenly in the liners, filling each 1/2 full (do not overfill the liners! the cupcakes will rise, but they will not dome). Bake for 17 minutes, until a cake-tester comes out clean. Leave to cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. They will look a bit mushy, but the cooling will make then firmer.

Bring the milk and lavender to a boil in a sauce pan. Remove from the heat and cover; let steep for 10 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl and discard the lavender. Whisk in confectioner’s sugar until smooth. Strain again. Add food color, a little at the time, until the desired shade is achieved. Use a small spoon to coat the cupcakes with the icing, covering the tops completely. Let set, about 1 hour. Store at room temperature.

This recipe wields 24, elegant little mini-cakes. Being me, I slightly over-filled my liners, and not only did the cake not dome, they also caved in a bit. I filled the little gaps with the icing. They were a bit messy to eat, but the cakes had a rich, fudgy texture and a strong chocolate flavor. The lavender taste was subtle and complemented the rich chocolate cake so well. Next time, I am gonna be a good girl and follow my instructions and my cakes will be firmer!

Wow, that kinda sounded wrong...