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.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Broke-Ass Pasta (a.k.a. Aglio-Olio)

It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but I get very very anxious if there is not a hefty stock of dry pasta in my pantry. Back in my broke musician days, I would not have survived very long without my best friends spaghetti, penne and macaroni, and there is now an irrational but deeply-rooted fear that I may starve to death if I have no pasta handy.

If you make sure to have a decent bottle of olive oil at all times, then the ingredients for this recipe cost less than $5, and yield four helpings. Ideal for hungry artists who wish to eat well without selling-out, and students with limited budgets!

I make this recipe from time to time, not out of financial worry, but simply because it’s simple, quick to make, and completely delicious. Ever had one of those evenings where you have no inspiration for dinner ideas, or no energy but a dire need to eat? This recipe is made for such evenings, and also from anyone recovering from an illness that upset their stomachs. Minimalist pasta dishes such as this one settles the tummy and gives you the calories and carbs your body needs to recover.

1 package dry linguine or spaghetti (stringy pasta work the best with this recipe, but any pasta you have in the pantry will do)
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced

Chili flakes
Sea salt and ground pepper
1 handful fresh parsley, minced
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the package instructions. Heat a large pan over medium heat and add the oil, garlic, a small pinch of chili flake, salt and freshly ground pepper. Sauté garlic for 2 minutes, until golden, then take off the heat.

Once the pasta is cooked, strain and drop it in the garlicky olive oil, turn the heat to medium and mix it up for a few minutes with the parsley.

Serve sprinkled with Parmesan and more black pepper.

If you like a nice crunch, add a handful of breadcrumbs as you toss your pasta in the oil. Minimalist and delicious. Garlic fiends will be especially enamored of this pasta dish, as you can make it subtle or screamingly garlicky as you want, depending on your mood or taste. Use Italian or flat-leaf parsley, which is more flavorful that regular curly parsley. It also makes for a lovely window-plant, so why not get some that you can grow at home? Tasty AND pretty!  

It's raining cash? Awesome! Add 1 cup of small or medium cooked shrimps and 2 or 3 finely chopped scallions to your garlic and oil. You have random leftovers you want to get rid of, like cooked sausages? No worries: throw them in the pan along with the pasta, that will give them just enough time to heat through.

If you love to cook, olive oil is something you should think of as an investment. 15 to 25 dollars for a bottle of extra-virgin, cold pressed olive oil is quite reasonable. Think about it the same way you'd think of a bottle of wine: would you drink $5 wine? Nah, me neither. And I wouldn't cook with ridiculously cheap olive oil, either. Getting the good stuff with make a huge difference in your dishes (and not just your salad dressings).

I've talked about the importance of not over-cooking pasta before, but it's a very important point that deserves to be repeated again. Al dente means you need to have a firm bite when you chew, but no crunch. Drain pasta as soon as they have the desired texture to stop the cooking, unless you are going to throw them in a sauce; in which case, leave them just a little bit harder because they will finish cooking in the sauce.

If you can afford it, a fruity white wine cleanses the palate beautifully after this garlicky feast! 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Eggplant and Chicken Macaroni Gratin

I have been mildly obsessed with baked pasta dishes lately. Maybe because fall is right around the corner, which generally means my appetite for comfort food increases dramatically. What can I say, I do not like cold (you gotta wonder why I still live in a country where it snows from October to April) and I make up for the miserable weather with awesome food.

This recipe was inspired by an improvised pasta dish my mother whipped up the last time I went to see her. Her version was good, but I reworked it to satisfy my carnivorous boyfriend's cravings, and make it into a sort of alla Norma twist on a classic mac-and-cheese.

I had a beautiful fresh eggplant from my father's garden (the eggplant was sooo cute and chubby, I felt kinda guilty chopping it), my basil plant was offering me gorgeous, huge green leaves and I had a ton of fresh local garlic in the pantry. This gratin is my farewell to summer, and acceptance of fall, season of ankle boots, chunky scarves and leather jackets.

1 eggplant, cut into small cubes
1 skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
Olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 to 4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon dry oregano
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 package dry macaroni
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup mozzarella, grated

Place the eggplant cubes in a colander, sprinkle with salt and toss well. Sweat the eggplant for 30 minutes to an hour, then rinse under cold water and drain well. While the eggplant sweats, preheat a pan over medium heat. Cook the chicken cubes in a glug of olive oil, until tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside. Drain the cooking fat from the pan, add more olive oil and put back on the heat. Cook the onion and garlic, until fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Add the eggplant, oregano and chili flakes. Fry up the eggplant cubes, tossing well until the are lightly browned on all sides.

Pour in the diced tomatoes and give the sauce a good stir. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat. Simmer the sauce, covered, for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook according to the package instruction, until almost al dente, and drain. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the basil, chicken, ricotta and macaroni.

Mix well and transfer to the baking dish. Cover generously with the mozzarella.

Bake in the oven until heated through, and until the cheese is golden and bubbly, about 30 minutes.

Vegetarians can replace the chicken with a zucchini, chopped in half-moons, to keep the "late summer at the farmer's market" spirit of the recipe. Add them to the pan along with the eggplant, and proceed with the recipe.

This recipe makes a very tasty, creamy pasta casserole. The chicken is very tender, the eggplant gives a satisfying bite and the sauce is zesty and rich: it makes a filling and healthy substitute for the usual mac and cheese. It also makes a ton, so bring the leftovers with you for lunch! A nice helping of these will make the yellowing leaves and the migrating geese a bit less melancholy.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Pesto Lasagna or Lasagne Alla Genovese

Basil is one of those things I can't imagine living without. I use fresh leaves in my cooking at least 3 times a week, and what better time to use them than at their peak, right at the end of the summer heats? Basil will add a sweet herb-y taste to pasta sauces, meat dishes, and even desserts and cocktails! The plant is also lovely: keep it by a window where it will get lots of sunlight and generously water it everyday, and you'll always have fresh basil to flavor your food!

Pesto, it goes without saying, is one of my favorite things, ever. It's versatile, tasty, can be adjusted just to your taste, and it can easily be frozen for later use. I try to always have some pesto handy, because a tablespoon here or there can make almost any dish suddenly taste very sophisticated. Roast chicken? Pesto! Minestrone? Pesto! Grilled white fish? Pesto! The damn thing is addictive. So imagine a lasagne literally stuffed with it!!

This recipe makes a beautiful lasagne for hotter weather, because it is not as heavy as the tomato or meat sauce based ones, and if you make your own pesto, it is simply bursting with seasonal goodness (however, do not fool yourself into thinking this is diet lasagne!). Sure, it's a bit of work and a lot of assembling, like any lasagne, but the creamy blend of bechamel and pesto is to die for. It also looks really beautiful and smells amazing! I got inspired by a post of The Italian Dish, but used my own pesto and bechamel recipe to create this dream of a pasta bake.

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

Pesto (makes about 1 cup):
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 large handfuls of fresh basil, leaves picked and chopped
Coarse sea salt
1 handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 large handful of grated Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Sea salt
1 squeeze of lemon juice

Bechamel (makes about 4 cups):
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) butter
4 cups milk
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper

Pulse the garlic and basil in a food processor with a pinch of coarse sea 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.

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 the 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.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In an 9 by 13-inch baking pan, place about 1/3 cup of the bechamel to coat the bottom of the pan. Lay first layer of lasagna noodles. Add enough bechamel to coat the noodles. Add some pesto and spread into the bechamel. Add a handful of the grated Parmesan.

Continue to layer the noodles, bechamel, pesto and Parmesan until the last layer of noodles (I got 4 layers of 3 noodles). On top of this, spread one layer of bechamel, add the rest of the Parmesan and top with the mozzarella.  Sprinkle the oregano on top.

Wrap tightly with foil. Bake for forty to forty-five minutes (if using regular, cooked noodles) or 50 minutes to one hour (if using no-boil noodles). Remove foil and bake for 10 minutes more, until top is golden. Check if the noodles are cooked through by piercing the lasagne with a fork. Cool 5 to 15 minutes before serving.

If you are a lasagne-newbie, you may be wondering if traditional pre-cooked noodles are better than no-boil noodles. While purists will want to kill me, I have to confess that I never really noticed a significant difference between the two: while pre-cooked noodles can have a more uniform texture, they can be harder to handle, and have a tendency to be sticky. No-boil noodles mean less dishes to clean, and a quicker assembly, but they need to cook longer...

Here is what you do if you want to pre-cook your noodles: cook them in boiling salted water, and take them out when they just start getting a bit malleable, after about 3 minutes. To make sure they do not stick together, lay the noodles, well separated, around the edges of the cooking pot and colander. When you assemble your lasagne, carefully lift them and lay them as desired in your baking dish. Do not cook them too early in the process because if they have time to dry out, they will become trickier to arrange.

If you are using no-boil noodles, make sure they are soaked in plenty of sauce because they absorb a lot of liquid. Leave the lasagne in the oven 10 to 15 minutes longer if you used no-boil noodles, and poke your lasagne with a fork, to make sure they are nicely cooked before cutting and serving.

Of course, if you are in a hurry, you can use store-bought pesto. I recommend the Fontaine Santé brand, because the consistency is nice and gooey, and not too paste-like (there is also no weird ingredients or preservative in that pesto, making it the sanest choice I have yet to find on the shelves). This is especially important in a baked pasta dish like this one, where the sauce helps cook the pasta. If the pesto is too thick, the results will not be as creamy.

I served this elegant lasagne to my pesto-loving brother, who almost licked his plate clean. Honestly, I was quite close to doing that myself. The sauce's texture thickens a bit in the oven, and mixes really nicely with the pesto: the Parmesan and crunchy golden mozzarella crust complemented the sauce perfectly. The only thing I might try differently would be mixing the bechamel and the pesto before spreading it on the noodles .

If you want to beef up this lasagne, add finely chopped broccoli or cauliflower (or both!) between the pesto and the Parmesan on the middle layers of noodles. The veggies will gently cook in the sauce, and you'll get healthy goodness with your luxurious pasta bake, making it somewhat less of a guilty pleasure. Serve it with a dry white wine, to balance out the sweet creaminess of the bechamel and the tang of the pesto.