Thursday, 21 February 2013

Thai Eggplant Curry

I just love trying out new recipes, especially when they turn out to be fantastic finds! This little recipe (which I had shamefully overlooked for the past few weeks) is amazing for several reasons. Here they are in no particular order:
  • Its super easy and quick to make. Once the chopping is done, you'll hardly need 20 minutes to get your meal on the table. Perfect for week nights!
  • Its so tasty and flavorful, with the ginger, garlic, curry paste and coconut milk. Not too spicy, not too sweet; just awesome.
  • Its a gorgeous, colorful plate of vegetables. A bright dish can cure the kind of winter blues that afflict so many of us at this time of the year, and we can all use a bit more veggies in our plate!

Eggplant is great in curries because it absorbs the flavor of the other ingredients, turning into tasty and tender little bites as it simmers. You could use any type of eggplant for this recipe, but I prefer the long Japanese kind here. Pick them smooth-skinned and as brightly purple as you can find! Unlike regular European eggplant, there is no need to salt them before you cook: they do not have the occasional bitterness you find in the larger eggplants.

3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 1/2 pounds Asian eggplants, cut into half-moons (3 or 4 eggplants)
2 orange or red bell peppers, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 or 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, chopped
3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste (I used Thai Kitchen)
1 (14 ounce) can coconut milk (or coconut cream, for a luxurious, richer curry)
2 tablespoons fish sauce (substitute soy sauce if you want to keep it vegan)
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1/4 cup Thai basil leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Lime wedges, to garnish

Heat the oil in a large, deep pan over medium heat. Add the eggplants and bell pepper and sauté until the eggplant has begun to soften all around, about 5 minutes.

Add the garlic, ginger, and curry paste. Mix well until the paste covers all the other ingredients, and cook until aromatic, another 1 minute.

Pour in the coconut milk and bring the liquid to a simmer. Stir in the fish sauce and brown sugar. Cook for another 5 minutes, until the eggplant is very tender.

Stir in the Thai basil leaves and cook for another minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with rice and lime wedges to squeeze over the curry.

You can bulk it up a bit more by adding 1 container of cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced, along with the other vegetables: their earthy flavor goes very well with the spicy, creamy sauce.

This recipe serves 4, but if you want to make it for a crowd or a pot-luck, double the coconut milk, garlic, ginger and curry paste, and add 1 pound of extra-firm tofu, drained, pressed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, and add it to the pot when you set the curry to simmer. If you think there isn't enough liquid, add 1 cup of water or vegetable broth.

If you prefer green or yellow Thai curry to red, you should feel free to use those instead of the red curry paste. Just watch out because the level of heat varies from one "color" to the other, green being the hottest, and yellow the mildest.

It's the perfect quick dinner for those cold and damp February evenings!

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Apple Pie

My mother is an apple pie fairy: for as long as I can remember, she has made delicious, gooey magic in a buttery crust that my father, brother and I used to fight over tooth and nail. It's her signature dessert, and she still gets very eager requests from everyone who has ever tasted it.

I remember a college buddy of mine coming over to my house to prepare for an exam: he had once told me he hated apple pie, but to be polite, he accepted the slice my mother offered him, and it. Changed. His. World. He asked for a second helping, and begged her for the recipe. She's that good.

I had a craving for a homey, comforting dessert, and it so happened that I had some pie crust dough handy... What was I do? I had no choice but to make an apple pie!

My mother's apple pie filling is very minimalist: sweet apples, a dusting of sugar and some nutmeg. As delicious as that is, I wanted to try something a little different. Granny Smiths are my favorite apples, but they are quite tart, so I knew a bit of sugar would be required to balance out their flavor, and I love a hint of spices in a dessert, so some cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg found their way in my filling mix.

Here is my mom's pie dough recipe: it makes enough dough for 3 double-crusted pies. The extra can be frozen and used later, when you feel an urge for a lovely home-made pie (see my peach pie recipe for the step-by-step pictures!).

6 cups non-bleached all-purpose flour (5 ½ cups for the dough, and ½ cup for surfaces)
2 tablespoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups high-quality vegetable shortening, cut into small pieces
1 large egg, beaten
¼ cup white vinegar
1 2/3 cup whole milk, and extra for brushing

Sift 5 ½ cups of flour, the baking powder and the salt together in a large bowl. In a 2-cups measuring cup, mix the egg and vinegar, and add milk until you have 2 cups of liquid. Add the shortening to the dry ingredients, breaking it up with the fingertips or a pastry cutter and rubbing it into the dry ingredients until it is crumbly and mixed in. In 3 additions, add the wet ingredients to the dry, blending well with the hands between each addition: spread your fingers to scrape the bowl well while mixing. Blend until all the liquid ingredients are just incorporated, being careful not to over-mix. The dough should be moist and homogenous. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight.

Here is the filling:

6 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 granulated cane sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt

Mix the sugars, spices, flour and salt. Put the apple slices and the sugar and spice mix in a large bowl and mix by hand until combined.

Preheat the oven to 425 degree. To assemble the pie, sprinkle flour on the working surface and on a rolling pin. Take a fist-sized piece of the dough and form it into a ball. Place the ball of dough on the working surface and flatten it with the rolling pin. Work the dough in a roughly circular shape by rolling outwards. Once the dough is rolled out to the desired size, fold it in half, place it in the pie plate, and unfold. Gently press the dough into the plate and smooth it out. Brush the edges with milk. Roll out the top crust portion of dough. Fill the bottom crust with the apple filling.

Fold the top crust in half, create slits or cut outs to let steam escape, then delicately lift it, place it on top of the filling and unfold.

Using the fingertips, the back of a spoon or a fork, pinch the dough around the edges to join the two crusts firmly and trim off the excess dough with a butter knife. Lightly brush the top crust with milk. Place in the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Lower the heat to 350, and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes. Place the pie on a cooling rack, and cool at least 1 hour before serving.

Does anything scream "comfort" more than the smell of an apple pie, cooling on your kitchen counter? That spicy, fruity, buttery smell is the stuff of childhood memories and a slice of that beauty hit just the spot.

The filling was just sweet enough, perfectly balanced with the nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and clove, with the Granny Smith's flavor still shining through gloriously. It was exactly what I needed: a warm slice of comfort.

I'm not yet the pie fairy my mother is, but I feel like I am well on my way to mastering this magical dessert!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Pantry Pasta, or Chickpea and Tomato Rotinis

Do you remember my super-basic garlic pasta? This recipe also comes from a time when I had to scrape my brain to figure out ways to eat good food without busting an extremely tight budget. Listen up, students and artists: one of the tricks to accomplishing that feat is to have a well-stocked pantry, full of non-perishable items on which you can fall back safely when there is no more dough for fresh produce.

Pasta, canned tomatoes and a selection of canned beans are things you should always have within reach, no matter what your budget is, because they are inexpensive, versatile and can make tasty and healthy bases to many great meals. You can get endlessly creative with basic ingredients like that if you have a little imagination.

Since all the ingredients for this recipe are pantry-staples in my kitchen, I nicknamed it Pantry Pasta: it makes a really tasty and filling bowl of saucy beans and pasta (pasta e fagoli is a theme Italians get very creative with), and the ordinary ingredients combined give a very rich flavor to every bite, despite being relatively cheap.

I love making some Pantry Pasta from time to time: it brings back wonderful memories of cooking in my tiny yellow kitchen before going to a rock show with friends... It has the nostalgic taste of the carefree and fun days of punk rock lifestyle: yummy, inexpensive to make... and vegan, with a hint of booze!

A word here about cooking with wine: I've read somewhere you should never cook with wine you would not drink. I say meh! Cooking with wine is my favorite technique to get rid of a lousy bottle I don't WANT to drink. The alcohol evaporates during the cooking process, leaving only the highlight of the wine's taste in the dish, so the only thing you really need to be concerned with is whether your wine is dry or sweet, depending on the desired effect. For this particular dish, a drier red wine is ideal. So that wood-chipper vino you got at a lousy gift-exchange back in December; now is the time to start using it for good!

1 package dry rotinis (pennes also work great here)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon cumin
1 bay leaf
1 (28 ounces) can crushed tomatoes
1 (19 ounces) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/3 cup dry red wine
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
6 to 8 fresh basil leaves, ripped

Heat up the olive oil in a large pan, over medium heat. Cook the onion for 7 to 8 minutes, until softened.

Stir in the garlic, tomato paste, chili flakes, oregano, thyme and cumin. Cook for a few minutes, until fragrant.

Add the crushed tomatoes, chickpeas, red wine, the bay leaf and some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the sauce is thickened.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta according to package instructions, until al dente. Remove the bay leaf from the sauce and add the fresh basil leaves. Add the pasta to the sauce, mix well and serve immediately.

You can serve it with some Parmigianno-Reggiano, if you are a cheese-fiend like me, but it's just as tasty in all it's vegan glory. I love chickpeas and their lovely chewy texture, and a seasoned tomato sauce is really their best friend: the cumin adds a subtle Middle Eastern hint to the otherwise very Italian ingredients of the sauce, making it exotic and mysterious.

This dish is a simple and homey dinner, and the leftovers make for a great, filling and healthy lunch that will keep you powered until the end of the day. Of course, if the wine you used in the sauce is to your taste, I won't discourage you for having a glass along with your pasta...

Saturday, 2 February 2013

My Tomato-Basil Risotto

Since my best friend Véronique showed me how to make risotto, I was very eager to make more of the delicious, creamy, sticky rice dish. I made a very successful shrimp and lemon risotto this fall. Regular readers of this blog know how much I like the taste of tomato and basil, and when I was asked to bring a side-dish to a family meal, I decided to adapt the V-Wonder's recipe to make a big batch of gorgeous, gooey arborio to feed my in-laws.

The result was lip-smacking tasty, easy to pull-off and made a splendid and impressive offering to the big family meal. While it would be delicious devoured on it's own, it was also neutral enough to go along well with a wide range of main dishes.

Here is how to make this lovely and simple risotto, for 4 to 6 people:

1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained, liquid reserved and tomatoes roughly chopped
Chicken or vegetable broth
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup white wine
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups arborio rice
1/2 tablespoon dried basil
1 small bunch fresh basil, leaves picked and finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigianno-Reggiano

Pour the juice from the can of tomatoes in a 4-cups measuring cup. Top with chicken broth until you have 4 cups of liquid. Pour that liquid in a small sauce pan, and heat over medium heat until it comes to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to keep it simmering.

Pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan, and on medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic until soft. Be careful not to brown the onion.

Sprinkle with the dried basil and add the tomatoes, being careful not to add any of the liquid from the can. Add the arborio rice and 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and stir so that all the grains of rice are coated in oil. Cook until the rice becomes translucent.

Add the wine and let it get fully absorbed by the rice, stirring constantly. Take a ladle-full of stock and add to the rice with a good pinch of salt. Stir to mix, and cook, stirring, until all the stock is absorbed.

Continue to add stock, one ladle at the time until the rice is al dente and creamy, 16 to 18 minutes. When adding the last ladle, also add the fresh basil leaves.

Take the rice off the heat, add butter, Parmigianno-Reggiano, pepper and mix well.

After trying it a few times, I have found that the trick to risotto is to use a wide pan (so that as much rice as possible gets heated up at the same time), an angled spatula to stir (to make sure no grain of arborio is left untouched - my stir-fry spatula is my favorite tool here), to taste often to test the rice's texture... and obviously to keep an eye on it. The change in texture and creaminess is visible as the cooking progresses and when you move the pan around and notice fluid waves of fragrant rice, you know you are on the right track. You also want to make sure nothing is sticking, so blast some good music, pour yourself a glass of wine and stir-away!