Monday, 22 April 2013

Jerk Chicken for Sweethearts

I love my friend Paul. He is sweet, wise, funny and totally bad-ass. We call him the King of Imps, because I am sure fairies all over the world bow down to his awesomeness.

I wanted to make him dinner for his birthday, and he told me he wanted jerk chicken. I had never cooked jerk chicken before, so he knew he was going to be my culinary lab rat, but he was game, and so was I! I bought a beautiful, big organic chicken, and got to work!

Jerk spice is a Jamaican rub or pasty marinade that is used on chicken and pork. And it is SPICY! I often cook with scotch bonnets, those very, very hot chili peppers (and yes, they are often red... sorry, nerd of the 90's had to make that joke...) but this recipe actually calls for their volcanically hot seeds to be included in the marinade...

I usually stay away from the seeds, because, they are terribly spicy, so much so that they will irritate your skin, and contaminate everything they come into contact with. Always handle them with gloves (or sandwich bags over your hands, like I do, cuz I am too dumb to get cooking gloves) or live to regret it!

Besides scotch bonnets, the other traditional ingredients that find their way in jerk spice are garlic, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme and scallions. I added ground ginger to give it a slightly different kind of heat (and because I am a ginger addict), some lime juice, molasses and olive oil to get all these spices to "gel" together in a nice, thick marinade. The mixture made my eyes water! But Jamaican food is often extremely spicy, because, oddly, when you live in tropical climates, eating spicy food will reduce your own body temp, thus making the sweltering heat more tolerable. Weird, I know, but if it works...

This recipe can be cooked on a grill, but I roasted it in the over, because I do not have a barbecue on my balcony just yet (someday... someday soon!) and because it's quite simple and not too messy.

1 (5-to-6 pounds) whole chicken, cut in half down the middle (I got my butcher to do that for me; he rocks!)

1/2 cup malt vinegar (or white vinegar)
2 tablespoons dark rum
2 Scotch bonnet peppers (or habaneros), with seeds, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
4 scallions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoons dried thyme
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
4 teaspoons ground allspice
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 teaspoons ground nutmeg
4 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons molasses
1 lime, juiced

6 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce

Put the vinegar, rum, hot peppers, onion, scallions, garlic, thyme, olive oil, salt, pepper, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, molasses and lime juice into a blender. Pulse until mostly smooth.

Poke the chicken with a knife to nick the skin a few times. Place the chicken in a large freezer bag, or in a large roasting pan or baking dish. Pour the jerk paste onto the chicken pieces and coat well. Seal the bag or cover the chicken in the pan with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.

When you are ready to cook the chicken, remove it from the marinade bag or pan. Put the remaining marinade into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons of the reheated marinade with the ketchup and soy sauce and set aside. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place chicken halves in a rimmed baking pan, skin side up.

Roast until the chicken halves are cooked through, about 60 minutes, basting with the marinade occasionally. The chicken is done when the juices run clear when a knife tip is inserted into both the chicken breast and thigh (for those with meat thermometers, that's about 165-170°F for the breast and 180-185°F for the thigh). Transfer the chicken to a platter. Tent loosely with foil to keep warm and let stand 15 minutes. Cut the chicken into pieces and serve with rice and the sauce.

While the strength of the marinade scared me a little as I was making it, I was very happy (and relieved) to discover that once cooked, the meanness of the scotch bonnets' bite was gone, leaving behind a spicy (but not overwhelming) and complex flavor. The chicken was very tender and juicy, and the sauce made from the marinade was lip-smacking good! For a first-timer at jerk chicken, I was very pleased with the results, and so was the birthday boy!

I am not very good at carving whole chickens and always need help with cutting the damn thing into portions. If you are like me, you could simply use the equivalent quantity of prepared (and already separated) chicken breasts and legs: marinate them just as you would with the whole chicken, but be very careful not to overcook it when you proceed to the roasting. Meat with the bone in takes longer to cook, so de-boned chicken will only take 30 to 45 minutes to cook through. You could also use the marinade on pork or lamb roast!

Enjoy this delicious, spicy chicken with some super-cold light beer, or a well-chilled white wine, to prevent your mouth from catching fire. And don't be afraid of giving it a shot: it's wonderful and not spicy enough to make you cry as you eat. Which is always a good sign ;-)

Monday, 15 April 2013

Kick-Ass Sweet Potato-Tuna Cakes

My friend Sam is a lot of awesome things, but one of the things he is, is a eater. The man loves food and he loves to cook. He's also a workout fiend, so he keeps an eye out for high-protein and low-fat recipes. He cued me on to this little recipe, and we decided to get together and make ourselves some grubs!

The last time we cooked together, Sam and I made some bacon cupcakes. These sweet potato-tuna cakes are infinitely healthier, but just as delicious! They are also remarkably easy to whip up and can be made in advance. It's very low-fat, and quite filling! A nice trick to have up your sleeve!

Sweet potatoes are very fashionable lately: it seems to me that I see recipes including the lovely orange root veg all over the place. They contain more potassium than bananas and are very rich in vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and protein, so sweet potatoes are a pretty kick-ass vegetable. Not to mention that their unique taste make them very versatile. They can be use as an alternative to good old regular potatoes in savory dishes, but they are also often used in desserts!

For this recipe, I paired them with some savory fresh herbs and highlighted their sweet, exotic flavor with a hint of nutmeg. Nutmeg is my favorite spice to mix in with sweet potatoes: I sprinkled some in the last time I made sweet potato mash and got hooked! Give it a try, it's delicious!

2 large eggs
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 cans tuna, drained
1 large sweet potato, boiled, cooled and cut into small chunks
3 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
1/2 cup breadcrumbs or oat flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

Scrunch everything together with clean hands until well mixed. Divide the mixture into 8 patties and place them on the baking sheet.

Cook for 20 minutes; flip the patties over, and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

We ate those with some salad, but they would make great sandwich fillers! I highly recommend doubling your recipe and freezing the extra mixture so you can have post-workout snacks within reach. I don't do gyms, but I bike every day as soon as the weather gets decent enough, and having a bite before I hop on my wheels always helps (if we did things in the right order, we would eat in order to be able to move more, but we tend to do it backwards and move so we can eat more...). Those patties can be quickly reheated, chomped down and washed down with a glass of milk to get you ready for some exercise!

This is an especially good recipe to have handy if you are lazy, or having really long work days that leave you little time to get cooking. It comes together very easily, and you could play with the spices to your heart's content, and even shake it up by using canned crab meat instead of tuna! Use cilantro instead of dill, finely grated fresh ginger instead of nutmeg and lime juice instead of Tabasco, and you have a great Asian twist on the original recipe! Serve them with ketchup or chutney, or even with a squirt of Sriracha if you can take the heat.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Ginger-Orange Noodles with Sugar Snaps and Mushrooms

I have recently fallen in love with udon noodles. I guess pasta of any kind is a requirement to keep me happy... I had tried them as a cold noodle dish and loved the result, so I decided to try them as a stir-fry.

For those unfamiliar with those little wonders, they are Japanese wheat noodles that you can be bought fresh or dry (like Italian pasta), they have a awesome chewy texture and they can be a very versatile ingredient that can be used in soups, stir-fries, salads or just by themselves (if you want to know more about the differences between the different types of Asian noodles, go check out this post, by The Kitchn).

I wanted a quick, healthy lunch with bright flavors on a rainy day off spent at home reading: citrus flavors always seem to brighten up everything, as does the crisp freshness of sugar snap peas. I added some ginger and Sriracha, threw in some mushrooms, and got myself a bowlful of wonder-noodles! Big-time wonder, as the toughest part of this recipe is basically boiling water... Don't you love easy recipes is like that?

1 (9 ounces) package udon or soba noodles
2 cups sugar snap peas (snow peas also work), trimmed
2 cups mushrooms (I used cremini, but I really wanted shiitake... next time!), thinly sliced
Peanut oil
1 small bunch scallions, chopped, for garnish
Sesame seeds, for garnish

1/4 cup fresh orange (or pink grapefruit) juice
1/2 lime, juiced
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon Sriracha
1 1/2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger

Whisk the sauce ingredients together in a small bowl. Taste and adjust by adding lime juice, soy or Sriracha, to taste.

Cook the noodles in boiling salted water according to package instruction. While the noodles are cooking, heat a splash of peanut oil over medium heat. Add the sugar snap peas and the mushrooms with a pinch of salt and stir fry for few minutes, until the peas are tender and the mushrooms have released their moisture and are shiny.

Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside. Turn off the heat and let the pan cool down for a few minutes. With no heat under the pan, pour in the sauce. Let it bubble just a little bit and stir continuously as it thickens, about 2-3 minutes.

Don’t let the sauce burn or reduce too much. Add the noodles, snow peas and mushrooms to the pan. Stir to mix everything together with the sauce. Add a good squeeze of lime, and cook a few minutes more.

Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve garnished with the scallions and sesame seeds.

This makes about 2 helpings, but I decided to beef my lunch up a notch with a very basic tofu side: I took 1 pound extra-firm tofu, drained and pressed it, cut it into large matchstick and marinated for an hour in 3 tablespoons of low-sodium soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil and 1 teaspoon of dark rice wine vinegar. Once marinated, I browned the tofu in a cast iron pan until crispy (this took about 5 minutes, flipping the tofu often to get a nice, even browning).

Very basic pan-fried tofu like that is very quickly done, and it has a nice neutral taste, so I like to use it when I want to add extra protein to a noodle dish such as this one, or to a big bowl of salad (those lovely matchsticks could also be used in a sandwich or wrap full of hummus and veggies...). And yes, using a cast-iron pan is instrumental in getting both the look and the taste (as explained here by Post Punk Kitchen), though I prefer to use tongs to flip the tofu pieces around instead of a spatula: I find it allows for more precision.

You could definitely use soba noodles instead of udon; just remember that they have a stronger, nutty buckwheat flavor than udon noodles. Also, feel free to use red grapefruit juice instead of orange if you prefer that tangy kick! I just happened to have an lonely orange and a lonely lime in my crisper... What can I say, I hate wasting!

The citrus has the added benefit of upping your vitamin C, the ginger will elevate your mood, the mushrooms will boost your immune system and the sugar snaps are very rich in fiber. Tastes good, AND it good for you! Enjoy!

Monday, 1 April 2013

Uber-Cheesy Broccoli and Bacon Pasta Bake

I know that with a title like that, there is little need to elaborate. It's a very simple equation: cheese + pasta + bacon = awesome. As stated previously, broccoli is a super-hero vegetable, but it also happens to be really delicious, especially with pasta (remember these? they were the bomb!). And who will turn down a plate of lovely pasta baked to cheesy, golden perfection?

Not this gal. And well, bacon is just a bonus. It IS Easter weekend, after all... Lent is definitely over!!

For a successful baked pasta dish, always remember to keep a very close eye on your pasta: as they will cook in the sauce, you have to leave them slightly undercooked before you mix them with the sauce and finish them in the oven, otherwise you will get a gooey mess of overcooked mush. Check you pasta as they boil they must still have a some crunch when you drain them! Small pasta cook faster than big or stringy pasta, so pay attention as you get them ready.

I don't buy bacon very often (we rarely eat it, and it ends up sitting in the freezer for ages before I get around to defrosting it and using it) but when I do, I get President's Choice Old Fashioned thick-sliced bacon. I justify this purchasing of extremely fat pig-bottom by telling myself that since we have some every 3 months or so, I am making up for lost bacon-free time by ingesting all the calories at once... Challenge that flawless reasoning!

This dish is definitely an indulgence. The equation I mentioned above might lead to awesome, but awesome often seems to rhyme with carbs and fat OD for some reason... Save it for dinner after an especially lousy work day, or a hockey night where you have a feeling the bloody Bruins are gonna win and you just know in your bones comfort-food is a necessity... All that cheese, bacon and pasta will knock you right out into an oblivious food-coma of bliss. Trust me.

2 cups small dry pasta (shell, ziti or macaroni are all wonderful options)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices of bacon
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
2 cup fresh broccoli, florets and stem chopped small
340g mozzarella, grated
1 tablespoon bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Bring a large pot of salted water on to boil. Add pasta and cook until almost al dente. Drain and set aside. While the pasta is cooking, cook the bacon in a pan over medium heat until crispy.

Transfer to a plate lined with kitchen towels to absorb the excess grease. Chop the bacon into small pieces and set aside.

Leave about 1 tablespoon of bacon fat in the pan and discard the rest. Cook the onions, garlic and parsley until just translucent.

Add the flour and stir until it has coated the mixture.

Gradually add in milk and continue cooking, stirring until mixture has thickened (if it is not thickening, you can add 1 scant tablespoon of flour, but don't dump it: lightly sprinkle it in the pan). Add the broccoli and cook for 2-3 minutes just to soften the florets. Season to taste with a pinch of sea salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Add 1 cup of the mozzarella, the bacon and the cooked pasta to pan. Toss to combine, making sure everything is well coated.

Pour the mixture into a greased ovenproof dish.

Sprinkle the bread crumbs and the rest of the cheese on top and bake for 10-15 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and the bread crumbs are golden.

Turn on the broiler for a minute of 2 before serving, to get a nice crisp on top.

If you want more veggies in there, you can halve the broccoli and add finely chopped cauliflower, carrot, zucchini and/or mushroom to you pan along with the broccoli, and throw them in the oven with your pasta. You might feel less guilty about stuffing your face will all this cheese...

This dish is indecently cheesy, and unlike chick-flicks and pop music, this is the awesome kind of cheesy!! The bacon's smoky flavor compliments the crunchy greenness of the broccoli very well. If you like it spicy, I would suggest adding a teaspoon of chili flakes along with the onion and garlic, but a few crunches of the pepper mill is really all you need to brighten up a bowl of these lovely pasta. You could also try mixing up the cheese by replacing 1/2 cup of the mozzarella you add to the sauce with the same quantity of any of your other favorite cheeses. I am sure Romano, Emental or Gruyere would seriously rock this pasta bake to a stellar level.

Technically, I was supposed to get 4 helpings, but those would be helpings for reasonable people with self-control... If you are making this for company, I strongly suggest doubling the recipe and getting very generous with the mozzarella...

As a side note, how annoying is it when your camera-phone takes nicer pictures than your camera-camera... Sigh!