Sunday, 19 May 2013

Oi! Fish and Chips!

I have a deep affection for British culture. I love Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens just as much as I do the Beatles, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Nick Hornby novels, James Bond, "Blackadder" and "Downton Abbey". All this Englishness gave me a really bad case of anglocreep: I use random and sometimes rather obscure British slang... all... the.. time... My boyfriend loves to make fun of me when I ask him if he wants to watch something on the telly, and when I call the Bruins a bunch of fucking sods (which, you know, they ARE!). Well, he can piss off; I am not giving up my British slang! On to the food then, mate!

While admittedly, cuisine is not really the British's forte (there should be a law against boiling everything to death...), there are few typically English dishes that never fail to satisfy. An iconic street food in the UK, fish and chips has been a popular working-class snack since the Victorian era, and just like most popular foods, it's been recycled by the trendy people, and you can now find really upscale eateries serving fancy versions of the good old dish. Some of those are delicious, but my favorite has always been the old-fashioned version they serve at Hurley's Irish Pub: a huge hunk of haddock and a big pile of pub fries. In England and Scotland, you can still find the old-school fish bars, where they hand you the piping hot fillets and fries wrapped in newspapers. Crispy batter around a nice piece of white fish and golden fries... can't resist that!

Sadly, a really good fish and chips is just as difficult to find as a really great burger, and while I do hang at Hurley's often enough, I eventually decided I should learn to make it at home. I was getting ready to watch the latest "Dr. Who" episode and I had two beautiful tilapia fillets and lots of red-skin potatoes in the pantry. I suddenly felt inspired to whip up a traditionally British-themed dinner!

Home-made fish and chips is very easy to make - albeit a bit messy, and while it will still be fried, it will still be much healthier that what you'd get at a restaurant, or out of a box from the frozen food aisle! You can use a deep-frier if you have one, but I make mine in a cast-iron frying pan and I get wonderful results! Use an oil with a very light flavor for the frying: sunflower, peanut or light olive oils are the best. Give yourself a treat and try it with extra-virgin olive oil at least once: I know it's pricey, but you haven't lived until you've had home-fries made with that liquid gold!

Obviously, there are plenty of fish in the sea that you can fry up in your pan. Traditional fish and chip is made with white-fleshed fish like cod or haddock, but you can use which ever fish you like, as long as it's firm enough to handle the coating in batter and frying (be careful when you buy cod, by the way: try to find the farmed stuff, as those little guys are the victims of intense over-fishing). You could go really posh and use salmon, or add Cajun spices to your batter and fry up some catfish! The Australians even use shark fillets in their fish and chips, so feel free to get very creative.

I like to make a beer-batter for this recipe: it somehow feels very English. The beer you use will affect the final taste of your dish just as much as the fish, but given how many amazing micro-brewery beers are available on the market, the possibilities are endless. Pick something you enjoy drinking, and try to make the flavor of the beer complement that of the fish you use. I used a pale ale with my tilapia, and it was delish!

The batter recipe is very basic, so I suggest that depending on the type of fish and beer you use, you add some seasoning to it to round up the flavor. Lemon juice and zest, garlic powder and dried herbs can be whisked in to taste, to give a little something extra to your fillets.

3/4 cup oil
1/2 pound red-skin potatoes, scrubbed and cut into thin wedges
1/2 to 3/4 pound of white flesh fish fillets
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, and a little extra for dusting
3 heaping tablespoons baking powder
1 bottle of cold beer (about 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups, usually) - I used St-Ambroise Pale Ale

Before you can fry the potatoes, they need to be par-cooked, which you can do either by boiling or steaming them until they begin to get tender. With either method, make sure they are nice and dry before you fry them: the less moisture on the potatoes, the quicker they will crisp up in the pan.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with tin foil. Preheat the oil in the frying pan over medium heat. Season the fish with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper (the salt will help get rid of extra-moisture in the fish, which will make your fillets nice and meaty as opposed to too flaky).

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and beer until well-mixed and shiny. The texture will be like thick, gooey cream.

Dust the fish with a little flour, shaking off the excess (this will help the batter "stick" to the fish).

You may have to fry the fish in batches, depending on the size of your pan. Dip the fillets in the bowl of batter, and make sure that it is completely and evenly covered in the mixture. Carefully place the fillets in the pan.

When you noticed the batter on the bottom is starting to look firm, flip the fillets over using cooking tongs. Cook until the batter is golden and crispy on both sides, about 5 minutes.

Place the fillets on the baking sheet and put them in the oven, which will finish up the cooking and keep them warm until the fries are ready.

Line a large plate with a couple of layers of paper towels. Keep the frying pan on the stove, but raise the heat to medium-high. Using the same oil you used for the fish, carefully (and I mean CAREFULLY! Hot oil splashes are not fun!) put the potato wedges in one layer in the pan. Give them a few minutes, until you can see them getting golden and crispy, then gently flip them over with slotted spatula. When they are golden and crisp on all sides, transfer them to the plate so the paper towels can absorbs the excess oil. Take the fish out of the oven, and serve with the fries and some lemon wedges.

The batter will have fried up golden and crispy, and the fish in the middle will be nice and meaty. If you'd rather not use beer in your batter, cold carbonated water works just as well, but the taste won't be as rich, so spice up that batter a bit more than you would if using beer.

Now doesn't this look awesome?! And it tastes just as good as it looks! So turn up the volume on your Rolling Stones records, grab a Neil Gaiman book and enjoy the Britishness! Oi!

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Sweet and Sour Pork

Is it me or does the word "sweet" come up a lot in this blog recently? I HAVE had sweet cravings non-stop lately; I suppose it was only a matter of time before it bled into my recipes... even the savory ones! Oh well!

Sweet and sour pork is a dish that gave me quite a bit of trouble. I tried some bland recipes, some ridiculous ones (I am looking at you, Jamie Oliver!) and some that didn't even bother including pineapples. What a sham! So when I found myself looking at a lovely piece of pork tenderloin and some fresh pineapple in my fridge, I did what any kitchen mad-scientist would do: I Frankenstein-ed a recipe together from scratch. Or rather, I converted my sweet and sour chicken recipe for pork.

At the good old Chinese take-out joint, sweet and sour pork is one of those twice-fried dishes, like General Tao chicken. If that floats your boat, that's fine. I like a bit of double-fried piggy myself from time to time, but this is spring, which means I am digging my cute dresses and skirts out of my closet, so I have to make sure my winter fat goes away. I bike and walk, but not frying everything I eat to death is also a reasonable step I am taking towards fitting in that little pleather number. I included instructions for the traditional uber-fried pork at the end of the post for those with private trainers.

1 pound pork tenderloin, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 red onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 container cremini mushrooms, quartered
1/2 to 2 cups pineapple chunks

1 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup ketchup
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup hot water

2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minded
1 thumb-size piece of fresh ginger, minced

Sesame seeds, for garnish

In a small sauce pan, mix the vinegar, sugar, ketchup and soy sauce together; bring to a low boil. 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. Cover and set aside.

Pre-heat 2 tablespoons of peanut oil in a large wok or pan. Sauté the garlic, ginger and onion until soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the pork and pepper to the wok and fry until the pork is well cooked, about 10 minutes.

Pour the sauce in the wok along with the pineapple chunks. Mix everything together well, and cook another minute or two, until everything is heated up. Serve with some rice, with a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

This recipe makes a great, colorful plate, full of tasty vegetables and tender pieces of pork. The sauce has a perfect balance of sweetness and lip-puckering kick, but if you like it sweet, use 1/3 cup ketchup instead of a 1/4 cup.

If you want to go the classic way and fry the pork before stir-frying it with the veggies, you will need:

2 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cupp all-purpose flour

Stir the batter ingredients together in a bowl. Add a bit of water if it's not liquid enough to coat the pork cubes. Add the pork to the bowl and stir, to make sure the pieces are all coated. Let it stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes, while you prepare the sauce. Line a big plate with paper towels. Pour some peanut oil into a wok over medium heat and let it get hot (but not smoking). In 2 or 3 batches, add the pork cubes and fry them until golden-brown on the outside and cooked, through, about 5 minutes per batch. Remove the pork from the wok with a slotted spoon and put them on the paper toweled plate to drain the excess oil. Then simply carry on with the rest of the recipe.

This version is obviously a little fatter than the first one, but even I have to admit that it's super-tasty: just save it for special occasions!

Of course, this can be made with nice chunks of tofu, shrimps or chicken cubes (as I have one before right here).

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Sweet, Sweet Potato Soup

After I made some delicious sweet potato-tuna cakes with my buddy Sam, I had a few of the gorgeous orange beauties left that I was not sure what to do with. Mash them? Too boring! Fry them? Too messy! And then I remembered this recipe, spotted on Post Punk Kitchen a few weeks back. Full of ingredients I love, easy, elegant and exotic all at once... It was too tempting to pass up!

Quebec weather being what it is, we had to endure a disgusting mid-April snow storm, and I suddenly wanted a warm, comforting soup to help me recover from yet another spring false-start (last time that happened, I also made soup... I guess my maniacal soup making is a seasonal affective disorder symptom!). Since this one is spicy, sweet and bright orange, it was a lovely bowl of sunshine as we waited for Mother Nature to finally make up her mind and let us shed our winter coats for good!

From Post Punk Kitchen, adapted by me!

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced medium
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks

4 cups vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1/2 lime, juiced

Preheat a 4-quart soup pot over medium heat. Sauté the onions in oil with a pinch of salt for about 3 minutes, until translucent.

Add ginger and red pepper flakes, and sauté another minute or so.

Add sweet potatoes, veggie broth and salt and pepper.

Cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, lower heat a bit to a slow simmer and cook until potatoes are tender – usually 5 more minutes or so. Once tender, add the vanilla beans. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup until smooth. Add maple syrup and lime juice and taste for salt. Add a bit of water if the soup is too thick, put back on the stove until reheated through, and serve.

Now how simple was that? And how delicious! The sweet potatoes give this soup a thick, creamy texture that is absolutely luxurious. It's so smooth and silky! I garnished it with a wedge of lime, a pinch of chili flakes and a light sprinkle of coconut flakes. Only add chili flakes if you can handle the spicy kick!

I know it seems a bit counter-instinctual to pair sweet potatoes and vanilla and maple syrup, but do not fret! The ginger and chili flakes balance out the sweet ingredients very nicely! The smell is also absolutely amazing. Spicy, sweet and comforting.

OK, I confess: I cheated and used vanilla extract instead of a vanilla bean. I had no time to run to a fancy enough grocery store to get the goods, and I had very good vanilla extract (the proportion is 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract for 1 vanilla bean). If you are going to be naughty like me, please, at least, get high quality, natural vanilla extract and not crappy, overly sweet artificial vanilla essence.

Despite the sweetness, this is a very healthy soup, very low in fat, and it packs a mean punch of vitamins and anti-oxidants! The texture will make it seem like a treat, but you can slurp back an extra ladle without feeling guilty.