You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2009.
I’m no stranger to disasters in the kitchen. Tart crusts shrink, custards burn, I forget to add eggs to my crepe batter or another essential ingredient to whatever it is that I’m cooking. Today I cut my finger. Yesterday I burned my arm taking a gratin dish out of the oven. But the more I cook, the more I learn. I understand these accidents are all part of the process, and even the greatest cooks have their share of failures; we know this from dining in restaurants. Perfectionist that I am, I rarely get anything to come out exactly how I hope. I want the visual perfection of a Martha Stewart photo spread coupled with the perfect flavours of a dish a la Nigella Lawson. When things turn out I feel like a million bucks–especially when I didn’t expect them to.
Take tonight. I was making pots-de-creme and realized at some point that the recipe wasn’t going to work. The fact that I was able to recognize this beforehand was in itself a triumph; it meant that I’ve come along way since my days of scorched rice and rock-like cupcakes. I tinkered with the ingredients, cooked the custard in a double-boiler on top of the stove–and saved the day. Or at least saved my pots-de-creme. Saving something from being thrown away feels even better than getting it right the first time.
These simple little custards are the perfect antidote to a dreary day, or when you are after the comfort that only a silky, chocolaty dessert can offer you.
3/4 cup half & half
3/4 cup milk
1 cup semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 tablespoon instant coffee
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1) Heat milk and half & half in the top of a double boiler until scalded. Temper eggs in a small bowl by whisking in a little bit of the milk. Set aside.
2) Add chocolate and whisk until melted. Add cocoa, coffee, and sugar until well combined. Whisk in pinch of salt.
3) Add the eggs and vanilla. Stir the mixture constantly over medium low heat until thickened, about ten minutes. Strain into custard cups or ramekins.
4) Cool for 10 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap. Put the wrap directly onto the custard so a skin doesn’t form. Set in the refrigerator for 2 hours before serving. Garnish with whip cream or a dusting of icing sugar.
Perhaps you’ve been wondering when I was going to post a recipe for a gratin. My blog is still in its early days, but since I called it Gratinee, I figured it was time.
What does gratinee mean? Its just another word for au gratin, and was the more popular term at the turn of the last century. Both of these words refer to any dish that is topped with cheese or a coating of bread crumbs, then browned in the oven to form a crisp golden crust. Such dishes are usually a combination of potatoes, vegetables, seafood, or meats, bound with a sauce like bechamel. Potato gratins are my favourite because the starch from the potatoes combined with some milk or cream creates a nice little sauce on its own. Gratins are so easy to make and are the ultimate in comfort food. They can be sinfully rich or relatively healthy–with the use of low-fat milk instead of butter and cream.
Gratins are a little retro, I know. But tell me, who can resist a mac n’ cheese with a breadcrumb topping, hot and bubbling from the oven? Or scalloped potatoes, sliced paper thin and layered with dots of butter and Gruyere? I can’t.
The possibilities of gratins are endless, and I offer you this simple recipe for one of my favourite weeknight suppers.
Potato & Eggplant Gratinee
for the eggplant:
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt & pepper to taste
For the gratin:
1 pound potatoes (about 4 or 5)
2 1/2 cups half & half, or milk
3/4 cup Gruyere cheese
1/8 teaspoon herbs de provence
2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs* or panko
1 teaspoon olive oil
1) Preheat oven to 400F. Slice the eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Let drain on a rack or in a colander for half an hour to release the bitterness. Dry off with paper towel and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper.
2) Bake eggplant for about 25 minutes, or until well-browned. Turn over and bake for another 10 minutes. In the meantime, peel the potatoes and slice very thinly–preferably on a mandoline.
3) Layer the potato slices, eggplant, and cheese in an ovenproof gratin or casserole dish, sprinkling each layer with the herbs, salt and pepper, and dotting with bits of the butter and garlic. Be sure to finish the top layer with cheese.
4) Heat the cream or milk and pour it over the potatoes. Make sure it comes about three-quarters of the way up the side of the dish, not more. You may need a little more or less liquid, depending on the size of your potatoes and how thinly you slice them.
5) Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top of the potatoes. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake until the top is brown and the potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes.
* Homemade breadcrumbs are much better than the store-bought kind. I start with leftover bread from the bakery; its good if the bread is a little stale. I tear the bread into pieces and pulse in a food processor until it’s coursely chopped. As an alternative, you might want to use Panko, the Japanese style of breadcrumbs that are popular these days. They’re easily available and work really well in gratin dishes.
The words Main Street can mean different things to Vancouverites. It can mean the blocks of trendy cafes and hip restaurants extending North from West Broadway. It can mean Chinatown and the rough and tumble area at the intersection of Hastings Street. Or it can mean somewhere in between; underdeveloped lower Main, steps away from Pacific Central bus and train station, and a stone’s throw from the downtown core. The latter is the setting of one of Vancouver’s newest restaurants, a casual Italian eatery run by the owners of Fuel. No matter how down-market the neighborhood, a hip new restaurant will attract diners. In 2008 Food & Wine magazine included Vancouver in its top ten list of restaurant cities in the world. If you build it, they will come. At least at first.
Stepping into the restaurant, I’m struck by the contrast of the warm, inviting atmosphere to the dingy cold outside. A friendly hostess approaches me immediately and offers to take my coat, which I happily part with. Although the decor is modern and streamlined, with concrete walls and sleek Scandinavian style furniture, the place still has a cozy feel to it, due in part to the cork floor and the original old growth fir beams.
Tim Pittman, one of the owners, comes over to our group to welcome us and explains that Campagnolo’s interpretation of Italian dining encourages the sharing of several courses around the table. This is reflected in the menu, which offers a wide variety of antipasti, first and second courses, as well as pizza and side dishes. This sounds good to us, and we start with an appetizer of seared albacore tuna studded with salt-roasted onions and chives, served on a soft mound of cannellini beans. The tuna has a clean, mellow flavor, as if it has just been caught, prepared, and brought to our table with a minimum of fanfare. We follow with an order of chick peas with arugula and mint. The chick peas are fried; crunchy but incredibly light in texture, like popcorn, slightly spiced and without a trace of oil. For a moment I think they’re roasted. So far, the chick peas are my favourite offering of the evening.
Before diving into our main courses, we try a sampling of Chef Robert Belcham’s salumi and cured meats paired with a basket of fresh crostini. The pate di campagna is a country pate, slightly smoked and mild. A little too mild. The taste is not unlike that of cooked ham and lacks the intensity I have come to expect in a pate. The cured venison sausage, however, has a good balance of smoke and garlic, allowing the true flavor of the meat to shine through without tasting gamy.
Next come our pastas. In true Italian style, these dishes are served as a first course, with just enough on the plate to satisfy. We start with the tagliarini in a pork and beef ragu with basil and pecorino, followed by egg noodles with sausage, walnuts, and dandelion greens. Also in true Italian style, both of these pasta dishes are lightly sauced. To Italians, the delicate flavour of a pasta is just as important as the sauce. We North Americans, however, consider pasta a neutral canvas which allows the sauce to take center stage; thus, I find them a little on the bland side.
We decide to share a couple pizzas amongst us. We start with a pizza bianca topped with garlic, olive oil, and a generous shaving of grana padano cheese. What makes a great pizza is pretty subjective but I find the crust a little too chewy for my taste. I like that it’s thin and not loaded down with heavy toppings. My favourite is the credenza, a simple pizza of anchovy, olive, and pickled leeks.
Finally we finish with dessert. Continuing in the spirit of sharing, we decide to sample a Nutella tart and an olive oil cake. The tart pastry has a delicate, flaky texture; the filling is a deep, dark chocolate underscored with hints of hazelnut and Frangelico. Oil cakes can be heavy, with a strong flavor, but this one is light yet rich at the same time, balanced by a garnish of spice-roasted pears and cinnamon cream. It’s the perfect finale to our delightfully varied meal. When I’m ready to go the owner quickly produces my coat. A nice conclusion to an evening of attentive yet unobtrusive service.
Campagolo is open for lunch as well as dinner and also boasts a 25-seat wine bar with a wide selection of wines and beer. With many wine choices under the eight dollar mark and food prices that are reasonable for the quality, Campagnolo provides a much-needed venue for those living in or visiting the lower Main Street neighborhood.
Images courtesy of Microsoft Office
I’ve had a lot of bad risotto lately. Okay, I’ve had bad risotto twice in the last few weeks, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s two times too many. I can’t help but conclude that I need to stop ordering this creamy Italian rice dish at restaurants. I should stick to having it at home, where I can tend to it lovingly, standing over the stove and stirring until each plump grain of rice absorbs the hot stock that helps gives risotto such a rich yet delicate flavor.
Risotto has a certain mystique. It can go from soupy to gummy in a matter of seconds, and the attention it requires while cooking can be more than some of us can bear. I don’t mind the 22-25 minutes of stirring it takes to make a risotto; it’s almost a meditation for me, a time when I can relax and reflect on my day before sitting down to eat. I’ve always thought risotto makes an impressive first course at a dinner party but I never dreamed of offering it at one. It needs to be served immediately once cooked, which can create serious timing issues. Besides, who wants to be stuck in the kitchen while their guests are mingling over pomegranate martinis?
Then I discovered Delia Smith’s baked risotto. Delia has a great recipe for Oven-Baked Risotto Carbonara. It combines the flavors of carbonara sauce with that of cheese risotto. The result is a rich and creamy dish that needs no stirring and doesn’t require that you absent yourself from dinner guests. It’s as easy as combining the ingredients and putting them in a casserole dish to bake. The result is a risotto just as good as one made stirring tirelessly over a hot stove.
Baked Risotto Carbonara
Adapted From Delia Smith’s “How to Cook: Book One”
Serves 4 as a first course.
1 cup (250 ml) arborio rice
5 ounces (150 g) chopped pancetta or bacon
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 cups (725 ml) chicken or vegetable stock
3/4 cup (75 g) pecorino romano or parmesan cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
2 large eggs
1 heaping tablespoon creme fraiche
salt & freshly milled black pepper to taste
Before you start preheat the oven to 300F (150C). You will also need to preheat an ovenproof casserole dish while you are making the risotto. The dish should be large enough to hold 4 servings of rice. I use a 7×4 souffle dish but I serve the risotto on individual plates once its cooked. I think it looks better that way.
This is different from the typical risotto to which you slowly add ladlefuls of hot stock. You simply add the rice to the stock and then transfer it to the oven, where most of the absorption takes place.
1.) In a large saucepan over medium heat, fry the pancetta or bacon in its own fat until crisp. Let drain on a plate covered with paper towel and put aside.
2.) Cook the onions in the butter until soft, about five minutes. In the meantime, simmer the stock in another pot until it comes to a boil. Turn down the heat and let it continue to simmer. You need very hot stock to release the starch in the rice.
3. Add the rice to the onion and stir until its coated with the buttery juices. Add the bacon.
4.) Add the hot stock to the rice and stir. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper to taste. Let it all come to a boil, then transfer to a warmed ovenproof dish.
5.) Bake the risotto in the oven, uncovered, for twenty minutes.
6.) Remove and gently stir in the cheese, folding and turning the rice grains over. Bake for another 15 minutes.
7.) In the meantime, whisk the eggs and creme fraiche together. Remove the risotto from the oven and gently stir in the egg mixture, making sure its well combined. Leave the risotto to thicken, about 2 minutes. Garnish with more cheese and serve immediately.
If you are concerned about consuming raw eggs, drop the eggs in boiling water for exactly one minute before adding to the risotto.
You may substitute 3 tablespoons of heavy cream for the creme fraiche.
A year ago I was in Paris for the first time. It was a trip I’d dreamed of going on for years, and when the opportunity presented itself I didn’t hesitate to take it. I love to travel, and although I like lying on a sandy beach with a strawberry margarita as much as the next girl, my idea of a great holiday is a couple of weeks touring any of Europe’s great cities. I love museum hopping, wandering through art galleries, and sitting at a sidewalk cafe people-watching. I love to sample the local cuisine and wander aimlessly through the city streets, trying to soak up the energy of the place so I can always remember how it felt to be there.
I had some niggling doubts about Paris before I went. I was visiting a friend but during the week I would be on my own a lot while he was at work. I didn’t speak a lick of French, although I’m Canadian and we’re required to study it in school. I always found the pronunciation impossible, the grammar and spelling arduous. I studied Italian in university. I really liked Italian. Unlike French, it’s a phonetic language; once you learn the alphabet you can pretty much read it and write it.
The fact that I didn’t speak French wouldn’t have bothered me as much had I not heard that French people are rude to you if you don’t. Actually, every person I knew who had been to Paris told me that they were rude no matter what you did. There’s a saying I’ve heard repeated ad naseum. Something like, “Wonderful country France…pity about the French.”
Granted, I didn’t spend a long time in Paris–eight days–but I didn’t find French people rude at all. They weren’t friendly in the same way North Americans are, which people from other cultures sometimes find superficial. But in my experience, they weren’t rude. I think that a bright smile and a friendly attitude can serve you well no matter where you go. I’d like to think that my positive spirit was reflected back to me.
So in that same positive spirit, today I’ve decided to reflect on a few of the reasons I love France–and the French. I’m happy in my city and when I get right down to it, I wouldn’t really want to live anywhere else. But there are some things that I appreciate about France so much that I wish they were bigger part of North American culture…
1. For me, and perhaps many of you since you read food blogs, what I love most about France is the food. It’s a food lover’s paradise. Every other storefront is a bakery or cheese shop. You can go into any Monoprix or basic supermarket and for a couple of euros come out with the type of quality Camembert you would pay at least twelve bucks for in North America. The French take food and eating very seriously. There are stringent laws that protect the quality of their breads and cheeses and their chickens. There are even laws that limit the number of big box type of supermarkets that are allowed to go up. Sure, bad food can be found everywhere–even in France. But as far as I’m concerned, the less there is of it, the better.
2. The markets. Farmer’s markets have grown more and more popular in North America but we need a lot more of them. One of the reasons I think the French eat so well is that it’s easy for them to drop by their neighborhood market and pick up whatever they’re going to make for dinner. The food is fresh and they don’t waste money hauling bags of vegetables home from the supermarket only to throw them away a week later because they couldn’t get around to eating them all.
This past weekend I went to the Granville Island Market , our most popular market here in Vancouver, where you can get fresh produce, artisan cheeses and a variety of gourmet foodstuffs all under one roof. Although I went there shortly after opening, it was so packed that I had difficulty finding parking. I think that people are more concerned about what they eat and how it affects the environment. They want to shop like this. What they don’t want is to have to get into their car and drive to five different shops for their meat, bread, and vegetables. The French way is more convenient, with markets peppered throughout small towns and every city neighborhood.
3. Bakeries. OK, so this is also related to food … but is there anything better than a freshly baked French baguette from a Paris bakery? I think non. I am one of those people who could live on bread alone and am always on the search for the perfect ciabbatta or the flakiest croissant. One of the best meals I had in Paris was my first–a few slices of baguette smeared with Camembert cheese, eaten with a tomato and endive salad and chunks of sausage. I couldn’t believe the bread. It was crispy on the outside, chewy and unctuous on the inside. I would never dream of eating pastries for breakfast at home, but in France I started every morning off with an almond croissant or pain au chocolat without a scrap of guilt. They were just too good to pass up. Now I understand why people line up so patiently outside of French bakeries.
4. Cafe Culture. I saw one Starbucks when I was in Paris–at the Louvre museum. There is nothing more quintessentially French than a deep, dark espresso taken at a corner zinc bar or a cafe creme imbibed at a crowded sidewalk cafe. The French hold their traditions dear, and there is a lot of cultural resistance to the proliferation of companies like Starbucks, with its throwaway coffee cups and huge bakery sweets. Starbucks may have found a little niche in France, catering to tourists and French university students, but with the high costs of doing business over there, it’s not making a profit.
I’m not bashing Starbucks. I do my fair share of hanging out there. But the European-style combination of the cafe/bar is what I like the most. It’s nice to get together with friends and have coffee when you don’t feel like drinking, or have a beer or an aperitif while they have coffee, if that’s what you feel like. I’m not much of a drinker but I like to go to bars for a leisurely glass of wine with a friend. To me there is nothing more annoying than a waitress coming around every five minutes asking me if I want another drink or requesting my beverage order in a restaurant before I’ve even opened the menu. That doesn’t happen in France.
5. French people read. And we’re not talking cheesy romance novels on the Metro. We’re talking Sartre. Camus. Alexandre Dumas. I first noticed this on the plane from Frankfurt to Paris. Every other French person had their nose in a book. On the transcontinental flight to Europe I hadn’t noticed one person reading anything but a magazine. The Metro is full of people reading novels on their way to work. If the publishing industry is in decline and people are buying less books, its not happening in France.
Books have always been a big passion of mine. It’s nice to see that in this age of technology that books are still important to a lot of people. Being intellectual is highly prized in France, unlike in Anglo-Saxon culture, where its seems quirky or pretentious. Out of all the little things I noticed about the French and their ways, this impressed me the most.
These are some of the things that I really liked about my stay in Paris. What about you? Have you been to France? What did you like about French culture?
Note: The top two photos of Paris shown here come from Microsoft Office clipart, as my own pictures of Paris were lost in a hard drive malfunction.
I’m baking more than usual these days. A lot more. The truth is that in the past I never really baked much at all. Baking always seems like a perilous undertaking; too much can go wrong. It requires a precision and attention to detail that doesn’t always bode well with my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants personality. Besides, isn’t that what bakeries are for?
But I’ve had such a sweet tooth lately. Maybe its because it’s been such a long winter. This awful weather makes me want to curl up with a good book and a gooey brownie fresh from the oven. I like brownies because they’re a no-brainer. You can mix them up in one bowl and fifteen minutes later be popping one in your mouth, its rich chocolaty goodness melting on your tongue.
So I leave you today with this recipe for two-bite brownies. Yes, that’s right, just a recipe. No deep thoughts today. I’m going to leave that for my analysis of Interpreter of Maladies, the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories by Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri. She writes simply, yet with such eloquence. And foodie that I am, I can’t help but notice the prominence of food in some of these stories; cooking gives her characters a sense of identity and community, yet at the same time is deeply personal.
As soon as these little goodies are out of the oven you’ll find me curled up in my window seat, lost in Ms. Lahiri’s poignant world and a stack of two-bite brownies.
1/4 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour 2 mini muffin pans (12 muffins each) or spray with non-stick cooking spray.
In a mixing bowl, combine melted butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla.
Add cocoa, flour, salt, and baking powder. Stir until smooth.
Bake for about 15 minutes. Do not overbake. Many recipes recommend baking brownies for 20-25 minutes. This is way too much! They will dry out. You want the brownies to be gooey. You might want to check them after 12 minutes or so.
Press the tops of the brownies and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Pop them out gently with a knife. You can let them cool further on a rack if you like, but this step is not necessary.
If you don’t have a mini-muffin pan, you can also bake these in a square 8-inch pan for 15-18 minutes at the same temperature. Cut into 12 squares and serve.
This recipe is adapted from All Recipes.
Crepes and me. We go way back.
The first thing I ever really learned to make properly was crepes. Cakes failed to rise, pie crusts came out tough, custards lumpy. But crepes … crepes were easy. I would dump some flour in a bowl, add a couple of eggs and some milk and voila … a lovely thin pancake I could smother with any number of ingredients, like cinnamon sugar or apricot jam. When I was in junior high school and had sleepover parties, I’d get up early and have a stack of steaming crepes ready for breakfast for my girlfriends, who would ooh and aah appropriately over my prowess in the kitchen.
I grew up eating crepes. They were a simple dessert when we wanted something sweet. Sometimes we would have them for dinner on a weeknight, when my mother was too tired to cook. She set out pots of jam and little bowls of cinnamon or cottage cheese mixed with sugar. As she stood at the stove dropping spoonful after spoonful of batter onto a sizzling frying pan, I would make my way through each of these toppings, eating the crepes faster than she could make them. I much preferred these impromptu dinners to pot roast or beef stew.
Crepes originate in the Brittany region of France but have long been popular in Eastern European countries once belonging to the Austro-Hungarian empire. In France, savoury crepes are made with buckwheat flour, but in countries like Serbia, Bulgaria, and Hungary, both sweet and savoury crepes are made with regular wheat flour. You can find crepes all over the world now. There are a few creperies in my city, but a large crepe with cinnamon sugar can set you back five bucks. Since I have been making crepes for pennies at home all my life, I find this a little too much.
I like to make both sweet and savoury crepes. The possibilities are endless and I’ll be posting some of my favourites here. Whether I make crepes stuffed with seafood and hollandaise sauce, or slather them with Nutella, I always use the same recipe.
I use fewer eggs in my recipe than most. Many recipes call for three eggs to one cup of flour but I find this is one too many. The flavour is too eggy and the texture is almost omelette-like.
I use a crepe pan but you can use a regular non-stick pan. You can blend the ingredients together right in the blender and then pour the batter directly onto the pan. I like this because having a spout makes the job easier. You can also whisk the ingredients by hand in a bowl, or a large measuring cup with a spout. The important thing is that you put the batter in the fridge for half an hour or more to allow the flour particles to absorb the liquid, otherwise you will end up with a tough crepe.
The recipe that follows can be used for any type of crepe. I do not add sugar to the batter even if I’m using a sweet filling as I have found it causes the crepes to stick to the pan.
Lemon Ricotta Crepes
Makes 10 8-inch crepes
For the crepes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cold water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
melted butter for brushing the pan (about 1 tablespoon)
Mix all of the ingredients together in a blender, scraping down the side until the batter is smooth. Let the batter stand in the refrigerator for at least half an hour.
When you are ready to cook the crepes, heat a skillet over medium. Brush with melted butter.
To cook the crepe, pour the batter into the center of the pan and tilt the pan in several directions to coat the bottom evenly.
Cook on one side until golden; turn and cook briefly on the other side.
Stack crepes on a plate as you cook them. You may store them in an oven at 200F to keep them warm as you work.
Fill with ricotta filling and serve.
Lemon Ricotta Filling
1 cup ricotta cheese
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons sugar
Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. You can add more sugar to taste if you prefer a sweeter crepe.
Fill the crepes once they have cooled slightly. You may also serve the crepes in a stack with the filling in the bowl, garnished with more lemon zest.
Sprinkling the crepes with icing sugar also gives a nice appearance.