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yamlong

There’s not a lot to say about yams. They’re healthy. They’re versatile. You can boil them, fry them, make pie with them. They taste great salty or sweet. You can even eat them with marshmallows. What’s not to love about yams?

I have an obsession with potatoes–particularly fries. If I had my way, I would eat fries every day. Especially the ones at McDonalds. You may beg to differ, but as far as french fries go you can’t get much better than Mickey Dee’s. A cone of Belgian frites comes in a close second. Lately though, I’ve been quite taken with the yam fries that have popped up on restaurant menus everywhere. The combination of the sweet, mealy interior contrasted against a crispy exterior and dipped in a tangy aioli is downright addictive.

I’ve been making these yam frites in the oven whenever I have a hankering for those restaurant style ones. I can plow through a whole bowl of them and still feel virtuous. There isn’t really a recipe. You just cut up a yam, toss it with a teaspoon of olive oil and some salt, and bake at 400F until crispy and golden on the outside. I’ve been cutting mine thinly, which makes some of  them come out soft. For a sturdier fry, cut the yam into large strips.  yamfrites

Lemon Pepper Aioli

6 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon pepper

salt to taste

Add all ingredients to a small bowl and mix thoroughly with a fork. Great with fries, fish, steamed vegetables, or on roasted asparagus.

 

yamaioli

trolleybusThe old saying about March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb has been true this year. March was horrible. I thought winter would never end. In Vancouver, we’ve actually had lovely weather. April is usually just as rainy as March is, but there have been only a few days of rain this month. I have a good memory for the weather because I walk home from work every day six months out of the year. If it rains a lot, I end up hopping on a bus. I haven’t done that once this month.

I remember three years ago, when we consistently had the best weather I can recall. It was as if summer had stretched from late April to early October. Sweltering in my south facing condo, I had to buy an air-conditioning system. I didn’t like the idea of leaving the windows open all night and was afraid of suffocating in my sleep. The year after that was horrible, with week after week of muggy grey skies. I hardly turned on the air-conditioning at all.

gastownMy walk is no little stroll. I work downtown and live on the East Side. It takes me fifty minutes to walk the 4.5 kilometers home from the school where I teach. This year I started walking to work as well. That’s almost two hours of walking a day! Why do I do this to myself? Do I love walking? Not really. I do like it, especially when the scenery is good. Mostly I know I need the exercise; I’m not too consistent about getting to the gym and I also like that I’m saving the bus fare.

Vancouver is a beautiful city, renowned worldwide for its abundant nature as well as its spectacular ocean and mountain vistas. No matter where I travel, when I come back I’m always happy that I live here. The real estate prices here are ridiculous because it’s the only place in Canada where the winters are bearable; it hardly ever goes below zero degrees. This is why I live on the East Side, and feel lucky to have my place here, which I found before the prices really skyrocketed.

So some parts of the walk home is not as nice as it would be almost anywhere else in Vancouver. It takes me by the port, the sugar refinery, past railroad tracks. My reward for that is Gastown.

Gastown is the oldest part of Vancouver. Back in the early nineties, it was also one of the most run-down. Things have changed a lot since then. It’s had a long overdue face lift and has since become a mecca of cool restaurants, shops and clubs. The sidewalks are filled with throngs of people at any given time of the day or night. I love walking the cobblestone streets and being a part of the energy.

gastownclock1

Here is the famous Steam Clock, one of the only two in the world. It’s hard to find a time when hordes of tourists are not crowded around the clock, taking pictures. I was lucky.

steamingclock

I managed to snap a photo while the clock was steaming.

inscription

Chill Winston is the best place to go for a drink on a sunny afternoon.

chillw

The cute little boutiques are a distraction. I always stop and take a peek into the famous John Fluevog store.

jfluevog

To shake things up a bit, I can skip Gastown and take a detour through Chinatown.  Stay tuned next week for that one … and more walks through Vancouver.

cococuplong

I’d been wanting to make Ina Garten’s coconut cupcakes ever since I bought her Barefoot Contessa cookbook over a year ago. I love Ina’s recipes and I faithfully watch her show. Her food is simple yet delicious. Classic, with a twist. I rely on her books when I entertain, and they haven’t failed me yet. People are always impressed with the things I make from Ina’s books.

I do admit, though, I usually skip the chapter on baked goods. There’s nothing inherently wrong with her pecan squares or her croissant bread pudding. In fact, they look fabulous. I just have a wee bit of a problem with adding a pound of butter to whatever I bake. Maybe it’s me and I just haven’t baked enough to know how rich a lot of baking can be. It’s one thing to buy a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie to go with your latte at Starbucks, quite another to see all the fat that goes into such a cookie when you make it at home.

Take those pecan squares of Ina’s. Her recipe calls for 1 1/4 pounds of butter for the crust and 1 pound of butter for the topping. Her recipe makes twenty squares. Do the math. That’s a heart attack waiting to happen. I’m all for butter–I can’t live without it. But really, sometimes too much is too much.

But I couldn’t get the coconut cupcakes off my mind. When the opportunity to make them presented itself in the form of my brother’s birthday last week, I finally made them. Needless to say, I reduced the amount of butter called for in Ina’s recipe. I don’t think it diminished the cupcakes in any way. Despite my building them up in my mind for so long, they did not disappoint, and I’ll definitely make them again.

I did add a twist of my own, though. Lemon. I love lemon. Everything tastes better with lemon, in my humble opinion. I added the juice of a couple of lemons to the batter and the icing, along with their zest. They gave these rich cupcakes a bit of contrast and a refreshing tang, and the little yellow flecks of zest made them look even more scrumptious.

 

Ina Garten’s Coconut Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing

adapted from “The Barefoot Contessa” cookbook

Makes 18-20 large cupcakes

cococup

Ingredients:

1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature

2 cups sugar

5 extra-large eggs at room temperature

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk

14 ounces sweetened shredded coconut

cream cheese icing (recipe below)

 

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 325F. With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy, about five minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Mix in vanilla extract.

2) Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In three parts, alternately add the dry ingredients and the buttermilk to the batter, beginning and ending with the dry. Mix until just combined. Fold in 7 ounces of coconut.

3) Line a muffin pan with paper liners. Fill each cup with batter. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the tops are golden and a toothpick comes out clean.

4) Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from the pan and finish cooling on a wire rack. Frost with cream cheese icing and sprinkle with the remaining coconut.

Cream Cheese Icing

1 pound cream cheese at room teperature

3/4 pound unsalted butter at room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 1/2 pounds icing sugar, sifted

 

Blend together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla with an electirc mixer. Add the sugar and mix until smooth.

 

I did not change the icing recipe in any way. I was afraid that if I began tinkering with it, it might not come out right. You might want to use just a little icing for each cupcake and freeze the rest for next time.

chocbiscottiThe first time I made biscotti something went terribly wrong. I don’t know what, but something did.  They were …er… soft. That was a long time ago but I still remember my bitter disappointment. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and I pretty much gave up on baking after that. Knowing thyself as I do now, I’m sure it was all my fault, though I doubt I would have admitted it at the time. I must have cut corners, over or under measured the ingredients, improvised on the recipe as I was wont to do. Both my mother and grandmother do their measuring with coffee mugs and their baking comes out perfectly. Needless to say, I have not inherited this ability to eyeball ingredients with laser-like precision. When I use a recipe I have learned to follow it exactly–at least the first time around–and I’m much happier with my results of late, especially when it comes to baking. Not all recipes work. Some of them are just plain wrong, and I’ve ranted about that in a previous post. I find that to be particularly so with books written by professional chefs who have not collaborated with a food writer, because so much of what they do comes out of instinct and years of skill honed in the kitchen. I still improvise, but I know that it’s in the name of fun and experimentation, and that things might not turn out the way I hope. Now when I improvise, I take copious notes as I go along. If a dish comes out really well, I’ll know how to recreate it.

Take these biscotti. Fifteen years later, I attempted another round of making them. I’d been having a biscotti craving lately, particularly for chocolate biscotti, but the only ones I could find were those grainy long sticks of fiber board that you can get at any number of neighborhood cafes. I truly despise those bastardized versions of the venerable Italian biscotto. Now, I happen to live a hop, skip, and a jump from my city’s Little Italy and could have gone into any Italian deli and come out with a box of the genuine biscuit. Most of the time these little crunchy little cookies studded with whole almonds are enough to make me swoon, but this time I knew they wouldn’t cut it. I wanted chocolate. Double chocolate. So I came up with these.

I call these double chocolate because of the cocoa base and the addition of chocolate chips. You can make them triple chocolate by drizzling them with melted chocolate. And in the spirit of keeping things authentic I included the whole almonds, which is–in my opinion–the best part of any biscotto.

The outcome here is not based on any one recipe. I looked through several to get an idea of the base ingredients and then experimented with others. Some of the recipes called for too much butter. Pointless for a cookie that’s supposed to be hard and dry, don’t you think? Others seemed complicated, or that they might turn out too sweet. I like what I came up with, but I confess that the next time around I’ll probably double the almonds. I like my biscotti to have a mouth full of them in every bite. Just like the ones from the Italian deli.

 

Double Chocolate Almond Biscotti

biscotticloseup

Ingredients:

1/2 stick butter

3/4 cup sugar (180 ml)

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup cocoa (80 ml)

2 cups flour (500ml)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 scant cup chocolate chips (100g)

1 cup almonds (100g)

 

Directions:

1) Toast the almonds on a baking sheet in the oven at 350F (180C) for about 15 minutes. Shake the pan once to make sure they get evenly browned.

2) Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla together in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs and then cocoa. Beat until well combined.

3) Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in another bowl, then gradually incorporate into the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon until a dough has formed.

4) Stir in the chocolate chips and almonds. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill for an hour.

biscottibatter

5) Preheat oven to 325F (160C). Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board. Separate into two. Form each half into a flat log about 12 inches long by patting it down and squaring off the edges with your finger tips. Place well apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

biscottilog

6) Bake for thirty mintues. Cool on a cutting board until no longer hot to the touch and then cut crosswise on the diagonal into slices about 1 inch thick. Arrange on the baking sheet and bake for another 15-20 minutes.

7) Transfer biscotti on a wire rack to cool. Keep at room temperature in a cookie tin or other airtight container.

shcake

If you’re anything like me, your first thought when invited to a party is “wonder what the food will be?”.  I love a good party; putting on the little black dress, mingling with new people, seeing friends I might not have seen in awhile.  But to me, the food is always the glue that holds the whole evening together. If the hors d’oeuvres are bad, I will undoubtedly be disappointed.  If they’re good, I’ll tell everyone how fabulous the party was.

Truth is, there’s a lot of bad party food out there. When you’re in your twenties, it’s acceptable to put out a couple of bowls of chips and pretzels and a plate of sausage rolls.  When you’re in your late thirties, plus … not so much. I know, I know.  My food snobbery is showing.  Or maybe it’s the way I was raised by my European parents. They had their share of parties and when they did they went all out. They prepared for days. My father prepared plate after plate of charcuterie, my mother baked tortes and spent hours hunched over her recipe box, looking at appetizer recipes. BYOB was considered the biggest insult.

A few years ago, when I had a housewarming party at my new condo, I was surprised at how quickly the food was gobbled up.  The guests descended on the food like a flock of hungry eagles. Everyone told me how good it was, but to my mind it was nothing special. With a new mortgage to pay, my budget was tight, and the offerings at my table were not what I would have wanted them to be.  Even so, it seemed I knocked it out of the park that night.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a party. The spread consisted of a large platter of fruit, jumbo shrimp cocktail, and slabs of cheese served up with herbed flatbreads.  It couldn’t have been more simple or more delicious. I went away with the menu for my next party.

Feeding guests at a party doesn’t have to be intimidating. You don’t need to spend hours rifling through Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook or serve mahi mahi.  All it takes is a little creativity and attention to detail. For me, my little mini muffin tins are a boon. The possibilities are endless. You can make miniature polenta cakes, phyllo purses, or–one of my favorites–mini crab cakes.

The recipe here is for shrimp cakes. They’re lovely with either shrimp or crab. Since shrimp is what I usually have on hand, it’s what I ended up using the last time I made these. This recipe is adapted from the April 2009 issue of Bon Appetit magazine.

 

Mini Shrimp Cakes

Adapted from Bon Appetit, April 2009

Ingredients:

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

3/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese, divided

1 large egg

1/4 cup sour cream

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, divided

1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

6 ounces fresh shrimp, chopped

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

1/4 cup (1/2 sick) unsalted butter, melted

shrimpbowl

Directions:

1) Beat cream cheese with an electric mixer in a medium bowl until smooth. Beat in 1/4 cup parmesan and egg. Add sour cream, lemon peel, 1 1/2 tablespoons chives, and salt. Fold in shrimp.

2) Preheat oven to 350F. Generously grease 2 mini muffin tins or spray with cooking spray. Toss panko, 1/2 cup parmesan, and the rest of the chives in a small bowl. Drizzle with 1/4 cup melted butter and toss with fork until evenly moistened.

3) Press 1 rounded tablespoon panko mixture into bottom of each muffin cup to form a crust. Spoon 1 generous tablespoon shrimp mixture into each cup. Sprinkle rounded teaspoon of panko mixture over each.

4) Bake cakes until golden on top, about 30 minutes. Cool in pans for 5 minutes. Run knife carefully around each cake and lift out of pan. Let cool to room temperature.

shpanclose

These cakes can be made 2 hours ahead. Rewarm at 350F for 6-8 minutes. Arrange shrimp cakes on a serving platter and garnish with a sprinkling of chopped chives or parsley.

 

So tell me … what do you like to make for a party?

 

choccupCake is not something I eat very often.  It ordinarily finds it’s way to my plate at birthday parties or other celebratory occasions when refusing a piece can make one look like a party pooper or chronic dieter.  In these cases, the cake is usually dry and tasteless, smeared with greasy supermarket bakery frosting that I end up scraping onto the side of my dish. 

Cupcakes, on the other hand, are a different story.  It wasn’t that long ago that these portable sweet treats seemed like a throwback to another era, something you’d find on a buffet table beside a Jell-o mold and  macaroni salad.  But what is old always becomes new again, and suddenly cupcakes were popping up all over the place.  A bakery that only sold cupcakes opened up in my neighborhood.  I went to a wedding and instead of a wedding cake there were beautifully frosted cupcakes served on a tree-tiered platter.  The cupcake had reached the height of sophistication.

When I first discovered food blogs (not that long ago) I noticed that a lot of people blog about cupcakes. There are even blogs solely devoted to them.  I can see why.  The variations are endless, they’re a lot easier to make than a layer cake, and they allow the baker unlimited creativity.  As a single person, I would never bother making a cake for myself, but I make cupcakes for my own enjoyment.  I halve the recipe and put what I won’t eat in the freezer for another time. They freeze well and make a perfect treat for my little niece when she comes for a visit.

This recipe is one of my favorites, adapted from the pages of a little book I found called Perfect Baking, published in the UK by Parragon. Devils’ Food cupcakes are a double whammy of nostalgia.  The addition of sour cream here makes for a really light and fluffy cupcake–which is probably why I like them so much.

 

Devil’s Food Cakes with Chocolate Frosting

devilclose

 Ingredients:

Makes 18

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup (115g) firmly packed brown sugar

2 large eggs

3/4 cup (115g) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/3 cup (25g) unsweetened cocoa

1/2 cup (125ml) sour cream

For the frosting:

4 1/2 ounces (125g) semisweet chocolate

2 tablespoons icing sugar

2/3 cup (150ml) sour cream

3 1/2 ounces (100g) semisweet chocolate for garnish (optional)

Directions:

1) Put 18 double layer paper cases on a cookie sheet or 18 singles divided between 2 muffin tins. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C.

2) Beat the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, baking soda and cocoa in a large bowl until smooth. Fold in the sour cream. Spoon the batter into the paper cases, 2/3 full. Bake for 20 minutes or until risen and firm to the touch.

3) To make the frosting, melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let cool. Whisk in the sugar and sour cream until combined.

4) Spread the frosting over the tops of the cupcakes and let set in the refrigerator before serving.

5) To garnish the cupcakes, shave the semisweet chocolate with a potato peeler or simply chop with a sharp knife.

turkburger

I’ve never been an ardent fan of the All-American hamburger. The meat is almost always too dry and lacking in flavor, requiring a dousing of mustard and ketchup to make it palatable.  I am, however, a lover of a different kind of hamburger.  It’s called pljeskavica and can be found in Balkan countries like Serbia, Croatia, and Bulgaria.  The cuisines of these countries are a mishmash of German, Hungarian, and Turkish influences, due to their domination under the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. My family are ethnic Slovaks from Serbia. Our cooking is even more varied due to the influence of both the Slovak and Serbian cultures. We eat all sorts of dumplings and stews, as well as bake with phyllo and grill a lot of our meats.  Whenever I go to Serbia, eating pljeskavica is one of the things I look forward to the most.

Pljeskavica is served in most restaurants and on city street corners, the way vendors serve up hot dogs in North America.  It’s a meat patty typically made of a combination of beef, lamb, and pork. The bun is not your typical hamburger bun, but something between a bun and a Georgian baguette. You can garnish it with mustard and mayo, of course, and chopped onions are de rigeur.  The best part is the cheese, called kajmak, similar in taste to feta but creamier–almost like a spread.

Since I live in the city and don’t have a balcony, I can’t grill my own pljeskavica at home.  When the craving gets to be too much, I drive out to the suburbs to a restaurant called the Balkan Grill, the only Serbian restaurant we have here in Vancouver.  The meat patties served there are the size of your head; three people can eat one of them. At this restaurant they stuff them with feta cheese. This is how I got the inspiration for this little burger here.

At home, I make my own version with lean ground turkey meat. Yes, it’s lower in fat, but it’s also juicy and I like the taste. I just fry the burgers up on an oiled cast iron pan for about 20 minutes. I have tried baking them but that made a lot of the juices and cheese run out.

This recipe also calls for something called Vegeta, a seasoning mix for meats, soups, and vegetables. It’s produced in Croatia but every European deli I’ve ever been to in this country carries it. It’s a very popular product across Europe. It’s an optional ingredient, but it does boost the flavor. It also contains a lot of salt, so if you skip the Vegeta, you will need to add more salt than this recipe calls for.

This recipe makes 4 small burgers. Pljeskavica is usually much larger than a regular hamburger, but thin.

 

Turkey Burgers Stuffed With Feta

Ingredients:

1 pound (1/2 kilo) lean ground turkey meat

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Vegeta seasoning

6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

 

Directions:

1) Mix all of the ingredients except the feta in a mixing bowl until well combined. Divide the meat into 8 chunks. Roll 1 chunk into a ball and then press it out into the shape of a patty in the palm of your hand.

2) Press the feta on top of the meat patty. Take another chunk and form a patty with it as well, and then press on top of the feta covered one. Repeat with the rest of the meat.

rawburg

3) Fry on medium heat for about ten minutes, until well browned. Flip over and fry for another ten minutes or so. Make sure that the meat is well cooked. If you cook it on too high of a heat it might burn on the outside but might not be done on the inside.

In restaurants, pljeskavica  is typically served with Greek salad. I also really like it with a salad of cucumbers in yogurt. I find the turkey burger is great with both. Once you have a burger stuffed with feta, you’ll never want a regular one again!

fetaburger

easteregg

When I offered to bring dessert to our family’s Easter dinner, Tiramisu immediately sprang to mind. No Easter is complete without chocolate, and tiramisu has some chocolate. Otherwise, I’m not sure what it is that makes it seem like the perfect dessert for this spring holiday. Maybe because it’s just so elegant and sophisticated.  Tiramisu makes you look good. People ooh and aah over its rich and creamy delights, exclaiming “you made this?”. Yet few desserts are as easy to make–actually, assemble–as Tiramisu. You don’t have to bake anything. You start with a package of dry ladyfingers and end up with cake and layers of gooey espresso infused cheese. What could be better than that?

tiramisu

Tiramisu

Recipe adapted from Giada De Laurentis

Ingredients:

6 egg yolks

3 tablespoons sugar

1 pound mascarpone cheese

1 1/2 cups espresso, cooled

2 teaspoons dark rum

24 packaged ladyfingers

powdered cocoa or chocolate shavings, for garnish

 

Directions:

1) Beat egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl with an electric mixer until thick and creamy. Add cheese and beat until smooth. Add one tablespoon of the coffee and mix thoroughly.

2) In a shallow dish, mix the rest of the coffee and rum. Dip half the ladyfingers, one by one, into the espresso for five seconds and place in the bottom of a 13×9 inch baking dish. Break the ladyfingers up if necessary, in order to fit the bottom.

3) Spread half of the cheese mixture over the ladyfingers. Arrange another layer of ladyfingers over top. Spread with the remaining cheese mixture.

4) Cover the tiramisu with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours. Just before serving, sprinkle with the cocoa or chocolate.

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QUOTE

"Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet." -Julia Child

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Photos and text copyright 2009 by Darina Kopcok
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