Thursday, April 2, 2009

Armenian style crackers

When my daughter comes to me saying "Mom, I want something to eat, but something that's bad for you", I know I'm in for trouble.

To me, it illustrates perfectly the deep emotional completely irrational relationship we have with food. Beyond our basic appetite for food which results from hunger we may sometimes find ourselves inexplicably tied up in a love/hate relationship with food. We may want to gorge on more food, faster, or junkfood not to satisfy our stomachs but our minds.

This is why I take proper care to smooth out any sudden cravings of my children or myself by giving in the occasional indulgence or blatantly refusing to let go. I know this relationship with food needs nurturing and balance as our health both mental and physical, our wellbeing and happiness are at stake.

One of the keys to success is to educate my kids about what goes in their mouths. When I mention to my daughter there are chemicals in processed foods or on fruit and vegetables, her natural instinct is to say what? chemicals? I'm not eating that. Now she knows what organic means.

She also knows the steak on her plate comes from a cow. Her initial apprehension was rapidly won over by her quick curious child mind and she asked what part. I responded the butt. She laughed, made an expression of disgust and went on eating thinking we adults definitely do funny things. But what I ensured was that she doesn't make what could be a shocking discovery at a later age, explained in a way that could lead to a dramatic change in her diet and in herself.

The benefits of eating from a varied plate are not only measurable in calories and vitamin intake but equally importantly in the unquantifiable pleasure of taste that satisfies the soul. I want to empower my children with confidence, knowledge and respect for food so that when they're old enough they don't turn around and gulp down all the junk food they'll feel they've been deprived of all their youth. So that when they are on their own, they do what comes naturally to them. So that wholesome healthy food becomes to them good to eat and good to think and that emotional battle with food bad food, too much food is finally over.

At home, I'm trying my hand at some of the foods I know my kids will love snacking on and I can feel good about giving them such as those crackers. It is basically a slightly sweetened bread dough that is rolled out so thin it crisps up in the oven. You can either precut the dough to have uniform shapes or just cut off shards when baked.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Warm edamame salad with mirin and citrus vinaigrette

An easy way to prepare a tasty satisfying lunch in no time is to give it an Asian touch. The ingredients are straightforward and healthy, and the preparation requires nothing more than a little chopping and stir-frying.

Sometimes I will impatiently shred some pieces off a leftover roast I may have in the fridge and toss it together with some steamed greens. Arrange a quick sauce with soy sauce and toasted sesame oil, and I’m good to go.

Other times, especially in winter, I’ll make a quick miso soup with a dashi and kombu as a base and just throw in whatever I feel like or happen to have on hand : chopped scallions, a handful of fresh shitake, dried or fresh wakame, some cubed tofu, and of course red miso paste.

The idea for this recipe just popped out of nowhere one day I was really hungry but not willing to give up on taste. It is relatively easy to prepare especially if like me you always keep unseasoned steamed vegetables in the fridge (my 20 month old will eat up about 2 pounds of those a week which explains why I always have them ready to go).

For this warm edamame salad I proceeded as follows. I first pan fried firm tofu, tossed in frozen edamame I had first blanched, added chopped scallions and steamed broccoli florets. I microplaned a clove of garlic and a slice of ginger for extra zing. I then combined mirin, freshly squeezed orange juice, soy sauce and rice vinegar for my mirin citrus vinaigrette I and poured it on top at the last minute. For the final touch, I used chopped cilantro and a drizzle of sesame oil.

I absolutely loved the way the crunch of the edamame balanced out the soft smooth tofu to create a texturally balanced dish.

The concept is pretty versatile and would taste great with many different foods you might already have. So play around with the ingredients add sugar snaps, asparagus, chicken, shitake or any kind of mushroom, shreds of toasted nori, any kind of toasted seed or nut. The only rule is to use healthy, minimally handled, just cooked through, fresh ingredients.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mini cream cheese center chocolate cupcakes

Over the years, I have developed an eye for recipes. When I browse through a food magazine or a cooking book, I can usually "smell" a good recipe right away. I have my own personal indicators of what a tasty dish requires and glancing rapidly through the list of ingredients, the amount of time needed and/or simply the title can reveal a lot about what to expect in your plate. More importantly I am now able to quickly evaluate whether or not the final taste will be worth those long hours spent in the kitchen.

This cupcake recipe was no exception.

I stumbled upon it in the March issue of Bon Appétit and proceeded as I usually do. I marked down the title and page number on my recipe notebook and knew I would get down to it sooner or later. There are so many recipes out there worth trying, I mark down rigorously all those I want to try. When in need of inspiration, just browsing those notes is usually enough to trigger a good mouthwatering and make me want to start cooking.

For this recipe, a chocolate cupcake batter is made and poured into cups, then hollowed out to put in the cream cheese filling. I also covered some of them with more chocolate batter, to keep a cream cheese center. I was very satisfied with how they turned out. The crumb was moist and dense with a nice chocolate flavor and the cream cheese gave it a nice milky, slightly sour aftertaste.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Classic white bread

Baking bread is magical, mystical, there is something almost sacred about it and kneading the dough by hand is intrinsically part of it. That dream I had of kneading my own dough is what motivated me to start taking up bread baking a little more seriously. As I mentioned before flour and I have not been good friends in the past and only very recently have I started to apply myself in a consistent way to the art of baking. It is a beautiful journey I have to admit and as I discover how 4 basic ingredients mixed skillfully can yield world class bread, I am also inevitably faced with learning my basics in chemistry.

First and foremost I'm asking myself what may sound like a simplistic pointless question but in my view a quick reminder never hurt anyone or so I'll ask anyway. Why knead dough? Kneading the dough is crucial to achieve proper gluten development. Gluten is a protein found in wheat that is reponsible for both structure and flavor and starts activating with hydration and warmth (exactly like yeast).

That being said, there are 2 types of breads : lean and enriched. The lean breads are a combination of flour, salt, yeast and water. French baguette falls in this category. The taste of the final bread relies solely on fermentation to develop the complex flavors of the wheat. In order to activate the fermentation yeast is needed (commercial or wild also known as sourdough). Yeast needs moisture, warmth and feeds on sugar to expand. As it grows it produces carbon dioxide and alcohol (in this case ethanol which evaporates when baking). It is also good to know that a few things will also kill the yeast, among which heat and salt.

In the enriched bread category, such as brioche or as a matter of fact any dough enriched by eggs, milk and or butter, the flavor will also come from these additions thus relying less on fermentation to develop flavor. I find this category easier to start with and by no means less appetizing.

This classic white bread comes from a recipe from the Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. It was a perfect book for the challenged somewhat perplex baker I was. It falls in the enriched bread category but still remains a leaner bread requiring only 4tbs of butter, 1 egg, 1 1/2 cups of milk and 3 tbs of sugar on top of flour, yeast and salt to yield 2 1 pound loaves.

I combined all the a.m. ingredients* with a metal spoon and quickly transfered the dough to the counter kneading it only for 2 to 3 minutes and letting it rest for 20 minutes. It's a good baker's tip that the French bakers call autolyse which allows the gluten to start activating. After 20 minutes I knead it by hand until the gluten is fully developped and the dough passes the windowpane test (which is well illustrated here). The dough is lightly oiled to avoid cracking. It then has to ferment until doubled in volume which is inherently dependent on the ambient temperature : the warmer the faster. It is then degassed and divided into 2 balls and let to rest for 20 minutes. Then comes shaping. Each ball is shaped into a log, placed into a pan and again proofed until doubled in volume before going in a preheated 350 degree oven for 35 minutes.

Bread baking is indeed a world of its own and I'm happy I opened the door.

*Another good tip when baking bread is to measure your ingredients by weight instead of volume for more accuracy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sweet potato gratin with chipotle cream

This is the first in what I hope will be a long list of tried-and-true comfort food recipes. It's chilly out there and Spring still seems far away, so let's cozy up in the kitchen warm up the oven and why not while we're at it add a few new favorites to our ever-growing comfort food repertoire.

This recipe is adapted from Bobby Flay and is one which for once doesn't call for 25 different ingredients, and I means this literally. Fast and easy to whip up, not much shopping, hard to source ingredients or prepping time. Doesn't sound too much like Bobby right? Well wait until you taste it, the final dish screams Bobby and in a good way.

Sweet potatoes are peeled and finely sliced using a mandoline. I used chipotle chilies in adobo sauce that I minced and pureed down pressing with the blade of my knife then added them to heavy cream and added salt and pepper. I stirred the mixture being careful not to overwhip or even introduce too much air into it as the purpose is solely to get the ingredients combined, not to wind up with whipped cream. The sweet potatoes are then layered in a gratin dish and seasoned before adding some of the chipotle cream. After 4 layers, my gratin was ready to be baked in the oven for about an hour and fifteen minutes.

I know it does sound like a long time, but besides cooking the potatoes, you want them to absorb as much of the liquid as possible. I let the gratin rest in the dish for a good 1/2 hour. When ready to eat I added just a drizzle of maple syrup on top to bring out the natural sweetness of the sweet potatoes. It was an amazing dish, sweet and creamy with just a hint of heat. The sweet potatoes had this wonderful melt-in your-mouth texture making this dish an instant success for a top-of-the-list comfort food favorite.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sweet treats for Valentine's

My Chrismas cookies for my daughter's school had not gone unnoticed, and I had been asked again to provide for this year's Valentine's party. I was excited and more than happy to oblige but I had to come up with a plan and it better be good, at least as good as the Christmas cookies.

After some internet research of my own, I started to feel inspired and my plan of attack was taking shape. I would not go with one particular type of cookie but rather make three of my favorite sweet treats to choose from and the Valentine's theme had to clearly predominate. I decided I would go for a medley of classic chocolate chip cookies for the finicky eaters, heart-shaped bite size brownies and mini cheesecake hearts.

The cheesecakes are made with a classic graham cracker crust* pressed on the bottom of the pans. The filling is a combination of cream cheese, sugar, eggs, lemon zest, sour cream and flour. Not all cheesecake recipes call for flour, but personally I like the the way it affects the texture of the cake, giving it a less silky more chewy bite. I bake them in a bath of boiling water, just as you would with any entremet, to ensure even cooking.

For the chocolate chip cookies I use a very classic but infallible recipe. I am so familiar with this recipe that I have perfect control over how they're going to turn out : 8 minutes in the oven will yield a soft cookie with a gooey center, 14 minutes will make crispy cookies. My favorite batch will come out after 11 minutes.

The brownies follow a recipe from Ina Garten from the Food Network. They are the best brownies I have ever made. Just the way a brownie should be : a perfect compromise between a cakey and fudgy brownie and a strong chocolate flavor .

The morning of the party, I delivered everything to the school and the teacher greeted me with a "You make the best cookies, no really, you should go into baking". I thanked her for the compliment and left with an invitation to come back in the afternoon for the party.

Everything went really well, other adults were attending, the kids were really happy, and the teacher grateful to have such dedicated parents.

*I recently discovered that graham crackers contain hydrogenated fats which I avoid consistently, so I will be looking for a more healthful alternative and welcome any suggestions you might have for substitution.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New Food Calendar

As you can see I have added a new feature to my blog. The Food Calendar is where all food related events happening around the world will be posted.

I decided to create this calendar because I wanted to be able to find all in one place where and when food events were being held.

I hope this food calendar can help food enthusiasts like me become more aware of what's going on in the food world and hopefully attend a lot more events in the future.

So if you are organizing, sponsoring or taking part in such an event contact me and your event will be added on the calendar.

Friday, January 30, 2009

French onion soup

There's nothing better in those cold winter days than warming up to a hot bowl of soup. French onion soup is an especially good and comforting one and really a cinch to make. It can literally be whipped up in under 30mn.

All you need is 2 to 3 medium onions, some butter, water, a good Swiss Emmentaler or French Gruyere and a nice piece of stale bread. Now I do insist on the fact that the bread has to be a good 3 to 4 days old in order to absorb a maximum of liquid. If using old bread doesn't sound too appealing, you can always substitute fresh bread, but the result won't be comparable. Fresh bread has a higher water content and therefore cannot absorb moisture in the same proportion as a more dehydrated bread would.

Here is my twist on it. The butter is first melted in a cast iron pot on high heat. The onions are peeled, cut in half and sliced. Then they're tossed in the pot along with a good pinch of kosher salt to help them break down. They have to become sweet and tender and caramelize all around. The caramelization is important as it is what will yield its typical brown color to the soup. You might want to play around with the heat a little in order to get that nice caramelization without burning the onions.

When the onions are ready 3 to 4 cups of water are added along with a good tablespoon of kosher salt. The heat is turned on high to bring it to a boil. It is then simmered over low heat for about 20mn and seasoning is adjusted. I personnally like this soup with a lot of freshly ground black pepper.

When ready to serve first arrange several pieces of bread in a bowl, then laddle the hot soup over and sprinkle all over with cheese. Wait 5 mn until the cheese has melted and forms a kind of "crust" on top.

If you're after that beautiful golden brown top, the soup needs to go under a hot broiler for about 5mn. Ideally, the soup should be served in stoneware bowls for that special rustic look, but any kind of ovenproof dish would do the trick.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Swiss chocolate sandwich cookies

I never buy dessert, except may be for ice cream. I realized Saturday evening that my latest batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies had already been devoured (I have 2 little monsters who love sneaking in the kitchen and trying out mommy's confections especially when it involves chocolate and cookies). As for the pint of chocolate ice cream in the freezer...What chocolate ice cream in the freezer?

I remembered this recipe for chocolate sandwich cookies I had read about two months ago (I never forget a good recipe) and now was the right time to give it a try. This recipe was adapted by Nick Malgieri from "Swiss baking and Confectionery" by Walter Bachmann.

It's basically a chocolate cookie dough rolled and cut out with a fluted round 2 inch cookie cutter and a double chocolate (milk and semi-sweet) filling for the chocolate lovers like me. The filling is spread evenly between 2 cookies and a light dusting of powdered sugar makes them as sweet to look at as they are to eat.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Brown rice with butternut squash and toasted pumpkin seeds

I love meat. Sautéed, simmered, stewed, roasted, boiled, grilled, boneless or bone in, ground, skewered, as a steak, sausage or roast, raw, I love meat.

This is why, after reading Michael Pollan’s book : “The omnivore’s dilemma”, I started thinking about the way I, we, eat meat. It felt so right to me hearing someone say that the killing of an animal should be done in the most respectful way, a kind of ritual in which Man is reminded of where he comes from, thanks Mother Nature for the animal giving up his life so that his species can live on and will eventually in return feed the soil that will feed the animal grazing in the prairie. A perfect circle of life.

On a more practical level, it also reminded me of the importance of knowing where your meat comes from and how the animal was raised and put down. Whenever I see the name of a restaurant chain or beef on sale at ridiculous prices there’s this thought of Steer 534…
This whole industrial meat chain is horrifying, disgusting, shocking. It is like a scene from a horror movie except you can’t close your eyes, it’s there, it’s happening right now! I guess what strikes me most, besides the conditions surrounding the animals’ lives and deaths, is the fact that some people actually work there. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think those guys are any worse than you or me. I don’t think they are to blame. They just got the job they could get and that’s that.

What I am most upset about is the fact that some people “have” to take these jobs. How can they go to work everyday without their sense of pride getting more and more tarnished as the days go by? How can they get rid of the lingering smells on their skin, in their mind? How can they sleep peacefully at night? How can they live with themselves? How can they stay sane? Here’s the trick, I think they can’t.

Because this is all rather upsetting to me and because I want my dollars to go directly support the causes I believe in I have decided to watch my meat intake. Like Michael Pollan suggests, a human being can only kill so many animals and at the same time remain respectful of the life he’s taking away. Therefore (and don’t forget I’m a meat lover) once or twice a week in my house dinner will be free of animal protein. It’s not a big sacrifice, and it helps remind us to be more thankful for the meat we do eat.

Which is what brings me to my meatless dish of the week Brown rice with butternut squash and toasted pumpkin seeds. A satisfying winter dish that could easily get meatier with the addition of mushrooms. The butternut squash is first peeled and cut into bite size chunks, then boiled for about 12 mn until just tender. Then I toss it in some olive oil on medium heat I add salt, pepper, garlic, ginger, flat leaf parsley, when all incorporated, my already cooked unsalted rice goes in with a good splash of tamari, some toasted pumpkin seeds and scallions.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Roasted golden beets and carrots with pastured pork chops

There is no way back now. Winter is here to stay and so are root vegetables. This recipe comes from Jamie Oliver's new book Jamie at home. He was not a chef I particularly admired when he first started, but with the years, he has taken a direction which, I have to confess, adheres very much to my own principles of cooking and eating. Eat locally, organically, sustainably, responsibly.

I spotted some beautifully fresh organic golden beets the other day at my local Whole Foods and the first thing that came to my mind was "roasted beets". I'm happy Jamie and I now think along the same lines, as I was able to find his version of roasted golden beets. I had never had golden beets before....but their cousins the red beet. Oddly enough, I found their taste to be absolutely identical so I guess the interesting part lies in their playful vibrant colors and different nutritional contents (golden orange and deep purple couldn't possibly be made of the same phytonutrients).

They are very sweet and do have a sourness to them which vinegar usually enhances in a subtle way. But in that instance, the use of balsamic vinegar seemed to be an adequate choice for the beets, bringing out both their sweetness and sourness.

Both carrots and beets are first boiled to absorb enough water to cook properly and avoid the ''shriveling in the oven''. Anyone who has tried to roast vegetables in the oven before will know what I'm talking about*. They are then seasoned each in a different way : the juice of an orange, the leaves of a few thyme sprigs, smashed garlic cloves and olive oil for the carrots, balsamic vinegar along with a few unpeeled whole cloves of garlic for the beets, last but not least, fine gray sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper for everyone. Last step is roasting them in the oven**.

Moving on to the pork chops, I have to tell you that this pork is the best tasting pork I have ever had, and I'm not even kidding! I get it from a farm nearby, where I also get my eggs, chicken and beef. It's a small farm operated by a couple who uses the rotational grazing method. The animals spend their lives out in nature doing what they were meant to do and they are treated humanely. No pesticides, antibiotics, vaccines or growth hormones there, only the most respectful ways of treating living beings and the environment we all share. In return, the meat is spectacular.

For this recipe, the pork chops are seasoned scored and sage leaves are inserted in the slits. They are then seared, and cooked. Finally, the pan juices are deglazed with fresh lemon juice and poured over the chops.

I'd say not too bad for a weeknight's meal.

*Cook's illustrated this month features an article about roasting green beans and the shrivel action. It says : ''Wrinkles aren't always a sign of overzealous cooking. For roasted green beans, shriveled exteriors indicate a successful transformation from bland and stringy to tender and flavorful''.

**In Jamie's original recipe the vegetables are roasted in a 425 degree oven for 30mn. I would recommend bringing the temperature down to 375 (especially in a convection oven ) for about 20mn.

Friday, January 2, 2009

First brunch of the year

I found this recipe about a month ago, and just reading it I knew it would be a perfect new year’s brunch : ricotta pancakes along with caramelized apples topped with cooked prociutto drizzled with warm maple syrup. I could feel how the rich sweetness of the maple syrup would pair perfectly with the saltiness of the prociutto and I couldn't wait to try it.

I made the pancake batter with a mixture of ricotta, buttermilk and organic lemon zest and peel. The apples were quartered cored and peeled, then tossed in melted butter and maple syrup and cooked in a warm oven until slightly browned on top. The prociutto was cooked on a baking sheet for about 10mn until crispy.

The result was up to my expectations. The ricotta made these pancakes unbelievably moist even though thoroughly cooked. The different textures gave the whole dish a certain dimension : the crunchiness of the salty procuitto against the melt-in-your-mouth consistency of the fruity apples. Just plain beautiful to start off the year on a sweet note.