Saturday, June 29, 2013

I love pie.

Woooooweee! That was a long break! Sorry for the wait. It's been a rough year; job, food and otherwise. I'll spare you the details. BECAUSE I WANT TO TALK ABOUT PIE!!!!

I love pie. My first introduction to the culinary arts involved pie; my Gramz, widowed at a young age with five kids in her care, had been a pie cook in a Northern Ontario diner. Later in life, when she would visit us, she'd pull a chair up to the kitchen counter and make me hop on to watch as she rolled out the crust and poured in the fillings, apparently still happy to make those things... Up until her passing recently, she continued to patiently coach me in the finicky art of making the perfect crust. I sucked, but she persisted, bless her tenacious, lumberjack-feeding heart. That's why pie has always held a dear, dear spot in my heart; it reminds me of family, of laughs (that one time Gramz made me sniff cayenne when she thought it was cinnamon - at least I think she thought it was cinnamon.... hey! Lord, that burned...) and of delicious, reassuring mouthfuls of fruity goodness. I love pie.

But here's the rub. I still suck at piecrust. Every time I try to make it, I can feel ghosty-Gramz standing next to me, shaking her head, telling me not to press so hard with the rolling pin, or not to handle the crust so much because it'll get tough (which, in her Northern Québec French-flavoured English sounded more like "tohffe!"). So I gave up pies for a while. Not only for that reason, but also because Mr. Markie-Pants had told me, in the beginning of our romance, that he didn't care much for pies. GASP! H-h-h-ow was that possible?!? Of course, he'd also told me he didn't like risotto, salmon and  tofu, all of which now he happily, and dare I say, greedily, eats. So, in the end, this pie-hiatus (pieatus?) was nothing if not self-inflicted. The shame.

So this afternoon, whilst patrolling the aisles at the supermarket with Marc, I felt that familiar rumbling that only fresh blueberries and lard can quiet. With Marc's full support (and promise of eating at least one slice) I accepted my failure as a crust-maker, bought a package of two pre-made crusts and got a bag of frozen wild blueberries. I pulled a recipe from The Joy of Cooking and made a pie... AND IT WAS WONDERFUL! The crust, of course, didn't have the fairy-dusting of loving je-ne-sais-quoi that only 95-year-old leathery hands can impart, but darn it, it was pretty close! I'm so happy. Pie. I love pie.  And guess what? Marc had TWO slices.

À la prochaine!


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

First anniversary hard truth... with salad!

Hey! I'm still here! It's been a while, hasn't it? I've been busy; training for a half marathon, competing to keep my job in the federal public service (still tbd), reading the last volume from the Game of Thrones series, yadda yadda... and do you know what? Blogging is a lot of work! And, well, being consistent with fresh new posts is quite contradictory to my farniente-ing. Sooooo I've decided to change my priorities a bit... I'm done with feeling guilty about not posting often enough. In my first blog post, I'd said that life's too short to spend it all in the kitchen. Now, I know that it should also have read that life's too short to spend forced three-hour periods, on a weeknight or otherwise, writing blog posts and formatting pictures. So, from now on, I'll post when I feel like it, and if there's a three month gap between posts, so be it. It's not like I started this thing to make money. 

So! It's almost Food and Farniente's first anniversary! I can't believe it's been a year already. I was actually reminded of this happy occasion as I was tucking my newly sprouted luxurious melons into the garden's freshly turned soil, all set for a second nail-biting season of "So you think you can grow melons?" Stay tuned for those... If it doesn't work, I'm swearing off heirloom melons for good. Stupid unengineered non-enhanced nature! Grow faster dammit!! Anyhoo, I'm not doing anything in particular to celebrate the occasion, but it just feels good to know that this important milestone is just around the corner. Yay me! I stuck with something! Sort of!

Okay. Enough horn tooting. On with the show. Here's one of my all-time favourite quickie recipes for a light, quick and tasty dinner. I love it. Marc loves it. You'll love it. If you don't, sorry to have led you on. Also, get your taste buds checked.

Soba noodle salad with soy-ginger dressing, snow peas, and random nuts or seeds

To feed two people generously, you will need:
  • 3 handfuls of snow peas (or enough to fill a 4 cup glass measuring cup)
  • 2 small green onions
  • 1 handful of chopped and toasted almonds or toasted sesame seeds; a little pan-fried and cooled tofu could do the trick here too, for those who have nut allergies
  • 3 bunches of soba noodles (a japanese buckwheat noodle - delicious cold. You should be able to find it at your regular grocery. If not, stop by any asian market. Note: they're a bit more expensive than spaghetti, but they're worth it!)
  • 1 1/2 tsp fresh ginger, grated with a Microplane (I keep my ginger in the freezer to make this bit easier)
  • 1 tsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tsp soy sauce
  • 2 heaping tbsp brown sugar (or more, to your liking)
  • 1/2  tsp sesame oil
  • 2 tsp neutral oil like canola or grape seed

Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil. Also, fill a bowl with cold water and throw in a whole rack of ice cubes - set aside on the counter, near the stove. While the water heads toward the boiling point, get the rest of your stuff prepared.

1. Put the chopped almonds in a dry pan and toast them on low heat until they start to brown and become fragrant. When done, remove them from the pan so they don't burn, and set them aside.

2. Slice the green onions very thinly, on the diagonal if your knife is sharp enough. If not, regular little rounds are fine, as long as you keep them thin.

3. Wash the snow peas and remove the tough stringy bits by snapping the tip off each end and pulling in the direction of the pod. Marc demonstrates - quite beautifully, I might add - in the photo below. 

4. When all the peas are trimmed, throw them in the boiling water and set your timer for one minute - no more! Once the minute has passed, pull the peas out with a slotted spoon and shock them in the ice water. Don't dump out the boiling water, you'll be using it again shortly (we're trying to minimize dirty dishes!)

5. Add the soba noodles to the pot of boiling water. Cook according to the directions on the package; it won't take long, so watch them carefully so they don't get mooshy. When they're done, drain them in a colander and toss them in the ice water with the peas to cool. 

6. Whisk together the ginger, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil and canola oil to make the dressing.

7. Drain the noodles and snow peas, put them in a pretty salad bowl and toss them with the remaining ingredients and dressing. Poof! You're done! Enjoy!!

Hmmm. By the looks of this photo, I may have forgotten
to toast the nuts when I made this particular batch... Oh well!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Make them think you're a domestic goddess (when you're actually just a really clever baker)

So here's the story. I've been fantasizing about eating a croquembouche for years - YEARS I tell you! Ever since I saw one in a French bande dessinée as a kid... Even though it was merely a sketch in comic book inks, I could taste it in my mind's eye (or is it my mind's tongue?) : cream puff over delicious cream puff, towering to dizzying heights, shielded in a delicate armour of golden glistening caramel... It was magnificent.

I don't know why it took me nearly twenty-five years to try one. Maybe it was partly due to the fact that I  thought it so wondrous that it couldn't possibly exist in real life; or maybe that it was such a massive undertaking that it could only be made for glamorous gatherings of people much worthier than me.

So imagine my astonishment one day when Marc told me how he'd had the near-religious experience of eating croquembouche at his sister's wedding. "What!?!? WHAT?!?!?" I exclaimed. Mere mortals could eat this? Then, more recently, I was stunned to learn that my favourite local bakery could make one to order. WHAT?!?! That was it. The time had come for me to stop wishing and start acting. I made croquembouche MYSELF for my sister and aunt's double-birthday party. And it was won-der-ful.

Now, before you tell me that this endeavour grossly contravenes my "lazy cook" convictions, please know that it does not. This is the best impress-the-pants-off-your-dinner-guests-without-using-any-sort-of-specialized-skills dessert ever. It just takes a little planning, some elbow grease for stirring, and a really big wooden spoon for smacking a certain person's fingers when he tries to snatch a cream puff away for yet another round of self-assigned "quality control".

Laura Calder's recipe for croquembouche is perfect just the way it is, so I recommend it to anyone who is willing to jump into the world of cream puff skyscraper construction. And even if it ends up looking more like Montreal's Olympic Stadium than the Eiffel Tower, who cares! People will still bow to you as a master baker and domestic god(dess) extraordinaire. And the best thing is, it's nothing but smoke and mirrors my friends. Oh, and butter. And sugar. And cream. Mmmmmmm.

I'm not going to go through the whole recipe with you as Laura has already kindly taken care of that. I will, however, give you a few pointers from lessons learned.

1. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINTER OF ALL. Caramel is HOT. Blisteringly, searingly, painfully hot. And it conveniently sticks to human flesh, so it keeps burning you until you tear it off in a panic. This warning is not meant to frighten you, only to make you acutely aware that small children or inattentive cooks should not be near this stuff. The only way I could make this any clearer is by saying the following: you know how water boils at 100 degrees Celcius? That's burning hot, right? You're taking the caramel to just over 170 degrees Celcius. Got it? Good. Now go have fun. 

2. Time management is key. Think of this dessert as a succession of three small projects: the pastry cream, the puffs, and the caramel / assembly. To make it feel less laborious, I'd recommend making the pastry cream the night before. And allow at least 30 minutes for the caramel to achieve the right doneness; that stuff's sloooooooow to turn.

3. I didn't use the traditional foil-covered cone as a building base for my croquembouche. I decided to go ahead and just pile those cream puffs right up (hence the squat look of the finished product as you will see a little further down).  I just couldn't be bothered to hunt around Gatineau to find a foam cone, buy it, and then be stuck finding a place to store it in my kitchen once the party was over. In a moment of regret, I did try to make my own by stapling some parchment paper to an extra-large Roll up the Rim Tim Horton's cup, but that was just dumb. Even the dog thought so. I did win a coffee though. 

4. Filling the puffs was fun and easy. I just stabbed each one with the tip of my piping bag and kept slowly squeezing until the puff felt heavy in my hand, about the weight of a small clementine. That's when Marc-the-pastry-vulture started circling... Can't blame him, really. It was like finally being on the open side of the bakery's windowed counter, with unrestricted access! Gaaaaah! 

5. Laura doesn't mention this, but it's important that once your caramel has reached the right temperature, you take it off the heat as it will continue to darken. You can choose to work relatively quickly before it gets too dark (as I did), or place the bottom of the pan in a bit of ice water while you work, to cool things off a bit. And here's a clean-up trick: keep the caramel in the pan and stick to metal implements. Once everything is done, fill up the pan with water, with any remaining caramel still in it, and set it to boil. The caramel will slowly dissolve away and you'll have a perfectly clean pan in the end. Do the same with any caramel encrusted utensils you might have.

6. I watched a whole bunch of YouTube videos on how to assemble croquembouche to find decorating tips. This one showed a nifty way to make that pretty veil effect over the finished mountain of cream puffs (just click it forward to 4:50 for that specific part): It took me a while to figure out that the caramel has to be slightly cool before it start producing threads; so just dip in your forks, keep them stuck together for a bit, and then start pulling them apart. I also may try this whole adventure again with the chocolate version presented in this other video - if you're nervous about the caramel, this could be an option for you too:

7. Finally, I'm very proud to say I made a really neat topper for the croquembouche by simply swirling some remaining caramel on a clean, buttered sheet pan. Once it was partially set but still malleable (I kept checking by trying to lift a little bit of it off the pan), I picked it up with my hands and gently compressed it to make a tulip shape, then I held it until it was completely set. Poof. Instant-glamour.

Sorry - it got too hectic after this first shot.
I forgot to take another one!

So there we go. The croquembouche. It may sound scary, but it's not. I just takes a bit of perseverance,  and some self control once those cream puffs are filled. The benefits, I assure you, will exceed your expectations. So will the storage capacity of your stomach once you start snarfing these things down. Good luck!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The reality check...

I wouldn't say that I have an obsessive personality... Okay. Some of you who know me may be sniggering at that. Do I have an obsessive personality? Maybe? For some things? Really? Whatever. Let's move on.

So, as I was saying: I wouldn't say that I have an obsessive personality.  But ever since reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, I haven't been able to look at an apple the same way. Nor any sort of produce, really. I can't stop thinking about how non-organic produce is chemical soaked, nutritionally void styrofoam; why would I waste my money, time and health on that? 

So for about a year now, the variety and availability of produce in my fridge has been shrinking... Sure, eating locally through the MSRO and my own garden in the summer was bountiful and wonderful; but this winter has been bleeeeeeak. Always the same for my little Gatineau organic shopping cart: carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, bananas, spinach and romaine, sometimes oranges. How's a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-make-the-recipe-up-as-you-go cook supposed to survive on that?! For the first time in my life - THE FIRST TIME! - I've run out of inspiration (ergo, the slowly dwindling number of blog posts). The fight with the rotting sweet potato was the first symptom. Gaaaawd - that thing drove me nuts! Sitting at the back of the crisper, giving me the stare-down. Argh! 

And I'm lazy! I could have promised myself that I'd drive all the way to Hull, or Ottawa, for a better selection of organic produce, but let's face it: that wasn't going to happen. Driving more than an hour round-trip each week to get my groceries was out of the question. So, after consulting with fellow converts-to-organic, I decided to compromise: I'll avoid the Dirty Dozen as much as humanly possible (gonna be tough when the first strawberries start coming in), and I'll buy organic when it's available. Sounds logical enough for some? It was a freakin' epiphany for me. I know. Slow learner.

So with that in mind, I hit my old greengrocer's with the enthusiasm of a kid at Christmas: the bright colours! The smells! The crapload of goodies! How I missed it. I held a sweet bell pepper in my hand, but I had the strength to set it back down, and I took some brussels sprouts instead (no wait - it's not a downgrade! They're equivalent! It's called "tossing it with bacon", people!) . So I'm happy again. It's so strange; I literally felt inspiration flowing back into my little cook's core as poked and sniffed the pineapple (which, by the way, is on sale for a dollar each at Marché Frais this week! I bought three!). So that's it for this post. I haven't cooked dinner yet, so I don't have anything to show you. I was just that excited to say that I felt like cooking again.

Talk to you soon!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Quickie Sickie Soup

We've all been in this situation. You're at the office and you feel something creeping up on you, veery gradually... You find yourself tuckered out before lunchtime, despite the fact that you've only been reading and answering e-mail all morning; your head starts hurting just a bit; your sinuses sneakily puff up, and your neck starts giving you just a hint of soreness. Yup. That's the flu trying to get a hold of you, all right. Aaaaaaargh! Nooooo! You patiently wait for the day to be over, and then ooze your way home for some all important nip-it-in-the-bud sleep. But before you hit the sheets, what can you have for dinner that's fast, zero-effort and involves the almighty flu-stopping chicken broth? Quickie Sickie Soup, of course.

I've made this soup more times than I can remember. Not only does it serve as an easy tummy-warmer / flu-killer; I've also been known to make this for lunch when friends drop by unexpectedly, and there's nothing more to serve them than my barest larder staples. This isn't Cordon Bleu, folks. But hey - it's good for what ails 'ya. And if you have it with a piece of cheese and a bit of bread, you've got all the food groups covered.

Quickie Sickie Soup

The following is the At Death's Door version of the recipe. Feel free to add more ingredients if you have the time or strength; just make sure to up the amount of stock if you do, or else you'll end up with a stew instead of a soup. Note : all of these measurements are approximations, because when you're sick, you can't be bothered to use measuring cups. 
  • 4 cups (1 litre) of chicken stock / broth / whatever chickeny liquid you've got lying around. For this specific example, I used a 900 ml carton of organic broth. Hey man, that's all I had!
  • 2 carrots, grated with a box grater (1 to 1 1/2 cup).
  • Half a bag of tiny red lentils (the bags I buy are 450g) - that translates to about 3/4 cup-ish. Put them in a colander and rinse them a bit under the tap to remove any grit.

Step 1: heat the broth in a pot and bring it to a boil.

Step 2: throw in the lentils and the carrots. Bring the soup to a simmer and keep it that way for about 5 minutes, stirring once or twice to make sure the lentils don't stick to the bottom.

Step 3: taste the soup. If the lentils are soft, and the carrots are cooked, it's done. Add some salt and pepper if necessary (I didn't - the boxed broth was salty enough, and pepper would have tickled my precious little sickie throat).

Step 4: eat the soup with a bit of cheese. Leave the dishes for tomorrow. Go to bed.

Feel better!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sauce sequel; open-faced sandwich.


On night two of my I'd-rather-be-dead-than-think-of-making-anything-for-dinner crisis, I left the responsibility of meal-making to Marc. I was kind of hoping I'd get the question he usually asks when it's his turn to cook : "so d'you want pizza, shawarma or St-Hubert?"... But slap me silly, he actually opened the fridge and started throwing ideas at me! "We have to use up the rest of that pasta sauce you made yesterday, and this sourdough bread is on its way out. So what should I make?" Wow. Impressive. It was like he'd been reading somebody's food blog or something. So it was with a little back and forth brainstorming - he in the kitchen, me on the couch, hefty cocktail in hand - that we came up with this spin on a croque-monsieur. Quick, easy, delicious. And, bacony. Because Marc was cooking, after all.

Clean-the-fridge open-faced sandwich

Note: these are simply guidelines and inspiration for your own version of this sandwich, with your own troublesome leftover ingredients. If you don't have any leftover pasta sauce, use pesto. Or mayonnaise. Or puréed leftover squash (just add a bit of olive oil or grape seed oil to make is smooth while it blitzes in the food processor). Or grainy mustard. Or butter! You get the idea.

On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat (or nothing at all, if you don't mind scrubbing), assemble the following ingredients, in order of appearance:
  • thick slices of bread, or a length of baguette that's been halved horizontally
  • spinach and white bean pasta sauce from the other day
  • pecan halves
  • chopped dried figs
  • crumbled goat cheese
  • bacon or pancetta cooked 'til crispy, and crumbled
  • Emmenthal or any other melty cheese
  • freshly ground pepper

Pancetta confetti!

All dressed up with DEFINITELY someplace to go.

Stick the baking sheet under the broiler (on a low setting - if you don't have a low setting, move the rack to the centre of the oven) until the cheese is properly melty and the sandwich is warmed through.

Serve with a side salad and voilà! Pardon my attempt at going "Jamie Oliver" by piling the salad directly on top of this poor thing. It looks like a Derby hat! Mmmmmm. Edible Derby hat....


Sunday, January 15, 2012

The anti-takeout.

We've all had nights when the responsibility of even thinking of something to make for dinner - much less actually making it - was the equivalent of being told to climb Mount Everest, in four inch heels, with 30 lb packs of rocks on our backs. Ugh. You know you've been there.

I was actually there three times last week; coming home late, out of steam, mentally drained... I was terrified. In such times of weakness, it would have been so easy to ask Marc to stop by the St-Hubert drive-thru for a chicken dinner with fries and gravy... Lord... That would have been good. But we had to eat something better than that. On that first evening, Mere would be coming by to go for a run, and I needed proper fuel. Not a cheap, greasy thrill.

So it's with that need for a speedy fill-up in mind that I thought of pasta. Pasta's fast, especially when you have some tomato sauce waiting in the freezer. But I didn't have any tomato sauce in my freezer. Damn. What the heck was I going to feed myself and my hungry man? I had some 35% cream in the fridge, but making a sauce with it would have been very, very wrong. That got me thinking, though. Do you know what else is creamy? Beans! Off to the larder I went, and whipped up a sauce in a jiffy. Because this sauce didn't require any cooking, it was ready by the time the pasta was done! On nights like these, I bless the day Marc got me a food processor as a "just because" gift. That man knows me so well...

Speedy and fresh spinach and white bean pasta sauce with Parmesan and lemon
(Feeds four, no leftovers)

Step 1: fire up a pot of water, salt it when it starts to boil, and throw in a 450 g package of pasta (any kind will do - I chose spaghetti this time). Tip: to achieve perfect flavour in your pasta, the cooking water should be as salty as the Mediterranean. Go ahead, taste it before you throw in the pasta. Nobody will judge you! 

Step 2: while your pasta cooks, put the following ingredients in your food processor and blitz:

  • 1 can of white beans, drained

  • 3 big handfuls of fresh baby spinach
  • zest of 1/2 lemon (add more after blitzing, if you want a more lemony taste)

  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup fresh parmesan chunks that you've chipped off using a butter knife (matchbook- sized pieces), or pre-grated parmesan (just not the sawdust kind from the green canister, for the love of all things holy!)

  • enough olive oil to make everything whizz around smoothly (between 1/4 and 1/2 cup)
  • salt and pepper to taste (might want to add this after everything's been blitzed).

Step 3: scoop a cupful of the pasta water out with a coffee mug and set aside. Drain the pasta, return it to the cooking pot and pour the pasta sauce over top. Mix everything quickly, adding some of the pasta water if the sauce needs to be smoother. Serve immediately with a drizzle of olive oil over everything. Et voilà!