Monday, October 31, 2011

Dairy and onions. Yeah.

Well, Marc's in the bathroom, shaving off his beard for the inaugural day of Movember. At my request, he'll be going for the Magnum P.I. look. I can't wait. Too bad it's getting too cold outside for the cutoff jean short shorts. Sigh.

Anyhoo, while I wait to see my bare-faced mate, I've decided to bring you la tarte à l'oignon - the onion tart : one of the simplest things you can make, if you have the patience to see the caramelization of the onions through to the end. It's one of my favourite things to make when I have a laid back get-together; people are often underwhelmed by its plain brown appearance, but they always raise their eyebrows when they taste their first bite. Hah! I love that. Plain brown food one; dinner guests with little faith, zero.

This recipe is based on a tarte à l'oignon I ate for lunch in Marseilles, at a friend of a friend's house nearly ten year ago. I was too shy to ask for the recipe at the time, so I'd just recreated it from gustatory memory when I got home... It was good, but something always seemed to be missing. Then, I discovered the missing link : cream. How could I not have seen it before?!? I have Laura Calder to thank for that tidbit, bless her shameless, butter loving heart (see the recipe for Caramelized Onion Tarts in her book French Food at Home). The tart went from good to goooooood. And then, I got more raised eyebrows.

Of course, this recipe is still quite delightful sans cream, if you prefer to omit it. That way, you only have to deal with the guilt coming from the evil, evil (read: delicious) pie crust.

Let's get on with this recipe, shall we?

Tarte à l'oignon

What you need to have:
- 1 pie crust, purchased or made yourself. If you're making your own, I recommend a flaky one over a denser, buttery one. Don't pre-bake it.
- 5 to 6 large-ish onions, sliced into thin half moons (slice the onion in half from head to toe, then slice each half crosswise). You need about seven to eight cups of sliced onion in total. If you have a bit more or a bit less, it's not the end of the world.
- some thyme, preferably fresh, but dried will do. 2 tbsp fresh leaves, or 1 tbsp dried.
- a splash of brandy or white wine
- a good splash of balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup of heavy cream (35%). Again, omit this if you want.
- salt and pepper

What you need to do:
- throw a good 2 tbsp of butter into a heated pan (sorry - you need lots of butter for this), and add a bit of olive oil to prevent the butter from burning (a tsp should do);
- once the butter's bubbling, throw in the onions, lower the heat to medium-low and wait for them to caramelize, stirring regularly so they don't burn. This may take time. Up to 30 minutes. It's not that bad! Read a book while you stir! Or empty the dishwasher! Or sort your laundry! Whatever! Sheesh!
- when the onions are soft and brownish, throw in a splash (1/8 cup) of Brandy or white wine; let it simmer and reduce until it's gone;
- throw in a splash of balsamic vinegar. Start with about 1/8 cup, stir it all around and taste the onions. You need to taste the balsamic tanginess - it helps counteract the sweetness of the onions. Add a bit more if you don't feel the tang;
- add about 1/2 cup of heavy cream and stir it around, letting it simmer softly for a minute or two, just to thicken a bit;
- take everything off the heat, throw in the thyme, and season with salt and pepper;
- slide everything into the pie crust and bake for the time recommended on the package / in your crust recipe;
- let the tart cool a bit and serve warm or at room temperature.

Voilà! And here's an optional step. I usually throw a handful of pitted black olives (like Kalamata) on top of the tart, just before baking. I find their brininess the perfect companion to the onions' sweetness. Although I didn't try it in the recipe above, the olives would have been just as stellar with the richness of the cream, too. Give it a try, you won't regret it, I'm sure. And if you do, bah. Just pick off the olives. No biggie.

Oh gawd! Marc just walked in! Cue the Magnum theme song!

Aaaand I'm out. Enjoy the tart!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fall's here - fire up the oven

Pretty, huh? Don't be fooled! It was ice-cold when
I snapped this picture! The dappled sunlight was a trap!

Winter's definitely on its way. First, the leaves show up on my back deck, and now, I'm rotting in bed with some sort of evil cold that makes my lungs burn. Ugh. It's only going to get worse from now on. The wind, the periods of snow-tease when the stuff falls and then melts away in some sort of sick game of "I'm here! No I'm not! Yes I am!" and, worst of all, the dry, dry weather that makes your hands so dry they crack and bleed. Can you tell I don't like winter? My plans for a retirement in the tropics are already well underway. Too bad I have some 30 years to go before I can kiss winter goodbye forever. Grumble grumble.

I must say there is one thing that I'm thankful for in the fall, and that's the cooler weather that calls for warm, oven baked foods. So I shamelessly made a lasagne the other day. A delicious, meat-free, husband-foolin' lasagne. It was a combination larder-garden effort: I had half a box of no-boil lasagne noodles in the larder, my tomato sauce from a few posts ago, red peppers that are still slowly ripening in the garden (!) and the equally tenacious basil. I rounded up a few more staples from the fridge and away I went.

Sprouted lentil, red pepper and goat cheese lasagne with basil

I feel that these are more assembly instructions than a recipe, but whatevs. In an 8x11" lasagne pan, layer the following ingredients in the order listed:

- a thin coat of tomato sauce
- the first layer of noodles (no pre-cook or cooked - your choice)
- a generous coat of tomato sauce
- approx. 1 cup of sprouted lentils (I get mine from La Défriche through the MSRO. Cooked duPuy lentils would probably be just as good. Not sure if the canned ones would get too mooshy. Meh. It would probably still taste just fine.)
- a generous amount of fresh goat cheese, crumbled. Judging by the picture, I'd say about 3/4 cup.

- the second layer of noodles
- a generous coat of tomato sauce
- 1 large sweet red pepper, sliced 1/4"
- 2 small zucchini, cut in 1/2" pieces
- as much fresh basil as you like

- the third layer of noodles
- a generous coat of tomato sauce
- an obscene amount of freshly grated Parmesan
- freshly ground pepper

Aaaaaand bake according to the instructions on the package of lasagne noodles. When the lasagne is done, remove it from the oven, let it cool while fighting off your ravenous husband, and serve with a lovely salad.

Delicious, I tell you. And, as usual, when there's enough cheese involved, the meat-eaters don't even notice there's "something" missing. Mwahahahaha! Next time, though, I'll use a bit more sauce. My no pre-cook noodles were rather greedy for moisture.

Well, I'm spent. I'm going back to bed for another 20 hour nap. Stupid cold. TTYL.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What oblivious passion tastes like.

Take...a look... at THIS.

I must get better lighting in my kitchen...

THIS, my friends, is quite possibly the best pizza I've ever eaten, let alone made. It started with a chicken breast. One, measly little chicken breast that I picked up at the grocery store because Metro was having a promo... I took it home, slapped it on the counter and asked: "how can you feed two adults for dinner, little antibiotic-free, free-range chicken breast?" And the pizza was born.

I was so excited about this pizza that I didn't see the time go by. I went against my farniente rule of thumb. If you count the hour it took for the pizza dough to rise, this sucker had a gestation period of 2 hours. But I didn't care, nor did I notice. I loved every second of it. I was in the zone. The butternut zone. The butternut from my garden zone. The butternut that survived the frost zo.. Okay. That's enough. The joke's run itself out.

So, as I happily tinkered away in the kitchen, and Marc slowly died of hunger on the couch as he watched the Habs' season opener against the Leafs (not sure if it was the hunger or the frustration that caused him to eat one of my throw pillows), I came up with the following deliciousness. 

Thyme-scented butternut and mushroom pizza with pan-seared chicken and basil pesto

I like Tyler Florence's recipe for home made pizza dough (using all-purpose flour is fine - don't run out and get the 00 flour), but feel free to use whatever pizza dough you want.

Seriously... Look at this beautiful crust. Look!
Pizza toppings
Please note that most of these things can be prepared in advance, leaving only the assembly to be done before serving. Not bad, huh?

1. Pesto: in your food processor, whizz two large handfuls of fresh basil leaves, a large garlic clove, three matchbook-sized pieces of parmesan and enough olive oil to make a loose paste. Season with salt and set aside.

2. Mushrooms: roughly chop any mushrooms of your choice and sauté in butter. When cooked, season with salt and pepper, take off the heat and set aside.

3. Chicken: season a chicken breast on both sides with salt and pepper. Cook in a frying pan over medium-low heat until done. Take off the heat, let rest for five minutes, then cut into half-inch cubes. Set aside.

4. Butternut squash: cut about half a butternut into half-inch cubes (roughly two to three cups), and roughly chop one medium-large yellow or white onion. Bring a frying pan to medium heat, throw in a good nub of butter and half a teaspoon of olive oil (to prevent the butter from burning), and when the pan is good and hot, throw in the onion. When it starts to turn translucent, throw in the chopped butternut and toss it around. When the squash is half-cooked, throw in a splash of white wine and let it evaporate completely. Add the leaves from a good handful of thyme stalks (approx. 10-15), cook until the butternut is soft but still toothsome, season with salt and pepper and set aside, off the heat.

Roll out your dough and cover it with a thin coat of olive oil (I usually just put about a teaspoon in the palm of my hand and apply it to the dough like suntan lotion - awwww yeah!)

Spread the pesto onto the dough next. Then the butternut squash and onions. Then the chicken, and finally, the mushrooms. Top everything with a good amount of grated fresh parmesan and bake at 475F for about 12 to 15 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

Once it's out of the oven, drizzle the pizza with a fine thread of olive oil before serving.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Papillote, je t'aime

Marc's working late tonight. I'm by myself, but that's no reason to settle for a martini with toast and peanut butter. As far as I'm concerned, if I've got a half-full bottle of leftover rosé, a minimally stocked larder, and some jazz on Espace Musique with the mesmorizing Stanley Péan, I'm set for a good time. So after rooting through the fridge and finding a few viable veggies, I grab the piece of cod that I'd remembered to pull from the freezer before heading out to the office, and I set to work on my fish en papillotte.

I love this technique. It's so simple, it's nearly equivalent to pouring yourself a bowl of cereal for dinner, but oh, is it ever so much more satisfying. Cooking fish en papillote basically means that you're cooking it in a parchment pocket... It's a recipe that has only two rules: 1) cut all of your vegetables thinly enough that they can cook in the same time as the fish (approx. 10 minutes for a 1/2 inch thick piece), and 2) only use fresh ingredients for the best flavour - there's nowhere to hide when you're cooking with paper.

Today, I've found half of a tiny red cabbage, a carrot and some baby spinach in my fridge, so that's what's going into the papillote, along with paper-thin half-moon slices of onion. But honestly, if it's a vegetable and you can slice it thin, it's good for the papillote. Potatoes, asparagus, zucchini, beet, baby bok choy, celery, sprouts, fresh or dried herbs, lemon slices, la la laaaaaaaaa! Anything! Just slice up enough veggies to make one dinner plate-full per pocket. If you're eating alone (and there's nothing wrong with that!), then you're probably okay with 3/4 cup of cabbage, one potato, one carrot, one hefty handful of baby spinach and 1/4 to 1/2 cup of thinly sliced onion. You get the picture, right?

The method is simple enough. Cut a large piece of parchment paper and fold it in half (I like to play it safe and start with a piece of parchment roughly 50 cm long). Then, remember your scissor skills from kindergarten, and cut the paper so you get a heart shape when you unfold it (see the picture at the top of this post). On one half of the parchment heart, lay down the tougher vegetables and the onions. I find that when they're on the bottom the stack, the juices from the fish and other veggies help them steam a bit more intensely (this is my own thinking - this may not actually be what happens. I wouldn't know. My papillote-cam is still on backorder.)

Once your base of tougher vegetables and onions has been laid down, go ahead and place a little nub of butter there to add a bit of flavour. If you want to keep this super virtuous, skip the butter. Season this layer with salt and pepper and then lay the fish on top. Season the fish, place another nub of butter on top of the fish and then top it with the rest of the veggies (I shred the carrots with a box grater to keep them thin). At this point, if you haven't used butter, give the whole stack a good splash of olive oil.

Close up the papillote by folding the paper heart in half. Starting at the bottom end of the heart, crimp the edges by folding them over and over until you get to the top end of the heart. The goal is to fold the edges tightly enough so steam doesn't escape. I know this can seem scary, but just wing it. I've been known to weigh the pocket down with muffin tins to keep it sealed as it bakes. There is no shame when it comes to cooking in paper. If you want, you can also youtube this technique for pointers.

Once you're done folding, scootch the papillote onto a baking sheet, bake in a preheated 350 F oven for 10 minutes (for a piece of fish about 1/2 inch thick) and poof! You're done. Serve with a quick starch like couscous if you haven't included potatoes in the papillote. And there you go! Enjoy! I did.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

My ample larder, part deux

It's friggin' freezing today! It's too cold to putter around outside, looking for remains of food in my garden (I see you, surviving purple bean!). So I'm blogging instead.

Ah, Second-larder-also-known-as-my-fridge, how I love thee. With your gleaming (albeit fingerprint riddled) steel doors, you are like a vault that keeps my most treasured possessions safe (note to potential thiefs - I'm talking about FOOD here. There are no diamonds or wads of Bordens in my icebox!) Fridgie, you indulge my every whim; you keep that fourteen pound Christmas ham with as much care and tenderness as you do my fluffy Boston lettuce. You take in my latest stinky cheese discovery with the grace of a perfect hostess, and you never, ever rebuke me for spilling yogurt, pickle juice, or half-flat San Pellegrino on your gleaming shelves. I love you, Fridgie. Let's stay together forever. Or until the warranty no longer covers repairs to your compressor.

There it is. Our fridge. In case you're wondering, that brown
ribbon is to help Marc and I remember to empty the
dehumidifier. Hey man, whatever works, right?

Yes, my fridge is always there to keep the flavours-of-the-moment safe. But like a true friend, it is also my dependable arsenal no matter how far I am from grocery day, or how far we are from the next paycheck (gulp!) When used in combination with my dry-goods larder, the skeleton crew of staples in my fridge continually amazes with its capacity to crank out satisfying meals with ease and versatility. Let's get down to details, shall we?

Can you tell I'm holding the door open with my right foot?
Ah, the behind-the-scenes drama... Why do I betray the glamour?!

First, sauces and condiments : aside from the mayo, these usually keep for a very long time, which allows you to accumulate a good collection of flavour inspiration. Seriously, sometimes, when I don't know what to make, I stand in front of my open fridge door, pick a jar and run with it. Figuratively speaking, of course - not as in "There goes that wierd neighbour-lady, sprinting down the street with a bottle of fish sauce again... That's it. Call the cops!"

Here's a quick overview of what I try to always have on hand.
  • Mustards: yes, they get a category all of their own. I always have Costco-sized jars of Dijon and grainy mustard, along with an eternally-keeping squeeze bottle of yellow mustard (a must for enjoying an italian-sausage dog. Please don't judge me.) I also have a nice collection of obsessively purchased Kozlik's and Mrs. McGarrigle's, but those aren't essential. Nevertheless, if you're going to be stranded on a desert island, why sleep in the sand if you floated in on a crate filled with duvet pillows and comforters? Even more importantly, does that analogy even make sense? Anyhoo, mustards are useful for making vinaigrettes, for adding to sauces (check out the one I made for the hanger steak), for sandwiches and for dips (try whisking together a generous tablespoon of Dijon with some olive oil until loose dipping consistency is reached, add some super-finely sliced shallot or onion and some finely chopped parlsey, season with salt and voilà! a suprising dip for blanched green beans, asparagus or snap peas). 
  • Stir-fry basics: these become very handy when you need to get rid of some veggies before they start going limp. I find that with the following, I can whip up a satisfying stir-fry anytime: soy sauce (fermented, like Kikkoman), black bean sauce, fish sauce, hoisin sauce and oyster sauce. You can use the black bean, hoisin and oyster sauce just before taking the stir-fry off the heat, just to give it a nice flavourful sauciness (use one, two or all three sauces - crazy!) The fish sauce is for making thai-inspired stir-fries, dipping sauces, or just to give steamed vegetables a lovely je-ne-sais-quoi (use sparingly!) The soy sauce... I don't think you need instructions for that, do you? Use anywhere. ANYwhere. And last but not least, tamarind paste. You can't kill that stuff, and it's magical. Try this larder-approved Nigella Lawson recipe for Keralan Fish Curry, with your smartly stowed frozen fish!
  • The rest: mayo, fig jam (for vinaigrettes and warm sauces - throw a bit in with the Dijon cream sauce and enjoy the compliments), leftover wine (for braising) and curry pastes.
Although they don't keep as long as French's mustard, there are also some fresh and preserved foods that can be at the ready in your fridge / freezer. You just have to stay on top of their best-before dates, bacteria-have-won-the-battle deadlines and rot-factors. Here they are:
  • The fresh: you can buy them in the produce aisle, but they have fantastic staying power. They're the kind of food you'll find at the back of the fridge four weeks after buying it, and you'll exclaim: well I'll be damned! It's still good!
    • Cabbage: red and green for braises or coleslaw. Try Jamie Oliver's red cabbage braised in balsamic, or Laura Calder's super easy butter braised Savoy cabbage (I've converted many a cabbage hater with this one - perfect and superfast for when company drops by unexpectedly).
    • Organic baby spinach: for salads, pestos, omelets, frittata, chickpea galette, fish en papillote, or just for sautéeing in butter with a dash of nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mmmmmmmmm.
    • Root vegetables and squash: the indestructables. Carrots, parsnip, rutabaga, butternut, acorn. Roast them, boil them, whizz them up in a cream soup, shred them for a salad, drown them in a cheese sauce or mash them and give them a quick broil with a crust of breadcrumbs and parmesan.
    • Ginger: for stir fries, vinaigrettes, baking, flavouring (ex: soups and purées) and for steeping in hot water on those I-feel-gross days.
    • Apples, oranges, pears, lemons and limes: for eating as-is, for adding to savoury dishes and desserts, salads, or for flavouring sauces and vinaigrettes. And zest! Never underestimate the power of the zest.
  • The preserved: I think I've talked enough about my cornichons to hint at how much I depend on my pickles and other preserved foods. For serving to guests while I prepare dinner, or for garnishing drinks, they're always there to save the day when time doesn't allow for a stop at the grocery store AND cleaning the bathroom (choose wisely...) Usually, pickled onions (I've discovered cipollini in balsamic vinegar *slobber*), Maille's French cornichons and some Kalamata olives keep me confident that things will be okay. Add some maraschino cherries and pimiento olives for cocktails, and you're all set. Serve with those chips and pretzels from the dry-goods larder.
  • The dairy: plain full-fat yogourt and eggs (besides the obvious milk and soy milk.) The yogurt can be used for dips, dressings (ranch, anyone?) and sauces (it keeps longer than 35% cream, is a bit more heart-healthy and just as tasty). The eggs, well, there's a saying that the folds in a chef's hat represent all the ways an egg can be prepared, so I'll not endeavour to list their uses here. Mmmmm. Eggs. 
  • The frozen: always ready to go, the foods in your freezer are your secret weapon. I try to keep a good stock of frozen veggies like broccoli florets and corn nibblets, frozen fresh legumes when I can find them, frozen blueberries for muffins, breakfast and impromptu desserts, fish (it defrosts in a day, if you can remember to put it in the fridge before leaving for work), meats, spare bread loaves, chicken stock and vegetable cooking water (don't throw it out!). I also freeze kaffir lime leaves when I can find them. And finally, Marc's favourite "seasoning" (I never use enough to call it a "food"), bacon. I freeze it in packages of four or five rashers, which is enough to chop up into the perfect amount of lardons for stews or sauces, or for frying up as a garnish for salads.

Hi Kaffir lime leaves! Hi Cod Fillets! Hi rhubarb from my garden!
Ha ha! There's Vodka, trying to get into the picture! What a ham!

There we go! I think that just about covers the wonderful world of my icebox staples. Sorry for the long post. Stay tuned for upcoming posts, where I'll point out when a dish is mainly a larder-based concoction. Just look for the label "From the larder!"

Bonne fin de semaine!