Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Deliciously different pesto

It is thrifty to prepare today for the wants of tomorrow. – Aesop

I made 1/2 a recipe because there was only two of us.

I’ll be glad when I can start relying on the garden as opposed to the grocery store for dinners. It hasn’t been put in yet, but the weather is definitely turning, so soon the seeds will be in the ground.

It’s pretty easy to get sticker shock when you go to buy vegetables at the the grocery store. Big sticker shock.

But if you’re clever you can still find a deal or two. I “bought cheap” at the grocery store on Sunday, and now have to deal with my purchase. The purchase was a bunch of cilantro. I believe it was $1.29. Pretty cheap.

So what can you do with so much cilantro? I usually think of making Thai food, but that uses a few tablespoons at most. So there’s lots left to deal with, but how? Pesto. Cilantro is quite common as an ingredient in pesto, usually paired with walnuts instead of pine nuts. 

It’s essentially just a substitution of two ingredients in regular basil pesto. If you have a favourite recipe just substitute the cilantro for the basil, and walnuts for the pine nuts. But now I have to deal with a bunch of pesto. Alas, first world problems.

I found a reference online about stuffing chicken breasts with pesto so I thought the same could be done with thighs. Why not? The recipe was simplicity itself, just the chicken, pesto and some salt and pepper. 

I believe this would be stunning rubbed between the skin and meat of a turkey if anyone is thinking of roasting one for Easter. Hint, hint...

I served this dish with a variation on one of my all-time favourite Italian recipes: pasta with pesto, green beans and potatoes. If you’ve never tried that combination before you have no idea what you’re missing. It’s a well-worn page in my copy of Marcella Hazan’s “Classics of Italian Cooking” recipe book.

I had no green beans so substituted Romano beans and the cilantro pesto for the basil variety. You have to only cook the potatoes until “al dente.” Still a little crisp. Heat the beans in the same water with the potatoes for the last 3-4 minutes of cooking time. It's always good to not dirty a pot.


Cilantro Walnut Pesto
Time: 10 min  | Yield: about 1-1/2 cups
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted if you wish
3 cups chopped cilantro
6 garlic cloves
1/2 cup parmesan
1/2 tsp salt
about 1/2 cups olive oil

Combine all the ingredients except for the olive oil in a food processor and purée. With the motor running pour in enough olive oil to make a loose mass. By that I mean it moves fairly easily around the bowl.

Remove to a covered dish and refrigerate until ready to use.


Cilantro Walnut Pesto Chicken
Prep: 5 min  |  Cook: 40 min  |  Serves 4
8 chicken thighs, skin on and bone in
8 heaping tsp pesto
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Loosen the skin on each chicken thigh. Place 1 tsp of pesto between the skin and meat and smooth it around so it covers the inner surface. Season each thigh with salt and pepper.

Place the thighs bone-side down in a hot dry sauté pan and let brown until the release easily. Chicken fat will render out while it fries. There is no need to add oil.

Turn and repeat on the pesto side, taking care not to break the skin free of the thigh. The chicken will release when it’s ready.

Place the thighs in an oven-proof baking dish and bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes.

Serve with the potato bean side dish described above.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Salsa Chicken

Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires. – Lao Tzu


Yesterday I did something I haven’t done since last fall. I was outside doing some work without feeling the need to rush inside to keep warm. Yes, it seems that spring has finally “sprung” in Nova Scotia.

We actually have 2 crocuses in bloom in one of our beds by the road. We used to have several very early ones that bloomed tight against the warm foundation of the house. But digging to put in the well line last year seems to have killed them. They were there since I was a very small child. A bit sad...

Simpel, fast & ready for the oven.
But life must go on, and the march of time stops its progress for no one. Before you know it we’ll be dining al fresco, and thoughts of this last loooooong winter will be but dust in our memories.

So you need to be prepared, right? That’s what this recipe is: something that you can assemble with no fuss, stick in the oven and then head back outside onto your deck.

It doesn’t hurt that this uses a jar of salsa to impart all kinds of Latin (“summer”) flavours. That means you don’t have to assemble a lot of different spices to get the effect.

This recipe deals with one of the dreaded leftovers of the kitchen - fresh cilantro. Use a very ripe avocado, often marked down for quick sale. Don’t use a hard one. They don’t have the same buttery consistency.

This recipe bakes covered for an hour, and then 1/2 hour uncovered. In that time the acidity of the salsa makes the chicken fork tender. It literally can be cut with just your fork.

So as our thoughts start to dream of warm weekends and drinks with friends on the deck, it’s time to think of recipes full of summer flavours that don’t take a lot of work. Cooking smart means you can spend more time enjoying your friends rather than trapped in the kitchen.

The avocado sauce is a must, and a revelation. I bet you’ll find many other uses for it over the coming summer. I'm thinking pork for sure, and maybe even on burgers. Just wait until you taste it!


Salsa Chicken
Prep: 10 min  |  Bake 1.5 hrs  |  Serves 4
8 chicken thighs, bone in and skin on
500 ml can chunky salsa (your choice)
1/2 tsp ground cumin, optional
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cracked black pepper
2 limes
Avocado sauce
1 avocado, very ripe
1 cup cilantro, chopped
3 garlic
2 tbsp lime juice
salt, to taste
vegetable oil, see recipe

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Place the chicken in an oven-proof non-metallic baking dish. Sprinkle with coriander (if using), salt and pepper. Pour the salsa over the chicken. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour.

After the hour, increase the heat to 425°F, uncover the chicken and bake for another 30 minutes. If you wish, you can run the chicken under the broiler for a couple minutes to brown even further.

About 15 minutes before the chicken is finished, make the avocado sauce. Place the avocado, cilantro, garlic, lime and salt in a blender. Use one of the limes listed in the ingredients. Pulse until well broken up. 

Then, with the motor running and the pour top open, slowly add in just enough vegetable oil to make a sauce. Don’t use too much or the sauce will get oily. Just so it looks like a dipping sauce.

Serve the salsa chicken on rice, with a good dollop of the avocado sauce on top and a wedge of lime on the side.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Crispy Italian Portobellos with Pasta

The husband who decides to surprise his wife is often very much surprised himself. – Voltaire

You have to admit, these look pretty tasty.

There’s surprises, and then there’s “surprises.” Some welcomed, some not so much... 

This falls into the first category. Who would think that you could make a delicious dinner with a few mushroom caps, a couple eggs, some bread crumbs and a little cheese?

My spouse and I attended a fundraiser for a client of mine on the weekend, Ross Creek Centre for the Arts in Canning. For the past three years I have designed the posters for Two Planks & A Passion Theatre as pro bono work.

The night consisted of an auction and dinner served by a Valley caterer. Part of the dinner were breaded portobello mushroom caps. They were pretty darn good. Almost as good as the shrimp...almost.

Since I’m shameless for stealing (I mean “adapting”) ideas from anywhere and everywhere I decided to try to replicate them at home. It seemed like an easy enough task. Some jacked-up bread crumbs, bound breading, etc...

The recipe calls for four caps for two, but I was eating alone so
I made three. Don't shame me... I'm a gourmand and admit it.
And it was. Actually I believe, breaking my arm patting myself on the back, mine were better. They turned out deliciously with a nice, crispy crust.

The only “problem” was what to serve with them. I knew it should probably be pasta because I made the breadcrumbs Italian flavoured. I did not choose a tomato-based sauce. The reason was I already had 3/4 of a sauce sitting in front of me after breading the mushroom caps.

I took my cue from Carbonara. The final technique when you make Pasta Carbonara is to mix an egg and milk into the hot pasta, cooking it in the process. Well, the egg dip was just sitting there. Why waste it?

This vegetarian dish is surprisingly quite filling. In fact, I didn’t feel the need to have anything else (much) in the way of snacks through the evening. I suppose, there was a gut-load of carbs in the pasta.

The meaty mushroom caps were crispy and delicious and the pasta turned out beautifully. If you’ve never had carbonara I know where there’s a really good recipe. The search box for my blog is at the top right...

This one’s a keeper, and it’s so very easy. I have a vegetarian friend – and many others – that would love this, I’m sure.


Crispy Italian Portobellos with Pasta
Prep: 10 min  |  Cook: 15 min  |  Serves 2
spaghetti or linguine for 2
1 tbsp olive oil
4 portobello caps, stem removed
Italian bread crumbs (below)
1/4 cup flour
2 eggs
2 tbsp milk
1/2 tsp oregano
pinch salt
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper

Italian bread crumbs
1 cup grated dried bread (I used brown bread)
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp powdered garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cracked black pepper

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Heat the oil in an oven-proof skillet and keep warm.

Mix together the ingredients listed for the Italian bread crumbs on a plate. Remove 2 tablespoons of this mixture and set aside. In a soup bowl, beat the two eggs until broken up. Place the flour in a plastic bag. Now you’re ready to do bound breading!

Coat a mushroom cap in the flour, dip in the egg making sure it’s well covered, then coat in the bread crumbs. Place gill-side up in the warm skillet. Repeat with the remaining caps. 

Place the skillet in the hot oven. Bake the caps for 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

To the remaining egg mixture, add the milk, oregano, salt and pepper.

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain and place back in the pot. While the pasta is still hot, slowly pour in the egg mixture, stirring constantly.

Serve two caps per person. Top the pasta with half the reserved bread crumbs and some grated parmesan.

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Roasted Asparagus & Garlic Bisque

I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. – Henry David Thoreau


I bet you didn’t know this, but asparagus is a member of the lily family, some of whose other members are onions, leeks and garlic. If I remember correctly, you can also eat lily bulbs, but digging them from your flower bed would be pretty expensive and decadent. Some are cultivated and eaten widely in Asian countries. But I digress...

Asparagus spears are a great vegetable to eat as part of a heart-healthy diet because they contains no fat, no cholesterol and very little sodium. They provide essential vitamins and minerals without a lot of calories. There’s only about 20 calories per 5.3 oz, so they are very nutrient-rich. 

This recipe takes only a few ingredients.
But not all is rosy in the land of asparagus spears. They do have some – shall we say – interesting side effects.

First up: gas. Did you know it’s common to pass gas 14 times per day? Asparagus ups the ante, because it contains the carbohydrate raffinose that is notoriously difficult to digest. It’s due to a lack of a particular enzyme in our intestinal tract necessary to break it down. So the body has to ferment it to extract the nutrients.

Fun, eh? Raffinose is also contained in cruciferous vegetables (like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, etc) that make one gassy.

Next: odoriferous urine (otherwise known as stinky pee). Some people notice an odour to their urine within 15 minutes of eating asparagus. This odour is caused by a sulfur-containing amino acid that the body produces during the process of breaking down asparagus. 

Luckily not everyone seems to notice the change in urine smell. It’s still unclear why, but some possible reasons point to genetic factors playing a role in a) if it smells at all, or b) if you can smell it or not. Weird fact, yes?

But asparagus tastes so good. And it’s not like you eat it every day, so what’s a fart or two between friends? Oh, and some stinky pee.

This roasted vegetable bisque is unbelievably rich, with the potato giving it a great deal of body, the asparagus adding distinct flavour, as does the roasted garlic and the wine. All in all a delicious, yet nutrient-rich, bowl of fantastic-ness. (Eat it in the dark of you’re worried about the cream. Calories don’t count if you eat in the dark.)

If you prefer, you can substitute the cream with a can of evaporated milk. I often do that, unless the bisque is for a dinner party.

I do hope you try this recipe. I usually leave my bisques on the thick side if serving as a main course, but you can thin it slightly and stretch it into an elegant first course for guests.


Roasted Asparagus & Garlic Bisque
Roasting: 1 hour  | Final prep: 20 min  |  Serves 4-8
1 whole garlic head
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tbsp olive oil
1-1/2 to 2-1/2 cups chicken stock
1 cup coffee cream (or evaporated milk)
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 tsp salt
freshly cracked black pepper

Timing note: Roast the vegetables at least 15 to 30 minutes before puréeing. This will allow them to cool enough to be handled. They can even be done up to 24 hours before and refrigerated.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Keeping the vegetables separated, place each on their own rectangle of aluminum foil. Liberally sprinkle with olive oil and then season with salt and pepper. 

Seal each foil package tightly, place on a cookie sheet and bake for 1 hour. Let cool before handling.

Reserve 1" of the  tips and set aside.
Cut the tips (1”) from the asparagus and set aside, then coarsely chop the remainder. Squeeze the roasted garlic into a 6 cup blender. Then add the potato, chopped asparagus and any juices and oil that may have collected in the foils while roasting. 

Then add the coffee cream and 1 cup of chicken stock. Purée the mixture until smooth. Pour into a soup pot. Add 1/2 cup chicken stock and the white wine to the blender and pulse for a few seconds to mix any remaining purée into the liquid. Pour into the pot.

Check the thickness of the bisque. If desired, you can add another cup of chicken stock. (I did not.)

Finally, cut the reserved asparagus tips in half again and add to the pot.* Stir the soup together and then taste for seasoning. Adjust the salt and pepper if desired.

Slowly bring the bisque to just under a boil. Ladle into individual bowls and serve.

*Alternatively, for  more dramatic presentation, you can sprinkle the tips on top of the bisque once ladled into bowls.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Pork, Spinach & Chickpea Stew

Frugality is for the vulgar. – Francois Rabelais


Well, then, I guess I’m vulgar. Or at least I try to be. I suppose, anyone who knows me personally would agree, but not for how the word is used above!

It’s hard to be frugal at the grocery store. Packaging is not geared toward a standard family. If you look closely, their packaging tries to make you buy either too little or too much.

This is what I mean: pork chops are usually packaged in 5; steaks in 3; shrimp (especially at Sobeys) in 3/4 of a pound. Divide those amounts into a standard family of two parents and two children, or equally annoying, a family of two. You can’t do it. 

Check almost any recipe using shrimp. You never see 3/4 of a pound as a listed quantity. The idea is to make you buy two packages for the recipe you want to make, and then a third to top up your "leftovers."

Costco is  different story altogether, to the opposite extreme. If you don’t have a family of 8 (as the saying goes in Nova Scotia) you’re sh*t out of luck. You really have leftovers if you shop there.

So most times you’re stuck buying two packages of whatever you’re after, or one way too big, and then having to deal with whatever you don’t use later on That’s why I threw together this recipe. It helps you deal with some of those leftovers. 

I’m really guilty of letting things “age” in the refrigerator until they need to be thrown out. It happens a lot and isn't very frugal of me. So any recipe that can help me deal with the contents of my refrigerator, and stretch a little meat into a full-on meal at the same time, is a keeper.

This one uses two pork chops to serve a family of four, and creates something that’s filling, nutritious and wonderful. Coincidentally, it also uses up leftovers from a package of fresh basil. The recipe couldn’t be simpler, and only takes one pot. So bonus all around.


Pork, Spinach & Chickpea Stew
Prep: 5 min  |  Cook 45 min  |  Serves 4 easily
2 thick-cut pork chops, whole
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, diced
28 fl oz can diced tomatoes
3 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine
1 tbsp fresh oregano (1 tsp dried)
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/2 tsp chilli powder
19 oz can chickpeas, drained
4 cups spinach, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cracked black pepper
buerre manie: 1 tbsp butter & 1 tbsp flour, kneaded
optional: grated parmesan

Place the whole pork chops, onion, garlic, tomatoes, stock and wine in a Dutch oven or other large pot with a lid. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and cook for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, remove the chops and dice the meat; then add it back to the pot. Add the drained chick peas, spinach, oregano, basil and chilli powder. Bring back to a boil, reduce heat again and let cook 15 minutes. Taste for salt and adjust.

Knead the flour and butter together. Stir into the pot and cook for a further minute or two until the stew juices are slightly thickened. (Making a beurre manie ensures your thickener doesn’t cause lumps – try it when making gravy.)

Ladle the stew into bowls and top with more cracked black pepper and parmesan if desired.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chicken Tropicana for wintry weather

All we need, really, is a change from a near frigid to a tropical attitude of mind. – Marjory Stoneman Douglas

No winter weather inside this pot. Nope. None at all.

We’re 24 hours away from what Environment Canada is calling a “weather bomb.” Apparently in a day and a half I will be looking out on a front yard that has up to 50 cm of snow. So much for spring.

Not a whole lot of ingredients have
to be bought.
Firmly in the "got lemons, make lemonade camp," this recipe will at least make you think of tropical places and summer fun. Sometimes the best cure for bad weather is to make the best of what you can do inside. Spring will come. I guarantee it.

Cooking is always therapeutic when a snowstorm hits. A tried and true favourite for me is to make bread. There’s something about the smell of homemade bread that can drive away even the deepest weather blues.

So is the smell of fried chicken. Double down with mango and pineapple and you’ve got a recipe that will make you entirely forget what’s going on outside.

There are a couple caveats with this recipe, but they both have the same basis: sugar. 

There’s a lot of natural sugar in pineapple and mango, so you can easily burn the chicken when you fry it after it’s marinated. Usually you can fry chicken on medium high or even high. Not this. Use medium temperature.

The same holds true when you are reducing the sauce. It can start to stick if you don’t stir it occasionally. So watch the pot.

This recipe takes a little while, but what else will you have to do while the snow is piling up?


The chicken marinating. Note the use of a glazed clay pot.
Chicken Tropicana
Marinade: 2 hours  |  Cook: 40 min  |  Serves 3-4
6-8 chicken thighs
1 medium sweet onion, diced
2 cups cubed mango, can be frozen
2 limes
1 tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp cumin seed
1 L pineapple juice
salt and pepper, to taste
2 plum tomatoes, diced
1 tsp sugar, optional
1/4 cup cilantro

Place the diced onion in the bottom of a non-reactive pan (non-metal). Layer the chicken on top, then the mango, chilli and cumin. 

Pour enough pineapple juice in to just come to the top of the chicken. Squeeze the juice from one lime on top. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Marinate for 2 hours on the kitchen counter, or overnight in refrigerator.

After marinating, remove the chicken and fry skin side up over medium heat in a sauté pan that has a lid. As the chicken fries, fat will render out. Cook until browned on both sides, but not cooked through. Watch that the chicken doesn’t burn. Remove to a plate.

Discard all the collected fat except for about 1 tablespoon. Add the marinade and tomatoes to the pan. Cover and cook on medium, stirring occasionally, until the mangoes and tomatoes have softened. Add more pineapple juice as needed to keep it as a liquid.


Once the sauce has reduced to small into chunks, nestle the chicken into the sauce, cover and cook on medium-low for 15 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent burning.

Remove the cover, turn heat to medium and cook until sauce has thickened. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper. Now is also the time to add the additional sugar if desired. Stir in the cilantro about 1 minute before serving. 

Just before serving, squeeze the juice from the remaining lime on top of the chicken. Serve with rice.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Shrimp in Vermouth Cream Sauce

A man seldom thinks with more earnestness of anything than he does of his dinner. – Samuel Johnson 

Deliciously satisfying, and ready in 20 minutes. This is always a winner.
This is a fantastic recipe, and also one that you can have on the table in less than half an hour. It's a godsend for anyone (like us lately) that are busier than a one-toothed man in a corn-on-the-cob eating contest. Although dining late is sometimes nice, having to do it every day gets to be tiresome. It also can interfere with your sleep. Not goof if your up late working and then up and at it again early the next morning.

Photo: Wiki CC
This recipe combines just-cooked shrimp with the intense flavor of tomato and vermouth. It's a wonderful combination. Vermouth is a perfect complement to seafood, if you didn't know…

Vermouth is a fortified wine that has been infused with herbs and/or roots. Wine has been infused with herbs for millennia. Although a 13th century German word, what we call vermouth today was first produced in the late 18th century in Italy and France. 

Vermouth was marketed as a medicinal drink in the 19th century. With an alcohol content hovering at 18% one can see why its consumption would make someone feel “better.” It wasn’t until later in the 1800s that it was used in classic cocktails like the martini.

Wine is used as the base for vermouth. Each manufacturer adds additional alcohol (sometimes in the form of aquavit) and their own special mixtures of herbs, roots, and barks. If you're brave, you can try to make your own, like I did. My recipe is here.

Vermouth is sold in two main types: sweet (red) and dry (white). Vermouth is an excellent substitute for white wine in cooking and is particularly good with seafood, as well as chicken and pork. When the alcohol is cooked away the flavour of the herbs remain.


Shrimp Linguine with Vermouth Cream Sauce
Let the sauce reduce before adding the shrimp.
Prep: 10 min  |  Cook: 10 min  |  Serves 4
1 lb shrimp
454 g linguine
1/4 cup butter
1 small onion, cut in half and sliced very thin
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup chopped sun-dried tomato halves
1/4 cup vermouth (white)
1/4 cup tomato purée
1-1/2 cups whipping cream (plus extra, see recipe)
The shrimp have just been added. Only let them cook until pink.
Salt and pepper to taste
grated parmesan

Bring water to a boil for the pasta. Cook according to package directions.

Heat butter in a sauté pan. Cook onion and garlic until beginning to brown. Add the vermouth, tomato purée and cream and let cook until thickened. It should be a little thicker than you think it should be. 

As the sun-dried tomatoes cook in the sauce it will take on a bright creamy orange colour.

Add the shrimp and cook until just through – no more than 5 minutes. They should just be pink. That may be even less than 5 minutes. Any more time and shrimp become tough.

Liquid will come out of the shrimp as they cook. If the sauce is still too thick you can thin it with a little more cream.

Serve the shrimp and sauce on the hot drained pasta with grated parmesan.

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