Friday, May 30, 2014

The Psychology of Piña Colada Pudding

Since I was 19, I've always gone where there was a reason to be. Maybe I'll be lucky and there'll be a reason to go somewhere tropical for a while. – Feist

An interesting thought. I believe she means we should always choose the most sensical place for us to be and then go there. I suppose it also could laterally mean we find ourselves where we are because of our past choices.

That thought makes my head hurt a little. I have been dividing my time between city and country for several months. My erratic posting bears testament to that fact. It’s a bit difficult to cook and post when not in my own kitchen. Right now I need to be in two places, for vastly different reasons.

Desire: I love my clients and work, and it dictates I am in the city; my spouse is working in the city, as well. Duty: I love my mother, and she needs me at home in the country. She has done so very much for me. Now it’s time to "man up." I hate that term... but it's appropriate.

Life is like a can of coconut cream... hard on top, and
watery below. Take from that what you will.
So I guess I am where I need to be. It’s just that it’s two places – neither of them tropical. It’s kind of like being a tightrope walker, with no safety net.

There’s a thousand tautologies to blame one's life on at any given time. Two of my gag-inducing favourites? “Life is what happens to you when you’re not paying attention,” and “life is what you make it.” It’s a shame that for most of us life is more a situation of just treading water.

So much has changed with regard to how I view the world since we lost Henry (our Bouvier) last October. It’s like I’m living an entirely different life now, and in many ways I am. Having gone through significant change several times, I find life resembles chapters in a book. I’m old enough now to look back and see it is not a continuum, and nothing is certain. You play a character in different story lines.

How I find myself in this current fiction is my own doing, except for Henry dying. That was a cruel joke. So what’s to be done? Who knows... soldier on, I guess, and go where I need to be. "Every day is a new beginning." (gag...)

At least I can partly accommodate the “tropical” part, by making pudding. I’ll deal with the piña coladas in drink form later in the season, on the back deck. It’s a bit too cold to contemplate that yet.

So coconut, pineapple and rum just might be the solution to all of life's woes. Luckily this pudding is easy to make. In fact, this is probably the easiest pudding I have ever made. 

This would be really nice squirted inside a donut as filling, in tarts, or maybe even a pie. For tarts or a pie I would probably firm the texture up a bit by adding another tablespoon of flour. If it gets too thick you can always thin it with rum!

This stuff will not last long in the refrigerator. In fact it’s even a little difficult to keep in the refrigerator long enough to set completely. Try it. Then you’ll know what I mean.

Pass me another pudding. And sorry for the armchair psychology.

Piña Colada Pudding
Prep: 15 min  |  Refrigerate: 1 hour  |  6 servings
19 fl. oz. unsweetened coconut cream (unsweetened)
14 fl. oz. crushed pineapple, drained
2 eggs
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup light cream
1 tbsp butter, melted
1/4 tsp salt
1 to 2 tbsp rum (or 1 tsp rum flavouring)
optional: whipped cream

Combine the brown sugar and eggs in a medium-sized sauce pan and beat with a hand-held mixer until thickened and light in colour.

Beat in the flour first, then the cream, melted butter and salt. Then add the coconut milk.

Place the pot on the stove over medium high heat. Using a whisk, stir constantly until the mixture comes to a boil, taking care that it doesn't "catch" on the bottom of the pan. 

Once the mixture is boiling, continue to cook for a further minute, whisking vigorously. Then add the drained pineapple and rum.

Remove from the heat and pour into six ramekins. Cover the ramekins with plastic wrap, taking care to press the plastic onto the surface. This helps prevent a skin from forming.

Chill the pudding for at least an hour. Serve with whipped cream, if desired.


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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lamb and Artichoke Ragù

If you don't think every day is a good day, just try missing one. – Cavett Robert

The finished dish. Very filling.

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been over two weeks since my last post...

I do have to apologize. It’s been far too long since I wrote. 17 days. This is by far and away the longest time between posts since I started this blog over three years ago. To make it even worse I had promised you a recipe using the artichokes I made in the last post.

Well, here it is – albeit very, very late.

I’m not sure what happened. I’ve been quite busy with what puts food on the table, and at the end of the day all I want to do is veg in front of the TV. I’ve also been splitting my time between my two “offices” which makes cooking, gardening (insert activity here...) much more difficult. I am both a country and city mouse.

You know, I even haven’t had time to go to the grocery store on a regular basis. I know, first world problems. But it does make it more difficult to think up and cook interesting food, let alone write about it. Although I have pulled out a few cool ideas from my pantry.

The weather this spring hasn’t helped either. I really have to think to remember one that has been this cold for so long. And we’re expecting a risk of frost again tonight. Those tomato plants don't cover themselves...

I also am allergic to wild pear blossoms. They have been in full bloom for over a week. A hazy head certainly doesn’t help to inspire activity either. But I hope to have turned a corner. I have to. Crappy meals don’t help the waist line, and it sucks to fit into fewer and fewer of my clothes.

Ready for the low simmer. Note the scant amount of liquid.
These posts are therapeutic for me in many ways, as well. I know some close to me just don’t get that, but so be it. I will do what brings me a modicum of happiness. This does.

We have put in our country vegetable garden for the second year. We’ve also built some raised stone beds to extend our “arable” land. There will be updates and wisdom from all that to impart over the next months.

So, anyway, I hope you can all forgive me for my dereliction of posting. But back to the topic at hand... What did I do with those artichokes?

My last post was Mother’s Day (can you believe it!!) and I was cooking my Mom dinner. I didn’t want to make anything too complex, but at the same time it needed to be special. This recipe did the trick. I found some ground lamb that was on sale. Bonus!

Except for the artichokes, this (nearly) one-pot-wonder was very easy to make. If you can watch a pot simmer you can do this recipe. The flavours were unexpectedly complex. Mint tends to do that.

So if you’re brave enough to tackle artichokes you should try this dinner. It certainly makes enough for four (six in a pinch). If you wish, round out the meal with a salad. Maybe something with tomato wedges, black olives, balsamic vinaigrette and oregano.

I’m writing this early in the morning, and am making myself hungry. Perhaps I should check my cupboards for something for breakfast...

I made the basic sauce at home (with the artichokes) and then took
it over to my mothers, cooked the pasta and heated it through.
Lamb and Artichoke Ragù
Prep: 2 hours (see*)  |  Cook: 1 hour  |  Serves 4-6
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 lg carrot, diced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 pounds ground lamb
3 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp fresh mint (or 1 tsp dried)
1 tbsp fresh oregano (or 1 tsp dried)
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 whole lemon, halved
6 tbsp red wine
6 baby artichokes, roasted*
penne for 4-6 people
1 tbsp butter

*The artichokes can be roasted the day before and refrigerated until ready to use. See my last post for easy, detailed instructions.

My mother recently bought a new propane stove.
It's very photogenic.
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven. Sauté the onion, carrot and garlic until slightly browned. Add the ground lamb and continue to cook until no longer pink.

Stir in the tomatoes, bay leaves, mint, oregano, salt, pepper, red pepper, and lemon halves. Pour in the red wine. Bring to a simmer and cover.

Let cook for 45 minutes to an hour. If the pot looks too dry (it should have very little liquid) add a little water. Make sure the contents doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot and burn! Remove the bay leaves.

Chop the roasted artichokes into bite-sized pieces. While the sauce is simmering, cook the penne one minute short of al dente. Drain and add to the pot.

Stir in the chopped artichokes and continue to simmer until heated through and some of the liquid has been absorbed into the pasta.

Serve with warm crusty bread.


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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Taming the scariest vegetable: Artichokes

There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me. – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

It’s Mother’s Day and I’m making dinner for mom tonight. I started thinking about it a few days ago when I was at the grocery store. It has to be something special.

Now, “special” to you may mean something different than “special” to me. It doesn’t mean breaking the bank for dinner, although today you’re allowed. I would prefer to make something that is interesting, unusual and delicious, which often doesn’t mean costly ingredients.

Whole artichoke and one in the process of bring trimmed.
In fact, for part of my planned meal, one ingredient was very, very cheap. I stumbled upon  artichokes at a local grocery. For 10¢ each. They weren’t quite what I would call “baby” but were not large either. Somewhere in-between.

For most, the fear of artichokes starts the second we lay eyes on them. They look like nothing else in the grocery section, and because of that we don’t know what to do with them or even how to tell if they’re “good.” 

This is important. I got fooled the other day by green beans at one of our grocery chains. I had them in the refrigerator for 2 days before they started to turn brown. A total waste of money.

So how do you tell if artichokes are good, and what’s a simple way to prepare them?

As you trim them, place them in lemon water.
Number 1: how to confidently put them in your grocery basket. 
A good artichoke will be green with very little brown spotting, if any. The further you get from where they were grown, the more difficult finding pristine artichokes will be.

The leaves will be tight together and it will feel heavy. If the leaves have started to peel out (like some kind of alien flower) the artichoke will lack flavour. Give them a good squeeze; the leaves should “squeak.” Check the stem, too. If it’s really brown the artichoke is most likely old.

So you have them in your basket. Now what? Buy a lemon. You’ll need it.

Since I was using these in a subsequent dish I chose to trim and roast them, but they can be cleaned and cooked other ways as well. The following is an excellent way to make them as a snack (with a squeeze of lemon) or for inclusion in the Mother’s Day dish I will post (hopefully) in a few days.

At the "heart" of the artichoke you may find "fuzz." It's not
very palatable so remove it. Baby artichokes will be OK.
Number 2: prepare the artichokes for roasting.
Take a bowl and fill it 3/4 with water. Add a few slices of lemon and a squeeze of juice. Artichokes turn brown very quickly due to oxidization when exposed to air. (Like apples when you cut them to make a pie.) So have this on hand. It’s called acidulated water. You can use vinegar in place of the lemon if you wish.

Take each artichoke and start snapping off leaves, starting at the base. Continue to do this until you have exposed internal leaves that are yellow about 1/2 way up.

Trim the area where you snapped off the leaves close to the stem. Trim the stem to 1” long an peel the remaining part of the stem. Then trim off the about 1/3 of the top of the artichokes. Finally cut it in two.

If you are using true “ baby” artichokes, simply place them in the water while you continue to clean the remaining artichokes. If the artichokes are more mature you will want to look at where the leaves emerge from the base inside. If it’s really “fuzzy” scrape the fuzz out. As the artichoke grows this area (the choke) increases and becomes unpalatable. I did remove it with a spoon from my artichokes, just to be safe.

Ready for the oven.
Once all your artichokes are cleaned, preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. Drain the artichokes, giving them a good shake. Water gets trapped between the leaves. Add olive oil, salt and pepper and toss to coast well.

Arrange the halves on the baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes, turning once while they roast. They are done when the base pierces easily with a knife and they are golden brown.

They are now ready to be used in my recipe (lamb and artichoke ragù), or you can eat them "as is" with lemon squeezed on top, or a lemon-flavoured sauce.

See – they’re not so intimidating after all!

Ingredients for roasted artichokes:
6-10 artichokes
1-2 lemons
2-4 tbsp olive oil
salt, to taste
cracked black pepper


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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Spicy Pigs in a Blanket

She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot. – Mark Twain

Swine. That's a refined name for pigs, right? So these are Swine in a Blanket.

I need to get to the grocery store more often. It seems living alone through the winter/spring (my spouse is at college) has left me a little “uninspired” as far as the kitchen goes. My grocery purchasing habits have not been whet they were for the last several years.

I admit it – I’ve been eating junk.

But does junk always have to be bad? Short answer, no. I have several recipes on this site posted a few years ago where I have re-interpreted junky recipes into more palatable versions. Search “junky” on this site.

So what did my vast (ha!) pantry yield tonight? An opened package of hot dogs. Inspiring, eh?

Well just wait a minute. It can be. It’s said the devil is in the details. It can also be said that the angels are in the creativity. Not one to be out-classed by something I had to deal with from the fridge, I took it upon myself to upscale pigs in a blanket.

How does homemade dough, gooey mozzarella, rich caramelized onions with jalapeño, and crumbled bacon sound? Not one single Pilsbury dough boy was harmed in this process.

As you can imagine, making your own dough is a little...involved, and does extend your prep time. But it’s not that bad. And think of the oohs and ahhs you’ll receive when they come to the table.

They smell and look fantastic, and they’re probably almost good for you. Almost. Up that quotient by serving a nice, crisp green salad on the side if you feel so inclined. Me? I had potato chips.

Spicy Pigs in a Blanket
Prep: 2 hours (includes rising)  |  Bake: 20 min  |  Yield 8
1 cup water, 110°F
3 tsp yeast
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 cups flour
Spicy onions:
1 tbsp butter
1 medium onion, sliced
1 jalapeño, thinly sliced
1 tsp sugar
8 hot dogs
8 x 1/4” slices mozzarella cheese
crumbled bacon bits
1 egg
1 tbsp milk or cream

Heat the water in a microwave in a ceramic bowl to 110°F. Add the yeast and sugar and let proof until creamy, about 10 minutes. Then add the salt and flour. Bring together in the bowl and then knead for 2 minutes on the counter. Place the dough back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and a towel and let rise for 45 minutes.

While the dough is rising, make the onions. Melt the butter in a skillet and add the sliced onions, jalapeño and sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the onions soften and begin to turn brown. Set aside.

Once the dough has risen, lightly flour a rolling board (or the counter) and put the dough on it. Roll out to a rectangle (roughly) 18” x 10”. Cut into four rectangles. Then cut each rectangle in half to make 8 triangles. Gently pull each piece of dough by the corners to make the rectangle shape more pronounced.

Cut a deep slit nearly the whole length of 8 hot dogs. Cut slices of mozzarella that can fit inside the slits. Fill each hot dog slit with cheese. (As for how much cheese that is, use your innate common sense.) 

Place a cheese-stuffed hot dog on the edge of each triangle of dough. Divide the onions between the triangles. Add about 2 tsp of crumbled bacon bits to each. Roll up and place on a parchment lined (or well greased) baking sheet. Make sure the point of the rolled up dough is on the bottom. Let the “pigs” rise for 30 minutes. 

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Mix the egg and milk together in a small bowl. Just before baking, brush the dough with the egg wash. Bake for 25 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.


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Friday, May 2, 2014

Green Curry Chicken

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history. – Aldous Huxley

The kitchen is a classroom full of lessons – some hard, some not so hard. But every time you cook it’s a learning experience.

For example, here’s a few of my favourites:

A good instant-read thermometer is a “must” in the kitchen. It saves you from ruining a good cut of meat. No one likes raw chicken, no one likes dry steak and no one likes to waste money.

Never add all the salt you think you need while cooking soup, stew or sauce. Each reduces and run the real chance of being saltier than you want.

When you’re in the grocery store, think ahead. How many ways can you use an ingredient? This is important for two reasons. If you are a 2-person household you won’t use many ingredients up in one meal. It also gives you flexibility in what kind of meals you can make. Never underestimate the variety of recipes you can make with a single ingredient. (e.g. you can put avocado in chocolate pudding!!)

“Lite” coconut milk has less coconut fat (ergo more water) than its non-lite counterpart. You will be reducing your sauce forever to get the consistency you want. Think regular milk and cream. You need the additional fat to make a luxurious sauce. So suck it up. East sensibly another night. One meal will not pack 20 pounds on you. I guarantee it.

All these lessons (except for the first one) come into play in this recipe. There’s no worries that your chicken won’t be cooked after simmering for 30 minutes. But the coconut one is of particular importance.

I have found gold, literally, in the coconut milk I use. It’s Rooster Brand® Gold Label coconut milk. It even says it on the label: ideal for cooking. You can get it at the Superstore right alongside the red label Rooster Brand®. It costs no more than any other and is about half again as thick. This is exactly what you want when reducing a sauce. 

And remember the sauce and salt lesson. “Taste for salt and adjust” are some of the best directions that can be written in a recipe.

Thinking ahead – like when you purchase cilantro – is also important. Nobody uses a whole bunch of cilantro at once unless they're making a pesto. This holds true for other ingredients too, like vegetables. 

Roasting squash for 2 people? Do the whole thing and then reserve what you don't eat for squash ravioli, or even a squash pasta sauce. Think ahead. It saves you money and keeps variety on your plate.

Everything you encounter teaches you something. It’s how you apply the lessons you learn that dictate success or failure, in the kitchen or in life.

Green Curry Chicken
Prep: 10 min  |  Cook 45 min  |  Serves 4
4 large chicken legs and thighs*
1 tbsp vegetable oil
salt and pepper
2 medium onions, chopped large
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 Thai bird’s eye chilli, diced
1” fresh ginger, diced
8 green cardamom pods*
1 tsp cumin seed
3” stick cinnamon
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 lime, quartered
1 medium tomato, diced
1 398 ml can thick coconut milk
1 cup chopped cilantro
salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the vegetable oil, on medium-high, in a large oven-proof pot with a cover. Cut the chicken into leg and thigh pieces and season with some salt and pepper. Starting bone side down, fry until browned on both sides, and then remove to a plate. The chicken will not be cooked through at this point. 

Fat will render out of the chicken as it fries, so you will have far more than the 1 tbsp you started with. Drain off all but 1 tbsp fat.

Add the chopped onion and sauté for 2 minutes. Then add garlic, ginger, chilli, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon and turmeric. Sauté for 2-3 minutes longer.

Next add the lime, tomato, coconut milk and cilantro. Bring the mixture to a simmer and then nestle the chicken down into the sauce. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Cook, with cover ajar, for 30 minutes on medium heat. Check and stir occasionally to prevent the sauce from sticking to the pot bottom and burning. 

Reduce the sauce slightly if desired before serving by turning the heat up. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust.

Serve with basmati rice.

* You could also substitute 8 chicken thighs (bone in, skin on). Instead of the whole cardamom pods (which can be a surprise when you bite them), substitute 1/2 tsp ground cardamom.


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