Monday, March 29, 2010

Outside the Box

Any true Canadian knows that the only real way to make mac 'n' cheese involves a "remove pouch from box" step and that it is served either one of two ways; with or without ketchup.  It is our babysitters' saviour, our hockey moms' helper and every college's dorm room norm.  No, it is not the same as your Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or your Cheesey Pasta; to do it right it's 'Gotta Be KD'.

Kraft Dinner is as much a part of Cananda as beavers and hockey and mounties and no other nation is as nearly devoted to those straight skinny noodles in the bright orange milky sauce.  From coast to coast, for 99 cents, we purchase almost 80 million cobalt blue cartons each year, but affordability aside, we eat it just because we love it.  In the words of canuck rock spectacle, Barenaked Ladies, if we had $1,000,000 we'd just eat more (and buy really expensive ketchup with it).

While Kraft Dinner is undeniably amazing, there are points in our lives when we might choose to venture outside of the box (or, as in my case, lack of product availability dictates the choice).  Over the years I have tried a slew of " scratch" recipes, from various sources, admittedly without much success; from gloppy cheese to dry and bland, they always fall short on their promise.  With grocery day looming (which means pasta at our house) and a craving for comfort food, I decided to eliminate the middle man and take a stab at concocting my own.

Before we embark on today's kitchen adventure, let's clear up any misconceptions that this will be a Kraft Dinner replacement or any sort of attempt at traditional macaroni and cheese.  There is no gooey orange goodness or smooth creamy sauce (actually, there's not even any macaroni); but it is astonishingly delicious in it's own right. 

Garlic Cream Cheese Penne

white pepper, milk, cream cheese, minced garlic

In a small pot, melt a soup spoon's worth of butter over medium heat, taking care to not let it burn or brown, then add 4 large cloves of garlic, minced, (or more or less depending on your garlic flavour preference) and stir until softened.  Reduce heat to low, whisk in about 150g cream cheese and, once the cheese is melted, stir in about 200mL of milk, a little bit at a time, until your mixture is well blended and smooth.  Season with a dash or two of white pepper, a sprinkle of nutmeg, and any other herbs or spices you might enjoy (I use Vegeta).  Don't panic; it will be very liquid-y but will soon reduce and thicken.

penne pasta

As you are preparing the sauce, have a large pot of lightly salted water boiling on the stove.  Begin to cook about 400g of pasta at the same time you start to stir the milk into your sauce; your timing should be perfect.  I used penne for two reasons; i love how the sauce fills up the insides of the tubes and i only had that or spaghetti available (if you've been following this blog, you know that we've already had spaghetti this week). 

garlic cream cheese sauce

Meanwhile, back at the sauce, once it has thickened to a point of holding well to a spoon remove it from the heat source and stir in a couple spoonfuls of fresh parmesan cheese. When your penne is cooked to al dante, drain well and return it to the pot.  Pour the sauce over the pasta and stir to coat evenly.  Divide into bowls, top each with a bit of fresh ground pepper, avoid the use of ketchup and enjoy.

garlic cream cheese penne

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

(Almost) Naked Noodles

Growing up, I couldn't fathom why friends would forgo slumber parties for their dad's deep dish lasagna, I didn't understand perpetual arguments over whose grandmother made better sauce and I felt utterly betrayed by my sister when she chose The Old Spaghetti Factory (every time!) on family trips for dinner.  It's not that I didn't like pasta; it's just that I could easily deliver a list longer than linguine of many more mouthwatering meals.   

spaghetti in waiting

Noodles, to me, equalled nothing; yet I loved when my mom would make them.  On those days it seemed as our house had been transformed into a real-life Play-Doh pasta plant.  Floury rounds were fed through smooth, shiny rollers and squished into pancake-ish form; perfect scarves of pasta then carried from the kitchen and draped over every chair to wait for their noodle evolution.  With a crank of the handle, golden strands of fresh fettuccine were magically extruded by the pound, then returned to their rows where they'd dangle to dry like a doughy dining room car wash.  It was impossible not to touch.  And they smelled good.

photos (and pasta) courtesy of my mom
Today, instead of the backs of her chairs, Mom has a nice wooden hanger and I've grown up to fully enjoy a good plate.  When she forwarded the photos I requested for this story (thank you Mom), she mentioned making a modified alfredo sauce rather than the usual meat/tomato to avoid covering the pasta taste with such a dominant flavour.  This brings up the reason I passed on pasta as a kid; I like my noodles naked.

Spaghetti Carbonara

pancetta, garlic, onions

Cover the bottom of a sauté pan (to about 1 cm depth) with the absolute best quality extra virgin olive oil you can afford, heating over medium heat, until an onion piece added will sizzle.  Add one large diced onion, 2 or 4 minced garlic cloves, and two handfuls of chopped pancetta.  Simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring constantly.  Keep an eye on the heat, reducing to low if necessary; you do not want the oil to boil or smoke - but you want your stuff to cook.

olive oil simmer

After 20 minutes of simmer, add a sprinkle of crushed red peppers.  As much as I love heat; here less is more - don't get carried away as those who wish can add more later.  Continue to simmer and stir, now adding one package (500g) of spaghetti noodles to a large pot of (already) boiling salted water you have on the stove.

eggs, salt, pepper

In a small cup, whisk 2 eggs with a little salt and a lot of fresh ground pepper.  When the spaghetti is cooked al dente, quickly drain and return to the pot (keeping the noodles as hot as possible is a must).  Add the eggs and stir madly; the heat of the noodles will cook the eggs and the stirring will distribute them evenly (as shown in photo below).  When you are certain the eggs are done, add your olive oil/onion/garlic/pancetta mixture and stir well again.  Place spaghetti in bowls and top with a generous spoonful of fresh grated parmesan cheese.

eggs cooked by noodles

Don't be fooled by the nudity; the beauty of this dish comes through it's simplicity.  Simmering the onion, garlic, pancetta and peppers for a good length of time allows for the flavours to fully develop and you can taste each ingredient (including the noodles) without any overpowering the others.

spaghetti carbonara

While easily adaptable to accommodate more, the amounts here are perfect for two.  With no rush in the kitchen and no mess to clean up, pour some wine and prepare this for your partner.  It takes less than an hour to put on the table (leaving more time for naked beyond noodles).

Learn more about Spaghetti Carbonara @ Wikipedia
Learn more about heating olive oil @ The Olive Oil Source


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Devil Comes to Dinner

Deviled Eggs have always been one of my favorite party foods. I'm actually embarrassed to admit how many times I've made a batch, only to have them eaten before any guests arrive (if they are gone before they get here, nobody knows they're missing, right?). Today it occurred to me that waiting for a social occasion to stuff some eggs seemed silly, so with three hard boiled on hand, I decided I'd make them for lunch.

horseradish deviled egg

Eggs for entertaining are easy; arrange them on a platter, avoid eating them before there's a knock at your door and serve with napkins plus a side shaker of salt.   Trying to build a meal around these tasty morsels becomes somewhat of a dilemma. What compliments a stuffed egg, allowing it to evolve it from appetizer to main course? Quite hungry and with few ingredients on hand, I scoured my cupboards for inspiration. My eureka moment came in the form of soup. Dining on Deviled Eggs now made perfect sense.

Quick Tomato Soup with Horseradish Deviled Eggs

quick tomato soup

To make the soup, sauté one diced onion, three cloves garlic and a handful of thinly sliced pancetta in a bit of olive oil. If you don't have pancetta, you could try some cooked bacon or omit it completely, though it adds a subtle smokey flavour that would have been missing without it.

When everything is golden, add a can of peeled tomatoes (chopped), a touch of tomato paste and a small spoonful of brown sugar (it mellows the acidity); then top it off with about 500mL of water plus a vegetable stock cube. Once your pot begins to boil, Reduce the heat and simmer, lifting the lid to stir occasionally and to season with salt, pepper, herbs and spices that satisfy your taste. 

more quick tomato soup

Once your soup is simmering, it's time to do the devils. Slice 3 hard boiled eggs lengthwise, scooping the yolks into a separate bowl. Add a small spoonful of mayonnaise, a few pinches dry mustard, a sprinkle of salt, a dash of white pepper and a touch of horseradish cream; mix well. Carefully fill the hole in each egg white with a scoop of the yolk mixture. Sprinkle with paprika and top with thinly sliced pancetta.

horseradish deviled eggs

Now return to your soup. Remove from the burner and puree with a hand blender until smooth (be careful to not splatter it across your kitchen - using a tall, narrow pot helps). Divide the soup among bowls and garnish with a few drops of cream or a sprinkle of herbs. Serve with Horseradish Deviled Eggs and fresh bread.

quick tomato soup w/ horseradish deviled eggs

We each ended up with 3 (half) eggs and 2 bowls of soup (and wished there were leftovers for tomorrow).  If you are feeding more than two people (or wish for leftovers), you can easily increase the amounts of everything.  The meal took about 30 minutes to prepare. If you don't have hard boiled eggs, add another 15 minutes - I suggest making them first and letting them cool completely. Trying to devil hot eggs can be a little hellish.

Are Deviled Eggs part of your main meal?  What's your favorite recipe?  What do you serve them with?  I'd love to hear about it...

Friday, March 12, 2010

I Am Not A Chocoholic

There are no emergency M&Ms inside my desk drawers, hidden Cadbury Bars in couch cushions or handfuls of Chipits snatched from the baking supplies. I'm not in love with heart shaped boxes, don't hop for bunnies and make only one trip to the store for Halloween mini-bars. I don't have fantasies of swimming hot fudge oceans or start shaking at the mention of dark, milk or white. I know plenty of people do; I am just not one of them. I am not a chocoholic.

While I'm rarely tempted by restaurant promises of 'Ecstasy' or 'Explosion' and completely unfazed by triple chunks and double dips, I do occasionally (say every 28 days or so) crave the fix. When the I-need-chocolate-and-I-need-it-now does suddenly hit, I am wise enough to know better than to attempt achieving satisfaction by any other means. Even those of us who aren't stricken by the addiction can understand the phenomena of eating everything within arms length before the inevitable midnight run to 7-11 for a piece of some chocolate action. Occasionally came for me yesterday; and so I decided to bake.

cocoa powder

A member at Recipezaar, my favorite online cooking community, had posted a recipe for "Whatever Floats Your Boat" Brownies, promising the chewiest, moistest, fudgiest brownies ever and, with 908 glowing reviews, I had little reason to doubt. I had the required ingredients and the method was simple; it even allowed for the addition of nuts, fruit, candy, marshmallows, or, as advertised, whatever would float my boat. I felt that hard or chunky textures would only weigh me down so, at the suggestion of one reviewer, incorporated a cheesecake swirl to secure my buoyancy.

I doubled the recipe (why fool around?), carefully converting the cups and pounds to weight in grams. I was short on cocoa powder but made up the difference by grating a bit of a baking bar until it turned to dust. Resisting temptation to mix the batter to smooth chocolate oblivion, I backed away from the bowl and poured the batter.

Everyone knows that baking is science. With my lab void of measuring vessels and my oven a mind of its own, I've certainly experienced my share of burnt edges and pans full of cake batter goo. I placed the pan in the oven with semi-high hopes, yet fully prepared to eat that sucker with a spoon if necessary.

Thirty-two minutes later I whisked my pan of hot salvation from the oven but worried they were still too wet. "Another 5 minutes," I thought, ready to return them for another round of heat. Step #9 haunted me though: DO NOT OVER-BAKE -- your brownies will come out dry. I put my trust in a sticky toothpick and refrained. When eternity had expired and my brownies cooled completely, I nervously pulled a tiny test piece from the corner. Then I cut a bigger one. Then I poured a glass of milk. Then I got a plate.

milk chocolate bliss

chewy fudgey chocolate brownie
These brownies are the epitome of everything chocolate and the remedy for the symptoms of an addiction I don't have. Any further description would instantly cast a shadow over my initial proclamation. I am not a chocoholic - but these could be my gateway drug.

tower of fudge

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cream of Nothing

There's a not-so-secret weapon lurking in pantries across the Americas; a superhero ingredient that makes our favorite comfort foods so 'Mmm, Mmm Good'.  It comes to our aid in kitchen emergencies and lends itself well to our cuisine creativity.  From quick weekday casseroles to traditional holiday fare, if you've got 'Cream of' something, you've got yourself a meal.

stovetop shephard's pie using cream of nothing

The versatility of canned condensed soup is proven through endless volumes of recipes for main-dish meals, savoury sides, sauces, gravies, chowders, stews and yes, even desserts (Tomato Soup Spice Cake anyone?).   Enduring the test of time, we continue to serve the same dishes that our grandmothers have swapped since the early 1900s; today a Google search for "recipes using canned soup" pulls more than a million results.  It's beyond mere convenience, its comfort; we trust it to work every time.  Like culinary Duct Tape, it pulls our meals together, can fix anything and sticks with us forever.  And we love it.

I'll be the first to admit that a few menu items in my recipe arsenal feature the magic of Campbell's and that I've been saved by the can plenty of times.  In it's originally intended soup form, a gooey grilled cheese sandwich with a hot cup of Tomato or a steaming bowl of Mushroom with a stack of Stoned Wheat Thins is, for me, the equivalent of a hug.

Here on Hvar, soup is not a multi-purpose ingredient; soup is soup.  Hugs don't come in cans, they live in packets of dehydrated noodles and vegetables and flavouring spice and, when reconstituted with water, are ideal for serving along side a thick slab of fresh bread.  Beyond the bowl, they fail miserably at making meals happen.

Here would be the appropriate point to launch in to a full pictorial demonstration on how to make a roux.  On further consideration, I determined that trying to take photographs while preparing a roux would inevitably lead to lumps and/or burns (for both myself and the roux) and that's just not a pretty picture (in either case);  instead, we'll look at a quick, easy and inexpensive alternative.  I don't promise gourmet but I do promise a very low-sodium, lump-free thickening agent with the binding properties that are equal to one can of condensed soup and can be used in any recipe where it's called for.  If you need further proof, pour it into a can and let it cool... when you dump it, you'll get the familiar satisfying "schluuuup" sound that you do from your favorite brand as it slides out and continues to hold it's shape.

Cream of Nothing


First, place 3 Tbsp of flour in a small clean jar.  Add 125mL (1/2 cup) of beef, chicken or vegetable stock (I dissolved a proportionate amount of soup brick in a scoop of water from the pot of potatoes on the stove) to the jar and close the lid tightly.  Shake it like you mean business; we don't want any lumps.

stock and flour

Next, melt 1 Tbsp butter in a pan over low heat. Once the butter becomes clear and sizzly, add the flour/stock mixture a little bit at a time, whisking constantly, to form a smooth, thick paste.

whisking in the stock

Remove the pan from the burner and slowly add 125mL (1/2 cup) milk.  Whisk until smooth before returning to medium heat.

whisking in the milk

Stir constantly as the mixture bubbles and thickens, reducing to desired consistency.  The entire process, without cooling (which you don't need to do unless you crave the "schluuuup") should take about twice as long as it takes you to open a can of soup.  

cream of nothing

Bear in mind that we haven't added any flavour and that, because not a proper roux, it will still have that raw flour taste.  This method will only provide the thickening properties of the soup; use your judgement and creativity to season and spice whatever dish you add it to.  Whatever you do, please do not add an equal amount of milk or water and try to call it soup.  

I am fully aware that the stomachs of true chefs everywhere will churn at the very thought of this method, but since we're already cooking with soup, that damage was already done.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Grocery Day Dilemma

Grocery Day has always been my most difficult of days to decide what to make for dinner. I'm not referring to the obvious pre-shop annoyance of "there's nothing to eat" while sneering at bare cupboards and an empty refrigerator; I'm referring to the just-unpacked-enough-food-to-feed-a-small-army shopping extravaganza.

Having just endured my most hated task of unpacking the bags, I seem to become overwhelmed by the abundance of it all. I stare at the selection of meat on the counter, trying to decide which will end up on my plate so I can get the rest in to the freezer. I run through an imaginary taste test of every fresh vegetable I've placed in the crisper or pantry, thinking to myself "mmmmm mashed yams" or "ooooh steamed broccoli". I gaze lovingly at the new assortment of cheeses. I walk from cupboard to fridge and back again (quite a few times) and stare blankly at the glistening sealed containers and bold coloured boxes, their labels forming twinkly eyed smiling faces which call out "pick me!" Too many choices; I want it all. My brain suffers inspiration overload (I notice I've inadvertently forgotten to pick up laundry detergent) and I decide it's too late to start cooking. I order pizza.

Here on my Island, ordering pizza isn't an option so my Grocery Day dilemma now has a new ending.

Tuna Melts

grocery day dilemma

For my tuna melts, you'll need 2 hard boiled eggs. Start them as soon as you finish dragging the grocery bags in to the kitchen; by the time you've put everything away they'll be finished boiling. Run them under cold water to let them cool. Since you're already boiling 2 eggs you should probably just make 4. It's always nice to have a couple extras in the fridge.

Drain a can of tuna; dump it in a bowl with some diced dill pickle (I use a large one) and the eggs (chopped). Divide a lemon and squeeze the juice of one half over the bowl. Add some of the water from the pickle jar (maybe a Tbsp-ish?) Season with a bit of salt, a lot of fresh ground pepper and some paprika.

salt, pepper, paprika and lemon

Next add a couple glops (yes, glops - I'm sure you know what I mean) of mayonnaise. You 'could' use miracle whip or some other salad dressing - in my opinion its not a substitute and they wouldn't taste the same. Sometimes instead of all mayo, I half/half it with soft cream cheese. Really it's up to you.

Next cut 6 thick slices from the fresh loaf of french bread. "What french bread" you ask? The french bread you picked up at the store bakery specifically for making tuna melts. It is, after all, Grocery Day. Lightly spread each with butter or margarine (I said lightly) and snuggle them, butter sides down, in to a high-edged baking pan. The butter and high edges will keep the bread from drying out when you "melt" them.

Divide the tuna mixture evenly among the slices of bread. I stress evenly because you may be tempted to add less tuna to the smaller pieces of bread. This sucks for the people who get served the small pieces and end up getting shorted on both bread AND tuna. Place a thin blanket of cheese over each. We usually get our cheese sliced from the deli which works perfectly. Try to not use a sharp cheese which will overpower the rest of the ingredients and remember that you are making tuna melts, not cheese toast; a little goes a long way. I like to add some colour by sprinkling the tops with a touch of paprika. French bread, tuna, mayo and Gouda cheese, while incredibly tasty, tends to look rather bland.

oven ready

Now pop them into your oven and let them become melts. I can't advise on temperature or length of time since my oven doesn't really work properly. I use high heat and take them out when the cheese is melted and starts to bubble, but before they burn; enough time to rinse the cutting board, bowl, knife and spoon I used for preparation and to put some plates on the table. Basically, if you aren't eating within 30 minutes of putting your groceries away, you got distracted.

toasty tuna melts

So this is my no-fail solution to the Grocery Day dilemma. I can confidently arrive home from the store without dread or panic and can ignore my taunting pantry until tomorrow. And then it's a whole new story.

Did you try these tuna melts? Do you have your own solution to the Grocery Day dilemma? I'd love to hear about it...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Kitchen: Unplugged.

Back home my kitchen was well equipped with pots and pans in every size and shape imaginable.  Small appliances for mixing and blending, slicing and chopping were always at arms length.  My rice steamer, slow cooker and toaster oven held permanent residence on my countertop.  Every drawer held an overabundance of measuring spoons and cups, flatware, serving utensils and a plethora of other random kitchen gadgets.  I had plates and bowls for every meal and any occasion.  Now, here in my Island kitchen, inventory consists of three wooden spoons, a whisk, a 2L measuring cup and an oven that has two settings; ON or OFF.

Ok, it's not really THAT bad.  In fact, with the help of a my less equipped kitchen, I find myself fully reconnecting with my love for cooking.   I've learned to measure by weight (if I even measure at all) using my wall mounted scale.  My knife skills are consistently improving and I've finally mastered the art of rice.  I am far more familiar with the behaviours of ingredients and, being blessed with an inbuilt gas stovetop, regularly practice the art of  sauté, simmer and stir.

It's amazing how a change of environment can completely alter your perception.  What I once considered mandatory (or at least extremely helpful) suddenly seemed not only unnecessary, but also inhibiting.  I began to wonder how much time had I actually wasted assembling blades and unraveling cords, rushing around looking for the right size spoon or trying to find a funnel at the back of a drawer.  Now I see that the real convenience comes from taking out one sharp knife and a cutting board, rinsing as necessary. 

Here in my unplugged kitchen I make better dishes in far less time.  I leisurely enjoy my meal rather than dreading the the trail of mess left of my preparatory wake and the stack of dirty dishes soaking in the sink.  I have developed a deeper understanding of the process and greater appreciation for the product.  It's a sense of satisfaction that will never be measurable in cups.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Full Story

A Recipe for Adaptation

While I have never been a complete slave to the recipe, the ease of methodically performing steps to produce a guaranteed tasty meal rarely forced me to experiment. Where there are no need for substitutions, why bother to adapt? 

I recently relocated from Civilization, Canada to a (very) small island in the Adriatic Sea.  No longer able to browse online recipe sites, lazily print off handy shopping lists and run off to the store to stock up on required ingredients, I am now faced with the challenge of food in a foreign language and making meals from whatever is available at said precise time. 

At first I was frustrated by lack of ingredients (what do you mean there are no tortillas?!) and painstakingly tried to explain cumin to my blank-faced sweetheart, Saša, who had never even heard of refried beans.  While he served us hot plates of čevapčići and pans full of crispy girice, I lamented over the wonderful meals I could have been making "if only I could find (insert typical ingredient here)..."  I missed cooking and I felt left out.

Determined to find my place in the kitchen, I began to accept the differences and found zen with the fact that I would not have a burrito again until summer.  Slowly I started to look at recipes, not for direction, but for inspiration.  I soon found myself becoming cleverly creative, sometimes preparing dishes that slightly resembled something I used to make and often developing delicious concoctions I'd never have considered before.

Holy Guacamole 

Anyone who knows me well can attest that my happiness is sealed in finding the perfect avocado.  Western Canada is hardly a producing region, but every supermarket carries an ample supply of imported Hass'.  I'd grown accustomed to sorting through the newly stocked, rock solid under-ripes and the thin skinned, hollow shells of blackened mush in an effort to find that elusive green god and those around me were always kept well informed of my missions accomplished.  It was a fairly tragic moment when I came to the realization that the people of Croatia were not blessed by their presence.  I put on a brave face while secretly I mourned.

We were perusing the aisles of a market in a nearby town when I spotted them hidden amongst the cabbage and leeks; six big, beautiful (and worth their weight in gold) avocados.  I dropped the carrots I had reached for, pointed and shrieked "We can have guacamole!"  It was as if everything else just disappeared and nothing from that point forward mattered.  I didn't care that the can of bean sprouts I'd been eyeballing was way beyond our budget and had to stay on the shelf.  I didn't care that peanut butter is non-existent and that Nutella, while tasty, is a less than suitable candidate for substitute.  I didn't care about anything other than going home with an avocado.

Saša told me he'd tasted one once and thought it was boring; now I had one avocado and one chance to change his mind.  My immediate instinct to make guacamole was wavering.  Without being able to serve it with tortilla chips or inside a bursting burrito would the appeal suffer a loss?    We had some leftover cooked chicken - perhaps some killer club sandwiches?  Seriously, if you had one avocado and no idea where the next one was coming from - what would you do?

As we both sat staring at our empty plates, Saša scooped up some leftover guacamole with his fork.  I did the same.  That evening I typed out an email to my sister and my mom, excitedly sharing the tale of my avocado treasure.  "I finally introduced him to guacamole!" I wrote, relaying every moment of the event in explicitly vivid detail.  As always, I attached a photograph of the final creation... 

where perfect avocados go to die

My sister replied that the bread looked fabulous.  My mom suggested I start writing a food blog...

The Perfect Avocado

So it seems, here at the end of the story, that it is really the beginning. A single avocado producing so much more than guacamole.

This blog will not be gourmet, nutritional or technical. This blog will not be for recipes, but will share ideas and stories about the process and products I use. This blog may offend the real chefs and cooks of the world as I carelessly lick spoons (twice), burn my fingers, misuse equipment and combine wrong ingredients. This blog will be nothing more than a record of my own food finds and taste-test tales; a collection of culinary adventures from my kitchen (and possibly yours).

In actuality, that avocado was far from my usual ideal; however, its perfection was found in simply just being.