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Friday, 20 April 2012

Grilled venison with blueberry glaze, candy beets and sauteed ramps

Last Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking, the 147th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 13 disaster.  All the signs point to April 14th being an ill fated day, however, the news wasn't all bad because it was also the 29th anniversary of something much more monumental; the birth of T-Moo!  

We wanted to make a special dinner but couldn't decide what to cook and resorted to wandering wandering around the St. Lawrence market looking for inspiration.  The market is usually a rich source of inspiration (I like to eavesdrop on my fellow shoppers and then steal their ideas) but Saturday the well was running dry.  We were on the verge of giving up and eating Tim Horton's doughnuts for dinner when T-Moo stumbled across a big bushel of wild leeks (aka ramps) and we had a starting point.  They're local and wild so we decided to cook a meal of quintessentially Canadian ingredients to celebrate.  After some quick market foraging we settled on venison with a wild berry sauce on top of wild rice salad with sauteed ramps and roast candy beets.  Short of a 2-4 of Labatt and a bowl of poutine, there may be no more Canadian meal.

2 venison chops (you may only need one for two people if the deer was big)
4-6 small candy or rainbow beets
1 bunch ramps, cleaned
2 cups light to medium stock (duck and chicken work well)
1/2 pint blueberries
1/4 pint blackberries
3 dried balck mission figs, chopped
2 shallots, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp honey
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
Wild rice salad ingredients

The beets and wild rice salad take by far the longest to cook so start with them (either or both can be made the day before).  For the beets, chop off the greens (you can reserve them for a salad), wrap in foil and roast in a 350F oven for 30-40 minutes until fork tender.  Remove from oven and let cool, loosely covered.  When cool, the skin of the beets should simply slough off in your fingers.  See here for wild rice salad instructions.

In a large sauce pan, saute the shallots and garlic in 1/2 tbsp of butter until soft and fragrant.  Add the figs and berries and continue to cook until they start to burst.  Add the stock and simmer, covered for 20-30 minutes to allow the berries to stew and flavours to meld.  Strain the sauce, add honey and balsamic and reduce until sauce thickens.

There isn't much you can do to improve on venison so I don't try.  Rub each side with salt and pepper, grill in a hot pan for 2-4 minutes a side until the internal temperature reads 135F then remove and cover with foil to rest for 5 minutes.  If your steaks are particularly dense or thick, you can finish them in a 400F oven for 5-10 minutes until they reach temperature. If you're a hunter or have friends who are and can get wild venison then it will be gamier and denser than the farmed version but either way, it's delicious very high in protein and extremely lean.  Because of the variability in density it's hard to test venison for doneness by touch so I would recommend using a meat thermometer. 

The ramps take no time at all to cook. Saute them in a tablespoon of butter until soft, sprinkle with salt and serve along side the venison.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Wild Rice Salad

According to Hollywood, grocery stores are among the most popular locations for attractive strangers to strike up random conversations and comedic romances to begin.  I'm not sure where the writers get this idea as, in my experience, it's exceedingly rare to see anyone engage in a polysyllabic conversation while wheeling their frozen peas and screaming 3 year olds through the isles.  In fact, the aforementioned children are often the only audible sound aside from the easy listening muzak pumped over the PA system in what I always assumed was an effort to subliminally condition us to associate Kenny G with concentrated orange juice and baby carrots.

Farmers' markets, on the other hand, are a completely different story.  Perhaps it's the patron's shared interests, that the vendors all have skin in the game or the prevalence of over-caffeinated yuppie scum but most farmers markets are chattier than a nail salon in a Queen Latifah movie.  Just this weekend while shopping in the St. Lawrence Market, I got to talking about wild rice with the guy manning Rube's Rice stand and he recommended this truly AWESOME recipe for wild rice salad.  He didn't remember where it originally came from so I'm going to give the credit entirely to him; Rube's friendly employee with the vaguely American accent.

Corporate grocers take note:  I went in to get a staple grain and left with an awesome recipe, at least twice the ingredients I originally intended and am now telling perhaps as many as nine people (two or three of which might actually live in Toronto) about his store by writing this post.  Repeat this scene at most big grocery stores and the best advice I'd likely get is that the Wild Rice is in aisle 4 next to the Extreme Fajita shells.

1 cup wild rice
5-6 cups light stock (veggie, chicken, duck or veal)
1 cup pecans, shelled and halved
1 cup cranberries
1 orange, juiced and zested
1/4 cup mint leaves, minced
3 small shallots, finely minced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
black pepper to taste

Rinse the rice and bring to a boil in the stock.  Simmer, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes until done (it should still have some bite to it), drain and let cool.  Mix remaining ingredients with the rice in a large bowl and set aside for at least a couple of hours to let the flavours meld.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Lobster Rolls

When it comes to romantic gestures, I've never been a big flowers and chocolates kind of girl. Don't get me wrong, I'd bathe in chocolate if I could and I love the surprise flowers that occasionally show up at my office on my birthday. However, in terms of showing affection, nothing is more flattering than a man who knows you well and thinks a little outside the box. More specifically, a man who packs a live lobster in a box and carries it home on a flight from Halifax just because he thinks it will make you smile. Did I mention he has a seafood allergy? He can't even partake in the eating of the lobster!  If I were a cartoon character there would be little cartoon swooning hearts floating above my head right now...

I decided to use my lobster surprise to make lobster rolls, but as I researched recipes I quickly learned that there is a long-standing feud within the lobster roll community. Proponents of the "Maine style" roll believe it should include mayo while fans of the "Connecticut style" version are adamant that butter is best. Within these two groups there are varying opinions on which other ingredients are acceptable, whether the bun should be plain or lightly toasted, and the best way to serve the lobster meat itself (apparently some feel claw meat should be kept whole).

With the awareness that I may be entering a culinary minefield, I have opted to create a version that appeals to my tastes and bridges the Maine-Connecticut divide: lightly toasted bun, minimal ingredients, a little butter AND...wait for it...a little mayo (cue gasps of shock and horror across the east cost). All I know is that it tastes delicious.

Makes 1 large serving

1 cooked lobster (about 1 1/2 lbs)
1/2 tablespoon melted butter
1/2 tablespoon mayo
1 celery stalk, finely diced
1 green onion (green parts only), finely diced
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper
1 large hot dog bun

Cook your lobster using whatever method you prefer - boiled, steamed, or even grilled. I chose to boil mine in lots of salty water. Once cooked, let the lobster cool slightly so it's easier to handle. Shell the lobster and remove all the meat (tip: you can save the shells to make fish stock if you like). Roughly chop the meat and transfer to a mixing bowl. Add the butter, mayo, celery, onion, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Stir to combine.

Toast the bread roll if desired. Fill the roll with the lobster mixture and serve.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Pea pesto pasta

There are a lot of reasons to love summer and fresh peas are definitely somewhere on that list.  They might not be at the top (my guess is somewhere between miniature golf and garage sales) but it definitely wouldn't be summer without them.  Here in Ontario you can buy them fresh from the field at roadside stands through July and August.  They generally come in big baskets containing at least a million peas each (perhaps a slight underestimate but I've never actually counted). This is great if you're feeding a visiting basketball team, however, if you're just two people it leaves you with at least a couple hundred thousand spare peas to address.

The traditional use for surplus peas is, of course, the pea shooter: a straw or hollow tube through which you blow in order to force peas, previously jammed into the other end, to fly into the faces of your younger siblings.  If you don't have any younger siblings or if you can't find a tubular object of suitable diameter and feel that simply throwing the peas is beneath you then this recipe is another great way to address your glut of peas.  It's simple, fast, delicious, keeps well and is very healthy.

Here we use it as a pasta sauce but it's also great on crostini, as ravioli filling or eaten out of a Tupperware container with a spoon.

2 cups shelled sweet peas
1 cup grated Parmesan
3 cloves garlic
2 mint leaves
1/2 cup walnuts
2.5 tbsp olive oil
salt to taste

To make the pea pesto, place the walnuts in a food processor and pulse until well ground.  Add the peas, garlic, cheese and mint and puree while slowly adding in the olive oil until the peas are all broken up but not liquefied.  Season with salt to your preference.

Serve over fresh pasta, reserving a bit of pasta water to mix in as well.  You can use any pasta you like but I really like fresh spaghetti made from our basic pasta dough recipe.  

Monday, 9 April 2012

Artichoke and roasted garlic soup with garlic chips

  In the words of Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith"I love it when a plan comes together!"  As a kid I was heavily influenced by the George Peppard character from the A-Team.  He was everything I aspired to be: a brilliant tactician, unflappable in the face of danger, a leader of men, a master of disguise, altruistic, witty, a soldier of fortune, a fugitive from military justice and a close personal friend of Mr. T.  While the man I grew up to be may not quite measure up to Hannibal's standards (I never entered the military, am only a fugitive from the fashion police and the closest I've come to befriending Mr. T was to get his autograph at a jewelry store), occasionally my kitchen plans do come together nicely.

This soup is the result of two long standing projects: number one, to master the making of Thomas Keller's garlic chips and number two, to recreate an amazing artichoke soup I had while on a business trip.  While making batches of garlic chips it struck me as criminal to throw out the rich garlic-infused milk but without a ready use, I either dumped it out or let it go bad in the fridge and then dumped it out.  Simultaneously, I had been looking for a way to add depth and interest to my version of artichoke soup.  Then in a flash of inspired brilliance much akin to what Einstein must have felt when he perfected soup recipes, I decided to combine them.  The milk would become the creamy base to the soup and the chips would become the garnish.

4 large artichokes
2 heads of garlic (1 for roasting, 1 for chips)
2 white potatoes, peeled
1 leek, chopped
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups milk
2 cups canola oil
1/2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp vinegar

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the vinegar and artichokes.  Test them by using tongs to pick up a choke by a single leaf.  They're done when the leaf pulls off simply from the weight of the choke.  Drain the artichokes and leave to cool.  Once cool, remove the leaves and chokes from the hearts and set them aside.  Reserve some of the leaves to serve as an appetiser (eat the rest in the kitchen without telling anyone).
To make the chips, slice the garlic cloves very thinly using a sharp knife or mandolin.  Cover them in 1/2 a cup of milk and bring to a simmer.  Drain and reserve the milk for the soup.  Rinse the garlic and repeat 3 more times until you've used all the milk.  Pat the garlic slices dry and fry in small batches in hot oil, leaving them to dry on paper towels.  You want to take them out before they go brown to prevent them from becoming bitter.  I use elephant garlic because it's milder in flavour and makes bigger chips but you can use any garlic.  If you do use elephant garlic then one clove will be more than sufficient as they're almost the size of cooking onions as seen at right.

To roast the garlic, cut 1cm off the top of the head, drizzle with oil and wrap in foil.  Roast the garlic at 300F until soft.

In a soup pot, saute the leeks in the butter until soft. Add the artichoke hearts, potatoes, roasted garlic and chicken stock and simmer until the potatoes are soft.  Blend the soup and add the garlic milk.  Return to simmer for 10 minutes to let the flavours combine.

Serve, garnished with garlic chips.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Harissa Roast Chicken

I think roast chicken was the first meal that I learned how to cook after having mastered toaster waffles and instant oatmeal.  Once my siblings and I got old enough to be trusted with the oven, my mom would leave a roasting chicken at home for us to cook so that we could have a family dinner ready when she and my dad got home from work.  This was possible because a basic roast chicken recipe has only 2 essential steps (#1 sprinkle with salt and pepper, #2 Insert into 450F oven until done) and that's the kind of process with which 11 year olds can be trusted.

Unfortunately, what's simple enough for a 4th grader has proved too much for a hard working 31 year old and so this particular roast chicken recipe was developed by accident.  We had friends coming to dinner and due to a complex series of events of which I have little recollection and will vehemently deny if questioned, our chicken was frozen.  Standing in the kitchen, staring at a bird more suited to military ballistics than culinary delight I decided to fall back on a technique I usually reserve for turkeys; brining!  My hope was that by immersing the chicken in salted water it would both thaw and season it in one quick and handy step and it worked.  The turmeric and cumin added flavour and a wild colour to the chicken and the harissa gave it some great punch.

1 roasting chicken (if there is any secret to good roast chicken it's to buy a very good one.  We get organic chickens from Rowe Farms and they're always delicious)
2 cloves garlic finely diced
1/2 lemon
Zest from your lemon half
1/2 cooking onion
1 tbsp harissa spice blend

1/2 tbsp turmeric
1/2 tbsp cumin
2 tbsp salt
water to cover

Mix the brine ingredients together, stirring well.  Add in the chicken and brine for 1 hour to over night or until thawed if you're a fool like me. It should come out a wild yellow colour.

Mix the harissa, lemon zest, salt and pepper in a small bowl and divide in half.  Combine one half with the diced garlic and the olive oil and set the other half aside.

Loosen the skin of the chicken breast by vigorously rubbing back and forth like you were giving it a deep tissue massage ... which I suppose you are.  Starting at the neck, insert a boning knife under the massaged skin and use it to create a cavity between the skin and the breasts.  Use your fingers to stuff the un-oiled harissa mixture under the skin and massage it around to spread it evenly.

Take the onion and lemon and insert them into the body cavity of the chicken.  As it cooks these will release moisture and acid and will result in a more moist chicken.

Rub the oiled harissa mix all over the outside of the chicken and insert in a 450F oven for until juices run clear or a meat thermometer reads 180F (usually ~1.3 hours).  The high roasting temperature is important to keeping the chicken moist.  Roast it too low and long and the result will be like the Sahara.

Serve with roast veggies, olives and cous cous.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Melissa Clark's Chocolate Pistachio Pots de Creme

Oh New York Times, how I love you. I adore your up to the minute news coverage, your style section, and your crosswords. I love Nicholas D. Kristof, the Critical Shopper, and of course Mark Bitman. And now I love Melissa Clark, for bringing this recipe for silky, rich, decadently fabulous, chocolatey heaven on a spoon into my life. Ohhh heavenly heaven. To my loved ones, take note: if you ever have to deliver bad news to me, this is a magical blow-softening elixir. It's impossible to be sad or angry while devouring this dessert, it's just too lovely and wonderful.

I made a few tweaks here and there to suit my tastes and what I had on hand. I didn't have any foil  so I baked these uncovered and they were totally fine. I cut down on the amount of sugar ever so slightly as I like my chocolate desserts to be really chocolatey but not agonizingly sweet. I also found they didn't need quite as much time in my oven (only about 30 minutes).

Makes 6 servings (or 2 servings that you can savour over three days!)

1 cup pistachios (shelled and unsalted)
pinch of salt
1/3 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups 1% milk
2/3 cup dark chocolate, chopped (I used a mixture of 60% and 90% dark chocolate)
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar plus 1/2 tablespoon for the whipped cream
1 cup whipping cream

Preheat the oven to 325F. In a medium frying pan, toast the pistachios over medium heat for 3-5 minutes. Set aside to cool. Once cooled, transfer the nuts to a food processor along with the icing sugar and salt. Pulse until the mixture is fine but still grainy (the NY Times suggests "damp sand" as a reference). Scoop out about 1/4 cup of the sugar and pistachio mixture and set aside as a garnish.

In a medium pot over medium-high heat, bring the milk, cream, and pistachio mixture to simmer. The NY Times calls for letting the mixture simmer for 5 minutes and sit for 20. I was too eager to get to the tasting part of the recipe so I split the difference and simmered it over low heat for about 12 minutes.

Place the chopped chocolate in a large bowl. Strain the milk and pistachio mixture over the chocolate, using a spatula to smush the pistachio mixture into the sieve and extract as much flavour and liquid as possible. Whisk the chocolate and milk until all the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Resist the temptation to bathe in this silky, chocolatey concoction.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and a pinch of salt. While whisking, pour the chocolate mixture into the egg yolks and whisk until combined. Boil a kettle of water and arrange 6 ramekins in a baking dish. Divide the chocolate mixture among the ramekins and fill the baking dish with hot water so that the water comes about halfway up the side of the ramekins. Bake until set but still slightly jiggly, about 30 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until firm (or until you can no longer wait for a taste). To serve, combine the whipping cream with 1/2 tablespoon of sugar and beat until soft. Top each ramekin with a dollop of cream and dust with the reserved ground pistachios.