November 30, 2006
Pasta with Smoked Trout and Parmesan Cream Sauce

The decadent holdays are upon us. From Thanksgiving to Christmas (and on to New Year's eve), you are required to inhale at least 50% of your fat intake for the year. Look, we don't want to do it, but it's a law. Or a rule. Something like that. It's hard work, and even the most dedicated glutton has a hard time achieving the 50% goal, but I'm here to help.

Pescetarians are often at a disadvantage in the fat intake department. We can't rely on well marbled beef or pork ribs or sausage to help us achieve our goal, and the fat in the fish we do eat is, of all things, healthy!

How disgusting. But we do have our secret weapon - dairy. This is why Vegans have such a hard time meeting their gluttony goals. What are they going to do? Chow down on wheat germ? Overload on avocados? That's no way to get a nice holday muffintop.

So despite the healthiness of the trout fat in this recipe, I think you'll enjoy the cream and cheese that make a nice thick gooey sauce and help to spread the smoky trout flavor throughout the dish. It ramps up the fat count nicely, and is incidentally, pretty damn delicious.

Pasta with Smoked Trout and Parmesan Cream Sauce
12 oz linguini noodles
salt
1 pint heavy cream (or half and half, you wuss)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese or to taste
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
2 hand sized filets of smoked trout, skin removed, flaked with fork
pepper

Put on a big pot of well salted cold water, at least two quarts. Bring to a boil and add the linguini. Do not break the pasta, do not pour oil in the water. Stir lightly after the noodles finish collapsing in to the water.

As the linguini approaches al dente, where it still offers a little resistance to the bite, but has lost the raw taste, drizzle two tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet and place it over high heat until the oil is hot, but not smoking. Add the garlic and reduce to medium-low heat for about 2 minutes. The garlic should not color or burn.

Once the noodles are ready, pull them out of the pot with tongs or a pasta fork, let them drain back into the pot momentarily and add them directly to the skillet. The clingy starchy water will help thicken our sauce. Toss with the garlic and oil.

And now it's just add and mix. Add the cream to the skillet and toss. Add the cheese to the skillet and toss. Add the thyme and black pepper to the skillet and toss. Add the trout to the skillet and mix thoroughly.

Simmer over medium heat until the sauce thickens. Serve hot near a cardiologist. The fat from the trout will mix with the fat from the cream and cheese and infuse everything with a wonderful flavor.

If you want to microwave leftovers, add a splash of water (and I mean a teaspoon or less) to your container with the pasta and nuke. Make sure you aren't violating any "no fish in the microwave" rules at your office.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 6:05 PM | Comments (10)
November 27, 2006
Giving Thanks (a few days late)

stemiliongrandcru.jpgAlthough the official date of Thanksgiving was four days ago and our unofficial Paris celebration two days ago I'm still in the mood for giving thanks. To tell the truth, in the run up to the great foodie holiday and the chaos of serving and eating and being merry we often lose sight of the purpose of the day. Or at least I seem to do so. I also don't like to go all solemn on our guests, who are there, after all, to relax and enjoy themselves. So yesterday I sat down and counted my blessings a bit. In terms of Things Consumed, the bottle on the left heads the list. A very good friend of mine, Adrienne, gave us this bottle of Cheval Blanc St. Emilion Grand Cru a few years ago to thank the Critic for his support in a professional crisis. He didn't do much aside from point out to a few people that she is a fantastic employee and that to treat her badly would be unfair. She and her husband (who obviously have more patience and restraint than us) responded by giving us this bottle of wine. Can you make out the date? 1979. I don't CARE if 1979 was a great year for wine - when was the last time you tried a wine that was bottled 27 years ago? I wanted to keep the wine for the next time Adrienne and her husband Michel came to dinner but this year we gave up and decanted it for our Thanksgiving dinner. (I mentioned, didn't I, the lack of patience and restraint in our household?) It was lovely, strong in tannin but not overpowering, just a classy wine. Thanks, Adrienne.

I'm also thankful this year for the wondeful butchers we have in France and the succulent birds they supply. We had a smaller bird than usual this year - only 4.1 kilos - and though I would have liked a slightly bigger one I have to admit it was the tastiest bird we've had yet. Because France doesn't have the market that the US and UK do for turkeys it's pretty difficult to find a frozen one. Nearly all the birds are free range, fresh birds and this one yielded the best gravy I've made yet. I didn't have to do anything really - just add water and flour and salt and cook for a bit and it was perfect: rich and dark brown and full of flavour.

Third on my list of things to be thankful for (and it's a very long list so I'm not going to include them all here) is Convenience in the Kitchen: for the first time in years I made a pumpkin pie and I blessed the ones who conceived the idea of canned pumpkin and pre-rolled pie crusts. When you are already cooking a stuffed turkey, three vegetables, gravy, cranberry rolls and home made cranberry sauce you don't need a complicated dessert. The pie I made was, in my opinion, just dandy. In fact, the Critic - who hates pumpkin pie - actually ate the sliver I gave him and said it wasn't bad at all. For him that is high praise indeed.

If you are interested in the recipe for this quick and dirty tasty pie, read on...

I once made a pumpkin pie from a fresh pumpkin that I roasted and mashed. Once. It wasn't actually nasty but it wasn't very nice - full of lumps and strings and kind of bland. I've compared notes with other cooks since and so far have yet to find anyone who thinks the fresh kind is better than a canned one. We all look a bit sheepish as we admit to each other that we are "too lazy" or "not talented enough" but I'm going to be bold here and just stick to my guns: the canned version is very good and it's what we are all used to eating. So there. You can slave over the oven or stewpot and the Foley Food Mill all day if you like but I have better things to do with my time. This one took a little over an hour, which is about as quick as a pie can get if you are including the preheating time (which I am) and you need to blind bake the crust before adding the filling (which you do).

Spicy Pumpkin pie

1 pre-rolled pie crust (I used a pâte sablé, which is a thick and slightly sweet crust)
1 can (15 oz) prepared cooked pumpkin
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch of ground cloves
1 teaspoon "quatre épices" spice mix (increase the cinnamon and ginger by about half and add a good grinding of nutmeg and a generous grinding of black pepper if you don't have access to it)
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven and blind bake the crust according to the directions on the package. While the crust is baking, mix the rest of the ingredients well with an electric beater or a mixer. After baking, allow the crust to cool for 10-15 minutes. Fill the pie shell and bake at 350F/180C for 35 minutes or until just barely set. As the pie cools it will continue to set.

Serve slightly warmed, with whipped cream, to which you have added a tablespoon of cinnamon sugar at the last moment of whipping.

Note: this is a list of food-related things I am grateful for and doesn't include the basic stuff like being able to put a feast on the table, having a healthy (growing!) family, a great social security net, jobs and wonderful friends. When I stop and think how lucky we are it makes me ashamed of how frequently we complain of trivial things like striking train drivers or petty bureaucrats.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 3:21 PM | Comments (6)
A Knife to a Gun Fight

Our holiday travel plans are often determined by the Redhead's work schedule. I can be flexible, but she has an institutional schedule and this Thanksgiving, it became clear that we'd be staying home for the Day of the Dead Turkey instead of our usual travel to meet family in Southern Kentucky.

We were invited to a friend of a friend's house for a Thanksgiving potluck and were asked to bring a couple of dishes. "A-ha!" I thought. "I'll make stuffing." Nope, someone had already claimed it. "Well then, maybe I'll make potatoes!" Nope, taken. "Uhhhh, cranberry sauce?" Taken, but the taker was willing to part with it, and let us do a veg side or two.

So, I made three dishes this Thanksgiving for the potluck. First, a Cranberry/Port/Orange sauce; second, a corn pudding with poblanos and mushrooms; and third, a version of an asparagus tart I posted here first back in 2004.

The cranberry sauce is intensely flavored, but even though it's acceptable, I'm not entirely happy with it. I'll tinker with it and post the results later in the season. The corn and poblano pudding (and by that I mean a dry bready-pudding, not something like rice or chocolate pudding) needs a little something different to mate with the poblano flavor, but it was also the first time I'd ever tried anything like it. It was received pretty well, but not overly enthusiastically.

I wasn't too worried, because I was confident that the asparagus tart was going to wow the crowd and was somewhat perplexed when at the end of the party, I saw it had barely been touched. Then I tasted my piece. Bland, bland, bland. Where was all the authentic Parmesan I'd put into it? Where was the flavor from the white and green aspargus spears I'd steamed? Where was the flavor in the crust? What had possibly happened to make it so dull and lifeless?

Everyone who cooks has their disappointments and this evening was one of mine. The dinner was great and the company engaging, but I felt as if I'd let down the side with my dishes. In fact, when we got home, I was ready to ditch the leftover tart into the garbage but decided I needed one last taste to confirm it was awful and to try to figure out what I'd done wrong.

It tasted great. What the heck?

What had happened was that a strong peppery butternut squash soup and other flavorful dishes like the turkey and stuffing and my agressive cranberey sauce had overwhelmed my tastebuds (and presumably those of our dining compatriots), making the not subtle, but certainly not aggressive, flavor of the asparagus tart seem like a whisper in a bowling alley.

The lesson I learned? If you're serving anything with any subtlety at all, make sure all the dishes are subtle, or make sure you get that dish out there first before your dining companions have had their tastebuds whacked by an aggressive entree or soup. Otherwise, your dish will get mugged and silenced by the other players at the party.

I confirmed the findings on the tart's flavor for breakfast and dinner the next day. It was delicious.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 12:12 PM | Comments (3)
November 21, 2006
Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles are my favorite Mexican-style breakfast food. It's not something you might order at a restaurant if you go simply by the description - "crispy tortillas made soggy in a tomato and chile pepper sauce and served with a fried egg on top". Soggy tortillas? Um, what?

Sounds weird - tastes delicious. And if you're one of those people who like savory rather than sweet breakfasts, this is a great and simple addition to your repertoire. The corn tortillas soak up the sauce without falling completely apart, offering a nice mouthfeel and lots of flavor.

I've seen tomatilla green sauce variations on this recipe. I'm not a fan of them, but I can see how some might prefer it to this red sauce version. If you want a little more substance, you could add roasted vegetables, breakfast sausage, chorizo, shredded chicken, or other things to the recipe.

The Redhead felt these were somewhat too spicy. I thought they could have been spicier. If you like hot food, amp it up with an extra pepper, or if you are spice-averse, cut it back a bit. The use of chipotle chiles here is not stricty authentic, but as you might know if you've read this blog before, I like the heat and smoky flavor they bring to the dish.

Chilaquiles

Tortillas
10 medium corn tortillas
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
pinch of salt

Sauce
24 oz can whole pomodoro tomatoes, chopped well
1 medium onion, diced 1/2" pieces
2 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon adobo sauce
2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon oregano (pref. Mexican oregano)

1 tablespoon butter
2 eggs

Garnish
cilantro
sour cream

Preheat the oven to 425 F.
Cut the tortillas into either 1/2" strips or into 8 wedges per tortilla. Toss in a bowl with a tablespoon of oil to coat the chips. Toss very well. Spread the pieces out on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven until they crisp up. TO be honest, I didn't really time this part, but I'd guess for 20 minutes or so. Check after 15 and every 5 minutes, tossing the chips to ensure they crisp evenly. Remove once crisp and dust with a pinch of salt while hot. Set aside.

Add all the sauce ingredients together in a medium saucepan, stirring well. Sautee for 10 minutes until the flavors have combined together. Remove from heat. Blend the sauce with an immersion blender carefully. Return to heat.

Add the crisped chips to the sauce and stir to coat all the chips. Put a tightly fitting lid on top of the pan and heat on medium-low for five - ten minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet and fry two eggs over medium heat.

Serve half the chilaquiles (the tortillas which have soaked up almost all the sauce) with a fried egg on top. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and cilantro.

Sharp eyed readers will notice in the photo above that's parsley and not cilantro on top of that dish. Well, that's what happens when you try to cook first thing in the morning. Don't make the same mistake.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 12:03 AM | Comments (18)
November 17, 2006
Healthy Quick Pasta: Kieran's Broccoli Pasta

broccolipasta.jpgI make a lot of impromptu pasta dishes for the boy. Because he's hungry around six p.m. and his dad rarely gets back before eight p.m. it's inevitable that we eat separately. I try to give him leftovers from our dinner whenever possible so that I don't raise a picky eater. We like spicy food, though, and sometimes we just finish eating everything. When that happens, I usually boil some pasta and improvise a cheese and vegetable combination. Peas, carrots, a bit of ham if I have any about - they all go in the bowl and he seems happy enough with the result.

He even likes broccoli. His dad thinks I cast a spell on him or force fed it to him until he gave in, but really he just decided he liked it from the word go. I was thinking of him, when I decided to make this dish for his dad and myself this week. Broccoli, mushrooms (because I can't resist them with pasta), garlic and cheese in a wonderfully fragrant and filling dish. It's not much of a recipe, but it was so delicious that I'm going to write it up anyway.

Kieran's Broccoli Pasta

I had originally planned on adding cream and bacon to this dish as both are wonderful with broccoli. But in the end, I opted for simplicity and healthy ingredients. The broccoli and garlic give the dish a lot of punch and the nutmeg, in my opinion, rounds it out nicely, complimenting the cheese and the pasta. But if you want to be exciting, you could sprinkle a bit of crisply fried bacon over the top.

1 small head of broccoli
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped very fine
75 grams butter
250 grams rotini pasta
150 grams mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 cup grated Parmesan
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
salt, to taste

Wash the broccoli and break it up into small florets. I also peel the thick trunk and slice it in thin tiles. Set them in a steamer over boiling water. Start water boiling for the pasta. Melt half the butter in a frying pan and add the garlic. (I usually smash the cloves with a wooden mallet, which makes them easier to peel and does half the work of chopping them too.) Once the garlic is soft and starting to smell nice, you can add the mushrooms. I leave mine until the garlic gets a little brown on the edges but not everyone likes the slightly bitter edge it gets. At this point, you can add the pasta to the boiling water and check the broccoli. Remove the broccoli from the flame as soon as it's tender, as overcooked broccoli is just not pleasant. Once the pasta is done, drain it and return it to the pot. Toss it with the garlic and mushroom butter and add the nutmeg. Stir in the broccoli and a little over half the cheese. Taste for salt and serve with the remaining cheese to garnish.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 12:41 PM | Comments (1)
November 16, 2006
Spiced Sweet Potato Pie

Pumpkin is undoubtedly the king of American pies, but very few people ever use an actual pumpkin to make their pie. Instead, they use processed pumpkin out of a can. I can't complain too much about that (I've used the canned pumpkin and enjoyed the resultant pies on many holidays). But I'd like to suggest that if you want the home-made feel there is a pie you can make that is no less delicious than a standard American pumpkin pie, but that starts with a main ingredient you can break down yourself without ending up covered in pumpkin guts.

If the pumpkin pie is King at Thanksgiving time, I think the sweet potato pie is at least the Duke and maybe even the Prince of Pies.

This particular sweet potato pie is infused with what I think of as Thai flavors. I don't add glangal or bird peppers (though believe me, the temptation was there), but instead of cream, I used coconut milk and spiced it with not just cinnamon and nutmeg, but with a little cardamom and ginger. Of course there's a little brown sugar on top, but I also added some finely crushed macadamia nuts. The crust is made from down-home graham crackers, sugar, and butter. It all comes together to make one of the more delicious pies you'll ever have.

The only question is whether you should serve this filling pie hot or cold. I like the pie cold where I can take my time savoring the flavors, my wife prefers to warm up her slice of pie before eating so she gets the full effect of the aromatics. Bake this pie and you can help resolve the debate about the best way to serve a slice.

Oh, and at the end of the recipe is a mystery you can help clear up if you're the detecting type.

Spiced Sweet Potato Pie

Crust
1 1/2 packs of graham crackers (7.7 oz)
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup white sugar

Filling
3 large sweet potatos (about 2 1/4 pounds)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 can coconut milk (5.6 oz)
one whole egg plus two egg whites beaten together lightly
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon molasses
1 teaspoon ground powdered ginger
2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds
pinch of salt

Topping
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup macadamia nuts, smashed well

You'll need a fairly deep pie plate for this recipe. Otherwise, you may end up with extra filling. If you don't have a deep plate, either reduce the proportions of the recipe or bake the extra filling in a separate bowl.

Mix all the crust ingredients together in a food processor and pulse until well mixed and the graham crackers have been reduced to a large crumb size. Pack into the bottom of a deep 9" pie plate to form a crust. Refrigerate.

In a large pot of water, boil the sweet potatoes until tender, but not falling apart. Start checking at 20 minutes and every five or ten minutes after that until done. Peel the sweet potatoes while hot. The skins should just about fall off. Look for and remove any eyes or dark spots in the flesh.

Empty the pot of water out and either return the potatoes to it for mashing or place the potatoes in a large bowl. Add all the filling ingredients to the pot with the potatoes. You may want to hold back a little of the coconut milk until you can judge the consistency of the filling. Mash all the ingredients together until you have a uniform mush. It should be about the consistency of oatmeal, maybe just a little looser.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Pour as much of the filling as you can into the crust. Don't overflow the top. Sprinkle two tablespoons of brown sugar and the crushed macadamia nuts evenly over the pie. Place the pie plate on a foil lined cookie sheet (trust me on this) and bake for 45 minutes.

After 45 minutes, check the pie. If you wish, you can broil the top for a minute or so to melt and crystalize the brown sugar topping. Remove from the oven. Let sit for at least 15 minutes before cutting. Serve by itselt or with a dollop of whipped cream.

And now for the mystery. The pie did not seem to have overflowed at all, yet the foil and the bottom of the pie plate were covered with a thin oily residue. I can't decide if this is fat from coconut milk steam or from the butter in the crust. If you make this pie and experience the same problem, let me know what you think it is and why.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 6:42 AM | Comments (6)
November 14, 2006
Duck risotto

duckrisotto.jpgThis Saturday I was really looking forward to going to the market. For one reason or another it's been a few weeks since I've made it there and we are really still in the height of Interesting Vegetables Season. I sat at the bus stop for about 15 minutes, waiting for the number 53 bus to take me to my favourite place to shop. And after 15 minutes a number 94 bus showed up. I glanced up from my book and saw, without registering in particular, a French flag on the bus. I continued reading for five minutes before it occurred to me to wonder why on earth the bus would be sporting a little French flag. Ah. 11th of November. Remembrance day, how ironic. And the number 53 bus doesn't run on holidays, even if they happen to fall on a Saturday. So I considered my options: walk for 20 minutes to the market, shop and drag 10 or more kilos of groceries back with me, or go to the supermarket and get free delivery because I'm pregnant. It wasn't a difficult choice. So I stood up and explained the futility of waiting for the number 53 to the girl waiting next to me at the stop (only two busses stop there, so it was apparent she was on the same pointless quest as myself) and dragged myself to the Monoprix.

Supermarket shopping does have some advantages over the market. First, of course, there is the free delivery. They also sell a variety of cheap wines, toilet paper, detergents and dry spices. And on Saturday I saw a plump duck in the meat section and it just begged to be bought and roasted. I am not a huge fan of duck, but I get tired of the triumvirate of beef-chicken-pork that mostly goes through our kitchen and I love the stock it provides. (See here for the best use for duck stock.) I roasted it with a daring (for me) combination of spices: hot paprika, thyme, oregano, salt and a couple of star anise tossed in the cavity with an orange. It looked beautiful about ten minutes before it was done. But by the time I removed it from the oven, the skin had blackened a bit and it looked decidedly less appetising. So this is not a post about how to roast a duck. We'll assume you know better than I do how to roast a duck so that it doesn't look burned. (It tasted lovely, though.) This is about what to do with that scant cup of duck meat that remains when you buy an extra big duck for only two people. You check your cookbooks and find that they are surprisingly bare of recipes for ducks, let alone leftover duck recipes. And then you make something up.

Roast duck works particularly well with risotto. Its rich meat compliments the creamy rice perfectly, though you might feel the need of a big salad with a sharp vinaigrette on the side. And peas, which are fairly traditional in a risotto, turn it into a slightly healthier meal-in-one. Most importantly, it's Comfort with a capital C on a cold autumn night.

Duck Risotto (serves three)

225 grams arborio rice
50 grams butter
3/4 litre (give or take) of chicken stock and wine
a generous pinch of saffron strands
1 cup frozen peas
1 scant cup roast duck meat, chopped
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
salt, pepper (generous grinding of each, to taste)

Melt the butter in a large, deep frying pan. Add the butter and stir over a low heat for a few minutes, until the rice begins to look translucent. Meanwhile, heat the stock to simmering and stir in the saffron strands. Turn up the heat slightly under the rice and add a wine glass or so of stock. I usually start out with about half a litre of stock and then open a bottle of wine to finish off the risotto: that way you end up with leftover wine, which is much easier to dispose of than leftover stock. Keep stirring and keep the heat at a level so that the mixture just barely bubbles. As the rice absorbs the stock and gets drier, keep adding the stock. Once half the liquid has been added, add the frozen peas and stir to distribute. Most the recipes I've read say that a risotto takes 20 minutes, but my experience is that it usually takes about ten minutes more than that. At 20 minutes, the rice I use is still chalky and hard. However long it takes you, about five minutes before you judge it will be ready, add the duck meat. Bring the mixture back up to heat and then stir in half to three-quarters of the cheese. Salt and pepper generously, tasting to make sure you get it right. (Some cheeses are saltier than others.) Serve with the remaining cheese and (if you have someone like the Critic at your table) the salt cellar.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 2:06 PM | Comments (3)
November 10, 2006
Cassoulet in a Can

canobeans.jpgToday I sat down for the first time in a couple of months to balance our accounts. And sadly, I was somewhat embarrassed to see the number of checks that were made out in the last few months to Domino's pizza. Before you jump all over me about how disgusting a habit they are (yes, we are no longer university students) let me point out the following:

a) The first trimester of pregnancy is VERY tiring.

b) Domino's delivers.

c) They know where we live.

d) The only other place I know that delivers to our neighborhood (and we called them a lot too) is a local Indian restaurant, Delhi Darbar.*

So, no, Domino's is not healthy and no, it's not the greatest pizza in the world. But sometimes you just have to ignore the rules for a little to keep your sanity. We are slowly getting back to normal. Another way I coped with the whole "I'm too tired to cook and too nauseous to face the kitchen" dilemma was to resort a few times to frozen or tinned meals. Yes, the boy had his first frozen dinner, a hachis parmentier, or cottage pie. He loved it. Ground beef in tomato sauce and a mashed potato topping: who can blame him? And I tried something I've always meant to give a whirl, a can of cassoulet.

When I first moved to France, I worked for nearly a year as a live-out nanny and I have to say that the food my "average" families ate was a revelation to me. I had an image of French families gorging on foie gras and camembert and and didn't realise that in reality, like the rest of the Western world, French parents have busy work days and rely heavily on prepared foods. One family I worked for had a separate full freezer in addition to the fridge/freezer and ordered enough to fill it from the local frozen food store, Picard, every two weeks. (Even the fact that there exists a very successful chain of stores devoted to nothing but frozen food had me amazed!) So while the French DO eat wonderful cheeses regularly and foie gras and oysters on special occasions, they also have their share of tins of sauce bordelaise and freezers of fish filets. And tins of cassoulet.

cassouletunbaked.jpgFor the uninitiated, a cassoulet is (according to the Food Lover's Companion): A classic dish from France's Languedoc region consisting of white beans and various meats (such as sausages, pork and preserved duck or goose). The combination varies according to regional preference. A cassoulet is covered and cooked very slowly to harmonize the flavors.

I have made it from scratch myself a few times, but it's a very long process, thanks to the beans, which need to be soaked overnight, then boiled for a period of time just short of an eternity and THEN baked with the rest of the ingredients. This is why I usually order it in restaurants instead of making it myself.

It's fatty, filling and rich, the ultimate comfort food on a cold winter's night.

And in France, it also comes in a can.

As you can see in the photo, I was so curious to see my dish that I opened the can before I remembered to take a photo. I have to admit it looked pretty unappetising. But so do most canned items, so I wasn't too worried. I poured it in a small casserole dish and checked the directions: heat until bubbling in a hot oven. Obviously, I couldn't just follow the directions. I decided to add the finishing touch that I like to see on a cassoulet: a garlicky crust of breadcrumbs. I tossed a slice of fresh bread in the small canister for my hand blender and added a small handful of parsley leaves and a clove of garlic and zapped it. I spread the resulting soft crumbs over the top of the casserole and baked it in the oven until the whole was hot and bubbly and crispy golden brown on top, about 25 minutes.

And the result? Well, it was a bit saltier than usual. But it was definitely edible and definitely almost no work. Including rinsing off the hand blender the total preparation time (minus baking time) was about 45 seconds, maybe a minute. And it WAS garlicky, satisfying and filling. Preserved duck is one of the traditional ingredients in a cassoulet and it's one that lends itself very well to being thrown in a can with a lot of beans; the texture of the meat is pretty much the same as it would be if I bought a confit de canard at the store and used it in a home-made cassoulet. If anything, it was just a touch more tender and juicy, absolutely toothsome and delicious. So I think I would consider making it again on a cold night when I was in need of comfort food. The Boy, for some reason, refused to try it. But I don't hold it against him. He likes broccoli and peas and all kinds of healthy stuff: I'm sure his love of unhealthy stuff will come eventually and in the meantime I don't need to press them on him. Plus it means more for me...

* Delhi Darbar
17 r Jouffroy d'Abbans 75017 PARIS
01 44 40 00 24

Very nice people who remember you after one order and inundate you with free cans of cola when you order for delivery.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 12:28 AM | Comments (4)
November 8, 2006
Cactus "Steaks"

Nopales, the paddles of the prickly pear cactus, are a staple in Southwestern and Mexican cuisine. They are usually boiled or pickled, and made into salads or sold in big jars as strips.

I think a good cactus paddle, however, can make for a pretty good vegetarian main course dish. I set out to prove it by searing these cactus paddles like a steak and turning them into main dish of a vegetarian meal.

Unlike steak you purchase at the store, cactus paddles have lots of little prickers on them. Obviously, a mouthfull of spikes is no treat (unless you like Whizzo Chocolates' "Spring Surprise", that is), so we must clear them off first to prepare the paddles.

Take a large kitchen knife. Holding the knife at nearly vertical across the width of the cactus, scrape the surface of the cactus until the little pockets holding the sharb barbs come off. Trim the edges from the paddles. RInse and inspect carefully for any remaining barbs. Remove them by scraping.

That's all you need to do to prepare the paddles for the recipe below. I served these with a baked onion, two lime wedges apiece, and slices of plum tomato. Delicious.

Cactus "Steaks"
3-4 cactus paddles, prickers scraped off, well rinsed, very bottoms part trimmed (about 1/2")
juice of one lime
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt, pepper to taste

In a skillet, heat the oilve oil to just below smoking. Introduce the paddles and add either grill weights or a ceramic bowl in which you can place a glass half-filled with water. The idea is to press the flesh of the cactus into the bottom of the skillet to make it blacken and cook more quickly.

When the underside of the cactus is slightly blackened, and otherwise changed to a light green (about 2-3 minutes), turn the paddles, thick side toward the inside. Replace the bowl and glass or grill weights to weigh the paddles down.

Remove the weights and hit the paddles with half lime juice. Turn the paddles over, and hit the other side with the rest of the lime juice. Cook for about 15 seconds. Salt and pepper to taste.

The lime juice and naturally lightly sour cactus go together very well with the char and the olive oil flavors. I think you'll enjoy this dish quite a bit, and your kids can brag that they're so tough they eat cactus for dinner.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:16 AM | Comments (3)
November 6, 2006
The Perfect Loaf of Bread

sodabread.jpgI've mentioned a few times my increasing dissatisfaction with the Observer newspaper. But like a bad romance that just won't die a dignified death, every once in a while there is a spark to remind me why I fell in love in the first place. A couple of weeks ago, the Critic brought back a copy of the Observer Food Monthly from a trip to the UK. And this time, instead of filling the magazine with reviews of each others' new books and restaurant information that could easily be culled from ten minutes on the web, the editors actually decided to include some good recipes. (What a novel idea, eh?) Tucked among them (they were all along the lines of "The Perfect...") was this recipe for the perfect loaf of bread. And having tried the recipe, I have to agree. It's not the perfect yeast loaf, mind you. But then for this busy pregnant mother, a perfect loaf does not include three to four hours of mixing, kneading, proofing, shaping and baking. The dough can be made up in about as much time as it takes your oven to preheat and then it bakes for 35 minutes, while you make the rest of the dinner. On a cold early winter work night, what could be more perfect?

Not only is this bread quick and easy (notice the four simple ingredients?) but it is also exceptionally light and tasty. When you have this few ingredients, it's an especially good idea to make sure each one is the best you can find. I used an organic flour from near Auxerre, some organic buttermilk that the Critic bought by mistake (for the second time - some day he'll work out that lait ribot means buttermilk) and salt from the Guérande region of the South of France. It was delightful: airy and full of flavour (and, incidentally, capable of absorbing copious amounts of butter from Charentes-Poitou).

The Perfect White Soda Bread by Paul Gayler, as interpreted by yours truly
(makes one loaf, a generous accompaniment to soup for two plus leftovers for lunch the next day)

500g plain all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
350-375ml buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 220C. Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Pour most of the buttermilk in and mix gently. Add more buttermilk if necessary. The dough should be soft but not wet.

Turn out onto a floured surface and knead lightly for a minute.

sodadough2.jpgShape the dough in a round, about 2.5 cm high and place on a floured baking sheet. Cut a cross 2 cm deep on the top of the loaf. Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 190C and bake for a further 15 minutes or until golden and crisp. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool slightly before eating.

Personal notes: Paul Gaylor recommends kneading the dough as little as possible to keep the bread light. Next time, I may try kneading in my KitchenAid anyway. Kneading by hand was very messy and did not make a loaf as pretty as the one in the Observer photo. (Theirs is smooth and not at all lumpy looking.) Also, judging by the photo, I'd say they dusted the loaf with flour before making the cross, which meant that when the loaf split the cross stood out prettily against a smooth flour-dusted background.

In any case, it's a bread that begs to be eaten warm with copious amounts of butter and maybe even a little home made jam. In our case, it was served with a very simple vegetable soup I made by defrosting some home made stock and adding sliced carrots and onions, cubed potatoes, frozen peas and green beans and a can of corn. We've been all suffering from nasty colds lately and often the simple things are the best when you are unwell.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 2:53 PM | Comments (5)
November 1, 2006
One million grains of rice or 595 (and 1/4) cows

If current trends hold, at about 3:00 Eastern time today, Too Many Chefs will receive its one millionth page visit.

To go from 0 to 500,000 visits, it took us just under 2 years. To double that, it's taken us only 9 months and a couple of days. It's clear that people want to eat well and that more and more, people are rejecting the notion that you have to go to a restaurant to get a good meal, or that the only food you can cook at home comes in a box or frozen package.

Thanks to everyone who's read, commented on, or suggested improvements to this site and of course to my co-authors, especially Meg, who's been the constant partner to this venture, and to the Redhead, who's been my constant partner in all my other ventures.

So just how much is a million in food terms?

You get about 210 pounds of meat out of a 300 pound side of beef, and with 2 sides per cow and a 1/4 lb of beef per burger you'd need 595 1/4 cows to make a million burgers. When I was a kid, I thought that if I won the lottery, I'd go to the local McDonald's to order and pay for a million burgers just to make the guy behind the counter have to go outside and change the sign.

Alternately at 228 grains of rice per teaspoon, 1,000,000 grains of uncooked rice is about 5.7 US gallons of the stuff or about 4.75 Imperial gallons. Anyone have any recipe suggestions using 5.7 gallons of dry rice? I feel a sequel to Black Bean week coming on...

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:19 AM | Comments (7)
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