December 28, 2006
Poblano Rice Cake

When you say rice cake, you usually are talking about one of those crisp airy flat tasting cardboardy things that became popular in the early 90's as a diet food. I tried hard to get to like those sorts of rice cakes, but failed, miserably. I didn't mind the taste, but having to call for help to pry the things off the roof of my mouth was getting embarrassing.

Instead, I turned my attention to making a risotto based rice cake with a kick. As my friends seem to know, poblanos are my favorite pepper. They have a nice amount of heat without knocking the top off your skull and good complex flavor with elements of fruit and tannic qualities.

Serve this dish as a main meal or as a side to a more elaborate banquet. I had intended this to be part of our Christmas dinner, but the other dishes I was making took over the meal and there was far too much food before I even thought of starting this dish.

If you reheat a slice of this cake/pie in the microwave, sprinkle it with a little water first. It'll help it heat up much more evenly.

Poblano Rice Cake
1 cup arborio or other short grained rice
1 quart vegetable stock
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced fine
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 poblano peppers
1 cup shredded Chihuahua or other mild Mexican cheese
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup lime juice
1 cup tomato-based (or at least red) salsa of your choice.
cilantro, for garnish
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Chop the poblano into 1" pieces, discarding the seed pod and trimming the white veins. If you wish, you may blister the skin first and remove it. This will improve the texture, but isn't absolutely necessary.

In a dutch oven, heat the oil and when hot, sautée the garlic and onion and poblano in it until the onions start to go translucent. Add the rice and sautée for 2 minutes over high heat, stirring frequently. Add 1 cup of stock and stir. Reduce heat to medium-low. Let the rice absorb the stock whiel stirring. Add 1/2 cup stock and stir until that is absorbed. Continue until all the stock has been absorbed by the rice or until the rice refuses to absorb any more stock. Don't drown the rice under any circumstances.

Stir in the cheese. Take a small bit of the rice and stir it into the egg. Add a bit more rice and stir it into the egg, then add the whole rice and egg mix back into the main pot and stir well very quickly to distribute the egg. The process is similar to tempering eggs with liquid, only we're using the rice to bring the egg up to temperature so it doesn't cook as soon as its added, but its not as effective.

Stir in the lime juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Fill a 9" pie pan with the rice mix. Press down to compact the risotto in the pan. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, then check the consistency of the rice cake. If you'd like it crispier and drier, go 10 more minutes. If you'd like it firm, but not crispy, take it out after the first 30 minutes.

Run a knife around the outside to the risotto cake and invert the plate onto a flat surface for serving or onto a serving plate. Spread the salsa over the top of the cake. Garnish with cilantro, and serve in wedges.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 10:44 AM | Comments (6)
December 22, 2006
Great-Aunt Marcie's Caramels

caramels.jpgWhen I young, holidays had a comforting predictable side to them. Grandma Kehoe would make cranberry rolls. Grandma Liebezeit would make those wonderful delicate melt-in-your-mouth Austrian cookies. There would be onion jelly and pepper jelly to go with cream cheese on crackers and raw vegetables with dip for hors d'oeuvres, ham or turkey for the main dish. At Grandma Liebezeit's house, the stuffing would be light and savoury and full of butter; at Grandma Kehoe's it would have the density of plutonium and a lot of celery. And the other certainty was that Aunt Marcie would arrive with large Tupperware containers of home-made candy. Aunt Marce had a legendary sweet tooth: one of the stories I heard often about her told how as a child she took a small exploratory bite out of the underside of each candy in a large fancy box one holiday, putting them back looking untouched if they weren't to her taste. So it's not surprising that the area of cooking she claimed as her own was making candies. And while she never made anything you'd find in a fancy Paris shop, she made very good candy. Her caramels were my favourite: buttery and soft and with just a hint of vanilla. She's been gone for a good many years now and no one has stepped in to replace her role in the holiday menu. I guess most of us just don't have the time (or take the time). This year, I decided it was time to change that. I wanted a nice home-made gift for the ladies at the day care center, who are absolutely wonderful. And it would be a nice addition to our Christmas stockings. As it turned out I even had enough for our favourite next-door neighbor, who is an absolute dear.

I started about ten this morning. Excluding the time I spent searching for ingredients (why on earth was the vanilla in the tea cabinet? I will never know...) and the time I spent running errands, it took about 5 hours. Good heavens, I forgot how long it takes to wrap a couple hundred caramels. Where did the day go?

But it was worth it. They are every bit as wonderful as I remember. The ladies at the day care were surprised and delighted. And I know the Critic and his mother will be too on Christmas morning. And if you want to try your hand at them too, read on, because it's a great recipe and I flatter myself I have a few useful tips.

Tip #1: buy a candy thermometer (or two). I know there was a candy thermometer in my kitchen only a month or two ago but when I went to look for it, it was gone, gone, gone. So now I have another. I am sure the first one will surface shortly. You can make caramels without the thermometer, but you need to have an exact temperature reading or an experienced eye - I wouldn't try it without one or the other.

Tip #2: I know that a lot of cookbooks, chefs and food shows advise you to prepare all your ingredients in advance. I also assume that a lot of you, like me, rarely bother. This is one of those times when it pays to take the time: you'll be hot and bothered and trying to stir and dig through a full drawer for that heat-proof spatula without overturning the pot or losing your sanity. Get out all your tools and all your ingredients before you start.

Tip #3: use a pot twice as big as you think you need. It has been some 20 years or more since I made these candies and I didn't remember how the sugar boils up to twice its volume while it's cooking. As a result I have three sticky pans in my sink instead of one, as I upgraded twice.

Tip #4: this sounds obvious, but, hey, I fell for it. When you are pouring the caramels into the buttered pans, DO NOT USE YOUR FINGERS TO SCRAPE OFF THE SPATULA OR TOUCH THE CARAMEL IN ANY WAY. Duh. It's like the almost irresistible urge one has to grab a frying pan by the handle even though one knows it has just come out of the oven. The caramel gets up to a temperature of nearly 250 degrees Fahrenheit and does not cool down quickly. It will burn.

Tip #5: if you have one, use a knife like this to cut the caramels once they cool. I inherited this one from my Grandma Liebezeit's kitchen and I love it. It isn't particularly sharp actually, but it is perfect for this kind of a job, sturdy and easy to press cleanly into thick caramel.

Well, that is enough to start. Here is the heirloom recipe:

Great-Aunt Marcie's Caramels

2 cups/450 g sugar
2 cups/475 ml corn syrup
2 cups/475 ml light cream
1/2 cup/120 ml evaporated milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup/ 115 g butter

Stir sugar, syrup and one cup of the cream in a large pot until the sugar has dissolved. Butter a nine inch cake pan. Measure out the rest of the ingredients, cutting the butter into chunks before adding them to a common bowl or large liquid measuring cup. Put the large pot over a medium high heat and bring to a boil, cooking to the soft ball stage (around 234 degrees F/112 degrees C). You may need to raise the heat to high. Gradually add the remaining ingredients, taking care not to let the temperature drop below the soft ball level. Once all the remaining ingredients are incorporated, turn up the heat as high as possible and cook to the firm ball stage (246 F/120 C). This is the part that took a lot longer than I remembered. In fact, I moved the pot to the center of my stove-top, where it could sit on two rings simultaneously. And I stirred it for half an hour or so. And I called my good friend David (who was inconsiderately out) and left a slightly panicked message about "how the h*ll do I get this darn stuff to the right temperature?" And then I noticed that one of the burners was marginally below the full mark and turned it up. Whether it was that tiny increase in heat or just time, I don't know. But the mixture suddenly started to turn a rich brown, the bubbles became more glossy, the mixture somehow thicker and the mercury began to creep up on the thermometer after hovering near 230 for nearly 40 minutes. All I can suggest from all this is: a) don't panic if it takes a while - just keep stirring and be patient and b) do put the pot on your largest, hottest ring.

Pour the caramel into the pan. It should be about an inch thick. This does not look like much, I know. But if you make caramels that are one inch cubes you'll have 81 of them using a 9x9 pan.

Allow the caramels to cool completely before cutting them. I found it easiest to cut a few one inch strips at a time and then transfer the strips to a wooden cutting board to chop into cubes. Wrap each piece in a small square of waxed paper, folding the ends under the candy as if you are wrapping a sandwich. They will keep, in a sealed container, for a few weeks. Providing you hide them well.

A note on the recent lack of productivity on TMC: you may have noticed that things are pretty quiet around here lately. This is partly due to the holidays but also, in my case, because I've made two trips back to the US this month, once to see my father and then, sadly, to attend his funeral. I am sure you will understand. We will be back to work and cheerful soon, I promise. For one thing, I'm on holiday at home for the next two weeks! Merry Christmas, everyone.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 2:52 PM | Comments (5)
December 20, 2006
Banh Mi Chay

Vegetarians have it hard in the sandwich department. There are a few classics, usually involving avocados and sprouts, but they tend to blend together. Non-vegetarian sandwiches aren't all that different, either, but the variety of meats and fillings in non-veg sandwiches covers that fact up.

So you can imagine how happy I was to discover that Vietnamese cuisine encompasses a sandwich tradition that includes a vegetarian sandwich different from the usual avocado and sprout fare. At base, this is just a tofu sandwich, but the key ingredients that make it special are the daikon and carrot salad and the cilantro.

The other key ingredient is the bread. The perfect bread for this sandwich is a very light rice-four torpedo roll that is almost completely insubstantial. Failing that, a crusty bread with a light crumb will work well. You don't want the bread to overwhelm the rest of the ingredients. You might try a Vietnamese bakery to find the torpedo rolls. I couldn't find a good Vietnamese bakery so I used a nice baguette I found at the local mega-mart.

Banh Mi Chay

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons soy sauce (or Bragg's liquid aminos)
1 teaspoon garlic hot sauce (sri ra cha)

1 pound tofu, pressed, drained, cut into 3/4" slabs

carrot/daikon mix
3 carrots, shredded
1 daikon radish about 4" long, shredded
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt

mayonnaise (or vegannaise, which I actually prefer on a taste basis)

topedo rolls or baguette

bitter salad greens

Quanities are somewhat vague for many ingredients because this is a sandwich and you should feel free to make it to your personal tastes. There's no chemistry here for most of it.

Combine the oil and soy sauce with the cumin and sri ra cha sauce. Place the pressed, drained, tofu slices in a plastic bag or a tupperware-type container with the oil, sauce and cumin and shake to coat. Let sit in the marinade for at least an hour.

In a separate container/bag, combine the shredded carrot and daikon with the vinegar, sugar, and salt. Mix well. Let marinate for 1/2 hour or longer. When ready to use, put the carrot/daikons in a clean linen napkin/towel and sqeeze the vinegar out.

Cut the torpedo roll in half lengthwise. Scoop out some of the crumb (the white part) and discard or reserve for another recipe. Toast the roll cut side down in a skillet until it takes on a little color.

Spread mayonnaise or vegannaise on each cut side of the roll, fairly thickly. Add some of the carrot/daikon mix on one side, and tofo on the other side. Top with generous amounts of cilantro and some salad greens, and combine the two halves. Press down lightly, serve, and eat with gusto.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 8:00 AM | Comments (7)
December 12, 2006
Chipotle and Blue Chicken

barbecueblue.jpgSo once you have used three or more chipotles in your Black Bean and Chipotles Stew, what do you do with the rest of the can? You could try your hand at Barrett's intriguing recipe for Not Exactly Ming Tsai's Chipotle Carrot Syrup. I've been meaning to try that for some time, but it looks like something you'd want to spend time on, especially if you make the accompanying spring rolls. Instead, I turned to the ingredients in my kitchen and browsed an odd American cookbook a former colleague of the Critic's gave us some time ago. And I came up with a twist on one of the Critic's favourite American dishes: buffalo wings with blue cheese sauce. Despite the fact that he absolutely hates working for his dinner (for example, getting meat off of bones or mussels out of shells) he loves the spiciness and the salty blue cheese cooling element. I had some blue cheese left over from a dinner party and although I can't eat the stuff myself while pregnant I ws able to use the remaining cheese on his portion. (For my own, I had some leftover tinned blue cheese sauce, which, being cooked, was safe, if bland.)

The smoky chipotles flavour brought a new depth to the sauce and although I think that dark meat is richer and more appropriate the Critic was happier with the white meat. I'm looking forward to trying the "pure" version with proper blue cheese, once the baby arrives. (And also sushi, creamy Camembert, steak tartare and raw oysters to name just a few items...)

Chipotle and Blue Chicken

2 boneless chicken breasts
4 chipotles in adobo sauce
1 tsp honey
6 small cherry tomatoes
freshly ground peppers
a pinch of salt

40-50 grams blue cheese (bleu d'Auvergne or Roquefort)

Whizz the chipotles, honey, tomatoes and seasoning in a mini-blender until smooth. Add a bit of water if necessary to get a soupy enough consistency. Spread on the chicken breasts and, if you have the time, allow them to marinate for an hour or so. Grill the chicken breasts on a ridged frying pan, being sure to leave a good long time on each side so that the meat has nice black stripes and doesn't stick too badly to the pan. Once the meat is nearly done (you can check by inserting a knife tip in the thickest part and seeing if it is white and cooked through), sprinkle the blue cheese over the top and cover for a moment so that it begins to melt before serving. Serve with a nice cold beer and - if your spouse will allow it - a few celery sticks!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 3:29 PM
December 6, 2006
Lemon Pasta with Smoked Salmon Trim

Fish and pasta! I'm absolutely sure that no one has ever, ever thought of combining these ingredients together to make a dish. Oh wait, I did that already.

OK, so this is my second fish and pasta recipe in a short time, but I wanted to post this dish to show you that although you can make a nice cream sauce and infuse it with lovely smoked trout flavor, you can also make a light dish that relies on the fish and olive oil for most of its fat. This is a healthy dish overall and equally delicious as the trout pasta recipe we posted earlier.

You'll see a lot of similarities. Both recipes start with garlic infusing olive oil with flavor. Both add pasta and then build the sauce in the skillet. Once you've got the water boiling, you can have either dish on the table in very little time.

For budgetary reasons, I use smoked salmon trim (bits and pieces of salmon trimmed from larger pieces) which is often available in any place that does a brisk business in salmon. The trim is too small to sell as a filet, but often has as much flavor as the more expensive fish. Do watch out for dark spots, which aren't as flavorful as the rest of the fish and try to avoid buying packs of salmon trim that have too many dark blood spotted pieces. Certainly you could buy a filet or salmon steak for this recipe, but you'd just have to break up the larger piece of fish anyway, so why not start with the smaller bits and save yourself some money?

Lemon Pasta with Smoked Salmon Trim

1 box spaghetti (16 oz.)
8 oz smoked salmon trim, cut into 1" or so pieces.
salt for water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
zest of two small lemons
juice of three small lemons
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup plus a little grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

In a big pot of well salted water, cook your spaghetti until it reaches al dente. Don't add oil to the water, don't break the pasta in half, just let it cook until it's tender, but not mush.

When the pasta is approaching doneness, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic once the oil is hot and cook for two to three minutes. Don't burn the garlic.

Reserve a cup of the pasta water. Drain and add the pasta to the skillet. Toss well. Add the remaining ingredients. and toss well. If it feels like you need more sauce, add a little of the pasta water, which will be nice and starchy and help the sauce stick to the noodles.

Serve hot in bowls.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:11 AM | Comments (4)
December 4, 2006
Black Bean and Chipotles in Adobo Slow-cooked Stew

Paris has been cold and wet and the nights are longer than they ever are in Chicago. It's the right time of the year to dust off the Crock Pot and fill the flat with the rich smell of stewing meat. I'm still not entirely convinced that the Crock Pot is the Cook's Best Friend but I'm slowly building a small repertoire of recipes that make use of its unique properties. The one I was most interested in testing - as a receptacle for hot buttered rums or mulled wine - is now off the menu for me until next year so I'm not as enthusiastic about trying it. If we have a few guests over around Christmas I may give it a whirl anyway, but my heart won't be in it.

Instead, I combined the two elements I felt best suited the slow cooker so far: dried beans and pork with chipotles. It exceeded my expectations, the whole tasting much better than I expected the sum of parts to be. We had it the first night as a kind of chili, with grated cheddar and crème fraîche (sour cream being unavailable) with a side of quesadillas. Corn bread would have been even nicer, to help soak up the extra juices. And the next night, as it had thickened a bit overnight, I used it as a very tasty filling for burritos, with just a little cheese and some thinly sliced raw onions.

It was spicy enough for me, though I think the Critic would have doubled the chipotles if he were in charge of the kitchen. But even without a nuclear spice level, it was full of flavour and a hearty satisfying dinner. And relatively quick and easy to prepare (aside from the stewing time) which is what the Crock Pot is all about.

Black Bean and Chipotles in Adobo Slow-Cooked Stew

500 grams pork
400 grams dried beans
3 or more Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
3 carrots
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 cup red wine
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
Salt, pepper to taste
a little olive oil

Soak the beans overnight. The next morning, drain them and put them in the Crock Pot with enough water to cover by about two inches. Turn on the Crockpot to high. In a frying pan, heat a little olive oil. Add the pork - cut in large chunks if you have the time, but whole is fine too if you are in a hurry. The meat will fall apart in the stewing, but if it's in chunks you'll be able to brown it better. Quickly brown on a high flame in batches if necessary. As the meat browns, add it to the pot of beans. Once it is all browned, deglaze the pan with the wine and pour the resulting gravy into the pot. Add the onions and the carrots, cleaned and cut in thick chunky pieces. Add the spices, stir and turn down to low. Leave to cook for eight hours or so. An hour before you are ready to serve, check to see that the meat is tender and the carrots cooked. If they seem to need more cooking you can turn the heat up to high. Taste for salt, pepper, chipotles, and spices.

Serve - in a bowl or a tortilla - with cheese and sour cream on the side. As mentioned, corn bread would be lovely too!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 1:34 PM | Comments (12)
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