March 28, 2007
The aillet conundrum

garlicandonion.jpg

For two years now, I've been trying to work this one out. I haven't written about it because I had hopes of finding the key to the problem and then presenting you, our readers, with an explanation. I give up. I know that there is an edible plant in the US known as "ramps" or "ramson" and that it resembles garlic. And I know that there is an edible plant in France known as "aillet" that resembles garlic. What I can't figure out is a) whether ramps=aillet and b) whether "aillet" is just young garlic shoots or another, related, plant. Heaven knows I've tried. This site describes it as "a green garlic shoot that looks like a small leek and can be eaten raw with salt". But is it the same family as garlic or, literally, just young garlic?

So I'm putting out a call to those of you who have better French/English dictionaries or culinary dictionaries than I do - or even those who can recognise ramps in a photo. What is this stuff? The Larousse Gastronomique is strangely silent on the subject and none of my dictionaries includes the culinary definition of a ramp (though I do know how to get on or off a highway, you'll be happy to know). So help me out, do!

By the way, the above photo also includes young shallots. The shoots with the slight purple tinge on the bottom are the aillet.

And although I don't know the whole story about the species of aillet or its name in English, I do know from experience a little about cooking with it. God and our host server willing, I'll be posting a couple of recipes in the next few days to share with the world!

Note: I have just realised that we have temporarily shut down the comments function on our site while we overcome some technical difficulties. So if you want to enlighten me about this conundrum, please send me a message at my New and Improved Email Address: Meg (at) toomanychefs.com. I promise you will get full credit from me when I publish the answer!

UPDATE: Comments seem to be back in order if anyone else wants to point out how clueless I've been!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 11:13 AM | Comments (14)
March 21, 2007
Tartiflette

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It's cold. It's windy. It snowed earlier this week in the morning, though the flakes melted when they hit the city pavements. We might as well be in Chicago, not the supposedly temperate city of Paris. And although a few timid young vegetables are starting to peek out of the market stalls, potatoes and onions are still dominant. What is a cook to do?

Well, if she is lucky and has access to the right winter cheese (in this case, creamy reblochon) she can make a heart-attack inducing casserole of epic proportions: tartiflette. Take your tired onions and sweat them in lots of sweet butter, add deliciously fatty bacon, a little cream and stodgy potatoes, cover them with a cheese that is 50% fat and bake. Heaven. It will temporarily allow you to forget the hail pelting against the window and if your conscience cries out (or is that the wail of clogged arteries begging for mercy?) you can always serve a nice green salad on the side. Lamb's leaf lettuce and belgian endives are in season all winter long and will make a crunchy side dish to assuage your guilt.

Tartiflette is a common dish in less posh cafés and restaurants in Paris. I had always assumed that it was a traditional peasant dish, but in fact can't find anything to support that theory. The dish is not included in the Larousse Gastronomique, so culinarily speaking it simply doesn't exist. And in fact, Wikipedia claims it was "invented and launched only in the 1980s by the Reblochon trade union in an attempt to increase sales of the cheese". So it's basically the Beaujolais Nouveau of the cheese world. But unlike Beaujolais Nouveau, it is very tasty and will not leave you with a nasty headache and acidic stomach the next morning.

Tartiflette

1/2 a reblochon cheese
6-8 medium potatoes
3 Tbs crème fraîche (or cream)
200 g lardons or pancetta or streaky bacon
3 Tbs butter
6-8 shallots or 2-3 onions, sliced in thin strips
Optional: 1 tsp fresh thyme and/or a clove of garlic.

Preheat the oven to 180c/350F. Peel the potatoes and start them cooking in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Use 1/2 of a tablespoon of the butter to butter the sides of a small deep baking dish, about 20x15 cm. If you have a clove of garlic and are so inclined, you could rub it on the sides of the pan as well. Melt the rest of the butter in a frying pan and, once it is frothing and bubbling, add the shallots. Cook them over a medium heat until they are limp and starting to brown on the edges, about ten minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and add the lardons. Turn up the heat slightly to brown the meat and release its fat. (Check the potatoes from time to time to see if they are tender - as soon as they are nearly done, remove them from the flame and drain them. They will finish cooking in the oven.) When the bacon element is done, drain them - or if you are a fan of flavour and don't care about those arteries, don't. Stir in the crème fraîche, shallots and thyme (if using). When the potatoes have cooled enough to handle, slice them in thick rounds, removing the peel as you go. Layer half of them in the bottom of the baking dish and cover with half the creamy bacon and onion mixture. Repeat with the remaining potatoes and mixture. Carefully slice the cheese in two thin slabs and place them on top. Don't worry about the fact that you can't cover the top entirely, as the cheese will become gooey and spread as the dish bakes. Bake in the oven for 25 minutes, or until bubbly in the center and just nicely browned on top. Allow to cool (if you can) for ten minutes or so before serving. It's delicious with a green salad and an icy cold glass of white wine.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 2:40 PM | Comments (57)
March 15, 2007
7 Bean Soup from 10 cans

Have you ever thought to yourself, "Self, we need to make a full freaking gallon of soup that'll be hearty, delicious, and vegetarian. And we need to do it lickety split."? No? Really? Well it can be done, and I'm here to show you how to do it. This is a great soup to make if your intent is to have some now, and freeze a lot for later.

I use canned beans for this soup because I find them more convenient that the dried beans. If you're looking for the cheapest possible recipe, you could use dried beans, pick over them looking for dirt and rocks and shrunken children from a Rick Moranis movie, then boil the beans forever to get them tender. I find canned beans to be much much easier to deal with, though they do cost a little bit more and are heavy to carry home if you're not driving.

Yes, there are many who will decry the use of canned foods. Well, please feel free to grow ad pick the beans for this recipe yourself, but with the addition of some fresh vegetables (carrots, celery, onions), canned beans wok wonderfully here.

The soup I present here has an Italianate seasoning scheme. You could easily adjust the herbs or substitute wine in for the sauce or add peppers to change the flavors. No matter what you do, adding a little epazote at the beginning or Beano at the end will help cut down on the gassiferous (is that a word?) tendencies of the beans.

I use Bragg's Liquid Aminos in this recipe, but you can substitute a low sodium soy sauce. I like the flavor of Bragg's better, and encourage you to give it a try.

My wife the Redhead suggests adding some bulgar to this recipe, which I may do next time, but we both also enjoy the soup as is.

7 Bean Soup from 10 Cans
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 stalks celery, diced small
2 carrots, diced small
1 large white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced

One 15.5-oz can each ( I believe I used Goya for all) of:
chickpeas
pinto beans
black beans
small white beans
blackeyed peas
pigeon peas (find in Mexican ethnic grocery stores)
dark red kidney beans

2 14-oz cans of Vegetable Broth (I used Swanson's clear, which is a little salty, but cheap, cheap, cheap)

1 28 ounce can of fire roasted plum tomatoes (Muir Glen, in my case)

2 tablespoons dried oregano (yep, that's a lot of oregano, but you have a GALLON of soup here, for Pete's sake)
1/4 cup Bragg's Liquid Aminos or light soy sauce or to taste

In a LARGE stock pot or dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion, carrots, celery and garlic and sautée for three-five minutes until everything starts to soften.

Mash up the canned tomatoes then add them to the oil and vegetables. Add the beans, without draining and stir to combine well. Add the stock, oregano, and Bragg's (or soy sauce) and stir well again.

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer for 30 minutes before serving, stirring occasionally. Recipe makes a little over 1.25 gallons of soup. Eat what you like, freeze the rest - it microwaves well in small containers for lunch. Good with oyster crackers or crusty bread for dipping.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:30 AM | Comments (5)
March 13, 2007
Home-made Chicken Nuggets

One of the ambitions I held when I first started our boy on solid foods was to feed him home-made food for as long as possible, putting off the inevitable love-affair with fried food, soda pop and junk food. I imagined that by serving our boy healthy simple food, he would develop a taste for a variety of foods and that maybe, just maybe, he would be a miracle child - one who would shun McDonald's. Two years down the line, I've had to admit that despite my best efforts to raise an open-minded boy, his dinner has become something of a battleground. He is still unaware of the existence of McDonald's, though I'm told his day care allowed the children to have Coke one day last week at a birthday celebration (sigh). (What a surprise: the assistant told me "he loved it!") It's not that he's a picky eater per se; I'm told that he is a very good eater at the creche, where they serve home-made hot meals every day. They tell me he doesn't like pineapple and has gone off yogurt recently, but I can deal with that. So why the battleground at home?

Well, I think he is clever enough to sense that it's important to me. And being a typical two year old, he's exploiting my hot point to play a control game. I realised recently that things had degraded to the point where he had bananas and shortbread for dinner two nights in a row. Not good.

So I've implemented a few changes in routine (no more fruit juice before dinner, food ready and making the apartment smell good when he gets home, a more matter-of-fact attitude about his obstinance) and I've tried to come up with some more creative dinners for him. And I've resorted to chicken nuggets.

Actually, they are pretty tasty.

I came up with this recipe when I failed to get the boy to eat leftover roast chicken. (He used to love it, sigh.) He initially rejected the little balls, but the second time he tried them he decided Mom might have a point about them. And the third time, he came back for seconds. A little chicken goes a long way in the recipe below and so I have frozen 25-30 of them so that Dad will have an easily reheated dinner element while I'm in the hospital with our boy's sibling some time next month (God and the baby willing). Aside from the time it took to roast the chicken and strip it of meat, it took about five minutes to assemble the balls and about half an hour to cook them all - not really a long time when you consider that a toddler is unlikely to eat more than five or six in a meal and it makes about 40 of them. And aside from the roast chicken meat, they were made with ingredients that are usually in my kitchen. I'll be making them again, I know!

Home-made Chicken Nuggets (makes about 40 small balls)

175 grams (about a cup and a half) cooked chicken meat (I used a mix of dark and light meat)
1 1/2 slices of whole wheat bread
1 egg
60 ml (about 1/4 cup) chicken broth
1 heaping tsp dried sage
dash salt
90 grams (about 2/3 cup) bread crumbs for coating the balls
Butter for frying - several tablespoons

Put the chicken, egg, bread and sage in a food processor and process until you have a fine meal. Gradually add the chicken broth, until you have a meat paste that will hold together but is not too moist to hold together. You may need slightly less broth or you may need to add a tablespoon or so of water to get the right consistency; it depends on how dry your chicken meat and bread are. Taste the mixture and add salt as necessary.

Melt a few tablespoons of butter in a non-stick frying pan until it froths. Using a small teaspoon, scoop out a small amount of meat mixture and form it in a ball. Roll it in the bread crumbs and place it in the butter. Repeat until you have filled the pan with balls. They should not be touching. As the balls begin to brown, turn them to cook several sides. If you get impatient - or they all start getting done around the same time - you can simply give the pan a few shakes to turn them all a bit randomly. We are not McDonald's and we don't care if they are not uniformly browned. (Especially if we forgot to take a photo for the blog.) Because of the egg, you'll need to heat them all the way through. When they are cooked through, remove to a sheet of paper towel and repeat with the remaining meat paste and breadcrumbs until they are all cooked.

Serve to toddler while still warm but not hot. Lukewarm cooked carrot sticks go pretty well with them, as do cucumber disks. You could try a tomato sauce or mayonnaise on the side, but the odds are he won't like them. Toddlers are suspicious of sauces suspecting (quite rightly) that someone is likely to have hidden vegetables in them somewhere....

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 1:33 PM | Comments (14)
March 6, 2007
Italian Onion Soup

italonionsoup.jpgAlthough February is in reality the shortest month of the year, I have always found it to be the longest month. When I lived in Chicago, the snow was the same dirty grey as the sky for four full weeks and the wind never seemed to stop blowing. Here in Paris, you get the occasional burst of bright sunshine, but otherwise the sky is grey and the rain slaps you in the face as the wind whips around the streets. As a cook, it's a slow month too: your selection of fresh vegetables is pathetically small and generally includes wilted greens and roots. It's difficult to be creative under the circumstances.

Last week (just barely still falling in the February doldrums) I found some beautiful shallots at the supermarket. Unlike he ones I've been buying for the last few weeks, they were firm and had no telltale green sprouts peaking from their tight brown skins. They looked...fresh. As a result, I bought a couple of kilos and started searching my cookbooks for inspiration on what to do with them. The first recipe I found came from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking: an Italian onion soup. I love the French version. I even came up with an English version once. This Italian one interested me because it worked on the same principle (onions, starch, cheese) but did so with potatoes in the place of the bread and Parmesan in place of the French cheese. It gave the soup a more peasant, solid feel and was truly delicious. Of course, being me, I couldn't actually stick to the recipe exactly as written. But I don't think an Italian peasant would object to either of the small modifications I made to Marcella's recipe: lardons (pancetta, of course would be more authentic) and fresh thyme, both of which are delicious with onions and potatoes. The result is not exactly pretty I must admit, but it was hearty and filling and very tasty on a rainy day when spring feels an ice age away.

Italian Onion Soup (4 bowls)

1 1/2 kilos of shallots or other sweet onions
1 kilo potatoes
6 cups home-made broth (I used a flavourful chicken broth from a couple of roasted bird carcasses)
1-2 cups reserved water from boiling the potatoes
a handful of fresh thyme
a handful of lardons or pancetta cut in matchsticks
3 Tbs butter
3 Tbs olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
125 grams lardons or pancetta

Melt the butter in a frying pan with the oil. In the meantime, peel and slice the shallots in thin slivers. Add them to the pan and cook them until they are soft and starting to brown on the edges. Stir in the thyme and cook for a few moments. While the shallots are cooking, wash the potatoes and put them in a deep pan big enough to accommodate the soup and cover them with water. Cook until they are just tender. Drain the potatoes, reserving a cup or two of the cooking water.

Use a bit of the potato water to deglaze the frying pan with the onions and then pour them into the large pan. Add the broth and begin heating to a simmering point. Peel the potatoes and cut them in cubes small enough to fit on a spoon. Add them to the broth. Wipe out the frying pan. (If you have deglazed well you shouldn't need to wash it.) Heat it on a high flame and add the matchstick lardons. Fry them until crispy and brown and then drain them on a paper towel.

Meanwhile, check your soup for salt and pepper - it will probably need pepper but go easy on the salt as you'll be adding smoked meat and cheese when you serve. Depending on how long you simmer it and how strong the broth is, you may want to add some of the reserved potato water at this point. Using a large spoon, crush some of the potatoes against the side of the pan to add thickness to the consistency. Serve each bowl with a generous handful of cheese, a grinding of pepper and a sprinkle of crisp lardons.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 12:22 PM | Comments (4)
March 4, 2007
The Best Shortbread in the World

shortbread.jpgWhen I was a young boy, we travelled as a family each year to stay with an old friend of my mother's (who I knew as Uncle Gen) who lived in an old farmhouse outside Ramsey on the Isle of Man.

I fell in love with that magical island from the moment I first saw it seemingly rise out of the Irish Sea before my eyes as I stood on the bow of the ferry from Liverpool, before we were "piped-in" to Douglas Harbour by a lone bagpiper somewhere in the hills above the capital of the island. Everything seemed so different on the island - the cats had no tails; the local folklore spoke of fairies and witches; celtic crosses abounded; and the hilly countryside and beautiful glens enchanted me.

Uncle Gen was a very special elderly man. Extremely kind and generous, and a wonderful friend to me, I grew to love him dearly. Although approaching 70 years of age, Uncle Gen was extremely fit, and would think nothing of hiking for five miles or more to help my brother and me find the best trout fishing spots in the glens, or vigorously digging for lugworms to use as bait for our hand-held fishing lines at the end of Ramsey pier. While a devout Christian, he was also an extremely practical man. He taught me how to gut fish quickly and effectively - a skill that I was able to demonstrate to Meg when we caught a couple of trout during our nostalgic trip back to the Isle of Man a few years ago. A keen fruit and vegetable gardener, Uncle Gen would also protect his produce from the numerous greedy rabbits and pigeons by shooting them through his letterbox (to help keep his aim steady) which was propped open with a fisherman's stick). He would then feast on the rabbit or pigeon with his home-grown vegetables, while being careful to avoid any pieces of metal shot in the meat! And my brother and I would have a regular supply of supposedly "lucky" rabbit foot charms, although I doubt the poor bunny would have thought there was much good fortune involved.

Uncle Gen was also an excellent cook, and on one rainy afternoon, he taught me how to make the best shortbreads in the world. That afternoon, he also taught me that certain recipes could be extremely hard work.

I had not made shortbreads for years, but my 13-year old daughter had obviously heard from her mother that I could bake a mean shortbread, as she asked me to make a batch during her visit a couple of weeks ago. Here is the recipe but before taking this on, please remember that I did say it was hard work

Ingredients

14 oz plain flour
2 oz cornflour
8 oz butter
4 oz caster sugar

Beat the butter until soft.
Sift and add the other ingredients.
Knead well until the mixture forms a dough.
Roll out the dough to around half an inch thick.

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Cut into pieces. (I choose rectangular "fingers" and use a skewer to make domino-like marks on them.)

rawshortbread.jpg

Bake at 325 F for 40 minutes.
Cool on a baking tray (and sprinkle sugar on the biscuits if you wish).

That sounds simple, but kneading this dry mixture into a dough is extremely arduous, as it is essential that you add no liquid. Look at the above photo of the rolled dough, and you will get an idea of how dry the dough is - and how difficult it is therefore to bring it together.

But the rewards for the hard work are high. Not only did my daughter love the shortbreads, but our two-year old son also couldn't get enough of them. Even while his mouth was completely full of one crumbly biscuit melting in his mouth, he was demanding another!

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Enjoy.

Posted by The Critic at 9:40 AM | Comments (47)
March 2, 2007
Snow Cream

Eat the yellow snow!

OK, that was a little gross, but if you've just had a late snowfall, you can make yourself a treat that's almost as good as ice cream and twice as much fun to make. Plus, you don't have to wait all that time to get the custard mix to freeze as nature has done all the work for you.

Basically, snow cream is plain old fresh snow flavored with a little dairy, sugar, and vanilla. Because it depends on fresh clean snow, I wouldn't necessarily try this recipe downwind from an incinerator or crematorium (yeek).

Why does snow lend itself to this treatment? Think about ice cream? Ice cream is basically a collection of tiny frozen crystals of milk/egg/vanilla/sugar beaten together with air. Snow is fluffy frozen water crystals, so we just need to add the rest of the flavors to it to get an near-instant dairy treat.

Snow has different ratios of water to air, depending on the temperature outside, the winds, and the average velocity of an unladen swallow. For that reason, all I can give you here is guidance and not a hard formula. The inspiration for this recipe comes from my in-laws, who starting making snow cream as kids growing up.

Snow Cream
A bunch of fresh snow. Maybe a gallon's worth (it will reduce in volume as you mix it)
Milk or cream (not much, maybe a cup per gallon)
Sugar (1/2 cup or so per gallon, or to taste)
Vanilla - tablespoon or two per gallon

The important thing is to get clean snow. Ideally, "harvest" your snow off the very top of the pile while it's still coming down, and only take the freshest stuff. The last thing you want to do is eat dirt with your tasty treat.

Add the sugar and vanilla a little at a time and mix lightly with a big spoon. You should be using a folding motion rather than a whisking or beating motion to mix the ingredients. Add a little milk or cream and repeat until the snow cream tastes the way you'd like it to taste - a little thinner than ice cream, but quite tasty.

Be especially careful with the milk as it will liquify the snow most rapidly. If possible, mix everything outside under the open sky where its chilly enough to keep the snow mostly intact.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:37 AM | Comments (659)
March 1, 2007
Artichoke Pesto

You may wonder why I haven't posted in some time. Well, when life gets busy, the busy fall back on frozen food and old reliables that work every time and don't require trying to remember just how much of ingredient A and how much of ingredient B were involved, and OH! did I remember to take a picture?* Old reliable recipes are the ones I've posted here in the past, and I'm no fan of reruns.

But I'm coming out of that most busy time and am starting to experiment a bit, although mostly with recipes that take no time at all to make. Here's one I made the other night with a jar of marinated artichokes and some nuts we had laying around.

As you may know, I was skeptical about getting a food processor and in the end, friends had to buy one for us. I'm completely converted now. In ten minutes, you can take artichoke hearts, oil, garlic, nuts, lemon juice and salt and have a batch of an unusual pesto that seems light while satisfying.

I was a little stingy on the oil, because I'm trying to hold the calories down. You can adjust up or down as you see fit. Saving a little pasta water to add with the pesto when you dress your pasta will also let you adjust the consistency of the sauce without making it greasy.

The sauce is also good on toast, on sandwiches or anywhere else you might use regular pesto or strongly flavored spreads.

*Note, I will have a picture up on this post tonight. I need to track down and install the disk for my photo-editing software so I can put it on the new computer.

Artichoke Pesto
1 jar (12 ounces) artichoke hearts
1/2 cup olive oil or to taste
1 cup pistachio nuts (or use walnuts for a different flavor)
1/3 cup lemon juice or to taste
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Drain the artichoke hearts. If they are marinated in oil, you can omit draining the hearts and adjust the oil measure downwards appropriately.

Add the artichoke to the food processor with the nuts, cheese, and garlic and pulse until you have a paste. Add in the lemon juice and with the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil. Scrape down the sides of the processor as needed and pulse until you have a uniform paste-like consistency.

Taste and add salt, pepper, oil, and lemon juice to taste. It should have a lemony flavor, but the artichoke and pistachio flavors should also be present.

Serve with pasta, on toast or anywhere you please.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:58 AM | Comments (6)
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