Last week, I was walking past the greengrocers and got sucked in by a gorgeous bushy basil plant. I have planted herb seeds in several pots on my terrace, but as all the seedlings looks suspiciously the same, I have a feeling I have a healthy crop of weeds and not basil, coriander, chives and mint. So I needed a basil plant. Of course, once I was there I found many reasons to stay: watermelon, new noirmoutier potatoes, spring onions (which I have never seen in Paris before and now I know what they are called: cebettes). And there was a big basket of dark ripe cherries. Because I was in a greengrocer's, where one is served, instead of a supermarket where I could help myself, I couldn't check whether the cherries were in good condition. I asked for a pound and took them home. And I found, to my great disappointment, that they were mushy and very over-ripe. As our regular readers will know, I am a huge fan of cherries and so it was a pretty bitter pill to swallow.
I was tempted to just toss them, but actually although they were disappointing on their own they weren't spoiled. Just disappointingly soft and sweet. And so I had one of those timely good ideas: I had promised to bake something for the snack table at a local Bring and Buy sale and these would turn chocolate cupcakes into something special. I was right: on their own, the cherries were a bit bland and too soft. Cooked in dark chocolate, they gave a wonderful sweet pocket of fruit in each bite. When topped with a cream cheese frosting, the combination was perfect - a little dark chocolate, a little sharp cheese and a sweet soft cherry flavor. I am really glad I had a place to get rid of the cupcakes or I am sure I would have eaten them all with the Critic's help. (Big brother found the flavours a little too grown up - or maybe he didn't like the texture of the cooked cherries?)
I based the cake in the recipe on the Fannie Farmer recipe for Fudge Layer Cake. It was almost chocolate enough - I think that next time I might experiment with increasing the chocolate or maybe throwing in a handful of small chocolate chips. Fresh cherries and chocolate are a wonderful pairing.
Chocolate Cherry Cupcakes (makes 24 small cupcakes)
4 oz / 115 grams unsweetened chocolate
1 1/2 cups / 300 grams sugar
1/2 cup / 115 grams butter (reduce by 10% if using French butter)
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups / 280 grams flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sal
2/3 cup / 150ml milk
1 scant pound / 350-400 grams (weight measured before preparing) of ripe fresh cherries, pitted and cut in 2-3 pieces each
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Place paper liners in your cupcake mold(s). (This is one of the reasons I love cupcakes, by the way - easy to prepare, easy to serve, easy to eat!) Put the chocolate, with six tablespoons of water and 1/2 cup of the sugar in a heavy bottomed small saucepan over a low heat. Melt the chocolate slowing, stirring from time to time until you have a smooth completely liquid mixture. Remove from heat and reserve.
Cream the butter and the remaining sugar. Add the eggs one by one, beating each one in thoroughly. Add the almond extract and mix well. Sift the flour and salt and baking soda together. Add them alternately with the milk, stirring as you go. Mix well, and then stir in the cherries.
Fill the cupcake liners 2/3 of the way with batter and bake for 18-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.
For the frosting:
1/2 cup cream cheese or French Laughing Cow cheese
2 Tbs milk
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
a pinch of salt, if using cream cheese (Laughing cow cheese is already fairly salty)
The measurements on this frosting are not very exact: my method of making frosting is to take a certain amount of fat (LC cheese or butter) and add sugar until it tastes more or less right but is perhaps a bit too thick, at which point I add a little milk. That is what I did here and it was perfect. You may have to experiment a bit to get it right, so start with too much of every ingredient and play with it. You want it to be slightly tangy but still distinctly sweet.
Once the cakes have cooled completely, ice them with the frosting. If you happen to have fresh cherries left over they would make a very pretty decoration on the top. I didn't have any, but they still look rather charming, don't you think?
Via Paul at Locussolus (and formerly of Too Many Chefs) - Mark Bittman makes the case at the amazing TED conference for a more plant-heavy, meat-light diet. This explains for me why he produced the (mostly) vegetarian version of his How to Cook Everything book.
While you're there, check out the rest of the talks at TED. It's a remarkable conference that brings together some of the most dynamic minds around in all fields.
A few years ago, I wrote about my philosophy regarding baby food. It's interesting to me now to reflect on how my attitude has changed with the arrival of a second son. These days I concentrate more on keeping food local than I do on finding organic. I no longer have the leisure to make it to the organic market every week or to seek out the nearest health food store which is half an hour away. But I can and do monitor where the apples at the supermarket come from and whether vegetables are in season. Because Little brother started eating solid food at the end of the summer instead of the beginning, I tend to use potatoes instead of rice cereal to thicken his food. He mostly eats vegetables, as only apples and bananas are consistently available through the winter months so this works fine.
And the biggest change is that I'm less worried about butter and salt and more intent on keeping my baby interested in food with flavor. I try to follow my mother's advice more often these days, which has always been "do not make special food for the baby; just purée what everyone else is having for dinner". I don't know if this will make for a less picky three year old second son - though I hope it will - but it certainly makes my life easier. Not long ago, I realized I had fallen into the trap of essentially making three meals every evening: for the baby, Big Brother and the parents. This was a situation that could not and should not continue. So now I tend to look for recipes that will please the three year old and his father. Now that Little Brother is one, there is little he can't eat and so it is also puréed for him. And Mom gets to relax in the evening instead of rushing around steaming vegetables, cooking pasta and then starting all over again for herself and the Critic.
When I saw this recipe in the Sunday Observer online, I (correctly) suspected I had found a winner. Three year olds don't like chewing tough meat. Neither does the Critic. Nor can the baby. So meatballs are a great option. And then - whoa, anchovies and lemon! Both the Critic and I are much more salt fiends than sweet lovers and I'm afraid our sons have inherited our preferences. So there was never any question about a few anchovies in the mix being a problem. Big brother loved it, the Critic loved it, Little brother liked the meat (but not so much the rice) and I loved being able to cook one tasty, reasonably healthy and very flavorful dinner for the family. Thank you, Nigel Slater.
Nigel Slater's Pork and Lemon Meatballs
(serves two adults and two small children, with leftovers for lunch the next day for the 3 year old - and he liked it the second time around too!)
3 slices of whole wheat bread, zapped in a food processor to make soft bread crumbs
4 large pork chops, large bits of fat and bone removed
a large handful of parsley leaves, chopped
2 tsp dried thyme (Nigel's recipe calls for 6 sprigs of fresh thyme, which are nicer if you have it on hand but if not dried worked just fine)
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
8 anchovy fillets, chopped
Optional: 1 tsp hot pepper flakes
2 tbsp olive oil
a little flour
about a cup of chicken stock
cooked rice for four
Nigel's recipe originally called for minced pork, but that is not very common in supermarkets and the nearest butcher is a fifteen minute walk away. However, if you have a good food processor it really doesn't matter. Zap the slices of bread and remove the crumbs to a large bowl. Then add the meat and process again, until you have a big lump of minced pork. Add it to the bowl with the breadcrumbs. Zest and juice the lemon and add both to the bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly.
Make 18 or so small meat balls and roll them in the flour. Flatten them slightly so that you'll have a surface which can brown nicely. Heat the oil and butter in a large frying pan and put in as many of the meatballs as you can without letting them touch one another. Cook on a medium high heat (they should sizzle) for 4-5 minutes, turning them once they become nice and brown and crusty. Then turn down the heat and continue to cook another 8 minutes or so, so that they are thoroughly cooked through. Remove the cooked balls to a warm plate and continue another batch and so on until all the meatballs are cooked. Put them back in the pan and add the chicken stock. Cook down for a few minutes to reduce the stock and warm through all the meatballs. Serve, with the sauce, over warm rice.
A note on the optional hot pepper flakes: I know my Critic and he definitely prefers his food to have a kick. So once I had made half the meatballs, I stirred in some hot pepper flakes for the adult portions of the dinner. I think it was a nice touch, not overpowering but adding something punchy to the mix. If you don't have small children - or do have children who like hot food - give it a try!
It isn't the most beautiful photo in the world, but this is in part a testament to how good the dish is: I really couldn't be bothered to find a good setting and play with the light while this delicious smelling dinner was cooling before my very eyes!
Too Many Chefs is proud to announce the arrival of a new mini-critic: Barrett's beloved Redhead gave birth on the 16th of May 2008 to a gorgeous little girl. Welcome Eleanor Elizabeth Buss and congratulations to your happy parents!
Good husband that he is, Barrett's first action once the excitement was over was to run out and buy the Redhead a big sushi dinner to go. Both mother and daughter are feeding well and very happy.
(Note on the photo: I pulled it off a site with free baby wallpaper; my apologies to Anne Geddes if it is infringing on her copyright in any way...)
Last Thursday I received an email from my friend Ami about picnics. I was coming to the end of a long chicken-pox infected week on my own with the boys, so I jumped at the idea. Friday or Saturday?? Count me in for both! Big brother was past the contagious stage and the weather in Paris had suddenly blossomed into luxurious summery sunshine. I was ready to venture out and have me some adult conversation.
However, as I was on my own with the two boys and under a deadline, I really needed to find the ingredients for a tasty lunch in my kitchen. I knew I had a couple of chicken breasts and a bit of cucumber for the fresh elements. I started searching through the cabinets for the rest of the ingredients. A big box of red quinoa jumped out at me: I'd been meaning to experiment with it for some time but the Critic is no fan of nubbly food. That set me on a kind of a New World strain and so I pulled out the plump sweetened dried cranberries I picked up at Target on our recent trip to the US. As luck would have it, I had a couple of bunches of young shallot shoots in the back of the vegetable bin, which would also liven the mixture a bit. Cumin was my first choice for a spice, but I love it so much lately that I'm frequently out. Coriander was my second choice and it worked so well that I'm glad I had no cumin in the spice drawer.
The resulting salad was delightful: full of flavors that zing and interesting textures. It is the perfect picnic food in that it's relatively quick and easy to prepare and best served either slightly cooled or at room temperature. I loved it so much that I made it again three days later when we were invited to visit friends in the country for lunch in their garden. And even the Critic liked it. I'll be making it again. I'd like to say that I'll be using it as a template for other interesting ventures, but I'd be lying. It really was quite perfect just the way it came out the first (and second) time(s).
Cranberry and Quinoa Salad with Coriander and Chili Dusted Chicken
(serves 4-6 as a side dish in a picnic spread)
2 boneless free range chicken breasts
175 grams red quinoa (regular quinoa can be substituted)
450 ml water or broth (I used Better than Bouillon Mushroom Base)
3/4 cup dried cranberries (you could substitute plump sultanas or giant raisins)
4 green onions or shallot shoots, finely sliced in rounds
1 cup chopped cucumber
small handful of parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp chili pepper
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
4 tbs olive oil, divided
For the sauce: 1 container plain yogurt, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper, 1/4 tsp ground coriander, 1 tsp fresh or frozen chopped coriander, 1 tbs lime juice.
Put half the olive oil in a deep heavy bottomed sauce pan over a medium heat. Add the quinoa and stir for a few minutes, until a few grains make popping noises and a nutty aroma develops. Pour in the water or broth and cook at a low boil for 25 minutes or until the seeds are chewy and have sprouted little curlicues.
In the meantime, prepare the chicken. Pour the remaining olive oil over the chicken breasts and slather over both sides. Dust both sides of the breasts with the dried spices and place on a hot grill. Grill for 5-7 minutes on one side with the grill top on, then flip the breasts and continue cooking another 3-5 minutes. The breasts should be cooked through (no pink in the center) but not dried out. Allow them to cool while you prepare the rest of the salad ingredients.
Allow the quinoa to cool a bit before folding in the salad components: the chicken (cut into bite-sized pieces), the cranberries or raisins, the finely sliced shallots or green onions, the parsley and the cucumber. Mix the dressing ingredients together well in a small bowl and serve alongside the salad.
Serving the dressing drizzled over the salad made a prettier plate (though I forgot to take a photo of it) and also made the salad more interesting, as it meant an intense sour note from time to time to counteract the sweet fruity taste of the cranberries and the spiciness of the pepper and coriander.
My wife's great- great- great- great- great- (and so on) grandfather Fictitious McFall was an explorer in the mold of Captain Cook. Only, instead of discovering things, he went about landing in strange exotic places and melding their cuisines with the foods of old (or auld, as they spelled it then, due to a shortage of the letter "o") Scotland (or Scautland as they then - you get the picture).
Old fictitious was not captain of a mighty flotilla. He did have a string of ships, but all of them were dinghy size. It was rare that more than one of these boats would actually make it anywhere useful, and somehow that boat was always the one with the Captain in it. Well, one of Captain Fictitious McFall's ports of call was an island off the coast of Thailand, and the dish that came from his travels there is this tropical oatmeal.
Now, it might seem strange to combine oats and tropical flavors, but - well, there is no but. It is strange, but it's also quite delicious. I've uncovered this mix of traditional oats and typical Thai flavors like coconut, mango, lime, and a bit of brown sugar from a stash of papers in Fictitious's sea chest.
Whether you believe in Captain Fictitious McFall or not, you'll believe in this sweet and tasty tropical oatmeal.
2 cans (4 cups) light coconut milk
1 cup steel cut oats (not rolled, just steel cut)
pinch of salt
1 mango, diced
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 cup bown sugar or to taste
Bring the coconut to a boil. Stir in the oats and salt. Simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Stir in the mangoes, 1/2 the brown sugar, and lime juice and simmer for 5 minutes further until the mango warms through. Taste and adjust sugar levels until you're happy with the flavor.
Serve in big bowls, possibly while wearing a kilt.