Friday, December 31, 2010

Kept in the Dark

Portobello mushrooms are dark, large, meaty mushrooms. They are available in most supermarkets year-round and can be prepared very easily.

I like to begin, as always, with freshly washed Portobello mushrooms. Proceed to remove the tough bottom ends with a knife. You do not need to remove the stems completely, as they are edible and quite tasty.

On an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet, place the mushrooms cap-side-up. Be sure to smear a little bit of olive oil on the bottom of each mushroom, to ensure that they do not end up sticking to the sheet. Proceeded to season your mushrooms with the following ingredients:
- sea salt
- oregano
- chili flakes or chili powder
- balsamic vinegar
- olive oil

You will notice that the caps are made perfectly to hold all of the ingredients in with their natural crevices. Bake the mushrooms in an oven, set to 350 F, for approximately 15-20 minutes.

Note: You may also cook these mushrooms over a barbecue or grill.

Your end product will be perfectly seasoned, yummy mushrooms. 

You can enjoy your mushrooms by themselves or by:
- cutting them up and placing them over a salad
- creating a vegetarian-friendly burger by using the mushroom as the patty
- making a hardier meet-lover's burger by using one to top off a hamburger patty

Tip: These mushrooms go amazingly well with goat cheese!

Have a happy and safe new years! Enjoy and eat well!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Tale of the Unfortunate Ox

Ox tail is a meat delicacy that is savoured by people from Italy, the Caribbean and others. It is derived from the bony tails of cattle. As you can see below, the raw form has a nice combination of meat, bone and fat, which lends itself well for stewing.

One of my favourite ways to enjoy this meat is by preparing it in a spicy tomato sauce. This recipe is so simple, it's ridiculous.

All you need to do is combine the following ingredients in a saucepan:
- puréed tomatoes (You can also use chunked tomatoes.)
- 2 tablespoons of oregano
- salt (to taste)
- hot pepper flakes
- 3 to 4 tablespoons of hot pepper vodka (You can also use regular vodka for this recipe. For my entry on how to make your own hot pepper vodka click here.)

Note: Garlic can be added optionally.

Give your mixture a quick stir and submerge the ox tail pieces within it. Simply cover your pot and let it slowly simmer for approximately one hour.

The result will be some of the best tomato sauce you have tasted.

Use the sauce in any way you would regular tomato sauce.

The ox tail meat can be easily shred and used in a number of ways, like:
- in sandwiches
- over salad
- stuffed in pasta, e.g. ravioli
- combined with other meats to be used in meat pies, samosas, empanadas, etc.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gluten-Free Madness

Due to a recent medical issue, my doctor has placed me on a temporary, but very restrictive diet. Most of the restrictions are quite easy to handle. All but one...gluten! Gluten-rich products have been my best friends for years and, for a short period of time, I must give them a rest.

Gluten is most commonly found in products containing wheat. I know that these days it is a heck of a lot easier, for those on gluten-free diets, to find a plethora of foods to eat. However, most of these products try to mimic the properties of wheat by using substitutions to produce foods like cakes, cookies, crackers, and more importantly, bread. In order to imitate the consistency and texture of these foods, strange additives, e.g. xanthum gum, are often included in recipes.

In reading my blog, I'm sure that you know by now that I've have never been a fan of additives, chemicals, and the like. So, I have been trying to use natural grains and ingredients that are commonly used in the traditional cooking of other cultures. In my search, I have found a wide array of flours, other than wheat-based flour, made from grains, seeds, nuts and even vegetables. Some of these gluten-free flours are made from the following:
- quinoa
- corn (a.k.a. maize)
- chickpea (a.k.a. garbanzo bean, gram, or besan)
- almond
- chestnut
- tapioca (a.k.a. cassava or yucca)
- millet
- potato
- etc.

Making bread out of the above ingredients has been quite the task. Making good-tasting bread has been an even tougher task. (Most taste like cardboard.) I had a eureka moment one day, when I decided to use the following two ingredients:

White rice flour

White rice flour is derived from polished white rice. It has a powdery consistency, much like cornstarch or icing sugar.

Buckwheat flour

Contrary to its name, buckwheat is derived from a plant related to rhubarb and contains no wheat at all. It has a dark, grainy texture and is available in kernels, groats and powdered form.

For this recipe, you will need the following ingredients:

1/2 cup buckwheat flour 
1/2 cup white rice flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

4 teaspoons olive oil 
3/4 cup water

This type of bread is considered a "quick bread", as it does not require the need for yeast.

To make it, follow these easy steps:
- Mix all of the dry ingredients together
- Add the oil and water to the mixture
- Quickly transfer the batter to an oiled loaf pan (use a little bit of olive oil to grease the pan)
- Bake at 375 F for 35 minutes

The result will be a dark loaf resembling the crumbly texture of Irish soda bread. It has a wonderful nutty-artisan quality and, when it's baking, it fills the room with a familiar and tantalizing bread scent.

I practically ate half the loaf in one sitting. (Take that comment with a grain of salt. I have been deprived for quite some time!)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ho! Ho! Ho! Dairy Christmas!

Dulce de leche is a Spanish version of caramel and is very popular throughout Latin America. It translates directly to, "sweet of milk". I would describe this treat as the Nutella of the Latin world. I have seen this product for sale at a number of stores, but I actually find it quite easy to make. (It actually tastes better when it's homemade!)

Begin with a can of sweetened condensed milk.

Sweetened condensed milk is basically evaporated milk with sugar added to it. It is incredibly thick and has a wonderful butterscotch colour.

Sidebar: This recipe calls for the slow heating of the condensed milk. For years, I had made dulce de leche directly in the can; a direction I know that has been followed by many Latinos. However, I have been told that heating cans in this manner can leech chemicals from the canning process into the food. This process is not advisable and therefore, I have augmented the recipe.

Proceed to transfer the sweetened condensed milk into a clean preserving jar and seal the lid tightly.

Place in the filled jar into a pot filled with water. Be sure to submerge the jar completely. Now, slowly boil the closed jar for a two hour period of time.

Note: You may need to top your pot with hot water intermittently throughout this process.

The bath is used to control the cooking temperature. The heat from the boiling water will caramelize the sugars within the sweetened condensed milk, making the liquid turn a caramel colour. You will be left with the best tasting, thick, mouth watering caramel ever!

Caution: Let the jar cool completely before opening. If you do not, the caramel will explode out, potentially causing severe burns to the skin.

Enjoy your homemade dulce de leche on:
- cakes
- muffins
- cookies
- pies
- toast
- ice cream

My absolute favourite way to savour the caramel is in the traditional dish called brevas con queso (figs with cheese).

Fig trees produce two harvests. The Spanish consider the fruit from each harvest as a separate type of fig.  The first harvest produces figs called "brevas", whereas the second produces "higos". The fruit of the first harvest is often found in a preserved form where they are submerged in a heavy syrup. This product can be found quite readily in stores catering to the Latino market.

As you can see, the brevas are completely saturated with sugar syrup, giving them a soft and tender texture.

Combine the brevas with queso fresco (fresh farmer's cheese) and your homemade dulce de leche to experience a taste that will satisfy the end of any meal.

¡Buen Provecho!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Petri Dish

People have been making yoghurt for centuries. The process of its creation is more like a science project than it is cooking. Think of milk as containing sugar (giving it sweetness), protein (for structure) and water (making it a liquid).

Basically, bacterial culture is allowed to multiply in milk and ultimately ferment it. The bacteria feeds off of the lactose (the sugar found in milk) and produces lactic acid.

In science, when an acid is mixed with a protein, the protein denatures (i.e. changes form, coagulates, or curdles). Now that lactic acid is present in the liquid, the protein in the milk changes form to produce the solid-like texture of yoghurt.

Here is how it works practically. Begin with a quantity of milk. You want to make the milk into a suitable environment for the bacteria to grow. Bacteria are living organisms, and like humans, they require a certain temperature to live. Too hot, and the bacteria will die. Too cold, and the bacteria will not thrive.

Warm your milk until it becomes frothy on the sides. Set the milk aside and let it cool to the approximate temperature of your body. This should take only about 10 to 15 minutes. The most simple way to test if the milk is the right temperature is by sticking your finger in it. You should be able to hold your finger in the liquid comfortably for a few seconds. You shouldn't be able to feel a difference between your temperature and the temperature of the milk.

Now it's time to introduce the bacteria. Bacteria starters can be readily found and bought over the Internet. However, the easiest starter to use, is...wait for it...yoghurt. That's right! We already know that yoghurt contains active bacteria. So, you can use a spoon full of yoghurt that you have left over or a store-bought yoghurt as an effective starter.

Note: You only want to use a plain yoghurt as your starter. Do not use flavoured or fruit yoghurt for this purpose.

As a general rule, you only require one dessert spoon (a heaping tablespoon) of yoghurt per litre of milk.

Mix the yoghurt into the milk well and place it in a container. You may cover the top of the container with cellophane wrap, if you wish.

Now, you want to leave the mixture in an environment where it will be kept still and is a little warm. I have learned that the perfect place to make yoghurt is in an oven. To provide the little warmth the bacteria needs to multiply, simply keep the oven light on.

Your yoghurt will be ready between 4 and 12 hours. The longer you leave your yoghurt, the more tangy it will become.

Try the following suggestions:
- save money and make your own pro-biotic yoghurt by using store-bought pro-biotic yoghurt as your starter culture
- create your own flavoured yoghurt by mixing in fresh/dried fruit or jam/jelly
- sweeten your yoghurt with a little honey and have it as a healthy snack
- use the yoghurt to make a refreshing smoothie
- make cream cheese by straining the yoghurt (click here for my entry on making your own cream cheese)
- make goat milk yoghurt/goat cream cheese by using goat's milk instead of cow's milk
- use your homemade yoghurt in recipes for cakes, cookies, muffins, pancakes, dips, marinades, etc.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Where are my marrons glacés?

That truly was the question of the day in the movie Camille. Like Greta Garbo, if you are struggling to find marrons glacés, you may be surprised to know that you may be able to taste these delights in another form, as they may be used as an ingredient.

Panettone is a Christmas bread-cake available in food stores catering to the Italian market. Its origins are in Milan, Italy and it is normally filled with dried fruit and raisins.

I have been able to find a few brands of panettone that are made with marrons glacés instead.

The sweet loaf emits a delightful vanilla aroma. It has a slightly firm exterior that holds a soft and fluffy interior.

As you can see, there are actual pieces of the glazed chestnuts inside.

Another form in which you can find the illusive treat is in crème de marrons. Crème de marrons is a French product that is made from broken pieces of marrons glacés, sugar syrup and vanilla.

I love to enjoy the chestnut cream with fresh farmers cheese, called queso fresco in Spanish. The cheese has a mild, milky taste with a slippery and wet texture. They pair perfectly together!

For some alternative ways to savour this delight, follow the French and enjoy it with:
- crepes
- cakes
- pancakes
- ice cream
- tarts
- pies
- etc.

It's either that or go to France!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Marrons Glacés

Marrons glacés are one of my favourite Christmas time indulgences. They are glazed chestnuts that find their origins in the South of France and Northern Italy.

Ah, the South of France...

Ah, Northern Italy...
I digress.

This confection first finds itself as regular chestnuts. They are hulled, skinned, and placed into a sugary syrup. Then begins a labour-intensive, five-day process of heating, waiting, praying and repeating, to make the candied goodies.

After the process is complete, the result is a fudge-like sweet that is better than chocolate. They have a slight vanilla flavour and are delicately smooth. You definitely will not be able to stop at one.

In the Greater Toronto Area, these bad boys are very difficult to find. You can purchase them from select specialty Italian stores and gourmet food shops. However, you will be paying a pretty penny for them. The two boxes above cost me approximately $50 CAD, and were well worth the price. (Believe it or not, they are actually more expensive in Europe!)

Whether you are a guest at my home, a friend or a family member, I do not share.

Merry Chestnut! I mean, Christmas!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

This Christmas tree looks good enough to eat!

December is here and Christmas is almost upon us. I love this holiday season, as there are so many good things to eat.

Since I've spent a good part of the year writing about food, I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a food-related Christmas tree?" So, I decided to decorate our Christmas tree with all things food. You wouldn't believe what we found!

Little panatone and pandoro boxes can be found at many grocery stores and bakeries that cater to the Italian market. These bread-cakes originate in Milan and are fantastic.

Candy canes were and easy go-to... were sugar cookies.

I decided to tie up some cinnamon sticks to provide a seasonal scent.

Hangable chocolate ornaments can be found anywhere;

as can fruit ornaments, like apples, pears...

...and grapes.

So far, the menu looked boring. I needed to get creative, and fast!

I found these tiny liquor bottle lanterns at the LCBO (liquor store). I love the fact that they are red and green.

These cookie-cutters looked nice enough to hang.

I learned that it is a German tradition to have a pickle ornament somewhere on the tree. Apparently, the one who finds it gets a special gift. Personally, I like my pickles on the side. So, that's where it went.

I found these adorable gingerbread men measuring spoons at Pier One. This tree was either going to look disgusting or gorgeous. There was no turning back now!

Here's where I got crafty. I found these glass decorations at Michael's (a craft store) and I thought, "Let's fill 'em!"

The possibilities were endless! Here's what I put together (going clockwise from the top left):
- tri-coloured pasta
- red chili peppers
- hazelnuts (filberts)
- dried apples

- Israeli couscous
- mung beans
- wheat
- hibiscus tea
- red and white rice
- coriander seeds

- cloves
- jelly beans
- coffee beans
- fennel seeds

- popping corn
- dried chickpeas

However, I think my favourite ones were these three little tins from Maxim's de Paris (bought in Paris). They are filled with delectable praline chocolates. Yum!

Here's the final result: