Thursday, 30 August 2012

Hot and Sour Soup

Oh my god, is soup season back already?! No, not really, but after weeks of sweltering heat, the last few evenings almost felt chilly, to my boyfriend's great relief and happiness. While he was enjoying the cool reprieve, I was wrapping myself up in scarves, took my fluffy hoodie out and decided to make some soup for the first time in months.

Hot and sour soup is my favorite Asian soup. I once worked in a very humid bookstore, and when it rained, I'd go get a huge tub of the magic concoction for lunch, and let myself be warmed up from inside. Nothing feels more awesome that this soup on cold, rainy (or snowy, but we are not there yet!) days. It cures the sniffles and the blues, and it's very easy and quick to make, so it is a very precious dish. This is the Hot Pink Apron recipe, modified slightly, and it's the most simple (and delicious) take on hot and sour soup I have ever made.

1 cup dried portobello, porcini or shiitake mushrooms
2 cups hot water
3 tablespoons soy sauce
6 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 pound extra-firm tofu, cut into matchsticks

4 cups organic vegetable broth
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 cup fresh cremini mushrooms, sliced thinly
1 can Chinese bamboo shoots (optional)
1 to 2 tablespoons Sri Racha chili sauce
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
2 scallions, sliced

In a small bowl, place your dried mushrooms (shiitake pictured below) in 1 1/2 cups of freshly boiled hot water. Soak 20 minutes, until re-hydrated.

In a second small bowl, blend soy sauce, rice vinegar, and 1 tablespoon cornstarch. Place 1/2 the tofu strips into the mixture and stir.

In a medium-large soup pot, mix the re-hydrated mushrooms and their hot water-broth with the vegetable broth. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat, add cornstarch/tofu mixture and simmer 3 to 5 minutes. Season with the red pepper flakes, black pepper, and white pepper. Mix remaining cornstarch and remaining 1/2 cup of water well so there are no lumps.

Stir into the broth mixture until thickened. Mix remaining tofu and fresh mushrooms into the pot.

Bring the heat back up to medium and return to a boil, and stir in the bamboo shoots, Sri Racha chili sauce, and sesame oil. Garnish with scallion to serve.

I loves me some mushrooms and some tofu, but traditionally, pork is often added to hot and sour soup. If you want to try it, stir-fry about 5 ounces of cubed pork tenderloin in a bit of peanut oil, reserve, then add to the stock pot along with the second half of the tofu and the fresh mushrooms. Yes, tofu AND meat. In the same pot! This is 2012, and it's a free country: go nuts. The only real rule with this soup is to not be tempted to over-crowd the pot: cut your ingredients thinly, and make sure to leave plenty of space for the amazingly flavored broth to be enjoyed.

My friend Sam came up with a tasty version of this soup: he substituted the tofu for 2 cubed chicken breasts that he sauteed before tossing them in the broth, and added some Ramen noodles to his pot. It looks super-tasty, and his roommates greatly appreciated it... I will try it and throw in some udon noodles instead of the Ramen... to be continued...

By the way, dried mushrooms are something you should try to keep in your pantry! They are cheap, and soups and risottos can go from good to fabulous after you soak some of those babies up and add them to your dish. Get a couple of different kinds and experiment! Portobello and porcini will be more meaty, and shiitake will be chewier. Most grocery stores carry their dry mushrooms around the bulk section, but hit gourmet or vegetarian stores if you have trouble finding them. Soak them in boiled water for 20 to 30 minutes, and save the "broth" you'll get to flavor your dish.

Keep this recipe close-by as the weather gets cooler: it's virtually fat-free and full of immune-boosting mushrooms! True to form, it's just as good reheat as it is fresh from the soup pot. I tried a Thai soup with mushrooms and tofu when I got sick last spring, and even if it was good, this one has a richer flavor, and the thicker texture makes it more comforting somehow. When life sucks, few things make it better than a bowl of steaming, spicy comfort.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

B-Cup... Cakes

I have reached the age where suddenly, people that I have known a long time start getting married and having babies. On a pretty massive scale. Sometimes, it makes me feel like I may have taken a wrong turn somewhere, but then I usually shrug and get back to thinking of more important things (like coming up with new tattoo ideas, wondering whether or not I'll get fired if I show up to work with my hair a brighter shade of purple, figuring out what my boyfriend would like to eat for dinner: vital stuff).

I am neither pro-marriage nor pro-kids, but I am pro-happiness, so whatever my friends do, as long as it makes them happy, it's a-OK by me.

My friend JD (who took that awesome pic of me with the meat cleaver: see top of the page) is one of those people getting married and making me feel old. And while I am obviously not attending the bachelor party (seriously, knowing him, I don't want to know how the Hell that evening will go down...), his sister asked me to contribute to the evening by preparing a dessert in the shape of what JD loves most in the world...

These are revamped vanilla cupcakes with cream cheese icing, tinted pink with Wilton pink gel food coloring, and topped with mini-Swedish berry candies. It was rather odd having two dozens tiny boobs all over my kitchen counter, but these were great fun to make!

Wishing you all the happiness in the world, JD! I hope you enjoyed the boob cakes! xx

P.S. JD, you still owe me a Key Lime pie! Don't think getting married means you are off the hook!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Pan-Fried Pork Chop Attitude

From time to time, my boyfriend has to remind me that I am a Joe Strummer kind of punk, and not the Sid Vicious type. For those who don’t know punk much, those two guys are so often used as polar opposites that it’s almost a running joke. Strummer was the optimist/activist “the world sucks, so let’s work together to change it!” guy, and Vicious was the nihilist, self-destructive junkie who thought the world sucked so much the only thing he could do was try to destroy it (and he ended up killing himself in the process).

Joe Strummer is my hero, and I love him so much that I actually have his portrait tattooed on my arm.

But when I run into an obstacle that makes me feel like saying “fuck this shit!”, I sometimes need to be reminded that Joe would not have given his problems the finger and walked away: he would have figured out a way to solve things. If I get a bit too Sid Vicious about something, my boyfriend pokes my Joe Strummer tattoo. It makes me grump, but I do get proactive after that little reminder.

One of the obstacles I ran into on my culinary adventures is something I would never have thought to be defeated by: pork chops (yes, I like to wax deeply philosophical just to start talking about ridiculously mundane things). My first attempt involved a honey-mustard sauce that ended up too salty because of an excess of chicken broth. The second attempt was a glazing that turned into carbonized caramel and made the chops virtually uneatable.

I wasn’t exactly excited about giving pork chops another shot; in fact, I got very close to flipping them the bird and moving on. But being defeated by chops would have been really pathetic and sad, so I ended up trying again. Figuring I had aimed a bit too high by attempting a glazing, I decided to find an extremely simple, bare-bones - but not boring - way of cooking some chops.

I like to get basic family cookbooks from time to time, because even if you have a million of those, there is always a little trick that you didn’t know hidden in those pages. Deborah Anzinger wrote a really cute book called “Cook”, and even if I am not part of her target audience (the book is definitely aimed at working parents), I liked it. It contains a few uber-basic recipes I had never tried, demystified and simple enough that they could be customized and played with to my heart’s content. It was in that book’s pages that I found a very easy pan-fried pork chop recipe that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for.

I love maple syrup (I am not Canadian for nothing, after all), I love balsamic vinegar and I love hot sauce. Would I still love them once they were all mixed together? Well, yes I did! Sweet, tangy and spicy. How can that be wrong, I ask you?

In fact, I love the sauce so much that it became a go-to sauce. If chicken fingers or popcorn chicken are something you like, you simply have to try this sauce! But without further ado, here is the complete recipe:

4 boneless pork chops, about 3/4-inch thick
Sea salt and ground pepper
Olive oil
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 to 3 teaspoons hot sauce (to taste; I used my beloved Sri Racha sauce and it worked beautifully)

Nick the edges of the meat to prevent it from curling during the frying, and sprinkle the chops with sea salt and ground pepper, to taste. Mix the maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and hot sauce together in a small bowl. Taste and adjust the hot sauce until the mixture has the desired kick.

Preheat a glug of olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Lay the chops flat in the pan and cook until slightly golden, about 3 minutes. Flip the chops and fry for another 3 minutes.

Pour in the sauce and turn the chops over, to coat. Cover the frying pan and cook for another 2 minutes, until the meat is cooked through, and the sauce lightly caramelized and glazing the chops.

These chops are delicious with rice and vegetables, but if it's Friday and you want to treat yourself, sweet potato fries or mash are definitely winning sides!

Adjust the cooking time according to how thick your pork chops are: the thicker they are, the longer they need to cook! But the whole thing takes 10 minutes tops to put on the table, which makes it very practical as a weeknight dinner idea.

You can substitute the pork for scalloped chicken breasts (try breading them like I did with my Parmesan chicken cutlets...), and I am pretty sure this sauce will be amazing on grilled tofu! That's a must-try for me in the near future... You can also use plum sauce instead of maple syrup, to give your dish a little Asian twist.

Can I just say I am so glad I did not give up on pork chops, even if they have previously frustrated me so freaking much. Instead of writing them off, I discovered a great quick-meal idea, and a tasty sauce I will use over and over again. Imagine all the deliciousness I would never have experienced if I had Sid Vicious-ed the whole deal...

I raise my glass to Joe (who would have turned 60 today!) for inspiring me to overcome even the silliest things in life.

By the way, here is my amazing tattoo-artist's online portfolio. She is the best!

Sunday, 19 August 2012

French Toasts

On a nice sunny Sunday morning, is there anything more awesome than a pile of French toasts? Having them served to you in bed, maybe, but since the cat really can't hold a spatula properly, I have resigned myself to making them and eating them somewhat vertically.

People have been making French toast, or pain perdu, for a long time. The oldest recipes for it date back to the 4th century, and it was already the yummiest way to use up bread gone a bit stale (it soaks up more egg mixture without falling apart than fresh bread will, so feel free to leave a few slices on the counter overnight if you plan on making French toast the next morning). It was eaten by peasants all over Europe, but I am not sure when it became nominally French. Today, it is a lovely brunch dish that you can make with any kind of bread that's sliced thick enough.

Some people top it with all kind of extravagant stuff, but I like to keep it simple (mostly because I am generally per-caffeinated when I make them): fresh berries and maple syrup. Feel free to use any other fresh fruit you like (peaches and bananas are especially awesome), toasted walnuts or pecan, and top your creation with whipped cream, creme anglaise or honey (sprinkle powdered sugar on top if you want; it's naughty, but I have to admit it IS pretty). I used rather conventional bread in the pictures, but a nice baker's bread stuffed with nuts and fruits makes French toast extra-special!

Nadia G.'s "Bitchin' Kitchen" recipe is virtually identical to the one my grandmother taught me, with the slight difference that my nonna spiked her French toast with nutmeg, making us all a bunch of raving addicts who only swore by her recipe. Here's how to do it:

4 eggs
1 vanilla bean (or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract)
Brown sugar
Freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup milk
Sea salt
4 to 8 thick slices of bread
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup fresh berries
Maple syrup

In a bowl, beat together the eggs, the seed of 1/2 vanilla bean (or the vanilla extract), a big pinch of brown sugar, a pinch of freshly ground nutmeg, a splash of milk and a small pinch of salt.

Slice 4 pieces of bread 1-inch thick. Drown in the egg mixture. Melt the butter in a large frying pan on medium heat. Fry bread until golden brown on both sides, 3 to 5 minutes per side (fry in batches of 2 slices, if needed).

Pile the toasts on a serving plate, sprinkle with fresh berries and serve with maple syrup.

This makes a lovely breakfast for 2, but the recipe can easily be doubled or tripled for a crowd (the mixture with 4 eggs can soak up to 8 slices of bread, so only double that if you plan of frying an entire loaf). Serve it with some OJ and coffee, unless it's a special occasion, in which case, mimosas and a side of bacon are mandatory.

If eggs are not your thing, here is a vegan version from my dear "Vegan with a Vengeance". Mixing flour with a non-dairy milk makes an interesting substitute for the eggs, and chickpea flour is as close to the real thing as you can get. Simply use this little mix instead of the traditional egg mixture:

1/2 cup soy creamer
1/2 cup rice milk or plain soy milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup chickpea flour

Pour the soy cream and rice milk in a wide, shallow bowl. Mix in the cornstarch, and stir until dissolved. Add the chickpea flour and mix until it is mostly absorbed. Add vanilla extract if you want to sweetened it up a bit, use canola oil instead of butter to keep your bread from sticking to the frying pan and voila! Vegan French toasts!

With a little imagination, French toast can be quite versatile. Omit the vanilla, sugar and nutmeg, and you can make savory French toast served with breakfast proteins like sausages or ham, some roasted breakfast potatoes, a few asparagus and a drizzle of Hollandaise sauce...

Enjoy the beautiful Sunday!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Peach Pie Phobia

I don’t know why pie crust is such an intimidating thing to bake, but it gives me cold sweats. My mom makes an awesome pie crust: buttery and flaky, firm enough to hold gooey fruit fillings, but never brittle… You know, that perfect-mom-made-pie-crust thing… Living up to that is daunting, to say the least.

Pies have a reputation as something terribly tricky to make from scratch, and yet our mothers and grandmothers make it look so effortless. I had virtually no counter-space for a long time, so I had the ideal excuse to avoid attempting to bake a pie, but now that I have a giant granite-top kitchen island, that alibi no longer works... It's peach season, they are gloriously delicious and I wanted to make a gorgeous dessert with those wonderful fruits. Any kind of home-made pie just screams comfort, safety and homeliness; exactly what I was in the mood for! But I had to gather my courage and make crust…

It took a bit of cajoling, but my mother ultimately surrendered her pie crust recipe. It makes enough dough for 3 double-crusted, 9-inch pies, and can be frozen and thawed (at room temperature) for later use. It’s great for quiches and other savory pies (like the fall and winter classic chicken pot pie), so I suggest you go ahead and make a whole recipe and save your leftovers preciously.

I had flagged the recipe for the filling in “Vegan Pie in the Sky”, both because I passionately love peaches, and because I was really intrigued by the idea of adding some of my beloved basil in a pie! Basil is not just a sweet aromatic herb one can use in savory dishes: it tastes amazing with fruits! Some bars offer trendy cocktails made of strawberry or raspberry purée with basil and freshly cracked black pepper. And it is so freaking good!! I figured it would go just as well with the delicate sweetness of fresh summer peaches. If you don't enjoy the taste of basil and fruits together, you can omit it, and brighten the taste of this recipe's filling by using 3 tablespoons of finely chopped candied ginger and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, another spice combo often used along with peaches.

Peeling fresh peaches is not that complicated, but it requires an extra bit of effort if you don’t want to butcher the delicate fruits. Score the peaches by carving an X at the bottom of the fruits.

Bring a very large pot of water to a boil, and while it heats up, prepare a big bowl of ice water (cold water and lots of ice cubes). When the water is boiling, put the peaches in for a minute, then transfer them to the bowl of ice water with a slotted spoon (that process is called blanching, by the way). 

When they have cooled enough to be easily handled, simply peel off their fuzzy skin using the cuts you’ve made as a starting point (a vegetable peeler works great for this). The boiling will have made the skin very easy to remove. You can now cut your peaches into thin slices (about ¼ inch thick). Watch your fingers, because peeled peaches are slippery bitches!

If you are using frozen peaches because you got a massive craving for this pie in the middle of February, let the peach slices thaw in a sieve placed over a big bowl until they are no longer frozen-solid, but don’t let them get too warm and mushy. Frozen peaches are usually sliced pretty thick, so you need to slice them even thinner, and if they get too soft, it will get messy! Check them regularly, and when they are partially thawed, just soft enough to cut through, slice them thinly.

6 cups non-bleached all-purpose flour (5 ½ cups for the dough, and ½ cup for surfaces)
2 tablespoons baking powder
½ teapoon salt
2 cups high-quality vegetable shortening, cut into small pieces
1 large egg, beaten
¼ cup white vinegar
1 2/3 cup whole milk, and extra for brushing

6 cups sliced peaches (about 8 peaches)
3/4 cup organic cane sugar
1/4 cup non-bleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
8 average-sized basil leaves, snipped into small pieces
1/8 teaspoon salt

Sift 5 ½ cups of flour, the baking powder and the salt together in a large bowl. In a 2-cups measuring cup, mix the egg and vinegar, and add milk until you have 2 cups of liquid. Add the shortening to the dry ingredients, breaking it up with the fingertips or pastry cutter and rubbing it into the dry ingredients until it is crumbly and mixed in.

In 3 additions, add the wet ingredients to the dry, blending well with the hands between each addition: spread your fingers to scrape the bowl well while mixing. Blend until all the liquid ingredients are just incorporated, being careful not to over-mix. The dough should be moist and homogenous.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight.

While the dough chills, score, blanch and slice the peaches. Mix all the filling ingredients together in a bowl just before you are ready to fill the lower pie crust.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Sprinkle flour on the working surface and on a rolling pin. Take a fist-sized piece of the dough and form it into a ball (1 fist-sized piece should equal 1 crust, so in theory, you should have 6 fist-sized balls of dough: I suggest you separate and freeze the dough you won’t use right away at this point). Place the ball of dough on the working surface and flatten it with the rolling pin. Work the dough in a roughly circular shape by rolling outwards. The dough should be about 1/4 inch thick, maybe a wee bit thicker for the bottom crust.

Once the dough is rolled out to the desired size, fold it in half, place it in the pie plate, and unfold. Gently press the dough into the plate and smooth it out. Brush the edges with a pastry-brush dipped in milk. Roll out the top crust portion of dough.

Fill the bottom crust with the filling. Fold the top crust in half, create slits or cut outs to let steam escape, then delicately lift it, place it on top of the filling and unfold. Using the fingertips, the back of a spoon or a fork, pinch the dough around the edges to join the two crusts firmly and trim off the excess dough with a butter knife.

Lightly brush the top crust with milk. Bake for 25 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 degrees and slip on a pie crust shield. Bake for an additional 20 minutes. The filling should be bubbling and the crust should be golden. Place the pie on a cooling rack and cool for at least an hour before serving.

I am way too lazy to do lattice crusts, but I still wanted to decorate the top crust with something prettier than boring old slits to let the steam escape (by the way, you absolutely need to have holes of some kind in the top crust, because if steam from the baking fruits cannot escape, your pie will explode; so unless you want your creation to look like the Vesuvius, post-eruption, make sure your pie can breathe!).

So I used cookie cutters once my top layer of dough was rolled out, cut a few stars out, put the top layer on, then laid my cut-out shapes on top, as decoration, and sprinkled the whole thing with a pinch of cane sugar. Pretty thrifty, huh? It would have been a bit more precious with mini-cookie cutters, made especially for pie decorating, but I didn’t have enough time to hunt any of those down. If the cookie-cutters stick to the dough, just dip them in a bit of flour and carry on. Remember to work quickly because as the dough warms up between your fingers, it can distort the shapes.

For a first-time pie-baker, I think it ended up looking pretty bitching!

If you already have a pie-crust shield, congrats: you are a domestic nerd! Personally, I had never heard of such a contraption before I thumbed my way through “Vegan Pie in the Sky”, but I have been known to be out of the loop. If pie-making is something you can see turning into a passion, go ahead and buy one, but if you are broke or feeling DIY, you can make one out of tin foil! Simply follow these instructions, and you are all set: The shield is basically there to make sure the edges of the pie don’t overcook and become brittle and dry, but I know many cooks who have baked without one for ages and still make delicious pies. Try baking one pie with and one pie without: if it makes a significant difference, keep using it.

Here is another thrifty trick if you don’t have a rolling pin (not everyone does: don’t judge!): use a standard bottle of wine, full, with the label removed. Flour it well, and roll on! The trick is to flatten dough with even pressure, so a cylindrical bottle weighted down with water (or wine, if you bottle is brand new!), works just as well as the rolling pin.

How did my peach pie taste, you ask? Well, if you must know... it was delicious!! The peaches got very soft (but not liquid), almost like a compote. I couldn't really taste the basil, but I suppose its taste infused the peaches with yumminess, because that is what fresh basil tends to do. As for the crust, there is a reason my mom swears by that recipe. The texture is rich, buttery and flaky, and it was strong enough to hold the deliciously syrupy peach filling. In other words, a great success, for a first-timer! I am very, very proud of Pie #1. She's so prettyyyyyy!

And my boyfriend tried to steal the leftovers and I had to chase him around our apartment to get the pie plate back. I am not even joking.

Sure, pie-making is time-consuming work, and it can be messy. But it is nowhere near as hard as I had imagined, and it is very rewarding when you watch this gorgeous piece of pastry cool on the kitchen counter. Its even more rewarding when you wolf down a big piece! My first pie was definitely not perfect, but it was awesome and it gave me quite a boost of confidence in my cooking abilities! If you are looking for a baking challenge, conquer the art of pie-making, and nothing will get in your way again!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

"Bow-Ties Are Cool" Pasta

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I have serious geek tendencies.  I love good sci-fi and weird fiction, and I seriously believe they deserve as much credit as “serious” literature. I am pretty sure that my mom, who is a total Trekkie and a “Lord of the Rings” fanatic, is largely responsible for that. No, I wasn’t taught Klingon or Elvish as a child (whew!), but “Next Generation” was my “Sesame Street” and “The Hobbit” was my bedtime reading.

However, my boyfriend gets the credit for introducing me to “Doctor Who”, which I had inexplicably never watched before I met him. Yes, I am very late on the band-wagon, I realize that. I missed the David Tennant years because I was busy with things like so-called higher education and trying to keep a punk band functional, so “my” Doctor is definitely Matt Smith. And yes, I think bow-ties are cool, and I feel the need to declare as much every time I make farfalles, commonly known as bow-tie pasta.

Farfalle are named after the word farfalla, which means “butterfly” in Italian, and they are awesome with all kinds of sauces, particularly creamy and tomato-based ones. And when life ruffles you up, is there anything as wonderful as a big bowl of pasta? Yes, I know: eating the pasta while watching the “Doctor Who” marathon on Space!

Now, don't worry: this isn't a "fish-stick and custard" pasta sauce, but it does include fish in the form of canned tuna, and some unexpected yet delicious flavor combination.

From "Cook with Jamie", geeky-fied by me!

1 package dry farfalle
Olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
1/2 to 1 fresh chile, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 bunch fresh basil, leaves coarsely chopped
1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes
2 (10 ounce) cans tuna in olive oil, drained and flaked
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 lemon, juiced and zested
Freshly grated Parmesan

Preheat a splash of olive oil over medium-low heat in a large pan. Add the onion, chile and cinnamon. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion is softened and slightly sweet.

Turn the heat up to medium and add the tomatoes, tuna and some salt and pepper. Break the tomatoes up using the back of a spoon and bring to a boil.

Turn the heat down and simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to package instructions. When the pasta is cooked and drained, mix in with the sauce along with the basil leaves, lemon juice and zest and handful of Parmesan. Mix together well, adding a bit of the pasta’s cooking water if the sauce needs loosening up.

Dose the chile carefully, because too much heat drowns out the other flavors, which are awesome. Also, if canned tuna isn't your thing, feel free to used canned salmon instead: both fishes taste lovely with the other ingredients. Just make sure you get boneless, skinless and dolphin-safe canned fish!

The sauce is spicy, chunky, zesty and colorful; a great twist on simple tomato sauce. Served with cute little bow-ties, the whole thing is damn near irresistible! This dish goes really well with a red wine I recently discovered: Le Jaja de Jojo, a simple dry syrrah that's tasty with almost everything.

Have fun watching the new "Doctor Who" season, nerds!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Grilled Portobellos, Half a Dozen Ways!

I am definitely a summer creature: fresh fruits and veggies all over the Atwater market, lots of glorious sunlight, long bike rides, sandals, sangria lazily sipped on Plateau terraces, ice cream shops open until 11 pm... Yup, summer kicks the other seasons' asses. Hard.

And who says summer says grilled stuff! We don't have a barbecue for the balcony yet, but I do have a sturdy and reliable grilling pan, so I don't miss out all that much.

Portobellos are as meaty and satisfying as vegetables go. They have an amazing chewy, satisfying texture that makes them perfect for almost every dish in which you like mushrooms. I love the earthy juiciness of a well cooked mushroom, and this way of prepping them is one of my all-time favorites.

These beautiful portobellos are wonderful, not just because they are delicious and ridiculously easy to make, but also because they are so versatile: you can eat them as a gorgeous side-dish, to beef up your favorite salad, toss them with fresh pasta, a bit of garlic and olive oil, make portobello burgers (as a vegan alternative to hamburgers, or just because they are meaty and juicy: see below for the ultimate vegan burger fest!), or slice them up and stuff them in crepes, wraps and sandwiches!

For the scientifically minded, a portobello is basically a mature cremini, and they are full of vitamin D, potassium and antioxidants. Mushrooms are also believed to give a big boost to the immune system, and some research have shown them to have anti-cancer properties. As if you needed more reasons to savor these succulent grilled mushrooms! 

It gets better: use a different marinade, and give those mushrooms a whole new world of flavor, so that they can go with any type of meal! This recipe is definitely a golden one in my little collection. I found it in "Appetite for Reduction", by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, confirming that the woman is a culinary genius. Here is the basic marinade and technique, followed by a few other of her marinades (that you can also use for tofu, if you so wish) and my own favorite Asian mix. All of which are awesomesauces, of course.

4 large portobello mushroom caps, stems removed
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)

Place the portobellos gill side up in a rimmed baking sheet or Pyrex dish. Mix all the marinade ingredients together and spoon over the portobellos. Let marinate for at least half an hour, spooning the marinade over the mushrooms every 10 minutes or so.

Preheat a grilling pan over medium heat, and spray with nonstick cooking spray. Place the portobellos gills up on the grill and cover. Cook for 5 minutes, basting the mushrooms with marinade occasionally. Use tongs to turn the mushrooms 90 degrees to make cross hatched grill marks; cook for about 3 more minutes. Flip over, cover and cook for 3 more minutes.

You know the mushrooms are done when you press the center with tongs and it’s very soft and juicy. To serve, let them sit on a cutting board for a few minutes to cool off, and slice them into the desired shape or size (or leave whole, if making portobello burgers). Serve warm.

It was something like a million degrees with high humidity when I made those, so we had them with a refreshing Greek salad, but in the winter, mash potatoes or rice, over which you spoon the leftover marinade, is an amazing simple meal idea.

I like the moderate seasoning of this basic marinade, because it really allows the mushroom's flavor to shine through, and it tastes great with virtually everything. Add a teaspoon of dry basil or dry oregano if you want to season it a bit more.

Here are a few more ways to flavor the portobellos if you want them to go perfectly well with a more thematic meal. When making any of those marinades, or any marinade that needs to be poured over, I suggest mixing your ingredients together in your largest measuring cup or in a bowl with a pouring beak: it will prevent many splashy messes!

For an Indian feast, use the following marinade:

3/4 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
2 tablespoons curry powder
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

Blend the ingredients well, and use as directed.

For Chimichurri portobellos:

1/4 cup roughly chopped scallions
2 cloves garlic
1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro
1 cup loosely packed fresh parsley
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/3 cup vegetable broth

Chop the scallions and garlic in a food processor, add the remaining ingredients and puree until smooth. Use as instructed in the recipe above.

BBQ 'shrooms:

4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
3/4 cup vegetable broth
2 teaspoons arrowroot dissolved in 1/4 cup of water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate
3 tablespoons agave syrup or maple syrup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Whisk all the ingredients in a bowl, making sure the tamarind is dissolved, and use as instructed.

Simple buffalo marinade:

1/2 cup vegetable broth
1/2 cup cayenne hot sauce
6 cloves garlic, monced
2 teaspoons dry oregano

Mix the ingredients together and pour over the portobellos.

And last, but not least, my Asian marinade (see it work magic on tofu here):

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 limes, juiced
1 thumb-size piece of ginger, peeled and minced
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
Sesame seeds, to sprinkle

If you are going to use them for burgers and sandwiches, pair them with some arugula, juicy tomatoes, red onion slices and some Dijon mustard and/or a nice hummus: it makes for a very satisfying and flavorful bite! You can also cheat and add cheese and bacon; that will make you naughty, but I'll forgive you.

Those burgers are amazing, and they deserve an equally amazing side: oven-baked onion rings!

2 large sweet onions
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup cold almond milk
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 teaspoons olive oil

Slice the onions into 3/4 inch thick rings. Separate the rings and place in a bowl. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, spray with nonstick cooking spray and set aside. In one bowl, put the flour and cornstarch. Add half the almond milk and stir vigorously with a fork to dissolve. Add the rest of the almond milk and the apple cider vinegar, and stir to incorporate, then set aside. In another bowl, mix the bread crumbs and the salt, drizzle with olive oil and mix up well with fingertips. Dip each onion into the flour, letting the excess drip off. Transfer to the bread crumbs bowl and use the other hand to sprinkle bread crumbs over the onion to coat completely. Carefully transfer each onion to a single layer on the baking sheet.

Make sure you use one hand for the wet batter and one for the dry batter. Spray the rings with nonstick cooking spray and bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Flip and bake them for another 6 to 10 minutes. They should be varying shades of brown and crisp.

Grab a brew, put on a Red Hot Chili Pepper record, and enjoy barbecue season!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Butter Chicken or Murgh Makhani

I adore butter chicken. And I can't think of anyone (in my omnivorous acquaintances, anyway) who doesn't. Thick, creamy, spicy sauce and tender pieces of chicken... This stick-to-your-ribs richness is addictive and universally satisfying, all year-round. For some reason, Indian food and hot weather go very well together, and I had a craving.

My friend Marie (who is the cutest mommy in the world) made me realized I had never bothered to make some from scratch before; I used to commit the mortal sin of jarred-sauce with butter chicken. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. In order to redeem myself, I got to work!

Despite the name, there is not that much butter involved in this recipe. I am guessing the name comes from the intense, buttery texture of the sauce. However, that doesn't make it diet food! To get that texture, you can't skimp on the cooking cream, but you can do minimal damage by using the 15% stuff. There are a few steps to making this classic Indian treat, but it's nothing very complicated. The recipe was originally created to use up leftover tandoori chicken, so you need to marinate and cook yourself some chicken and THEN, make the sauce. If you have a tandoori chicken recipe you like, try making some extra next time you whip up a batch, or simply give my marinade a shot; it's delicious!

But really, the trickiest thing about butter chicken is mostly getting your hands on all the spices, some of which may require a bit of hunting (I am looking at you, cardamom and fenugreek!). I was lucky to find all the spices I needed pre-ground at the bulk store where I usually shop, but having a mortar and pestle comes in handy if you want to be authentic about it and make a paste out of some of the ingredients and spices. But if you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can always use a food processor.

4 skinless boneless chicken breasts

1 cup plain yogurt, preferably Greek or balkan style
1 lemon, juiced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic (or ground to a paste)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger (or ground to a paste)
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, finely sliced
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely chopped
4 to 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 to 5 cardamom pods, or 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon garam masala
2 teaspoons dry fenugreek leaves, crushed, or 1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup cashews or almonds, ground to a paste
1(28 ounces) can crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
1 cup cooking cream

Combine the yogurt, lemon juice, cumin, coriander, cayenne, garam masala, turmeric, garlic, ginger and salt in a medium bowl. Put the chicken in a freezer bag and cover with the marinade. Toss around to cover the chicken with the yogurt mixture and refrigerate, from 2 hours to overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven 425 degrees. Place the chicken on a rack over a roasting or baking pan (line your pan with aluminum foil, cuz that marinade can be a biatch to clean up) and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, until cooked through. Set aside, and when the chicken is cool enough to handle, cut into bite-sized pieces.

Put all your spices together in a small bowl. Ground your garlic and ginger together with a mortar and pestle or small food processor to form a paste.

Preheat a large pan over medium heat. Melt the butter, add the onions, and cook until softened, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger and spices and cook until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the cashew or almond paste. Add the water, stirring, until the sauce has the desired consistency. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Add the pieces of chicken, and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cream.

Serve hot, over basmati rice and naan bread.

If you have nut allergies, skip the almond or cashew paste; you can always add 1 or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, to give your sauce the proper "body".

Whew! It's a lot of work but tender chicken in this subtly spicy sauce is totally worth it! Wash it down with dry white or rosé wine, served very cold.