Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tropical Tea Bread

Cyclone Bianca (a fancy sounding tropical storm I think) is swirling around the Western Australia coast bringing small bursts of rain, thunder, and hot humid heat that makes the air thick with a misty haze. I barricaded myself in the apartment, reluctantly turning the air conditioner on and waited to see what would happen during my first ever cyclone experience.

Bianca sort of fizzled out so while I waited for the squally winds that never came, I baked to pass the time. I sorted through some old Gourmet magazines and came across one from years back, "The Island Issue" and marveled at how many recipes I had made out of it. That was during my tropical phase when I wanted to eat nothing but Jamaican food.

One recipe in particular caught my eye for a simple loaf of Coconut Bread. I baked it and changed it so much that it hardly resembles the original but I suspect I might have improved it. The same coconut base exists but I substituted all the regular flour with whole wheat. I infused the batter with ground cardamom, fragrant grapefruit zest, and a dash of rum extract. The original recipe calls for water but I thought plain yogurt would add some needed moisture. It came out beautifully, subtly sweet, and although I ate it plain I'm sure some butter and marmalade would be a superb addition.

For one loaf:
  • 4 cups sweetened flaked coconut, divided
  • 2 cups whole wheat self-raising flour
  • 1¼ teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated grapefruit zest
  • 1 teaspoon rum extract
Heat the oven to 350f (180c). Spread 3 cups of the coconut out on a baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake, stirring occasionally until lightly golden and toasty, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and pour into a food processor. Pulse until finely ground.

In  a large bowl, stir together the ground toasted coconut, the remaining cup of untoasted coconut, the flour, and the cardamom.

In the bowl of a mixer, beat together the butter and brown sugar until creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then beat in the yogurt, zest and rum extract. Add in the coconut mixture and mix until just combined.

Grease a standard loaf pan. Spoon the batter into the pan and spread the top evenly with a spatula. Place in the center of the oven and bake until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, and then turn out of the pan and let cool completely.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chicken with Spicy Date Couscous

When I get home from work, I immediately shed my work clothes which just feels so good, doesn't it? Then it's off to the kitchen to whip up something for dinner. I've had quick dinners on the brain lately and have been bookmarking and writing down ideas that will result in me being fed and relaxing on the couch by 7pm. The other day I stared vacantly into the refrigerator and was confronted with the familiar puzzle: all sorts of food, nothing to eat. I suspect this goes hand in hand with a closet full of clothes yet nothing to wear.

I persevered and came up with this superquick, very tasty weeknight dinner. I had the chicken ready to go which, when pounded thin, cooked in no time flat. I cooked the couscous in some stock with frozen peas, sweet chopped dates, toasted pine nuts and a good pinch of deeply spicy garam masala. The entire dish gets garnished with fresh basil. It's spicy, fresh and interesting all at once.

Speaking of good, fast recipes, I've been catching Jamie Oliver's show 30 Minute Meals lately for some inspiration. I've always liked him but now that I'm a regular viewer I sort of love him. His enthusiasm for cooking is infectious and the man can definitely throw together a fantastic looking meal. I recently downloaded his free iPhone app as well and am blown away by the innovative design and functionality of it. If you don't have it, get it.

For 2-3 servings:

  • 1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 2 teaspoons peanut oil
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1¼ cup chicken stock
  • 1 teaspoon peanut oil
  • 3/4 cup couscous
  • 1¼ teaspoons garam masala
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup pitted, chopped dates
  • 1/3 cup peas
  • 1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Place the chicken in a large ziploc bag. Pound the chicken until it is about 1/2-inch thick. Coat with the peanut oil and season generously with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Preheat a grill on high heat or alternatively, heat a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the chicken until just cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Set aside and keep warm.

In a medium saucepan, combine the chicken stock and peanut oil over high heat. When it comes to a boil, stir in the couscous, garam masala, salt, dates, and peas. Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside for 5 minutes. Uncover and stir.

Divide the couscous amongst two plates. Sprinkle the pinenuts over the top. Thinly slice the chicken and place on top of the couscous. Garnish with the fresh basil and serve.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fresh Mint & Lime Cookies

I am really good at making a Mojito to the point that if I order one at an actual bar, I'm usually disappointed. It's all about tasting and balancing things out along the way. The mint gets muddled with sugar, the lime juice and some pulp are stirred in, the rum is poured and then all of it topped off with some soda water. I taste and then add more of everything if it needs it. Finally, I present the lucky recipient with my perfect cocktail and give them a warning not to drink it too fast because they're such a fussy cocktail to make that I can't be bothered ever making more than about four.

These buttery sugar cookies are infused with Mojito flavor and remind me what a good combination mint + lime really is. The zest provides a burst of green citrus and is rounded off by the refreshing, sparkling taste of mint. The cookies themselves are crisp on the edges with a delicate crumb, prettily flecked with hints of herb and lime.

The dough can be a bit difficult to work with when rolling it into balls so if it sticks to your hands, wet your hands in ice water first and that should help. Keep an eye on them in the oven too, they can go to lightly golden around the edges to smelling of burnt butter quick.

For about 5 dozen:
  • 1½ cups (340 grams) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup superfine granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh mint leaves
  • 2 teaspoons grated lime zest
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups flour
  • Extra granulated sugar for flattening cookies
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg, mint, zest, and vanilla. Beat until smooth. Add flour to creamed mixture; stir until a soft dough forms. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 350˚f (180˚c). Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place balls 2-inches apart on a baking sheet lined with a silpat. Grease bottom of a glass with butter, dip into a bowl of granulated sugar and flatten each cookie ball (repeatedly coating the glass in sugar as needed).

Bake 7-9 minutes or until edges are lightly golden. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Smoked Salmon, Apple & Pea Salad

After living in Australia for 4 months now, I'm still in that phase where I'm enamored with certain produce, seafood, and foodstuffs that seem exotic to the American me. Any native Aussie would be undoubtedly unimpressed with things like the lobster-esque local creature called marron, or the plentiful piles of dates, or the sweeter, thinner ketchup (called "tomato sauce" here...confusing, no?).
The other day my shopping trip yielded a thick piece of smoked salmon from Tasmania. Tasmania! I have to remind myself that it is an actual place, let alone where actual salmon swim in the sea. I had no specific plans for the smoky fish but found myself tossing chunks of it together with matchstick pieces of crisp, tart Pink Lady apples and some sweet baby peas.
Besides tasting delicious, this salad is very pretty. I mixed in some spring green baby cos (romaine) leaves and dressed it with a simple mustard vinaigrette. It needed a bit more crunch (or maybe I just needed an excuse to make some croutons) so those went into the salad bowl as well.

For 2 Salads:
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoons champagne vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped shallot
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 ounces (80 grams) smoked salmon, pulled into chunks
  • ¼ cup peas, thawed
  • ½ Pink Lady apple, julienned
  • Handful of croutons, preferably homemade
  • 2 cups baby cos (romaine) lettuce leaves
  • 2 teaspoons tarragon leaves
Whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustard, shallot and salt in a small bowl until emulsified. Set aside.

Combine the remaining ingredients in a salad bowl, toss together with a couple tablespoons of the vinaigrette to taste, and serve immediately.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Gnocchi with Roasted Cauliflower & Hazelnuts

Here's a comforting, creamy gnocchi dish from Guestblogger Alita. Mmmmmm, cauliflower and hazelnuts! This recipe should warm up all my coldweather pals. ---A Crafty Lass

It's January in Minnesota which means we see gray skies or snowflakes every day while our beautiful landscape is laying dormant, buried under a thick blanket of snow and ice. And as crazy as it sounds, I
love Minnesota, so I've adapted to the cold. The key is to be well equipped to survive and possibly even enjoy a Minnesota winter: down jacket, hat, scarf, mittens, and tall boots are all required but maybe most important: some good comfort food!

My family's favorites include grilled cheese with a bowl of roma tomato soup, a pan of lasagna to share with friends, a steaming bowl of wild rice soup with homemade bread and of course, creamy macaroni and
cheese. These nourishing recipes all help us get through the long months of cold and ice.

This gnocchi recipe will be added to that list of favorite comforts from this day forward. The fluffy potato gnocchi paired with the sweet, nutty flavor of roasted cauliflower and bright red peppers are sauced with light cream and topped with the delicious crunch of toasted hazelnuts. It is just what you need on those cold, dark January nights.

So, here's to the days getting longer again, and hope for the annual, but too short lived "January Thaw" to arrive very soon.

For 4 servings:
  • Half of a red bell pepper, chopped in large chunks
  • Half a head of cauliflower, broken into small florets
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 3/4 cup cream
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 package of gnocchi (approx. 1 pound (.45 kg), depending on brand)
  • 1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts
Toss the cauliflower florets & red pepper chunks with 2 teaspoons of the olive oil along with a generous pinch of salt & pepper. Roast for about 15-20 minutes at 400 degrees. Roast the hazelnuts in a separate pan for the last 5 minutes of this process. While the cauliflower is roasting, saute the garlic and onions in a skillet with the two remaining teaspoons olive oil over medium heat. Remove from the heat and add the vegetable broth. Slowly whisk in the cream and return to the heat. Simmer gently until the sauce thickens.

Meanwhile, cook the gnocchi according to the package directions (drop in boiling water & cook approx 3 minutes). Drain and gently toss the gnocchi with the roasted cauliflower, peppers and sauce. Plate and sprinkle with roasted hazelnuts. Enjoy and stay warm!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Saganaki with Pickled Figs

One hot hot hot day I found myself dining alfresco at a Greek restaurant in a busy neighborhood outside of Perth. M and I were sipping on some daytime cocktails and ordering from the Mezze menu, which are little dishes similar to tapas, when my eye spotted “Saganaki with Pickled Figs”. I immediately thought – Hot cheese! Figs! Pickled stuff! I ordered it and loved it.

A couple weeks later in my own kitchen, I pickled the figs overnight in a simple brine. They plumped up and took on the lightly salted, astringent liquid which tempered the fruit’s natural sweetness. The next day I seared the cheese and presented 4 beautiful plates of contrasting flavors. It made for a divine Mediterranean start to the meal.

Saganaki in Greek cuisine refers to the frying pan the cheese is cooked in, not the cheese itself, which I just discovered about 10 seconds ago after I googled it. There are several cheeses that can be used here – kasseri or haloumi are probably the most common. These cheeses hold their shape when cooked and have a mild, salty quality to them.

I used the leftover pickled figs in a salad with lots of red leaf lettuce, some walnuts, a sprinkling of chevre and some sliced leftover steak. It was tasty! I can also see them chopped up, stirred into some couscous and topped with a handful of chopped fresh herbs.

For 4 servings:
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 6 ounces (180 grams) haloumi or kasseri cheese
  • *Pickled figs, drained
  • 2 cups baby rocket (arugula)
  • Lemon wedges
  • Freshly ground black pepper
Cut the haloumi into 4 rectangular pieces about a ½ inch (1.25 cm) thick.

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a skillet. When it’s hot, add the haloumi and cook, searing on one side until golden brown, about 1-2 minutes. Flip and repeat on the other side. Keep the haloumi warm while the other ingredients are being plated.

Divide the rocket amongst 4 plates. Add 4 fig halves to each along with a wedge of lemon. Put a piece of warm, seared haloumi in the center, grind a little pepper over the top and serve at once.

*Pickled Figs
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 2/3 cup white vinegar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup dried figs, cut in half from stem to end
Stir together all the ingredients except the figs in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Put the figs in a sealable container and pour the hot brine over them. Allow to cool for 30 minutes and then cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or up to a day ahead.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tortellini & Spinach Soup

I'm back to work full-time after a loooong hiatus. I still haven't gotten my routine down and find myself forgetting the little tips and tricks required of us working folks. Currently I have blisters from walking partway to work in stupidly tall (but awesome) heels so I've taken the bus to rectify my nonsensible shoe problem and have missed it, twice.

Back in my working days I was pretty good about making a weekly meal plan and sticking to it. I would plan meals for 5 days, counting on having leftovers for dinner one night and eating out another night. My grocery lists were meticulous, written down by department, so I could zip through the store without much hassle. The meals that were more time-consuming would get partly made, or at least prepped, on the weekend and the other nights I had a repertoire of quick dinners in rotation. This soup is one of them.

My mom made something like it when I was growing up and I've tweaked it and changed it over the years. It takes about 20 minutes from start to finish to make and is so very good. It's hearty, healthy and when made with high-quality Italian tomatoes, fresh tortellini and garnished with salty Parmesan and bright lemon it encompasses so many of my favorite flavors.

When you get home from work and are wavering between buying something quick, ordering takeout, or eating cereal for dinner, make this instead.

For 3-4 servings:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
  • 14 ounces (400 grams) diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 8 ounces (250 grams) frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • 2 cups reduced sodium chicken stock
  • 2 cups fresh tortellini
  • Grated Parmesan and lemon wedges for garnish
Warm the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and saute for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt and red pepper flakes, stirring occasionally for 5 more minutes. Stir in the spinach and broth. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add the tortellini, turn the heat down to a strong simmer and cook, until the tortellini are tender, about 5-6 minutes. Taste and season with more salt if necessary.

Ladle the soup into bowls and serve with the fresh lemon and Parmesan.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

200 Posts Later...

Oh how satisfying it is to reach this milestone.  Two years ago when I started this blog, I was maneuvering my way through a galaxy of millions and was trying to find a voice and a style. I just wanted to be good at it. I remember when I was a kid there were certain things I could do. I could ice skate backwards with some twirls thrown in. I could spell like nobody’s business and have the elementary school spelling bee trophies to prove it. I could hit a smoking backhand in tennis and do one-handed cartwheels all over the yard.

As I got older and dissolved into adulthood with its responsibilities and car payments and retirement savings plans and happy hours I found myself not able to get back that childhood sense of satisfaction. This may sound trite but it was really through cooking that I was able to remember. When I won the blue ribbons at the Minnesota state fair for my jams, it was the first time in a very long time that I got my swagger back.

Now there is hardly anything so gratifying as pulling off a dinner party, tackling an impossible sounding recipe, or effortlessly whipping together a favorite meal like an old pro. On the flipside, I’ve had enough kitchen disasters happen that I’m barely phased when something burns, crumbles, falls, or refuses to rise. I promptly take out my camera, document the massacre, and send it off to my pals who will laugh and commiserate with me. They in turn do the same to me and I love it.

And so a blog, like much else, is always going to be a work in progress but I’m finding my way. This next year I hope to eat new things, get back into canning, and learn to like cilantro (I'm kidding! As if!). Thank you for reading and commenting, it means so much to know that you are all out there.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Prawn & Potato Pie

Happy New Year everyone!

Normally I like to be able to say - "don't be alarmed by the long list of ingredients" or something along those lines but that sentiment does not apply here. This is fussy to make, there's no getting around it. But look! Cubes of potatoes are combined with sweet, chopped prawns, creamy leeks, mellow gruyere and laced through with fresh dill.

If you’re feeling chipper one morning, the radio is on, and you’ve got a mimosa at the ready then making this pie isn’t really a burden at all. Paired with some sparkling and fresh fruit this made for a delicious brunch. I can also see it served for dinner alongside a lettuce salad dressed with mustard vinaigrette. I love brunch, perhaps because brunch often involves morning cocktails, and am eager to encounter the next great strata or coffee cake or quiche recipe. This pie flirts with being a quiche but doesn't contain enough eggs for such a classification in my book.

This dish is based on an old Cooking Light recipe but I’ve changed it so much that it barely resembles the original. I liked the idea though: a prawn (or shrimp) pie filling in an easy pat-in-the-pan crust. I make my crust with half quinoa flour and really enjoy the subtle nutty note it imparts. That, plus the touch of cornmeal, makes for a sturdy crust.

Leftovers reheated nicely the next day.

For the crust:
  • ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup quinoa flour
  • 2 tablespoons coarse cornmeal
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • ¼ cup ice water
  • ½ teaspoon white vinegar
Whisk together the flours, cornmeal, and salt. With a pastry blender, work in the butter until pea-sized crumbs form. Stir in the ice water and vinegar. The dough will be crumbly. 

Spray a pie plate with cooking spray. Pour in the crust and press it evenly along the bottom and up the sides of the plate. Bake for 5 minutes at 375f (190c). Set aside on a cooling rack while the filling is being prepared. Leave the oven on.

For the filling:
  • 4 small fingerling or other yellow-fleshed potato
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 ounces (50 grams) cream cheese, softened
  • 2 teaspoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 9 ounces (.25 kg) uncooked prawns, tails removed and coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup grated gruyere
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 large leek, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
Cook 4 small yellow potatoes in boiling salted water until just tender. Drain and set aside. When cool enough to handle, cut into cubes. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and cream cheese with a mixer until blended. On low speed, beat in the flour, mustard and evaporated milk. Stir in the prawns, gruyere, dill, salt, and reserved potatoes.

In a nonstick skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring frequently, until just soft, about 10 minutes. Stir the leeks into the filling.

Pour the filling onto the crust, evenly distributing the ingredients. Place in the center of the oven and bake for 40 minutes so that the filling is set and the top is golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Slice and serve.