21 December 2012

fried goat cheese

When we travelled to Tuscany we stayed at Il Canto del Sole, a farmhouse villa in Monteroni d'Arbia. Owned by a charming couple, Luciano and Laura, the highlight of our stay there was an amazing multi-course dinner they lovingly prepared for us.

As great as the meal was, the wine was even better. Luciano shared from his private stock of Brunello di Motalcino. I must have drunk a lot because I can no longer remember all that we ate. I do know we had a delicious fried goat cheese, which I've tried to reproduce here.

1 round of goat cheese
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1 tsp. dried herbs de Provence or thyme or any mixture of herbs
1/2 tsp. powdered garlic
1/2 tsp. pepper
pinch of kosher salt
1 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup of flour
olive oil

Put the panko in bowl. Add herbs, garlic, pepper, and salt. Mix well to combine. Beat the egg in a separate bowl. Put flour on plate.

Remove any outer casing from cheese and dredge in flour. Drop the floured cheese into the beaten egg. Flip it gently to coat with egg on both sides. Lastly, put it into the seasoned panko breadcrumbs. Flip it to coat on both sides. Put a little olive oil in a nonstick pan. Use just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil shimmers, you’re ready to fry.

Set the cheese down gently in the hot oil. It should start to bubble around the edges immediately. Keep an eye on your cheese…it cooks fast. When the cheese is brown on the bottom (this will happen very quickly), flip it over carefully with a spatula. Remove and serve.

13 December 2012

slow cooker pulled pork

Winter is not a good season if you're a pig.

Traditionally, hogs have been butchered in early winter. Pigs born in the spring are mature by this time, so a winter slaughter reduces the amount of feed needed for the long, cold season. And, with fewer mouths to feed, farmers are free to sleep in mornings.

Regardless of season, pork has become my favorite type of meat since moving to Canada. It's not that Canadian pork is better than the US, it's more that Canadian beef and lamb are much less tasty than their American counterparts.

Since I've come to eat more pork here, I've also found it to be extremely versatile and varied depending on the cut. On a recent shopping adventure I found boneless pork shoulder roast on sale. Not knowing exactly what to do with it, I bought it on impulse. Once home, I discovered that this is the cut used for pulled pork, a dish I've loved when eaten in the Southern US but never attempted to make until now.

2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 cup root beer
1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (4-1/2 to 5-pound) boneless pork shoulder (also known as pork butt)
1 1/2 cups barbecue sauce
3/4 cups reserved cooking liquid

Place the onions and garlic in an even layer in the slow cooker and pour in the root beer.  Combine the sugar, chili powder, salt, cumin, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Pat the pork dry with paper towels. Rub the spice mixture all over the pork and let stand in refrigerator overnight. When ready to cook, place the meat on top of the onions and garlic. Cover and cook until the pork is fork tender, about 10 - 12 hours on low.

Turn off the slow cooker and remove the pork to a cutting board. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a medium heatproof bowl. Pour the onion mixture from the slow cooker through the strainer and return the solids to the slow cooker. Set the strained liquid aside.

Using 2 forks, shred the meat into bite-sized pieces, discarding any large pieces of fat. Return the shredded meat to the slow cooker, add the barbecue sauce and reserved cooking liquid; mix to combine.Taste and season with salt as needed.

30 August 2012

blueberry gelato

God, I miss Italy.

Of all the amazing experiences we had there, the thing we talk about most is the gelato. We ate it every day for two weeks. Often, we had it twice daily. My favorite gelato duo, melone and pistachio, gave me an excuse to double my order.

There's no such thing as bad gelato in Italy. Even if it's only so-so and made from non-fresh ingredients, it's still great. Gelaterias showcase their selections and label them in Italian, of course. This only adds to the allure for a non-native speaker.

It's easy to figure out that "limone" is lemon and "cioccolato" is chocolate. As both are red, there's a 50/50 chance that "amarena" is cherry and "fragola" is strawberry. "Tiramisu," "cappuccio" and "panna cotta" obviously refer to other well-loved non-gelato Italian flavors. But how would you know that "nocciola" is hazelnut, or that "ananas" is pineapple? And aside from the color, how could you be sure that "pesca" is peach and not fish, which the word also means?

I don't really remember seeing blueberry (or "mirtillo") gelato, but if I had, I'm sure I'd have ordered it. As we've been knee-deep in fresh, locally grown blueberries here, I took on an ambitious project of making my most complicated ice cream concoction yet. The result was heavenly in texture and taste. But it's way too much work to make again!

4 cups blueberries
5 egg yolks, room temperature
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1½ cups sugar
¾ cup water

In a saucepan, dissolve ½ cup of sugar with ¾ cup of water over medium heat. Add the blueberries and bring it to a simmer for a couple of minutes, until the water turns into a blueberry sauce. When the sauce is cool, blend it at high speed in an electric blender.

Then proceed to make the custard. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar. Then add ½ cup of the heavy cream and beat until a creamy white mixture forms. In a saucepan, heat the milk and the remaining heavy cream over medium heat. When bubbles begin to form at the edges, turn the heat off and take ½ cup of the heated milk. Then slowly pour this ½ cup of hot milk over the yolk mixture, while stirring the mixture constantly. Once the eggs are tempered, turn on the heat again, pour the custard into the saucepan with the milk and continue cooking. Stir constantly using a wooden spoon.

Check if the custard is getting thick enough. To test: the custard must coat the back of the wooden spoon When you notice a clear trail, the custard is ready. Quickly pour the custard in a bowl, over another bowl with ice. Wait until the custard cools down, and then put it in the fridge for at least 2 hours, covered with plastic wrap.

When the custard is cold, make the blueberry gelato using your ice cream machine. This recipe makes more liquid than my ice cream machine can hold. Don't make the mistake I did by trying to fill the ice cream maker to the top, or else you'll have overflowing purple juice all over your kitchen!

29 June 2012

snap peas with shrimp and almonds

I can blame my family upbringing for two things: my fondness for fine food and my inclination towards intoxication.

On countless Saturdays, my mom, brother, sister and I would be herded into the car by my father for an afternoon of bar-hopping. We made our way from one beer joint to another, as my father got progressively more drunk and we got progressively more bored of it all.

After too many hours and too many rounds of draughts, we'd inevitably end up at one of his preferred restaurants for a late night dinner. Usually that meant turtle soup and prime rib at Reeb’s, or “chink-chink-Chinaman” (my father’s term) at Jong Mea.

Jong Mea was a typical Cantonese-style restaurant that catered to an exclusively Western clientele. I loved everything about it – the dark, hazy room, lined with paintings of Chinese landscapes; the thick, oversized menu with unusual, strange-sounding dishes; the black-suited Chinese wait staff who spoke in broken, undecipherable English; the mysterious and exotic, satin-clad bartendress who my mother nicknamed “the Dragon Lady.”

Maybe I loved too much about Jong Mea. I can probably blame these visits during my formative youth for instilling in me a love for all things Asian, especially men. To be sure, my first childhood crush was on a waiter named Sam Chin. I adored him – his dark, narrow eyes, his shiny, course black hair, his toothy grin and mischievous laugh. I dreamed of taking him home and making him my secret best friend, holding him close to me and caressing his soft, smooth skin.

Jong Mea was famous for War Su Gai, deep-fried chicken breasts that were coated with a flavorful gravy and garnished with almonds. To this day, nothing’s ever been as good as their take on the Cantonese classic, Shrimp in Lobster Sauce. Another favorite was Shrimp Subgum Chow Mein, again with almonds.

One thing that all of Jong Mea's dishes had in common was their use of the same, basic sauce. It's incredibly simple, and easily adaptable to whatever you have on hand for a stir fry.

Snap peas (or pea pods)
Peanut oil
Chopped garlic
Almonds (I used Blue Diamond Smokehouse wasabi soy flavored almonds... mmmm...)

Basic Chinese white sauce:
2 Tbl. soy sauce
3/4 c. chicken stock
1 Tbl. grated ginger
1/2 tsp. chopped garlic (1 small clove)
1 Tbl. cornstarch

First, stir fry shrimp (or meat or tofu). Remove it from the pan. Next, stir fry your vegetables.

Pre-mix all the sauce ingredients.

Stir fry shrimp and garlic in peanut oil until shrimp are just opaque. Add snap peas and stir fry a minute until coated with oil. Remove a few of the hot veggies and put into the white sauce mixture to heat it.

Add the white sauce into the pan with the shrimp and pea pods. Bring to the point that it just starts to boil, then back down on the heat. Simmer for a minute or two until the sauce is clear and thickened.

Serve with almonds, chopped green onions, cilantro, or sesame seeds, or...

18 June 2012

strawberry basil gelato

Although the official start of summer isn’t until June 20th, most of North America considers the season to begin with the May long weekend: Memorial Day in the U.S. or Victoria Day in Canada.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the unofficial summer thus far has been cold and wet. Disgruntled Vancouverites have dubbed it “Junuary.”

It’s too early to declare 2012’s June as the coldest on record here, but so far it’s not very encouraging. You have to go all the way back to 1971 to find a Junuary that even comes close to being as chilly as it’s been this year. The month so far has averaged just 55° F (13° C). Vancouver has had only 68 hours of bright sunshine this month. An average June experiences 229 hours of sunshine.

Despite the miserable weather, one sure sign of summer has emerged. Locally grown strawberries made their debut this weekend. And what a grand entrance it is!

Amazingly, this year’s crop is the best I’ve tasted in the 5 years I’ve lived here. At first bite, you discover a strawberry that has all the complexity of a sip of fine wine. It overwhelms with layers of flavor, from striking sweetness to a tinge of tang. A juicy burst—sweet at first, lingering on the tongue—then a subtle hit of tanginess, savoury and satisfying.

To celebrate this welcome harbinger of sunny days ahead, I made strawberry basil gelato. My version might not be classified as a true gelato, since I intentionally kept some small strawberry chunks in the mix rather than making if totally smooth and creamy. In combination with homegrown Italian basil, it becomes an absolute delight for the senses.

1 pound fresh strawberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
2-3 tbsp fresh chopped basil; 1-2 tsp dried basil

Remove the green tops of the strawberries and rinse them in cold water. Place the berries and the sugar in a food processor and blend until puréed. Add the milk and lemon juice and continue blending until all the ingredients are mixed together thoroughly.

Whip the cream with a whisk until it begins to thicken and acquires the consistency of buttermilk. Add the puréed strawberries and basil; mix thoroughly. Pour the mixture into an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's directions.

18 May 2012

pici con calamari

It’s amazing what you find that you have stocked away in your kitchen when it comes time to move. As we were furiously packing boxes for moving day, we came upon many pantry items that we’d been saving for a special occasion. 

Too good for everyday use, most of these jars of sauces, condiments or speciality items were gotten on trips to exotic places. Among these were several packages of pici pasta that we brought back from our time in Italy

Pici is a thick, hand-rolled, egg-less spaghetti that is only available in the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany. This small area between Montalcino and Montepulciano is home to sprawling vineyards, olive groves and picturesque views of ancient cypress trees.

Pici is typical of cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine) — utilizing only durum wheat flour, water, green Tuscan olive oil and a lot of loving time and effort. It’s usually paired with a meat sauce or ragu, allowing the purity of the saltless flour and unique texture of the noodles to create a sublime pairing with the richness of other ingredients.

In honor of the one year anniversary of our trip to Italy, and to celebrate our first home-cooked Italian meal in our new house, I pulled out a package of pici that we bought in Pienza. Opting for an uncomplicated, use-what-you-have-on-hand approach, I made a simple squid and tomato sauce to compliment the noodles.

 Pici (or any other spaghetti) noodles
2 medium squid, cleaned & diced
cups grape tomatoes, halved
¼ bunch of parsley, chopped finely
4 cloves garlic, halved and smashed
salt & pepper
2 tsp peperoncino
1 cup white wine
extra virgin olive oil
grated parmesan cheese

Halve garlic cloves and smash. Saute' garlic and peperoncino in a saucepan with extra virgin olive oil.   When garlic starts to turn golden, discard.  Add diced cuttlefish.  Cook on medium heat a few minutes. Add white wine.  Increase heat and let liquid evaporate. Reduce heat to low and add tomatoes and parsley (reserving some for later).  Season with salt & pepper.  Cook pasta. Add 2 tablespoons of the pasta water to sauce. When ready, serve with chopped parsley and cheese.

26 April 2012

deep fried tofu

What does tofu have in common with a dildo?

They are both meat substitutes.

Nutrition-wise, tofu is better for you than meat. Whether a dildo is better for you may be a matter of personal preference.

Regardless, there's no denying that tofu is a complete source of protein. It's the only food product that provides all eight essential amino acids. It contains no animal fats or cholesterol, is low in sodium, contains few calories, and is easy to digest. It is also an excellent source of iron and vitamin B. And because calcium sulfate is used in the manufacturing process, it's a good source of calcium.

I'm not a dietician, but I suspect that deep frying tofu lessens it's health value somewhat. I don't really care... tofu just tastes especially good that way.

1 package of firm tofu
sweet and sour sauce
soy sauce
chilli sauce
black sesame seeds
wheat flour
panko bread crumbs

Cut tofu into small squares. Wrap tofu pieces with paper towels and place it on a flat plate. Let sit for about 15 minutes so that some of the liquid drains into paper towels.

Dip tofu pieces first in flour, then in panko bread crumbs. Deep fry in 350 degree oil until the pieces turn light brown. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Mix sauce ingredients and drizzle over tofu. Top with sesame seeds.

18 March 2012

brussels sprouts with bacon and cranberries

I went to Catholic grade school in a mostly Irish and Italian neighborhood. I carried a metal lunch box, painted to look like a barn. It had a Thermos made to resemble a silo.

Carrying a barn-shaped lunch box was a huge source of embarrassment. My classmates had lunch boxes with Superman or Batman on them. Others were emblazoned with popular TV shows or cartoon characters. The coolest kids had race cars on theirs.

Every year on St. Patrick's Day, my mother filled my lunch box with green food. My sandwich had lots of green lettuce and sardine salad with lots of green olives. Instead of potato chips, I had green celery sticks. My thermos was filled with milk that had been dyed green with food coloring.

To this day, I remember the ridicule and humiliation I faced carrying my barn lunch box. It was only made worse as my classmates saw me with my green-themed food and milk. The Italian kids were especially tortuous.

And to this day, I commemorate my mother's heritage by cooking an Irish-inspired menu on St. Patrick's Day. Though Brussels sprouts aren't really Irish, they are green and a lot better than boring, plain cabbage. This year I paired this recipe with dilled baby red potatoes and my must-have corned beef.

1 teaspoon olive oil
2 thick slices bacon
4 cups Brussels sprouts (about 1 pound), trimmed, halved
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup Trader Joe's orange-flavored cranberries
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup low-salt chicken broth
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add bacon and cook, turning occasionally, until crisp, about 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Let cool. Coarsely crumble.

While bacon cools, add Brussels sprouts to drippings in skillet; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until well browned in spots and beginning to soften, 5-7 minutes. Reduce heat to low and add cranberries, shallot, and butter; cook, stirring often, until shallot is soft, about 3 minutes. Add broth to skillet; increase heat and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until broth has evaporated, 1-2 minutes. Stir in vinegar and crumbled bacon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.