Thursday, January 29, 2009

Some Favorites from a Favorite TV Chef

Thanks to the Food Network, we have been introduced to a variety of cooking shows and TV chefs. We love some, we hate others, and we even love to hate a few. Because I want to keep a more positive outlook, I’d rather focus on one of the ones I love: Ina Garten, also known as the Barefoot Contessa. Her recipes are always interesting and full of flavor. She takes classics and makes them her own, never hesitating to add as much butter, cream, or sugar that is required to get the dish just right. Warning: steer clear of her show or any of her recipes if you are attempting to follow any kind of a reasonable diet, because her food is just too good to pass up.

I recently took one of her cookbooks out of the library: Barefoot Contessa at Home. I did three recipes from the book:Simple, delicious, and quick to make. The chicken was juicy and flavorful, with a crispy outer crust, finished off by an addictive lemon-butter sauce. I spooned the sauce onto the chicken sparingly when I first served it, but it wasn’t nearly enough. We brought our plates back to the stove and had our chicken with a generous helping of sauce poured on.
This dish was good, but much too salty. If you have the book and you try the recipe yourself, I would recommend using only half of the one cup of soy sauce that the recipe calls for. I added the full amount but used a reduced-sodium soy sauce and Andrew and I both found that it was still too salty. Still, it’s a tasty recipe, probably even tastier when the saltiness is adjusted. You make a marinade with soy sauce, rice vinegar, lemon juice, oyster sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, chili paste, scallions, garlic, and ginger, and pour about a third of it over your fillet. Then, you cover the fillet in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), and I really mean cover it. Then, pour the rest of the marinade over the panko and let it sit for 15 minutes. Then, simply roast it in a very hot oven for twenty minutes, let it rest for another fifteen, and you’re done.

And finally:
Now, this is the one that you must try. Layers of creamy white sauce, portobello mushrooms sautéed in plenty of butter, salty Parmesan, and, or course, soft noodles. It’s a great vegetarian dish. It could work as a side dish as well, but honestly, it is so rich and satisfying, I really think it should be the star of your meal. I served it with a small salad and stuffed artichokes.

So, want to make one of your own? Then preheat your oven to 375 and get about ¾ of a pound of dried lasagna noodles cooking. Boil the water, salt it, add your pasta, drain … you know the drill.

Meanwhile, take 1 ½ lbs. of portobello mushrooms, remove the stems from the caps, and slice the caps ¼” thick. Discard the stems.
Next, get 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil heating over medium heat in a 12” skillet. When the butter has melted, add half the mushrooms and sprinkle with salt (kosher is best), and cook for about 5 minutes, tossing occasionally, until they are tender and have released some of their juices. Repeat with remaining mushrooms.
You’ll also need some lovely creamy white sauce, so get 4 cups of milk simmering in a saucepan. Ina Garten says to use whole milk, but I only had 1% on hand and it was plenty rich and creamy, so you might as well go for a low fat milk and cut a few calories. In a separate saucepan, melt 8 tablespoons of butter (yes, 8!). Instead of a saucepan, I used the skillet that I sautéed the mushrooms in so that my sauce would be infused with a bit of that mushroom flavor, and it worked really well. Stir in ½ a cup of flour and cook for a minute over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.
Pour the hot milk into the butter-flour mixture, and add a tablespoon of salt (I added a little less), a teaspoon of pepper, and a teaspoon of nutmeg. Cook and stir over medium-low heat for three to five minutes until thick. The sauce actually gets very thick, but this is good. You don’t want a runny sauce for this lasagna.
OK, is everything done? Is your oven preheated and your sauce made? Are your noodles cooked and your mushrooms sautéed? Then let’s assemble the lasagna. You’ll need a 8x12x12-inch baking dish (mine is smaller because I did half the recipe). Spread a little sauce around the bottom of the dish, then arrange a layer of noodles on top, then sauce, then mushrooms, and then ¼ cup of grated Parmesan cheese. You’ll need about a total of a cup of Parmesan, but I just grated it directly onto the lasagna like this:
Do two more layers of noodles, sauce, mushrooms, and Parmesan, and then top with one last layer of noodles, sauce, and cheese. Bake it for 45 minutes, until the top is browned and the sauce is bubbling.
Serve it with one or two of your favorite veggie sides, and you’ll be in heaven.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Story About Hot and Sour Soup

I can’t eat hot and sour soup without being reminded of a cold January day when my Mom and I trekked out to the café around the corner for a steaming bowl of soup for lunch.

Now, for any readers who don’t already know, I’m from Montreal. So when I say it was a cold January day, I mean it was a COLD January day. I’m talking so cold, that when you open up the door a crack to get the newspaper, you’re chilled in seconds and it will take you the next hour to get warm again. I’m talking so cold that it literally freezes your face, as in, after a minute or so, you can’t smile, frown, or wiggle your nose. I’m talking so cold that unless you’re wearing snow pants, your legs go numb so that if you flick your thigh, you won’t feel it. I’m talking so cold that leaving an indoors, heated environment wearing anything less than a parka, a scarf, a toque, insulated gloves, and warm boots, is asking for hypothermia.

So, yeah, it was that kind of cold. And, very wisely, my Mom suggested that we go around the corner to this little café and have a bowl of their hot and sour soup for lunch. It would be just the thing for a day like this. I gladly accepted her invitation.

The walk from our house to the café was less than ten minutes, but we were painfully frozen by the time we got to it. The café was warm and smelled delicious (they bake fresh bread), so we were immediately comforted by the welcoming environment and took our seats. We waited a moment before removing our coats, still feeling the chill from outside, and looked around for someone who might be available to serve us. It’s a small place, and at the moment, we were the only customers inside, so whoever was working must have been hiding in back.

I went up to the counter and called towards the kitchen: “Hello?” It took a minute, but the kindly man who owns the café with his wife eventually emerged, wringing his hands and all apologies for making us wait.

We told him it was no trouble, and really, we didn’t mind. We were in no rush, and knew that this café had never been known for its prompt and exceptional customer service. We just wanted our soup.

“We’ll both take a large hot and sour soup,” my Mom said.

“Oh,” the owner said, looking a little apprehensive, “yes, sure, but we have to make it.”

“You don’t have any now?”

“No, but we’ll make it,” the owner insisted, seeming to suddenly cheer at the thought of making soup. “No trouble.”

My Mom wasn’t so convinced. “You have to make it from scratch?”

“Yes, but it will be very fresh. No trouble, I’ll be back soon.” And he scurried away before we could get another word in.

My Mom and I looked at each other uncertainly, both thinking that this wasn’t quite what we had come for. How long could it take to make the soup from scratch? Neither of us knew, but we decided too long. So, when the owner returned with glasses of water for us, we tried again to tell him we would order something different.

The owner wouldn’t hear of it. “No, no. My wife is already making it. It will be very good. No trouble.”

At this point, it seemed rude to refuse him. Both of us were hungry, and neither of us felt like sitting around for an hour waiting for a bowl of soup, but it seemed we were stuck. We weren’t totally put off, though. Like I said, we weren’t rushed, and hadn’t we come here for the soup anyways?We chatted and waited, soon growing warm enough to remove our coats and scarves. We watched a few customers pass through, getting coffees to go or fresh bread. One man, who clearly must have been insane, ordered an ice cream cone, which he ate two tables away from us. We had warmed up completely by then, but we shuddered at the thought of the coldness of that ice cream on a day like this.

Fifteen minutes went by … twenty … and then thirty. We were really hungry now, and I was at the point where I didn’t even want the soup anymore. It shouldn’t have been this much trouble for such a simple order, and there was an apple turnover in the pastry case that seemed to be calling my name. I knew the owner was going out of his way to give us what we wanted, but isn’t there a point where pleasing the customer just goes too far? Or, more accurately, what was the point of giving the customer what he or she wants when it also meant giving them something they didn’t want? Like a wait longer than half an hour.

It was forty-five minutes after the owner first took our order that he finally emerged from the kitchen, proudly carrying two very large, steaming bowls of hot and sour soup. My Mom and I were so relieved to finally get some food that we only mumbled a quick thanks before digging in.

It only took one full slurp for me to realize that all of this had been worth the trouble. The trek through the freezing cold, the long wait, the awkwardness of feeling like we had caused an inconvenience—all of it was forgotten as I filled my mouth and my belly with that soup. The spiciness, the sourness, the savory tofu and mushrooms, and the silky strands of egg all seemed to heighten the warmth of this dark, earthy soup. After being indoors for nearly an hour, we thought that we had thoroughly ridden ourselves from the outside chill, but that soup seemed to seep into cold nooks and crannies of ourselves that we didn’t even know were there and warm them up.

I think that this experience is responsible for the profound love I have now for hot and sour soup. I order it anytime I get take-out Chinese food, and enjoy it every time (though perhaps the experience never quite matches up to the one my Mom and I had at that café).
Just recently, as the chill of winter set in, I made my own hot and sour soup. I used Mark Bittman’s recipe from The Best Recipes in the World and it was delicious. For the most part, I followed the recipe as it was, but I couldn't find the correct mushrooms or the lily buds the recipe called for, so I used a package of mixed dried mushrooms and it worked beautifully. It made the soup a little different from what I've had at restaurants, but in a good way. If you’re a fan of porcini, Portobello, shiitake, oyster, and cremini mushrooms, what's not to like? And I think the real thing to love when it comes to hot and sour soup is the broth, and this is where you get to have some fun.

First of all, as with any soup, use a good quality stock that you love the taste of. Homemade is always best, but your favorite store-bought stock is also good. And to get that signature hot and sour flavor, add your sesame oil, pepper and rice vinegar in small increments, tasting all the way, to ensure that you get exactly the flavor you want. Personally, I like the soup to have a good bite of sourness and just a bit of spiciness in the background, so I go a little heavier on the rice vinegar and a little lighter on the pepper. It's all about getting the balance that you want, so take your time with it. Andrew and I had big steaming bowls of this for dinner with fried spring rolls--it was a delicious and memorable meal.

Hot and Sour Soup
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World
Makes 4 servings

1 tsp. Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
3 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. dark sesame oil
3 tbsp. cornstarch
½ lb. lean boneless pork loin, chicken breast, or flank steak, cut into thin shreds against the grain (I used pork, and probably will again the next time I make this)
6 cups good quality chicken stock
2 garlic cloves, minced
1” piece ginger, peeled and minced
5 dried black mushrooms, soaked in hot water for at least 10 minutes
5 dried Chinese wood ear mushrooms, soaked in hot water for at least 10 minutes
10 dried lily buds, soaked in hot water for at least 10 minutes
(For the last 4 ingredients above, a mixture of varieties of dried mushrooms can be substituted)
½ lb. extra-firm tofu, cut into small cubes
¼ cup rice vinegar, or more to taste
1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
½ cup chopped scallion

Whisk together the wine and 1 tsp. each of the soy sauce, sesame oil, and cornstarch. Combine the meat shreds with this mixture to marinate while you combine the stock with the garlic and ginger in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Drain the mushrooms and lily buds (if using), trim off all the hard ends, cut into thin slices, and add to the stock. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.

Bring the stock back to a boil over medium heat and add the meat. Stir to make sure the pieces do not stick together and cook until the meat loses its pinkness, about 3 minutes. then add the tofu, vinegar, pepper, and remaining soy sauce. Reduce the heat to low again and simmer for 5 minutes.

Mix the remaining cornstarch with ¼ cup cold water and stir that mixture into the soup until it thickens, about 1 minute. Continue to stir and pour in the eggs in a slow stream. The eggs should form thin, almost transparent ribbons. Remove from the heat and season with the remaining sesame oil. Add more vinegar and pepper to adjust to taste, testing all the way to get the flavor you want. Garnish with cilantro and scallion and serve hot.

For vegetarian hot and sour soup, omit the meat and add ½ lb. more tofu and ¼ lb. slivered bamboo shoots. Substitute vegetable stock for chicken stock.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

This is one of my absolute favorite quick yet elegant pasta dishes. In fact, I’m surprised that in about two months of blogging, I have yet to bring it up. You can whip up spaghetti alla carbonara in as little as fifteen minutes, and it’s a dish that just about always impresses.

It’s so straightforward; I’m just going to walk you through the steps rather than typing up the recipe separately. For four servings, start by dicing up 5 ounces of pancetta. You can use bacon—I did because that’s what I had in the fridge—but the pancetta really is superior. You’ll also need a small onion, finely chopped, and a clove of minced garlic. Heat a large deep skillet over medium-high heat, and then add the pancetta. Once that gets going, you can start boiling your water for the pasta. When the fat begins to render on the pancetta, lower the heat to medium and add the onion. Sauté for about five minutes, then add the garlic and continue to cook until the onion is translucent, about three more minutes.
When the pasta water boils, salt it and add the spaghetti. Cook until al dente. Careful about your timing—you want your pasta to be ready right when the rest of your ingredients are ready so that it’s nice and hot. Don’t cook the pasta in advance.

While the spaghetti cooks, whisk together two eggs, a cup of finely grated Parmesan, a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper and a quarter teaspoon of salt.
Now here comes the fun/tricky part. Drain your pasta, and immediately add it to the skillet with the pancetta, onion, and garlic. Toss the pasta to mix well, and then remove the skillet from the heat. Now, immediately stir in the egg and cheese mixture. Don’t dump it all in one spot—spread it around, and stir and toss the pasta so that the mixture is spread out on the pasta. The egg will cook with the heat of the pan and the pasta, but you don’t want to get clumps of scrambled egg, so it’s really important to make sure the mixture is spread around. I do have to warn you, the egg is likely to be a little undercooked, so there is a risk of salmonella. Whether or not you want to take that risk is up to you.

Give your pasta a taste and see if you want to add any more salt and pepper. You shouldn’t need too much salt as the cheese is quite salty, but I find that freshly ground black pepper makes this dish, so you’ll probably want more of that.

Serve hot with a fresh green salad and you’ve got a classy dinner!

Monday, January 12, 2009

THIS JUST IN: Exciting Updates at Bring Your Appetite!

First of all, because I think I forgot to say it in my last post, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

All right, that’s done. Now, for some exciting new developments here at Bring Your Appetite! Are you trembling in anticipation?! Aren’t things more exciting when an exclamation mark is put at the end of every sentence?! Sorry. I’ll stop now.

First, I got a new camera!
Andrew did good and got me a Christmas gift that I was definitely in need of! It’s a Pentax Optio A40 and has features like 3x optical zoom and 12 megapixels. This should mean a vast improvement in photo quality on this blog. At least, I hope so. I’m a cook, people, not a photographer, so I do my best! Seriously, though, this camera takes much nicer pictures, even by someone as non-photography savvy as me. Everyone say, “Thanks, Andrew!”

Second, check out the awesome apron my Dad made for me:
Isn’t it cool? I love it. And I’ve been meaning to get an apron as I’m a pretty messy cook and tend to get food all over the place, including on myself when I’m at work. Now I not only have an apron, I have a special customized one that is sure to make me an even better cook. Right? Right. Everyone say, “Thanks, Dad!”

Finally, check this out:
Now, you may be thinking, so? What the heck is the Chef City Grill, where is Lake Washington Technical College, and why should I care? WELL. Chef City Grill is the restaurant run by the culinary arts students at Lake Washington Technical College, which is located in Kirkland, Washington (close to Seattle), and you should care because that is where I have started attending the culinary arts program. Yep, yours truly is officially a culinary student, soon to pass officially into the exciting, scary world of professional cooking. In terms of how this relates to the blog, some of that remains to be seen, but it will certainly have an impact. First of all, while I will continue to write about my at-home culinary adventures, I am certain that I will also be sharing some of my experiences in the culinary program with you. Secondly, and regrettably, I am quite certain that being a full-time student will cut into my blogging time. So, I’ll do my very best to continue to post about three times a week, but some weeks, that may be impossible. But I wanted to let you all know because even if there is a slow week here at Bring Your Appetite, it doesn’t mean I’ve laid my blogging pen to rest. It just means that I am having a crazy week at school, and I will soon return to tell you all about it. Everyone say, “Thanks, Lake Washington Technical College!”

So that’s what’s new and exciting in my life. What’s new with you?

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Year’s Party: Cooking with Lianne & Three Recipes

The guests arrived at around nine in the evening, but we started cooking at one-thirty. We were exhausted before the party even started, there was way too much food, but I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.I am home in Montreal for the holidays, and spent most of New Year’s Eve and into the early hours of New Year’s Day with my friend Lianne who threw a New Year’s party for our nearest and dearest. We spent the morning shopping and the afternoon in the kitchen together, so I had the rare opportunity to cook with a partner. Cooking with someone else who loves to cook and is creative and adventurous in the kitchen can be both fun and frustrating. While both of us share the same passion for food, we often disagree about the way things should be done, whether it’s how the celery should be cut for the crudités platter, or how much food is enough food. Lianne and I have very different cooking styles: we both like to be creative, but while I like to look at books and recipes for ideas and to get some basic techniques for what I am about to make, Lianne usually dives right in and likes to experiment without peeking inside a single cookbook. Still, on occasion, our creative visions intersect and we agree enthusiastically on things. So a conversation between us might go like this:

Me: Shouldn't you be baking that uncovered?
Lianne: No, I'm going to keep it covered.
Me: But don't you want the sauce to reduce and thicken a little?
Lianne: No, I want the sauce to stay the way it is.
Me: Maybe you could take to cover off for the last five minutes.
Lianne: Nope, I'm going to leave it on.
Me: Fine, do whatever you want.
Lianne: OK, I will.

Or, it could go like this:

Lianne: So I'll add some hot sauce, some brown sugar—
Me: Oh, you should add some vinegar to give it a little acidity.
Lianne: Yeah, good idea! I am so with you on the vinegar.
Me: Maybe a little tomato sauce?
Lianne: Hm, no, I don't want it to be like a pasta sauce.
Me: No, just a tiny bit to give it a hint of tomato.
Lianne: So maybe a bit of tomato paste?
Me: Yeah, that would work. And some soy sauce.
Lianne: Yes, soy sauce!

But whether we were working like a well-oiled machine, or disagreeing on everything, we had fun with it and got to enjoy together one of the great pleasures of the holidays: communal cooking. The kitchen was messy and cluttered—we balanced platters of hors d'oeuvres on bags of vegetables, placed cutting boards on stools because there was no more counter space, and filled the sink with dishes, but we made it work. We joked and bickered and collaborated and disagreed, but it was all part of the process, and we relaxed considerably once Lianne's boyfriend started serving us gin and tonics. It was New Year's Eve and we were spending it together and amongst all our friends—we had plenty to smile about.
So, because I want this post to be somewhat informative and not just my disorganized ramblings on the pains and pleasures of cooking with your best friend, allow me to leave you with a few pieces of advice:

• When it's -20 degrees C outside, don't put your pretty blue cheese appetizer served on endive leaves out to keep them cold—they will freeze and then wilt when you bring them in. We learned this the hard way.
• When throwing a cocktail party, prepare less food than you think you will need—it will probably still be too much. It was for us.
• Yes, olive oil does indeed smoke when heated to too high a temperature.
• Breadcrumbs soaked in a little milk add delicious moistness to meatballs.
• Sometimes, you need to throw your cookbooks aside and trust your own culinary instincts.
• Sometimes, no matter how many great ideas you have, you might learn a thing or two by studying a perfected recipe.
• Cook with your best friend, even if you spend the whole time arguing, because you will grow closer from the experience and love each other despite your disagreements.
And a few recipes:

Sweet-Chili BBQ Chicken Wings
From: Lianne
2 lbs. chicken wings
1/4 cup Thai sweet chili sauce
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. paprika
1 tbsp. Montreal steak spice
Preheat oven 350 F.

Cover a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Place chicken wings in a single layer on the baking sheet and bake in preheated oven for about 20 minutes until the wings are almost cooked through and the skin is just beginning to brown. Remove from the oven.
Meanwhile, combine the remaining ingredients in a large bowl to make the sauce. When the wings are done, transfer them into the bowl with the sauce and toss to coat the wings well. Using tongs, place the wings back on the baking sheet and return them to the oven for another 5 to 10 minutes, until wings are cooked through and their outsides are crispy. Serve hot.

Stuffed Mushrooms
From my Mom

24 medium mushrooms
1/4 cup finely chopped green onion
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp. snipped parsley
1/2 tsp. dried basil
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a baking sheet or cover with parchment paper.

Remove mushroom stems (loosen the stem by gently pressing it on all sides with your thumb, then remove with a gentle pull; use a spoon to scoop out any of the stem you may have missed) and finely chop the stems. Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the stems, onions, and garlic and sauté until they are tender. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients. Fill mushroom caps generously with stuffing mixture to just shy of overflowing. Place mushrooms, filled side up, onto the baking sheet. Bake uncovered in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Serve hot.

Crème Brulée
From Lianne. Makes 4 crème brulées.

5 egg yokes
1/4 cup white sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 275 F.

Combine all of the ingredients and mix well. Pour mixture into four ramekins. Place ramekins in a baking dish and fill the dish with water to about 3/4 of the height of the ramekins. Place the baking dish in the preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from oven.
Remove the ramekins from the baking dish and allow them to cool slightly at room temperature (so that the ramekins won't crack). Once they are cool enough to touch, place in the refrigerator and chill until the custard has set.

Sprinkle a thin layer of white sugar over the contents of the ramekins. There are two methods for caramelizing the crème brulée: if you have a handheld blowtorch, fire the tops of the crème brulées, moving it quickly over the entire surface. If you don't have a blowtorch, the crème brulées can be caramelized under the broiler: place the ramekins in a baking dish and place on the oven rack in the top position under a preheated broiler. Leave the oven door open and watch them carefully--they will only take a minute or a little more to caramelize and they will go from good to burnt very quickly, so watch it carefully and remove as soon as you start seeing some brown spots. Serve immediately—you want the custard to be chilled and the caramelized top to be hot.
A big shout-out to anyone who is checking out Bring Your Appetite because you heard me on Montreal's CJAD. Thanks for stopping by!