Saturday, January 30, 2010

Roasted Red Pepper Coulis

Bell peppers of all colors, as common as they are in North American cooking, I think are mistakenly considered to be one-note in terms of their flavor. You can roast or grill peppers, toss them raw in a salad, stuff them with meat or rice, or dunk them in dip, but they still taste like bell peppers: mildly flavored and a little bit sweet. Green peppers have a slightly stronger flavor, but otherwise, the colors all taste more or less the same. They have the reputation of being useful, but not really anything special. However, I don’t believe that poor bell peppers deserve this reputation. When prepared correctly, bell peppers can be something very special indeed. The case where this is most true is in a well-crafted red pepper coulis.
We made a roasted red pepper coulis similar to the one I’m about to give you the recipe for in one of my culinary classes. I think I had had something similar before, but this was the first time I realized what was actually taking place in the process: we started with a number of ingredients and then we combined them in a way that changed them into something that tasted different from any of those individual items we started with.
This coulis does not taste very much like roasted red peppers. Certainly, a hint of their flavor remains, but this process takes their simple, somewhat boring taste, and turns them into a rich, flavorful sauce. It actually tastes a little like a tomato sauce, though not a slice of tomato is added.
This is one of the many things I love about cooking: how you can start with something, and then turn it into something else, shattering your expectations. I like to be surprised when I try something new. I like to take ingredients and make them something they weren’t before. Of course, the process is really only gratifying when I am able to make something that is not only surprising, but also delicious, and that certainly is the case with this coulis.
There are endless possibilities for how you could use this coulis. It would be delicious on pasta, chicken, or pork. I think it could also be good as a topping for some vegetables, maybe broccoli. Last night, I served it with a piece of seared cod, topped with a fresh mixture of cherry tomatoes, basil, lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar. It was kind of classy, and very delicious. And have I mentioned color yet? This coulis has a fabulous, orangey-red color! It looks striking on a white plate and topped with a white piece of fish. To start the plate, I put a few spoons of coulis on the center of the plate.
Then, I tilted the plate slightly to spread the sauce into a larger oval, just a bit bigger than the piece of fish I was going to top it with.
I placed the fish on the coulis.
Finally, I topped it with my cherry tomato mixture.
I also sprinkled some basil chiffonade on the plate, but in hindsight, I think it actually looked better without. Still, not too shabby, is it?
Roasted Red Pepper Coulis
Makes about 1 ½ cups.
As usual, I encourage you to play around with this recipe. I used jarred roasted red peppers, but by all means, buy fresh peppers and roast them yourself. I’m sure the results will be superior. Also, I used vegetable stock, but chicken stock would probably also be very good. In terms of seasoning, I added the salt, pepper, and sugar to taste, so these measurements are only guidelines. You have to taste and add as you see fit. A restaurant would probably strain this sauce at the end to give it a more refined texture. Personally, I like it to have a little more “bulk” to it so I don’t bother straining. You might want to try it out though! Finally, I recommend that you do not omit the final step of finishing the coulis with butter! I think the butter makes the sauce.

2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ a medium onion, chopped
12 oz. jar of roasted red peppers, drained and chopped (or, 3 fresh red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped)
2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
¼ cup white wine
1 ¾ cups vegetable stock
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice (or more)
1 tsp. sugar (or more)
½ tsp. salt (or more)
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper (or more)
2 tbsp. butter, cut into small pieces

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until onion begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook for 2 minutes more. Add the red bell peppers and stir.

Increase the heat to medium-high and deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom. Continue to simmer until the wine has evaporated to about one quarter of its original volume. Add the vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and continue to cook until the stock has evaporated to about half its original volume.

Stir in the lemon juice, sugar, salt, pepper, and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Pour the contents of the pan into a blender and blend until the coulis is completely smooth. Return the coulis to the pan and swirl in the butter, stirring until it has melted. Taste and add more lemon juice, sugar, salt, or pepper as necessary. If necessary, rewarm gently right before serving.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cream of Carrot Soup

Last weekend, Andrew (the future husband, for those of you just tuning in) had his wisdom teeth removed. Naturally, my first thought was, “OK, so what should I cook?” I mean, that was my second thought. My first thought was, “Gee, I hope he’ll be all right.” And, of course, he was. The operation went very smoothly and the whole ordeal was about as problem-free as we could expect.

So, that put me into the role of Andrew’s personal at-home nurse: I made sure he took his pills, iced his swollen cheeks, and ate lots of delicious pureed foods. I bought pudding, Jell-O, and popsicles and I made gallons of soup. I made Chilled Edamame Soup and I made Tomato Soup and I made Cream of Carrot Soup.
My cream of carrot soup is fairly straight-forward and involves nothing earth-shattering in terms of technique, but it always receives rave reviews. I first made it at the restaurant I worked at over the summer where soup was the only thing that staff were allowed to eat free of charge. When I was the daytime cook, it was one of my responsibilities in the morning to make the soup of the day. This happened to be my favorite responsibility because I pretty much had carte blanche to make whatever I wanted using anything we already had in the restaurant. The only drawback was the selection wasn’t great in terms of ingredients. Chicken noodle and vegetable soups were standard, and cream soups were also usually doable. Sometimes, one or two of the servers would take a bowl of soup during their shift, but we often barely went through half the pot in a day. Soup doesn’t sell very well in the summer and I have to say, our soup selections were not exactly inspiring. Well, the first time I made cream of carrot, the pot was gone before my shift ended. One waitress tried it, and spread the word to customers and coworkers that it was a soup worth ordering, and it was gone in no time.
I think that a lot of people are turned off by the thought of cream of carrot soup. It sounds a little like baby food. In terms of taste, though, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Carrots are one of the most under-valued vegetables out there. They are far more remarkable than people give them credit for: they manage to be both sweet and savory at the same time and this is most evident when they are cooked. The sugars become more concentrated, sweetening the carrots, while they still remain savory. And in case that wasn’t convincing enough, I’ll also remind you that carrots are packed with nutrients, and incredibly inexpensive. I bought a two-pound bag for a dollar. As wonderful as carrots are, there is more to this soup that makes it such a hit. I hate to bring this up after raving about the nutritional value of carrots, but two other necessary components of this soup are butter and cream. Yep: pure, unadulterated, saturated fat. That said, there isn’t exactly a ton of it in there. Butter is used to sauté the vegetables and make the roux, and the soup is finished with cream. Bowl for bowl, there really isn’t an excessive amount of fat: the carrots really have center stage here.

Now, a quick note on production: at the restaurant, I had to puree my soup by transferring it, bit by bit, into a food processor. This was a messy and cumbersome process. At home, I have an immersion blender and it works wonders. It’s simple to use, easy to clean, and involves no transferring of the soup to different containers. I got mine for $30, and I highly recommend it as a kitchen must-have.
Of course, if you don’t have one and can’t get one, a blender or food processor works just fine.

So, if you or someone you know is having teeth pulled out of their mouth, make them this soup. Or, just make it for yourself and enjoy the creamy, rich, carroty goodness.

Cream of Carrot Soup
Makes about 4 medium bowls

I use chicken stock to make this soup, but if you wanted to make it vegetarian, you could use vegetable stock. A word of warning though: try to use a stock that is as smooth and mild as you can find it. Vegetable stocks can sometimes have strong flavors, but you really don’t want that here. Try making the stock yourself using only very mild vegetables. Use a lot of carrots!

2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 lb. carrots, peeled and chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp. flour
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, cold
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/2-3/4 cup heavy cream
¼ tsp. nutmeg
Salt and pepper
2 tsp. crème fraîche (optional)
2 tsp. chopped chives (optional)
Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the carrots, onion, and garlic and sauté until carrots begin to soften, 6-7 minutes. Stir in the flour and continue to cook and stir for one minute.

Stir in the stock and thyme, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are tender and the flour taste of the roux is gone, about 30-40 minutes. It is important that the carrots are soft all the way through. Otherwise, you’ll have lumpy soup.

Off the heat and puree the soup using an immersion blender, or by transferring it in batches to a food processor or blender. If necessary, return the soup to the pot, and place over medium-low heat. Stir in the cream and nutmeg and cook gently until it heats through. Taste and season with salt and pepper (use white pepper if you don’t want dark flecks in your soup).

If desired, garnish with a drop or drizzle of crème fraîche and a sprinkle of chives.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Craving Healthy Food in the New Year

Hey, welcome back! How were your holidays? Did you get some time off of work? Did you see your family? Happy New Year! Well, all the best for 2010.

This week was my first week back in classes after the Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/Winter Solstice/New Year/Just Some Time Off at the End of December break, so I repeated the little spiel above many times today as I greeted my culinary school acquaintances. In some ways, it’s a little sad to be back to the usual routine already. I had a wonderful break: I went home to Montreal from Seattle for nearly three weeks. I am fortunate enough to have a large circle of family and close friends up there who are all loving, fantastic people and who I care about very much, so it was good to see them all. The flip side of that is that it’s now sad to be away from them again, but I know that I’ll get back into the groove again here soon and it will feel like no time before I see them again.

Now, despite all that warm, mushy, lovey-dovey stuff, there is one part of my Christmas holidays that I don’t mind leaving behind, and that is all the rich, indulgent, decadent foods that I consumed throughout those three weeks. You know what I’m talking about: hors d’oeuvres made with buttery pastry and creamy fillings, meals covered in thick sauces with loads of bread and not a salad in sight, and endless supplies of Christmas cookies. There’s all the snacking, all the parties, all the eating out, all the events, and everything just seems to revolve around food, food, food! All right, so I loved every minute of it. Yes, any holiday revolving around food is my kind of holiday, but I think I’m finally ready for a break, though not from food altogether, of course. I’m ready for a break from all the indulgences of the holiday season. I’m ready for some more sensible eating, and hey, while I’m at it, why not a little exercise too? Check me into the spa, please, and don’t let me leave until February.

I am actually craving healthy food the way I normally crave butter, so how about that? I’m craving good, simple, no-frills healthy meals that will leave me feeling satisfied, but not full, or like I just gained five pounds in the last half hour. Now, I realize that healthy food can be very complicated, frilly, and just as elegant as any other food, but that’s not what I am wanting right now. I’ve had enough of frilly and elegant for a little while; I am craving simplicity. Something like Wednesday night’s creation, a concoction I’m calling Southwestern-Style Quinoa.
First of all: quinoa. Have you heard of it? Had it? It’s a fantastic little grain: not only is it a whole grain, but it is also a complete protein, so it is perfect for vegetarian cooking. Also, unlike brown rice, barley, and other whole grains, it isn’t too heavy. It’s small and light. I find it comparable to couscous in terms of taste and texture.

So like I said, I kept this dish pretty simple, using inexpensive ingredients I had around the house: onion, garlic, black beans, corn, canned diced tomatoes, lime juice, cilantro, and other seasonings. I’ve typed up the proper recipe below, but this is the general idea: I used dried beans which add considerably to the planning and preparation stages, so you can use canned if you’d like. I find that using dried beans yields the best flavor and texture, though. I soaked the beans for about twelve hours, then cooked them for a little over an hour (until just tender) in water seasoned with a bay leaf, a couple cloves of garlic, and half an onion:
The quinoa cooks in less than fifteen minutes, using the same principals as rice: two parts water to one part quinoa, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender. You’ll know the quinoa is done by how it looks: it changes from a small grain into a larger one with a small spiral uncoiled from it. Like this:
While that’s cooking, you can work on the rest of your ingredients. Sauté half a diced onion over medium heat in one tablespoon of vegetable oil until it just becomes translucent. Then, add a half cup of frozen corn and a clove of minced garlic. Cook that for a couple of minutes to let the corn thaw and soften.
Then you can pretty much throw the rest in together: the drained beans, the quinoa, along with a cup of diced canned tomatoes, a couple tablespoons lime juice, a few drops of hot sauce, and then some cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and salt.
Cook it for a minute or two longer over medium-low heat to let it heat through. When you take it off the heat, stir in a quarter cup of chopped cilantro, and then taste it again and adjust the seasoning. Serve it up and garnish with a sprig of cilantro and a slice of lime.
There you have it: a comfortably simple, tasty, and healthy meal you can enjoy this week. Here’s the recipe:

Southwestern-Style Quinoa
Serves 2
½ cup dried black beans
1 onion, halved, divided
3 cloves garlic, divided
1 bay leaf
½ cup quinoa
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup frozen corn
1 cup canned diced tomatoes
½ lime, juiced
2 drops hot sauce
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped cilantro

Soak the beans overnight in 2 cups cold water. Place beans and their liquid in a medium pot with half the onion, halved, two cloves garlic, and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for about an hour, until the beans are just tender. Remove the onion, garlic, and bay leaf and drain the beans.

Place the quinoa in a small pot and cover with one cup cold water. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer, and cover. Cook for about twelve minutes, or until quinoa is done.

Meanwhile, dice the remaining onion half and mince the remaining garlic clove. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat, then add onion and cook until becoming translucent. Add the garlic and corn and continue to cook until corn softens slightly. Add the next eight ingredients along with the drained beans and the quinoa. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook and stir until ingredients are blended and heated through. Remove from heat and stir in the cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve hot.