Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winter Vegetable Soup

December is a good month to be unemployed. That’s my opinion, anyway, and the reason why my most recent efforts to find employment have been halfhearted at best. In January, my job search will become more earnest, but for now, I’m not exactly straining myself. That said, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m lazy, because I have had no trouble keeping myself busy. Andrew and I are still settling into our new place, and so I’m working at making it feel more like home. I’ve also been exploring our new neighbourhood, and discovering wonderful restaurants, butchers, and other shops. I joined a food co-op last week that advocates for all things local, organic, and environmentally sustainable, so as you can imagine, I’m very excited. Of course, there has been some Christmas shopping, as well as some Christmas baking, and it’s nice to be able to do these things at my leisure, instead of trying to juggle them with a demanding work or school schedule. I also made this soup.
I know, it doesn’t seem like much to look at, but I had it for lunch every day last week, and I’m still in love with it. The soup is simply composed of cubed vegetables simmered in chicken stock, and flavoured with some dried herbs (that’s right, I said dried herbs, and I’m not ashamed to admit it; they taste wonderful in this soup). I used mainly seasonal root vegetables: onion, garlic, carrot, turnip, and yams. I was hesitant to add the yams at first, because I worried that they may make the soup cloyingly sweet, but that wasn’t the case at all. They add just a hint of sweetness to the broth, and the chunks of smooth, creamy yam contrast pleasantly with the firmer turnips and carrots.
I made the chicken stock myself, and it contributed significantly to how good the soup was, but I’m sure you would have decent results with store bought chicken or vegetable stock that you really like the taste of. I also added some pearl barley to a) make the soup heartier, and b) add more contrast to the texture of the soup. Pearl barley has a firm exterior that, once cooked correctly, bursts in your mouth when you bite down on it to reveal a softer inside. It’s sort of a cross between crunchy and chewy. Pearl barley is also a good soup component because it does not absorb that much liquid, compared to something like rice or pasta, which tend to soak up all the liquid in a soup if it’s left to sit, even in the refrigerator. And it tastes delicious.
Once everything was prepped, I sweated the onion and garlic, and then the remaining ingredients all went into the pot together and simmered for forty-five minutes or so. It needs to simmer for at least long enough to cook the pearl barley. Meanwhile, the stock becomes delicately flavoured with the herbs and vegetables. The resulting soup is simple and unassuming. The flavours aren’t bold or overpowering, but rather, subtle and complex. I want to say that it tastes nourishing, though, of course, nourishing is not a taste, but maybe you know what I mean. You know when you taste something, and you can almost feel how it is not just filling your belly, but also providing you with the nutrients you need, giving you energy and making you stronger? That’s what this soup tastes like, and it’s a taste I can only describe as good.

 Winter Vegetable Soup
Makes approximately 1 gallon/3.75 litres 

2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, medium dice
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried savory
9 cups/2 litres (or more) good quality chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade (taste it first and make sure you like the flavour)
1 large white turnip, peeled, medium dice
2 medium yams, peeled, medium dice
2 medium carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into 1 cm slices
½ cup pearl barley
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until it becomes translucent, about 6 minutes. Stir in the garlic, then the rosemary, thyme, and savory. Stir for about 30 seconds longer, until the garlic and herbs become fragrant. Add the chicken or vegetable stock, and then stir in the turnip, yams, carrots, and barley. Add about half a teaspoon of salt. Increase the heat to high to bring the soup to a boil. Once it boils, reduce the heat to medium and let the soup simmer for about 45 to 50 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the liquid reduces to the point that the vegetables are not swimming in the broth, add more. You can also partially cover the pot to slow the evaporation of the liquid.

The soup is ready once the pearl barley is fully cooked. The grain will have a firm outside, but when you bite into it, it shouldn’t be hard at all. Taste the soup and add salt and black pepper to taste. It is now ready to serve. This soup keeps in the fridge for up to 5 days or so, and it also freezes very well.

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Favourite Eggplant Dish

I know you’ve all been waiting on the edges of your seats to find out how I’ve been managing in my new kitchen. Well, all right, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I do think that my previous post requires some follow-up, so I will happily inform you that I’m faring well in my new workspace. It’s smaller than I’m used to, but I think the limited area is forcing me to be more organized. I’m only pulling out what I need when I need it, and then I put it away when I’m done with it, rather than steadily filling the counter with various jars, bottles, and boxes, along with the detritus of diced vegetables and trimmed meat. Someone suggested that I do away with my drying rack, and while I can’t get rid of it altogether, I’ve been moving it to the other edge of the sink while I’m cooking to give myself a little more space.
I thought that I’d share a favourite recipe of mine today. It’s from Gourmet, but I’ve made a few modifications to it. Inspired by eggplant parmigiana, this "inside-out" version makes for a tasty, healthy, and elegant vegetarian meal.
The main difference between this recipe and a more traditional eggplant parmigiana is that the eggplant is not breaded and fried, as it normally is. Instead, it is baked, and eggs, breadcrumbs, parmesan, parsley, and garlic are combined and pan fried to make patties. These patties are stacked with the eggplant, sliced fresh mozzarella, homemade tomato sauce, and sautéed arugula to create a delicious layered dish.
If you want it to look more impressive, even if you, like me, have no one to impress but yourself and perhaps a husband who will love you whether your food looks impressive or not, but you, like me, enjoy making your food look impressive, coat the bottom of each plate with some of the tomato sauce, centre an eggplant stack on it, and top with a little fresh arugula.
The resulting dish will be colourful and the taste won’t disappoint either. It offers a variety of flavours and textures, with spongy egg patties, creamy mozzarella, bitter arugula, delicate eggplant, and acidic tomato sauce.

The original recipe can be found here.

This one has my modifications:

Inside-Out Eggplant Parmigiana
Adapted from Gourmet magazine, January 2009

For tomato sauce:
1 (28 oz) can whole tomatoes in their juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
½ tsp sugar
Salt, to taste
3 tbsp. finely chopped basil

For eggplant stacks:
2 (1 lb/450 g) eggplants
6 tbsp olive oil, divided, plus additional for drizzling
Salt and pepper
½ cup plain dry breadcrumbs
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 garlic cloves minced, divided
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup water
¼ tsp red-pepper flakes
10 oz/300 g baby arugula
1 cup packed basil leaves, coarsely chopped
½ lb/250 g cold fresh mozzarella, cut into ½-inch-thick slices

Make the tomato sauce: If you want a smooth tomato sauce, blend the tomatoes with their juices either in their can using an immersion blender, or in a blender. If you prefer a chunkier sauce, simply break up the tomatoes using a wooden spoon. Heat oil in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until it shimmers, then cook shallot, stirring occasionally, until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook an additional minute. Add the blended or crushed tomatoes to the saucepan with the shallot and garlic, along with the sugar, and about a ¼ teaspoon of salt. Simmer, partially covered, over medium to medium-low heat until it thickens slightly, about 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in the basil, taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Meanwhile, bake the eggplant: Preheat the oven to 450 F with the rack in the lowest position.

Wash the eggplant, but do not peel it. Cut the eggplant into 1/3-inch-thick rounds (don’t worry that the rounds have different diameters). Brush both sides of the slices with about 2 tbsp oil and season with salt. Bake on an oiled baking sheet, turning once, until golden and tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a plate and cover loosely with foil. Leave the oven on.

Make the egg patties and sauté the arugula: Stir together breadcrumbs parmesan, parsley, half the garlic, and ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper, then stir in the eggs and water.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a 10- or 12-inch skillet (I like using cast-iron) over medium heat until it shimmers. Drop four 1/3 cups of egg mixture into the skillet and cook, turning once, until patties are golden brown and puffed, about 5 minutes total. Transfer to paper towels to drain. If necessary, repeat with remaining batter.

Add remaining tablespoon of oil to the skillet and cook remaining garlic and red pepper flakes, stirring, about 30 seconds. Add all but about one fifth (2 oz/55 g) of the arugula and all the basil to the pan, and stir until just wilted, 30 seconds or less. Stir in 1/8 teaspoon of salt.

Assemble stacks: Arrange egg patties about 3 inches apart on a baking sheet. Top each with 2 tablespoons tomato sauce, 1 slice mozzarella, 1 eggplant slice (use the ones with larger diameters for this layer), 2 more tablespoons tomato sauce, another eggplant slice (use the ones with smaller diameters), arugula mixture, remaining eggplant, and a final slice of mozzarella. Bake until cheese melts, 5 to 10 minutes.

Plate your dish: While the stacks bake, combine the remaining arugula with a little olive oil (a teaspoon or so), a pinch (1/4 teaspoon) of salt, and a little (1/8 teaspoon) freshly ground black pepper.

When the stacks are out of the oven, place approximately 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce in the centre of each plate. Pick up the plate and tilt it so that the sauce spreads out and covers the plate to the rim (try not to get sauce on the rim of the plate). Place one stack in the centre of each plate. Top each stack with a small handful of arugula, trying to keep all of it on top of the eggplant stacks. Serve right away.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My New Kitchen

Well, I haven’t done much cooking in the past few weeks, but I think I have a pretty good excuse for that. After the craziness of packing and leaving Washington, Andrew and I spent a week with my parents, during which we enjoyed my Mom’s wonderful cooking, and now we’re in our new apartment at last. This, of course, means that we are currently dealing with the craziness of unpacking, an at times seemingly insurmountable task (there’s nothing like moving to make you sit back and wonder, How did I ever get so much stuff?), so cooking still has not occurred. My kitchen is basically set up, though, and I think it’s worth talking a little about that.
First of all, we love this new apartment. It’s in an old building with lots of character—beautiful, dark wood doors, ornate moulding around the light fixtures, a clawfoot bathtub—, and it’s all in excellent condition. It’s a little bigger than our last place, and it’s divided in such a way that makes it seem much bigger. I love the kitchen as well, but it is significantly smaller than the kitchen in our last apartment. Now, you might ask, wouldn’t someone who cooks as much as I do have a hard time with a small kitchen? Well, we’ll see what I say once I actually start attempting to produce meals out of this room, but for the moment, I’m feeling pretty good about the situation.
While this kitchen is small, it is not short on storage space. You can see in the pictures that cupboards line the walls, both above and below the counters. These manage to contain plenty, but the real jewel of this little kitchen lies behind that door that you can see at the end of the room in the above picture. Now, behold what’s inside.
I have a pantry! This means that non-refrigerated food items do not have to take up space in the cupboards, because I have a whole closet for them. It’s a little colder in there as well, which is excellent for keeping foods fresher. I’m also using the upper shelves to store some extra items that didn’t fit in the cupboards, and the floor to store my kitchen electrics (food processor, blender, etc.).

The kitchen has been recently renovated, so it looks fresh and clean. Check out the frosted glass cabinets we have on one side of the room.
I like the effect of the lights reflecting off of the dishes in the cupboard. And look inside:
Looks kind of cool, doesn’t it? The appliances are also fairly new and in excellent condition. The oven has a ceramic top, which will be a change. The big advantage of these is that they’re very easy to clean—no digging around under electric elements, or scrubbing around the claws of a gas stove. It also looks pretty sleek.
Now, for the main disadvantage of this kitchen: workspace. There is very little of it. See the little square of counter in this picture?
That’s basically the only area I have to work in. In my last kitchen, I had a huge island to work on, so this will be a change, but one I feel confident I can adjust to. After all, think of all the great food blogs that come out of small city kitchens. The bloggers of Smitten Kitchen, TheJulie/Julia Project, and The Amateur Gourmet, have all spoken at one time or another about their less-than-ideal kitchens, but they all make it work, and they’re some of the best. So if these bloggers can do what they do out of their kitchens, I certainly can too!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bring Your Appetite Comes to Montreal

The end of November is a time of transitions: the final leaves are falling from the trees, the air is getting colder, and winter approaches, as does a new year. This November is time for a major transition for Andrew and me. To say that the last month has been busy would be an understatement. “Chaotic” also fails to capture all of the insanity that the past few weeks have entailed. I’ll settle with saying it’s been chaotically busy, and it isn’t over yet. The reason is that after over three fantastic and enriching years in Seattle, Andrew and I have moved back to Montreal. We have loved living in a different country, on a different side of the continent, in a place that is breathtakingly beautiful, full of lovely people, and, of course, rife with great restaurants and great food. Montreal is home to us, though, and we’re thrilled to be back here again.
The final days leading up to moving day always feel a bit surreal. The rooms that you had grown accustomed to looking a certain way, filled with your furniture and your belongings, are slowly emptying out, while boxes start to cover the floors and stack up against the walls. You go get yourself a glass of water, then remember that you packed the glasses an hour ago; you look at the bare walls of your living room and know that they’re different, but you can’t quite picture how they looked before. Your home is no longer your home, and even when you know where you’ll be living next, you can’t see yet in your mind what it will look like once you’ve properly moved in. It’s all very exciting, but at the same time, you feel a little lost, a little unsteady. You look forward to being back on solid ground.
I’ve found that this particular move has felt especially surreal. Andrew and I knew when we moved to the States that we would eventually be coming back to our home country, and hardly a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about coming back to Canada. After three years in the U.S., though, it is now taking a while for the fact to sink in that we are leaving Washington. It’s a bittersweet feeling: as homesick as I’ve often felt while I’ve been away, I’ve loved this part of the world, and I’ve made some amazing friends who I will miss dearly. At the same time, I’ve been yearning to be back in my favourite city in the world, back closer to my family, and closer to my oldest friends for a long time, so I’m ecstatic to realize that it is happening at last.
This big change in my life will mean some changes for this blog as well. I’ll still post about the food I cook, and though it will be from a different kitchen, that will be more or less the same. I hope to post more about my culinary life outside of my kitchen as well, though. We will be living in NDG, a neighbourhood in Montreal that is positively teeming with great food, from many different ethnicities. I want to post about the “fruiterie” around the corner, the amazing pizza place a few blocks away, and the food co-op down the street. I want to talk about the fantastic culinary experiences that Montreal has to offer, from bagels to poutine, and from Schwartz’s to Joe Beef. If you live in this city, I want to give you ideas for places to eat and shop; if you’ve never been to Montreal, I want to introduce you to how delicious this city can be.
Today is our first day back in Montreal, and the city is welcoming us with a blanket of fluffy white snow. It’s supposed to melt tomorrow, which is fine with me, but for now, I’m admiring it as I sit writing this at my parents’ dining room table. In a little over a week, Andrew and I will move into our new apartment and start to truly settle back into this place that for me, feels more like home than any other place in the world. Readers, bienvenue à Montréal. I think you’ll like it here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Last Days of Summer: Grilled Pizza

I’ve always found the end of the summer a kind of bittersweet time. For most of my life, the arrival of September and the beginning of autumn has meant the start of a new school year, and I love new beginnings. I also love fall, with its cooler weather inviting the makings of hot soups and stews, comfort food that warms the body and soul. Of course, the beginning of fall also means the end of summer, and there is always something a little sad about that. Even this year, although I am not going to be going to any school this September, and my routine will not be changing at all as we transition into fall, I still feel somewhat regretful at the changing of the seasons and the departure of all the activities that summer allows.

Still, summer is not quite gone yet, and I, like many others, am clinging to these last few days of hot sun and summer spirit with a passion. Grilling is, of course, the quintessential summer cooking method, so what better way to hold onto the last days of summer than to make the most of one’s barbeque? Grilled steak, burgers, sausages, vegetables, fish, and shrimp are all favourites of mine, but I’ve had plenty of all of them in the past few months. So, I recently tried grilling something I had never thought to grill before, and the results were far better than I had expected.
I’m talking about grilled pizza. When I think about it now, I don’t know why I was so sceptical to begin with. Pizza is traditionally baked in a wood burning oven made of brick or stone. These ovens are extremely hot, and so one’s home oven does not even come close to creating the same effect that a wood oven has. A barbeque, on the other hand, comes much closer. It is not quite the same, of course: the temperature inside a barbeque still can’t reach the heights of those in wood ovens, and the stone floor of a wood oven is also quite different from a grill. However, the fire and high heat in a barbeque still create an excellent environment to bake delicious pizza when you have quality ingredients.
I like to make my own tomato sauce for pizza, and I always make my own dough. I have two recipes to offer below, and both have their pros and cons. The one using instant yeast is an excellent time saver. It requires only a very short fermentation time, and very little kneading. The results are quite good as well, though, my only complaint with it is that I find it doesn’t puff and bubble up as well as the second dough does. The second recipe is more traditional and takes longer, but I find it creates dough that is a little closer to those at my favourite pizza places: soft, light, and airy.
I have also tried two methods for grilling the dough, and one is clearly superior to the other. One recipe I looked at suggested that after rolling out the dough, it should be placed directly on the grill without topping it. Once one side of the dough has cooked, it can be flipped over, topped, and grilled the rest of the way. This created pizza dough that became dry and overcooked. It was impossible to even melt the cheese on top of the pizza without burning the dough. It was edible, but just barely.
The better way to do things is much closer to traditional pizza-making methods: after rolling out the dough, it can be topped, and then placed on the grill. It’s a little tricky to transfer the dough once it has been topped, so make sure to place the rolled out dough on a well-floured baking sheet before topping it so that it can then be slid right onto the grill.
The trickiest part of this is to create an environment that is hot enough that it cooks the pizza quickly, but does not burn the bottom of the dough. I find that what works best is to heat the barbeque with the lid closed and the burners on high until it is as hot as you can get it: I managed to get mine to about 550 F. At this point, the grill is ready for the pizzas. After sliding the pizzas onto the grill, close the lid again, but turn the burners down to medium. This way, it should remain hot enough inside the barbeque, but the bottom of the pizza won’t be receiving such aggressive high heat.

I’ve been talking so far about how great grilling pizza is because of how similar it is to baking in a wood oven, but grilling also has some merits of its own. Like when you grill anything else, the pizza dough gets flavour from the grill. If you do it right, you should get dough that is crisp on the outside, but soft and chewy on the inside.
So, I am preparing myself for fall and all the changes it will bring, but I am still holding onto summer with time spent outside reading in the sunshine, bike rides under blue skies, and evenings when I fire up the grill so that I can taste the season that is leaving us.

Quick Pizza Dough
Adapted from Canadian Living
Makes 2 12” crusts

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 pkg. quick-rising dry yeast
1 tsp. salt
1 cup warm (about 105 F) water
2 tbsp. vegetable oil

In a large bowl, combine 1 ½ cups of the flour, yeast, and salt. Pour the water and the oil into the flour mixture, and mix well. Mix in remaining cup of flour to make a slightly sticky dough. Form into a ball. On a lightly floured surface, knead dough for about 5 minutes, or until smooth and elastic (alternately, dough can be kneaded by a stand mixture fitted with a dough hook, for five minutes at second speed). Cut dough in half, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough into two 12” circles. Transfer to lightly floured baking sheets. Let rest 15 minutes for a thin crust, or up to 30 minutes for a thicker crust. Add toppings.

Traditional Pizza Dough
Adapted from Professional Baking, 5th ed., by Wayne Gisslen
Makes 2 12” crusts

8.5 oz. warm (105 F) water
1/5 oz. active dry yeast
14 oz. flour (preferably bread flour, but all-purpose is fine)
¼ oz. salt
1/3 tsp. malt syrup or honey
1/3 oz. vegetable or olive oil

In a large bowl, add 1 oz. of the warm water to the yeast and allow the yeast to dissolve, 8-10 minutes. Add the flour, salt, remaining water, malt syrup or honey, and the oil. Mix to combine well. Knead on a well-floured surface for about 10 minutes, or in a stand mixture with a dough hook for 8-10 minutes on second speed until dough is smooth and elastic. Place dough in a large, oiled bowl and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. Let the dough ferment for 1 ½ to 2 hours, until it has doubled in size.

Divide the dough into two, and round each of the pieces. Cover and let rest ten minutes. Roll dough out into two 12” circles. Place on well-floured baking sheet, and add toppings.

How to Grill Pizza
Preheat barbeque on high heat with the lid closed until internal temperature reaches 550 F. Open the lid and slide the dressed pizzas directly onto the grill. Close the lid immediately and lower the heat to about medium. Grill the pizzas with the lid of the barbeque closed for 4-6 minutes, until the bottoms are cooked and golden, and the cheese has melted. Remove the pizzas from the grill and serve immediately.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Quest for the Perfect Jalapeno Popper

I know I like to talk a lot about my beliefs in all foods local, organic, sustainable, and healthful. I hope I don’t soap box too much, but I don’t feel any shame in using this blog as a place to talk about these things, and hopefully spread the message. So, it is with a little embarrassment that I admit this particular guilty pleasure, this particular food that I just can’t seem to get enough of.
The picture should say it all. Yes, jalapeno poppers, but not just any jalapeno poppers. I am enamoured with these frozen, processed, and completely horrible for you in many ways jalapeno poppers from T.G.I. Friday’s. I am well aware that they go against most of my food philosophy. They certainly aren’t organic, they definitely are not locally produced, I’m sure that the ingredients were not sustainably raised or processed, and there is absolutely nothing healthy about this junk food. But they’re really, really good.
Of course, pure deliciousness alone is not a good enough reason to eat something with abandon, and the belief that it is probably accounts for a lot of the health problem we see in western society today. So, what’s a jalapeno popper loving, quality food idealist girl to do? The answer was obvious to me when I thought about it: I needed to do what I always do when faced with the problem of wanting to eat a specific food that I either can’t or shouldn’t eat, which is to create my own version. My own version would be made with better quality ingredients that I could feel good about consuming, in my own kitchen, with my own hand touching every step of the creation process. I started by purchasing a large quantity of jalapeno peppers at a local farmer’s market, because, hooray! Peppers of all shape, size, and variety are in season at last.
I also purchased some quality, locally produced cheeses, and checked my refrigerator and cupboards for the other ingredients I would require.
The question still remained as to what method I would use to create my own jalapeno poppers. A small amount of research quickly revealed to me that there are many recipes out there for making homemade poppers, involving a variety of methods to dissect, stuff, bread, and cook them. I wondered what would be best: should I use entire peppers, or slice them in half? Should I stuff them with shredded cheese, cream cheese, or a combination of the two? Should I bread them or batter them? Should I fry them or bake them? Each method offered its own set of advantages and disadvantages, so rather than actually making a decision, I tried them all. All right, so maybe I didn’t actually try every method for making jalapeno poppers, but I tested out a number of them. The first factor to consider was whether to use one whole pepper per popper, or if just using half would be better. I divided my pepper collection into thirds and prepared them three different ways.
For one third, I simple trimmed the top of the pepper, sliced it in half, and scraped out the seeds and membrane. For the second third, I sliced the top only partway off, then sliced lengthwise down one side of the pepper, creating a T. This allowed me to gently open the pepper and empty out its innards, while still keeping it mostly intact. For the final third, I sliced the tops off completely, and used the handle of a teaspoon to scoop out everything inside. For keeping the peppers whole, I liked the third method best since it was simple and maintained the original form of the pepper best.

Next, I decided how to fill and bread the poppers. I filled approximately one third with just cream cheese, one third with just shredded cheese (a mixture of cheddar, pepper jack, and mozzarella), and one third with a combination of shredded and cream cheese. I made sure to try all the different fillings in each of the differently prepared peppers. I used a standard breading procedure to bread the poppers: flour, then egg, then breading. I used panko as my breading, because its light, crispy texture seemed like it would be perfect for this.
Following one recipe’s suggestion, I breaded some of the peppers twice, allowing them a few minutes to dry slightly between breading. I also placed these in the freezer for half an hour before cooking them. Both of these measures were to help create a coating on the peppers that would not fall off in frying oil, or in the oven, and that would be rendered crispy in the cooking process.
I set aside a few of the halved peppers and did not bread them at all. Instead, I filled them with just cream cheese, wrapped them with a strip of bacon, and secured it with a toothpick. This idea is from a recipe from the Pioneer Woman. The recipe came highly recommended from a number of people in a thread on Serious Eats, so I decided I had to try it.
I tried out two different cooking methods: baking and frying. I fried most of the whole peppers and baked most of the halved ones, but, in the vein of experimenting, I did a few of each of the reverse. I baked in a 375 F oven, and I fried in a cast iron skillet at about 325 F. The baked ones took about half an hour to be rendered golden and crisp on the outside, and hot and gooey on the inside. The fried ones only took about five minutes per batch to get to this state. Finally, the moment of truth came, the time to test the results.
Everything looked promising. All of the poppers looked hot, crispy, and golden. None of the breading fell off, no poppers exploded or even leaked, and it seemed that everything was cooked through. With all of the different methods I experimented with, there are four main variations to talk about. I’ll start with the original offenders, the store bought, processed, frozen jalapeno poppers from T.G.I. Friday’s.
The breading on these creates a perfect, crisp layer that gently gives when you bite into it, without the rest of the popper falling apart. The cream cheese filling is hot and almost liquefied by heat, creamy and salty, and texturally contrasting to the crisp exterior. That filling is cradled in just a small square of jalapeno, probably about a quarter of a pepper. After comparing with the alternative, I’ve discovered that the poppers are not made from fresh peppers, but that preserved jalapenos are used instead. This renders them less hot, and distinctly less pepper-tasting. They could be eaten in one bite, but two is just right. They’re a combination of crunchiness and gooeyness, and spicy heat and rich cream. I’m not going to lie: they’re fantastic.

The second are the ones I breaded whole and fried.
I had such high hopes for these guys. I thought that using the entire jalapeno would just bring more hot, peppery goodness to the popper, but in mine and Andrew’s opinions, using the entire pepper was just too much jalapeno to handle. The heat of the whole pepper overpowered every other taste, and neither of us could get through eating a whole one of these. I won’t bother talking about how well the filling, breading, and cooking method worked since the real failure here was in using the entire pepper, and I don’t think anything else could have redeemed it for us. Of course, if you happen to enjoy eating entire just-cooked jalapenos, you might enjoy these poppers very much.

Next, we have halved, not breaded, but wrapped in bacon and baked.
These were all right. Honestly, I can’t put it much more eloquently. They weren’t unpleasant, as I found the whole jalapeno poppers, and they weren’t exquisite, as I (unfortunately) find the store bought poppers to be. The hot, melted cream cheese was as gooey and delicious as ever (though slightly under seasoned when compared to the frozen variety), and was delicious with the salty bacon. The pepper, in this instance, was cooked more than any of the other ones I had made from scratch and as a result, was not as spicy, which Andrew and I both agreed we preferred. They tasted fine enough, but I don’t know if I’d bother making them again.

Finally, I’ll talk about the ones that were halved, filled, breaded, and baked.
These, much to my surprise and delight, were my favourites of the ones I made from scratch. As previously discussed, the halved jalapeno was much more preferable to using the entire pepper. The half got pretty well cooked and was not too hot, and consuming a smaller quantity of pepper at a time was more enjoyable than trying to plough through the entire thing. I was very pleased with how the breading came out: nicely crisped and flavourful. The breading on the ones I fried had gotten slightly soggy, which probably means my oil temperature had dropped too much, but the hot oven rendered the coating on the baked poppers pleasantly crispy. My favourite filling was the combination of cream and shredded cheese, but all of the ones I tried were good, so I think it’s really a matter of personal preference.

You might have noticed that one method I didn’t try was to batter and fry the poppers. It’s something I’d like to try out, but I didn’t this time for two reasons. First, the frozen poppers that I so love are not battered: they’re breaded, and it was their taste and texture that I was trying to recreate. Second, I was already juggling so many things with trying all these different methods, and my kitchen was already enough of a disaster, I decided not to push things any further.

The final verdict? Well, as much as I’d love to tell you that the poppers I made from scratch were obviously way better than the store bought, heavily processed, frozen variety, I would be lying if I said I liked the ones I made myself better. I’d love to snobbishly trumpet about the value of homemade food, and how it will always be better than something frozen from a box, but, in this case, I can’t do that. At least, not yet. I’m not looking at this as a failure: it was a learning experience. I’m determined to make a jalapeno popper that is at least as good as T.G.I. Friday’s, and I do plan to continue trying. In the meantime, though, here’s the recipe for my favourite popper of all the ones I made myself.

Baked Jalapeno Poppers
Makes 20 poppers

10 jalapeno peppers, halved lengthwise and stem, seeds, and membranes removed
4 oz. softened cream cheese
½ cup each shredded sharp cheddar, pepper jack, and mozzarella cheeses
1 tsp. each cumin, paprika, and chilli powder
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper (optional, depending on how much heat you like)
½ cup flour in a wide, shallow dish
2 eggs
1 tbsp. milk
1 cup panko breadcrumbs in a wide, shallow dish
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat, and set it aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the cream cheese with the shredded cheeses and a small pinch of salt. Spread approximately 1 tbsp. of this cheese mixture in each of the jalapeno halves.

Combine the cumin, paprika, chilli powder, cayenne, and 1 tsp. salt, and add half of the combination to the flour, and half to the panko. Stir with a fork to combine. Whisk together the eggs and the milk with a pinch of salt in a wide, shallow dish.

One at a time, dredge the filled jalapeno halves in the flour, and shake off the excess. Then, coat in the egg, and finally in the breadcrumbs, making sure that the entire pepper is covered in panko. Place them, cut side up, on the prepared baking sheet. Let the breaded jalapeno halves dry for about ten minutes at room temperature, then repeat the breading process (flour, egg, panko), creating a second layer of breading on the poppers. Place the entire baking sheet in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 F.

Bake the poppers for about 30 minutes, until the outside is crisp and golden and the interior is runny. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Pressure to Cook Seasonally

I don’t know about anyone else, but I am finding that I have some anxiety related to some imagined pressure I feel to take full advantage of seasonal produce. I’ve said it so many times that some might even call it annoying, but I love to cook seasonally. This can be challenging at the end of autumn, in the depths of winter and in the early weeks of spring, especially when one lives in a part of the world where basically nothing grows from October through April. The end of the summer and the beginning of autumn, though, should be a seasonal eater’s dream. Gardens are bursting with the supple red globes of tomatoes, the shiny and colourful skin of peppers, and the slightly obscene shapes of cucumbers, hidden beneath broad green leaves. At farmer’s markets, every table is overflowing with the local harvest, and even at the grocery store, it’s no challenge to find a cornucopia of lovely local produce. So in this heaven of plentiful fresh, local fruits and vegetables, how could I possibly complain?
Sometimes, it just seems like too much. I love the variety of different summer squash I’ve been seeing lately at the farmer’s market, and I imagine what I could do with it, but then oh! Look at those yummy cherry tomatoes—I’ll have to get some of those as well. And then there’s the corn, the eggplants, the cucumbers, the peppers, and the fruit as well. Bright little berries, ripe round peaches that make you swoon when you take a whiff, and richly coloured plums that you know will be the sweetest of the year. I buy it all, and I scramble to use it all up in salads and sauces, omelettes and stir-fries, compotes, and pies. There isn’t always enough time, though, and tragically, some of that beautiful seasonal bounty seems to always be lost to rot.
The solution is simple, of course: only buy as much food as Andrew and I can eat before it will go bad. Maybe don’t buy every possible squash next time, and also, perhaps it would be best to get raspberries or blackberries, rather than both. When I do that, though, I always feel as though I’m missing out. It’s as if I’ve let some golden opportunity slip through my fingers by not snatching up every delicious fruit or vegetable that catches my eye. This is the source of my anxiety.
What I’m trying to do is to find some middle ground. I try to buy the best stuff, and then I look for different ways to enjoy it. Sometimes this means eating the produce as-is, sometimes it means discovering new ways of preparing fruits and vegetables, and sometimes it means returning to favourite recipes again and again because I know how well the showcase these beautiful fresh foods.
Going back to favourite recipes and repeating them does not necessarily mean that they will be the same each time. Recipes can be adjusted and altered to utilize whatever is on hand at that moment. Strawberry season is just about done here in the Pacific Northwest, but peach season is in full swing. This means I can go back to that old favourite, Strawberry Shortcake, but with a peach-y twist. I, for one, was not surprised at all to learn that peaches go equally well with sweet whipped cream and dense, flaky shortcake as strawberries always have.
Any strawberry shortcake recipe could be adjusted to use different fruits, but at the moment, I’m partial to this one from Food & Wine magazine. It’s specifically a peach shortcake recipe, which, of course, could be turned into an anything shortcake recipe … even strawberries!

Peach Shortcake with Vanilla-Peach Whipped Cream
Adapted from Food & Wine Annual Cookbook 2011, p 300
Makes one 9” x 13” cake

2 sticks unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly, plus more for buttering the dish
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tbsp. milk, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups plus ¼ cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup peach schnapps, divided
8 peaches, cut into wedges
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375. Generously butter a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the milk until frothy. Add the 1 1/3 cups of sugar; beat at high speed until the mixture is thick and pale, about 5 minutes.

In a bowl, sift the flour with the baking powder and salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the egg mixture; fold in the melted butter until incorporated. Spread the batter in the prepared dish; bake in the centre of the oven for about 30 minutes, until golden. Transfer to a rack and let cool.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix the remaining ¼ cup sugar with a ½ cup of the peach schnapps. Stir in the peaches and let stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In a bowl, whip the cream with the confectioner’s sugar, remaining ½ cup of peach schnapps and the vanilla until firm. Cut the shortcake into squares and serve with the peaches and whipped cream.