Friday, August 29, 2008

In 2007, I wrote a series of monthly columns for a regional food publication, "The Good Food Guide to the Kawarthas". My goal was to top Rachael Ray's 30 minute meals, with 20 minute meals. Not really. But because I myself am often rushing to get a meal together ( most often, quite simply because I am starving, and I get so so cranky when I am hungry). In any case, I digress... the point is that I sought to provide simple ideas that anyone could throw together, using fresh, seasonal ingredients.

I had a lot of fun putting these articles together, along with the photography. I have had dreams of becoming a food stylist, but I suspect I am lacking a few essential type-A characteristics to be content moving grains of rice around with a pair of tweezers. But this, for me, is just another way I can have fun playing with food.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pita the Great

It appears I have been on a bit of a Middle Eastern kick this summer. When I saw Jamie Oliver with his cute grin and cocky attitude squishing raw ground lamb around skewers with his characteristic irreverence, I knew this recipe for Lamb Kofta Kebabs was one I would have to try. That, and I owe it to the cute little lamby-kins from the farm up the road.
This time, I actually determined to follow the recipe which is just not something I generally will do. My "policy" is something like: if I have it, great, if not, surely I have something I can use as a substitute. This does not work so well when baking, though I can be pretty stubborn when desperate for dessert.
Anyway, admittedly I knew I had little hope of finding sumac in the small Ontario city where I do my shopping so I was prepared to sub loads of lemon zest. But I did go out and buy pistachios. And local lamb (yes, from the farm up the road–oddly perhaps, it is a comfort to me to be able to identify exactly where the meat came from). This is a terrific recipe for its texture, flavour and most of all its simplicity. After all, this would be street food in Middle Eastern cities. Try it and tell me how the hot dog rates now.

Masa Magnifico!

For months I was deprived of good tortillas – each time I made the journey into the big city I managed to forget to stock up at the Latin American mercado. Perhaps in the back of my mind I knew I already had the makings and the proper tools right there in my very own kitchen cupboard and the front of my mind just wasn't catching on. So I reminisced about Huevos Rancheros, Chicken Mole and other favourite dishes that I just couldn't make and enjoy without the requisite pile of corn tortillas on the side.

Hello? Is anyone home? That bag of masa sitting dormant in the cupboard? That gets mixed up with some water to make the dough... and remember that cool little dough-ball squisher otherwise known as the tortilla press? You asked for, and received this little Hecho en Mexico gizmo several Mother's Days ago... HELLO? LOOK IN THE CUPBOARD!

For goodness' sake; sometimes I am so out of it!

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I finally clued in that I had the power to make my own tortillas and once I set to work, I wondered at the miracle of it all: Masa + Water= Tortilla Dough. Roll into golf-ball sized spheres, place centred on the press with plastic wrap between it and press' surface, close the press and squish that ball flat with all your might. Of course the consistency is important, but you figure that out real fast. Too dry and the edges will crack, too wet and, well, I haven't had that problem...

The thin discs then need only a minute each side on a hot griddle. So while you are rolling and pressing you can be cooking as you go. I use a flat cast iron pan with a very low lip around the edge that I picked up at a flea market years ago. I believe the traditional comal (griddle) has no sides, but I wouldn't worry as long as you have a nice dry and hot surface.

I was so possessed by the excitement of making the tortillas, that the dish they accompanied was actually somewhat of an afterthought. I scrambled some eggs with some fresh local sweet corn, cilantro and scallions, and I had some left over canned Herdez Tomatillo sauce in the fridge. Once I got the cappuccinos going we were ready to chow down. I timed the whole thing– while the realization process took about 2 years, the actual time to mix the dough and turn out 12 delicious, fresh, soft tortillas was less than 20 minutes. Scrambling the eggs? 5min. The difference between these and store-bought: priceless!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sexy Shapely Mussels

If only I were referring here to my muscles, which, thanks to all the rainy summer days spent concocting in the kitchen instead of at the gym, could instead perhaps be referred to kindly as soft and supple. But I am here to talk about the shellfish anyway.

It has been a couple of years since I last enjoyed a sexy, slurpy dish of mussels. Or, let me rephrase: I enjoyed the first half of the dish. When midway through I encountered an interloper staring back at me from the interior of one of the deep plum-black shells, I did something I so rarely do: pushed the dish towards the outer edge of the table and laid the napkin from my lap in place of the dish signaling the end of my appetite. A tiny eel, its mouth open as though calling for help in the last moments of its life, was the surprise guest in my dish of mussels. I suppose I could have gotten over my horror, set the little fella aside, taken another slice of chewy baguette and finished up the dish, but I simply could not get around the active position the cooking process had frozen this little eel into. I'd at first wanted to believe it was a tiny rubber snake someone had dropped into my dish for fun. Let me just add that the wait staff was more amused than I was and I haven't returned to the restaurant in the two years since. More about that some other time.

Back to how I love mussels. How a 4 lb netting bag clattering like castanets and carrying with it a fresh salty sea-breeze can trigger vivid olfactory memories of fishing villages of the East Coast. Clambakes and lobster shacks and brightly painted fishing boats manned by salty fisherman... When I decided recently it was time to put my bad restaurant experience aside and do them up right myself, one whiff took my heart and my appetite to the right place– the seaside.

Perhaps because the edible nugget of flesh is a mystery, concealed as it is within its shell, many home cooks fear there is some kind of trick to steaming shellfish. Perhaps I should keep my own trap shut and not reveal the truth: it's as simple as opening a bottle of wine and ready to enjoy faster than you can finish drinking your first glass. Really– a few minced shallots, onion, garlic or leeks sauteed in butter and/or olive oil, herbs and spices of choice, and a bottle of beer or a few cups of wine along with perhaps some diced tomatoes. That'll do. Simmer those together in a large pot for a few minutes, then throw in the cleaned mussels (discarding those with open shells). Cover to steam for about 5 minutes or until the shells open. Garnish with more chopped herbs and a big wedge of lemon on each plate. Once you have a basic formula to work from, fiddle with the variables. In my case, I had no wine handy (horrors!) but I did have sherry, so I worked from this recipe found at Epicurious:
Mussels with Sherry, Saffron and Paprika

The process of eating mussels is so deliciously hands-on. Some find the shells too fussy and want the messy work of shelling done for them. Then there are those who, like me, just love to get in there using an emptied open shell as tongs with which to pluck the plump tender meat from each remaining shell. I am content to bathe in the salty sea of shells, licking the broth that drips from my fingers, and with chunks of crusty bread sopping up every last drop of ocean-scented tidepool from my plate.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Peas, Please

I love falafel and when I came across this recipe, I knew I had to try it.

Today when I was preparing to make it, my internet connection was down. Unable to access the recipe, I had to wing it. Now that I look at the actual recipe, I had it more or less right, but instead of the lemon juice, I used about a tsp of lemon zest. I don't know why I hesitated on adding any juice–I guess I was concerned it would be too wet. That's probably because I forgot about the flour- which I remembered at the very end so I dredged the patties in a bit of flour. Anyway, really simple, and a nice twist on the traditional chickpea (garbanzo bean) falafel. Do take the time to make the marinated radishes
Spring Pea Falafel