Thursday, November 19, 2009

Vanilla Sugar

I recently hit the mother-load, finding an unusually large amount of vanilla beans hiding in the back of my spice drawer, I must have gone through a weird stock-pile obsession and then forgotten about them. With too many now to know what to do with, my wheels started turning. Making my own vanilla infused vodka was my first experiment, which went exceedingly well, it is simply delicious, and I am now on my 2nd batch. Here, I decided to split the bean and stick in into a jar of sugar. Amazingly, little vanilla seeds fleck the sugar and impart a subtle, but unmistakable vanilla note. Use as you would in any recipe which calls for sugar. Or add to your morning coffee. I must mention, this could make a sweet little sugary gift - (I am all about coming up with different DIY gifts) - the tiny black dots scattered in pure white sugar is quite intriguing and looks really beautiful.

Give it a try, take one vanilla bean (per 2 cups of sugar, roughly), split it lengthwise, and add it to sugar. Mix it well, best to use a jar and shake it to loosen the seeds from the bean. Store in an air tight container with the bean still in the sugar.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Naturally Flavored Vanilla Vodka

I cleaned out my spice drawer the other day and found a few vanilla beans hidden in the back. Score! This was an exciting find as I had just browsed a Donna Hay, (love her!), book of mine and saw a simple way of infusing vanilla bean into vodka. There are artificially flavoured vodkas out there, but I am somewhat of a purist and don't love the idea of fake flavouring, in any form. The recipe I have called for a whole bottle (750 mL) of vodka and 3 vanilla beans. I wasn't sure I was ready to sacrifice a whole bottle to this experiment, so I cut in into a third to see if this was something I might like. Well, one week in the sun, plus an overnight stay in the freezer, and this newly flavoured spirit is a welcomed addition to our liquor cabinet. Serve over ice, or if you can't handle that, (like I can't), it is especially delicious with ginger ale, sort of a grown up vanilla cream soda.

Vanilla Vodka
From Entertaining, by Donna Hay, 1998.

750 ml (24 fluid ounces) of vodka
3 vanilla beans, split

Place the vanilla beans in the vodka and allow to infuse on a windowsill for at least one week. To serve straight, freeze overnight, prior to serving. Serve the vanilla vodka over ice with tonic, soda, or ginger ale.

Want to get even further away from artificially flavoured stuff? Make your own ginger ale!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chocolate Mousse Cake

Can I tell you - I just discovered the most delicious, sublime chocolate dessert that took about 15 minutes to make. And it's like biting into a piece of smooth, sophisticated, grown-up chocolate super - heaven. I broke my own rule though, the one where I urge you not to try something new right before you have people coming over for dinner. I thought I could let it slide, after all, it's only dessert, it's not like totally necessary to serve a dessert, so if you mess it up, it could go virtually unnoticed... Right?, (long pause..) Yikes!!! That's so NOT cool, man! Dessert is, at least in my book, the best part of dinner and when I'm lucky enough to be somewhere that it is being offered, it makes my heart skip.
So, after all this reconfiguring of my priorities, I am pleased that even though this time I broke my own rule - it was ok - and dessert was served and received decidedly well. I guess that speaks for the simplicity of this chocolate-mousse cake, it's quite easy, low maintenance and decadent. Even if it has to be made one day in advance, and then sit on your counter, (for a very long and painful 24 hours), it's well worth the wait : )

Chocolate Mousse Cake
From Eating and Living, John Pawson and Annie Bell

Serves 6

1 lb good quality bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
4 oz. unsalted butter
2 heaping spoons sugar
4 organic eggs
1 TBLS all-purpose flour
cocoa powder, for dusting
1/2 lb berries

Preheat oven 425. Butter an 8" springform pan, (I used a 10" and so my cake is thinner), with removable base. Put chocolate, butter, and half the sugar in a heat-proof bowl over a pan of boiling water, stirring occasionally.

Put the eggs and remaining sugar in a bowl in a food processor and whiz for 10 minutes until mixture has increased in volumes several times over and pale, almost white. (My eggs never got whitish, more pale yellow). Transfer to a large bowl and carefully fold into the flour. Then gently fold melted chocolate into mixture.
If you are using a chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa, the mixture may break, or curdle, in which case, whisk in 2-3 tbls of water to emulsify it. At this point, the mixture will still be runny. It will partially set as it cooks and further when it cools.

Pour the mixture into the cake pan and cook for 6 minutes. The rim should have just set and the center will still appear to be liquid.

Allow the cake to cool, then cover with plastic wrap and leave in a cool place (not the fridge), overnight.

To serve, run a knife around the edge of the pan and remove it. Dust the surface with cocoa powder and serve with scattered berries.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Chicken, Spinach and Lemon Pie

Probably the best tip for hosting a successful dinner party is to make sure you are comfortable with the dish you are planning to serve. There is no greater stress, than to have everyone waiting for food and you not knowing if the food is going to come out well, (if, at all). Knowing this, and also knowing that on Saturday, we will be hosting a few guests, I did a test run of this chicken pie that I saw in one of my favorite cook books, Living and Eating. Normally, I'm not sure that I would go through the trouble to make something specifically to try out for a dinner party, (I would usually make something I have done before), but this looked so good to me and I wanted something that will take care of itself once our guests arrive. So, yesterday I ran to the market and got to cookin' and it was a great success.
This chicken pie is delicious with garlic, thyme and lemon infused into the cream sauce and it's golden crust is fine sight to see! I'll serve it with a simple mixed herb salad and some roasted acorn squash. It's the perfect meal for a Fall night, with a fire crackling in the background, either by yourself or surrounded by friends.

Chicken, Spinach and Lemon Pie
Adapted from Living and Eating, by John Pawson and Annie Bell

Serves 4

1 head of garlic
10 chicken thighs (organic, preferably)
Sea salt and black pepper
1 TBLS extra virgin olive oil
2 heaping spoons of flour
2/3 cup dry white wine
4 thyme sprigs
1 lemon
1 TBLS butter
1 LB bag spinach
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 sheets puff pastry, thawed
1 egg yolk
1 TBLS milk, to glaze

Break garlic up and peel skins off of all the cloves. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in a large sauce pot, or saute pan, add half the chicken thighs and fry, turning until colored on all sides. Transfer to a dish and fry the remaining thighs, adding the garlic towards the end, so they soften without coloring.

Return all the chicken to the pot and sprinkle with the flour, turning the chicken to coat. Add the wine, which will thicken as it blends - let this seethe for one minute. Pour in 1 cup of water and stir until sauce is smooth. Add thyme and 2 long strip of lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for about 30 minutes.

While the chicken cooks, melt butter in a deep skillet and add spinach, toss until fully wilted. Drain into a sieve, pressing out as much liquid as you can using the back of a spoon.

Transfer cooked chicken to a bowl and allow to cool. Once cooled, discard skin and remove chicken from the bone, then cut into shreds. Discard thyme and lemon peel from the sauce and add cream and a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Add spinach and chicken to the sauce and cool to room temp. Taste for seasoning.

Preheat oven to 375. Roll out 2/3 of the pastry thinly on a lightly floured surface. Line a deep dish skillet or pie pan. Spoon out chicken mixture into dish. Roll out remaining pastry and place on top. Trim pastry lid allowing about 1/2 inch for shrinkage. Brush the top with egg yolk and milk egg wash. Bake in oven for about 30 minutes, until golden brown. Serve right away.

Note: For my dish in photos, I cut this recipe in half and used an 8" cast iron skillet. This allowed me to only use one sheet of pastry which I could simply fold over the top of the chicken filling. This served 2 people heartily.

To buy Living and Eating, click here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Magazine of Good Living

I had a brilliant thought the other day, and thanks to Ebay, I was able to follow through with my ingeniousness. Gourmet Magazine, as I am sure you know by now, is no-longer. The last issue hit news stands this month and then we'll have to rely on our saved copies for culinary inspiration. But this got me to thinking.... Maybe I should buy some old issues - not so much for the possible collector's pay-off one day, (but that would be nice), it was more the idea to scoop a few beauties up before they become obsolete. So, I logged into Ebay, bid on a few magazine collections and a few days later, I was flipping through the past. Oh, what fun! My most prized issue is from April, 1952, (then, 35 cents), and it's fascinating to me to not only see what types of articles were being written about food, but the advertisements are a mid-century marvel. (Don Draper would be so proud!). Most if the ads are for some type of booze - mostly brandy, scotch, whisky, and cigarettes, (again, Mad Men, anyone?), and my issue smells like an old book. The contents are mostly illustrations, not at all like the photography, (food porn), we have all come to love of the modern day Gourmet. Articles themselves are very classically French in theme: meringue, pot-au-feu, etc and the only travel ad happens to be from the French Government's Tourist Office. An article about the avocado, The Aztec's Treasure, romantically showcases the "exotic" fruit. There are restaurant reviews, all of which are in Manhattan, and a "Sugar and Spice"section where readers can write in and have their comment or question answered is full of useful cooking tips. Gourmet transformed into an entirely different magazine as editors changed and food trends evolved, (this era of food never really stood out as being particularly delicious), but flipping through these yellowed, musty pages of history kinda gets me in the mood for a martini. Dry.

Speaking of Mad Men, did you see the season finale?? Here's a great article reviewing it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Cooking 101 - The Art of the Chiffonade

I thought I'd step away from my arts and crafts obsession and do a quick tutorial on an easy, classic knife skill - the chiffonade. (shihf-uh-NAHD). Taken from the literal French translation, it means "made of rags", but to apply it to a culinary use, it refers to thin strips or threads of vegetables. (Classically lettuces, or herbs.). You can use this technique for greens as large as collards, chard, kale, etc or as small and delicate as mint, basil or sorrel. I have always loved this technique, there's something about the way the knife (always sharp!), runs through the densely rolled up greenery, then making perfect, beautiful ribbons. It's ideal for a garnish, and for the larger greens, it makes sauteeing easier and more elegant. It also allows the greens to lie nicely on the place once cooked.

It's easy:
Take your greens and stack uniformly. (if using a a dense green, remove tough stalk from the middle of the leaf.) Roll into a tight bundle. Slice through the bundle, across the leaf. (Thinner cuts for herbs, especially if using for a garnish). For larger greens, cut your strip at about 1 inch in thickness.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Dry Rub - Gift Idea #2

If you haven't noticed, lately I've become slightly obsessed with glass jars, ribbons, etc and have been thinking of different things to make to put inside these glass jars and tying up with ribbons and labeling with my cool Martha Stewart decals. It's in part due to my sister's up- coming wedding and the holiday season which is fast approaching. But more than all that, I just like the idea of making gifts for friends, it's so personal and enjoyable and it is a good way to cut spending as we are all probably a little more money-conscious these days.
Here, I made a dry-rub for meats or veggies using some of my favorite spices. Feel free to come up with your own - but try to keep the salt content of your total recipe at about 20%.