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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Warm Lemon Polenta Cakes: Au Naturel, with Berries, or a la Nutella!!!

I love polenta. For those of you who do not know what polenta is, you've been missing out. In fact, I missed out also. I was never introduced to polenta until my 20's, when I encountered it in restaurants and then started to use it at home.

So, what is it? Basically, polenta is coarsely ground cornmeal. It is a staple food of Northern Italy, but has made it's way onto restaurant menus and into households around the world. It can be used in a variety of ways. Basic polenta is cornmeal made into a thick porridge by boiling it in water. It can be eaten plain and fresh, with the addition of cheese, butter, milk, vegetables, or as an accompaniment to fish or meat. You can also allow it to cool and set, then cut it into shapes and fry or grill it.

Polenta is a great alternative to rice or potatoes. It is an especially good substitute for mashed potatoes, since you can add butter and cream and achieve the same consistency, creaminess, and therefore comfort factor from a bowl of steaming hot polenta as you can from mashed potatoes.

Until recently, I mainly thought of polenta as a savory food. Yes, I have encountered polenta in baked goods, but mainly in bread to add texture and crunch. But today, I made some delicious, sweet polenta cakes. They were flavored with some fresh lemon and I tell you, they were divine! To sweeten things up a little more, I “stuffed” two of them with a nutella center. I also considered mixing some berries into the batter, but that will have to be for another day…

Warm Lemon Polenta CakesMakes 4 individual sized cakes (the size of muffins)
75 grams Unsalted Butter, Room Temperature
60 grams White Sugar
75 grams Almond Powder
½ tsp Vanilla Extract
1 Egg
Zest of 1 Lemon
Juice of ¼ Lemon
¼ tsp Baking Powder
¼ tsp Salt
40 grams Polenta (yellow cornmeal)
Optional: Nutella or ¼ cup fresh berries

Preheat oven to 160 degrees Celsius.

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Beat in almond powder, then egg, then vanilla extract, then lemon zest and lemon juice, being sure to beat well after each addition.

In a separate bowl, mix together polenta, salt and baking powder. Add these dry ingredients to the butter and sugar mixture.

Grease 4 muffin cups or 4 ramekins, then dust with flour.

To make Polenta Cakes au Naturel:
Fill the ramekins ¾ of the way full with the batter.
To make Polenta Cakes a la Nutella:
Fill the ramekins ¾ of the way full with the batter. Then make a small hole in the centre and add about 1 tbsp of nutella into each one.

To make Polenta Cakes with Berries:
Stir about ¼ cup of fresh berries into the batter (raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, or strawberry pieces). Then fill the ramekins ¾ of the way full with the batter

Bake in preheated oven for 40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool for about 10-15 minutes before flipping onto a plate.

Enjoy warm as is or with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Perfect Margarita

Margaritas are the perfect drink. A delicate blend of sweet, sour and salty all in a one glass.

I have tasted many margaritas. Flavored, frozen, shaken and strained, over ice… some good, some bad, and some really really bad.

Some would argue that it’s the tequila that matters. Me? Well, I disagree. I believe it’s the limes that make the difference. Use freshly squeezed lime juice and I guarantee that you will have a fine margarita. Use the best tequila with powdered or bottled “margarita mix” and, well, you might find that you should have just drunk the tequila from the bottle.

Another factor that makes a big difference is the balance of sweet and sour. If you use too much sugar, you end up with a syrup, watery mess.

Finally, no need for a thick rim of kosher salt. Just a thin rimmed or half rimmed glass is enough.

When you get the right balance, a margarita is perfection in a glass. If you mess it up, well, it can be really, really disappointing. So, follow this recipe to make the perfect margarita. I also use some lime zest, to give my margaritas an extra little kick!

The Perfect Margarita
Makes 2 on the Rocks

Juice of 3 large limes
Zest of 2 large limes (save a little for garnish)
50 ml Tequila
25 ml Grand Marnier
15 ml Simple Syrup
Ice cubes
Salt for rim

To a cocktail shaker, add the lime juice, zest, tequila, grand marnier, and simple syrup. Fill the shaker with ice and shake until cold.

Rim 2 glasses with salt by dipping the rim of the glasses first in lime juice, then in kosher salt. Shake to remove excess salt.

Pour the margaritas with the ice into the 2 glasses. Garnish with some fresh lime zest.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fresh Pesto: Easy and Versatile

I am definitely not a gardener, although I try really hard and pretend to be one.

I grew up with a garden. Or I should say, my parent’s house in Victoria, BC has a great garden. As a kid, I used to help water, weed, and pick fresh strawberries, beans, zucchini, blueberries, figs and other good stuff. I can’t say that I loved it. In fact, I cringed when I would uncover a big fat slug, munching away at my perfectly ripe strawberry or a huge earthworm slithering its way towards me. But I did it because my mom asked me to help.

Okay, I didn’t fool you there, did I? Fine. I’ll be honest. I didn’t do it out of the goodness of my heart. I did it for the goods… the edible fruits of my labor. Out of pure selfishness rather than selflessness. I know. Probably not right, but everyone got what they wanted in the end. The garden got watered, weeded, picked and pruned, my mom was happy that the work got done (even if she had to yell at me to do it), my siblings were happy that they didn’t have to do it, and I got the goods. It’s fair, right?

Anyway, regardless of how I got into gardening or why I did it, the exposure and experience helped me in the end because as I became interested in culinary, I started experimenting with herbs. First cooking with them, then growing them. One day, I went crazy at the garden store and bought every plant and seed whose name sounded even vaguely familiar, then tried to grow them all in fancy window boxes in my parents sunroom. Lemon verbena, lavender, chives, curry leaf, thyme, savory, rosemary, basil…. You name it- I probably bought it. But, I never had the time nor the patience to nurture my plants, and I never used half of them, and so they died. All of them except the ever faithful and easy to maintain rosemary which is now in my mom’s garden. The moral of this story? Quality, not quantity.

When I moved to Dubai with my husband, we decided to plant a “garden” on the balcony of our apartment. Apparently, I never learned from my mistakes because I did the same thing. Bought loads of seeds, started them well, lost interest, lost patience, forgot to water and prune them, and poof…they all died. I could blame it on the weather, the sand storms, or the plants themselves, but really, it was me. I just put my eggs in too many baskets and they all got rotten.

Nowadays, I take care of the few plants which are like staple herbs to me: Rosemary, Basil, Thyme, and Cilantro.
Of these four, basil is by far the one I use the most. It grows fast and it’s versatile.
One of my favorite ways to use basil is in fresh pesto. The great color, smell and flavor, combined with pesto’s ability to cure all the daily stresses (both in the making and in the eating) make it a winning condiment for pastas, sandwiches and salads. And the best part is that it requires only seven ingredients: 4 of which are salt, pepper, garlic, and olive oil-- pantry staples! Could it be any easier?

In this recipe, I use emmental cheese instead of the traditional parmesan. If you prefer to use parmesan, reduce the rock salt to 1 teaspoon. Also, I use a stone pestle and mortar to grind everything together, but if you don’t have one, use a blender (of course, you lose out on the therapeutic properties of this recipe).

Fresh and Easy PestoMakes about 1 cup
2 Whole Cloves of Garlic, peeled
1 ½ tsp Rock Salt
3 cups Fresh Basil Leaves
¼ cup Pine Nuts
½ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ cup Emmental Cheese, Finely Grated
Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Place the 2 cloves of garlic, the salt, and the basil in the mortar and grind into a paste. Add the pinenuts and grind until smooth. Mix in the olive oil until combined. Add the cheese and stir. Season to taste with black pepper.

Serving Suggestions:

Simply toss the pesto with pasta and enjoy
Make a potato salad, but toss in pesto instead of mayonnaise dressing
Use as a spread on sandwiches, toast, pizza, burgers
Use as a dressing for raw or cooked veggies
Use as an accompaniment for fish, meat, or chicken

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ravioles du Royans

Ravioles…nope, I didn’t say Ravioli… I said RAVIOLES. What is the difference you ask? Well, as you know, Ravioli are traditional Italian stuffed pastas, either round or square. Ravioles du Royans are a specific dish; a speciality of the Dauphiné region in the Rhône Alpes in France. The concept is the same- stuffed pasta- but these ones are tiny and filled with a blend of cheeses and herbs.

These tiny parcels of rich goodness are the perfect cure to a long, hard day. Enjoy them with a little bit of chicken broth, tossed in salted butter, or kick them up with some cream and cheese “au gratin” style.

Now, you are probably wondering…”Are we about to make these tiny things?? They probably take ages to make!” Yes, they do take some time and patience, but once you get in the swing of things, it is quite easy and sooooooooo worth it. Plus you can make loads and freeze them for later.

But if you are not convinced, or you want to try them before you invest the time in making them, here are a few other options:
  1. Buy them and try! The brand we most commonly buy is “Reflets de France.” Depending on where you live, the cost of these little guys ranges and of course, you may not be able to find this brand. But in the view of my husband, these are the best.

  2.  Make them slightly larger (use the same filling, but use a large mold or just cut them to the size you like). Given, they won’t be exactly the same cute little ravioles, but they will be just as tasty
  3. Invest in a pasta machine with a ravioli maker. Haven’t tried it (I prefer doing everything by hand), but from the looks of these things, you just put the filling in one place and roll the pasta, and the pasta is stuffed for you.
But after you have tried all those options, nothing really is quite as satisfying as making them 100% by hand. Invest a couple hours doing it and you will have enough ravioles to last you for all those nights when you just couldn’t be bothered to spend more than a few minutes in the kitchen.

Try it. It’s worth it!

Ravioles du Royans
Makes about 6 dozen ravioles

For Dough
6 Eggs
600 grams Flour (I used a mix of 400 grams white and 200 grams fine WW and it was great!)

For Filling
160 grams Fresh Goat's Cheese
120 grams Parsley
250 grams Gruyere, grated
1/4 cup Butter
1 Egg
1 Egg Yolk

To Make the Dough: 

In a bowl knead eggs and flour until a paste.

To Make the Filling:
Chop the parsley finely and then fry in a skillet with butter. - Remove from heat and add eggs, lots of pepper, goat cheese, grated Gruyère, salt. Mix well and put it through a mill/ pulse with blender if needed. Let stand a day in fridge.

Preparing the Ravioli: 

Roll out the dough to #1 setting on pasta machine. Use small ravioli mold (approximately 3/4 of an inch square)(must be well floured!!) to fill pockets with filling (only about a hazelnut size of filling). Place sheet of pasta over top and use rolling pin to seal edges and cut ravioli. Remove raviole from mold.
Cooking time: 
A few minutes in boiling, salted water or chicken broth

Serving Suggestions:
- Serve with chicken broth
- Drain and toss with salted butter (and top with freshly grated parmesan)
- Place in an oven proof dish, add some cream and grated cheese, and bake for about 15 minutes until bubbly and golden on top

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Food for the Senses: Stir Fried Prawns with Veggies and Cashew Nuts

Good taste is not the essence of food. And energy and alleviation of hunger are not the primary goals of food. I know that sounds a little weird, but it’s true. Food should be enjoyed and savored and should satisfy all the senses. The vibrant colors. The appetizing aroma. The sounds that food makes when it’s being prepared or being eaten. The feel of the food in your mouth. And of course, the taste.

Food that doesn’t look good probably doesn’t taste as good as it should. Think of all the times that you looked at something and grimaced, even before tasting it. If and when you tasted it, it might have surprised you and maybe you liked it. Or maybe you couldn’t get over the horrible way it looked. Or maybe you didn’t even give it a chance and you bypassed it for something that looked more appetizing.

This goes the same for smell. Durian anyone??? This is a fruit that absolutely stinks. Not only that, but I cannot get over the horrible slimy texture. For me, this will never be my favorite fruit. I’ll admit, if I plug my nose, the taste is not bad, but will I realistically plug my nose just to eat this slippery fruit?? Nope! Not a chance.

The dish I made today has an Asian influence and combines many different tastes, textures, and colors. This dish really satisfies all the sense. The taste of sweet succulent prawns, the salty bean paste, the slight sourness from the vinegar. The vibrant colors of the vegetables. The variety of textures. The sounds of the cashew nuts crunching in my mouth. And of course, the beautiful aroma of everything coming together.

The most important thing about this dish is: do not overcook the vegetables! This is the key to keeping this dish fresh tasting. It only takes about 8 minutes to cook this dish, and I recommend you do it immediately before serving. You can prepare all the vegetables in advance and mix the sauce. Then, wait until you are ready to eat!

Stir Fried Prawns with Veggies and Cashew Nuts
Serves 4

½ kg prawns (the larger the better), peeled and cleaned
2 red peppers, cut into chunks
2 carrots, sliced
4 sticks celery, sliced
1 onion, cut into chunks
1 inch ginger, sliced
1/2 cup cashew nuts, toasted and put over top
Oil for cooking
1 tsp corn starch mixed with ½ cup cold water

For the Sauce:
3 tbsp soy sauce
¼ cup water
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp white sugar
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
¼ cup black bean sauce

Mix all the ingredients for the sauce together and set aside.

Heat about 2 tbsp of oil in a wok or a large pan on high heat and stir-fry the prawns until almost cooked (about 2 minutes). Remove the prawns from pan and set aside.

Add another few tablespoons of oil into the pan and add the ginger and all the veggies. Stir-fry for about 3-4 minutes until carrots veggies are bright and just starting to cook. (Do not cook for too long, as you want the veggies to still have some crunch). Add prawns back in with the veggies. Then add in the sauce and stir to coat and to finish cooking the prawns.

Mix the cornstarch and cold water together and stir to disolve. This is called a slurry and is used to thicken the gravy of the stir fry. Add this mixture to the pan, and bring up to a boil, then turn off the heat. Add salt to taste.

Serve with white rice and sprinkled with the toasted cashew nuts. Enjoy!

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Story of Momo

So maybe I forgot to tell you that I just took a short trip to India. Well, I did. And that is how this love affair with Momo started.

Who is Momo? Momo is a bite sized steamed dumpling filled with veggies or chicken and served with a spicy tomato chili sauce for dipping. Available on the street, Momo is cheap and satisfying. Maybe this is the reason I encountered Momo and can’t stop thinking about him/her/it. And I am sure that if you met Momo, you would feel the same way.

Where does Momo come from? Well, as I have come to learn, Momo is a traditional delicacy of Tibet and Nepal but has become a popular street food in Indian cities. The wrapper is made from just flour and water and it’s filled with either minced meat or veggies, flavored with onions, garlic, and sometimes even cilantro and cumin. It is steamed and served with chili sauce.

So as I mentioned, my trip to India was short. Far too short to appropriately relish in my new found relationship with Momo. So, upon my return to Dubai, I decided that I needed to take our relationship into my own hands if we would survive through this separation. I had to recreate Momo in my own home.

This is how our relationship survived the distance. I assure you, I will go back to India to visit Momo, but until then, we will have to make it work. I encourage all of you to make friends with Momo. Try this recipe and you might find yourself on the next flight to India...

Chicken Momos with Spicy Tomato Dipping Sauce 
Makes 36 Momos

For the Wrapper
500 gm Plain wheat flour
1 tbsp oil
1 cup approx Room Temperature Water
1 tsp salt

For the Filling
500 grams Chicken, minced (or any other minced meat you like)
2 Onions, diced finely
1 Inch ginger, minced
2 Green chilli, seeded and minced
4 Cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp Soya sauce
1 tsp Black Pepper
1 tsp Salt
1+1 tbsp Oil

Chop the green chillies, onions, garlic and ginger. Heat 1 tbsp of oil and fry onions, garlic, ginger and chilis until the onions are translucent. Add the chicken and cook until just cooked. Add soya sauce and black pepper to it and mix well, set aside.

Roll the dough into a log, and cut off slices of dough. Roll the dough out to make rounds abut 10 cm wide. Put 1 spoonful of the chicken filling in the middle. Pinch all edges in to the centre to make a small bun shape. Alternatively, fold over to form a crescent shape. Pinch edges together well to make sure the Momos are well sealed. (At this point, you can freeze the momos until you are ready to enjoy!)

Steam for about 15 minutes from fresh or 20-25 minutes from frozen.

Serve hot with Spicy Tomato Sauce.

Spicy Tomato Dipping Sauce
Makes about 2 cups of sauce

1 can whole tomatoes (14 ounces )
3- 4 green chillies
2 tsp dried red chili flakes
1 tsp rock salt

Mince the green chillies. Then place them in a mortar and grind with the rock salt until it is like a paste. Crush the tomatoes and add to mortar with chilis. Mix well and let sit for a few hours.

Combine flour, oil and salt in a bowl, mix well. Add enough water to make it a soft dough. Cover and set aside

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

Nothing says I love you like homemade cookies. Warm out of the oven. The smell permeates the house and soothes the soul.

Everyone believes that they have found the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies. But I have. Really. No joke. These are the best. Try them once, and you will see.

These cookies are just lovely. They are soft. They melt in your mouth. That’s all I can really say. These cookies leave me speechless.

So, I am asking you just this once to put aside any recipes you might have and try this one. One big bowl and a few basic ingredients is all you need. Try and let me know what you think.

THE BEST CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIESRecipe by Anna Olson from Food Network Canada

Makes about 2 dozen cookies

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
8 oz semi sweet chocolate chips, chunks, or candy coated chocolates (like M&M’s)

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cream together butter and sugars until smooth. Add egg and vanilla and blend in.

Stir in flour, cornstarch, baking soda and salt. Stir in chocolate chips or chunks.

Drop by tablespoons onto a silpat lined baking sheet (or greased baking sheet) and bake for 8-10 minutes, until golden brown around the edges.

Transfer to wire racks and let cool slightly. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Breakfast for Dinner?

There’s nothing quite like breakfast for dinner.

Now some of you might ask what about breakfast at breakfast time? But for many of us, logistically, this doesn’t make sense. I mean, wake up earlier to make breakfast when I could be sleeping? How could you even suggest such a thing?

But after a long and hard day, when what you really want is something comforting and satisfying, breakfast seems like it could be just the thing.

Potato & Onion Hash with Sunny Side Up Egg
Serves 2
4 Medium Potatoes, diced
1 Onion, sliced thinly
1 Red Bell Pepper, Diced
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp Butter
3 tbsp Oil
2 Eggs

Place the diced potatoes in a microwave proof bowl. Cover and microwave on high for 5-7 minutes until the potatoes are fork tender.

Heat a large sautee pan on medium- high heat and add 1 tbsp of oil. Add onions and bell peppers. Sautee until soft. Remove the onions and bell peppers from the pan. Add the butter and the another tbsp of oil (still on medium-high heat). Toss in the potatoes into the pan, and cook until browned. Add the peppers and onions back into the mix and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the hash in a pile on 2 plates.

Heat another pan on medium heat with 1 tbsp of oil. Crack the eggs into the pan, then lower the heat to low and let cook, moving the eggs gently in the pan so it doesn’t stick. Season the egg with some salt and pepper. Once the eggs are cooked (the egg whites should be cooked and the egg yolks should still be wobbly and runny), slide the eggs onto the piles of hash.
What better to serve with this dish than a slice of homemade bread with butter and ham? I guess 2 slices??