Brined Pork Chops

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It’s been a hot summer in Canada! And many evenings I don’t feel like cooking supper in the oven. Even with air conditioning, the oven heats up the whole house. So I turn to the barbecue. Hamburgers and sausages are great, and so are chicken steak, but I like more variety than that.

A couple years ago, I encountered a recipe for brined pork chops. Brining is supposed to make meat tender, so I tried it out to very impressive results! Sometimes barbecued pork chops can get a bit dry and tough, but brining the chops made them juicy and tender, not salty (like I had feared). In a way, the success of brining the pork chops shouldn’t surprise me. We have been salting and curing meat for thousands of years—think of bacon, corned beef, salt cod. Brining pork chops is not much different, and it imparts both flavour and moisture to the meat.

Since then, I have played around with the recipe. It is a standard summer supper for us now. You can easily make up the brine and get the chops soaking before work, and then by the time you return home, they are ready for the grill. No need to turn on the oven at all!

The pork chops work well on the barbecue, but they can also be fried in a pan and then finished in the oven.

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Brined Pork Chops

4 1 1/2-inch-thick pork rib chops

1 cup apple juice
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup maple syrup or brown sugar
1-2 star anise
3 sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
3 cups water
Pepper to taste

1. To make the brine, place the juice, vinegar, salt, maple syrup, star anise, thyme, bay leaf and water in a large Ziploc bag. Seal the bag, and shake vigorously until the salt has completely dissolved.
2. Place pork chops in Ziploc. Seal and refrigerate for at least 8 hours (12 hours is ideal).
3. To cook the chops, preheat barbecue to medium-high. Cook on each side, about 10-12 minutes, until pork chops are cooked and juices run translucent. If barbecue is taking too long, finish cooking chops in a 375F oven, wrapped in tin foil, until cooked through.
4. Place on a plate to rest for 5 minutes before serving. The pork chops are delicious with barbecue sauce, apple compote, or an au jus.

A Really Good Chocolate Chip Cookie

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Chocolate chip cookies have been around for nearly century, having been invented by a pair of American chefs in 1938. Like most North Americans, I have eaten my fair share of chocolate chip cookies, from soft cookies fresh out of the oven that ooze chocolate, to packaged varieties that are generally hard and not terribly satisfying. I have had overcooked ones, and undercooked ones. Double chocolate chip cookies, and cookies with barely a singular chocolate piece.

Recently, I was intrigued by an article in the BBC Good Food Guide magazine which claimed to have found “the best cookies” the author had ever eaten. I was intrigued, but also somewhat skeptical. So, naturally, I had to try out the recipe for myself.

The recipe produced a batter that was a bit too dry and mealy to mix together, so I modified it slightly to include a tablespoon of milk

The cookies certainly had a solid amount of chocolate chunks, and they smelled heavenly coming out of the oven. I tried my first cookie before it had cooled, and it was so-so. However, after the cookies sat in the tin for a day or two, they reached their full potential. Best cookie I have ever eaten? Maybe not. But they were pretty darn close!

The original recipe comes from Alison Roman’s cookbook Dining In. If more of the recipes in her cookbook are like this one, then it might be worth picking up a copy!

(Note: The ingredients are measured by weight, so use a kitchen scale)


Chocolate Chip Sea Salt Cookies

225g butter, softened
112g granulated sugar
42g brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
350g all-purpose flour
1 tbsp milk (optional)
170g dark chocolate chunks
1 egg
Demerara sugar, as needed
Flaky sea salt

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. Add in vanilla.
3. Mix in flour to make a dough. If dough is too dry to come together, add in the milk and stir to form a ball.
4. Fold in chocolate chunks.
5. Divide dough portion in two, and then form each section into a log shape. Wrap each log in cling film or wax paper. Chill for 2 hours, then unwrap.
6. Beat egg, and then brush over each log. Roll each log in demerara sugar, using wax paper to help adhere the sugar as necessary.
7. Slice each log into 1/2 inch-thick rounds, and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
8. Sprinkle cookies with flaky sea salt.
9. Bake at 350F for 12-15 minutes. Demerara sugar will melt and caramelize on some of the cookies.

The cookies are really best enjoyed a day or two after they are baked! They are an adult’s cookie—not too sweet, and the combination of the crunchy demerara sugar with the surprise of salt and dark chocolate is very, very delicious.

Strawberry Season

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Every year in late June and early July it is strawberry season. For a few brief weeks, fresh, local strawberries are available in shops and markets, or at “U-pick” farms where the public can go and pick strawberries. I have been picking strawberries since childhood. Every year I make the trek out to a U-pick farm to fill my baskets with plump, red fruit. And of course one has to test a few of the fruit while picking…

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights detail of strawberry, c. 1500, oil on panel. Prado Museum, Madrid.

Strawberries have been eaten since at least the Middle Ages. They famously appear in the fantastical and bizarre earthly realm in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych. The strawberries that we eat (and pick) are actually a hybrid developed in the 18th century from of North and South American varieties of the plant. Wild varieties are still found in forests in Europe and North America today.

Unfortunately, this year’s strawberry season was quite short, as we had a long stretch of extremely hot and dry weather. Most berries were small, but still sweet and delicious to eat and cook with!

With baskets of fresh berries, I rarely do anything too radical. I prefer to eat my berries plain, with sugar, or with cake and whipped cream. Living in the UK introduced me to the Eton Mess, which is gloriously delicious but utterly lazy. Mounds of whipped cream with crumbled meringue and juicy berries. What could be easier to prepare? You can make Eton Mess with any sort of fresh berry, really, but strawberries are ideal for me. Eton Mess works well as a dessert for a large group of people–as last year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery showed–but it also is a great dessert for single servings. It’s best eaten immediately after assembly.

It’s a mess!

Eton is so simple to make you almost don’t even need a recipe (but if you do, Nigella has one here). Basically, hull and half your strawberries, then macerate with a bit of brown sugar. Meanwhile, beat your whipped cream (about 1/4 to 1/3 cup per person), add in a couple tablespoons of white sugar and 1 tsp vanilla. To the whipped cream mixture, fold in crushed meringue (about 1 meringue nest per person), and then fold in 3/4 of the macerated berries. Top each dish with the remainder of the strawberries, and enjoy!

This year I was also determined to make a batch of strawberry jam. I hadn’t made a batch in a few years, and I had far too many berries to eat all myself. Strawberry jam is a classic–delicious on toast, with peanut butter, and even spread on soda crackers (as one of my colleagues is wont to do). For strawberry jam, I follow the strict instructions that come in a packet of Certo pectin. Jam can be tricky if you try to stray from the instructions, but this year’s strawberry jam turned out well!

Rhubarb Cinnamon Muffins

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What to do with a surplus of rhubarb? This happens every year—in late spring/early summer, rhubarb grows voraciously in my garden, much faster than I can use it up! I don’t mind a rhubarb upside down cake, or a bit of stewed rhubarb at breakfast, but I am forever searching for new recipes that will help me use up my rhubarb. I’ve heard of rhubarb used in Persian cooking, though I generally stick to sweet baked goods.

Although rhubarb is a ubiquitous plant in most gardens today, that was not always the case. Rhubarb originated in ancient China, but it was known in the west primarily as a medicinal ingredient (primarily using the root). Rhubarb rarely appears in Medieval or Renaissance cooking, and it does not appear in early modern art much either. In fact, it was not cultivated or consumed much in the West until the 18th century.

A work colleague of mine recently brought some rhubarb muffins in to work. They were very tasty, and I loved the combination of tart rhubarb with a sweet and cinnamon crumb topping. So I asked for the recipe, and tweaked a few things to suit my tastes. These muffins may seem a bit underdone on the bottom when you take them out of the oven, but that is only because of the moisture of the rhubarb as it cooks. These muffins are excellent both fresh from the oven, and on the second day. They freeze well.

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Rhubarb Cinnamon Muffins

Makes 12-14 large muffins

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
Pinch salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk (or sour cream)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups diced rhubarb

Topping:
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup finely chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 365F.
2. In large bowl, combine flours, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Make a well in the centre.
3. To the well, add buttermilk, egg, melted butter and vanilla. Stir ingredients until just moistened (batter will be fairly still). Stir in rhubarb.
4. Scoop batter into non-stick, lightly oiled or paper-lined muffin cups.
5. In small bowl, combine brown sugar, cinnamon and nuts. Sprinkle on muffins. Bake in oven for 20-25 minutes, or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Balsamic Fig Chicken

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The last month has been much busier than I anticipated! However, I do still make time to experiment in the kitchen, even on weeknights. Recently, I had a hankering for something different. Although I was tempted by a local fresh pasta shop (which has excellent pre-made meals), I wanted to save a few dollars, and so instead decided to make something at home.

I felt Italian, perhaps chicken with balsamic vinegar. However, there was also a jar of fig jam lurking in the depths of the fridge, begging to be used. Balsamic Fig chicken? Why not!

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Thomas Mertens, Still Life with Wan-Li Dish, Fruit, and Bread, late 1660s. Oil on canvas (relined). 35 x 50 cm. Sold at Lempertz auction in Cologne in 2017.

Figs have long been considered a symbol of fertility, and eroticism. In the Renaissance, figs could refer to a woman’s genitals in art and bawdy poems. “Giving the fig” was a euphemism for an obscene gesture first found in Dante (see John Varriano’s fascinating article for more on fruits and vegetables as sexual metaphors). Figs were often included with other fruits in still life paintings from the seventeenth century onward. In general, the fruit was considered to be an allegory for the transient nature of life. Just as a sweet fig is perishable and ephemeral, so too is man’s existence.

For my supper, though, I kept things simple. The sweetness of the fig paired nicely with the tang of the balsamic vinegar, providing a sort of sweet-sour note for the meaty chicken thighs. Thyme was my herb of choice, but rosemary might work as well. I served my chicken with French-cut green beans and a side of penne alla vodka. The sauce will sweeten as it cooks, so I did not find that it needed any honey or sweetener beyond the fig jam.

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Balsamic Fig Chicken
Serves 2

4 Chicken Thighs (bone-in and skin on)
1 Tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chicken stock
4 tbsp fig jam
5 tbsp balsamic vinegar (standard balsamic vinegar works well—save the aged stuff for strawberries or salad!)
1 sprig thyme
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add chicken thighs, skin side down. Brown chicken thighs, about 3-4 minutes per side. Set aside.
2. Sauté garlic and season with a pinch of salt, about 1 minute, or until fragrant. Deglaze pan with chicken stock, then add in fig jam, balsamic vinegar and sprig of thyme. Return chicken to pan, skin side up.
3. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer with lid on, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through and juices run clear (about 30-40 minutes). If sauce becomes too thick, thin out with a bit of water as needed. Remove thyme sprig and discard.
4. Serve chicken with chopped parsley or thyme, if desired. This would be excellent with smashed potatoes, or buttered pasta.

Royal Wedding Snacks

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Ah, the royal wedding! I am unashamedly a royalist. The pomp and circumstance of people whose lives are a world away from my own boring middle-class life is strangely fascinating for me. Not only that, but with so many awful things that we are bombarded with daily by the media, to celebrate the romance of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is a refreshing break.

Also, I love a good afternoon tea spread.

To celebrate the royal wedding yesterday—and to tide us over at the crack of dawn when we started watching the broadcast—I made an array of British-inspired snacks and breakfast treats. In fact, I took the Friday off from work to prepare my spread, which was a good idea because I ended up baking fairly late that day. Most of the items were baked in advance, but the scones and sausage rolls were cooked fresh at 5:30am (ET) on Saturday. To simplify matters, I used pre-made tart shells for the mini quiches, and purchased sausage rolls to be cooked from frozen. It was a tasty spread, served with cups of strong Rwandan tea as we watched the festivities unfold!

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Mini scones, waiting to be baked!

On my modest menu was:

Cheddar, Ham and Chive Mini Quiches
Cranberry and Lemon Mini Scones
Finger Sandwiches (Cucumber and Watercress; Ham and Havarti Cheese; Coronation Chicken)
Yogurt Parfaits
Sausage Rolls
Lemon Bars and Raspberry Brownies (purchased from a local bakery)
Lemon and Elderflower Cupcakes

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Mini quiches were a nice breakfast-like addition to our spread.

For the quiches:

12 mini tart shells (in foil cups)
3/4 cup shredded mature cheddar
3 slices sandwich ham, chopped into small pieces
Bunch of chives, chopped
3 large eggs
3 tbsp cream
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Place tart shells on rimmed baking sheet. Divide ham, chives and cheese among shells.
3. In bowl, whisk together eggs, cream, salt and pepper; pour into tart shells.
4. Bake until pastry is golden and filling is just set, about 20 minutes. If you wish for slightly more golden quiches, turn oven up to 365F and cook an additional 3 minutes.
5. Serve warm. (Make-ahead: Let cool. Refrigerate in airtight container for up to 3 days; reheat in 375°F oven for about 5 minutes.)

For the Lemon and Elderflower Mini Cupcakes, I adapted this Meghan and Harry recipe from the Toronto Star. Although the flavours were spot-on, the cupcakes were very crumbly and the recipe would work best as a layer cake.

Mini Lemon Cupcakes

Makes 24+ mini cupcakes

Cooking spray or butter, for greasing pans
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
7/8 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Zest of 1 1/2 lemons
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 cup whole milk, room temperature

1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). If using muffin papers, line mini muffin tins with medium-size muffin papers. If not, grease mini muffin tins.
2. In a large bowl, mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Measure out milk in liquid measuring cup.
3. In a stand mixer with paddle attachment, combine butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition and stopping to scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula. Add vanilla, lemon zest and lemon juice. Continue to mix until combined.
4. Turn mixer to low speed. Alternate adding flour mixture and milk a third at a time. Mix until batter becomes thick and smooth, careful not to over mix.
5. Divide batter among muffin tins, no more than 2/3 full.
6. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until cupcake tops begin to develop a golden colour and a toothpick inserted in cake centres comes out clean.
7. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Use an offset spatula to gently loosen cupcakes from the pans, if needed.

We iced the cupcakes with our favourite buttercream icing that we spiked with St. Germain, an elderflower liquor. The combination of the lemon and elderflower flavours was a delicate, very spring-like and utterly British mixture that I thoroughly enjoyed and will certainly make again!

Coronation Chicken Finger Sandwiches

Coronation chicken is a delicious chicken salad sandwich filling, supposedly invented in 1953 for the Queen’s coronation. The use of curry powder hints at Britain’s colonial past, but also is just a delicious sweet-savoury combination of dried fruit, spices, and chicken. There are countless variations—some using crème fraiche or yogurt, some with slivered almonds, others incorporating mango chutney or raisins. I kept my version super simple, because I was prepping the sandwiches at 5am. These are best eaten fresh.

Makes 9 finger sandwiches

1 cup roast chicken breast, diced
1/3 cup dried Turkish apricots, diced
1/3 cup mayonnaise or Miracle Whip
1 tsp curry power
Salt and pepper, to taste
Chopped parsley or cilantro, if desired

6 slices thin sandwich bread
Butter, softened

1. Mix chicken salad ingredients together in bowl, adding more mayonnaise to salad to desired thickness.
2. Spread thin layer of softened butter on bread slices. Divide coronation chicken mixture between three slices of bread. For cleaner cutting, leave a 3mm edge around all 4 sides of sandwich bread free from mixture.
3. Top sandwiches, and slice off crusts from the 4 sides of the sandwiches. Slice each sandwich into 3 even “fingers,” for 9 total finger sandwiches. Serve immediately.

Ultimate Chocolate Birthday Cake

(For the blog post below, a close foodie friend of mine, Laura, has a delicious and decadent recipe to share. Laura is an academic based in Canada, who inspires me with her scratch-made recipes for family and friends, from hummus to sweet buns. Until she has a blog of her own, she can be reached by email at letthiel@gmail.com)

Chocolate is known as a Food of the Gods. In my family, birthday cake is always chocolate. Also, one of my “deal-breaker” questions for my future spouse was: chocolate or vanilla? (Yes, there is a correct answer). Lucky for him, he said chocolate!

I like to think that my German-Dutch heritage plays a role in my family’s obsession with chocolate. While consumption of the fruit of cocoa tree traces back to the Aztecs who drank the unsweetened xocolatl in rituals, cocoa became a Colonial addition to the European diet through the Spanish in the 15th century. In the tumultuous years to follow of European exploration, appropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslaving of inhabitants, and the race to find the fastest spice routes, the port city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands grew to be the European hub of the cocoa industry. According to ECOM Dutch Cocoa, the Dutch not only controlled the sale of cocoa beans by the 18th century, but innovatively developed the cocoa press and utilized alkalization to process the cocoa mass…leading to the modern “Dutch process” cocoa we use today.

In the 1700s, wealthy Europeans could afford to consume the beverage at chocolate houses in Paris and London, as well as in private homes. The porcelain market responded to the new trend. Famous factories, such as Meissen (founded 1710 in present-day Germany), crafted elaborately painted chocolate pots and sets of chocolate cups. This lidded chocolate cup with saucer is a Dutch example, created in 1785 in The Hague.
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Chocolate Cup and Saucer, porcelain, anonymous, Porseleinfabriek Den Haag, 1785. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK-1968-109-B.

By the 19th century, cocoa was sold as a wholesome, if not medicinal, product to upper and middle-class European consumers when it was more readily available. As two contemporary Dutch advertisements suggest, a fashionable woman could enjoy a warming cup of chocolate after the fun of skating, but it could also serve as a restorative beverage for a wounded soldier on the battlefield. Themes of family, nutrition, and palliative care commonly intertwine in the early years of Dutch cocoa advertising. Personally, I’m convinced of the health benefits of chocolate.


Left: Dutch Skate Cocoa. Designed by Johann Georg van Caspel and printed by Steendrukkerij v/h Amand, 514 x 381 mm, paper, 1897. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1912-2469. Right: Blooker’s Cacao. Nederland-Lombok, designed by Frederik Willhelm Schottelndreier and printed by Elsevier, Rotterdam, 390 x 285 mm, paper, Oct. 1894. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-0B-89.752-2.

My mother’s birthday was last week, so I decided to one-up my traditional recipe and try out the Ultimate Chocolate Birthday Cake recipe below. Not only does this cake call for two types of chocolate—cocoa powder and baking chocolate—but the frosting is a silky ganache, instead of a typical buttercream. Decoration is optional because it is so wonderful.
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The result was amazing: a very moist cake thanks the buttermilk, a ridiculously indulgent ganache, and overall the dessert was not too sweet. This recipe is also not difficult to make (don’t be intimidated by the number of steps) and is best served to people you love, for any occasion.

But be warned; the chocolatey power of this dessert is not for the faint of heart.

ULTIMATE CHOCOLATE BIRTHDAY CAKE
Serves 12-14, depending on cake tin size. See note below.

For Layer Cake:
3 ounces (about 1/2 c. chopped) best-quality-you-can-afford semisweet chocolate,
preferably 65% cocoa & Belgian
1 1/2 c. hot brewed coffee
3 c. white sugar
2 1/2 c. A/P flour
1 1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Dutch process, but regular would work too)
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3 large eggs, brought to room temperature in a bowl of warm tap water
3/4 c. canola or vegetable oil
1 1/2c. buttermilk
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

For Ganache Frosting:
1 pound best-quality-you-can-afford semisweet chocolate
1 c. heavy cream
2 tbs. white sugar
2 tbsp. corn syrup
¼ c. unsalted butter

Note on equipment, preparation, and storage:
*This recipe requires parchment paper or waxed paper, and two 10” by 2” round cake tins.
If you only have smaller tins (mine were 9 1/2” by 1”) you will get an additional layer OR about 9 cupcakes. I decided to make cupcakes, which was great because the chef gets to taste, along with a few other lucky people.

*Layer cakes can be made up to a week in advance. Remove from pan when fully cool, wrap each layer tightly in plastic wrap and then in a plastic bag. Freeze. Defrost on the counter on the day you will frost and eat the cake.

*The frosted cake keeps well for around 3-5 days, refrigerated. But really, will you have leftovers?

Directions:

MAKE CAKE LAYERS
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F and brew some coffee. Put whole eggs in a bowl of warm tap water and set aside.

2. Line cake tins with parchment and butter them VERY well, on the parchment bottom and on the sides…you want your lovely cakes to release from the tins and not crumble!

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3. Chop the chocolate (3 oz. portion) and combine in a bowl with hot coffee. Let the mix stand, stirring occasionally, until fully melted and smooth.

4. In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or another large bowl), beat the eggs until thickened slightly and lemon coloured (about 3 minutes with a stand mixer, or 5 minutes with handheld mixer).

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5. Slowly add the oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate/coffee mix to the eggs, beating until combined well. Add the sugar mixture and beat on medium until just combined. Don’t be tempted to overbeat, or your cakes will be tough! If extra batter, set aside in refrigerator until you have time to make cupcakes.

6. Divide batter between the pans, filling a little more than half-way. Tap them on the counter to release air bubbles. Bake in the middle of the oven until a toothpick comes out clean: 1 hour to about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Cool layers completely in tins on a rack. Bake your cupcakes now, if desired.

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7.Run a knife around the edges of the pan and invert the layers onto racks. Carefully peel off parchment and allow layers to cool completely before frosting. (Same with cupcakes: cool completely).

MAKE FROSTING
1. Finely chop the pound of chocolate. In a 1 or 2 quart saucepan, bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until melted. Cut in the butter and whisk until smooth and glossy. If needed, transfer frosting to a bowl and cool until spreading consistency. You may choose to refrigerate it for a few minutes. Place cake layer on cake plate, spread frosting between the layers and then over the top and sides, covering completely. Use remainder on cupcakes, or place in air-tight jar and it will keep up to a week in the refrigerator.

Curry for a Crowd

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Spring is a busy time at my office. Many people put in a number of overtime hours, and because of this, we have Saturday lunch provided to those clocking time on the weekend. Usually, Saturday lunches involve catered sandwiches, or perhaps chain Mexican food.

However, over the past few months, my coworkers have realized that I like to cook. So, for a change, I decided that for the Saturday lunch I was in charge of organizing, I would cook something. It is still fairly cold in Canada, and a hot lunch on a grotty day is always appreciated.

Because I would be cooking for close to two dozen people, and because our kitchen facilities are limited, I needed to make something that was crockpot-friendly. I decided on curry. It is filling. Fairly straightforward. And budget-friendly. Curry is an ideal entertaining food. It can sit on the stove and bubble away, flavours melding, as the host mingles with guests. Similarly, it can bubble away all morning while staff are busy working and don’t have time to stir every few minutes.

I made two curries for Saturday lunch. We have a gluten-free employee, so I easily adapted the recipes to accomodate that simply by swapping out standard vegetable and chicken stock to gluten-free stocks.

For inspiration, I looked to a Lentil and Sweet Potato Curry recipe on the BBC Good Food Guide website, and a new favourite of mine: Chicken Korma, which I have previously adapted to make just two servings for myself! I cut back on the heat of the recipes because we had some curry newbies at work that I did not want to scare away. In fact, one of the nicest compliments that I received from the lunch was from a co-worker who had never tried curry, convinced it was too “spicy,” yet she tried the lunch and enjoyed it immensely!

Both recipes below make enough for about 20 servings each, depending on the crowd and how hungry they are. Serve with basmati rice and naan bread.


Lunch in action, and the final result.

Lentil and Sweet Potato Curry

2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp butter
3 large onions, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped finely
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
2 tbsp garam masala
1-2 tbsp mild curry paste (or more, to taste)
1 cup green lentils (dried)
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 L vegetable stock
1 can coconut milk
400g can chopped tomatoes
400g can chickpeas, drained

1. Heat the oil and butter in a large pot, add the onion and cook for a few mins until softened. Add the garlic and continue to cook for a couple minutes.
2. Add the spices to the onion mixture and cook for 1 min more, stirring constantly to avoid sticking.
3. Stir in the lentils, sweet potatoes, stock and chopped tomatoes.
4. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 20-30 mins until the lentils and sweet potatoes are tender. Add the chickpeas, then heat through.
5. Season, sprinkle with cilantro, if you like. Curry is easy to heat up the next day in a crockpot to serve a large group.

Chicken Curry

2 kg chicken breasts, cut into 1 inch cubes
4 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1/4 cup butter
3 large onions, chopped finely
6 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
4 tsp ginger paste
6 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tsp mild chilli powder
2 tbsp garam masala
1/2 cup mango chutney (i.e. Patak’s)
2 fresh mangos, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 L hot chicken stock
2 cans coconut milk
2 cups frozen cut green beans

1. Heat 3 tbsp oil in a large dutch oven or pot, and brown the chicken over a medium-high heat for 5-6 mins, turning occasionally. Avoid crowding the pot by browning chicken in batches. Transfer the chicken to a plate using a slotted spoon or spatula and return the pot to the heat. Keep the chicken warm by covering in foil or placing in the oven on a low heat.
2. Add the remaining oil, butter and onions to the pot and cook over a medium heat, stirring often, for 10 mins, or until the onions are soft and lightly browned. Stir in the ginger and garlic paste and ground spices and cook, stirring continuously, for a further 1 min.
3. Add the mango chutney, stock, and coconut milk to the spiced onions and bring to a simmer. Add carrots and cook for about 20 minutes, or until sauce has reduced and carrots are tender.
4. Return the chicken to the pot, add frozen green beans, and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 5-6 mins, until the chicken and beans are piping hot and cooked through.
5. Garnish the curry with toasted flaked almonds and scatter with cilantro, if you like.

Note: If you want a thicker gluten-free curry, add a 1/2 cup of red lentils to the pot at the same time that you add the carrots. The lentils will break down as they cook.

New Orleans Food, Part 1

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Jackson Square

In addition to its rich history, New Orleans is known as one of the great food cities of the United States. When I visited earlier in the month, I was determined to eat good food, and boy, did I manage to have some delicious meals! I researched restaurants and “the best [insert food here]” but naturally, as much as one can plan, a trip often unfolds a bit more organically than that. Still, I had some excellent dishes, and I accomplished my goal of trying a new type of seafood—crawfish, because it is apparently crawfish season in March.

On our first evening in New Orleans, I knew we would be tired and hangry, since our plane did not land until early evening. Our hotel was located in the Central Business District—an area that may lack a lot of the historical and architectural charm of the French Quarter, but still has quite a few solid places to eat. A stone’s throw from the hotel was Juan’s Flying Burrito. Tex-Mex may not be New Orleans’ speciality, but the place was close and open on a Sunday evening.

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The bar at Juan’s Flying Burrito

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Jerk Chicken and Pineapple Tacos

We started with the Bacon Bean Dip appetizer. It was so damn tasty that I forgot to take a picture! Imagine: black beans, bits of bacon (and probably bacon greas), blended together and topped with a swirl of cream cheese. It was a bit decadent, and a delicious, simple combination that I will try to recreate myself.

For my main, I had the Jerk Chicken and Pineapple tacos. In all honesty, I think they were good, but I was recovering from a cold and didn’t have fully functioning tastebuds. It was spicy, and the pineapple slaw was a nice, sweet contrast to the main taco filling.

Our drinks were very potent. We may have staggered out from the restaurant when finished. But then, it’s New Orleans and they are known for decadence!

The following day, we went on a walking tour of the French Quarter to orient ourselves. Bourbon Street was seedy, smelly, and rather disgusting—I generally avoided it. We got some good recommendations for food from the tour guide, though many places I would never go to—I don’t like oysters, olives, okra, or gumbo. For lunch, we wanted something close to where we ended up. There is a lot of fried food in the Southern US, and we didn’t feel like that, either, or the New Orleans classic Muffaletta sandwich, which is a soft bun packed with cheese, cold cut meats, and an olive salad.

We ended up at the Café Pontalba, overlooking Jackson Square, the main square of the French Quarter. The location was picturesque, and the café itself had large mirrors and wide open windows to let in the hazy sunlight of the day. It was hot that day— 27C —and we appreciated the cold beverages that the server promptly brought to us.

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Interior of the Café Pontalba

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The roast beef Poboy may not look like much, but it was pretty goood.

We split a Roast Beef Poboy sandwich between two people: each half of the sandwich was probably six inches long! The sandwich came with a waving of lettuce and tomato (on the side) and a “debris” gravy, which is a savoury sauce/gravy that, in essence, incorporates “tasty bits” of meat and caramelized goodness from the bottom of the roasting pan. The beef was tender, and the sauce was just enough to moisten the sandwich bun. Again, I couldn’t taste the gravy as well as I would have liked (given my cold), but my mother, with whom I was travelled, assured me that the gravy possibly had traces of BBQ sauce in it as well.

Of course, you can’t visit New Orleans without trying Cajun food, though we learned that true Cajuns are not found in New Orleans, but rather west and south of the city. For our supper that evening, we had a reservation for KPaul’s, which was the flagship restaurant for Chef Paul Prudhomme. Their menu changes nightly, depending on what is in season, but they focus on traditional flavours. The restaurant was packed that evening (a Monday!) so I was glad that we had reserved a table.

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Blackened drum

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Tender, juicy blackened beef

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Paneed Chicken with Jambalaya

Normally, I am not indecisive about the menu when I order. However, at KPaul’s, I waffled, because too many dishes sounded delicious! I ended up splitting a surf and turf—basically, one person orders steak, and the other orders the fish, and you split it. The beef was a succulent sirloin steak, blackened with herbs, and covered in a rich, beefy debris gravy. It was cooked to a perfect medium.

The fish was a blackened drum, a local type of fish found in many restaurants. It was served with a chipotle butter and small crawfish. The fish was a nice, flaky whitefish that the salty butter complemented. Crawfish are like a small lobster (when served whole), and I was determined to try one. They were tiny! No more than the size of a nickel. The flesh was sweet, and reminiscent more of shrimp than a lobster. I ate several crawfish, much to my surprise.

I also tried the paneed chicken with jambalaya. The chicken was pan-fried, almost like a scallopini. The jambalaya it was served with was mild, made with sweet (probably local and fresh) tomatoes and shrimp. Again, the flavours melded well.

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Dessert

Dessert was less spectacular. Although the Custard Marie Crème Brûlée with a Praline Bottom was good (basically, a crème brulee with a pecan praline bottom), the bread pudding was ho-hum. It needed a Bourbon-laced cream sauce to cut the heavy stodginess. Nevertheless, the overall meal was a good introduction to Cajun/Creole flavours, and I would definitely eat at KPaul’s again.

Bourbon Chicken

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It’s no secret that I love food and flavours from other countries and other times. There’s something intrinsically appealing to me about a curry, or a medieval meat and fruit pie, or just an unfamiliar combination of spices. When I travel, I seek out “local” flavours and restaurants in my quest to try new flavours.

In a couple weeks, I will be visiting New Orleans for the first time, so I’ve been in a Creole and Cajun frame of mind lately. The city is famed for its cuisine: fresh seafood, spices, African and Caribbean influences combined with French flair. The food scene sounds excellent, and I look forward to exploring it.

In the meantime, I decided to cook up some New Orleans-inspired recipes of my own. This was a weekend meal, and it takes some time to marinate the meat. As a starting point, I found an interesting recipe for Bourbon Chicken, which I modified to suite my tastes (and to cut down on the sodium and overall richness). Bourbon Chicken may not be “authentic” New Orleans food, but certainly bourbon is associated with the Deep American South. The resulting recipe was a sweet and salty tribute to Southern Food that I will definitely be making again!

Bourbon Chicken

Marinade
1/2 cup Bourbon
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 to 1 cup chicken stock
4 cloves garlic minced
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp fresh ginger minced
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp sesame oil

2 lb chicken thighs (boneless and skinless), cut into 1.5″ cubes
2 tbsp canola oil

1 tsp corn starch

1. Whisk all the marinade ingredients together in a medium bowl thoroughly. Add the chicken pieces to the bowl, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to one hour.
2. In a large skillet or wok, heat the canola oil over medium to high heat. Brown the chicken pieces, cooking in batches as needed to prevent overcrowding.
3. Return all of the chicken to the skillet. Add the marinade to the chicken and continue cooking until the chicken is fully cooked.
4. Thicken the sauce by adding a corn starch slurry (1 tsp corn starch mixed with 2-3 tbsp water) and cook until the sauce is clear.
 
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The “Holy Trinity” of Cajun Fare: onion, bell pepper, and celery.

I served the Bourbon Chicken with dirty rice, another Cajun staple. For the rice, I used a boxed Dirty Rice mix, and added some chopped onion, celery, green bell pepper. Onion, celery and bell pepper is considered the “holy trinity” in Cajun cooking, and forms the basis of many famed dishes, including gumbo and jambalaya. I softened the vegetables with a half-pound of ground beef, then followed the box instructions. To serve, I sprinkled chopped green onions on the rice.

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The finished product may not have been beautiful, but it was homey and delicious!