Thursday, August 27, 2009

Daring Baker's August Challenge - Dobos Torte

The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonfulof Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular DobosTorte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: ExquisiteDesserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.

This month’s DB challenge is really one I wish I could have spent more time on. I was very excited when I saw that our hostesses had chosen the Dobos Torte, a six-layer, buttercream-frosted, toffee-topped monster of decadence. All too rarely do I have an excuse to make a huge cake – which is a shame, because I could use the practice. I had only made a layered cake once before, and it was much simpler than the Dobos: only three thick layers. This was definitely going to be a challenge.

I stuck to the original recipe, because absolutely everything was new to me. For one thing, I had never made sponge cake. Génoise, yes, but not sponge cake – the difference being, as I recently discovered, that for génoise the eggs are beaten whole with sugar, whereas they are separated for sponge cake. The recipe gave us the following technique for making regular sponge cake layers: draw a circle on a sheet of parchment paper (using a template), spread a thin layer of batter within the limits of each circle, and bake for 5 minutes per baking sheet. Then, the layers had to be trimmed to down to equal diameters with the help of a pie tin or some other circular object. I wonder if it would have been easier to bake each layer directly in a parchment-lined pie tin, in order to obtain fool-proof regular circles…

Well, at any rate, the tracing method worked well enough, and I was pleasantly surprised by the texture of the sponge cake: quite sticky (peeling it off the parchment was a little tricky), but solid (even in my clumsy hands, it didn't come close to tearing). I could tell the layers would be good for stacking. I actually ended up with eight layers, instead of the predicted six, because I used a slightly smaller diameter.

I had never made buttercream, either. At least not this type, which required whisking eggs over a double boiler until thickened, adding chocolate, then incorporating butter when cooled (does that make it a German buttercream?). I cooked my eggs and chocolate mixture for longer than indicated, because it didn’t seem to be thickening. In fact, I worried about the result being too liquid until the very last stage, when the butter finally turned the runny mixture into a creamy, thick frosting that was just begging to be licked off the spoon.

And finally, there was the toffee. The task was to slice one of the sponge cake layers into portions, then pour hot caramel over it, spread it around and cut through it quickly, so as to obtain separate toffee-covered cake pieces, to decorate the top of the Dobos. Having burnt my fair share of caramel in the past, I erred on the side of caution this time, and didn’t cook the caramel long enough. As a result, it was too liquid when I poured it over the cake.

I looked at my cake portions as they bathed in the liquid-caramel-filled cake pan I had placed them in. I fully expected them to turn soggy and dissolve – but they didn’t. Instead, the caramel very slowly solidified… under the cake pieces. So, in the end, I wound up with more or less what I was aiming for, just upside down (which was easy enough to fix, obviously). Well, the toffee was definitely too chewy and nearly impossible to eat at first, but a night in the fridge hardened it a bit.

I made a rookie mistake while assembling the cake: I put more frosting at the center of the layers than at the edges, resulting in a domed cake. So, of course, when I put the toffee pieces on top of the final frosted layer, they started to slip. So I did what I always do when something in the kitchen starts to slip, stick, or tear: I tried to keep everything in place as best as I could, while screaming for Laurent to get me something – in this case, aluminum foil. We formed a cylinder around the cake to hold it together, then let it set in the fridge. No fancy decorations this time, I was just happy it looked more or less normal.

Knowing how much buttercream I’d smeared over and inside it, I was expecting the Dobos to be really heavy on the stomach, but it wasn’t: I actually find ganache-covered cakes to be much heavier. This buttercream very much reminded of the kind used on bûche de Noël: not too strong, with a pleasant, melting texture. I’d really like to experiment more with buttercream, maybe make it more chocolaty, or try a different flavour altogether. But, like I said, I ran out of time this month.

Given that I made the full recipe, I shared this cake with a lot of people, and it was very well received. It also kept really well (although, given that it’s been pretty warm here, I had to store it in the fridge), and the sponge cake kept its texture until the end. I really learned a lot with this challenge, and I’m really grateful to our hostesses for it!

As usual, check out The Daring Kitchen for the full recipe, and don't forget to check out the other participants on the blogroll.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Time for a Little Sugar - Dark Chocolate Mousse with Raspberries

Things have been pretty savoury around here, lately. Weird, for a blog called The Chocolate Bunny, don’t you think? Well, it’s true that the recent Asparagus Series didn’t leave much room for sweetness: I can’t think of a dessert that would include asparagus! Then again, I was sceptical about zucchini and chocolate cake in the beginning, then discovered it was marvellous… Still, I think I’ll leave the testing of asparagus with butterscotch to someone braver than me.

Instead, let’s focus on a classic: chocolate mousse.

Last week, Laurent and I had planned to go see Julie & Julia. We knew it was going to be a visually mouth-watering movie, with myriad shots of delicious, decadent food, so we decided to have dinner before seeing it (another wise choice would have been to go out to a nice French restaurant afterwards, but the timing was off).

Unfortunately, I didn’t really have time to make an elaborate meal, since we would have to rush. No boeuf bourguignon, that was for sure. But I still wanted to make something good, or at least something satisfying. After all, who wants to see a gourmet movie on a stomach full of junk food?

I’ll post about the main course some other time, and concentrate on dessert today, as promised. Because that’s really where all my energy went. Not that it took very long to make. Chocolate mousse is so quick to make, and rather difficult to mess up entirely: even if the texture doesn’t come out exactly as planned, it’ll still taste heavenly.

There are as many chocolate mousse recipes as there are cooks. The one I usually make is as basic as they come: just eggs, chocolate, a couple of spoonfuls of sugar, and a little bit of butter (which I sometimes omit entirely). I’ve also made it with cream, for a heavier texture. I’m sure Julia Child’s version includes boatfuls of butter, and I’m sure it tastes divine – but, would you believe it, I don’t own her books. In fact, until quite recently I only had a vague idea of how important Julia Child was to the world of cooking. I simply grew up in a different food culture…

But back to the mousse. Since the preparation itself was simple, I spruced it up by hiding layers of fresh raspberries inside the mousse (which you can sort-of-kind-of make out in the picture). Chocolate and raspberry: my favourite duo. Together, they can make the worst day brighter.

As you can see, this isn’t a very dense mousse, it’s more of a frothy one. Some day, I’ll try adding gelatin, to make it set better. But in the end, I got exactly what I wanted, without much effort: an intensely chocolaty dessert that was both rich and light. It certainly put us in the right mood for Julie & Julia.

As for the movie itself, we both loved it. The parts revolving around Julia’s life were so uplifting! And as for the part concerning Julie Powell, I enjoyed it as well, but I had to wonder: would anyone not involved in the food blogosphere really relate to it? I mean, I haven’t had this blog for all that long, and I’m not sure even I would have related to that aspect of the movie before I started The Chocolate Bunny. Much of the pleasure I found in watching Julie Powell’s story lied in the depiction of the neuroses that come with having a food blog (and I’m sure all of you related to those very same scenes). I wouldn’t have appreciated those moments before, and I’m wondering if anyone else would.

But, no matter. We loved the film, and I had dreams of butter and chocolate for several nights afterwards. Thank God for chocolate mousse.

Quickie Frothy Dark Chocolate Mousse with Raspberries
Slightly modified from Mario Cattoor’s Cuisiner à la flamande

Serves 2-3

50g (2 oz) dark chocolate, chopped
2 eggs, separated
25g (1 oz, 1/8 cup) sugar
1 tbsp butter
Fresh whole raspberries
Mint leaves, for decorating

Melt the chocolate with the butter in a double boiler over low-medium heat. Let cool slightly.

In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture is pale yellow and thick. Stir in the cooled chocolate mixture.

Beat the egg whites until very stiff (you should be able to hold your bowl upside-down without having them fall out). Using a flexible rubber spatula, gently incorporate them into the chocolate mixture, being careful not to crush them.

Take the individual recipients in which you want to serve your mousse, and place a couple of raspberries on the bottom (depending on size of your recipient). Cover with a layer of mousse, then gently place a few more raspberries over that. Repeat the process until your recipients are full and/or all the mousse has been used.

Cover and refrigerate the portions for at least 2 hours. Before serving, top with a sprig of mint and a raspberry. Serve chilled.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Asparagus Series - Episode Four: Two Pasta Recipes

Help! We are being overrun by plants!

Yes, that’s what my living room looks like right now. Our building is having work done on all the balconies, and so we have been instructed to clear our balcony out. And this was the only place we could store all our herbs. I feel like I’m writing in a greenhouse. Hopefully, we’ll find a new home for the plants soon, because the lack of sunlight can’t be good for them.

Well, the living room may be a mess, but the kitchen, while cluttered, is still completely functional. Which means I still have much to share with you all. So, first things first, what do you say we finish our Asparagus Series? And the final dish (or rather, dishes) will be: pasta!

Originally, I only had one pasta recipe to share: lemon penne with asparagus, which we made a while ago. But, to my surprise, asparagus have made a comeback in the market stalls this week. They are more slender than the ones we had in the spring, but they are just as delicious. So last night, Laurent (who had decided it was his night to cook) made me a shrimp and asparagus pasta dish.

Recipe no 1: Lemon Pasta with Asparagus

Both are very simple recipes, which can of course be modified ad infinitam. In fact, they are themselves variations. The first is taken from Josée di Stasio’s acclaimed Pasta Et Cetera, with the only difference being that she makes it with spaghetti – which we actually did try once, and found that the lemon sauce didn’t adhere to the pasta as much as we would have liked (although, to be completely honest, we had diluted it too much). Josée di Stasio describes this recipe as “something to make when there’s nothing in the fridge,” and that’s about right – sure, it’s better if you have asparagus or mushrooms around, but if worst comes to worst, lemon and parmesan are all you need.

The second recipe is courtesy of another Montrealer, Stefano Faita and his wonderful cookbook Entre Cuisine et Quincaillerie, which translates are “Between Cooking and Hardware.” Despite the title, the recipes don’t require any special equipment, but the book itself is full of anecdotes and useful tips. I’ve borrowed from it a lot, and very few of these Italian-inspired recipes have ever let me down.

Recipe no 2: Pasta with Shrimp and Asparagus

The original recipe called for flambéing the shrimp and asparagus with brandy, but we decided not to go there. For one thing, we’ve never flambéed anything yet. And secondly, I’m still reeling from an experience where an otherwise perfectly tasty shrimp pâté was completely ruined by the fact that the shrimp had been marinated in brandy: it was seriously the only thing to have ever come out of my kitchen that I couldn’t bring myself to eat more than a few bites of. I’m all for incorporating spirits into desserts and cakes, but ever since that day I’ve been a little wary of adding them to savoury dishes. So, for this recipe, we simply deglazed the pan with white wine, and that was that. And we couldn’t find fresh marjoram, so we used dried. Fresh Italian parsley would also have been good.

So, there you go: two very different, but equally flavourful asparagus pasta recipes. And with that, I am officially ending the Asparagus Series, and I promise the next post will be all about sweetness. Stay tuned!

Lemon and Asparagus Pasta
Slightly adapted from Pasta Et Cetera: À la di Stasio

Serves 2

One bunch of asparagus
The zest and juice of 2 lemons
250g (1/2 pound) short pasta
120 ml (1/2 cup) grated parmesan
3 tbsp olive oil
A handful of fresh basil, chopped
Salt and pepper

Combine the lemon juice and zest, parmesan and oil in a large bowl. Set aside.

Trim the asparagus. Cut them into 4 cm (1 1/2 inch) pieces, separating the stems from the spears. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (you will be using the same water to boil your pasta). Boil the asparagus stems for 2-3 minutes, then add the spears and boil for an extra 1-2 minutes. Remove the asparagus from the pot with a slotted spoon or skimmer, run under cold water and reserve.

Boil the pasta according to the instructions on the box. One minute before the end of the cooking process, add the asparagus to the pot, so as to reheat them. Drain the pasta and vegetables, making sure to reserve about 120ml (1/2 cup) of the cooking liquid.

Put the pasta, asparagus and cooking liquid in the bowl with the lemon and parmesan mixture. Toss to coat. Salt and pepper to taste and garnish with fresh basil.

Pasta with Shrimp and Asparagus
Adapted from Entre Cuisine et Quincaillerie

Serves 2

One bunch of asparagus
250g (1/2 pound) short pasta (such as penne or farfalle)
250g (1/2 pound) raw medium shrimp, deveined and shelled
2 tbsp butter
1 shallot, minced
120ml (1/2 cup) white wine
1 tbsp fresh marjoram, chopped (can be replaced with flat-leaf parsley)
240ml (1/2 cup) heavy cream
Grated parmesan
Salt and pepper

Trim the asparagus. Cut them into 4 cm (1 1/2 inch) pieces, separating the stems from the spears. Boil the asparagus stems in salted water for 3 minutes, then add the spears and boil for an extra 2 minutes. Drain the asparagus, run under cold water and reserve.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook your pasta following the instructions on the box.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Cook the shallots until slightly translucent, then add the shrimp and asparagus. Cook for 3-4 minutes, then add the white wine and continue cooking until mostly evaporated.

Season with herbs, salt and pepper. Add the cream and continue cooking, stirring often, until thickened.

Drain your pasta and add it to the pan. Toss to combine ingredients and coat the pasta with cream, and sprinkle with parmesan.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Daring Cooks' August Challenge - Rice with Mushrooms, Cuttlefish and Artichokes

This month’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge, hosted by Olga from Las Cosas de Olga and Olga’s Recipes, was a pretty straightforward recipe – especially compared to last month’s fascinating, but oh-so-scary molecular cuisine challenge. No powders, no special equipment, just regular pots and pans, with rice, vegetables, and seafood. Olga challenged us to make a wonderful Spanish recipe by chef José Andrès: rice with mushrooms, cuttlefish, and artichokes.

But, because each challenge is so carefully selected, I still learnt something. Several things, in fact.

The first thing I learnt is that fresh artichokes are mean little bastards.

I’ve had artichokes before, many times. But they were always boiled artichokes, which someone else had prepared for me. Or artichoke hearts, marinated in oil and vinegar. Hence, I had no idea fresh artichokes could be so… cactus-like.

But I soon found out. In fact, I found out before even paying for the evil veggies: as I handed them to the cashier at the market, I let out a loud yelp that made everyone nearby turn around. The artichokes had managed to prick me through their plastic wrapper, thanks to their Stingers of Death.

Prickly little buggers… Predictably, I encountered quite a few further injuries while trying to cut through the artichokes. “Trying” is the word, because my dull kitchen knives were no match for the artichokes’ Leaves of Steel. Fortunately, Laurent gave me a hand – literally – and helped me pluck out all the outer leaves, until the artichokes were left vulnerable enough for my knife to penetrate them.

That was actually the hardest part of the challenge, for me. Well, except for the allioli.

But let me first tell you a bit more about this month’s challenge recipe. The basic dish consisted in sautéed artichokes, mushrooms and cuttlefish (which I replaced with calamari), which were then simmered with short-grain rice in fish stock. However, there were two additional seasonings, to be prepared separately: sofregit (a simmered tomato sauce with optional mushrooms and bell pepper), and allioli (a garlic-based mayonnaise-type sauce). We were encouraged to use Spanish rice and olive oil if possible, but... well, I live with an Italian. :-)

The sofregit was no problem. The allioli, however, was a different story. We were encouraged to try the traditional method, which consisted in crushing garlic with a mortar and pestle, then adding olive oil drop by drop, stirring constantly with the pestle, until a thick sauce formed. Until then, I had always been under the impression that allioli was just mayonnaise with added garlic. I was very intrigued by how mere oil and garlic would ever become a mayonnaise, and so I took up the challenge.

I crushed the salted garlic into a smooth paste, then began adding the olive oil. After 10 minutes, it started to look like a sauce was forming. In my excitement, my wrist slipped, and I poured in too much oil at once. Big mistake: the sauce seemed to be lost forever. I kept on stirring for 20 more minutes, but the oil and garlic remained separated.

Fortunately, if there’s one thing I know how to make, it’s mayonnaise from scratch. It was literally the first thing my Belgian grandmother taught me to make in the kitchen. Other kids learn to make cookies, I learnt to make mayonnaise. So, I took an egg yolk, added some vinegar (normally, I would have added mustard, but I didn’t want to alter the allioli’s taste too much), and began whisking in some olive oil. It was a hot day, and I hadn’t refrigerated my utensils, so for a while it looked like this mayonnaise wouldn’t take either. But with the last of my elbow-grease, it finally came together, and all I had to do was add the garlic paste. Not quite traditional, but it would have to do.

The rest of the challenge was a breeze. The vegetables and calamari were perfectly cooked, the rice was just barely al dente, and the whole dish was fragrant with tomato sauce and saffron: it was a hit. I was pleasantly surprised at how flavourful the end result was. Reading the instructions, it had seemed to me that the recipe was lacking some zip, and so I had bought some lovely black olives (Spanish, for once) to add to the rice at the last minute. But as it turned out, they weren’t needed: the flavour was perfect as it was.

However, after dinner, while clearing the table and putting away the leftovers… I saw the allioli which I had left in the fridge and forgotten to serve with the rice. D’oh.

Since I had put so much effort into making the damn sauce (my arms were still shaking), we immediately tried it on croutons, with a bit of extra rice (and I used more leftovers to take the pictures). Personally, I’m not convinced the allioli was necessary. I love garlic, and I love mayonnaise, but the allioli (at least, the one I made) tasted bitter to me. I’d have guessed it was the crushed raw garlic, but Laurent tells me it might have been the olive oil: we usually make our mayonnaise with canola oil, which gives it a milder taste.

I made the recipe for four people, and there are only two of us here. So, with the leftovers, I decided to have a little fun, and made an omurice. Omurice (also spelled omrice, or omuraisu) is a Japanese dish, typically consisting in chicken rice wrapped in a thin sheet of omelette: hence the name, which is short for omelette-rice. Usually, the rice is simmered with ketchup, and the omelette is topped with more ketchup. But for this version, I used – you guessed it – the leftover sofregit tomato sauce! And, since there was still allioli left, I threw that in too (although I’m still not convinced).

Normally, omurice would be wrapped more prettily than this, but I was hungry and had burnt my hand on the stovetop (and on the omelette, while trying to arrange it). It’s a miracle I didn’t break the omelette completely.

The result tasted really good – more Spanish than Japanese, to be sure. I’m not sure what to call it though… Omurice à la Spaniard? Omupaella? Omuarroz? What do you think?

It’s quite likely I will make this kind of rice again, or some variant on it. However, I think I’m more comfortable with the risotto method: I always feel the urge to stir rice, while it’s cooking, but with Spanish rice you’re supposed to avoid overstirring – which was very hard for me.

But there’s one thing I’m sure of: if I ever need artichoke hearts again, you can bet I’ll buy them canned!

You can download the full recipe and instructions at The Daring Kitchen, and be sure to check the other participants' dishes while you're at it! A great thank you to our hostess for this lovely challenge!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Asparagus Series - Episode Three: Shrimp and Asparagus Mini Casseroles

I'm still sticking to asparagus-centric recipes. But today’s post is also a chance for me to proudly introduce a new addition to my kitchen, which I had been dreaming about for quite some time: mini Dutch ovens, or mini casseroles.

I’ve already mentioned my fondness for braised dishes and my belief that Dutch ovens are one of the most wonderful inventions ever. The one I own is huge, which is the way I like it: when I make stew in the winter, I usually make enough to last two or three days. People often say that braised dishes taste better every time you re-heat them, and it is completely true: the more time the flavours have time to hang out together, the better they get along with each other.

However, sometimes you don’t want a mountain of leftovers. Sometimes, you don’t want to bring one huge pot to the table. Sometimes, you want small, pretty, individual portions.

And that’s when you break out the mini casseroles.

Pocket-book sized!

In theory, they are literally a miniature version of regular Dutch ovens; but to be honest, they are not a substitute for the bigger version, in that you can’t really use them for the same things. For instance, they are not ideal for braising or simmering red meat: most recipes I’ve come across using these mini casseroles recommend pre-cooking beef and pork before adding them to the pot.

What the mini Dutch ovens are good for, however, are vegetables, chicken, and seafood dishes. Not to mention baked eggs, which you can season to your liking, with cream, ham, cheese, and so forth (there’s a three-cheese and walnut version that I’m very curious about). And they make for a great presentation – you know, in more skillful hands than mine.

Of course, you could probably use medium ramekins for most of the recipes involving mini casseroles; perhaps not for the dishes that have to spend a lot of time in the oven, but the quicker ones (such as the one I’m presenting today) shouldn’t suffer from the substitution. But what can I say? I have a Dutch oven fetish. And, since I’m also partial to small, cutesy things, it was inevitable that I would fall for these little pots.

The very first thing I made using my new toys were these Shrimp and Asparagus Casseroles. I had a little trouble estimating the cooking time, which ended up being rather longer than the recipe indicated. You can see in the picture that the cheese topping wasn’t properly melted yet (and I didn’t have time to snap another shot when it was ready for real). This is a fairly rich dish, involving cream and parmesan, and probably more appropriate for early spring. But it was definitely satisfying and tasty – and I’m not just saying that because I’ll eat anything in a mini casserole!

For some people, miniatures are simply irrestistible. I am one of those people.

Shrimp and Asparagus Mini Casseroles
Slightly modified from José Maréchal’s Petites Cocottes

Serves 2

1 bunch of green asparagus
8 large shrimp, deveined, with the tail still attached
360ml (3/4 cup) bread crumbs
360ml (3/4 cup) heavy cream (or substitute half the cream with milk)
120ml (1/4 cup) parmesan shavings
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 190°C (375°F).

Trim the asparagus by removing the thick stems, and cut the remaining tips into 3,5 cm (1 1/2 inch) pieces. Separate the spears from the stems. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the asparagus stems for about 3 minutes. Add the spears and cook for another minute. Drain, run under cold water, and pat dry.

Separate the asparagus spears from the stems, once again. Combine the stems with the cream and puree with a hand mixer, or in a small blender. Salt and pepper to taste. Divide this mixture among two mini casseroles or medium ramekins.

Gently roll the shrimp and asparagus spears into the bread crumbs, so as to cover them. Arrange them into the casseroles, with the shrimp tails and asparagus spears pointing up. Cover with parmesan shavings. Bake in the oven for about 12-15 minutes, until the shrimp is cooked, the parmesan is fully melted, and the cream is heated through.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Asparagus Series - Episode Two: Smoked Salmon and Asparagus Risotto

Continuing with our Asparagus Series, this time I give you a risotto.

For a long time, I thought risotto was a complicated dish that required much time and preparation – obviously, this was before I got interested in cooking. Despite now knowing how quick, easy and versatile risotto is, I still don’t make it very often. On some level, I think I still perceive it as a fancy, special-occasion dish, even though I know perfectly well that it doesn’t necessarily require any fancy ingredients at all. And it’s not like it has to be an overly indulgent meal, either: sure, you can make risotto as decadent as you like, but you can also keep it light and healthy. I guess it’s just one of those irrational habits of mine: I simply can’t think of risotto as a go-to recipe.

So, a while back, when we found ourselves with asparagus and smoked salmon in the fridge, and were brainstorming about what to do with them (an appetizer? a pasta dish?) risotto didn’t come to our minds immediately. But we were both very glad when it did, especially since we had made something similar before, and had liked it very much. In a flash, we were sitting in front of a delicious meal.

At the time, I was taking medication that prohibited me from eating dairy in the evening. Therefore, we didn’t put any cream or parmesan in the risotto (although Laurent did sprinkle some grated cheese over his plate). Honestly, the dish tasted fine without the dairy: it was creamy and full of flavour – and healthier!

Smoked Salmon and Asparagus Risotto

Serves 2

One bunch of green asparagus
4 slices of smoked salmon, cut into 2,5 cm (1 inch) pieces
2 tbsp olive oil
250 ml (1 cup) arborio rice
1 small onion, chopped
125 ml (1/2 cup) white wine
1 liter (4 cups) chicken stock
The grated zest of half-a-lemon (optional)
Grated parmesan (optional)
Salt and pepper

Trim the asparagus by removing the thick stems, and cut the remaining tips into 2,5 cm (1 inch) pieces. Separate the spears from the stems. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the asparagus stems for about 2 minutes. Add the spears and cook for another minute. Drain, run under cold water, and set aside.

Heat the chicken stock over medium heat.

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for about 2 minutes, until the onion is transparent. Add the rice and stir well, in order to coat each grain in oil.

Toss in the white wine and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until all the wine has evaporated or been absorbed.

Add in the chicken stock, one ladleful at a time, stirring the risotto constantly. Wait until all the stock has been absorbed before you pour in the next ladleful. Continue until the rice is al dente. (Note: The necessary amount of stock may vary: you may not need it all, but you may also have to add some extra water, if you run out of stock before the rice is cooked.)

When the rice is cooked and the mixture is still moist and creamy, incorporate the salmon, asparagus and lemon zest (if using). Sprinkle with parmesan if desired. Salt and pepper to taste, keeping in mind that the salmon, stock and parmesan are already quite salty. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Asparagus Series - Episode One: Asparagus Salad with Soy and Wasabi Dressing

We attended a friend’s wedding this weekend. Guess who caught the bouquet?

Tee hee… I don’t think I’ve ever had this many roses at once (the most I’ve ever gotten was a dozen). I love flowers, just looking at them makes me smile.

Now, back to food… It’s August already. Back-to-school commercials are already starting to air on TV. It used to depress me to no end when I was a schoolkid. Heck, it depressed me when I was an undergrad. And when I was a Masters student. And while I was going through my PhD seminars. When/if I become a professor (that’s the plan, but who knows where life will take me?), those commercials will probably continue to depress me, year after year. But this year, for once, I don’t mind as much: because I’ve been taking classes this summer, and will actually be taking my vacation in the fall. I’m desperately looking forward to it.

But wait, I was supposed to write about food… This is a food blog, after all. So, let’s start again: it’s August already. Which means asparagus season is long gone. Fortunately, I have been saving up a few recipes over the past few months, and I have decided that the next few posts will be resolutely asparagus-centric. After all, it wouldn’t be much fun posting about asparagus in the middle of winter, would it?

I hated asparagus as a child. Hated it with a passion. White asparagus was the worst, with its slimy texture and icky colour, but green asparagus wasn’t much better: it smelled funny and tasted bitter to me.

Whenever I proclaimed my dislike of some type of food, my mother would tell me: “Try it, you’ll learn to like it.” She was right about some things: over the years, I learnt to appreciate coffee, red wine, camembert, broccoli, pesto, tzatziki, and probably a few other things. But I never did get over my dislike of endives and Brussels sprouts (a real crime, for a Belgian girl).

However, I did grow to like asparagus. Admittedly, it was a fairly recent change of heart: two summers ago, Laurent’s father made a cold asparagus salad, with loads of olive oil and parmesan. I tasted it out of politeness, and realized that asparagus could actually be quite tasty, under the right circumstances.

Since then, I’ve evolved enough to appreciate asparagus without overwhelmingly strong flavours. I hadn’t realized how often I’ve been eating them until I browsed through my food pictures the other day, and saw all the asparagus-inclusive dishes. Truly, they have become one of my springtime go-to veggies.

So, the first asparagus recipe I wanted to share with you is this wonderful salad with soy and wasabi dressing. I was very intrigued when I came across it, as these are not flavours I would instinctively associate with asparagus. I wasn’t at all sure how the flavours would combine, but they turned out to complement each other very well indeed! I’m finding it very hard to describe the overall taste of this salad, because there are so many strong ingredients in it. You’ll just have to try it out for yourself – if you can still get your hands on some asparagus!

I tend to not use much oil in my dressings, and to go heavy on the lemon. I’ve toned down the acidity for this recipe, but feel free to play around with the quantities.

Asparagus with Soy and Wasabi Dressing
Slightly modified from Le Cordon Bleu Quick Classics

Serves 2-3

1 bunch fresh green asparagus
1 spring onion
1 tbsp sesame seeds (optional)

For the dressing:
1 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 tbsp soy sauce
The juice of half-a-lemon
1 tsp mild wasabi paste
4 tbsp soy or canola oil

If using the sesame seeds, toast them in a non-stick frying pan over high heat, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, until the seeds are browned and fragrant. Transfer to a bowl and reserve.

Trim the asparagus and cut the remaining stems into 4 cm (1 1/2 inch) pieces. Separate the tips from the stems.

Cook the stems in boiling salted water for about 2-3 minutes. Add the tips and cook for another 1-2 minutes, until just tender. Drain, run under cold water, and pat dry.

In a bowl, combine the grated ginger, soy sauce, lemon juice and wasabi. Whisk well, then gradually whisk in the oil.

Thinly slice the onion diagonally and incorporate into the dressing. Toss the asparagus with the dressing, arrange them on a plate and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Serve at room temperature.