Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Daring Bakers' March Challenge - Orange Tian

The 2010 March Daring Baker’s challenge was hosted by Jennifer of Chocolate Shavings. She chose Orange Tian as the challenge for this month, a dessert based on a recipe from Alain Ducasse’s Cooking School in Paris.

*rush rush rush rush rush* Whew!

Obviously, I am very, very late for this month’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge, and I apologize for that. It’s been very stressful and busy lately, and I just couldn’t put the time aside. Still, it’s the first time I’ve ever been late, with 11 challenges under my belt… so it’s not a terrible track record yet.

I wasn’t familiar at all with Orange Tian. Whenever I mentioned tian to anyone, they associated it with vegetables. But what we were challenged to make by Jennifer, our hostess, was a layered dessert consisting of pâte sablée, citrus marmalade, stabilized whipped cream, and caramel-infused citrus segments.

I had made pâte sablée before, and it was as forgiving and delicious as I remember. It’s a very rich pastry dough that could practically be eaten as a cookie, thanks to its crumbly texture. It goes great with fruity concoctions.

We were free to use any kind of citrus for this challenge. I initially wanted to use blood oranges, but my grocery store was out of them, so I stuck with plain old oranges. The first step was to make marmalade. Now, I’m not much of a jam-maker: I just don’t like cooking fruit, I prefer to eat them fresh. But every now and then, it’s a fun process to go through. I slightly overcooked my marmalade, but it was good enough to serve its purpose.

It had been a long time since I had last made caramel. I think it’s always going to be scary: the hissing and spattering when you pour the liquid over the boiling sugar always makes me feel a little overwhelmed. But I’m getting used to it.

I had never segmented an orange before, because I just don’t use oranges much in my cooking and baking. And when I do, I only use the zest and the juice. Properly skinning and cutting out the segments took some practice, and was a lengthy process. After two oranges, I was ready to throw down my sticky fruit knife. But by the sixth and final one, I was actually starting to enjoy it.

Finally, I’m very happy to have learned how to make stabilized whipped cream, because I can think of so many applications for it. It’s basically just whipped cream with gelatin, but it does hold so much better and longer than the regular kind.

I used deep baking rings to assemble four little tians. They were a bit too large for one person, but perfect for sharing. We were instructed to freeze the tians for ten minutes, but I made them ahead and froze them for a few hours, thawing them 30 minutes before serving, to give me time to take pictures.

They were still a little frozen when we dug into them, but it wasn’t a bad thing: the cream tasted a little like frozen yogurt. I did like the orange tian, but if I make this again, I would definitely try more complex flavours. However, I do love the concept, and I want to thank Jennifer for introducing us to it. It's a very good-looking, fresh-tasting dessert that is sure to make an impression on guests!

So, um, better late than never?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

(Re)discovering a classic - Peanut Butter Cookies

Would you believe that, until recently, I had never baked with peanut butter? Not once. Peanut butter is a regular feature in my sandwiches, and it goes a long way in Thai peanut sauce. But, even though I frequently found myself drooling over recipes and blog posts about peanut butter brownies, cookies, and cakes, I just never got around to trying them.

So the January Daring Bakers’ Challenge was actually the first time peanut butter found its way into one of my sweet treats – this time, in the form of the filling for the challenge Nanaimo bars (which I’m told I should make again).

Perhaps this pulled a mental trigger, but when I was hit with a sudden urge to bake cookies a while back, and reached for Martha Stewart’s Cookies, this recipe just jumped off the page. The fact that they were quick and required no resting time made it all the more appealing.

As I’ve said time and time again, making cookies does not come easily to me. I often have issues with my dough being too dry, and I often find that my cookies are chewier than I would like. But these… I have to say, they were just right. It’s probably due to the fat contained in the peanut butter, but they were perfectly crisp and friable. I also love the fact that they contain brown sugar, which adds a very special kind of sweetness that lingers on the tongue, without being overpowering.

My father-in-law loved them so much he asked me for the recipe link. The texture reminded him of speculoos cookies, and he wanted to adapt the recipe by adding spices (cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cardamom), to make it even more like speculoos. Now, I know that these traditional Belgian cookies have never been made with peanut butter, and that purists would probably hate the idea. But you know what? He was right: the resemblance in texture was definitely there. And when he made his spiced-up version, they did indeed taste and feel very much like speculoos. Which means I’m going to have to try, too. Of course, they won't be peanut butter cookies anymore...

So, while you’re waiting to find out how my pimped-out peanut butter cookies turn out, why don’t you go ahead and try the regular version? It’s simple, but foolproof and seriously dreamy.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Daring Cooks' March Challenge - Risotto

The 2010 March Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Eleanor of MelbournefoodGeek and Jess of Jessthebaker. They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make risotto. The various components of their challenge recipe are based on input from the Australian Masterchef cookbook and the cookbook Moorish by Greg Malouf.

This month’s Daring Cooks’ challenge was pretty familiar to me: I’ve made risotto often. Although I have to admit, for the longest time I didn’t even consider making it: I used to think it was a fancy, complicated dish. But it’s actually fairly simple, albeit a little time consuming.

It’s also extremely versatile, which makes it convenient as hell. I’ve made risotto with smoked salmon and asparagus, aragula and gorgonzola, lemon and mushrooms… For this challenge, I decided to steer away from Italian flavours, and take the fusion road.

Fusion cuisine is not something I do often. I prefer discovering national cuisines and understanding how they work and blend flavours, before messing around with them. And since I always feel like I still have much to learn, I never get around to fusing. But I have come across fusion recipes that worked out extremely well. And it seemed like the perfect way to get creative with this challenge.

One of the requirements was to make our own stock. I delegated most of this task to Laurent, because he is the stock expert in the house. Me, I know how to make stock, but he seems to enjoy it so much more than I do – the exceptions being Asian stocks, such as Japanese dashi and Vietnamese pho broth: that’s my territory.

We used out usual stock recipe, since we know it works with any dish: one whole chicken, a couple of extra breasts, celery, carrots, onion, peppercorns and a classic bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, and bay). And quite a bit of salt. We simmered it at low heat for 3 hours, and ended up with 3 litres of deep, clear stock – along with loads of poached chicken meat, to use in salads.

For my first fusion experiment, I made a Tex-Mex Risotto, with sautéed bell pepper, black beans, corn, red Spanish onion, grated Monterey Jack cheese, jalapeno, and fresh cilantro. But, even though Tex-Mex cuisine tends to use long grain rice, I stuck with Italian Arborio rice, which works best for risotto. The result was really pretty good. And the fusion really didn’t taste weird at all: on the contrary, it felt natural. It might seem like I put a lot of stuff in there, but I always make risotto this way. To me, risotto is always an all-in-one meal, because I find it too filling to be a side-dish. So I always try to incorporate veggies and protein in there.

I took it a step further for my second try: Japanese risotto. Again, I used Arborio rice, because Japanese rice would probably have yielded a sticky mess. But instead of regular onions for the risotto base, I used scallions. And I deglazed the rice with sake, instead of the usual white wine. Finally, I replaced the chicken stock with diluted miso (not too much, otherwise the meal would have been way too salty – but enough to imbibe the rice with umami). I garnished the risotto with sautéed shiitake, and salmon teriyaki.

It came out great, I thought. The slightly salty rice contrasted well with the sweet-and-salty teriyaki – I made a point of not blending the ingredients too much, so as to prevent the sauce from getting everywhere and killing the miso. And the shiitake added a nice chewy texture to the mix. The rice was creamy and moist, very different from the usual sticky rice that comes with Japanese cuisine.

So, thank you to Eleanor and Jess for this fun, versatile challenge! Please check out the challenge recipes over at the Daring Kitchen: there are yummy risotto ideas, including preserved lemon, or pumpkin risotto! And don’t forget to check out the other Daring Cooks’ dishes!

Tex-Mex Risotto

Serves 3-4

For the risotto base:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium Spanish red onion, diced
200g (7 oz) Arborio rice
1 tbsp whole cumin seeds
120 ml (1/2 cup) dry white wine
1 litre (4 cups) homemade chicken stock

For the vegetable topping:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 red bell pepper, seeded, cleaned, and cut into strips
1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely chopped
250 ml (1 cup) cooked black beans, drained and rinsed
250 ml (1 cup) corn kernels, canned or frozen

Final touches:
80 ml (1/3 cup) shredded Monterey Jack cheese
A handful of fresh cilantro leaves, washed and chopped
Salt to taste

Heat the chicken stock in a separate saucepan, until steaming. Keep warm.

Prepare the vegetables:
In a skillet, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the bell pepper and the jalapeno, and stir-fry until tender. Add in the black beans and corn kernels and cook until heated through. Remove from heat and set aside.

Make the risotto base:
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 2 tbsp of oil over medium heat. Add the diced red onion and cook until tender. Add the rice and the cumin, and stir to coat each grain in oil. Pour in the wine and continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated or been absorbed.

Pour a ladleful of hot stock over the rice. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until all the stock has been absorbed. Repeat these steps until the rice is almost cooked to your liking.

Assemble the dish:
In the final minutes of cooking, add the cooked vegetables to the rice and stir them in. Continue cooking until warmed completely. At the last minute, stir in the shredded cheese. Adjust seasoning if necessary.

Serve immediately and garnish with chopped cilantro.

Japanese Risotto

Serves 2-3

For the risotto base:
2 tbsp olive oil
3-4 scallions, chopped
200g (7 oz) Arborio rice
60 ml (1/4 cup) sake
1 tbsp white miso, diluted in 1 litre (4 cups) warm water

For the salmon teriyaki:
60 ml (1/4 cup) sake
60 ml (1/4 cup) mirin
30 ml (1/8 cup) soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
300g (10.5 oz) salmon fillet, skinned
1 tbsp olive oil

For the shiitake:
360 ml (1 1/2 cup) shiitake mushrooms, washed, stemmed and sliced
1/2 tbsp canola oil
Salt, to taste

Prepare the salmon teriyaki:
Combine the soy sauce, mirin, and sake in a small saucepan. Stir in the sugar and cook over low heat, until the sugar has dissolved. Transfer to a bowl or deep plate, and let cool completely. Add the salmon fillet and marinate in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Remove the salmon from the marinade, shaking off any excess liquid. Make sure to reserve the marinade. In a skillet, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over high heat and sear the salmon to your liking; do not let it get too dry inside. Remove the salmon from the pan, and cut it into chunks. Reserve.

Transfer the marinade into a saucepan and cook over medium heat, until the sauce has thickened considerably (it should form a slightly liquid glaze). Reduce heat and add the salmon, stirring gently to coat the chunks of fish. Keep warm over low heat and reserve.

Prepare the shiitake:
Heat 1/2 tbsp oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Add the shiitake and stir-fry until tender. Salt to taste, remove from heat, and reserve.

Make the risotto base:
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 2 tbsp of oil over medium heat. Add the sliced scallions and cook until tender. Add the rice, and stir to coat each grain in oil. Pour in the sake and continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated or been absorbed.

Pour a ladleful of hot miso broth over the rice. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Repeat these steps until the rice is almost cooked to your liking.

Assemble the dish:
In the final minutes of cooking, add the sautéed mushrooms to the rice and stir them in. Continue cooking until warmed completely. Divide the risotto into individual servings, and top each plate with a helping of warm salmon. Serve immediately.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

All American (?) Burgers

Burgers are one of the reasons I’m happy to be living in North America. Sure, burgers aren’t unknown in Belgium: we have McDonald’s over there, just like everywhere else (except for Iceland, apparently), and we even have our own national hamburger-based fast-food chain, Quick. And there are certainly places of higher quality, such as bistros, that have burgers on their menu (David Leibovitz has listed quite a few in Paris). But to my knowledge, the idea that you can gourmet-up a burger hasn’t made its way quite as much as it has on this side of the ocean.

In other words, only in North America could Bobby Flay’s Burgers, Fries & Shakes have been published. This book is by no means a new release (it was published all the way back in 2009), but I took my time buying it. I really wasn’t sure if it was worth buying a whole book on such a limited subject. But in the end, the originality of the recipes won me over, and I haven’t regretted the purchase.

The title doesn’t lie: this book really is all about burgers, fries, and shakes. But there are many, many variations on each topic, as well as an extra section dedicated to pickles, relishes and sauces. Everything you need to spend way more time on a burger than you normally would – but that’s precisely what makes the process special.

I admit I have barely dipped a toe in the pool of recipes available (and I also admit that was a horrible metaphor). And I’ve been too timid, or too rushed to try some of the more extravagant recipes that sound (and look) more like mixed salads than anything else, like the Greek Burger or the Turkey Cobb Burger. Just by looking at the pictures, it’s clear that, while Bobby Flay doesn’t like to add stuff to the patties themselves, he goes all out when it comes to the extras.

So far, I’ve tried the Argentinean Burger, which is garnished with chimichurri (featured above). I had barely heard of chimichurri, and was only vaguely aware that it was a parsley-based savoury spread. I had also never tasted Manchego cheese, which was the recommended variety for this burger – and I have to say, it was a very pleasant discovery. It was sharp and salty, but nowhere near as aggressive as, say, parmesan. All in all, a great combination, and one that I would never have thought of.

Another favourite was the Wild Mushroom-Cheddar Burger, which kind of speaks for itself. This was more classic, but still a definite winner – but maybe that’s because I love mushrooms in anything. I made the effort of preparing the optional chipotle ketchup for garnishing, and it was another worthy discovery. I feel like I’m learning a lot from this deceptively simple book.

There are also a lot of useful general tips, things you can apply to any burger. Like making an indentation in the middle of the patty with your thumb, to ensure even cooking. Or using meat that contains at least 20 per cent fat, for maximum flavour. However, I have to admit that I have regularly cheated on this rule, and that I substitute bison for beef whenever I can (i.e., whenever I can find bison at the supermarket). I am seriously in love with ground bison meat: it’s incredibly lean, and I love its slightly strong, gamey flavour. And yes, the absence of fat does mean that my burger patties hold together a little less well (although I have yet to see one fall apart completely), and that they might be a little less juicy – but then, since I like my meat rare, my burgers never have the time to get too dry.

No recipes today, since I didn’t adapt the ones from the book. But surely this can spread a little inspiration, no?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

How to use fresh mozzarella in winter - Pizza Scappata

Laurent’s father is a stereotypical Italian in many ways. First of all, cheese plays a big part of his cooking: he always has at least five different kinds of really good cheese in his fridge. But another of his “Italian” traits is that he is extremely generous – including with his cheese. Whenever Laurent and I come over for dinner, chances are we will return home with a brick of parmesan, a wedge of Oka (often mushroom-flavoured, because he knows I love it), a cylinder of provolone, or a slab of smoked Jarlsberg.

Fresh mozzarella is also a regular part of our loot. In the summer, we rarely get very creative with it, and almost invariably turn to the classic Caprese salad. But in the winter, good tomatoes are hard to find. Furthermore, when it’s chilly outside, I find myself less easily satisfied by a cold dinner: I need something hot to warm myself.

So, how do you make a hot dish with fresh mozzarella, without altogether killing its flavour? Because it seems like a waste to just use it in a gratin or casserole, where grated dry mozzarella (or any number of other cheeses) works just fine…

We recently found a solution in Josée di Stasio’s Pasta Et Cetera: a recipe for pizza scappata. “Scappata” means “escaped,” or “runaway.” Basically, this is a pizza without the dough (which has “escaped”): you make your tomato sauce in a shallow pan, gently melt the mozzarella slices, add seasonings, and you’re done! All you have to do is scoop up the mixture with rustic bread… or homemade focaccia, if you happen to have a little time on your hands.

It’s a ridiculously simple recipe, but it’s just so comforting and homey, we keep coming back to it. Josée di Stasio keeps her flavours basic, with just a little fresh basil. But winter doesn’t just make me want warm meals, it also makes me crave strong flavours and spices. So I like to add things like anchovies and red pepper flakes. Anything works, as long as you can scoop it up easily.

Pizza Scappata
Adapted from Pasta Et Cetera à la Di Stasio

Serves 4 as an appetizer, or 2 as a meal

2 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, cut in half
One 540 ml (19 oz) can of diced tomatoes
2 tsp tomato paste
1 ball of fresh mozzarella
6-8 preserved anchovy filets, drained
A big handful of basil leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
A dash of hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco (or substitute with red pepper flakes)
Crusty bread (or focaccia), for serving

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the garlic and let it flavour the oil for a few minutes. Do not let the garlic brown.

Raise the heat to medium-high and add the canned tomatoes. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring often, until the tomatoes are soft. Stir in the tomato paste and the pepper sauce (or red pepper flakes), and continue cooking until the mixture is slightly reduced. Remove the garlic and discard.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Thinly slice the mozzarella and place the slices over the tomatoes, in a regular pattern. Without stirring, let the cheese melt (cover the skillet with a lid if necessary). This should take 1-2 minutes. In the meantime, coarsely chop the anchovies and sprinkle them over the mixture.

When the cheese is completely melted, remove the skillet from heat. Shred the basil leaves and scatter them over the pan. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, and serve immediately. Eat directly from the pan, scooping up the mixture with the bread.