Monday, October 29, 2007

How Does Your Garden Grow?

I don't think I ever ate brussels sprouts as a child, or ever saw what it looked like before it had been harvested and cut, but they actually grown on a long, tough stalk, which I thought rather fun when I got them from the CSA. I'd never eaten, or prepared, them before, but I did watch Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa) on the Food Network make some a couple of years ago, and it seemed simple enough. Toss the brussels sprouts (I cut them off of the stalk and washed them first) with salt, pepper and olive oil, and roast them in the oven.
They were delicious! Kind of like popcorn, but tasting like a cross between broccoli and green beans, and much healthier, too. They were a little crunchy on the outside, but tender, green and fragrant in the middle. You hear all these horror stories about brussels sprouts, and how much people hate them, but I don't find anything objectionable about them at all. This was my first time eating brussels sprouts, but it won't be the last.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Butternut Squash Soup

I had two butternut squash from the CSA that have been sitting around, waiting for me to deal with them. I've had plans for those two squash, including butternut squash soup, butternut squash risotto, and roasted butternut squash. I tackled the soup recipe today, which involved sauteing some shallots in butter.
An unusual aspect of this recipe (from Cook's Illustrated), involves sauteing the seeds and stringy fibres from the squash as well. Then, water is added to this mixture.
The butternut squash is then steamed (that's a steamer basket hiding underneath all that squash) with the liquid that contains the butter, shallots, seeds and fibres. Once the squash is tender, the steamer basket is removed from the pot and the squash is allowed to cool down, after which the flesh is scooped out. The steaming liquid is strained to remove the seeds and string.

Then the strained liquid and steamed squash are pureed together (this was the easiest step for me, because I have my wonderful immersion blender) and cream, brown sugar and salt are added.
And here I have a huge pot of butternut squash soup - it's a good thing that W adores butternut squash. This soup is tremendously comforting, especially since the apartment is rather chilly. I really like how it turned out. I used light cream, instead of the heavy cream called for in the recipe. Perhaps it wasn't as creamy as it might have been, but I actually like the lighter flavour and thinner consistency. Next time, I might try throwing in a few sprigs of fresh thyme, which would get strained out with the seeds.

Pumpkin Pie

After some unusually warm weather this late in October, it seems that it has finally started to cool down in earnest. The fall air has made me crave things made with apples and hard winter squash, such as apple crumble, pumpkin pie and butternut squash soup.

Spread out over two days, I made a pumpkin pie following the recipe in The Essential Baker, the book whose recipe I used for my carrot cake. Why did it take two days? Well, first I made the pastry dough for the crust, which had to chill for a couple of hours. Because I had things to do, I let it chill until the next day.

Rolling out the dough into a decent, properly-sized circle shape of even thickness was more difficult that I had anticipated, and I blame that on my rolling pin. It's the type of rolling pin that many household are no doubt familiar with: the centre barrel rolls, while you hold onto the stationary handles. Well, you just can't apply the right amount of even pressure. It was very frustrating, and I had to return the half rolled-out crust to the refrigerator several times because it was taking so long and the dough was warming up.

Finally, I had the crust rolled out and eased in to line the deep-dish pie plate. As the unbaked pie crust was cooling in the freezer (to prevent shrinkage when baking), I mixed together the ingredients for the pumpkin filling.
The filling went into the unbaked crust, and the pie went into the oven.And, around an hour later, a pumpkin pie - its filling still billowing up with heat - came out of the oven.
When the pie had cooled down all the way, however, the filling had shrunken and come away from the crust, all around the perimeter! This in no way affected the taste of the pie, which was very good. And it wasn't super heavy, overly sweet, or overloaded with spices, unlike many other pumpkin pies I have eaten. In fact, the filling was surprisingly light, and almost airy. This is a pie that you could have two slices of.
The only problems were 1) the crust was over-browned/slightly burnt, and 2) the filling shrank. It isn't so bad on this piece you see here. But on some of the other pieces, the entire side of the crust falls away from the pie filling and flops down rather pathetically.

I called Moocow to try to figure out what had gone wrong. She said, since the pumpkin pie filling is custard-like, it needed to bake slowly in a not-too-hot oven. That being the case, the crust should probably have been baked blind before being filled with the filling and baked slowly. When I had been following the recipe, I did think it rather strange that the crust wasn't to be baked first, but I decided to trust the recipe. Next time, I think I will try it following Moocow's advice. I'll probably shield the crust with aluminium foil, as well, so it doesn't burn. And, as soon as I can, I'm going to buy a simple, French rolling pin.

Plated Dessert Challenge

We had our own "Iron Chef" challenge at school this week - we call it a "Market Basket," and were charged to create two plated desserts using specified amounts of sugar, butter, milk, cream, eggs, and tropical fruits (banana, mango, pineapple, and kiwi). We didn't have to use all the ingredients, but couldn't exceed those parameters. We also did not have to do two completely different desserts; we could make one dessert and plate it two ways. My entry was a pineapple shortcake.
The first one kind of looks like a classic French dessert using strawberries, called a Fraisier, but obviously this one has brown-sugar glazed pineapples instead. The cake was filled with vanilla bavarian, topped with a slice of dried pineapple, and sauced with a Madeira caramel. It looked nice, but I lost points for the flavors being too bland. My fault - after my dry run for the dessert earlier in the week, I realised it needed a little of the punchy lime syrup I also made, but as I had used a delicate yellow cake instead of the traditional biscuit, I was afraid the syrup would make it fall apart.

The second plate was a "deconstructed" shortcake, and the original plan was the bake it in a bundt pan, but I couldn't find one the right size. The brioche a tete mold I ended up using makes the cake kinda look like an alien spacecraft with a sail. This one got higher marks for taste because of the acidity and juiciness of the kiwi slices. Maybe next time I'll put kiwis in the middle of the first cake, too....hrm...

The other desserts below are a selection of the plates my classmates did.
This is a raspberry and whipped cream crepe gateau, or a crepe cake.

Here is a banana panna cotta that won raves from everyone.

And this handsome concoction is a rarely seen frozen "souffle." It's actually just frozen parfait, but it's molded in a ramekin to make it look like a souffle, and the core is filled with caramel sauce. There is a slice of banana in the middle to indicate its flavor. It's a really good-looking and delicious dessert. For some reason though, restaurants rarely have this on their menus so if you happen to see one in future, make sure to order it!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Shaker Corn Pudding

A couple of weeks ago, I got four ears of sweet corn in my CSA share. Now that I have braces, I can't have corn on the cob. Instead, I decided to try a little something that I had always been curious about: corn pudding.

There are lots of corn pudding recipes out there, some of them with lots of cream, or cheese, or both. I didn't, however, want to overwhelm the fresh sweetness of this organically grown corn, so I turned to a very simple Shaker-style Creamy Corn Pudding recipe from Cook's Illustrated.

I am a great admirer of the healthful, simple, delicious goodness of Shaker cooking. This recipe is typical of that cuisine, and called for lots of fresh corn, grated off the cob, milk, eggs and fresh chives. What came out was an extremely light and appetizing affair, with the flavour of the corn enhanced by the addition of just enough milk and eggs.

One of these days, I'm going to try my hand at another Shaker corn dish, which is made from Shaker dried corn. I just have to figure out how to get my hands on some.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Gnawed-on Jack O' Lantern

W and I bought a nice, big pumpkin last Friday so we could be properly prepared for Halloween. I hadn't carved a pumpkin since nursery school, but it was great fun! I saved the seeds, mixed them with some oil and spices, and toasted them in the oven.

This is our friendly-looking Jack o' Lantern. He probably won't look quite as perky by Halloween, though. The squirrels have been attacking him, and already his hat (the lid) doesn't fit anymore. Poor Jack! And darn those squirrels! Is nothing safe from them?

Pan-seared Toro Filet

Working at a restaurant has its perks, and I think working at a Japanese restaurant must better than most, since most of the food there is relatively healthy.

My boss, knowing my love of food, gave me a piece of toro one Saturday night at closing time. Not just any piece of tuna, but toro! He said it wouldn't keep over the weekend (we're closed on Mondays, too) but that it would still be good cooked.

And, boy, was it! I just seasoned it lightly with salt and white pepper, a splash of sake and soy sauce, and some ginger juice. I served it with sauteed green peppers and mushrooms, and some colcannon. Sometimes, simple is best.

Carrot Nut Muffins

Raymond, the farmer for the CSA I joined, grows really beautiful carrots. (In fact, all of his root vegetables, and garlic, are stupdendous.) I made my first carrot cake a while back (it was a behemoth) but one night, as I was studying, I felt the overwhelming need to bake. I couldn't afford to do anything too involved, so I settled on this carrot nut muffin recipe by Beth Hensperger in the Williams-Sonomo Muffins cookbook.

In the interest of saving time, I used the little mini-food processor that Moocow had left with me. It isn't terribly good, I'm afraid - the walnuts and carrots were very unevenly chopped - but I satisfied my baking craving, tested a new recipe, and got back to studying pretty quickly. And, I swear, it was just about the baking; I didn't have any muffins until the next morning. They were pretty good, too. And look, Ma, no icing! Definitely healthy enough for breakfast.

Colcannon and Creamy Beet Soup

Joining a CSA this year has really broadened my culinary horizons. I've eaten vegetables that I wouldn't normally choose to buy for myself when shopping at the supermarket, and have cooked some interesting dishes, some of which I have been wanting and planning to try for a long time. Colcannon is one of them. I admit to a certain fascination with Irish culture, the food included. Colcannon, a traditional potato and cabbage dish, always struck me as being a comfort food. Armed with farm-fresh cabbage and potatoes, I made this dish that I had never eaten before. It was good, and just as comforting as I had imagined.
We've been joking all summer that Raymond, the CSA farmer, must really, really like beets. More often than any other vegetable this season, we have had plentiful, and HUGE, beets. I decided to try making a creamy beet soup, flavoured with the fresh dill that we received one week.

It wasn't such a shocking colour in reality, but more of a deep, purplish red. I can't say that I really enjoyed this soup a whole lot, though. I think I'll stick with my beets un-pureed.

Ricotta Basil Lasagna

Way back in secondary school (it was 8th or 9th grade, I think) we cooked a meal for some of the teachers as a home economics project. My partner and I tackled what seemed to us, at the time, a very time-consuming recipe, for a ricotta basil lasagna. It was a huge hit, and I remember our crotchety science teacher, Mrs. Hall, asking for the recipe. I kept a copy of the recipe myself, but lost it several moves ago.

I got a nice, healthy bagful of basil from the CSA a while back. Since I'd already frozen quite a lot from a previous harvest, I wasn't going to freeze any more. That's when I remembered this dish, and I set out to find a recipe, if not the recipe. I found this one online, which seemed very similar, as far as I could tell.
Having made the lasagna now, I am almost certain it is the same recipe. I remember my partner and I had to make a second batch of the ricotta basil sauce at the last minute, as we were assembling the lasagna, because there just wasn't enough to cover the pasta well. The same, exact problem with this recipe. Other than that, the flavour was excellent, and it wasn't as troublesome making the white sauce as I remembered, although all the chopping of basil and grating of cheese would have gone a lot faster with a food processor. One of these days!

Saag Paneer

My favourite Indian dish, bar none, is saag paneer, also called palak paneer. It's cubes of Indian cheese in a spicy, fragrant, smooth and creamy spinach sauce. Even though you often see it on menus in Indian restaurants, I haven't had much luck locating recipes for it in cookbooks. Makes you wonder if it isn't one of those westernised dishes, that no true Indian housewife makes. But, after doing some research, I am convinced this is not the case.

Anyway, there is a recipe for it in The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, which is where I got the recipe for the spicy potatoes I made. When I read in the recipe that sometimes other leafy greens - such as mustard, collard, fenugreek and beet greens - are mixed in with the spinach, I was determined to use up some of the beet greens that I was up to my ears in because of the CSA.

Every Indian housewife I've met always tells me that paneer is really easy to make at home. Armed with the very detailed instructions in the recipe, I decided to take the plunge and make my own paneer.
You start by heating some milk in a pot. Apparently, skim milk will make your paneer tough. Not surprising, really. I haven't bought milk for drinking in several months (I've never much liked drinking milk, and I've been using soy milk for my cereal and oatmeal), but for this I bought some organic whole milk.

Once the milk is boiling and foaming up, turn off the heat and immediately add a curdling agent before all the foam subsides. I used fresh lemon juice (strained, off course). Once your curdling agent has been added, stir in one direction very gently and watch the cheese curds form. Then, you cover the pot and let is sit for about 10 minutes.Next, you drain off the whey through several layers of cheesecloth (which I bought especially for this occasion). You can save it to use to curdle your next batch, but it's supposed to be "soured" whey, and I wasn't sure how much souring it required, and I didn't think I would be making paneer again that soon, so I just drained it away. Then, you rinse the cheese curds under a gentle stream of water to remove excess whey. I wrapped the soft curds up in the cheesecloth and placed a weight (here, a tupperware box full of water) on top to squeeze out excess liquid so that the curds would form a solid cheese.After an hour or so, I had my first block of paneer! I cut it into cubes and browned them in a nonstick frying pan. Then, I cooked the spinach sauce (the "saag" part), following the recipe but using all the beet greens I had instead of spinach.

The paneer was great, and it was pretty easy to make. The only thing was, I now had a huge sheet of dirty cheesecloth, and I wasn't sure what to do with it. I threw it into the wash, and then into the dryer. I'm not sure I can reuse the shrunken, crinkled mass that came out. I am told that you can also drain the cheese curds with a clean handkerchief. I think I'll try that next time.
But, in my hurry to use up all my beet greens, I used a much greater quantity than the recipe called for. Not only that, but beet greens give out a pinkish-red liquid. My saag paneer, although the paneer tasted and felt as it should, was rather bland, didn't had the velvety texture I was expecting, and was an interesting pinkish-orange colour from the mixing of the spices and the beet juice.

Well, having gotten one part right, I was determined to perfect the other part before I made any more paneer. I thought it would be a good idea to experiment with the recipe and use firm tofu until I had gotten the "saag" part right. That was quite a number off weeks ago.

This Tuesday happened to be the last week of the CSA, and I brought home a couple of bunches of spinach. Tonight, I decided to treat myself, having survived a gruelling week of exams. This time, I added some garlic (yes, the original recipe doesn't call for garlic, which I found a little strange), used spinach, added light cream and a smidgen of cream cheese (instead of heavy cream or cream cheese) because it was what I had in the fridge, and substituted tofu for paneer.

Success! The recipe could still use some tweaking, but not only was this batch much more flavourful (I actually doubled the quantity of spices), but it had the velvety texture that is so characteristic of the dish. I really think using spinach makes all the difference. The beet greens just don't cook down to the same silky smoothness. I guess that's why the recipe says spinach mixed with other greens. Or, I suppose, you could process or blend the sauce after it finishes cooking, before you add the paneer. I also think that the cream cheese helped to deepen the flavour and improve the texture, even though I only added less than one tablespoonful.

Now, I can try putting real paneer in. That may happen sooner than I'd thought. I'd expected to have a lot of leftovers, but my roommate and her friend (who came over to watch a movie) gave the "saag tofu" a thumbs-up, and there isn't much left. Then again, I have a whole list of recipes I've been wanting to try, so it may be a while until I come back to this one, since I have half-way mastered it.


Even though I really didn't have the time for it, and shouldn't have gone, I went to Rhinebeck last Sunday. I had been looking forward to it all year, and had promised Pat and Danielle (the mother and daughter who own and operate my favourite LYS, The Yarn Depot) that I would drive. There was so much to see, and we managed to bump into people we knew there, even though there was so much to see, and so many people. I think it was probably even busier on Saturday.Rhinebeck, more properly known as the New York Sheep and Wool Festival, really is a fibre lover's paradise. There were all different breeds of sheep, being shorn, shown off, and judged......goats......llamas...(this guy was eating the decorations around his stall)
...and even adorable angora rabbits!
There were lots of ready-made woolly goods (although one has to wonder, with so many knitters, crocheters, felters and fibre enthusiasts running around - who could probably make a lot of this stuff themselves - who would be buying?) that inspired us, such as these ear flap hats...

...these incredible felted hats (See the catalogue at the lower left, from which you can order custom-made hats?)...
...and these absolutely gorgeous Icelandic wool socks...
We had a great time, just poking into various stalls, watching the border collie trials...
...and even a demonstration by the police K-9 unit, which was tonnes of fun.
Students from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America, which was nearby, I think) came to show off their pumpkin carving skills, and this was one of the more elaborate ones.
I had a BBQ lamb sandwich and an apple crumble a la mode (I'm still craving more apple crumble! I'm going to be making my own fairly soon, I'm sure).
So many beautiful colourways and textures! I was tempted by silky smooth fibres and downy soft ones. I'm still unsure whether this was a curse, or a blessing, but I think Rhinebeck is geared more toward spinners. The most beautiful colours I saw there were blended into fleeces and rovings, ready for spinning.
As it was, I actually didn't end up going over my budget, which was a huge surprise. Most of what I wanted to buy was either for spinning - delightful drop spindles, spinning wheels, interesting spinning fibres - or was waaaaaay too expensive, such as the quivut (muskox fibre), buffalo down yarn, and cashmere. One of these days, when I have the time, I really want to learn how to spin properly. But, until then, I guess it was fortunate that I wasn't too tempted by all those things I couldn't do anything with yet.

I don't know if I went on the wrong day, or if it was the unseasonably fine and warm weather. I didn't spy too many interesting sweaters or other lovely knitwear, which was a little disappointing. I did stop this lady to ask her what pattern she had used for her shawl, which was even more stunning in real life. She very kindly modeled her Beefields shawl for me.

As for my windfall from Rhinebeck? Well, I did come away with some yarn goodies. I'll post those later.