25 February 2010
When you give a mouse a cookie II: Lamb, prune and almond tagine with honeyed caramelized onions and couscous
Sorry. I couldn’t resist.
There was one rule for the potluck: bring something from a cuisine from which you normally don’t eat. Okay. There were two: list the ingredients beside the dish.
I suppose the challenge was easier said than done.
In the week prior to the lunch, I’d already partaken in Scandinavian, Italian, French, Mexican, Southern US, Thai and Vietnamese, along with the ubiquitous “Canadian” fare (foods that if I thought over long and hard I could ascribe to a region, but really: when you’re at the point of gnawing off your own leg, as long as the meal’s ready, edible and within reach, do you really want undertake a genealogical search on what you’re about to put in your mouth?).
Instead of challenging myself to a cuisine, I decided to revisit an underused-in-my-kitchen ingredient, and from that find some sort of national or cultural theme.
I’m not sure why I settled on lamb. As an unashamed carnivore who doesn’t practise ageism (apart from best before dates), I’m fully aware of the controversy of such a choice for a communal meal. But at the same time, it is a favoured meat in so many parts of the world. With so many options that lay before me—Chinese, Indian, the swath of Arabic-speaking nations, countries that lie on the Mediterranean’s northern shore—I decided to throw caution to the wind and simply cook.
Thanks to the genius that is Claudia Roden, I quickly became fixated on Morocco. I’d spent a day in Tangiers two lifetimes ago and fell in love with it as only a 16 year old school girl could. In Arabesque, I found two dishes that immediately leapt to the head of the queue Tagine Bil Barkok Wal Loz and Keskou Tfaya—Tagine of Lamb with Prunes and Almonds and Couscous with Lamb, Onions and Raisins.
Flicking between the two recipes, I quickly realised they could easily be combined into one. The prunes and almonds would be kept along with the couscous and honeyed caramelised onions. The couscous Claudia calls for is plain, but mine is usually made with stock, whole spices and raisins. A happy marriage of her two dishes, I think.
Moroccan stews or “tagines,” borrow their name from shallow round clay cooking pots with conical lids. If you don’t have the eponymous cooking vessel, you can simply use an aptly-sized lidded pot. Sweet and hearty, tagines of lamb and prune are the most well-known fruit tagines outside of Morocco, and often served with couscous and hot, buttered chickpeas.
Lamb, Prune and Almond Tagine with Honeyed Caramelized Onions
5-6 onions (approx 1.25kg (2.75lbs)),
2 garlic cloves, minced
1tsp ground ginger
4 whole cloves, bashed lightly
3Tbsp ground cinnamon, divided
1kg (2lbs) boned lamb shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 2.5 cm (1”) chunks
Copious amounts of black pepper (start with 3Tbsp)
Water (approx 1.25L (5c))
400g (14oz) moist pitted prunes
A good, solid pinch of saffron threads (about 0.5tsp)
40g (3Tbsp) butter
1Tbsp olive oil
2Tbsp runny honey
100g (3.5oz) blanched whole almonds
3-4 drops sesame seed oil
Finely chop one of the onions and tip into a large heavy-bottomed pot with four tablespoons oil, garlic, half the ginger, cloves and one teaspoon cinnamon. Cook until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the meat and brown on all sides. Cover with water, add about two tablespoons of pepper and a few heavy pinches of salt. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce the flame and leave the meat to quietly simmer for about 1.5-2hrs.
Meanwhile, prepare the caramelised onions. Thinly slice the remaining onions into lunettes, place in a wide, shallow pan with 250ml (1c) water. Cover and cook over a low flame for about half an hour. Unlid, turn up the heat and continue cooking until all the liquid has evaporated. Add the butter, olive oil and stir until the onions caramelise to a warm, deep brown. Mix in the honey, one rounded teaspoon of cinnamon and a good pinch of salt.
Toast the almonds in a few drops of oil until golden. If you wish, you can roughly chop about half the nuts, or leave them whole.
The lamb is ready when it is tender and can be easily pulled apart with your fingers. When so, give the pot a stir (you can remove any scum that's floated to the top, if you wish, but it's not necessary) and add the prunes, remaining cinnamon, saffron, another teaspoon or two of pepper, the caramelised onions and stir again. Let simmer and thicken for 30 minutes.
Taste the thickened tagine and balance flavours to taste. Stir in the almonds and a few drops of sesame oil.
Note: Beef can be substituted for lamb.
Couscous is semolina made from ground hard durum wheat which is then sprinkled with water and then rolled in flour, and is Morocco’s national dish. The couscous found in Western markets is the pre-cooked, instant variety that requires some boiling water and a relatively short steaming time. Properly cooked, couscous is light and fluffy and can be served with meat or vegetable dishes, or can be sweetened and used in desserts.
500g (3c) couscous
A couple of handfuls of sultana raisins
5cm (2-inch) cinnamon stick
4-6 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
600ml (approx 2.5c) vegetable broth, off the boil
2Tbsp flavourless oil
A couple of teaspoons of butter (optional)
Mix the couscous, raisins and spices together and then pour the hot broth over the grains. Mix well. Cover the bowl with cling film, a lid or simply put a dinner plate over top. Let the grains swell for 10 minutes.
Mix in the oil. Rub the couscous between your hands, above the bowl, letting the grains separate and tumble back to the bowl, breaking up any lumps.
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F.
Tip the couscous into an ovenproof dish and pop it into the oven for about 15 minutes (or until it begins to steam). Before serving you can, if you wish, stir in the butter, as you fluff the grains with a fork.
I'm a quill for hire!
21 February 2010
Which is probably why a caffeine-fuelled evening that led to my inability to sleep, combined with my natural (and I would argue genetic) completionist tendencies, transformed a single-dish potluck offering to a multi-part supper in itself.
It all started when the Toronto panel session I attended ended a tad early. Traffic on the 401 was more than a tad easy. The coffee I had early in the evening kept me more than a tad awake in the-close-to-wee hours.
At home, I did what any normal person would do: I flitted around my kitchen like a hummingbird wired on double espressos, looking for something to do. I didn't feel like baking. Cooking another meal would have been silly as most of the week would have me eat anywhere but home. Alas, it was also too early in the week to prepare my potluck offering.
There I stood, illuminated by the fridge's bulb, pondering its contents. The only thing I could see were bell peppers: the mediumscarymegamart had them on sale so my veggie drawer was full to bursting with oblong orbs.
My potluck muse must have arrived directly from the markets of Tangiers or Marrakesh, sending me into a decidedly Moroccan frame of mind. With North Africa in mind, Claudia Roden's Arabesque offered a solution to my excesses of energy and bell peppers. Her recipe for Felfla Wal Hummas Wa Jban (Roast Peppers and Chickpeas with Fresh Goat's Cheese) was reminiscent of Nigella's roasted pepper and feta starter from Nigella Bites.
Yes, my singular, effortless potluck offering became two relatively effortess potluck offerings. As my Dear Little Cardamummy believes: better to have more food than less.
So there I sat on my kitchen kick stool, at midnight, in front of Beelzebub's window, wearing my white and blue floral printed flannelette granny jammies, occasionally practising culinary voyeurism while reading Nigel Slater's latest tome. I peered into my oven's window as the buckled baking tray encouraged the peppers to rock, roll and wobble in their desert-like heat: their wrinkled and blackened skins spat and oozed boiling juices from blistered gashes. Before my energies dissapated, they were stripped of their char and voided of their seeds, sliced into strips and popped into the fridge to be mixed with chickpeas and their flavourings.
Anyone who didn't know me (and I'm sure those who do) would have thought me mad, I'm sure.
This is easily a pantry dish, especially if you are running late and don't want to roast the peppers yourself and have a favourite jarred offering from your grocer, but you may have to adjust the dressing to make up for the extra sharpness that comes from the vinegar store-bought peppers are packed in.
For a more substantial lunch dish, add chunks of boiled potatoes and perhaps chunks of tinned tuna, with a sprinkling of roughly chopped flat-leafed parsley.
How to roast bell peppers:
Set your oven to its hottest temperature and let it come up to temp. Place whole peppers onto a foil-lined tray and pop into the oven. After 15 minutes, turn the fruit so an unblistered side is foil-down, roast for 10 minutes. Roast remaining sides for 8-10 minutes each.
When done, remove the peppers from the tray and place in a pot with a tight-fitting lid and let steam for about 15 minutes. When the fruit are cool enough to handle, slip off the charred skins from the flesh and remove the stem and seeds.
Roasted pepper, chickpea and feta salad
6 roasted red bell peppers, slivered
1x540ml (8.5oz) tin chickpeas, drained
60ml (0.25c) extra virgin olive oil
Juice of one lemon
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp dried oregano
100g (3.5oz) feta cheese
Make the dressing by combining the oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper and oregano.
Mix the pepper ribbons and chickpeas together. Pour the dressing over top and give the contents a light stir.
About 10 minutes before serving, mix in the feta cheese.
I'm a quill for hire!
20 February 2010
BloggerAid's online raffle will take place from 21-28 February 2010; $10/£6.50 tickets can be purchased through their JustGiving page. There's no pressure to donate or buy a ticket--if you can, that's fabulous. If you cannot donate, that's fine, but please consider passing the word on via whichever means you choose (email, your own blog, Twitter account...).
As we watch the horrifying events unfold in Haiti and reflect on how soon in the new decade thousands of people's lives have been destroyed, it is easy to feel overwhelmed – I’m sure we all do. But a first-hand account from somebody who had flown a relief flight to Haiti after the quake provided the impetus to push us into action and not stand idly by as others suffered.
H2OPE for Haiti co-ordinator Jeanne writes:
“A few days after the quake, one of my closest friends updated his Facebook
status to say he was off to Haiti. As a qualified pilot he had volunteered to
fly a plane full of relief supplies from Paris to Haiti. He told me afterwards
than nothing could have prepared him for the experience. When the plane finally
was allowed to land, there were no steps up to the cockpit level - which was a
good thing because the plane was literally stormed by desperate people. While
the cargo doors at the back were opened and guarded by troops so that the
supplies could be offloaded, the pilots were left looking at a sea of desperate
and pleading faces below them. In the end, they opened the passenger doors
and threw everything they could to the people below - the plane’s first aid
kits, blankets, toilet paper, and even bottles of water and food meant for the
crew. He said he had never seen such desperation and hopes never to do so again.
He also told me that the air traffic controllers were operating a strict
priority landing system. The operators of each plane had to fax the ATCs proof
of what cargo a plane was carrying. Planes carrying priority items got to land
first. My friend’s plane was in a holding pattern for 2 hours - until the cargo
manifest came through and showed they were carrying water. Then they were
instantly told to land.”
From Sunday, February 21 - Sunday, February 28th, BloggerAid Changing the Face of Famine (BA-CFF) will be launching H2Ope for Haiti, an online raffle to raise funds for Concern Worldwide's relief effort in Haiti. As clean drinking water was one of the most acute needs in the aftermath of the quake, we selected Concern Worldwide because of its long track record and quick response after the quake to provide clean drinking water and water purification tablets. This non-governmental international humanitarian organisation founded in 1968 works around the world to reduce suffering and work towards the ultimate elimination of extreme poverty in the world's poorest countries. Concern International has been working in Haiti since 1994 and had over 100 staff members on the ground when the earthquake struck. Despite losing several team members in the tragedy, they have been quick to act with distribution of supplies and in the first 14 days after the quake they chartered two flights to bring emergency supplies to Haiti, distributed 135,000 litres of water per day (and water purification tablets) to 50,000 people and set up 3 nutrition camps which have helped 700 people.
According to Tom Arnold, CEO of Concern Worldwide: “The destruction is profound, you see the devastation everywhere, but you see the depth of this tragedy most in the eyes of the people you meet as they struggle to survive, to respond and to grieve. The task ahead is huge.” Concern Worldwide estimates that its initial response to the emergency will last at least six months. In the coming weeks, Concern Worldwide’s priorities are to: Initiate a cash-for-work cleanup campaign to help victims of the earthquake earn a basic living - Build temporary latrines for 15,000 people - Provide temporary shelter (tents and plastic sheeting) for 25,000 people - Set up 7 outreach nutrition centres in camps for displaced persons, especially children under the age of one.
All of this will, of course, need financial resources and we hope that by running this raffle BA-CFF will be able to help in some small way to finance Haiti’s recovery process.
The money raised by this raffle will be paid directly into a Justgiving page, meaning that nobody at BA-CFF will have any money in our possession - the money gets paid directly into the charity's account, to be applied exclusively to the Haiti relief effort. We thought this was the most secure and least controversial way to do it, even if it attracts a 7.5% fee. The other benefit of Justgiving is that they accept credit cards, debit cards and Paypal as payment methods, making it as easy as possible for people all over the world to donate and participate.
I'm a quill for hire!
15 February 2010
I love retreating to my kitchen at any point in the year, but in mid-winter's depths, it's particularly satsifying. Even in a winter as mild as our current one, pottering in a warmed kitchen, aromas from slower-cooked foods wafting throughout the house is more than comforting.
There's a sense of accomplishment to be had when making a meal that requires a number of steps and components. Take lasagne for example: bechamel and tomato sauces, meat and (or) veggie fillings, pasta-making for those inclined--a delicous and hearty winter dish, to be sure, but also one that can eat up the better part of a day in preparation and cooking.
Unfortunately, my life does not allow for the daily luxury of hours of cooking for one meal; often I'll spend a Sunday sastifying my need to ponder my way through several days' worth of meals: a Sunday roasted chicken transforms several times over until even the scraps are done--sandwiches, quesadillas, soups, pastas and salads.
But more and more often, my lazy cooking Sundays are becoming less and less frequent. I'll still bake my breakfast pastries, but the grand meal with built-in chameleon-like properties doesn't happen as regularly. On days where I can't fiddle with ingredients, I turn to hearty soups and stews to satsify me throughout the week. The fact the flavours improve as time passes is a benefit. The fact that it only takes one or two minutes to reheat and have a satisfying meal, coupled with half a bagel, is the greater beneft.
I see most soups as non-recipe recipes, and often what I do is just tip in ingredients in quantities dictated by my mood and my pantry. I tend to like my bean soups on the viscous end of the scale, so I use a lesser quantity of stock, but if you like a more brothy soup, by all means add more liquid. There are days where I'll balance it with Thai sweet chilli garlic paste or with a bit of maple syrup. I find bacon of all types salty, so I rarely have to add more salt, but it's up to you.
I don't think of this soup as a starter dish--it's far too body strengthening for that, but thinned out, or with lesser quantities of beans and bacon it could do. The flavours are deep and warming--the perfect thing when hunkered in, catching up on work or simply hiding out from the world with a good book.
Black Bean and Back Bacon Soup
Serves 6-8, depending upon appetite and cook's generosity.
300g dried black beans, soaked overnight
sliced celery rib
0.25-0.5 tsp ground cumin
0.25-0.5 tsp ground corander seed
0.25-0.5 tsp dried oregano
0.25-0.5 tsp cayenne pepper
0.25-0.5 tsp black pepper
1.5-2L vegetable stock
4 slices (200-ish g in total) uncooked back bacon, chopped
1 bay leaf
A few shakes of Worcestershire sauce
chopped coriander leaf or flat leaf parsley for garnish (optional)
In a fresh change of water, cook the beans. While that happens, sautée the onions and celery in the spice mix. When the onions have softened, add the garlic and stir until the garlic's sent is released. Remove the onion mixture from the pot.
In the same pot (or a different one, depending upon how many dishes you really feel like doing), add the stock and chopped bacon. Bring this up to a boil and then turn the flame down to a simmer. The bacon will begin to scum--that is a foam will float to the top. Skim the scum from the top. When the frothings have stopped, return the onions to the pot and add the bay leaf, and let simmer.
When the beans have softened add to the stock and let simmer for at least 30 minutes, but quite honestly, the longer the better. Add a few splashes of Worcesterchire. Taste and balance flavours to suit your palate. Garnish, if you will, with chopped coriander leaf or flat leaf parsley.
I'm a quill for hire!
10 February 2010
It's just that I dislike the artifice that surrounds 14 February. I loathe its commercialism and expectations. I sneer at forced restaurant menus and scowl at the gasoline-like price hikes for flowers and chocolates. I avoid storefronts designed by those enamoured with an imagined lovechild produced by Barbara Cartland and any of the Teletubbies.
This year my snarling came earlier than in previous years.
No, it's not because the prospect of being hit by a disabled Norwegian communications satellite is probably greater than the chances of finding a single, erudite, articulate, kind and interesting man who'd want to spend time with me.
A radio advert set off my jeers. Without going into too much detail, the messaging was "Men, (and it was aimed at men) if you have any hopes of making the beast with two backs with your special lady, then get her something for Valentine's day...because if you don't you'll probably never see her naked again."
I'd love to meet the 15 year old boy who came up with that one.
I'd also love to be there when some poor soul who doesn't have the sense gawd gave a goose finds out that no, most women don't want to be treated like one of the gals at Hooker Harvey's.
When I ventured into my kitchen to bake Valentine's Day treats for my friends, my usual obsession with the tackily mundane became tinged by those women of of the night, turning my little kitchen into a scullery of slightly salacious repute...a bit of a bakery bordello, I suppose.
For many, the colour red is associated with passion and love and, as a result, Valentine's Day. To others it's associated with certain areas of Amsterdam. But to me, a deep, rich brownish-red has always been known as "bordello red." And what better way to celebrate the colour and the connotations than with red velvet cupcakes?
For those of you who haven't had one, all a red velvet cake is is a buttermilk-tangy chocolate cake dyed an almost unnatural shade of red. Some recipes call for beets, but most modern ones use copious amounts of liquid food colouring. I tried making a red velvet cake a few years ago, but I wasn't thrilled with it. It was too dry and not very chocolatey as the dye's flavour overpowered the cake.
After studying a number of recipes, I came up with this one. Like the others it uses buttermilk--essential, I think, for the tang, but I've also read it's acidity helps to redden the cocoa's natural brown; my experiment with yoghurt, although just as tasty, lacked the gaudy visual I yearned for. The combination of oil (well, a mix of oil and butter) and brown sugar keeps the cake moist; the brown sugar also gives it a deeper flavour that's missing from using granulated sugar alone.
It's a rather easy cake to make (and quite honestly the vinegar-bicarb component satisfies my latent mad scientist tendencies) but do not be alarmed by the almost violent plummy-brownish-red the the moussey batter takes on. As it bakes, the colour deepens to a luxurious deep, bordello red.
yield 12 cupcakes
125g cake flour
1Tbsp cocoa powder
1tsp baking powder
30ml liquid red food colouring
50g butter, softened
135g brown sugar
2dspn (4tsp) vegetable oil
0.5tsp bicarbonate of soda
0.5tsp red wine vinegar
Preheat oven to 170C/350F. Line a 12-bowl muffin tin with papers
Sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.
Mix together buttermilk and food colouring until it is a rather vile but even shade of puce.
Beat butter for a few minutes until creamy. Add brown sugar and cream well. Mix in oil and vanilla. Beat in egg.
Alternate mixing in flour mixture with buttermilk mixture (dry-wet-dry-wet-dry), scraping down the bowl's sides between additions.
Mix together the bicarb and vinegar into a fizzy, volcanic solution and work it quickly into the batter. At this point, the batter will be almost mousse-like in consistently.
Working quickly to so as to not lose the lift, divide between the papered muffin bowls and bake for 20-25 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.
Top with cream cheese icing, and whatever gaudy or not-so-gaudy decorations if you wish.
I'm a quill for hire!
05 February 2010
I asked Santa for a slow cooker.
My thinking, of course, was since I'm doing more pot lucks where I can neither pop home to get my prepared dish, nor have access to a proper stove, a slow cooker was the obvious option. I can either cook it during the day in some accessable space, or keep whatever I've made the night before warm enough to be palatable.
Santa heard. Santa bought. Santa delivered.
I'm now the owner of a seven quart (6.5L) slow cooker.
I fully realise that me (single and childless) owning such a vessel is akin to Kate Moss owning a 38G bra: wishful thinking at best, delusional at worst.
That's what Santa brought, so that's what I'm going to spend the next year of my life learning how to use.
My introduction to the contraption was akin to setting myself down in front of a blind date. After years of listening to friends and colleagues go on and on about how wonderful it is, and how we'd probably get along, there it sat across from me, all shiny and full of promise. I even found a recipe which I adjusted to better suit my palate.
And like many a blind date, I'm left wondering why on Earth I got my hopes up.
Problem number one: I read the instruction manual. Apparently only qualified operators are allowed to use it. How does one become a qualified operator? Well, one must read and thoroughly understand the manual. No testing. No certificate. Not even a tinned bit of Edward Elgar by kazoo.
I guess if I burned my condo down because I thought I understood the instructions, the manufacturer is trying to absolve itself of any liability. By their logic I obviously lack the necessary mind-reading skills deduce the manual-writer's intention, regardless of what he, she or it committed to words. Talk about a Catch-22.
Problem number two: I bought a couple of slow cooker cookbooks, both of which strongly suggested I brown meat and do some pre-cooking. This baffles me. I thought the entire idea of a slow cooker was essentially a one-pot, wham-bam-forget-it-ma'am type way to feed myself and the invisible army that my slow cooker's capacity dictates.
By the time I was done browning the meat (and by choice the sauteeing mushrooms and onions) I realised that I could easily finish the entire meal in about an hour or so, leaving the pot to quietly blurble away on a nearly invisible flame just to keep it warm. Regardless, by the end of it, I had three pots to wash.
But this was my first slow cooker meal. As per the manual, I didn't preheat the cooker and tipped everything into the pot.
Problem number three: My name is Jasmine and I'm a home cook. I adjust flavours as I go. I know even though these two carrots came from the same bag, this carrot over here could be more carrotty in taste than that one over there. I know that this chicken over here may have actually had the opportunity to walk around before it met with its Marie Antoinette-like fate, where as her cousin was probably stuck in some cage somewhere before she became a cellophaned carcass in the bigscarymegamart's meat case. In other words: ingredients are subject to variations in flavour. I may need more sour, less salt and maybe some sugar than a recipe calls to make the flavours balance. I don't know until I start browning and mixing and sniffing and tasting.
Slow cooking doesn't really allow me to do such adjustments. Every time I open the lid, I need to add 20 minutes of cooking time. Three lifted lids means an extra hour of cooking. So, in hopes of not adding cooking time, I prayed to the kitchen gods that I balanced out the flavours correctly before I turned on the contraption.
Which leads to problem number four: This is a mightily wet cooking method. Whereas most stews and saucy dishes I make benefit from slow cooking but also reducing liquids to produce clinging, thick, flavourful sauces, my first venture into slow cooking left me with a very wet, soup-like stew. Of course I could add a thickener: a beurre manié or cornflour, but they lack the flavour building that evaporation brings. I must admit that when I reheated leftovers the next day, I tipped everything into my wok and simmered it for about 20 minutes. I was happier.
Before I did that, I tasted it.
Problem number five: Everything tastes the same. The carrots taste like the chicken taste like the mushrooms taste like the peppers. Maybe it's my innate Canadianness, but I think dishes like soups and stews are better when you can actually appreciate and identify individual ingredients, and how well they work together, as opposed to tedious homogeneity.
I know. It seems weird and somewhat wrong. This elevated concept of dump and heat "cooking" is my 2010 project. It's a bit more than that. I'm trying to convince myself that this contraption is not a waste of space, nor a waste of Santa's hard-earned money. My books tell me this thing is much more than an overblown soup-maker, and can make puddings and cakes as well as roasts and ribs. Wish me luck. I think I'm going to need it.
Slow Cooker Chicken Cacciatore
1.5 kg chicken, cubed into 2-3cm pieces
225g sliced mushrooms
1 rib celery, sliced thinly
1 carrot, sliced into thinnish coins
2 onions, sliced into lunettes
1 bell pepper, slivered
3 Cloves garlic, minced
1 x 796ml tin chopped tomatoes
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
0.5 tsp dried thyme
0.5 tsp dried rosemary
Saute onions and mushrooms until soft. Remove to cooker.
Brown chicken in olive oil, remove to cooker.
In a slow cooker, place the carrots, celery, pepper, tomatoes, garlic, thyme, rosemary, salt, pepper, chicken broth and chicken. Cover and cook on high for 3-4 hours.
I'm a quill for hire!