30 January 2012

Faux Chicken Pho

Hot cold hot cold hot cold.

This has been a very odd winter. For the most part we've had above-freezing temperatures, punctuated by the occasional reminder that this is Canada, at the time of year of short days and long nights with howling winds and fluttering snowflakes.

When temps vacillate as they have, people fall ill. It seems as if every third or fourth person I speak to is sick. Snuffly, feverishly, earpluggingly, barking like a mad seal coughingly, cracked voicingly and goopily sick.

Many of us grew up with the notion that chicken soup will cure whatever ails you. I think that's doubly true with Indian, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese soups filled with warming spices and revitalizing herbs.

Like many soups, I think a good pho can be made with what you have on hand--your choice of veggies and meats. The key, I think is in the broth--sweet, salty, hot and slightly sour. Once you get the broth tasting as you wish, the rest is up to you.

Chicken Pho
Serves 2-4

For the Broth

625ml (2.5c) chicken broth or stock
2 garlic cloves, minced
1.25cm (0.5") ginger, grated or minced
1 star anise pod
2dspn (20ml/4tsp) nam pla (fish sauce)
1tsp (5ml) brown sugar
1-2tsp (5-10ml) soy sauce, to taste

For the sustenance (suggested)
Rice noodles, cooked
Shredded chicken
Carrots, raw and thinly sliced
Deep, leafy greens, such as kale, chard or spinach, raw and chiffonaded
Mushrooms, raw and thinly sliced (or, if using enoki, broken apart)
Green onions, thinly sliced (both the green and whites
Red chilli pepper, such as bird's eye/Thai chilli, minced
Bean sprouts
Coriander leaf, chopped

Add all the broth ingredients together and bring to a gentle boil, then reduce the flame and let simmer for about 15-20 minutes

To serve
Add as much of the sustenance to each bowl and ladle stock over top

  • You can substitute turkey for chicken
  • You may want to fish out the star anise before serving, but you can leave it in the pot, so it can keep flavouring the broth

I'm a quill for hire!

23 January 2012

Feast: Gung Hei Fat Choi! Kung Pao Prawns and Squid

Welcome to the Year of the Dragon!

According to this cbc.ca article, the Dragon brings optimism, as well as high amounts of energy and prosperity, and specifically movement.

Whether or not you believe in zodiacs, is truly beside the point. It's a cause for celebration...and with celebrations come food. (Really...I don't know of any joyous moment where food is not present).

This year I decided to play with a favourite at many Chinese restaurants: Kung Pao Chicken.

Like many dishes, this one is open to interpretation. At its heart are chicken and chillis and nuts. I've had some really salty versions (where the only seasoning seemed to be soy sauce) and I've had others where it seemed to be a chicken and veggie stirfry with chilli peppers and peanuts.

My version is heavily borrowed from a Kung Pao Chicken recipe I found on NPR, by the wonderful Fuschia Dunlop. Apart from the pedigree, one ingredient struck me: Sichuan peppers.

I first used the fizzy, rose-tinted pods when I reviewed Beyond the Great Wall a few years ago. They are gorgeous, tiny little pods that make your tongue go tingly and fizzy...and, if you're like me and tend to snack on such things, just a wee bit numb. Apart from their signature buzz, there's a citrussy note to them that, to me, borders on juniper. They aren't peppercorns per se, but the Chinese prickly ash seeds. They aren't necessarily the easiest spice to find in shops (unless you've thorough spice merchants or gourmet shops in town), but you can purchase them online.

I really can't think of another spice you can use, that has a similar effect to Sichuan peppercorns. If you don't have them, you could use lightly crushed black pepper (not fully ground pepper) and you should be fine, and add a squeeze of lemon near the end of the recipe.

As it's the Dragon, I thought I'd take liberties and make this a seafood kung pao, with jumbo prawns and squid. I suppose you could throw in some scallops as well, or just leave it as one type of seafood--it's up to you.

This is a very quick and easy recipe to pull together--the important things to keep in mind are to realise there's a balance of flavours: salty, hot, sour and sweet and not to overcook the seafood.

Gung hei fat choi!

Kung Pao Prawns and Squid
adapted from Fuschia Dunlop's Kung Pao Chicken Recipe
Serves 4

225g (0.5lb) jumbo prawns, cleaned, deveined and chopped into two-three pieces each
225 (0.5lb) squid, cut into rings
2-3Tbsp (30-45ml) flavourless oil, as needed
0.5-0.75tsp (2.5-3.75ml) Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorns
1-2 fresh red chilli peppers, seeded (if you wish), finely sliced, to taste
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 thumb (4-5cm/1.75"-2" piece) ginger, grated
6 green onions, white and light green parts only, cut in 2.5cm (1") pieces, slit in half
200g (250ml/1c) toasted cashews

For the marinade
0.5tsp (2.5ml) salt
1Tbsp (15ml) light soy sauce
1.5tsp (7.5ml) rice wine vinegar
2dspn (20ml/4tsp) water

For the sauce
2dspn (20ml/4tsp) brown sugar
1.5tsp (7.5ml) cornflour (cornstarch)
1.5tsp (7.5ml) light soy sauce
1.5tsp (7.5ml) dark soy sauce
1.5tsp (7.5ml) rice wine vinegar
1Tbsp (15ml) black Chinese vinegar
1.5tsp (7.5ml)sesame oil
2dspn (20ml/4tsp) water

For the garnish:
finely minced spring onion greens (to taste)

Mix squid and prawns in the marinade ingredients and let sit for about 15 minutes.

Mix the sauce ingredients and set aside.

Heat the oil over a high flame, until it's almost smoking. Drop in the Sichuan peppers and the chillis and stir until the the spices release their scents. Remove from the wok.

Add the garlic and ginger to the seasoned oil and stir until fragrant. Add the seafood and stir until the prawns are opaque and take on a pinkish hue.

Add the white and light green parts of the green onions as well as the fried chilli mixture. Stir to combine. Pour in the sauce, stir so everything is coated and the sauce thickens. Balance flavours to taste. Tumble in the nuts and stir.

Garnish with the minced stalks of the green onions and serve with rice and veggies.

  • If don't have Sichuan peppers, you can use crushed black pepper instead ( you won't get the same buzz as with Sichuan peppers) and add a squeeze of lemon.
  • Traditionally peanuts are used instead of cashews
  • Of course, if you don't want to use seafood, you can use 450g (1lb) of chicken or pork instead

I'm a quill for hire!

15 January 2012

Happy Birthday Edna: Butter-Fried Chicken with Milk Gravy

Happy Birthday, our Dear Edna!

Edna Staebler was a local gem who introduced the world to Waterloo County Cooking. Good, hearty fare that's very much rooted in country and Mennonite traditions.

When I was deciding upon which dish to present, my copy of Food That Really Schmecks literally fell open to page 57.

I think that's a sign.

Three recipes were on this page: a variation of Stuffing forRoast Fowl, Brown Gravy for Fowl and Butter-Fried Chicken with Milk Gravy.

Butter-Fried Chicken? I think Edna was definitely telling me something. And then I read the recipe:

"This is the way Mother cooked chicken most often and the way I like it best--even better than roast chicken--though that was supposed to be the most special. The milk gravy with this could be digested by a ninety-fve year old grandmother with a stomach ulcer, I'm sure, or a three-month-old baby"
She continued,

"This gravy--or sauce--poured generously over plain boiled or riced potatoes with the butter-fried chicken and fresh vegetables is my favourite of all meals--as I think of it at this moment."

Well, how could I not make this dish? Especially when she writes about how her mum would cut up a "nice yellow little hen."

That nice yellow little hen is hard to find in modern grocery stores as most of chickens offered are bred for today's lean palates. Not a layer of yellow fat to be seen. That's fine. It simply means less fat to skim from the pot. That said, if you are lucky to find a plump hen, skim the fat and keep it for frying or roasting, or even baking.

This is a very, very simple recipe: joint a chicken, cover it in boiling water, remove the pieces when they are tender and brown the pieces in butter. Reduce the boiling liquid to three cups, add milk and then a thickener.

I've made some changes to the recipe--adding aromatics to the cooking liquid, as if I were making a regular chicken stock. I'll probably revisit this recipe to play with the flavourings a bit--perhaps adding some middle eastern or Indian influences.

Oh...and the leftover gravy (if you have some)? Reheat it and pour it over some crusty bread. Edna says so.

Butter Fried Chicken with Milk Gravy
adapted from Edna Staebler's recipe in Food That Really Schmecks
Serves four

1 1.5-2kg (3-4lb) chicken
2L (8c) water
One onion, quartered
2 celery stalks, chopped into two or three large pieces
2 carrots, chopped into 5cm pieces
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
1 sprig of sage
1 spig of rosemary
1dsp (2tsp/10ml) salt
1 rounded tsp black pepper
435ml (1.75c) milk, divided
35g (0.25c/60ml) flour
A handful (0.25c/4Tbsp/60ml) parsley, chopped
1-2Tbsp (15-30ml) butter

Joint the chicken, that is to say, cut it into pieces: two legs, thighs, wings and breasts. If the breasts are large, cut them into two pieces each. Leave the skin on. Save the backbone, wingtips, neck and giblets (if your bird was lucky enough to come with its neck and giblets).

Layer the meat in a large pot, so the pieces don't overlap. Tumble in the vegetables, neck, wingtips and giblets, followed by the herbs and seasonings. Pour in water to cover.

Cover and set on a medium to medium high flame. Let the pot come to a boil and let it blurble for about five minutes, before turning down the heat to simmer the broth. Let simmer until the chicken is tenderly cooked--in total this should take about 30-40 minutes, depending upon the size of your bird and how long it takes to bring your water up to a boil.

Scum the broth. Remove the chicken pieces and pat them dry.

For the milk gravy:
Turn the heat up and let the stock, with the bones, veggies, etc, boil uncovered. When the liquid has reduced by half, remove the bones, giblets and veggies, then strain out any other bits (herbs, spices, any stray chickenny bits).

Return the strained liquid to the pot and let boil down to about 750ml (3c).

Stir in 250ml (1c) milk and let the gravy come up to a bare simmer. Taste and balance flavours according to your palate.

Make a slurry with the remaining 185ml (0.75c) milk and the flour. Whisk into the gravy let thicken. Check the flavours and adjust as you wish.

For the chicken:
Brown the chicken in batches by melting a couple of teaspoons of butter in a hot pan then adding three or four pieces of chicken to the pan. Turn the pieces to ensure any remaining fat is rendered out and that the skin is evenly browned and crisp. Remove the chicken and add more butter (if needed) and continue browning the chicken.

To serve:
Stir the parsley into the gravy just before serving.

Serve with veggies and potatoes (boiled, mashed, riced or roasted) or rice, pouring the gravy over the potatoes or rice...and chicken, if you wish,

I'm a quill for hire!

08 January 2012

Egg Nog Croissant Pudding

In as much as I love the holidays with all the food and drink that come in tow, at times my fridge, overburdened with leftovers can be a bit of a challenge.

I don't want to waste anything (although, admittedly, some things to end up in the bin), but at the same time I do get tired of reliving meals over and over again.

Every December a carton or two of egg nog finds itself in my shopping trolley. I love good eggnog--rich and cream spiked with sweet woody nutmeg...and maybe some cognac or rye. I usually get a little tired of it...before its all drunk up.

After thinking about it for an extremely short while, I realised that all egg nog is is a custard of sorts. Just add some more egg and maybe a bit more sugar and I've got something pretty close to perfect for a holiday bread pudding.

The nice thing about bread and butter pudding is the relative freedom it allows--plain slices or sandwiches, flavours, textures--a non-recipe recipe. To me, all that really matters is that the bread is creamy soft because it has sopped up as much custard as it can, and that the pudding isn't too eggy-firm.

The "bread" part of the pudding can be anything really--stale bread (of course), challah, brioche, doughnuts, poundcake.

I bought a container of croissants for some lazy breakfasts. Well...the breakfasts were a bit too lazy as the flaky lovelies never did get slathered with butter and marmalade. But they could do well for a pudding.

To give it a bit of interest and contrast, I decided tart cranberries and crunchy pecan would play nicely against the mellow lushness of the softened croissants and the wibbly custard.

The end result is was lovely -- buttery croisstants that were at once burnished gold an flaky and soft and yielding in a nutmeggy custard, punctuated with the occasional sharp cranberry or the slight crackle of of a pecan.

Egg Nog Croissant Pudding
Yield: One 20cm x 20cm (8"x8") pan-- approx six servings

500ml (2c) egg nog
2 eggs, beaten
2Tbsp (30ml) sugar
grated nutmeg (roughly 1/8 - 1/4tsp)
4 stale butter croissants, torn into pieces
a couple of handfuls of dried cranberries, plumped in boiling water, roughly chopped
A handful of roughly chopped pecans


Butter the pan.

In a measuring jug mix the egg nog, eggs, sugar and nutmeg.

Arrange the torn croissants in the pan, Pour the eggnog mixture over top and let soak for at least 20m minutes, so the pastries absorb much of the liquid.

At this point you can preheat the oven to 180C/350F while the croissants soak.

Strew the top of the pudding with the fruit and nuts, tucking some into cracks and crevices where you will.

Bake for about 40-50 minutes. When done, the custard should be just set, with a bit of a wobble.

Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before serving.

I'm a quill for hire!

05 January 2012

Feast: Twelfth Night Cake

I know what you're thinking.


You managed to avoid your great Auntie Ermintrude's (rest her soul) infamous Christmas fruitcake-cum-doorstop for yet another year (or the first year...ever).

You swerved cellophaned fruitcake in the office free-for-all of the gift basket teardown, and took the last bit of stale candy-coated nutty popcorn, leaving the fruitcake for the guy who was at an offsite meeting during the basket goodie dispersal.

You even donated the thank-you fruitcake you received to the local food bank, justifying it by saying "even the hungry want a traditional Christmas."

Yes, you've had some near misses with the much maligned cake and thought you were doing fairly well.

And here I am offering you...fruitcake.

But it's not just any fruitcake. It's my take on a traditional Twelfth Night Cake.

Twelfth Night?

The Twelfth Day of Christmas. The end of the Christmas season. The day in which you really don't want to see any more Christmas leftovers hanging out in your fridge and start thinking of things like grapefruit, miso soup and watercress.

The name itself elicits English class flashbacks about a romantic comedy that starts with a shipwreck on the Adriatic, and goes on about a girl hiding out as a guy, a love triangle, cross-gartered yellow stockings and the rest. It's a fun work...but then I like the English Renaissance dramatists. I'm special, that way...but you know that...

Traditionally a cake that holds a hidden prize is served The prize--a bean or a pea--crowns the finder as king or queen. They get to wreak magisterial havoc until...people stop putting up with it (midnight, from what I hear). (NB: As someone prone to wearing her tiara "for no reason," I find the idea of having to find a bean to be able to wear a crown rather sweet...but I realise for the world's tiara-less sometimes sparkly needs to be precipitated by a bean.)

Sometimes the cake is a fruitcake; sometimes it's a galette des rois--a puff pastry cake filled with frangipane; sometimes it's a fruited yeast bread. This year, I decided to go with fruitcake.

I looked at various recipes for Twelfth Night cakes and several seemed...very reminiscent of heavy fruitcakes that seem to dominate fears, worries and japes of December. Many seemed to be modified spiced pound cakes. Some reminded me of yuletide hot cross buns...but without the hot crosses and with more fruit. They were round, ring-shaped or baked in special moulds. But really...far too many lived in the realm of "dreaded" fruitcakes.

After more than a month of feasting, I wanted a lighter cake that keeps the original celebratory spirit...without being...dreadful.

Instead of glaceed cherries with loads of sultanas and currants, I opted for a mixture of dried blueberries, cherries and cranberries. If I had remembered I had dried pears and apricots, they would have been used as well. I couldn't leave out the citrus, but didn't want candied citron, so I zested a clementine and brushed the top with Cointreau. Additional flavour came from some leftover eggnog (and an extra few gratings of nutmeg).

The resulting tender cake is lovely and moist, fruity and lightly citrussed. The interior has a warm hue and the crust is burnished. I'm having it for breakfast, but it would accompany a cup of tea quite nicely.

Will this cake prompt the same jeers that greet its December cousin? I hope not. But maybe the promise of the opportunity of wearing a crown* will convince some to try it.

* And no, you won't be getting to wear my tiara.

Twelfth Night Cake
Yield One 21cm x 11cm (8.5"x4.5") Loaf

100g (approx 250ml/1c) mixed dried fruit of your choosing, rehydrated in boiling water, drained
1 egg
185ml (0.75c) egg nog
225g (435ml/1.75c) cake flour
1tsp (5ml) baking powder
0.5tsp (2.5ml) bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
grated nutmeg (approx 1/8th tsp)
75g (85ml/0.33c) soft butter
150g (125ml/0.5c) brown sugar
1tsp finely grated orange zest
1 dried bean or baking bean (optional)
1dspn (10ml/2tsp) cointreau or brandy

Preheat oven to 170C/325F. Paper a 21cm x 11cm (8.5" x4.5") loaf tin

Beat together egg and eggnog and set aside.

Sift together flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt and nutmeg. Set aside.

Cream butter until light. Add sugar and zest and continue beating until fluffy. Add in the dry and liquid ingredients in the usual fashion (dry-wet-dry-wet-dry), scraping down the bowl between dry additions. Fold in the rehydrated fruit and the bean (if you're doing that). Pour into prepared loaf pan.

Bake at 170C/325F for 30 minutes. Turn the heat up to 180C/350F for 20 minutes. The cake should be warmly golden in colour and an inserted skewer comes out with a few crumbs clinging to the wood. Remove from oven and brush with the cointreau or brandy.

Ice, if you wish with
  • a heavy mixture of icing sugar mixed with water, milk or orange juice
  • a blanket of fondant, complete with fussy Shakespearean, Epiphany or Royalty-themed decorations
  • a different blanket, this time of marzipan
Or you can do what I do and leave it plain...perhaps slathering your slices with double Devon cream or brandy butter.

If you don't have eggnog,
  • 110g (125ml/0.5c) butter (instead of 75g butter)
  • 2 eggs (instead of 1 egg)
  • 125ml (0.5c) milk or orange juice
  • 1-2Tbsp extra sugar (to taste)

I'm a quill for hire!

01 January 2012

Happy New Year: Ricotta Pancakes

Happy New Year!

All the best to you and yours in and I wish you a happy and healthy 2012, filled with good people, amazing adventures and (of course) good food.

And how best to start off a new year than with a good breakfast?

My appreciation of all things breakfasty isn't that much of a secret. Breakfast for supper is a regular occurrence, meeting friends (old and new) over brunch (which is just fancy breakfast) is my preferred meal, and what I look forward to most--when visiting Ireland and the UK--is a good full Irish/English breakfast.

Even though I usually make blueberry pancakes or plain buttermilk pancakes, I decided to play with some leftover ricotta in my fridge and try to make ricotta pancakes.

After looking at a number of recipes including these, I couldn't quite wrap my head around what made for a good ricotta pancake...thin batter or thick, stiffly beaten whites or whole eggs, even citrus or vanilla was in question.

After a couple of attempts I came up with the following recipe. Its batter is of a wet, dropping consistency, but not so much so. For fluffiness I decided to treat the pancake as I did my favourite waffles and beat the egg whites separately. The partial bowl of clementines on my dining room tilted my flavouring decision (but to tell you the truth, my first version used vanilla (which was fine, but I think citrus zest adds a lovely brightness to the pancakes).

Tender and fluffy pancakes--a nice way to welcome the New Year.

Ricotta Pancakes
Yield: approx 6 quarter plate-sized pancakes or approx 15-20 saucer-sized pancakes

4 eggs, separated
250g (250ml/1c) ricotta cheese
125ml (0.5c) milk
1.5Tbsp (20ml) sugar
1.5Tbsp (20ml) melted butter
1tsp grated orange or lemon zest
90g (185ml/0.66c) all purpose flour
0.5tsp (2.5ml) bicarbonate of soda
0.5tsp (2.5ml) baking powder
pinch salt
Butter or oil for frying

Whip the four egg whites to stiff peaks and set aside.

Sift together the flour, bicarb, baking powder and salt into a jug. In a separate bowl, mix well the two yolks, ricotta, milk, sugar, butter and zest. Stir the wet mixture into the dry, until it has barely combined (it's fine if it's lumpy with dry bits and wet bits).

Fold in the egg whites, in the usual three stage method: stir in well one third of the whites, fold in the next third, with a lighter hand, and then lightly fold in the rest of the whites doing your best to keep the batter as airy as possible.

Drop about a teaspoon or two of fat into a pan and let it become sizzling hot. Pour the batter, by spoon or by ladle, and let cook. When the pancakes start to bubble and spurt little bits of steam like geysers, carefully flip them over to let the second side cook.

Serve with warmed syrup, some honey, yoghurt or citrus curd.

I'm a quill for hire!