If Yan Could Cook. . .

Archive for September 2008

Shepherd’s Moussaka, Apple-Pear Salad with Candied Walnuts

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Talking to a friend who lives in another country, I confessed that I had somewhere between six and nine people coming to dinner the next day, and no idea what to make. He said, “Why not make comfort food?”

My own comfort foods are the last remnants of a culture from which I am a generation and a world removed: a particular brand of ramen noodles, seafood rice porridge, jasmine-scented rice, chrysanthemum tea. But that’s not what he meant, he meant the potatoes-and-gravy-1950s-America ideal that I’m not sure ever existed. Our only evidence seems to be the menus at Denny’s and IHOP, where the ideal has been blown up to gargantuan, sopping proportions.

Photos by Laura D’Alessandro.

I couldn’t decide between shepherd’s pie and moussaka, so I combined my favourite parts of both. Three carrots, a small yellow onion, three gloves of garlic, all finely chopped, got cooked with an unholy mound of ground beef, mixed medium and lean. Near the end of cooking, I added plenty of 35% cooking cream and frozen corn (for a moussaka-like creaminess, rather than gravy). This mixture forms the first layer. I used one casserole dish and one 10″ rectangular cake pan.

For the second layer, I sliced a large eggplant and two medium zucchinis lengthwise. The eggplant slices were heavily salted on both sides, drawing out the bitter juices, and then thoroughly washed. These were tossed in oil and then fried in the wok, though I fantasied about grilling them; there is simply nothing better than lightly fire-charred eggplant and zucchini. I laid them across in a single layer over the beef mixture.

The top layer was mashed potatoes. Because I used the wrong kind of potatoes (I had been warned about this, but never encountered it – use white, not yellow flesh) I had to douse the chopped, boiled potatoes in cream and butter and salt and stock to get a reasonable texture. I still thought it was noticeably gluey and glutenous – it reminded me of my parents’ ruddy obsession with mashed taro root – but my guests claimed they didn’t care, and I have to believe them since they went back for seconds. The whole thing was topped with chives fresh from Phil and Laura’s plant and popped in the oven on broil for ten minutes.

The accompanying salad used my leftover apple-wasabi vinaigrette, romaine and iceberg lettuce, sliced granny smith apple, sliced Bartlett pear, and spicy candied walnuts. I toasted the walnuts, spread in a single layer on a pan lined with parchment paper, for fifteen minutes at 350 degrees F, when they just barely started to show a colour change. In a small pot, I melted one part brown sugar to two parts white sugar and about a tablespoon of water into a dark caramel, adding cinnamon and cayenne pepper at the end. The toasted nuts were tossed with the mixture, and then left to cool and harden on the same piece of parchment (removed from the hot pan).

The chive plant was left in my custody. I want to return it as soon as possible; I am, after all, the girl who killed two cactuses, one of them in such a gruesome fashion that I’m still ashamed of it. It involved an elevator, a vacuum cleaner, and a hand like a pincushion.

Written by skimfu

September 17, 2008 at 10:22 pm

Posted in Beef, Salad

Teriyaki Chicken Sandwich

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Today, biking through the Ville Mont-Royal, the back alleyways of suburbia meets industrial wasteland, I was struck by a feeling I often have, that I can only call placesickness. Like homesickness, it’s a longing to be somewhere else, but not a specific place. A longing for the concept of home, of a place where you can lie your head near the sleeping head of someone else, a place of better times, a place where you are loved. A place that exists geographically nowhere. A place – sometimes you’re sure – that exists somewhere in your past.

I started keeping my bike in my apartment, and it feels like I tried to domesticate one of the large, territorial cats – a tiger or a puma. My bike constantly needs more landmass to run free in than I can provide. We hit the northern edge of the island on an afternoon ride, shocked at how small the bounds of the city are.

When you search for “teriyaki” on Google or Epicurious, you get lots of recipes that feature bottled teriyaki sauce. Some of them are recipes that include nothing else: marinate chicken in teriyaki marinade. Baste chicken in teriyaki baste. Grill. How is this a recipe?

I find myself increasingly turning to Wikipedia. That is what I’m more interested in, anyway: generally what goes into a dish, what flavours are associated with it, disambiguation on its name, how its eaten in its native country, popular variations. On teriyaki, Wikipedia said: soy sauce, sugar or honey, and sake or mirin. Much better!

Because it was what I had, I used soy sauce, honey, rice wine vinegar (it’s surprisingly difficult to find mirin in my dominantly Asian neighbourhood), sesame oil, and orange juice (ginger would have been nice, alas). A solid few tablespoons of soy sauce, a big dollop of the honey, and tiny splashes of everything else, heated on low in sauce pan.

I used a whole, smallish chicken breast. Even while I was doing it, I knew it was a bad idea – every time I have made a chicken sandwich at a restaurant, I have butterflied the breasts or pounded them flat with a tenderizing hammer. As it was, it was way, way too thick for a sandwich. I let it marinate in the sauce mixture for as long as it took the oven to preheat, at 400 degrees F.

I put the marinated chicken breast in the oven for fifteen minutes, in a foil-covered tray. The sauce runs off the chicken, caramelizes, and burns pretty quickly, so it helps to keep basting it with its own juices plus any leftover sauce. I had it on a crusty ciabatta bun with daikon shoots (somewhere between spicy and that sandy feeling raw spinach leaves in your mouth) and tomato slices.

Written by skimfu

September 11, 2008 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Asian, Chicken

Apple-Wasabi Salad with Shaved Ham

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Many eons ago, when I had a job that required creativity, my coworker Nick conceptualized this flavour combination. I don’t know his last name or where he works now, but he burns on as one of the happiest people I have ever known. He once sent his girlfriend a salad with a large heart made out of cherry tomatoes.

I don’t remember specifically what went in his version, but I remember watching him pour apple juice into the food processor and asking what he was making.

“Apple-Wasabi vinaigrette.”

“For…?”

“Ham.”

My reaction, I think, was pretty natural: ewww. After arguing for a while we ended up with a salad with crispy leeks and a rose of shaved ham on top. For whatever reason, he cajoled me into being the first one to taste it. I went in head-first, with a rich forkful of ham.

He watched me chewing thoughtfully. “This…is…awesome,” I said, slowly.

He pulled out a leaf with his hand, popped it in his mouth, and strutted away, shouting, “I’m a genius!” and startling the pastry chef.

Tonight I made it again, for memory’s sake. For the vinaigrette, I used apple juice, wasabi paste, sugar, and red wine vinegar (tiny splashes of each), adding plenty of oil slowly into the blender. In the salad: romaine and iceberg lettuce, walnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, and slices of granny smith apple. And, of course, shaved ham. Amazing!

Fair warning: this salad is filling, deceptively heavy. I can see the wheels in your head turning: what, fruit and lettuce? Trust me. Do not underestimate the capacity for nuts, seeds, deli meat, and oil-based dressings to make you want to pass out with sweet, fatty goodness.

The photo – she’ll be comin’.

Written by skimfu

September 10, 2008 at 8:08 pm

Posted in Pork, Salad

Steak with Chimichurri Sauce and Potato Pancakes

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Tri-tip is a cut of beef that, according to Wikipedia, is a “Santa Maria specialty”; the cow is only cut this way in parts of California and Europe. One of my sisters loves tri-tip. Living in the Bay Area, this cut of beef was just another thing she could get at the grocery store, and she was shocked by this internet-derived factoid.

“Imagine,” my other sister said, “if you had never moved to Santa Clara, you never would have tried it.”

While I was there, my brother-in-law grilled some tri-tip and I have to agree it is the perfect degree of lean and fatty for my tastes. He served it with chimicurri sauce at a barbeque, along with a salad that featured tomatoes picked fresh from his garden. We all sat on their porch in the narcotic California sunlight, washing down satisfying slices of meat with beer and lemonade.

Unfortunately for my friends, I could not bring the sun or the beef home with me. Returning to Montreal was a shock: stylishly dressed, statuesque people, constantly rushing, pushing each other out of the way. I was one of the first people to leave the plane, but flowed almost immediately to the back of the crowd, my skin the dirty colour of a hobo tan.

Once I had regained my east coast jadedness, I had my friends over for dinner, to give them a taste of California. Our cows, of course, chain-smoke and bitch about their rent in French, before being more conventionally butchered.


Photo by Laura D’Alessandro.

As I don’t have a grill, or a barbeque, or a broiler, or even a grill pan, I just placed the salted steaks in a frying pan with a thin layer of butter, flipping once and then finishing in the oven. “French cut” inside round steaks worked well, and (almost) enough meat for six people was about $10.

For the chimichurri sauce, I put a full bunch of fresh parsley, a large clove of garlic, a splash of lemon juice, olive-canola oil, salt, pepper, and dried oregano and basil into the blender. Using dry herbs and both the stems and leaves of the parsley gave a slightly mulchy, fibrous texture that I think would be off-putting to some people, but didn’t bother me or my guests. Being liberal with the oil and restricting yourself to only the leaves of fresh herbs would result in a much creamier, gentler, and more expensive sauce.

For the potato pancake bases (my sister also loves grated-potato pancakes; I suppose this whole meal was more of a homage to her than to California), I peeled and grated six small and medium golden russet potatoes with a box grater. These were drained and pressed out with paper towels as much as possible, and then I added some finely chopped yellow onion, salt, and one egg. I fried patties made up of about 1/3 of a cup of this mixture in oil.

The green beans were plain, just blanched in boiling water.

Even though we ate it in the darkness of a city evening, at a dining table with wine, some crucial element remained the same to me, some taste of sun and sea.

My meals seem to be getting less complicated while my platings get more elaborate. As I already suspected, I may be a lazy chef who tries to compensate with design.

Written by skimfu

September 9, 2008 at 1:28 am

Posted in Beef

Same Ingredients, September to April: Yakiudon and Fried Wontons

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Classes started today. Yesterday I went grocery shopping and thought, “Time to be practical, time to make fast, time-tested, practical meals that can be easily transported.” That night, I made a stir-fry of chicken, carrots, broccoli, garlic, onions, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and rice. I have undoubtedly eaten about a bathtub worth of this meal since leaving home. I was planning to do what I’ve done since time immemorial: eat it for lunch and dinner for three days, and then make something else easy and familiar – more wonton soup with udon noodles, since I still had wontons and udon noodles.

When I got home, I looked at the cold tupperware full of stir-fry and I just couldn’t stomach it. Why, exactly, is life supposed to be boring from September to April?

Instead, I took out all the wonton soup ingredients and made something I’ve never made before, though often I’ve often been unsatisfied with something similar in mall food courts. Sliced onions, green onions, baby bok choy, bean sprouts, and udon noodles went in the wok, along with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, red chili flakes, sugar, and ground white pepper. You can be pretty indiscriminate about ordering – obviously the onions and udon noodles take a while to cook, but everything else is food-court-flash-fry-fast. I don’t think the last five ingredients are actually how the Japanese make the sauce typically associated with yakisoba; this was just my unreasearched guess, but it tasted about right to me.

I defrosted the wontons in a bowl of cold water, and then fried them in a separate frying pan in oil, flipping once so they were firm, crispy, and brown on both sides.

Shaved (curled? I used a slingshot vegetable peeler) carrot added some additional crunch. And then I felt much better about the tasty, tasty future.

[As this is a new roll, photos will probably be a while yet.]

Written by skimfu

September 2, 2008 at 7:55 pm

Posted in Asian, Pork