If Yan Could Cook. . .

Archive for April 2009


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I am sometimes hesitant to go back to a restaurant where the first visit was especially magical. A good meal is a complex formula: was it really the food, or the pleasant, understated waiter? Was it because you were hungry or you’d had just the right amount of alcohol? Was it the way your companion looked in the light, the way he held your hand, the jokes he made? Did the vigorous bike ride over give you an exercise high, making you salivate, triggering some evolutionary urge to dig your teeth into the meat? Were you just wowed by the idea that you could get a milkshake with breakfast, and not the breakfast itself?

The second trip to a restaurant can kill the memory of the first. But then the past is always like that: give me back that hour we were happy and not the years of insecurity; give me the constant reassurance of grades and not the sleepless monotony and I’ll go back to school.

The second trip to a restaurant can also be confirmation of your dreamy initial chemistry, like a good second date. Philinos, 4806 Avenue du Parc, just above Villeneuve, deserves a racy third date.

The first, oddly remarkable thing: the bread. I’ve never been moved to comment on bread before. In my experience, restaurants bring you hot white bread and butter, or something uncommon but banal like focaccia wedges or giant crackers – you can’t go too wrong. Except for Alto’s, where the waitress throws one of those disturbingly everlasting, indestructible POM buns at you, still in its plastic wrapper, but that’s a different story. I don’t know what kind of bread they serve at Philinos; it’s dark and flavourful as rye but not as dense, has a tang but isn’t sourdough, has a salty, chewy crust but a pliable, doughy center. Our most recent visit was right after I had flown over the handlebars of my bike, struck the back of a car with my body, and smashed my jaw on the asphalt below. I still worked my teeth through a full plateful of bread. Served with balsamic vinegar and olive oil (of course!), the bread is a good indication of things to come.

On this visit, we shared the “Pikilia” house hot appetizer platter: two spanakopitakia, two tyropitakia (mixed cheeses in filo pastry), calamari, and loukaniko (homemade pork sausage). The filo pies were fine, but the ample spread of calamari was the star: big, yielding rings and tentacles, in a batter that is light but satisifying and crunchy, alongside chunky tzatziki you could eat on its own. I eat a lot of fast-food style Greek food, and the warm, artisanal touches of this meal were unfamiliar (a suggestion: don’t eat the calamari at Nickels. The breading falls off and the fishy smell is overpowering). The homemade sausage was so good I would have fought for it, fork and nail.

For the main course, I had the “Paidakia – Garides”, two jumbo shrimp and two lamb chops, accompanied by baked potatoes and buttery vegetables. Everything is left in large, hearty, flavour-soaked pieces for you to cut away at. JP had the moussaka, which was also delicious if slightly over-rich – not that moussaka is supposed to be gentle. He thought it was perfect. It seemed like we ordered a ridiculous amount of food, but the waiter joked that the sight of our plates – clean down to the garnishes – would please the chef.

The reason I only write positive restaurant reviews – throwaway comments about Alto’s and Nickels notwithstanding – is because of the way I read reviews. I read them looking for somewhere to eat tonight, not hoping to be warned away from bad experiences or to revel in the spark and glee of criticism. Closed-down restaurants look so sad, the crumbling remains of someone’s belief they had the formula to survive an industry where the profit margins are razor-thin.


Written by skimfu

April 23, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Posted in Restaurant Reviews

Can you panko-bread it? & Mini Garlic-Cheese Biscuits

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I wish there was a registry of nice people, or some sort of awards system where you could nominate people who had done right by you on any given day: the middle-aged woman who seems to genuinely like working at your neighbourhood KFC, the concierge who went to bat for you against the company that owns your building, the people who answer Craigslist ads with good grammar and politeness, the man and his daughter who helped you move after seeing you tumble boxes down the street, the guy who lent you his bike lock when the pins fell out of yours right before an exam. Why is there no way to honour these people? I wish their prospective employers would call me and I could attest that yes, these are good people.

An easier question: what else can I bread in panko besides pork fillets? The short answer: shrimp – yes, but it’s better to make a batter; pork tenderloin – no, but pork tenderloin is so good it almost doesn’t matter what you do to it.

I dipped the shrimp in one egg whisked with two tablespoons of soy sauce, then flour, then panko crumbs, and then into a layer of hot oil.


They were great with Sriracha sauce, though it was a lot of steps and dishes to bread them. I suspect shrimp dunked in a batter and then fried would have been just as good. We had them with an unremarkable rice noodle soup (broth, green onions, white onions, Chinese five spice, lettuce, cucumber, spinach, thin rice noodles, sesame oil).


This soup base, detailed here, is a weeknight staple around here. Conceptually better for you than packaged ramen (JP calls it “undergrad fuel”).


I think Asian food by candlelight is just weird.

The pork tenderloin I rubbed with just a little bit of cinnamon, ground cloves, salt, and cayenne pepper. Cinnamon and cloves – good with ham, good with cookies. Go figure. Then I dipped it in one egg and two tablespoons of water, and cooked each side in oil on the stovetop. They went in the oven for fifteen minutes.


Tenderloin releases lots of juices, which makes the batter mushy, rather than crisp. It releases a lot of juices because it is mouthwateringly, meltingly juicy and tender. Even with the blah coating, it was so tasty, and that little sprinkling of cinnamon, cloves, and cayenne had somehow penetrated every bite without masking the meat. Man!

We had it with sliced radishes and zucchini, sauteed with garlic.


The giant orange cookies pictured are garlic cheese biscuits, based increasingly loosely on the recipe from What’s a Cook to Do? by James Peterson. In my version, a cup of flour and a tablespoon of baking powder get mixed together, and then 6 tablespoons of butter are cut in (between 1/4 and a 1/2 cup). Three gloves of minced garlic and a 1/4 cup of shredded Parmesan-Romano cheese are added. About 1 cup (or slightly less) of milk is mixed in to form a wet batter. The first time I made them, with the pork tenderloin, I attempted to make large drop biscuits:


In the oven at 450 degrees F for fifteen minutes, these spread a lot and became flat discs. Today, with lunch, I put the same batter into mini-muffin tins:


These came out much better – bite-sized, buttery delights. With so few ingredients, one bowl, and a short baking time, an easy addition to the arsenal. I had them with fresh berries and some leftover vegetable soup.


Written by skimfu

April 23, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Posted in Asian, Pork, Shrimp

Only Vaguely Greek: Chicken Souvlaki with Lemon-Pepper Yogurt Sauce, Spicy Shrimp Pitas with Tzatziki

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My favourite fast food dish – what you can usually get in mall food courts, at restobars and pubs, at odd diners open in the middle of the night – is a souvlaki platter. You usually get a stick of meat, some rice, some salad (sometimes Greek), and fries. There is some sense that you’re getting more or better food than your friends with their burger, pizza, or poutine, or at least that you’re going to be less sick at the end of it. My only qualm would be that you never seem to get enough meat and salad. The logical solution:


This meal is based on this recipe from Epicurious for the chicken. Cubes of chicken breast were marinated for about two hours in garlic, about two tablespoons of lemon juice, dried thyme, dried rosemary, salt and pepper. The recipe calls for freshly squeezed lemons and fresh herbs and overnight marinating, but who am I, the pope?


These were strung onto skewers and oven-broiled for fifteen minutes.


For the yogurt sauce, I used half of a 750 g container of plain yogurt, a splash of red wine vinegar, a splash of lemon juice, heaps of garlic and black pepper, and some dried mint, omitting the sour cream altogether. My only real innovation on the given recipe is using the sauce as a base for a salad dressing. I removed about a 1/4 cup and whisked it slowly with added olive oil. This was tossed with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, and small cubed red onion.


Once plated, the salad was topped with Kalamata olives, a sprinkle of dry oregano, and crumbled feta.


Because I buy them frozen and love them both, I always seem to have corn and shrimp lying around. On winter nights, during exam seasons, and throughout my own year-round laziness, I used to end up cooking them together often, the same way I used to eat a lot of diced vegetables in soy sauce over rice. While perhaps not obvious bedfellows, I’ve found corn and shrimp are great with basil, oregano, garlic, and dried red chili flakes. Better yet, in a pita!


This is not exactly tzatziki, but the right idea is there. I minced a whole garlic head. With the other half of the 750 g plain yogurt container, I mixed in half of the minced garlic, half of a finely chopped English cucumber, and lemon juice to taste.


To cook the shrimp, put the remainder of the garlic, plus dried basil, oregano, and red chili flakes in a couple tablespoons of oil and let it cook for a minute to aromatize the oil. Add the shucked shrimp first, then the frozen corn (it may seem weird, but you can cook them in a dry frying pan), and salt.


The pita is assembled with shredded (cut into strips…) iceberg, leftover from the salad that accompanied the souvlaki, the shrimp, and the tzatziki-like entity.


The mutual ingredients make these two meals ideal to have in the same week. Also, if you wander into the kitchen late at night and there’s pita and tzatziki lying around, it might be gone in the morning.

Written by skimfu

April 23, 2009 at 1:46 am

Posted in Chicken, Shrimp

Addendum: Crepes, Nachos

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We’ve been eating a lot of morning crepes, as described in this earlier entry. The blender pitcher is often full of crepe batter, so I can just pull it out, pop it on the blender for a second, pour out a 1/3 cup into a pan lightly touched with butter, and we have breakfast. Just spread with peanut butter and folded up it’s quite good, or with a sliced banana inside. Strawberries and Nutella is quite decadent:


Because it has become our quick morning food, I have yet to try any more elaborate fillings, like apples and brown sugar and cinnamon, or pears and caramel. Or ice cream. Well, there’s really no excuse for having not tried ice cream.

Edit: another good one is a pancetta scramble. Pieces of panchetta, chopped green onions and minced shallots cook together; add eggs whisked with milk and shredded cheese at the last moment, just as you turn off the heat.


Have a sweet crepe for dessert for a quick two-course meal.


Bruschetta leaves me with a lot of leftover ingredients. One solution is pasta sauce. Another good one is nachos.


On a base layer of nacho chips, top with chopped jalapenos, tomatoes, red onion, olives, basil, and cooked, spiced (cayenne, paprika, cumin, black pepper, salt) ground beef. Add a second layer of chips and a second layer of everything else. Smother the whole mound in as much cheese (cheddar, Monterey Jack) as you’ve got. Pop it under the broiler until it’s a greasy, slutty mess. Watch TV and drink beer and pillage.

Written by skimfu

April 23, 2009 at 1:46 am

Posted in Beef, Dessert

Bruchetta, Cheese Puffs, & Curried Lentil/Sausage Canapes

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On Saturday I had a party at my soon-to-be-ex-apartment. My furniture was rearranged to convince people to take it with them or mark it as their own with Post-It notes, and it worked out very well. Bidding wars diffused quickly because people were too nice. I sat with a hardbound notebook marking down what people were taking, looking like a mousy accountant.

The party was supposed to start at seven and I got to the apartment at four, still needing to buy groceries and empty out my shelves and drawers. I cooked like it was dinner service at McDonald’s (that is to say, fast and in a flurry of panic). I bought a bag of Munchies mix just in case it all went south. All the pictures are by Laura D’Alessandro.


I made the ever popular pancetta jalapeño cheddar shrimp, described more fully here. In short, very large peeled shrimp get slit down the back of the spine and opened up (butterflied) so that a strip of seeded jalapeño and strip of cheddar cheese can be inserted. Then the shrimp can be closed up and tightly wrapped with pancetta – the slice of pancetta laid down like a piece of paper, shrimp on top, and then rolled upward – and then stuck with a toothpick to keep it all together. They go into a 400 degree F oven for 15 minutes. I was braver this time – I think I’m getting better at butterflying, as I could jam in much more jalapeño and cheese than usual. El fatty fantastico. Phil called me the “bacon magician”.


This is the bruschetta, more or less, used at Cafeo on their grilled salmon salad the summer that I worked there. I doubt that dish still exists – the menu turned over rapidly, and the dish was a misnomer (a lie?) as we never had a grill. There are other ways to cook a fish, as they say. Half a large red onion, 7-10 kalamata olives, three gloves of raw garlic are minced and thrown in the bowl. Then a (unpressed) cup of chopped basil, and two large or four small tomatoes small diced. I add a finely chopped jalapeño for “kick”, though I feel pretentious and 1990s for saying that. All of this is tossed with a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Salt to taste. Good on melba toast rounds for canapes – as we had at the party – but also on nachos, fish with dill, cheese toast, ham/pork products, and thin-crust pizza.


There was a half-bag of green lentils in my cupboard I wanted to get rid of. This dish was pure invention and hope. I cooked the lentils for forty minutes in boiling water and then drained them. At the same time, some hot Italian sausages picked up colour on all sides in a pan on the stove and then went in the oven to cook. I put the lentils in the blender with sparing olive oil, some of its cooking water, salt, ground coriander, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, and turmeric, and blended it into a paste. I spread some of this lentil paste on each melba toast round and used it as hummus-like “glue” for a slice of sausage. The whole platter was sprinkled with chopped parsley.


The star of the evening! I followed this recipe. A cup of water and a stick of butter get brought to a boil on the stove, and then a cup of flour is added all at once and pulled into dough. The dough gets put somewhere off the heat where four eggs are blended into it, one at a time. At this point the recipe said to just drop them onto a greased pan with a spoon. I tried three approaches: (a) spoon drop, (b) pastry bag (Ziplock bag with a corner cut off) with big hole to make one big dollop and (c) pastry bag with little hole to make ice-cream swirl shapes. After they’re baked (400 degrees F, 25 minutes, for me it was less), they’re hollow on the inside, so you can poke a hole or split them slightly to fill them with something and then close them up again. I was honestly amazed by that. Something about the process seemed magical or mystifying, that these solid lumps of dough (although raw they had a texture somewhere between soft-serve ice cream and mashed potatoes) would hollow themselves out and be so crisp and cogent. Immediately after baking they’re hard on the bottom and not sticky in any way, and you can throw them around like cookies. Anyway, strategy (B) works the best – the (C) style puffs looked the best but had many little hollows inside instead of one big cavity because of their odd shape. Spoon-dropping as the recipe suggests is fine, but it was too hard for me to get evenly sized balls that way.

The filling is onion-infused butter (a slice of onion cooked and then discarded) and flour roux, plus a 1/2 cup of milk, whisked/stirred until very thick. The recipe called for Gruyère but I used cheddar because I damn well wasn’t going to keep two kinds of cheese in a fridge I was trying to empty out (1 cup, grated). The puffs get cooled, filled, and then baked a second time in a cooler (350 degrees F) oven for ten minutes to heat them through.

While cheese filling was decent enough, it wasn’t terribly flavourful (I regret not using finely chopped onion and leaving it in). I am mostly impressed by the puffs themselves. While there are more steps than I imagined, it’s all ingredients one always has on hand and it’s hard to mess up. I’m very excited to try filling them with whipped cream or different flavours of ice cream with chocolate sauce.


Everything came out quite well and people were lulled enough with food to pay for my furniture. Leftover bruschetta and lentil spread is yummy with chips.

Written by skimfu

April 1, 2009 at 11:54 am

Posted in Pork, Shrimp, Vegetarian