If Yan Could Cook. . .

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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Beef Skewers with Spicy Peanut Sauce

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When I had roommates – three apartments ago – one of them came up to me while I was eating some chicken skewers and said, “You made those yourself?!”

“Yes…” I answered, slowly. Something about stringing food on a stick, even the same ingredients of the dullest stir-fry, makes it seem fancy and inaccessible. I’m actually revolving my next party around toothpicks, but that (hopefully) will be a story for another day.

For these skewers, I marinated cubes of steak in soy sauce for half an hour, and then tossed cubed zucchini and red pepper with olive oil and salt.

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These I fed onto the skewers, alternating meat and vegetables, changing the ratio as I went along to suit the number remaining the bowls. Don’t put the skewer only through the seeded part of the zucchini or they’ll just fall off as the zucchini softens with cooking. In the picture on the right you can see the discoloration on my left palm, a healing scar. On my way to do a paid medical study on pain, I fell on the last slushy ice of this winter and pierced my hand on something. I don’t know what it was except that it left a very neat, very circular gash. I bound it up with some corner store bandages and did the study anyway. While in an MRI machine, a hot thermode was applied to my leg; if you can at all avoid it, never be in a situation where someone is applying shocks of pain to your body and you have to stay perfectly still. Being in an MRI is like being inside a giant dot-matrix printer – they have that same characteristic, crunching squeal. I pretended that I was a perforated piece of paper, except in horrible pain. Still: for the cash, for the anecdotes, for the writing fodder, for the candy bars, and for science!

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The skewers go in the oven at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes.

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Meanwhile, two jalapeño peppers (one unseeded, one seeded), five gloves of garlic, and one shallot get coarsely chopped and allowed to pick up some color in a hot pan of olive oil. A big hand-sized lump of peanut butter is added and melted in the pan.

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The melted peanut butter mixture is poured into the blender with about 1/2 as much soy sauce and a smattering (couple teaspoons?) of sugar. Blend until smooth and pour into serving dishes.

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The whole shebang is great with rice or raw cucumber and celery. And adorable feet. They’d look better on my black plates, though. I miss my dishes.

Written by skimfu

March 24, 2009 at 9:48 pm

Posted in Beef

L’Entrecôte Attempt #1: Tarragon & Parsley Butter Sauce

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Le Relais de l’Entrecôte, mentioned earlier, is part of a family of restaurants in Europe that serve steak frites in a magnificent, unforgettable sauce. The sauce is regarded – at least by journalists and huffy cooks in internet forums – as impossible to reproduce. You want it? Go back to Paris and get in line!

Ah, if only.

This is my first attempt at re-creating it. The resulting sauce bears almost no resemblance to the one of fame, but is nevertheless delicious and amazing on steak.

In a deep pan of butter on very low heat, I smushed some stewing beef until it melted away all its outer bits and left only tough, butter-soaked stringy pieces, some of it to be reserved and the rest “thrown away” (meaning eaten. Meat that has paradoxically absorbed that much fat but given up all its moisture to the pan is transcendent and dirty at the same time, like jerky made from angels). JP walked in at this point and said, “Hey, it smells like the L’Entrecôte sauce!” before I had told him what I was trying to do and I got dumbly excited.

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To this meaty butter I added a mirepoix of sorts: celery rib, one carrot, one onion, one shallot, four gloves of garlic, all chopped very fine. While that cooked, in the blender I put a couple pieces of the beef with a little bit of water, and then liquified it into meat-mulch. I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to do this. I then added parsley and tarragon leaves, as well as lemon juice, to the blender. In Paris, I had been convinced that the sourness in the sauce was from vinegar, but the forum debaters were so unanimously convinced it was lemon juice I decided to believe them.

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The fresh herbs, the mirepoix, and the meat mixture all got blended together (with an additional 1/4 cup of melted butter and tons and tons of black pepper) into a pea-green sauce that matched other people’s descriptions of the colour but not my own memories. I cooked the two steaks (rare, oozing all over the plates, mmm…) in the same pan that the mirepoix had been in, and then deglazed the dark bits with red wine.

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The deglazed liquid was added to the sauce in a pan (to keep it warm and keep the butter melted) and stirred in, and it was only then that it started to resemble the L’Entrecôte sauce to me at all, in taste, colour, and texture.

Probably correct: parsley, deglazed red wine liquid, black pepper, and beef fat in butter. I still think it’s supposed to have vinegar and mustard, not lemons. Whatever the heck I made, it tasted wonderful on oven fries and steak, the best meal I’ve had in weeks.

Other such people say that they can taste anchovies, liver, lemon grass, and/or marrow; we’ll see if my experimentation gets to that point before I can no longer remember the original.

Written by skimfu

March 23, 2009 at 12:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Lemon-Basil Fettucine with Chicken, Spinach, & Pine Nuts

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It seems my last life is ending, though I go through its motions: a zombie in lectures, producing papers and assignments when commanded, studying in coffeeshops. My new life overlaps: rejection letters from magazines, friends laying claim to my furniture, untouched grant applications on my desk. An acquaintance – a friend of a friend – is getting married to a man she has only been dating for half a year. I used to say, whenever the topic came up, how does anyone ever get married? How can you ever know? How can you ever know what you want for the rest of your life?

Now, after talking more deeply with other people, I think marriage is like swimming in open water, like city biking, like sex, like fighting, like rock climbing, like making new friends, being around people who are new. One day you wake up and it no longer frightens you. It’s something you’ve been doing for years, and you can no longer remember why it was frightening in the first place.

Looking at these pictures of meals, I can see around them, past the frame, to this grown-up apartment that is owned and not rented, where we are playing house for my last months in Montreal. I am still faking knowing how to cook. I have been doing that since the beginning. In my jobs, the chef comes in and asks if I can slice a lump of cured salmon into paper-thin slices for appetizer plates with a boning knife, if I can invent a salad dressing, if I can stuff flowers with cheese, if I can julienne peppers, if I can make vegetable stock from a bucket of garbage, if I can make soup or grill meat or make perfect eggs and I always say yes and it is always a lie. Somehow I am not fired; somehow I pull through. Someday it will be earnest, and JP and I will sit down to one of these meals I have fudged and made up and it will not feel like a happy accident. Someday I will not feel like a child who has woken up in an adult body expected to know things, expected to produce things, expected to be something and love someone and own lots of things together. For there is beauty in that, more beauty than assimilation: in the love and the things. For the things inside the frame, for the food and the wine and the light.

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This was an experiment which tasted great but struck me as not optimally done. With the water for the fettucine boiling, I cooked a roux of butter, flour, minced garlic and shallots, and then quickly stirred in white wine and a lot (six tablespoons-ish) of lemon juice. I cooked the sliced chicken in a separate pan, with just olive oil, salt, and pepper. After the pasta was cooked, I didn’t drain it completely, letting the spinach cook briefly in the hot pasta water and then draining the reserve. All of the parts – the thin white sauce, the chicken, the spinach and pasta mixture – were tossed together in the pot with a heaping cup of chopped fresh basil, and then served with additional salt and pine nuts.

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Primarily I wondered if making the sauce was necessary at all, and if it would have been better to have just tossed basil, lemon juice, cooked chicken, spinach, shallots, garlic, and pine nuts together – if the taste would have been sharper and cleaner. A theory to test soon.

Written by skimfu

March 22, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Posted in Chicken, Pasta

Saturday Brunch

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Above: how to compensate for being a bad roommate in half an hour.

Spinach and Ham Omelette

Two 1/2 inch slices of a roasted ham, with the skin cut off and chopped into small cubes, goes in the hot pan with olive oil, 1/2 cup chopped fresh spinach and one minced shallot. Add three large eggs, whisked in a bowl with two tablespoons of whole milk or cream. Give it a minute, then add a cup of grated cheddar or Monterey Jack (or both). Pop it in the oven (on broil if your pan can stand it; lower if it can’t) until the top is set. Slide it out for a large circular omelette for one or cut it in half for normal-sized omelettes for two.

French Toast

Each egg makes enough batter for just over one slice of bread; two eggs is almost enough for three slices. Eggs, milk or cream, vanilla, and lots of cinnamon make up the batter in a bowl with a large mouth. Dip thick slices of white bread on both sides. Fry in butter, flipping once until golden brown. Butter is non-negotiable. If there isn’t lots of butter then it isn’t French toast. Pictured is some pretty basic, squishy, diner-style, five-minute French toast; you can make mini-French toasts with slices of baguette and crisp them extra in the oven and then bury them in a mound of fresh fruit or compote for something else entirely.

Also pictured are slices of cantaloupe, nectarine, and banana, and chunks of orange.

Really, at least half of the reason I’m a bad roommate is thermodynamically irresistible. The organization of my possessions degrades on its own. I combat it elsewhere with meal formations.

Written by skimfu

March 14, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Crepes: Nutella & Banana Flambé; Ham, Asparagus, & Bechamel Sauce

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My sisters came to visit a few weeks ago. We visited some friends of Germaine, my eldest sister, who made a brunch to die for: crepes with berries and whipped cream, Nutella and bananas flambé, and ham, asparagus, and Bechamel sauce, all with dark, strong coffee. I vowed to recreate it later.

This morning, JP and I ate the first batch of crepes right off the stove. As I found my rhythm, he filled one of the first, sacrificial crepes with Nutella and wrapped it up. He held it out and I took a bite from it, still in his hand, and felt a brief rush of memory, of doing the exact same thing: leaning across and biting into a hot, freshly-made Nutella crepe he held. Wrapped in a paper cone, on the narrow sidewalks of the rue Moufftard in Paris, just as the light fell and the streets filled. A strange thought on a rainy morning in Montreal. Paris like a dream, a cherished fantasy – lovely, exotic, impossible. Impossible that we were there less than a month ago. I’m used to spending my breaks as a houseguest to friends who is always one wrong move away from overstaying her welcome, to traveling alone or with strangers off the Internet, and to road trips with my parents – all scenarios which are fun until they’re not. Paris wasn’t like that: not a moment where I wanted to go home and see everyone else or be productive so I could stop worrying or rest my feet and return to the familiar, not a moment where I wanted to pitch my companion out the window.

Espresso and open sky, low buildings spread far enough apart for the sunlight to get through, to melt the icy, stoic carapace of a long, Canadian winter.

I used a modified version of this crepe recipe, as follows:

Into the blender: 1 1/2 cups whole milk and 3 large eggs. For the first batch, blending after each ingredient, I added: 5 tablespoons of melted butter, 1 tablespoon of vanilla, 3 tablespoons of sugar, 1 cup of flour. For the second batch, after the milk and eggs: 1 tablespoon of vanilla, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 cup of flour. The two batches tasted the same to me, and less sugar and butter is good for the heart, if not the soul. This is a very egg-heavy recipe in general, giving the crepes a yellowish tinge and a certain heavy sponginess that I like, but I can see why one wouldn’t.

I used a very large (12″) non-stick pan so that there was lots of room to get around and under the crepes. On medium heat, spread a minimal amount of butter along the bottom of the pan. Add 1/3 of a cup of batter, tilting the pan to spread it around as much and as round as possible before it sets. Wait until it is bubbly and air is forcing the crepe off the surface of the pan, and then you can easily tilt it up to check if the underside is done and flip.

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I took the crepe out of the pan, spread it with Nutella and stacked lengthwise-cut sections of banana in the center, and just closed it on the sides. You could do this right in the pan, but I’m a wimp. For the flambé (of which JP got an awesome picture), I put the finished crepe back in the hot pan, turned the heat off (but it’s an electric stove, so both the element and the pan retained a lot of heat), tossed some good rum on top, and lit it with a long-handled barbecue lighter.

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For dinner, I used the bit of remaining batter from breakfast and the second batch to make another seven crepes, with still a half-batch left for further adventures. In preparation, I blanched a full bunch of asparagus in boiling water. To make the Bechamel sauce, I minced five gloves of garlic and incorporated them into a roux of white flour and butter (only cooked to a pale yellow), then stirred in more whole milk slowly on low heat to a thick, cottage-cheese consistency.

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The majority of the crepes were built as follows: shredded strong white cheddar on the bottom, smoked ham cut into strips, asparagus, and Bechamel sauce. I heated them all in a warm (250 degrees F) oven to bring them up to eating temperature. I think it would be better without the cheese; I also think that a vegetarian version, with just asparagus and Bechamel (and maybe spinach), would still be delicious. My last crepe led me to these two conclusions because we ran out of ham and cheese first.

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Making the crepes is easy, but takes a long time. If you can get two pans going, do it. If you can learn to let someone else fill the crepes without your hands itching in a control-freak way, all the better.

Edit: To my surprise, the ham and asparagus crepes are really good the next day for lunch. When cold and congealed (I know that doesn’t sound that appetizing) they hold their shape really well, so you can throw them in your bag and then eat them in hand.

Written by skimfu

March 11, 2009 at 10:54 pm

Posted in Dessert, Pork

Chicken and Celery Stir-fry

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The above photo is not in my kitchen. Life moves quickly: from now on, very likely, I will be cooking in a different kitchen, one with stainless steel countertops and red walls, one I share with someone else.

In a few months I start grad school in a city with a perpetually wet chill and almost no daylight. Many mornings there I would catch myself waiting for the sun to rise at eleven a.m., realizing that it wasn’t going to, and the day was going to pass completely in a dark, gray haze. I lived there in a second, deeper haze of allergies; it’s hard to see past the itch on the inside my skull. It’s a place full of bad memories and good memories rewritten as links in a chain of regret. For whatever reason, whenever I visit, I never go to see the only good thing there: the ocean. I think its symbolism has begun to overwhelm me, its rhythm following me for years – not merely a link in the chain, but the medium in which it resides. All my mistakes and miseries suspended in seawater.

My father makes this dish, minus the red chili. As I cooked I thought of myself as a child or a young teenager or that static age one returns to in their parents’ house, sitting alone at our old kitchen table or their new IKEA bar, picking the celery and chicken out of their pooling juices with chopsticks. My parents eating on the couch, watching the news in the dark, the grim, stern local news anchor’s voice in the background, the eerie blue television shadows on the wall. Going back feels like failure, like I never left.

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It’s still tasty though. Several bunches of green onions are cut such that the whites are chopped fine and the greens are left in big strips (more like a vegetable than a flavouring). Chicken thighs are chopped quite small and stir-fried with plenty of minced garlic and the green onion bottoms, adding a couple tablespoons of soy sauce in the process. This is cooked until the chicken has started to crumble a little bit on the outside, resulting in a chicken bits-soy sauce-oily liquid that tosses easily with big hunks of celery and the greens of the green onions. A handful of dried red chilies, crushed, also go in the mix. The celery in this dish is best left pretty crisp, not cooked long. Served over rice for a 20-minute weeknight dinner for two, hold the weary nostalgia.

Written by skimfu

March 10, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Posted in Asian, Chicken