Friday, February 29, 2008

Dare to dream.

Le batard

I tend to dream of the South of France. Rolling hills decorated with neat rows of grape vines, the scent of lavender in the air, the cerulean blue skies with faint puffs of white cotton clouds and the warm touch of the Mediterranean sun upon my skin. And the food…oh how I dream of the food. The array of pungent, oozy cheeses, the peppery salamis and country style pates are all perfect accompaniment to the most outstanding baguettes you can lay your hands on. A crisp yet chewy crust gives way to light innards with scattered pockets of air throughout. I have yet to find such a baguette here in the US. They are often doughy and dense with a crumbly crust, a far cry from their French counterparts. So though I dream of walking to the local bakery and picking up a few fresh baguettes for the day in Plan de la Tour, it never occurred to me to attempt to make them at home. It did occur however to Breadchick Mary of The Sour Dough and Sara of I Like to Cook, the hostesses of this months Daring Bakers challenge (be sure to check out the other entries here). And for that, I owe them many thanks!

Upon seeing this months challenge, Julia Child’s French Bread, I took a sharp inhale of breath and held it for what felt like eternity. Countless doubts flitted about in my mind. Would it be possible to succeed in this challenge? A 17 page recipe?! Three rises? A simulated bakers oven? As I slowly let out the air, an immense sense of hope replaced the doubt as I imagined what joys would await me if this challenge would actually produce a bonafide, French baguette.

Though the recipe itself was not difficult, it was extremely time consuming – about a 10-hour process from start to finish. The dough came together in a breeze - soft, round and springy like a baby’s bottom. The time whiled away between the first and second rise. When it came to shaping, I chose to make batards, a slightly shorter cousin of the baguette. I set them in their linen hammocks and allowed them a final rise. I pre-heated the oven with tile stones to bake the bread on. My first snafu came in the slashing of the baguettes – I used a sharp chefs knife, which did not cut through clean, and I think I made the slashes too long rather than three shorter ones. As I placed the baguette in the oven, I didn’t shove it in far enough for there to be space for the others. I didn’t want to risk messing with it so I decided to bake it on its own and then try to bake the other two together – my second snafu. I brushed the dough with water every few minutes and anxiously waited until the timer went off. I opened the oven door and to my delight, there was a gorgeously tanned batard on the other side! It didn’t have the perfect slashes but it looked good enough to me for a first attempt. My next slashing attempt was worse than the first – jagged slits that deflated the batard! I attribute this to the fact that perhaps it was left out too long, and would not have occurred had I baked all batards at once. My second batard closely resembled an alligator’s snout. The third batard I turned into an epi, and to my utter glee, it was perfection! The hardest part then came in the waiting game, a 2-hour stretch of time that dragged on like a high school exam. By the time I was finally able to break bread, it was 10 in the evening! We sliced open the ‘alligator’ batard and served it with a cheese plate. Though the shape was not ideal, the innards were soft and airy, the crust perfectly crisp and chewy and the flavour - it was enough to transport us back to the South of France. I could not believe that here, in my own home, a batard worthy of Plan de la Tour was born!

The recipe can be found here, courtesy of Breadchick Mary!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Flax lyrical.

Bran and Flax Seed Muffin

Not a month goes by without the appearance of a guest or two (or six) at our home. Take this February for example, we have been booked solid! At this point we have had to turn down requests and reschedule them for March, April and beyond. We seem to have become a bonafide Bed 'n Breakfast - plus lunch and dinner too. It's flattering really, to know that our hospitatlity and company is so highly regarded. As an added bonus, I have more mouths to feed and therefore more taste-testers! Never one to miss an opportunity to experiment in the kitchen, my stove, oven and mixer have been working overtime to keep up with the demand.

Breakfast during the week is usually a free-for-all since I go to work, but every now and again I like to throw in an element of surprise. This week, my in-laws happily arose to the smell of coffee and freshly baked Bran muffins. My worries that a dozen muffins would be too much were soon eased when only four were left by noon! I adapted this recipe from Gourmet magazine to include the uber-healthy Omega-3 benefits of flax seeds and walnuts. Moist, crunchy and just slightly sweet, these muffins are a delectable and healthy breakfast treat. I find they are best eaten when fresh from the oven - still steaming and aromatic and topped with a tiny dab of salted butter.

Bran and Flax Seed Muffins - adapted from Gourmet Magazine, October 1991

  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg, beaten lightly
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup bran
  • 1/4 cup flax seeds
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 2 tps poppy seeds
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
In a large bowl with an electric mixer cream together the butter and the brown sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Next, beat in the egg, the Greek yogurt, and the molasses. Stir in the raisins, flax seeds, poppy seeds and walnuts.

In a bowl whisk together the flour, the baking soda, the salt, and the bran, then add the mixture to the yogurt mixture and stir the batter until it is just combined. (The batter will be lumpy.) Spoon the batter into 12 well-buttered 1/3-cup muffin tins (I used non-greased silicone muffin tins) and bake the muffins in the middle of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are golden brown and springy to the touch. Turn the muffins out onto a rack and let them cool.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A party in the mouth!

Thai Steak Salad and Japanese Style Cucumber-Seaweed Salad

My introduction to Thai cuisine took place when I was growing up in the Netherlands. My mouth starts to water just thinking about the first sip I took of Tom Kha Gai soup. It was a full on assualt on my tastebuds - salty, sour and sweet all hit different notes but played together in perfect harmony. Creamy coconut, spicy chili, citrusy lemon grass and green kaffir lime leaves brought the symphony to its climax. I was thoroughly disappointed when my spoon hit the bottom of the empty bowl. My disappoinment was short-lived as they soon brought out an array of dishes - Laab Moo, Green Curry, Massaman Curry and Pad Thai. It was a sensory overload - the smells, colours and flavours were as amazing to me then as they still are today. I get hit with massive cravings for the bright, intensely fresh flavours of Thai food more often than I should admit. Luckily it's easy to create these flavour combinations at home - otherwise we'd have a hefty take-out bill on our hands!

Though I am an avid supporter of Thai curries, I often reach for my Thai salad recipes when the cravings strike. This steak salad is a regular around these parts. Seared steak gets bathed in a fragrant dressing of fresh lime juice, robust fish sauce, fiery chilis and garlic. Tossed together with crunchy sliced onions, chives and cilantro - this salad is one party in the mouth. I like to serve this with some steamed basmati rice and a simple cucumber-seaweed salad to soothe the spicy bite.

Thai Steak Salad

  • 1 lb steak (flank works well)
  • 1-2 red chilis
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 4 tbs fish sauce
  • 4 tbs lime juice
  • 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 package (about 30g) chives, snipped into 1 inch lengths
  • a handful of cilantro, roughly chopped

Sear the steak until browned well on both sides, and cook to medium rare or desired doneness. Allow the steak to rest while you prepare the other ingredients.

In a mortar and pestle, mash together the garlic and chilis to create a paste. Scrape the paste into a large bowl, and add the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. Mix well to dissolve the sugar. Add the thinly sliced onions, chives and cilantro and toss well to combine. Next, slice the steak into thin, even slices and add to the salad. Mix again thoroughly and allow to marinate for at least 30 minutes for the flavours to meld.

Japanese Style Cucumber-Seaweed Salad

  • 1 english cucumber, washed
  • a handful of dried or salted seaweed, washed and reconstituted in cold water (experiment with different seaweeds - wakame, arame etc.)
  • 4 tbs seasoned rice wine vinegar
  • 4 tsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • toasted and black sesame seeds

Thinly slice the cucumber using a mandoline or knife into a large bowl. Drain and squeeze the seaweed of all water and add to the bowl. Add the vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil and toss well to combine. Add a liberal sprinkling of both toasted and black sesame seeds and toss again. Allow flavours to meld for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Lalala - Lasagne

Turkey and Sausage Lasagne

Lasagne, though a dish that I adore, is not a constant in my repertoire. Now that I think about it, I prefer it that way. I am delightfully surprised each time I take the first bite at how it draws me in and comforts me - like a warm, cozy blanket. There are no complex flavour combinations, no costly ingredients, just a simple tomato and meat sauce enhanced with the subtle flavours of the medditeranean. Paired with a slice of home-made garlic bread and a fresh green salad - this dish is a true crowd pleaser. I often forget this fact however, when hosting dinner parties. For some reason I tend to shy away from one dish wonders - a habit I will no doubt have to break.

This particular lasagne I adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook. It's uncomplicated and therefore imperative that the ingredients you use are the best you can get your hands on. Their version, made with beef, veal and sweet Italian sausage is meaty, yet remains light and exceptionally juicy. While they advise not to cut calories by substituting leaner meat, that is exactly what I did in this case. My motive was not to cut calories however, it was simply that I had ground turkey on hand and decided to put it to the test. I'll be the first to admit that turkey does not provide the same deeply savoury flavour as beef but on the flip side, it allows for an even lighter dish where the tomato sauce has a chance to sing center stage. The layers of ricotta are airy and fluffy, somehow lifting each noodle to new heights. I often like to spread fresh spinach in between a few layers to add a hint of green and a dose of iron to boot. The final layer is liberally spread with shredded milky mozzarella and parmesan and then baked to a bubbly, crisp golden brown. I don't know about you but I make sure to serve myself a corner slice - crisp and caramelised and oh so satisfying.

Turkey and Sausage Lasagne - adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook

For the sauce:

  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 lb sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1 lb ground turkey, dark meat
  • 2 (28oz) cans fire roasted tomatoes, diced
  • 2 tsp freshly chopped rosemary
  • 2 tsp freshly chopped thyme
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tbs tomato paste
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp sugar

For the filling:

  • 2 lbs ricotta
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup finely grated parmesan
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

For assembling:

  • 16 oven-ready (no boil) lasagne noodles
  • 1/4 cup finely grated parmesan
  • 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, coarsely grated

Make the sauce: Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring until golden. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in the sausage and turkey and cook, stirring and breaking up the larger pieces, until no longer pink. Add the tomato paste and mix thoroughly, then add the herbs, tomatoes and salt, pepper and sugar. Bring to a simmer and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened, about 30 mimnutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Remove the bay leaf.

Make the filling: Stir together the ricotta, eggs, parmesan, parsley, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a bowl until combined. Preheat the oven to 375F.

To assemble: Spread an even layer of sauce in the bottom of greased 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Arrange 4 lasagne noodles, slightly overlapping, over sauce. Spread an even layer of the ricotta mixture over the noodles and sprinkle about 2 tbs of parmesan evenly on top. This is where I like to add fresh spinach leaves on occasion. Spread another layer of the sauce over the ricotta and then another 4 noodles. Spread another layer of ricotta, spinkled with parmesan. Repeat the process until all ingredients have been used, finishing with a layer of sauce. Spread the mozzarella evenly over the top and sprinkle with more parmesan. Cover the lasagne with buttered foil and bake for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and bake until top is bubbling and lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes more. Let stand to set up for 15 minutes before serving.