Saturday, May 29, 2010

Guest Blogger -- really special chocolate mousse

So my PhD-critical-crim-soc bestfriend, aka gigglejuice, or Ms.-That's-Not-Hummus, who by the way use to think baking and cooking were stressful and even considered vegetarianism so she wouldn't have to learn how to cook meat (yeah .. yeah.. you said that in grade 11!) has been busy in the kitchen. But she's not just making simple salads or cookies and cakes .. No no .. she's making a special chocolate mousse, one that you can feel good about eating, one that contains good fats that you can hug and not worry about how they'll affect your baseline cholesterol. Oh yes .. it's a vegan chocolate mousse made with ... avocado!

Now, I'm not a big fan of avocado, but apparently, you don't need to be because all you taste is the rich chocolatey-ness. The avocado does it's job by giving it that silky texture that's a must-have when it comes to chocolate mousse. But don't take my word for it -- I haven't tried it yet. I've only drooled over the pictures that she sent me. But if she likes it, and she's one big chocolate fan, then I'm 100% sure that it's that good. Now I'm leaving ... to get some avocado. But I leave you with her words ...

Oh, and if you're reading, Blackcurrent, I'm betting your tasters will all be proponents on this one. Hey gigglejuice, what's your manifesto??

There's lots of recipes for the mousse.... I picked the easiest ... lol...
but probably the healthiest. This makes 2ish servings:

1 avocado (ripe!), cut up
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup agave nectar, maple syrup or honey (I used a combo of agave and
honey. Next time would use a little less because I like some of the
bitterness of cocoa)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup (more or less) of almond milk (probably could use soy or even
water) -- optional

1. Blend everything but the milk together in a food processor (I used my
mini-chopper. Probably could use a blender, but might not work as easily).
Then once combined, drizzle in the almond milk while the processor is
running until it's the smoothness/consistency you like. It still tastes
great without the milk, it's just a little thicker and denser.

2. If you don't eat it right out of the food processor, pour into a dish or
smaller dishes. If you don't eat it all right away, it's good chilled.

3. While you're cleaning up, try not to cut your tongue licking the food
processor blades. (Using a blender may be safer).

4.Take a moment... or several moments. Yeah. It's freakin' awesome.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Herby Summery Salad

I don't know about your part of the world right now, but where I am, things are starting to heat up. It's like all of a sudden, spring decided to turn into summer over night, and we've been treated to hot hot temperatures that make me feel like it's July. Don't get me wrong -- I looooooove the summer and hot weather, but when you have a south facing classroom on the west side of the school, your afternoon classes are more than a bit warm. And my poor students -- it's not that they don't want to participate, they just can't. The weather has steamed off every last bit of energy they have. And to top it off, I've come down with some sort of summer flu/cold that's got me feeling less than energetic.

Hot weather + summer flu + 4 weeks till the end of the year = a not very enthusiastic class. This short week felt long, and I have a feeling that June is going to drag on and on. But you know what? I don't mind a bit. June is fun.. well, when the students aren't crazed with summer fever or hyper from all the freezies they're buying at lunch time, June can be relaxing. Report cards are almost done so we're not that worried about marks, we can take our classes outside for some lessons under the shade of a tree, and there's an excitement in the air in anticipation for the upcoming 2 months off. June is great.

But, the hot weather is not making me feel like cooking, or eating for that matter. There's nothing that steamy hot days to make my appetite plummet, unless we're making cold, summery things.. like summery pasta salad. I've got bad memories of pasta salad -- overcooked macaroni covered in a goopy, neon yellow-coloured dressing that screams heart attack in one bite. Not a good thing on a hot day. To me, pasta salads should be the exact opposite: fresh light, lemony, tangy, cool and refreshing. Yeah, that's a pasta salad, and that's what I was craving earlier this week. My craving came just in time, because we had just planted tons of herbs on our balcony and purchased some local grape tomatoes from the market. A quick stop at the cheese store for some boccaccini, and dinner was almost ready. A little snag to deal with first: no red onion (which would have been perfect), so we substituted a bit of julienned, blanched leeks, which weren't ideal but tasted good enough along side the carrot, broccoli and of course, pasta. A lemony vinaigrette loaded with fresh thyme and a healthy dose of basil made this pasta salad come alive. And the boccacinni added a little creaminess without overwhelming the salad. It's a neat little cheese -- I'd never bought it before or cooked with it, and at first when I bit into it, it tasted like nothing. But as I kept chewing, a lovely, creamy cheesy taste came out: perfect to round out the sharp, mustard-y dressing and mild veggies.

Ok, so I change my mind about the hot weather making me not want to eat. I'll take this salad on the hottest day in July. Bring it on, summer!

Summery Pasta Salad

juice of half a lemon
2 teaspoons of grainy mustard
1 teaspoon of honey
2 sprigs of thyme (minus the tough stems of course!)
1.5 tablespoons of olive oil (or adjust to your taste)
salt and pepper to taste

2 portions of short pasta (I used vegetable shells)
a small handful of grape tomatoes, quartered
half a head of broccoli (asparagus would be nice too!)
a bit of julienned leeks (or use red onion if you have it)
a small carrot, julienned
4 mini boccaccini balls cut or torn up
a big handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped roughly or torn up

1. Make the vinaigrette by mixing together everything except the olive oil first. Then, slowly add the olive oil while whisking. Adjust the seasonings to taste. Let it sit in the fridge while you make the pasta.

2. Boil your pasta. When it's about 5 minutes from being done, add in the broccoli. After another 2 minutes, dunk the leeks in with a sieve and then remove. Drain the pasta and broccoli and put them in a large dish.

3. Add your carrot, leeks, boccaccini and basil and give it a little toss to disperse all the ingredients. Add in your vinaigrette and give it another good toss. If you can wait, let it sit, covered, in the fridge for another 10 minutes or so before digging in.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"And now for the Switch Up"

I don't know if I've told you before, but my first TV cooking love was Anna Olson. Ok, I know I've told you before, but the recipe I'm about to post is just .. well, just so Anna, that I had to mention her again. I used to spend lazy summer days in front of the TV learning how to separate eggs without getting any yolk into the whites, make lump-free lemon curd, the importance of sifting flour and ... turning the phrase "plain and simple" to "simple and elegant." That was her key phrase, the phrase that she said right before she ended the show. "And there you have it. Simple and elegant. I'm Anna Olson and thanks for watching Sugar." Ok, so I was/am a little obsessed. But Anna Olsen really did introduce me to the world of baking. Watching her gave me the courage to take recipes and change them to suit my needs, tastes and cupboard.

Anna's got lots of different shows now, but the original one, the one called Sugar, is the one I remember the most. I loved it because it had different parts. First, she would make something easy and simple, something that you could do on a weeknight. Then, she's make something really special, that layer cake that you have to let set for an hour before decorating, or that exotic flavoured ice cream that you have to make in many steps. I have to say that I've never attempted one of those recipes, but hope to in the future. The last 2 minutes of the show were always my favourite. She'd do the "switch up." She'd take the easy, simple recipe from the first part of the show and dress it up so that it would be good enough to serve to guests. I found it absolutely brilliant that a pound cake baked into individual cups instead of a loaf could make such a difference, or that serving cookies with a fruit salad could turn it from a tasty treat to a dessert to serve to company.

Anna's "switch up" was exactly what I thought of a couple weekends ago when I received a lovely surprise from my love. I had been washing the bathroom, and when I came out, he had a cheeky grin on is face, and told me that he had made me a special treat. I was doubly surprised when he pulled a cookie tray out the oven and presented it to me. Cooking he loves, but rarely will he bake -- this was a true labour of love. He had taken my all-time favourite flavour, peanut-butter, and made me a yummy treat. On the tray were 6 gigantic, chewy peanut butter cookies. But that wasn't all. In a small pot simmering on the stove was the freshest-looking strawberry sauce ever. He delicately assembled the treat by putting a bit of the strawberry sauce on top of the cookie and we both took a bit at the same time. It was heaven. I truly decadent PBJ and a wonderful surprise after spending an hour scrubbing the bathroom. The strawberry sauce was perfect -- tangy, sweet, fresh -- and suited the chewy peanut-buttery goodness of the cookie just fine. A perfect pair. Wonderful. I wish all my PBJs were as delicious. Without even watching Anna Olson, my love was able to create the perfect switch-up my dressing up a simple peanut butter cookie. Now, that's talent. :)

PBJ Surprises

For the cookies:

1 cup of all natural smooth peanut butter
1 egg
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/4 cup of flour

For the strawberry sauce

a large handful of fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
a splash of almond extract
1 tablespoon of sugar
a little squeeze of lemon

1. Put all the strawberry sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and heat over medium until things start to bubble. Reduce the heat a bit and let it simmer until the strawberries break down.

2. Cream the peanut butter and sugar. Add the egg, baking soda and flour and give it a good mix.

3. Place spoonfuls of the dough on a sheet. Make sure they are very well spaced out because these yummies will definitely spread out.

4. Bake the cookies in a 350 oven for about 10 minutes or until they are slightly golden brown on the edges.

5. Serve the cookies topped with the strawberry sauce and smile.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Heart Healthy Fish and Chips

Fish and chips. Sigh. No matter how I try to justify it to myself, I'm never able to order fish and chips at a restaurant. I just can't do it anymore. Chocolate, yes. Coffee, yes. Ice cream, definitely. Greasy Chinese food with the family, of course. But fish and chips? Something about all that deep-fried goodness gives me a feeling that even an extra 30 minutes at the gym won't take away. When I was younger, it was probably a favourite of mine. In fact, my dear aunt used to walk us to the corner of our block during summer holidays and get us fish and chips to share. It was her favourite too -- especially those fries. Those were wonderful memories; but those fish and chip eating days are sadly long gone.

So what am I to do? Settle for steamed fish, Chinese style, every time I go home for dinner with my parents. Yes, that's a solution. But recently, I had not one but two awesome fish experiences that made me miss fish and chips a little less -- and that's always a good sign. The first one was at this little place called The Fish Store, where there's only limited seating outside, and you get to choose from a long list of different fish and seafood options. Once that's done, your filet is grilled to perfection, topped with a lovely, lime-y sesame-y dressing and served as either a salad, a sandwich, a burrito or over rice. There was nothing heart-attack inducing about this fish, and it tasted just perfect. My best friend opted for calamari, my partner went for haddock, and I chose the fish of the day: grouper. I asked for mine on top of rice -- a sticky combination of wild, red and black rice. After that meal, I almost forgot that the term "fish and chips" ever existed in my vocabulary.

My second fish-epiphany happened in the comfort of my own home, and was created by none other than my skilled partner. You see, we had a dilemma. He was craving fish, but the last time we got it at the supermarket, we ended up returning it 5 minutes after we bought it because it smelled so bad. Nope, we didn't have a fish guy. Solution? Ask your meat guy who he gets fish from. Bingo! A little advice from our friendly butcher and we walked away from the market with 3 beautiful talapia fillets. When we got home, I started working on my marking, and promptly forgot all about them, until I started smelling something delicious. Oh my, yes. He had made healthy fish and chips: the talapia was seared briefly on each side and went into an oven with shallots and broth, the chips were actually pan-roasted potato wedges and to add a little green and some extra nutrition, some asparagus, Ontario's finest. Needless to say, that after this awesome fish experience, I won't need to feel like I'm missing out every time I skip over the fish and chips.

Talapia and pan-roasted veggies

a bunch of asparagus, trimmed
a few new potatoes cut into quarters
1 tablespoon of olive oil
salt and pepper
1 small clove of garlic cut into thin slices

a large talapia fillet
1 tablespoon of olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup of broth or water
1 small shallot diced

1. Boil your potatoes and blanch your asparagus until desired tenderness. Set aside. Pre-heat your oven to 350.

2. Put 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a stainless steel pan and heat it up until is just starts to smoke.

3. Season the talapia on both sides with salt and pepper and place in the not pan. Sear for about 30 seconds to a minute on each side. Remove from the pan and set aside.

4. With the heat turned down to medium, add the shallots and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the broth and bring up to a simmer. Put the fish back in pop it into the oven for 10ish minutes or until the broth has reduced a bit and the fish is nice and flaky. Remove the fish onto your serving plate (there will be extra sauce! :)

5. Heat up 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the same pan. Add your potatoes, asparagus, garlic, salt and pepper. Saute for a few minutes or until the veggies get a bit of golden-ness on the outside. Serve with the fish and forget about deep-fried batter!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Fusion: East Meets Tex Mex?!

It's drizzly and cold outside, and I just got back from work. I have piles of marking that I've been carting to and from work for the past 3 weeks but I just can't seem to get myself in the mood to work on it. Rainy days should, in reality, be productive. There's no distracting sunlight and warm weather to drag you out of the house for walks and ice creams and adventures in different parts of the city. The park isn't calling your name and trying to convince you to pack a picnic and enjoy nature in the city. This week, our spring-time flowers have definitely gotten a good watering. And the chilly temperatures (ok, so 11 isn't really chilly, but I'm a wimp and compared to the 25 degrees last Wednesday, it's a bit of downer!) are making the first half of May a month where you want to curl up with something warm and soothing instead of heading out the garden for a couple hours of weeding.

Drizzly weeks call for lazy, warm, comforting suppers, something that you can reheat throughout the week, that you won't get bored of by Tuesday, and that has flavours that are familiar and soothing. When I think comfort food (besides oatmeal of course!), I usually think about the foods and flavours that I grew up with. So, this past weekend, when a simple walk to the grocery store to get a refill of sunflower seed butter turned into a race for the streetcar so as not to get soaked by a sudden down pour, I wanted something comforting for supper.

A quick scan in the fridge told me that I had tomatoes that desperately needed to be used up and a fresh bunch of swiss chard that was calling my name. My first thought was to make pasta sauce the Chinese way, but that called for ground pork or chicken, something that I didn't have and would not go out in that rain to get. So I improvised. I used an old vegetarian stand-by: black beans. I know what you're thinking. Black beans and soy sauce don't usually mix, but I decided to give it a shot. In went the can of black beans mixed with the usual Chinese condiments, plus a bit lime zest and lots of ginger. I was nervous at first, but once I tasted it, I a my doubts floated away. It had all the comforting flavours of Dad's cooking with a little tex-mex twist, plus the comfort of knowing that it was healthy and vegetarian. So throw those stereotypes about Chinese cooking out the window and go out on a limb. It's definitely worth a shot.

Black Bean Chinese Pasta Sauce
I call this a pasta sauce, but I had it warmed up with rice and it makes a pretty nice chili as well.

a chunk of ginger root, minced
a clove of garlic, minced
a small shallot finely diced
1 teaspoon of lime zest
a big splash of sesame seed oil
a big splash each of dark and light soy
a can of black beans, drained and rinsed
2 tomatoes roughly chopped
1 cup of water or broth
a small bunch of swiss chard (or any other leafy veg -- napa cabbage would be great!)
salt and pepper to taste

1. Saute the ginger, shallot and garlic with salt and pepper until fragrant.

2. Add the lime zest and black beans, swiss chard stems and give it a good stir.

3. Add the sesame seed oil, and soy sauces tomatoes and water/broth. Simmer covered for a about 12 minutes or until the tomatoes break down.

4. Stir in the swiss chard leaves and cook for another 5-7 minutes uncovered, so that it sauce reduces a bit. Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly.

5. Serve over Chinese noodles, pasta or rice. Throw those cooking stereotypes out the window!

Baking Frenzy

Another crazy week. I guess it's that time of the year when the weather gets little warmer and suddenly, my winter-worm apathetic adolescent minds start blooming. It's great; I'm not complaining, but it sure makes for a long work week. Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't trade my job for any other. It's much too satisfying to give up, but I will say that the last 2 months of the school year is definitely more hectic than the first two. Who would have thought? You'd think they'd be winding down by now, but not my students. They're full of ideas, inspiration and needing every ounce of teacher support they can get. And I'm happy to give it to them, especially when it involves baking.

You see, our graduating class is trying to raise funds for their final graduation party, and what better way then through a bake sale? Yup, earlier this week I had two little darlings knocking on my door asking me to bake something for the sale that would happen after the spring concert. Oh, and would I mind supervising as well? Of course not. Two batches of baked goods later (a version of this fruity muffin, and this delicious crumb cake courtesy of Everybody Likes Sandwiches) and I was standing outside the school gymnasium at 8:00pm trying to keep the crowd from overwhelming my students. That was Thursday night. Was Friday any less hectic?

Let me explain. A group of artistically inclined students had the idea of sell origami rose bouquets for Mother's Day. Enter: hectic Friday afternoon poking skewer sticks through intricately folded rose flowers, sorting through last-minute orders (oh yeah, these girls meant business!) and running around the school delivering them. Couple that with senior dance supervision (Hands to yourself! Stop running! No, you CAN'T go to the bathroom AGAIN!), a meeting at the bank, and it's a wonder I even remembered Mother's Day. Mother's Day for us has been different these past few years. You see, as mentioned before, my parents are off gallivanting in Asia on their annual trip, and my Mom will probably be tucking into a steaming bowl of phở and sipping Vietnamese coffee in Hanoi on Mother's Day. And my Grandma? She'll be coming over tomorrow to see our new place for the first time and enjoying a little lunch with my sister and I. So Mother's Day is no sweat, right? Almost. There is one mother that I was thinking of -- a mother that I've never actually meant, but hope to in the near future. My partner's mom. Like any mother-son relationship, theirs has had their share of ups and downs. To add to the "ups," I that I'd help put together a little package to send to her. I bought a little bouquet of those beautiful origami roses, plus a tiny pocket to lucky stars (also painstakingly handmade by my students) to send in the mail along with some cookies.

Oh how I love giving the gift of cookies. I first started, I think, by baking cookies as a family gift to my best friend's family at Christmas. One year, to re-connect with a former music teacher whom I write to, I baked peanut butter cookies and left them in her mailbox as a surprise. Now a-days, baking a batch of cookies as a gift is not uncommon for me. But making cookies to send in the mail is a different story. Although I'm a huge fan of those delicate, rich cookies that crumble sometimes on their way from your hand to your mouth, I needed a sturdy cookie that wouldn't get damaged during shipping, and would be just as tasty a couple days after baking. For this, I turned to oatmeal. There's something about it when you add it to a cookie batter that not only gives it extra nutrition and texture, but makes it nice and hardy: the kind of cookie that you could serve to guests straight from your cookie jar a week after you've baked them. I thought about it for awhile and came up with a recipe that's a cross between this one from Everybody Likes Sandwiches, and one from my favourite cookie cook book. It's got chocolate chips, walnuts, a good dose of maple syrup and of course, the saving grace, oatmeal. The texture is a cross between crumbly and chewy -- perfect with a tall glass of milk, a cup of tea or a (third) cup of coffee (yes, I had three coffees on Friday .. ). I'm about to send off the package, so I hope when they get there (better late than never!) they're well received. Happy Mother's Day!

Travelling Oatmeal Chocolate Maple Walnut Cookies (yeah .. I'm working on the names..)
(inspired by Everybody Likes Sandwiches, and "Cookies" (p. 241) by Catherine Atkinson, Joanna Farrow and Valerie Barrett.)

1/2 cup of butter at room temperature
1/4 cup of brown sugar
1/4 cup of pure maple syrup
a splash of almond extract
1 egg
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 cup of oats
1 1/4 cup of all purpose flour
1/2 cup of chopped walnuts
1/2 cup of chocolate chips

1. Cream the butter and sugar until evenly mixed. Beat in the maple syrup, egg and almond extract.

2. Stir in the baking soda, oats and flour. Add the chocolate chips and walnuts and give it one final stir.

3. Drop teaspoon fulls of the dough onto a cookie sheet and bake at 350 until golden brown on top (about 15 minutes).

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sisterly Tribute

So, like I mentioned before, this week kinda sucked. It dragged on and on and to make matters worse, there was drama at the very beginning. I'm so happy that it's the weekend, and I'm not even minding that it's drizzly and grey outside; I'm just glad that the work week is over and I can put it behind me.

I hate drama, especially when it messes up my routine, which it definitely did this week. Thankfully, I had someone to bail me out: my sister. I love my sister. We've been through a lot together. We hated each other when we were younger, became best friends when we were teenagers, drifted apart when we both got serious boyfriends, and then drifted back together when we both realized that there's no one in the world that we love in quite the same way as we love each other. I know people that hate their siblings and find it a chore to be around them, and I always feel so sad for them. To be lucky enough to have a sibling is a blessing, one that you should cherish forever. And boy was I glad to have a sister this week. She was there for me in a heartbeat, helping me out of a particularly tricky situation, and as usual, wanted nothing in return.

The least I could do was write a post in her honour. So here it is: Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Cloud Cake. I made this cake for her birthday last year, and after tasting it, she wanted the recipe. I found that strange, since she rarely used to bake, but since that first bite of cake, she's made this recipe for herself quite a few times. She's definitely a chocolate fan, one of the original dark chocolate lovers before it got all sexy and healthy and everyone started pretending that they liked it better than milk chocolate. She's always preferred dark chocolate. I remember her coming home one day with a box of semi-sweet baking chocolate to snack on because there were no good chocolate bars at the grocery store. And I remember having the Swiss Chalet Festive Special with her and giving her my blue Lindor truffles in exchange for the red ones. Dark chocolate all the way. And that's what you need for this recipe -- a dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids, because you'll definitely taste the difference. It's a flour-less, chocolately, melty, gooey rich treat and I wish she were here this weekend, so that I could make one for her to show her how much I love her.

But she's off chasing indy music shows in eastern Ontario this weekend, so I'll have to wait for another time. In the meantime, I'm sharing this recipe with you, so perhaps if you have a sibling, you'll make them a yummy chocolate treat just to show them how much you care.

Nigella's Chocolate Cloud Cake
(I basically halved the original recipe and left out the orange zest and Cointreau. For the birthday party, I made the whole thing including the whipped cream topping, but for a weekend treat, I'd stick to half, sans whipped cream.)

4.5 ounces of dark chocolate, chopped
62 grams of unsalted butter (about 1/4 cup)
3 eggs: 1 whole, 2 separated
85 grams of sugar (about 1/3 cup)

1. In a saucepan, melt the chocolate and the butter over low heat, stirring constantly. Set aside and let it cool down. (Yeah, I know, it's a faux pas to put chocolate over a direct flame, but the butter kind of protects it, and it should be ok if you keep a close eye on it.)

2. In a large bowl, beat 1 whole egg and 2 yolks with half the sugar until it gets light, fluffy and ribbony. Gently fold in the chocolate mixture.

3. In another bowl, beat the egg whites, adding the rest of the sugar a little at a time, until soft peaks form.

4. In three stages, add the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, folding gently so that you don't deflate it.

5. Pour it into a prepared pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until the top is shiny and cracked and the smell makes you think that your kitchen has turned into that 24-hour chocolate factory in Spain. Remove from the oven and don't be disappointed when it sinks -- it's supposed to! Add your whipped cream on top if you're using it, or just dig in and satisfy that dark chocolate craving. Don't forget to share it!