Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Daring Bakers' April Challenge - British Pudding

The April 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Esther of The Lilac Kitchen. She challenged everyone to make a traditional British pudding using, if possible, a very traditional British ingredient: suet.

I believe it would only be fair to entitle this post “My Big Fat Pudding Fail.” I honestly do not think I have ever messed up a challenge this badly.

I’ll admit I was not especially enthusiastic about the challenge when I first read about it. I was actually only vaguely aware of what British pudding was – and you can hardly blame me, given all the different definitions given to the term! But I had heard not-so-flattering things about it from various people.

However, when I looked at the recipes our hostess, Esther, had given us, I thought to myself: “Hmmm, this actually looks pretty good.” There was a sweet, sponge-cake like version, which looked tasty. But I was mostly drawn to the other version, which consisted in a pastry crust, with a savoury or sweet filling. The savoury version looked especially appealing, like a pastry-wrapped stew.

The main problem was the key ingredient: suet. I wasn’t able to get my hands on that oh-so-specific animal fat, which is essential to making a pudding crust. Now, we had all been assured that suet could easily be replaced by shortening. But, since I had some duck fat leftover in my fridge, I figured I could use that instead. However, duck fat melts relatively fast, so I had to make a few adaptations to my crust, adding more flour to make it rollable. Still, I thought it would be OK.

The next problem was the container: pudding is typically assembled in a pudding basin, then sealed with foil and steamed in a waterbath. I didn’t have a pudding basin, and all my heatproof ramekins and ceramic casseroles were either too big, or too small. Finally, I settled on the aluminum container of my rice cooker. After all, surely it was heat-resistant and ideal for steaming?

I chose to make a meat-based pudding, with beef chuck, onions, and mushrooms. My duck fat-based pastry was more brittle than I would have liked, so I had to pat it onto my mold, rather than roll it out into a nice, round piece. Still, I thought it would be OK.

So, I steamed the whole thing for four hours. Fortunately, I have the pictures to prove it, because there is no way you would believe me based on the final result. Here is the steaming apparatus:

Here I am unwrapping it:

Here is the bottom side of the crust. At this point, I realized it looked a little soggy, but I figured it was only because some water must have gotten on top. I was still confident.

Here I am about to unmold the whole thing:

And here is what came out:

Totally NOT what was supposed to happen. For some reason, my crust remained stuck to the mold. It was wet, sticky, and clearly not cooked.

You can laugh. I know I did! I mean, when a project goes this wrong, what else can you do? At least the meat was nice and tender, so we had that for dinner, with a side of sautéed zucchini, and some homemade buckwheat blinis I quickly thawed (to replace the disastrous crust). It was good enough, but obviously if I had wanted to make stew, I would’ve simmered it in a Dutch oven, not steamed it.

I did this challenge at the last minute, so I had no time to try it again. I would like to, though. Looking through the other Daring Bakers’ forum posts, I’ve seen so many awesome-looking sweet sponge versions, and so many beautiful savoury crusty versions, that I’m convinced this has to be a good dish. Something just went wrong, in my case - very, very wrong. If I try this again, I will use shortening, and ramekins, and maybe make individual portions, rather than a large version.

At any rate, thank you, Esther, for this most interesting challenge. I really wish I had done a better job, but at least I am now somewhat more informed regarding British puddings. In the meantime, if you want to see what English pudding is really supposed to look like, please check out the original recipe at The Daring Kitchen. And if you want to find out all the fun variations you can make based on this recipe, check out the Daring Bakers’ blogroll!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Overcoming a Phobia - Shrimp Tempura

When it comes to deep frying, Laurent is the expert in our house. I got him a huge, deep frying pan for Christmas, and it’s been getting a lot of mileage already.

I remember the very first time we made Veal Milanese together – or as Laurent, whose family hails from Rome, calls it: Fettine Panate. You’ve all probably had this ubiquitous Italian classic: pounded veal scallops, coated in flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs, then fried and served piping hot with lots of lemon juice.

However, Laurent and I soon found that we disagreed on the cooking method. I was used to cooking these scallops the way my mother had taught me, in just a thin coat of butter. Since this was early in our relationship, and Laurent was still “courting” me and trying to get on my good side, he let me do it my way, but mentioned that he usually cooked the scallops in oil. I promised we would do it his way next time.

So when next time came along, I watched as he prepared the scallops in much the same way as I had. Then he took out the frying pan and the canola oil. I was expecting him to merely pour a couple of spoonfuls of oil… so when he started to let the oil glug out of the bottle and fill the pan halfway, I was shocked. In fact, according to him, I looked absolutely horrified.

See, I had never deep fried anything before. And I was at a time in my life where I was suffering from “fat-phobia,” and tended to shy away from anything too greasy. So really, this was terrifying for me.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten past this problem since then. And while we certainly don’t deep fry things unnecessarily or frequently, I gladly let Laurent practice his skill when he feels like it. And we now always deep fry Veal Milanese – sorry, Fettine Panate – because I have to admit, it tastes better that way.

Actually, today’s recipe has nothing to do with veal. What I really wanted to post about was tempura, but it seems I got side-tracked. Sorry. :-)

As far as deep frying goes, tempura is one of the lighter dishes. At least, the batter feels crispier, and less greasy than the breadcrumb variety. You can make it with vegetables, but we stuck with the prawn variety. And they were certainly yummy!

Thanks for bearing with me! Enjoy the recipe!

Shrimp Tempura

Serves 2

1 egg yolk
240 ml (1 cup) chilled soda water
140g (5 oz, 1 cup) all-purpose flour (or easy blending flour)
15-20 large prawns, deveined and shelled, with the tail still on
Vegetable oil, for frying
Soy sauce for dipping

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolk and the soda water. Gradually whisk in the flour, and stir until just combined.

Pat the prawns dry with a paper towel. Put them in the batter, turning them over to coat the completely. Reserve.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan, until it is hot enough to react when you dip a utensil in it, or toss a test-piece of bread, or a prawn.

Working in batches, gently remove each prawn from the bowl, shaking off any excess batter, and fry them until they are crisp and golden. Place the cooked prawns on paper towels, and press to absorb the excess fat.

Serve immediately, with the dipping sauce and a side of vegetables.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Daring Cooks' April Challenge - Brunswick Stew

The 2010 April Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Wolf of Wolf’s Den. She chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make Brunswick Stew. Wolf chose recipes for her challenge from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee, and from the Callaway, Virginia Ruritan Club.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I love, love, love stew. I love making it, letting the scents waft along and fill the apartment. I love nurturing it in the pot for hours, before letting it nurture me at the dinner table.

Spring appeared to get off to an early start this year in Montreal, with a couple of summery warm days. However, we’ve had our share of chilly days as well this past month, which meant that this month’s Daring Cooks’ challenge, Brunswick stew, was still perfectly in season. Spring is the time where white meat stews take the stage away from beef stews, as far as I’m concerned!

Brunswick stew originates from Virginia (and not, as I initially presumed, from New Brunswick). Like most stews, it appears to be subjected to endless variations. Therefore, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty about substituting pork for rabbit (a change which our hostess, Wolf, fully endorsed). I’m clearly not a vegetarian, but having had a pet rabbit for 9 years has left me completely incapable of cooking with this particular meat.

We were given two recipes for this challenge: one fast, one slow. Ever the slow-food lover, I took the long road, and simmered my pork (I used baby back ribs) and chicken pieces for two hours, until the meat was falling from the bone. I stopped short of making stock from scratch, because, well, I did have other things to do.

One thing I did like about the Brunswick stew is that it is chock-full of vegetables: butterbeans, corn, onions, carrot, celery, potatoes, tomatoes… Just what a stew should be: both filling and healthy. I also like the inclusion of lemon juice and vinegar, which lent a sour taste that I rarely find in stews.

This stew is best served with bread. I decided to make my own, and baked a big loaf of Marcy Goldman's whole wheat Greek bread. I wish I could have gotten it to be crustier, but the thick, heavy crumb was perfect to go with the creamy stew.

The only thing I would change would be to add some herbs: I felt there was some depth of flavour that was lacking from this dish. A simple sprinkling of flat leaf parsley would do wonders. It’s hard for me to guess whether tarragon’s unique liquorice-aniseed flavour would work with this or not… it might, but it might also be disastrous. Fortunately, since I made the full recipe for 12 people (what’s the point of having a giant Dutch oven if you’re not going to use it to capacity?), we’ll have plenty to chances to test things out with the frozen leftovers.

So, thank you Wolf, for adding another stew to my roster! Be sure to check out the original recipe here at the Daring Kitchen, and look over the blogroll while you’re at it!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Blogiversary and An Ode to Simplicity - Poached Farm Eggs with Mushrooms

The Chocolate Bunny turns one year old today!

You could say I started this blog on a whim – except that I was too stressed out about it for it to be a mere whim. I was so impressed (and still am) by all the beautiful food blogs out there, I wasn’t sure I could put together anything that would even come close to them. But it was still something I wanted to try, just to see if it was something that I could work into my lifestyle. And so I made myself not think about it, and just went for it.

I like to think that I’ve made some progress over this past year, even if I still have a long way to go. I’ve been making efforts to build up my knowledge of photography, in ways I know I wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for this blog. And I know I’ve learnt a ton of things in the kitchen, in part thanks to the Daring Kitchen challenges, but also thanks to the people who read this, and are kind enough to take the time to respond. It’s been wonderful, getting to know these different people (some in person, others through their posts and comments), and gradually feeling part of a community.

So my thanks to all of you. Here’s to another year of good eatin’!

I wish I could say I made something extra special for this blogiversary. Unfortunately, time got the better of me. So instead, I give you: last night’s dinner. In a way, it’s very appropriate for this occasion: it represents how everyday food can be simple, nutritious, and delicious.

I remember how proud I felt when I finally mastered poached eggs. It took many tries, a few different pans, and a lot of eggs. I was aware of “poachers,” those little containers that help the eggs keep their shape. But for some reason, I wanted to do this old-school: just eggs, and a pan of water. Even after I was successful for a few times in a row, it took a long time for me to relax during the poaching process. I’m nervous around eggs in general, because I’m very picky about preparing them perfectly, and I know it’s a delicate process. Laurent knows not to come into the kitchen when I’m standing over a pan of eggs, whether they are being poached, scrambled, or fried.

On Easter Sunday, we were fortunate enough to be given a carton of fresh farm eggs, from someone with ties to a farm. I knew they were something special, and immediately began thinking of ways to prepare them. Poaching seemed to be the way to go, because it would highlight the eggs themselves, and really allow us to taste the difference from supermarket eggs.

Usually, I make poached eggs for brunch on the weekends, and serve them on an English muffin, with smoked salmon. But for these little beauties, I wanted to make something with even cleaner flavours, to allow the eggs to be the stars of the dish. In the end, I decided for a simple mushroom stir-fry.

The eggs really were worth highlighting. You can see the difference in appearance, how much darker the yolk is. The texture of the white was nicely firm, and they tasted so clean and fresh! The woodsy mushrooms (shiitake and portobellini) added a welcome depth of flavour that didn’t overwhelm. There wasn’t any need for anything more.

This dinner was as basic as it gets, preceded by a simple vegetable soup (made from scratch and frozen). It was nothing special, and yet, in a way… it was. It’s the kind of food I love to write about. Obviously, I’m proud as a peacock when I pull off perfect macarons, or a spectacular layered cake. But I’m also proud of simple fare like this: it’s the kind of food I’m happy to serve. It’s the kind of food I want my kids to grow up on.

Poached Eggs and Stir-fried Mushrooms

Serves 2

4 large eggs
1 tsp salt
2-3 tbsp white wine vinegar (approximately)
2 whole wheat English muffins, sliced in half
500 ml (2 cups) wild mushrooms, such as shiitake and portobellini, thinly diced
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pour about 7 cm (4 inches) of water in a wide pot. Bring the water to a very gentle simmer over medium-high heat. Stir in the salt and vinegar.

Toast the halved English muffins.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Toss in the mushrooms, season with salt, and sauté, stirring often, until they are tender and have released some of their moisture. Season with pepper. Remove from heat.

Top the toasted English muffin halves with a couple of spoonfuls of mushrooms. Divide and arrange the remaining mushrooms on the plates.

Crack each egg into a separate ramekin or cup. Take each ramekin, one at a time, carefully dip it halfway into the simmering water, and gently tip the ramekin and let the egg slide into the water. Boil the eggs for 3 minutes.

Line a plate with a clean, lint-free kitchen towel. When the eggs are cooked, remove them individually from the pan with a slotted spoon, and gently place them on the towel, to get rid of excess water.

With the slotted spoon, or a thin, firm, wide spatula, lift each egg from the towel-lined plate, and place it on top of a muffin half. Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper, and serve immediately.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Lunch

I hope everyone had a wonderful Easter!

We spent it at Laurent’s parents, which means that I didn’t have to cook – just help with the plating and layout. Stress-free holidays are the best!

Easter is always a little atypical here, because Laurent’s father generally dislikes red or fatty meat, except when its ground or baked as a meatloaf. Which means, no lamb, and no Easter ham. The only lambs present were the ones decorating the table.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the appetizers.

I really wish I could tell you what’s in these. But even Laurent’s dad could barely remember the ingredients. He has a knack for taking whatever leftovers there are in his fridge, and turning them into something that is both delicious and literally unique – as in, there is no way he, or anyone else, could ever make it again. I can tell you this particular spread contains puréed tomato, parsley, mayonnaise, olive tapenade, Tabasco, breadcrumbs, and possibly some roasted red peppers… but I can’t be sure, and I’m probably forgetting half the ingredients. But whatever was in it, it was good, on crackers and as a filling for devilled eggs.

There was an elaborate caprese salad, which I completely forgot to photograph. It was served with fine prosciutto and grissini. For some reason, I did remember to photograph the grissini.

The main course, as I said, was atypical: salmon. It was simply poached, and served cold with three different kinds of homemade mayonnaise: garlic and parsley, tarragon, and tomato. Simple flavours, but everything was prepared with care, and it was an ideal lunch for a lovely warm day.

Dessert was also not exactly traditional: no chocolate, but a thin, crisp pear tart, with caramelized sugar. It was light, not too sweet, and just plain delicious. (OK, we did have some chocolate after – it was Easter, after all.)

One of the guests had brought her dog, a cross between a Husky and a Retriever. As you can see, he had the most amazing eyes (and no, the different colours are not a trick of the light):

The dog received his share of treats, as well. So we all left with a full stomach and a skip in our step.

How was your Easter?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Strong Contender - Pork Osso Bucco

Ever since I started to get seriously interested in cooking, I’ve known that choosing a favourite recipe would be impossible. Even if we put aside dessert and focus on a single dinner main course, there are just too many options. Baby back BBQ ribs, sweet-and-sour duck breast, my mother’s imperial rolls, Laurent’s pizza, chicken fajitas, steak tartare, pho bo, sashimi, spaghetti a la carbonara with mushrooms, steamed mussels à la marinière… There’s just too much to choose from!

But I have a feeling that osso bucco would definitely be in my top five. My mother often made it for us when I was living at home, and it was always a treat for me. I wasn’t even freaked out by the bone marrow – instead, I relished it.

Osso bucco, for those of you who might be less familiar, means “pierced bone” in Italian. Basically, it is a veal shank, braised in a tomato-infused broth. But, as with most Italian dishes, there are a multitude of variations: there are even tomato-free versions.

I’ve tried several recipes. Often, I purposefully make too much sauce, which we freeze and use with pasta, on days when we are too busy to cook. Traditionally, osso bucco is served with saffron-infused Milanese risotto, but I like to serve it with plain long-grain rice, or couscous. And I like to up the ante on the vegetables, so as to make it an all-in-one meal.

Recently, however, Laurent’s mother introduced me to pork osso bucco. And it was actually really good; the meat had a stronger flavour than veal, but it also held together better. So, when I saw a couple of gorgeous pork shanks at the grocery store, I couldn’t resist buying them and preparing them for myself. After all, they weren’t that much expensive than veal shanks – which, I have to admit, aren’t cheap.

I prepared them as I do veal shanks, with lots of veggies. But I used less liquid than I usually do, so as to properly braise them, rather than stew them. And, oh my goodness, they were good! Tender and succulent, each bite full of flavour. I completely forgot to make the gremolata, the traditional accompaniment of minced garlic, chopped parsley and grated lemon zest, which is served on the side and sprinkled over the meat – but I didn’t miss it until I was nearly finished inhaling my meal!

Happy Easter to you all!

Pork Osso Bucco

Serves 4

4-6 pork shanks (depending on size)
All-purpose flour
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion
120 ml (1/2 cup) dry white wine
4 celery ribs
4 carrots
120 ml (1 cup) diced canned tomatoes
Water, as needed
2 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F).

Salt and pepper the pork shanks, then coat them in the flour.

In a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, brown the pork shanks, turning them over once or twice as needed. Remove the pork from the pan and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium, toss in the chopped onion, and cook until the onion turns transparent. Deglaze with the white wine, and scrape any brown bits off the pan. Continue cooking until the wine is nearly evaporated.

Add the carrots, celery, pork shanks, and diced tomatoes, and add enough water to just cover the shanks. Add the bay leaves, and season with salt. Bring to a boil, cover, place in the oven, and let simmer for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, until the meat is very tender, and almost falling off the bone.

If there is too much liquid remaining, either remove it with a spoon, or put the pan back on the stove and bring it to a boil until the liquid has evaporated enough for the sauce to thicken. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Serve with white long-grain rice, couscous, or mashed potatoes.