Sunday, October 31, 2010

Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover - Cauliflower and Ham Casserole

I’ve been on the fence about whether or not to post today’s recipe. Mostly because of the way it looks.

See, if I try to shoot it before cutting it open, it looks like a perfectly nice, comforting, but unfortunately anonymous cheesy casserole. It could be anything hiding under that layer of cheese.

However, if I try to photograph it after cutting a piece out, it looks like… Well, it looks like this. And I don’t think I need to tell you what else it resembles, I think it’s crossed all of your minds.

So, lesson learned: it’s pretty much impossible to make this cauliflower casserole look good on a picture. Trust me, it looked even worse when served on a plate. And closeups? Forget about it. It’s just not a photogenic dish. I could lose the béchamel on the bottom layer, which would make it less liquid and less… un-food-like-looking; but then I would lose all the creaminess and richness. Although in all fairness, I added too much milk to my sauce: there shouln't have been that much liquid. Another lesson learned.

However, in spite of its appearance, this casserole is pretty great. It’s a one-dish meal, with all the vegetables, protein and calcium you’ll need for dinner. Running some ham through a food processor and adding it to the sauce really boosts the flavour.

So, for once, don’t look too much at the picture. I can guarantee that the smell of this baby coming out of the oven will make you forget all about its looks.

Cauliflower and Ham Casserole

Serves 4-6

2 heads cauliflower
5 medium slices of ham
80g (3 oz, 3/4 cup) smoked cheese, grated (e.g. mozzarella or Jarlsberg)
80g (3 oz, 3/4 cup) cheddar cheese, grated
4 tbsp flour
A pinch of nutmeg
Milk, as needed
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat your oven to 180ºC (350ºF)

Wash and cut the cauliflower into fairly thick florets. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and blanch the cauliflower, until al dente. Drain and dunk into cold water to cool. Once cooled, pat dry with a clean towel or paper towels. Reserve.

Run the ham through a food processor, until it is cut very thin, almost crumb-like. Reserve.

In a skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to brown. Whisk in milk gradually, a little at a time, until your béchamel sauce has acquired a smooth, but still rather thick consistency (it will liquefy more in the oven).

Toss in the ham and cheddar with the sauce and stir to combine. Add the cauliflower and coat the florets with the sauce. Season with pepper (salt will probably not be necessary, given the ham and cheese.)

Transfer the mixture to a casserole or baking dish, in an even layer. Sprinkle with the smoked cheese. Bake, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Daring Bakers' October Challenge - Doughnuts

The October 2010 Daring Bakers challenge was hosted by Lori of Butter Me Up. Lori chose to challenge DBers to make doughnuts. She used several sources for her recipes including Alton Brown, Nancy Silverton, Kate Neumann and Epicurious.

I had such a blast with this month’s challenge. It was just plain fun. There’s just something about homemade doughnuts that brings a smile to my face – and people around me.

Growing up in New York, I had my share of Dunkin Donuts as a kid. I always had a soft spot for factory doughnuts: the sweet, sticky icing, the sprinkles, the dough that somehow managed to be super soft and somewhat chewy at the same time…

And then, there were Belgian doughnuts, also known as croustillons, or oliebollen. They are merely balls of dough (sometimes made with beer), deep-fried to a crisp and served piping hot with a sprinkling of icing sugar. They are sold from carts on the street or during fairs, and served in large paper cones. They are one of my fondest sweet memories, and I really wanted to try making them this month. Unfortunately, time ran out, and I was only able to make American-style yeast doughnuts, following the Alton Brown recipe our hostess Lori had given us.

Like I said, these doughnuts were just fun to make – fun, and easy. The dough was soft and forgiving, and the only mildly scary part of the process was the deep-frying. I’ve said it before: I know how to deep-fry, I’m just always nervous when I have to do it on my own. But I was home alone on the day I was doing the challenge, so it was just me and the frying pan. However, these doughnuts fried up so quickly, they barely made a splash in the oil. I’ve honestly never seen my stove so clean after a deep-frying session.

I made two kinds of butter-based sweet icing: one vanilla, and one chocolate. Because I like to get extreme when it comes to chocolate, I added chocolate sprinkles to the latter. Actually, those doughnuts were supposed to be triple chocolate (oh yes, I would’ve gone there!), but I forgot to split the dough in two and add cocoa to one half. Oh well…

The doughnuts were very good, although I would’ve liked them to be a bit fluffier. But I think I deflated my dough too much when I rolled it to cut out the doughnuts. But they were still light, and tasty, and impressed people. I love learning to make things that I never would’ve considered tackling before. Thanks, Lori!

Don’t forget to check out the challenge recipes and the other Daring Bakers’ creative doughnuts!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Daring Cooks' October Challenge - Stuffed Grape Leaves

Our October 2010 hostess, Lori of Lori’s Lipsmacking Goodness, has challenged The Daring Cooks to stuff grape leaves. Lori chose a recipe from Aromas of Aleppo and a recipe from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.

I think I cursed when I first saw this month’s challenge. Stuffed Grape Leaves. My nemesis.

Okay, maybe “nemesis” is too strong a word. The truth is, I only attempted to make dolmas once, for the February DC challenge on the theme of mezze. It had been a fairly epic fail, with my bundles unravelling as they simmered, and the result tasting watery and bland. I had more or less decided that the whole thing wasn’t worth the time and effort.

But after my initial reaction upon discovering the challenge, I decided to give stuffed grape leaves another shot this month. After all, the recipes provided by our hostess, Lori, were more detailed than what I’d used on my own, and they looked tastier, too. And the Daring Cooks are all about challenging ourselves.

But then I left on my trip. When I got back last week, I figured I had plenty of time. And then, I set my mind on various thing, and before I knew it, I was wondering what day it was, and “Huh, today’s the 13th… Oh, crap.”

So, I made them today. Still somewhat wary of dolmas (the rice-filled version), I tried the yebra, a version filled with meat, rice, and spices. It was fairly easy to prepare, with minimal chopping required. Then I rolled everything carefully, briefly cooked the rolls in oil with a few dried apricots, and finally, after taking a deep breath, covered them in lemon juice, salt, and water. Then I quickly placed a plate over them to keep everything in place and prevent what had happened last time.

The verdict? I can’t even begin to tell you how much better these were than the mess I’d created in February. The filling held together much more, which must have helped the rolls maintain their shape. And they had much more flavour than my previous attempt, thanks to the spices and the added ingredients in the simmering water. The recipe suggested adding tamarind to the liquid, but, while I had tamarind paste on hand, I chose not to use it, because I was using a non-stick pan, and tamarind tends to have a corrosive effect on those; but I can imagine that it would have worked well with everything else.

So, I want to give a great big “thank you” to Lori for pushing me to give stuffed grape leaves another shot. I can honestly see myself making these again: I’ve decided they are definitely worth the time and effort. In the meantime, I’ve frozen most of the ones I made today, and I’m looking forward to serving them again soon.

Don’t forget to check out the other Daring Cooks’ creations, and well as the challenge recipes.

Friday, October 8, 2010

I'm back! - Wakame Salad

Greetings, all! My apologies for the prolonged silence, but life once again conspired against me. I had comprehensive predoctoral exams to deal with, and then I went to visit my parents for two weeks. I did cook a little with my mother while I was there, including some blogworthy dishes – but somehow, I kept forgetting to photograph and document them. You know how it is when you’re on holiday.

Anyways, I’m back now, and ready to try and breathe some life back into this blog. Although I’ll admit my choice of topic for this first entry in a long time is not necessarily the most alluring, at least for a lot of people: I’m talking about wakame, a.k.a seaweed, salad.

I can hear the groans and feel the shudders: “Seaweed, ewww!” Or not… A decade ago, definitely, but now? Most people living in large (and not so large) Western cities have tasted seaweed, albeit mostly under the guise of nori-wrapped sushi. And I’m fairly confident most foodies have given other types of seaweed a whirl – and that a reasonable proportion must have liked it.

My mother, who grew up in Vietnam, tells me that she used to eat seaweed all the time as a child, namely in the form of dessert (I haven’t yet attempted to make the sweet dish she described to me, but it has coconut milk in it, and it sounds quite tempting). I, however, like most Western-raised kids, scrunched up my nose at the very idea. Seaweeds were slimy, disgusting things that grew on the icky bottom of the sea and tickled your feet in the most repulsive way as you swam over them. Well, I still very much dislike being brushed by seaweed while taking a dip in the ocean (I don’t like to think too much about what lurks under the water), but I’ve become a true fan of eating seaweed. So has Laurent, who has taken to snacking on nori strips, instead of chips. He’s even tried out a recipe by Laure Kié, which is basically a pizza margherita sprinkled with arugula and nori strips at the last minute. Sound weird? I thought so too. But it was surprisingly good, which makes sense when you remember that tomatoes, like nori, have high levels of umami.

I, for my part, am partial to wakame. I overload my miso soups with them. And before leaving on holiday, I would eat them as a salad at least a couple of times a week. I usually use this recipe, which includes quick cucumber pickles (basically cucumbers that have been salted and pressed). The awesome thing about this salad, apart from the addictive flavour, is that it is really, really low in fat (even more so it you omit the sesame seeds, which are my own addition). The dressing, a mixture of rice vinegar and sugar, contains no oil whatsoever, and yet it’s full of flavour. Of course, if you really wanted to add some richness, you could probably add some sesame oil, which would definitely work well with the other flavours; soy sauce would fit in, too. But if you ask me, that’s not even necessary: the light sweet-and-acidic flavour already works. I also love the textures in this salad: the chewy wakame and the still-crunchy cucumbers are a real party in my mouth.

Granted, some people don’t, and never will, like seaweed. Which is fine, as long as they dislike it for its taste, and not because of what it is. I’m not going to run the list of common foods that should technically gross us out, because you all probably have a list in your head already. And I have my own hang-ups about certain kinds of food (I’m not going to tell you which, though – knowledge is power, and some of my friends love a good dare). But my disgust of seaweed is definitely one which I am glad I overcame.