Cooking


I’ve recently been on a pasta making binge.  It’s weird, but once Sunday rolls around I feel the need to roll out some dough, and eat some comfort food.  This past Sunday, I had some leftover eggs, cream, and bacon, and I though why not revisit an old friend:  Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara.  It ain't much to look at...and then you taste it.

Some sources trace the etymology of the dish to the coal miners in Italy of days of yore, and that “carbonara” is a derivative of “carbonaro”, or charcoal burner.  This is quite appropriate, because mastering this recipe is all about mastering heat (you don’t want to overcook the eggs at get stuck with clumps of yolk rather than an unctuous sauce).  It has also been linked to an old Roman dish called “cacio e uova”, to which prosciutto was added later in the life of the dish.  A few other possibilities are proposed here.

Whatever its origins, there is something rather special about the creamy sauce and saltiness of the prosciutto (or bacon…though I prefer prosciutto) that hits the spot.  The recipe I’ve found to be a consistent winner is one I’ve adapted from the Chez Piggy Cookbook.  It serves 4.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 Tbsp of olive oil
  • 6 Tbsp of finely diced onions
  • 150g of prosciutto, diced (or salty bacon if you’re in a jam)
  • 6 Tbsp of 35% cream
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 4-5 egg yolks (ideally organic eggs because they look pretty and taste better)
  • 500-600g of fresh pasta (do yourself a favour and make your own, or buy high quality dried pasta)

INSTRUCTIONS

While you prepare your ingredients, get a big pot of salted water to a rolling boil.  Harold McGee suggests using 10 times the pasta’s weight in water.  I concur.  There is nothing worst than using too little water, and losing that beautiful rolling boil the second your pasta hits it (and absorbs all of the heat).

Sauté the onions in a medium-hot frying pan until the start to soften and become translucent.  Then, add your prosciutto or bacon.

At this point, you should be adding your pasta to the boiling water and cook per the instructions.

Once your prosciutto turns a beautiful coral pink (or once your bacon is just cooked through), add the cheese and cream to the frying pan, and mix until well combined and heated up.  Turn off the heat.

In a separate, large bowl (and this is key because you want enough room to mix the other ingredients in later) add the egg yolks and mix enough to break them up into a nice, even orange paste but don’t mix to vigorously or else they’ll take in too much air.

Set aside about 5-7 Tbsp of the pasta water (this stuff is gold), strain your pasta, and then add the pasta to your bowl of egg yolks.  Coat your pasta with the yolks.  To do so, keep the pasta moving so that the yolks don’t get a chance to set.  You’re goal is a creamy sauce, not bits of hard boiled yolk.

Once coated evenly, add your cream/cheese sauce to the bowl with 2-3 tablespoons of the pasta water you saved (it will thicken the dish slightly) and mix well.  Serve it right away.

2014-02-23 15.00.48A proper winter has finally descended on the mountains of the Lower Mainland in British Columbia.  If you ask any winter outdoor enthusiast, it has been a long time coming.  There is nothing worst than long days without the prospect of snow in the mountains.  Well, all that changed this week, with 1.4m of snow falling in about 7 days.  Egg-cellent.  Before heading up to the mountains with friends, I thought I should prepare weapons-grade chocolate brownies to give us that little mental (and sugar) bump we’ll need in the early afternoon.  After much research, I’ve cobbled together some good ideas from a number of recipes, and added my own decadent twist to the noble brownie.

INGREDIENTS

  • 185g dark chocolate
  • 185g unsalted butter
  • 90g of all-purpose flour
  • 45g of cocoa powder
  • 1 cup of milk chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup of Skor toffee bits (though you can substitute any other decadent bits to spike your brownies)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 200g of sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract

INSTRUCTIONS

1.  Start by setting your oven to 360F and letting it warm as you prepare the ingredients.  Butter the base and sides of a 20cm x 20cm brownie pan.

2.  Set up a bain marie, and as it warms up cut your chocolate and butter into pea-sized bits of awesome.  Stir the combination together in the bain marie as they melt together, until the mixture is uniform.  Remove from heat and let cool.

3.  While the chocolate-butter mixture is cooling, combine the flour and cocoa powder together in a bowl (I recommend using a sifter or a fine sieve to get rid of any clumps).

4.  Next, get out your electric whisk out, and combine your eggs and sugar together until you get a thick, aerated  batter (about 4-7 minutes).  This is a critical step.  You want to try to incorporate as much air as possible into the mixture.  You’ll notice the mixture’s colour lightening up as more air is incorporated.

5.  When your mix is complete, gently incorporate your melted chocolate mixture into the batter.  Once you have a uniform mix, add the vanilla extract and work in the flour-cocoa mixture until you get a creamy, consistent brownie mix.  Resist the temptation to simply pour the mixture directly into your mouth.

6.  What you now have is a typical brownie base.  Though I suggest a chocolate-Skor combination, feel free to switch things up (e.g., dark and white chocolate bits, chocolate and peanut butter bits, walnuts and chocolate…etc) because the batter will be able to handle it.  It’s like a delicious chocolate canvass.  For the purposes of this recipe, add the chocolate chips and Skor toffee bits into the brownies and gently mix until evenly dispersed into the mix.

7.  Bake your brownies for 25-35 minutes (depending on your oven).  You know they’re done if, after removing the brownies from the oven and giving them a giggle, the centre of the brownies do not wobble and you get a shiny layer on top of the brownies.  Let the brownies cool outside of the oven.  Then…get in there and if your feeling naughty add some vanilla ice cream.

For some reason , adding booze to a desert seems to infuse it with a fun bit of naughtiness.  You could say the same about other kinds of food, with greater or lesser success.  Vodka-laced penne sauce?  Meh.  Brandy-soaked tiramisu?  I’ll take seconds, please.  In my quest to find an excuse to cook intelligently with booze,  I decided to combine Grand Marnier macerated fruit with this nice little Pavlova recipe.

This time 'round I left the whipped cream on the side to accommodate someone with a lactose intolerance.

This time ’round I left the whipped cream on the side to accommodate someone with a lactose intolerance.

A Pavlova, for those who don’t know, is said to have been named for a Russian dancer – Anna Pavlova – after her trip to Australia and New Zealand, which explains why the desert is so popular in that part of the world.  Below is a version of the recipe that I hope will make her – and my Kiwi relatives – proud.

INGREDIENTS

Meringue

  • 4 large egg whites (room temperature)
  • 1 1/4 cups white granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of cream of corn starch
  • 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Whipping Cream

  • 2 cups of whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon of white sugar

Boozy Fruit

  • 4 cups worth of assorted blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries.
  • 2-3 tablespoons of Grand Marnier
  • 1-2 tablespoons of white sugar

INSTRUCTIONS

First, set your oven to 300F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  In pencil, draw a 9-inch circle on the paper (you can just guestimate the diametre, and your circle doesn’t have to be perfect).

Next, prepare your fruit by placing them all in a deep bowl, and mixing in your Grand Marnier and sugar.  Feel free to put in less sugar if you want the desert to be less sweet – the Grand Marnier is already quite sugary.

While the fruit is absorbing the Grand Marnier and sugar, take you eggs and whisk them with an electric mixer until soft peaks start to form.  You know that you have soft peaks when you remove your whisk and the frothy peak forms but then droops back down.

Gradually add your sugar as you continue to beat the eggs until everything has combined.  I like to then gradually add my vanilla extract an corn starch at this stage, right before you can form firm peaks with your egg mixture.  Alternatively, you can gently (you don’t want to punch out any air) fold in the vanilla extract and corn start after you’ve hit the “firm peak stage”.  Do not beat beyond firms peaks.  You will know you’ve done so because your mixture will look dry and may leak some liquid.

At this point, if you’re ambitious you can put the mixture into a piping bag and make your Pavlova base, but I like to make mine with a large wooden spoon.  I do so by first by filling the 9-inch circle on my parchment paper with about 1/2 of the egg mixture.  Then, with the rest of the mixture, build up some wall on top of the outside of the meringue base so that you get a large, meringue basket.  The magic happens in the basket, ’cause this is where you’re going to pour in your boozy fruit and whipped cream.

Bake your Pavlova in the oven for 1 hour.  A trick I use is to actually keep the oven door slightly ajar with a wooden spoon that I’ve soaked ahead of time (to saturate it with water and make it less likely to burn/char).  You’ll know your Pavlova is properly cooked if you tap it and it sounds hollow.  Let the Pavlova cool in the oven with the door slightly ajar.

You’re almost done.  Right before serving, make whisk your whipped cream until it start to solidify and gradually add your sugar until you get your preferred consistency.  Place the cream in the middle of the Pavlova’s centre.  Then, drain your fruit (I recommend drinking the delicious boozy run-off…) and decorate your Pavlova.  The effect of the final product is quite lovely, and I can guarantee you’ll be amazed at the positive reactions and comments you get.

Also, this desert is fabulous for dinner parties because you can make the base up to 8 hours ahead of time…if you have the will power to leave it uneaten for that long.

It was minus 30C during my most recent trip home, and that is most certainly mac ‘n cheese weather.

2014-01-02 13.23.10Mac ‘n cheese has had a renaissance these past years, and with it a plethora of recipes have surfaced.  I’ve tried a few of them – all delicious in their own right – and I think that I’ve come up with a nicely balanced one that has the right mix of gooey-ness, cheesiness, and saltiness.  This is not what you ate on Sunday nights in your dorm room.  That said, I will always have a special place in my heart for the fluorescent orange mystery powder and fossilized macaroni that mixed together so beautifully, and that tasted so good.  If cooking is ever to be demystified, I guess the simple preparation of Kraft Dinner is as good a way as any.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups of macaroni
  • 1 glug of olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon dry mustard
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 big clove of garlic, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1½ cups of panko
  • 2-2½ cups 2% milk
  • 1 handful of pancetta slices, chopped thin and short.
  • 2½ cups grated cheddar cheese (smokey if you can find it)

INSTRUCTIONS

Start by setting your oven to 375F.

Then, boil the 2 cups of macaroni in well-salted water, until tender.  Strain them, put them in a bowl, pour in a glug of olive oil, (just enough to coat the macaroni) and then mix around until the pasta is covered.  This will keep them from sticking together. Set aside.

Mix together the flour, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and smoked paprika in a bowl.  Next, melt your butter in a frying pan at medium heat, cook your minced garlic for 20 seconds or so (making sure not to burn it), and then mix in the flour mixture until well combined (2-3 minutes).  You’re looking for a thick paste, but not a dry one.  This is like a kind of hoser roux.  Add your milk and the pancetta slices to the mixture, and stir constantly until the sauce is thick and consistent (make sure to break up those clumps).  This should take about 8-10 minutes.  I would recommend you leave the sauce a little loose (i.e., not too thick)- you may need the extra moisture to ensure that the cheese melts properly, and you can always evaporate the extra liquid.

At this point, still at medium heat, add your cheese 1/3 at a time, making sure that each batch melts down properly (though a few clumps of delicious cheese never hurt anyone).  Carefully, give the mixture a taste, and adjust the seasoning if required.

Pour the lake of cheesy goodness into your bowl of macaroni, add in 1 cup of panko, and mix everything together properly.  Pour the whole combination into a casserole dish, cover everything with the remaining cup of panko, add a few sprinkles of paprika for colour, and bake for 25-30 minutes.

Let it cool for at least 10-15 minutes because your mac ‘n cheese will be lava-hot.  Also, letting it cool will allow the flavours develop (this tastes good reheated the next day, too).  I recommend using a big spoon to ladle this bad boy onto your plate…and don’t be shy about seconds.

Living in downtown (University and Dundas) Toronto is like living on the moon: It is grey, the concrete makes it rock-like, and there’s very little in the way of atmosphere. This is not to say that there’s no cachet. Indeed, I relish the neighbourhoods that add spice to the otherwise uninteresting corporate epicentre. One of those neighbourhoods is Chinatown, where I got the General Tso Chicken
spices and inspiration for this well loved staple of Chinese cooking: General Tso Chicken.

This dish is also known as General Tsao, General Taso, General Toa, General Cho, General Gau, General Ching, General Kung and General Tseng (according to Eileen Yin-Fei Lo in The Chinese Kitchen, at 416). No matter what it’s called, it is rightly a popular addition to any Chinese restaurant’s menu and a crackerjack head turner at a dinner party. The versions I have here is adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s incredibly second oeuvre, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province – a book I highly recommend for anyone interesting in Chinese cooking, culture, folklore and foodlore. Here’s what you’ll need to make her “Changsha version”

INGREDIENTS

Peanut oil for deep/shallow frying

Bowl 1 (chicken and marinade)
12oz. of boned chicken thigh, skin on, and chopped into bite sized morcels
2 teaspoons of soy sauce (dark or light, but if you’re using dark try cutting it with ½ tablespoon of water or chicken stock)
4 tablespoons of potato flour (rice flour will do in a pinch)
1 egg yolk

Bowl 2 (chillies)
8 dried red chillies, seeds removed and chopped up (roughly should do the trick)

Bowl 3 (ginger)
1½ tablespoons of ginger, chopped finely

Bowl 4 (tomato paste)
1 tablespoon of tomato paste

Bowl 5 (sauce)
2 teaspoons of soy sauce (dark or light, it’s as you like)
3½ tablespoon of stock
2 teaspoons of Chinkiang vinegar (if you’re unable to find this type of vinegar, you can cheat and use balsamic vinegar)
2 teaspoons of white sugar
½ teaspoon of potato flour

Bowl 6 (scallions)
3 scallions (green part only) sliced

1. First, mix together the ingredients of your marinade (bowl 1) and put in your chicken to soak up all the lovely flavour.

2. While you chicken is enjoying its bath, put enough peanut oil in a sturdy pot and heat it up to 180-200C (350-400F). (NB: I usually find that this requires too much expensive peanut oil, so I actually heat up a baby finger’s-worth of peanut oil in a frying pan and shallow fry the chicken. It doesn’t seem to mind.)

3. While your peanut oil is heating up, you can prepare your bowls of goods.

4. Once the oil is at the appropriate temperature, take your chicken out of the marinade and deep fry it until golden and crispy. Set it aside. (NB: My cheater’s shortcut of shallow frying in a frying pan, of course, affects the crispiness of the chicken as it reduces the oil temperature, so I try to split the difference and do small batches at a time).

Now, for the big show.

5. Put in 1-2 tablespoons of oil in your frying pan/wok and heat on medium-high heat. Add your chopped dried chillies (Bowl 2) and stir-fry for 30-45 seconds, making sure they don’t burn.

6. Next, add your ginger (Bowl 3) to the frying pan/wok and stir fry for about 1 minute or just long enough for the ginger to begin to release its delicious fragrance. Again, be careful not to burn it.

7. Add your tomato paste (Bowl 4)

8. Now, add your sauce (Bowl 5) to the frying pan/wok and mix it up, combining all the ingredients. Add your deep/shallow fried chicken and coat it well with the sauce. Throw in the scallions, mix them into your sauce, and then turn out the mixture into a bowl. Serve immediately.

This is really a great dish, and leftovers (a rare occurrence in my house, I assure you) can be used for a great lunch bento. This is truly a fabulous recipe, and so simple you’ll wonder why you haven’t made it before.

I recently got my Toronto Public Library Card, and have gone hog wild borrowing recipe books. On the top of my list were some Chinese cookbooks I’ve been meaning to check out, but haven’t seen at my local book stores. One such book, entitled The Chinese Kitchen, by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo was near the top of my list. After flipping through the book, I came across Mah Paw Dau Fu, a Sichuan classic Mah Paw Do Fu
that I knew under its Japanese moniker, “Mabo Dofu”.The version in Yin-Fei Lo’s book is slightly sweeter than the Japanese version my wife loves to make (in fact, I’m glad to say that it’s her signature dish) and reminded me of a kind of Chinese BBQ sauce, but with an Asian twist. When I sat down to make it tonight, I didn’t have any tofu, so I tweaked the recipe a bit and replaced the tofu with eggplant. Here is my version of Mah Paw Dau Fu. I made it in a frying pan, for which I’m sure I’ll be branded heretic by Chinese cooking purists.

INGREDIENTS

SAUCE
1 1/3 cup of Chicken Stock (homemade, please!)
3½ teaspoons of soy sauce
3 teaspoons of white vinegar (or Chinese rice wine vinegar, if you can get your hands on it)
1 tablespoon of Chinese cooking wine
1 tablespoon of sugar
¼ teaspoon of salt
¼ cup of ketchup (this is quite a sweet dish, so feel free to reduce this ketchup to 1/8 cup)
2 tablespoons of cornstarch (in a pinch, you can use rice flour)
1 tablespoon of sesame oil

EGGPLANT
1 large eggplant (two or three handfuls worth) chopped up in bigg’ish bite sized pieces
¼ cup of vegetable oil

BOWL 1
2 teaspoons of minced ginger
3 red Thai chillies, finely chopped

BOWL 2
2 teaspoons of minced garlic

BOWL 3
½ pound of lean ground pork

BOWL 4
2 tablespoons of Chili Sauce

CONDIMENTS
½ cup of scallions

RECIPE
1. First off, chop up your eggplant, rinse the pieces lightly in water, put the pieces in a bowl, and salt them. Let them sit in the bowl for about 20 minutes while you prepare the rest of the dish. The salt will draw out the bitterness of the eggplant, as well as the water. While that’s going on, set up your rice cooker and chop up the ingredients in all of your bowls. I use the bowl method because it is really the simplest way to plan your work (and then work your plan).

2. After your eggplant has sat in the salt for 20 minutes, rinse it down, drain off any liquid, and pat the eggplant dry – this will prevent the oil from “spitting” at you when you fry the eggplants. Next, heat up a frying pan to medium-high, and put in your vegetable oil. Once the oil begins to look hazy and hot (even a bit smoky is ok), carefully toss in a pan-full of eggplant and fry them until they are golden. Repeat as often as required. Remember not to crowd your eggplant pieces; this will steam them more than fry them. Once you’ve fried all your eggplant pieces, set them aside in a bowl (and keep them warm, if you can).

3. Clean out your frying pan, turn down the heat slightly, and put in the peanut oil (mmm….I love that smell). Once the oil is hot (but not too hot, you don’t want to burn your ingredients) toss in the Bowl 1 ingredients (ginger and chilli) for 1 minute to soften them up.

4. Next, throw in the contents of Bowl 2 (garlic) and fry for 30 seconds. Then, toss in your pork (Bowl 3) and break it up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Once the pork is cooked and no longer pink, add the chilli sauce (Bowl 4) and combine it will with the contents of the pan. Now, add the eggplant, mix it up, turn up the heat to medium-high, and dump in your lovely sauce. Let the sauce simmer for about 3-5 minutes – just long enough to heat up and thicken to your liking.

5. Pour out the lovely mah paw dau fu into a large bowl, sprinkle with your scallions, and serve immediately with your rice.

One of the great things about Yin-Fei Lo’s book is how she compliments some of her recipes with the stories behind the dishes. The story of mah paw dau fu is interesting. According to legend, a woman with pockmarked skin started up a restaurant and served the dish to her customers. She did not, however, name the dish but the somewhat insensitive customers decided to name it after her: “the pockmarked grand-mother’s tofu”. It is truly a testament to the deliciousness of this dish that despite such an unpalatable name it should be as popular as it is.

My wife recently quit her thankless job, and to celebrate her new-found freedom we decided to try a local Japanese restaurant we’d heard a lot about: Japan GO. Japan GO is located at at 122 Elizabeth Street, about 3 blocks East of University, a little South of Dundas St. West. The restaurant is intimate to say the least; it seats 20 patrons at most though you never get the feeling
you’re crammed in. The decor is unpretentious and reminded me of my old favourite sushi places I used to frequent in Japan. In fact, the name “Japan Go” means “Japan Hometown”, suggesting a feeling of familiarity and comfort.The menu is also quite traditional, serving your usual sushi and sashimi deals. There is also a respectable selection of Japanese alcohols (though a little shochu would not go amiss!).What really impressed me was the sashimi donburi, a delicious sashimi selection on top of a bowl of rice. My wife ordered it, and the dish was exquisite. The quality of the rice – nicely seasoned short grains – was excellent and only to be outshone by the melt-in-your mouth assortment of fish, including BC salmon.

I opted for the sushi dinner (regular) with an assortment of sushi and maki (California rolls). Again, the the fish and rice were excellent, but the presentation was, quite frankly, astonishingly poor. The maki were rolled well, but the nigiri sushi looked like lifeless, flaccid hunks of flesh. The fish was cut unevenly, the shape was completely off, and the nigiri’s rice bed was sorely lacking.

That aside, I would certainly recommend Japan Go, and I will definitely go back for another round. In fact, I believe this Friday is free…

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