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So we’ve been busy. Really busy. Busy as in I can’t remember the last three months of my life busy. Busy as in I can’t really remember when I last cooked or what I might have made.

Actually, I’m not sure that I remember how to cook, to be honest. We didn’t eat too poorly during the last few months. Carlo cooked some good stuff, but we relied heavily on our stuffed-to-capacity freezer. I also used the blender a lot. If it wasn’t in the freezer or I couldn’t whiz it together in the blender, we didn’t have it. Wooden spoons, spatulas, pots and pans languished in their drawers while I whirred fruits and nut butters together with milk. I’ve had a LOT of smoothies.

No, this isn’t high-style eating. My mouth is bored, I admit it. But a nice smoothie makes up for a lot of ills. The following is very, very nice.

Blueberry-Vanilla Almond Butter Smoothie

I like this smoothie because I don’t have to add any sugar to sweeten it. The blueberries taste bright and light, and the almond butter is discernable but not overpowering. I suppose you could use milk instead of vanilla soymilk, but then you’d probably need to add some extra sugar.

1 cup frozen blueberries
1-2 tablespoons almond butter
1 cup vanilla soymilk

Blend. Drink. Go to work. Repeat.

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Now that the celebrations (and thus the expectations) are over, I can tell you that I love New Year’s. Sure, I understand that it’s a totally arbitrary celebration, that the difference between December 31 and January 1 is nonexistent, that all those ambitious resolutions we make are a little bit silly, and getting blotto just because one day turns into another one is stupid.

Minus the getting too drunk to think part (which is never a good idea), though, I don’t think the ritual is dumb at all. Okay, so it’s arbitrary and it fakes a pattern onto what is essentially randomness. But that’s our whole lives, isn’t it? I love how people  make order out of chaos, I love that people make the effort to mark the passage of time, I love the ambition and hope of resolutions. Even if they’re unattainable, they’re sweet, don’t you think? I (or you, or that armchair explorer who decides this is the year he’ll run a marathon) love believing that I can fix the things that are wrong, that I can wipe the slate, start something new, be better faster stronger.

So Carlo and I had a good New Year celebration, just the two of us at home, and I made him talk about 2008 and all the good things that happened/we did during the year, and we made some plans for the next year too (a lot of them blog- and food-related–hold on to your hats!). And I decided that the ritual needed some tradition, so we ate 12 grapes at midnight. Arbitrary choice, yes, but I made it mostly because I had a recipe I wanted to use. It’s all random anyway, so who cares if it’s not our tradition? The act matters less than its symbolism. Plus I really wanted to make these grapes.

Of course, because I am who I am, these were no ordinary grapes. This is a recipe from Michel Richard’s “Happy in the Kitchen,” a whimsical book with lovely ideas. Richard says  that when you offer these grapes to people, they invariably say “‘No thanks, I’m full already,’ no doubt thinking that you are presenting a dense chocolate bonbon. Then, when they bite in and get a juicy, tart squirt of flavour, they always reach for another.” Sounds perfect, right? This description is right on. The finished product looks like craggy little truffles, and the combination of the sweet juicy pop of grape and the smooth richness of dark chocolate is fantastic. It was a great first food for the new year, but don’t let the New Year stop you. Like any good resolution, these grapes shouldn’t be tied to a particular moment. They’re so easy to make and so charming, I think you should have them anytime at all! I know I’ll be eating more of them very, very soon.

Chocolate Grapes
Adapted from Michel Richard

1 pound cold firm seedless grapes, stemmed
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (I used 70%), melted and slightly cooled (Richard advises checking the temperature of the melted chocolate by touching it to your lip. If it feels the same temperature, it’s a good temperature to be used)
1 to 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1. Rinse and dry the grapes well, then place them in a large bowl. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Add the chocolate to the grapes a spoonful at a time, tossing the grapes to coat them evenly (I used my spatula both for tossing the grapes and for adding the chocolate).
3. The chocolate will begin to set and harden a bit. When this happens, use a small fine-mesh strainer to sprinkle cocoa powder over the chocolate-coated grapes. Gently toss/stir the grapes so that they’re evenly covered in cocoa powder (be sure to do this step after the chocolate has sufficiently cooled, or else the cocoa will just be absorbed into the chocolate instead of coating it).
4. When the grapes are all coated and separated, remove them to your waiting baking sheet and place them in the fridge to cool until the chocolate is set. When you want to eat the grapes, leave them out to sit for about 10 minutes or so before you eat them, or else the chocolate is too cold and doesn’t taste as good.
5. A final note–the bowl you used for your grapes will be coated with cooled chocolate. Don’t waste it! I scraped it out and saved it to melt for hot chocolate.

I’ve been baking out of control the last few days–clearly I am on holiday, as my kitchen fills up with floury, sugary concoctions. But Christmas dinner is more than just bread and cookies, as much as I’d like to pretend otherwise. I took a break from the flour yesterday to throw together this charming salad.

This salad looks like any other– pretty because of its colourful ingredients, but nothing out of the ordinary. The leaves are bright green, the mandarins glow orange, the red onion offers some purple, the goat cheese matte white, and the whole thing glistens thanks to the dressing. A salad is always welcome on my dinner plate, but especially at a holiday meal, where things tend to get a bit heavy. This one is secretly special, though, thanks to its fantastic dressing, scented with Earl Grey tea to give a hint of bergamot and herbs. Honestly, it looks like any other salad, but it’s not. In fact, after I photographed it, I wolfed it down in the space of a minute and had to go back for another, bigger, bowl immediately. It’s that good. As far as the ingredients go, I used boxed mixed greens, some thinly-sliced red onion , nodded to the citrus notes of the bergamot with supremed fresh mandarins (which offered a welcome mellow sweetness), and finished the whole thing off with some salty goat’s milk feta (I think that blue cheese would also be fantastic with the bergamot dressing).

It’s a great holiday meal salad, something pretty but familiar, with just enough added “special” to make it right at home among all those carefully-laboured-over dishes you’re serving.

BERGAMOT DRESSING
Adapted from an ATCO “Blue Flame Kitchen” holiday cookbook. This recipe makes about 1 cup of dressing, which should last 4-5 days in the fridge.

1/3 cup white wine vinegar
2 Earl Grey tea bags
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried Herbes de Provence, crushed
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
a few grinds of pepper
2/3 cups extra-virgin olive oil

1. Bring vinegar to a boil over low heat. Remove the vinegar from the heat as soon as it begins to boil and pour it over the tea bags in a small  bowl. Cover bowl and allow tea to steep for 30 minutes. Remove the tea bags, squeezing them a little to get the last drops of vinegar out of them. Discard tea bags. (Just a thought: at this point, the vinegar could be bottled in a pretty glass bottle and given as a gift. It’s pretty fancy!)
2. For dressing, combine vinegar, mustard, Herbes de Provence, sugar, salt, and some generous grinds of pepper in a small bowl. Whisk them all together.
3. Add oil in a slow drizzle, whisking constantly to emulsify.
4. To serve, toss with mixed greens and your choice of salad ingredients (see above for some ideas).

When I was a little girl, my best friend always came to school with fancy lunches full of things that were unheard of in my household:  fruit roll-ups, sliced apples wrapped in saran wrap to keep them from browning, white bread. I was, I admit, jealous. From the vantage point of a 10-year-old raised on home-made whole wheat bread, apples peeled and browning in tupperware, and (okay, so I never minded the cookies) chocolate cookies made from scratch, my friend’s lunch was already pretty enviable. Then one day she showed up with a pomegranate.

I may have been bragging a little before (come on, as if homemade whole wheat bread did me any long-term damage), but I can tell you this humbly– I had never in my life seen nor heard of a pomegranate. Honestly, I don’t even know where her mom found it back then. I remember her nonchalantly pulling it apart, popping those brilliant red seeds in her mouth as if they were nothing, as if they were something she had every day, like ramen noodles or teddy grahams. She let me taste it, and I remember I was fascinated by the burst of juice as I bit into the seeds (now I know they’re called arils) and flummoxed by the little seed in the middle, which I spit out and dropped on the playground.

After that time, I never saw another pomegranate for years. Now, of course, pomegranate is everywhere. Those juicy little rubies jazz up every dish imaginable, and bottles of pom lurk in fridges across North America. But isn’t there still something impossibly exotic about a pomegranate?

Well, impossible, maybe. When I started buying pomegranates and trying to eat them with the nochalance of my old friend, I discovered one thing I hadn’t realized back then. That beautiful red? It’s really red, and it gets EVERYWHERE if you don’t know how to get into the fruit to release those little arils. Luckily, I’ve discovered a fool-proof (or at least juice-everywhere-proof) way to get into a pomegranate.


First, I cut a little cap off the top, like cutting a cap off a pumpkin. I do this at a shallow depth, to avoid cutting into the arils (see above). Once the top is off, I cut the pomegranate into quarters (like the photo at the top of this post), just scoring the skin (with the cap off, you’ll get an idea of the depth you need to cut so that you don’t cut into the arils). I pull the quarters apart, then submerge them in a bowl of water, gently pulling the little seeds away from the membrane. Actually, I’m not very gentle about it, to be honest, but with the pom underwater, there’s no danger of getting squirted with juice anyway. The arils will separate and fall to the bottom of the bowl, while the papery membrane will float to the top. When your pomegranate quarters are all emptied of seeds, just skim the floating membrane bits off the surface of the water, then drain the arils in a strainer.

Once you have the arils separated, you can store them in a bowl in the fridge, or do something crazy with them, like juice them to make homemade grenadine. Oh yes, that post is coming soon.

For the past two years, good mornings in the SiS household have hinged on two drinks. One is coffee. The other is Hanne’s genius invention: The Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie. Yeah, you’ve seen it around, but Hanne came up with it first. It might be SiS’s most unoriginal original recipe, but the other PBBS recipes you’ve seen online are all gross.

SiS’s PBBS is more milkshake than globby smoothie. Don’t worry, it’s all illusion. Frozen bananas only seem to turn into ice cream when blended with milk. It’s a healthy drink. Protein from the peanuts and milk. Calcium… Bananas… they’re good, right? One morning I put leftover whipped cream on top, which was awesome. But I digress…

So first, you’ve got your frozen bananas. Buy lots. Peel them, split them in half and freeze. Second, you’d better use real peanut butter. Don’t make this with the sugary pretend stuff. You need to use the creamy, chunky, pain-in-the-ass natural peanut butter that takes some stirring before use. Sucks, but it’s worth it.

TIP: get as big of a jar of real peanut butter as you can so that you don’t have to do this too often. Spatula the PB out into the bowl of a stand mixer. Use the dough mixing attachment (the curly spike). Once the machine’s done the work for you, spatula the PB back into its jug. Refrigerate it or it’ll separate and you’ll have to mix it again.

So how to? Combine two banana halves, a cup or so of milk, a generous spoonful of peanut butter, a dash of vanilla and blend. Don’t overcomplicate your morning by measuring. If you must, the recipe’s below. Experiment with proportions until you get the taste and consistency you like. The only way to mess this up is to use bad milk (guilty) or accidentally blend a loose blender seal into the drink (again, guilty). Otherwise, this drink is idiot proof.

SiS’s Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie
Serves 1.
Ingredients:
1 frozen ripe banana, halved
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons REAL peanut butter
1-2 teaspoons vanilla

Method:
1. Put stuff in blender and blend.

AND, if you have a blender that blends in the same cup you drink out of, then there’s hardly any mess. Unfortunately, the only product I know that does this is the Magic Bullet. It’s cheap and also built cheap. We’re on our second machine in two years. I had to plug my ears while running the last one, which is why it didn’t make the cut when we moved from Montreal. I hope another company that makes good blenders copies Magic Bullet’s single cup style and I hope that happens before the Tasmanian devil busts out of our appliance. Man dies from Magic Bullet shrapnel?

When we went through customs in Toronto, I dutifully filled out the customs form, checking off the little box that said we were bringing food items into Canada. When we passed the customs officer, he asked me what kind of food we had with us. I started off dutifully, listing “Lemons, dried chiles, some cheese, some vinegars….” (actually three vinegars–sherry, grapefruit, and sugar cane. Cool, huh?). Then the full magnitude of our food purchases hit me and I trailed off in embarrassment. I was sure he’d judge us, so I didn’t mention the chocolates, tapioca pearls, pistachios, dried cherries, dried apricots, Valhrona cocoa powder, dried sweetened hibiscus flowers (!), chile-spiced mangoes… you get the idea.

Anyway, the star of our food haul has got to be these:

Aren’t they lovely? And so free! My very generous and food-loving uncle and aunt have a Meyer lemon tree in their backyard. Every time I say that sentence it gives me little jealousy pangs. Do you know how much a Meyer lemon costs in Montreal? Ahem. Two dollars and fifty cents. For one lemon. If you can even find one in this city, which is rare as these guys don’t transport all that well. Count the lemons in that bag. Do the math. And the ones I can find around here aren’t even fresh. Or big. They’re puny, wizened little things. These lemons are bursting with juice and flavour and scent. Owen and Gabrielle, thank you so much!

To prove we’re putting these lemons to good use, I offer you the following recipe. It’s from Amanda Hesser’s “Cooking for Mr. Latte,” which I find to be hit-or-miss. I’ve made a few stinkers from the book, but this one’s a definite hit. The peppery arugula and rich crème fraîche are livened up by a hit of herbal meyer lemon tang, and the sauce coats the pasta perfectly.

I suspect the above image isn’t beautiful, but I can’t tell because it just reminds me of the flavour of this pasta, which definitely was beautiful. Here’s the recipe.

MEYER LEMON CREME FRAICHE LINGUINE adapted from “Cooking For Mr. Latte” by Amanda Hesser

Cooking notes: mise-en-place is very important here. Make sure everything is prepped in advance, as this pasta cools down quickly and thus must be eaten immediately upon preparation. It makes a great first course. I can also imagine it going very well with chicken.

Salt
1 pound of linguine
a chunk of Parmesan (to be grated)
2 Meyer lemons
3 large handfuls of arugula, cleaned and roughly chopped
1/2 cup crème fraîche*
freshly ground black pepper

Bring water to boil in a large pot. When the water is boiling rapidly, add salt (generously) and then the pasta.

While the pasta cooks, grate a handful of parmesan into a large bowl and zest the two lemons into the bowl. Add the arugula to this bowl as well. Juice one of the lemons and reserve the juice**.

When the pasta is cooked (make sure it’s still al dente), quickly drain it and add it to the serving bowl that’s holding the cheese and lemon zest. Don’t worry about getting the pasta completely dry. It should be slicked with water, as that will help thin out the cheese and the thick crème fraîche to a tossable consistency. Next, add the lemon juice and toss again. Last, add the crème fraîche and continue to toss well, until the sauce is well-distributed, the arugula is wilted, the the cheese is melty. Grind some pepper into all this and toss once more. Serve immediately.

*crème fraîche is expensive! If you want to make your own, at a slightly better price and with the satisfaction of do-it-yourself, here’s a recipe. I confess I’ve never tried it, but it does sound nice and simple.

**Please don’t throw away the other lemon’s juice. If nothing else, you can boil it with water in a one-to-one ratio to make a great simple syrup to add to gin for a nice cocktail– more on this in a later post.

3 Ingredient Pasta Sauce - www.supperinstereo.comThis post is a gift for my brothers and sister, who just moved into a new house. Today is their housewarming party, and I’m all the way across the country. Since I can’t attend, guys, I’m offering you this housewarming gift. Without Mom in your kitchen, I figure you might be eating more chips and soda, starburst candies, and um… raw potatoes (do you still eat raw potatoes?) than before, at least for a little while.

Here’s a recipe that will give you a break from the junk food. Carlo and I make this all the time and we still can’t believe so few ingredients can taste so good. The secret is in the long simmer, where the tomatoes slowly absorb the butter and the flavour of the onions, cooking down into a thick and rich sauce that’s just perfect on pasta with a generous sprinkling of parmesan on top. It’s amazing that just three things can make a sauce that tastes so good and feels so warm and filling. But there you are.

This simplicity is a good thing to remember, I think. You’re all taking care of yourselves now, and that’s a lot. I still sometimes have these panics where I think “my goodness, for the rest of my life I’m going to have to do this myself.” And there’s no way to take a break from life, it’s just going to keep coming at you. That’s why it’s nice to know that it doesn’t always have to be hard to take care of yourself. Pop this in a pot, boil some pasta, and in 45 minutes, sit down together and eat. You can do it! Happy housewarming! I guess maybe I’m going to have to stop calling you “the kids.”

I’m sorry about the not-so-beautiful photo. Trust me, even though it’s not beautiful, it’s delicious.

We got this recipe from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. We’ve adapted it so that its proportions match a large can of tomatoes (796 mL), but that’s about it. You can reduce the amount of butter in the sauce, which I always do. However, it always tastes best when Carlo makes it (he’s not careful with the butter).

TOMATO SAUCE WITH ONION AND BUTTER

1 can plum tomatoes (28 oz/796 mL, either diced or whole)
1/3 cup butter (you can be a little more generous or a little more sparing with this)
2 medium onions, peeled and cut in half
salt
1 to 1 1/2 lbs. pasta (or whatever amount you happen to throw in the pot)
Parmesan cheese for serving

Put the tomatoes, the butter, the onions, and a generous pinch of salt in a saucepan. Bring the sauce to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Stir it occasionally, and mash the tomatoes up with your spoon. Cook the sauce for about 45 minutes (it should be at a light simmer this whole time) or until you start to see the butter and tomatoes separating from each other. When it’s done, taste it and add more salt if you need to. Take the pan off the heat and remove the onions. Serve it over pasta, with parmesan cheese on top.

This is a Rick Bayless recipe from our dog eared copy of Mexican Everyday. The page in question is being held together by green painter’s tape, which is a good indication of how often Hanne and I have used the Chipotle Shrimp recipe. This dish comes together quick, making it a great weeknight meal. Bayless recommends fire-roasted tomatoes. Take his advice if you can track them down. Or better yet, roast your own!

Using two chipotles in this recipe makes for a strong steady burn. Three and you’ll be smacking your lips happily (I’m a sucker/masochist for spice) or manically searching for that ill-advised glass of water (doesn’t work. Soothe your sad gummy tongue on a gob of yogurt, wimp). Don’t even think about using one chipotle.

This dish is also a great reheater. Double up the recipe and you have leftovers for lunch. It’s not a fishy dish, so it won’t stink bomb your work’s microwave. Not that you should really care.

Serves 2
1 cup of rice, 2 cups of water
1 drained 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes
2 canned chipotle chiles (or 3, tough guy)
1 tablespoon chipotle sauce (from the can)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
Approx. 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
Approx. 1 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1 pound (or so) of shrimp, peeled and deveined (leave the tails on to make this a quick recipe)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro for garnish

Step 1) Get your rice steaming. Your sauce will be ready by the time it’s done.
2) Blend tomatoes, chipotle chiles and sauce until smooth.
3) Heat oil in a large skillet. Add garlic and cook until golden.
4) Pour in tomato mixture. Be sure the pan isn’t too hot or your white shirt is screwed. Cook for 5 minutes.
5) Add broth, making sure to keep the sauce saucey, not soupy. Salt it.
6) Add the shrimp. When they pink and curl they’re done (about 4 minutes). If your sauce is too thick, add a bit more broth or water, if you used up the broth in step 4. If it gets soupy on you (not sure how, but this happened to me. The frozen shrimp probably released moisture), then remove the shrimp and cook the sauce down.
7) Serve garnished generously with cilantro. I recommend serving this dish on a bed of long grain white rice.

bayless-mexican-everyday.jpg

Rick Bayless, the lovable Yogi, is not Mexican. But he’s one of America’s top Mexican chefs and cookbook writers. We visited his restaurant in Chicago a couple years ago. It was really good, but honestly? We’ve gotten better results at home using his recipes. This is either a testament to Bayless as a great cookbook writer or having gone soft like a week old plantain on his kitchen staff. Probably an effective chef should let Yoga be.

Seriously though, if you love Mexican food and need quick recipes for weeknight meals, get this book. Equally seriously, skip the page picturing Bayless on his head, doing Yoga. And uh, don’t eat refried beans before your Yoga class.

Pierogies in Brown Onion Tomato Sauce supperinstereo.com

We’ve been busy lately. I know, so have you. And it’s no excuse, as much as I’d like it to be. But there are some days (Monday in particular) when I’m pretty sure this all really is just too much. Those days, all I can do is bite my lip, close my eyes, and barrel my way through headfirst. Those are the days that usually end–shamefully– in a frozen pizza. Lately, though, we’ve been eating pierogies (perogies? pyrogies?) instead. They’re still frozen, but I feel slightly more virtuous after making this amazing browned onion sauce for them. We found the original recipe in the October Gourmet’s “Ten-Minute Mains” section. The following is our slightly adapted version. Gourmet’s recipe calls for boiling the pierogies before adding them to the sauce, but we’ve made the whole thing a one-pot meal by cooking the pierogies in the tomato sauce. The pierogies come out slightly chewier this way than when they’re boiled, which to me is a good thing. These pierogies also reheat perfectly, both in the microwave or panfried on the stovetop, so they’re a great lunch leftovers choice.

Pierogies in Browned Onion Tomato Sauce adapted from Gourmet Magazine

2 onions, quartered and sliced thin (the slicing be done in a food processor)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon caraway
1 bay leaf
1 can diced tomatoes (28 oz.)
1 tsp. sugar
1 tbsp. dried dill weed
salt and pepper to taste
2 lbs. frozen pierogies, unthawed

Heat the oil in a large skillet or saucepan. Toss in the caraway seeds and the bay leaf and stir them in the oil for a few seconds. Add the onions to the hot oil and cook them at medium heat until they’re lightly caramel-coloured. This will take you about 15 minutes. Once the onions are caramlized, turn the heat up and cook them a bit more until they’re nice and dark.

Add the tomatoes, sugar, dill, some salt (about 3/4 tsp), and three or four twists of freshly-ground pepper. Bring this sauce to a nice fast boil, and keep it there for a few minutes. Then add the frozen pierogies, tossing them well to coat them with the sauce. Cover them up and cook for 7-10 minutes (or follow the package instructions on your pierogies for more accurate timing), stirring and tossing occasionally to ensure that they’re evenly coated with tomato and onion. When the pierogies are cooked through (they’ll be soft when you poke them with a fork) serve with a generous side of sour cream.