Friday, October 24, 2008

Fake baked beans

I have already admitted my love affair with beans. When it comes to baked beans, however, I am particularly nostalgic.

I have two childhood memories of baked beans. My mother used to make the real deal, the true baked beans soaked overnight and then slow cooked in the oven all day. She would use the same white Corning casserole dish for the beans that would scorch on the rim as the liquid reduced in the oven. The smoky sweet smell of bacon and maple syrup would fill the house all afternoon, and I would wait in anticipation for dinnertime. Back then, I was impressed by foods that were the result of hours of preparation. To my young mind, the caché of baked beans was only surpassed by pierogies, made from scratch only by my grandmother on her indulgent yet infrequent visits.

My second memory of baked beans is of the canned variety, which I also adored. This instant version, accompanied by steamed weiners and buttered toast, was often served for lunch at my then best friend's house by her English nanny. These lunches, along with others such as Kraft Dinner, Alphaghetti and instant chicken noodle soup, were my interpretation of high class food. Somehow I was aware and impressed by the expense of purchasing prepared food at a higher price. Strange though how at age eight, fine dining to me was either the result of hours of preparation or none at all.

And so, my beans. Until recently, I have satisfied my baked bean cravings by cracking a can of Heinz: Cravings are rarely met by cooking food that requires 24 hours of preparation. I have now created a recipe for fake baked beans, cooked on the stove in 20 minutes rather than in the oven for 8 hours. They taste better than canned, though probably not as good as the real thing. Slow cooked food, no matter how hard I try, can never be replaced.

Serves 3-4
1 Tbsp oil
1 small onion, diced
1 19-oz can navy beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup water
1 Tbsp blackstrap molasses
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbsp pure maple syrup (optional)
In a medium-sized pot over medium heat, cook the onion in the oil until soft and translucent. Add the beans, water, molasses, tomato paste and mustard. Bring to a boil and stir until all ingredients are incorporated. Reduce heat and simmer 15-20 minutes with the lid off until the liquid has reduced by half. Season with salt and pepper. If using, stir in maple syrup.

NOTE: If you want to add bacon, dice two strips and fry in the oil before adding the onion. Continue with the rest of the recipe as described above.

Photo: Fake baked beans.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fast food for one right now

As much as I love to cook, most of the time I don't have the energy to create new culinary masterpieces: I just want to fill my belly. As I invariably get swept away in whatever I'm up to in my life, my meal planning skills lie dormant somewhere, forgotten, unused. I inevitably find myself in the kitchen, shaking with hunger, realizing I've already eaten all the leftover Indian takeout and having to make something or starve. I haven't done the grocery shopping yet, so all that's left in the fridge are a few pieces of whatever vegetable I've committed myself to that week and my essentials.

Ah, the essentials. Every cookbook that considers itself a tome devotes a chapter to staple items no kitchen should ever be without. I recently purchased Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food to judge her take on the subject. Her list is quite extensive, divided into two categories (pantry staples and perishable staples). Clearly her list is to serve cooking in general rather than simply fast food. And, apparently she doesn't own a freezer, or doesn't condone using one, because freezer staples are absent from her list. Still, her direction is simple: “If your pantry and refrigerator are stocked with these ingredients, you can be secure in the knowledge that no matter what time it is, and no matter who shows up hungry on your doorstep, there will always be something to eat.” Here, here.

When it comes to fast food there are mitigating factors. One cannot wait for rice to cook, let alone overnight to soak beans, or several hours to defrost a whole pack of chicken breasts when you only want one. Sometimes, I can't bear waiting the 45 minutes it takes for the Indian food to arrive.

And so, here are my essential items, listed in no particular order. With these things, I have the keys to the kingdom, as the saying goes.
  1. Tuna packed in olive oil, single serving size. This, to my mind, is the miracle food. Pop open the can (no can opener required), squeeze with lemon juice, and eat with a fork. It's the perfect protein to add to bean salads, toss with cooked pasta, mixed with egg and leftover cooked potato and fried into fish cakes. I find it in most supermarkets, usually up high or down low on the shelves. Look for Rio Mare in the salmon pink tins or Callipo in bright red. They're both made in Italy.

  2. Canned beans. Soup or salad, done in ten minutes. Hearty and filling. Beans are peasant food for a reason. They are cheap and sustaining. As for the purists out there that think that beans cooked from soaked dried are better than canned, I have this to say: They taste different, not necessarily better, and when you're hungry, who cares? Search for the canned varieties and brands that you like for their texture, taste and price, and buy them in bulk.

  3. Frozen single servings of meat. If you really want to conquer fast food, buy selection of resealable bags in various sizes and freeze everything in single servings. When you bring home meat from the market, take a few minutes to divide some or all into single portions. Even if you're cooking for more than just yourself, you'll appreciate the time it takes to defrost several individually-bagged chicken breasts by throwing them in a sink full of warm water for 15 minutes, versus the alternative: waging war with the defrost setting on your microwave, then prying apart half-frozen, half-cooked meat from the butcher tray. Buy a variety so you always have selection: chicken breasts, boneless chicken thighs, sausages, fish filets, chicken livers, even bacon. I began to use bacon so much more when I froze it in two strip packages. It adds instant flavour to any fast-food dish.

  4. Frozen peas. This can really mean frozen vegetables, but I like peas the best. It is a myth that frozen vegetables are less nutritious than fresh, as vegetables from the freezer are usually processed right after harvest. Peas are sweet and cheerful, make instant soup with water and bouillon and add colour to any dish.

  5. Frozen cooked brown rice. This may sound crazy, like a granny who freezes birthday cake bought on sale three months before the party, but it is such a time saver. Brown rice takes 40 minutes to cook, but its flavour and nutritional value far surpass white rice that it is worth the trouble. I have recently discovered that I can cook vast quantities of brown rice at one time and freeze it in small packages without any affect to taste or texture. I have also included my method for cooking brown rice, which is never clumpy or mushy, below.

  6. Lemons. I feel incomplete and unprepared if I don't have lemons in the house. Hot water and lemon is my tonic of choice. Add the zest and juice to a chicken breast fried in butter you have a quick, flavourful favourite. Lemon is indispensable when cooking with beans or fish.

  7. Flat-leaf Italian parsley. My husband and I have an ongoing disagreement that has become a joke. He argues that parsley has no flavour, whereas I think it's hugely fragrant and is my indispensible herb. The joke now goes like this. Me: Do you like your food? He: I don't know if I can taste this (insert main ingredient). It's so overwhelmed by the parsley. Ignore him. Parsley not only adds flavour, it adds colour, which is important for food to feel complete.

  8. Eggs. I hope everybody knows this. Omelet or scrambled eggs is the fastest meal in the west. Take 5 minutes to heat the pan over medium-high heat, then add a nob of butter then the two beaten eggs and swish it around. In about 15 seconds, your eggs are ready. Season and serve.

  9. Dried red lentils. This makes my husband's favourite soup, prepared in under 20 minutes. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a saucepan, add 1/2 cup dried lentils and a chicken bouillon cube and simmer 15 minutes until the lentils have fallen apart. Finish with lemon juice and garlic- and/or chili-scented oil and serve.

  10. Garlic- and/or chili-scented oils. Really, you don't need to worry about garlic, peeling, chopping, storing, if you finish or start your dish with garlic-scented oil. And if you feel like adding zing to your meal, sprinkle over some chili oil. Both are easy to make (see my instructions at bottom of this post) and keep on hand.

  11. Chicken bouillon cubes. Find your favourite brand and keep them on hand. I like the one by McCormick in the dark green and white box. It's all-vegetable, MSG- and gluten-free, and it's tasty.

  12. Butter. Salted for eating with baking and unsalted for cooking.

  13. Oil and vinegar. Extra virgin olive oil for finishing and dressings, light olive oil for scented oils and sweet dressings, coconut oil for frying, white wine vinegar for full-bodied dressings and rice vinegar for sweet ones.

  14. Tomato paste in a tube. This is another amazing Italian invention. Who wants even a small can of tomato paste when you only ever really use a tablespoon at a time? You can keep the tube in the fridge almost indefinitely and impart any dish with the sweetness of tomato without slopping in the real thing, canned or fresh. Again, you have to search in the tomato section, but this item is available in most supermarkets.

  15. Dijon mustard. Emulsifies any dressing, making it creamy, smooth and full of flavour. Instant salad dressing: 1/4 cup oil, 1 Tbsp vinegar and a squirt of Dijon, salt and pepper. Combine ingredients in a glass jar, put on the lid, and shake.

  16. Salt and pepper
Everyone has their own list. What's yours?

I soak my rice for several hours before cooking because apparently it produces rice that is more nutritious and easily digested (though it's been a while since I've verified this claim). Nutrition aside, it also reduces the cooking time by half.
3 cups long grain brown rice
Fill a large pot with cold water and add rice. Soak the rice at least 1 hour or overnight in the fridge. Once soaked, drain and refill the pot with fresh water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes or until the grains are tender. Drain and rinse. Allow to cool before putting in bags and freezing.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Thanksgiving redux

My favourite holiday. We have one holiday on our calendar that is entirely devoted to worshiping food. And thank goodness, not just for nature's generous bounty but also for our wherewithal to recognize the miracle of a successful growing season.

Our meal was divine. We served turkey and the works to our immediate family plus one cousin, 11 of us in all. We ate and drank, remembered those who are no longer with us, and reminded ourselves why families matter.

The meal preparation, extending over three days, went far from smoothly, but resulted in incredible fare. At the advice of my new butchers, I followed their directions for preparing a turkey, which included brining it overnight and rubbing an herb butter between the skin and the breast meat before roasting. The addition of these extra steps increased my workload, but the effort rewarded a remarkable bird. And despite my mashed potato stuffing expanding in the oven, rupturing the neck cavity and spilling all over the bottom element, then having the turkey sit in a room temperature oven for over an hour until I realized I had turned the oven off when I cleaned up the potatoes, thus delaying our meal by about 90 minutes, the roasting process was remarkably stress-free. It was the best turkey I have ever tasted.

My mashed potato stuffing was also incredibly tasty, though next time I won't pack the cavity so tightly. I made Nigella Lawson's potato-stuffed goose last Christmas and thought that I would create a potato-stuffed turkey as well, hoping no one would miss traditional stuffing too much. The addition of the lemon zest and herbs create potatoes that are so good they could easily be enjoyed without the benefit of being roasted inside a bird.

Here was our menu:
  • Healthy Butcher organic free-range roast turkey
  • golden mashed potato stuffing
  • gravy
  • baked yam casserole with marshmallow topping
  • brussel sprouts with nutmeg and lemon
  • spinach and apple salad with an orange ginger dressing
  • orange cranberry relish
A fine meal. Truth be told, I think I've finally outgrown the marshmallow yams. They are cloyingly sweet, and I found myself following my dad's example of scraping off the white fluff and leaving it on the side of my plate. However, tradition is what it is, and my sister insists the marshmallow yams are an integral part of her holiday meal.

The directions for the turkey are available on the Healthy Butcher website, a fine purveyor of organic meats raised in southern Ontario.

Serves 10
4 lbs. yellow potatoes (Yukon Gold or similar variety)
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
1 large rib celery, diced
2 shallots, diced
1 Tbsp each fresh parsley and sage, finely chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
zest of two lemons
1 tsp ground black pepper
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Peel and quarter potatoes and put in a large pot of salted water. Bring to a boil and simmer 15-20 minutes or until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork or knife. Drain.

While potatoes are cooking, in a skillet heat the butter and oil. Add the onion, celery and shallot and cook until translucent, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat. Add the herbs, lemon zest and pepper.

Add the onion mixture and butter to the drained potatoes and mash with a potato masher. Stuff inside the turkey, or serve. NOTE: This stuffing will expand significantly inside the turkey, so do not pack it into the cavity. Leave room for expansion, then if there is remainder, heat in the oven in a separate casserole before serving.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cheese biscuits on a rainy day

I’ve been making these cheese biscuits whenever I want a pick-me-up in the afternoon. I also served them for brunch a couple weekends ago with scrambled eggs and steamed greens and they were a big hit.

I have been tweaking this recipe over the last month or so since buying the Grain-free Gourmet cookbooks. Their recipe for plain biscuits is wonderful. Their cheese biscuit recipe, included in Everyday Grain-free Gourmet, is also good, but I wanted a cheese biscuit that was less sweet and with fewer ingredients. I use pecorino cheese in mine: a mild, slightly nutty sheep-milk cheese that complements the sourness of the yoghurt. Cheddar, though higher in fat, would also be good. The resulting biscuits are moist and soft and taste great on their own, with butter or jam. You can also use them like English muffins for eggs benedict (I haven't tried, but can you imagine? Yum!).

Makes 8 biscuits

220g almond flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
80g shredded pecorino
2 green onions, finely chopped
2 eggs
1/2 c plain yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 160C/325F.

In a bowl, mix the almond flour, baking soda and salt. Mix in the cheese and onions. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and yoghurt until mixed. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring with brisk strokes to incorporate. The batter will be thick.

Using a soup spoon, drop biscuit batter onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet forming eight equally sized biscuits. They will spread a bit in the oven, so leave about 1 inch of space between.

Bake 22-25 minutes until golden.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Soup by the bathtubful

I could have devoted my entire blog to soup. I love soup: making it and eating it. I am not alone.

I recently purchased a cookbook written by Pierre and Janet Berton, The Centennial Food Guide, published in 1966. According to his wife, Pierre – Canada’s renowned historian and author of The Last Spike – was smitten with soup, requiring 3 or 4 bowlfuls a day. The first page of text in the cookbook, sandwiched in between the table of contents and the introduction, is a recipe for “Janet’s Soup”, under which is inscribed: “The male editor of this book unconditionally guarantees this soup. In twenty years of marriage he has drunk bathtubfuls of it. Moreover he has never seen anyone content with but a single bowl. It demands seconds, thirds and even fourths, which is why we urge that it be made is vast quantities.”

Certainly the Berton household required “vast quantities” of anything given the nine-member family vying for sustenance. Janet’s Soup is somewhat of a time capsule, requiring one large beef heart to prepare the stock and, among other oddities, Angostura bitters and monosodium glutamate for flavouring. While I doubt I’ll ever make Janet’s Soup, Pierre’s resounding endorsement notwithstanding, I do heartily appreciate the intensity of sentiment surrounding this family favourite.

Which brings me to my love of soup. Were it not for summer heat and humidity, conditions which apparently did not affect the Bertons as they do me, I too would eat soup every day. (I can’t abide chilled soups, no matter how hard I try.) The arrival of fall is the return of soup: comforting, savoury, and inspiring soup.

Making and eating soup is a commitment to an idea of how to sustain oneself: completely, and in one bowlful. The restorative properties of soup were its original marketing strategy. The French origin of “restaurant” apparently comes from “restaurer”, the term applied to the Parisian street vendors who exclusively sold soup, an inexpensive concentrated broth they claimed was the antidote to physical exhaustion. The notion of frugality is often applied to soup, but I like to think that economy is a matter of stripping life of anything extraneous, leaving behind what is essential and indisputable. Perhaps this is why I love soup: it is an exercise in selection.

I mentioned in my last post that I reserve my homemade chicken broth for vegetable soups. These are soups that require usually two or three ingredients in addition to the stock. They are quick, simple and hearty. This is one I have been making and enjoying now that fall is truly upon us. The Romano beans are a lovely pinkish brown and have a rich flavour and the kale is a robust complement. To “kick it up a notch,” fry some diced bacon or pancetta with the garlic to add smoky flavour to an already divine soup.

Serves 3-4

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 14-oz can Romano beans, rinsed and drained (or white kidney, or Borlotti)
750 mL chicken stock
1 Tbsp chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme, parsley, or 1 tsp dried)
1 cup kale, finely chopped
salt & pepper

In a medium soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat and add the garlic, cooking until the garlic is fragrant. Add the beans, stirring to coat with the oil. Heat for one minute. Add the stock and herbs, bring to a boil, then simmer with the lid on for 15-20 minutes.

Using an immersion blender of the back of a spoon, pulverize some of the beans to thicken the soup base. Do not purée: there should be some whole beans left in the soup.

Add the kale and simmer 5 minutes longer until the kale is tender. If soup is too thick, add more stock. Season with salt and pepper. Serve and finish with extra virgin olive oil (optional).