Monday, January 24, 2011

Potato perfection

I've made this dish about 5 times in the past and it's always turned out perfect and is quite impressive visually so works well if you are entertaining. I got it from a book called "Allergy Free Cookbook" by Alice Sherwood. I highly recommend it. Each recipe has modifications for egg free, dairy free, gluten free and nut free variations. It provides details on all the substitutions and there are lots of delicious recipes that you could serve anyone and they would never know it was allergy free specifically. The recipe I refer to is Potato Crusted Halibut and it requires minimal preparation, minimal ingredients and minimal attendance after the first 5 mins of cooking so if you have guests, you can actually spend time with them versus being chained to the oven for the duration of the evening with your hair getting progressively more like a birds nest and your cheeks getting redder due to the hot oven and the copious amounts of wine consumed in order to cope with the stress of cooking for others. Unless of course, you are not keen on your guests and actually WANT to hide in the kitchen under the guise of "cooking". In which case, I suggest you make pasta. From scratch.
There are only 2 main ingredients in this dish, plus oil for cooking and salt and pepper which I don't count as ingredients in their own right although depending on what you are doing with them and the type of each you are using, it could make or break some recipes so I shouldn't be so blase about it. But you get what I am saying.
Potatoes and halibut fillets are the two main players. In fact, I'm sure any firm white fish such as cod, haddock, sea bass etc would work too. I personally LOVE halibut as it's so moist, tasty and it's hard to overcook.

Potato topped Halibut

1-2 large potatoes, unpeeled and grated
2-4 fillets of halibut, thick rather than flat, approx 5-7 oz each
2 tbsp flavourless oil for cooking (with a high smoke point-NOT EV olive oil)

Preheat over to 400F.

The dish is simple but must be executed well. There are 2 key steps that must be done perfectly for this dish to be a success.
First and most importantly of all the potato, once grated (and I suggest a coarse grating with long strokes), must be thoroughly squeezed of excess moisture. And by thoroughly, I mean, get as much out as you think possible and then go back and do it all again. My suggested method is to take a handful of potato shreddings and squeeze with your bare hands a few times, lay the potato on to a few layers of paper towel and lay some more on top and press down. Repeat this with fresh pieces of paper towel a couple of times. It's amazing how much liquid keeps coming out. When I say amazing, I mean, sort of frustrating because you think you are almost done but you lay another piece of paper towel on and clearly you have not squeezed nearly hard enough. Squeeze like you are trying to get blood from a stone!
If the potato is not dry enough, it won't crisp up and let's face it, the potato is the star of the dish, the halibut is merely a vessel on which to showcase the wonderful-ness of crispy shredded potato bits.
Once your potato shreddings are suitably squeezed and squished of excess moisture (give them one more squeeze anyway), season the fish with salt and pepper and press a thick layer of potato on the top of the fillets. I like to leave the skin on the fillets and crisp it up in the pan but if you prefer you can remove it. I put the skip side down and out the potato on the non-skin side.
Once that is done, you can heat up the oil very hot in the pan. Now comes the second part that requires precision and perfect execution. Using 2 suitable spatulas or similar utensils, lay the fillets potato side down in the pan with hot oil.

I usually test the hotness of the oil by throwing in an escapee shred of potato and if it sizzles, the pan is ready. This is one of my all time favourite foodie sounds along with my previously mentioned ones which are 1) the first pour of a bottle of wine and 2) mustard seeds pop-pop- popping. Let cook for 3-4 mins until browned but not burned. Stay close and carefully check by lifting the fillet a little so you can see underneath. you may also want to station an extra body by the smoke detector as it may go off. You will then need your 2 flippers again and turn the fillet over to cook the skin side for again 3-4 minutes to crisp the skin (if it's still there!). Remove fillets from pan and place on a baking sheet and place in the oven at 400F for 8-10 minutes until just cooked through.
The recipe calls to serve this with roasted beets. I have served it with the beets and another time with maple glazed carrots and parsnips. On this occasion, PB and myself assembled a stellar salad containing arugula, spinach, avocado, balsamic mushrooms, tomato, red onion and a dijon maple dressing. We also upped the veggie quota with one of PB's specialty dishes, steamed broccoli and carrots with garlic and ginger, on the side. It was quite a feast of colours, flavours, textures and nutrients. We both agreed it was a rather fantastic meal for a weeknight but that's they way us foodists roll....(warm freshly baked homemade roll, of course)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hoorah for Hummus

In light of my quest to encourage creativity and culinary experimentation, I decided to make some hummus...without following a recipe. Not ultra creative as I have made hummus before so I know the key ingredients but I've got to start somewhere!
First I started by roasting a bulb of garlic for 45 mins at 350. I find that the roasted garlic flavour v's raw garlic is far superior and smoother in hummus. I usually drizzle the bulb with a bit of olive oil and then wrap the whole thing loosely in foil and bake. 45 mins should be sufficient but beware when you open up the foil as the temperature change can lead to an unexpected explosion of hot garlic that sticks to you like glue when caramelised. It BURNS! Let the bulb cool and then cut the head off and squeeze out the gooey goodness. This is also a great topping for toasted crostini or french bread. You could add a nice goat cheese on top.

The rest of the ingredients for my spicy version are as follows:

1 can chickpeas, drained (liquid reserved)
2-3 tbsp EVOO
3-4 tbsp tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 roasted garlic bulb, squeezed
juice of 1 lemon
2-3 tbsp hot spice mix (optional) I used a Duqqa Spice mix
salt and fresh crushed black pepper to taste (add after any other spice mix added)

In a food processor, blend the chickpeas until fairly smooth. Add the tahihi and mix again. Some recipes for hummus do not call for tahini. I think it's essential for texture and flavour, it provides a smooth nuttiness and also a kick of calcium.
So what I'm saying is...don't skimp out on the tahini. And if you are wondering what to do with the remains of the jar, I suggest spreading it on toast with some honey drizzled on of my favourite snacks.
Keep the food processor on and 1 tbsp at a time, pour the EVOO through the spout. Stop and check for texture. I like my hummus med-smooth, quite thick and not super oily. There is oil in the tahini also so just take it slow and find the texture you like. You can always add the reserved chick pea liquid to thin out the hummus if you don't want to add more oil.
Finally add the fresh lemon juice and the seasonings. Salt and pepper are the bare minimum here and after that, it's free reign with the spice cupboard. I really love the duqqa spice mix I picked up at a gourmet fair. It's from the Hot Chick Spice Company who are a local Vancouver Island company. Here are some suggested variations:

Peppercorn Hummus: grind up 1-2 tbsp black or mixed peppercorns to desired consistency. I like it when I get a big chunk of peppercorn from time to time so I get a spicy crunchy kick but you may prefer a more subtle hit.

Cajun spice-you can buy pre-made mixes but check ingredients and look for salt level. If one of the first few ingredients is salt, omit adding your own salt until after you've tasted it with the spice added. Also check for MSG, I avoid this stuff like the plague and it is in a lot of pre-made/packaged things, especially soups. Bad stuff. Stay far far away from it.

Curried Hummus-you could add simply a basic curry powder or a dry mix such as Garam Masala, Channa Masala mix or make your own blend

You can also add something like roasted red peppers, olives, capers, artichoke hearts, pesto, fresh spinach, edamame, sun dried tomatoes etc....experiment away! I suggest making a base hummus mix and then splitting it into 2-4 portions and then trying different additions. That way, if it's not to your liking, you're not wasting a huge batch.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Blogging Brainstorm

With the new year recently dawned, and my blog now heading into it's 9th month, my thoughts have turned to reviewing my year in food. When I started the blog, the goal was to list plainly and simply what I ate every day, in it's entirety. That idea soon got scrapped when I realised that blogging daily was not a reality and quite frankly, some days, what I ate was very dull. well it may seem that way to others anyway. To me, nothing will pass my lips that I do not love to eat but when I saw it on paper (and by paper, I mean 10 point Roman font), it didn't always seem so blog worthy. I wondered if it's truly a blog if I'm censoring myself, for whatever reason. Was my blog for me, or my readers? Did I have any readers? Were they interested? Why am I doing this blog?
Over the year, it took a little more shape and became an account of successful recipes for the most part, or those with a story attached. As I move into 2011, I was hoping the blog would have carved it's own path like a hot knife through butter but instead it's more like a buffet table where everything individually is okay but there's no real cohesion.
So I've been giving it some serious contemplation and brainstorming with other foodies and have come up with the following thoughts:

1) I want to be a better foodie. That means cooking new recipes and using new techniques. The ultimate goal of this (besides of course, eating fabulous food) is so that I can move from my current foodie type-recipe follower, to the next level-recipe creator. I'd like to be more creative and more experimental with my dishes a la Iron Chef or Top Chef where I can be given random ingredients and create masterpieces. I know this is a lofty goal but I want to work towards it.
2) That leads me to thoughts of the purpose of my blog. One thought was that I set a goal of choosing 1 cookbook per week and cooking entirely from that book (well for dinner and lunch anyways). Breakfast for someone who can't eat eggs or dairy and needs to minimise wheat doesn't leave a lot of options. Maybe that could be my challenge though...come up with some gourmet breakfasts with unconventional ingredients. Another option is to expand on my use (and love affair, let's just tell it how it is) with my slow cooker. Commit to at least 1 use per week. How many things can I make in it? how extreme can I go? will my house burn down? This could potentially kill 2 birds with one stone if I commit to exclusively go sans-recipe also. This could also lead to a lot of wasted food and time....but it would make for some good posts! I think I need to do more cooking with it first, with regard to liquid levels and flavour profiles. So far I've only used it about a dozen times and done mostly savory items.
3) Another idea I had was to start a blog based on reader suggestions. Each week I could request that readers suggest an ingredient (within a specified time range) and then I have to make something containing the ingredients listed which could range from zero to ....well I guess the number of ingredients will tell me how successful the blog is. Do I want to know? Is my blog success dependent on readership? So far, no, it's a success because it inspires me to cook and keeps up my writing skillz. I think it could be fun and it would connect my readers to me more and give me a challenge depending on how crazy the suggestions are. I'd have to give the project a name and maybe make it a spin off blog from 24-7 foodie. Sorta like Iron Chef. Maybe "Pic' n ' Mix"? or some kind of clever acronym that I have not yet had the inspiration to come up with.
4) I want to improve on my foodie pics too. That in itself can change the whole vibe of a blog. I have a very basic point and shoot camera but have several keeners who are willing to help with the food pics. That makes it more fun as I get to feed people too and thus get their feedback.
5) I want to learn more about food by reading more cookbooks and other blogs. I learn more from other people than from my own cooking. I like to read recipe books (and look at the pics of course). Even chopping vegetables differently makes dishes taste different. I'm a texture person in general so I'd like to explore this more.
6)Another idea is to conduct a food experiment each week when I make one theme dish but in different ways. e.g. trying different ways of making guacamole, or comparing different types of salt and how the texture and saltiness impacts a dish. For the Canadian readers, this would be akin to The Shopping Bags product testing. Minus the high maintenance one...she gets on my nerves.
7) Finally, I could focus my blog on eating around my food allergies/intolerances. However, there are occasions that I make something outside of that either for others to eat, or for me to have a small amount of. I can tolerate small amounts of egg and dairy, particularly if they are within something else and with wheat, I'm generally okay as long as I don't have it daily for days on end. So it's not a super strict diet. There's some wiggle room there.

I'd love your thoughts on my blog direction, clearly it has none at this point and it meanders through foodie-ville at 10mph below the speed limit. So all suggestions are welcomed. I'm a good brainstormer as a rule but I need more heads in on the session.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

'Tis the season to eat, eat and eat some more

I'm back on the blog now that the festive(aka overeating/over-indulging) season is over. I'm also back on track with my quest to cook many new dishes, try new foods and generally indulge myself in everything food related.

As well as enjoying some fabulous meals (and accompanying warm hospitality with some all around wonderful peeps) that other foodies prepared during Christmas week (including spiced pear vodka cocktails, Beef Wellington cooked perfectly, divine stuffed pork tenderloins, homemade ravioli and a fantastic Christmas brunch), I cooked a Christmas day meal with all the trimmings for myself and a special guest, Ms K. We started with carrot and ginger soup which I had made several times recently due to it's carrot-y deliciousness and general orange-ness. It's really easy to make and everyone that has sampled it has licked their bowl clean, myself included. The original recipe is from New Covent Garden Soup Company "Soup for All Seasons", but I have modified it a bit with the addition of the Maple Syrup, inspired by my very own Maple-Maniac, Ms MJ.

Carrot and Ginger soup
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, diced
8 medium carrots, diced
1 tsp ginger, minced (I love ginger so I add more than this)
500ml chicken stock
1-2tbsp pure Maple Syrup
salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a pan. (don't use EVOO, the smoke point is too low for this).
Add the onion and cook gently for 5 mins without colouring.
Add the carrots, ginger and stock. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 20 mins until carrots are soft.
Blend until smooth, add seasoning and maple syrup and Bob's your mother's brother, your soup is ready!

The orange is so bright and it's a pretty thick soup so you may want to thin it out with some more stock or even some cream if you can eat dairy.I like to serve it with a thick toasted slice of Squirrely bread or Cape Seed Bread from Cobs Breads. Basically something with seeds and a lot of crunch.

The main course was turkey of course. There were only 2 of us for this meal but it's not Christmas without a turkey so I had a small one (is that an oxymoron?). I kept it simple and put a halved onion, halved lemon and halved garlic bulb in the cavity. I patted the turkey dry, rubbed a garlic clove over the skin and sprinkled with salt, pepper, dried thyme and dried rosemary. I put it in the oven at 350 for about 3.5 hours and then for the last 30 mins or so, I placed strips of bacon over the turkey and turned up the heat to 400.

While all that was doing it's thing cooking away, I made some side dishes of roasted baby potatoes, mashed maple sweet potato and Brussels sprouts with bacon and chestnuts. The last side dish I sort of made it up, but anything with bacon will taste good so I wasn't worried.
Everything tasted great and the turkey looked fab (thanks again to bacon), I didn't want to carve it up!

Dessert was also prepared earlier in the day, Poached Pears in red wine.My Guest for the day, Ms K, made this dish for me several years ago and I have made it many times since as it's so easy but it's visually rich and also healthy. It's also allergy friendly.

Poached Pears in Red Wine
100g sugar
150ml dry red wine (I use Shiraz usually)
150 ml water
1 strip lemon rind
1 tsp ground cinnamon
8-10 small pears ( I used 4 larger pears)
50g blanched almonds, split and toasted to finish (or almond slivers)

Put sugar, wine, water, lemon rind and cinnamon in a large pan and heat gently until sugar dissolves.
Peel pears (I did not do this), cutting off core at base and leaving stalks on. Add to pan, cover and simmer gently for 20-25 mins or until soft and coloured by wine. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon and stand upright in a heat proof dish. Set aside.
Increase heat and boil liquid in pan rapidly until a syrup forms. Allow to cool slightly. Remove lemon rind and pour over pears.
Chill in fridge for several hours, spooning syrup regularly over pears.
Add almonds just before serving.

I guarantee this dish will wow any guests and you can do a lot with the presentation too. I recommend a white serving dish to contrast with the rich ruby red of the wine reduction.

I received 2 fabulous cookbooks for Christmas too which I am itching to crack open. That will start next week and many posts will follow.