Homemade Whole-Milk Ricotta

It all started with yogurt. I am an inveterate yogurt-for-breakfast eater, as well as a snob about eating healthy, creamy, full-fat, no-junk yogurt, which can make for an expensive breakfast habit. So when I discovered that it was so damn easy to make your own yogurt, I was hooked. It felt like alchemy; just do a couple of small things to your milk, let it sit for six or so hours, and ta da! Tasty, inexpensive, and you get to thrillingly exclaim “holy crap, I made yogurt!” to anyone within shouting distance. We get a little obsessed with learning to cook things we would normally buy from scratch in this here household, and all of a sudden I was aware that there was this whole world of dairy out there just waiting for me to mess around with it. And so, I bought myself this veritable bible of home cheesemaking possibilities, and set to reading:

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Once you enter the world of homemade cheese, you have got a whole lot of new vocabulary to learn, and I will admit that I found myself a little bit overwhelmed at first. That said, Ricki Carroll’s book does a great job of explaining the basics and building from there, helping me to understand the process of turning milk into cheese, and what the various possibilities are. Still, despite the fact that I should have known better, I had a hard time believing that it could be as simple as it seemed. Most “recipes” consist of little more than milk, and an appropriate souring agent that does the job of separating it into curds and whey. Hard cheeses get a little bit more complicated, but Carroll assures the reader that classics such as ricotta and mozzarella are really perfect for beginners and dummy-proof.

So last week, I decided to finally throw my hat into the ring and start with some ricotta. I know that all of you who already know how to make things like ricotta, or have Italian grandmothers who did this every day like it was like breathing, are probably laughing at my hesitation. As always, making my own ricotta taught me that the world’s more traditional foods are usually very straightforward and simple to prepare; how else would they have become so ubiquitous? Like my experimentation with yogurt, watching the milk transform into cheese felt like magic. As the mixture warmed up and nothing happened, I was skeptical. What was I doing? And then, as it slowly reached the set temperature, the curds started to appear and I knew that I was creating something.

All in all, including hanging the ricotta to drain more of the liquid out of it, the process took less than an hour. Apparently mozzarella, which I hope to attempt later this week, takes even less time! And it was too cool to watch it all happen, with seemingly little intervention on my part.As I watched the ricotta drip, I thought about the ricotta we buy in the supermarket, and how we generally treat it as a means to an end. It is not something I tend to get excited about eating in and of itself–it is an ingredient in a tasty lasagna, or some other more complex dish. But fresh, and straight out of my own section of cheesecloth, it was the star of that night’s dinner. I ate it with spaghetti and some homemade garlic scape pesto (the recipe here is fabulous), generously seasoned, and it could not have tasted more delicious.
I am therefore convinced that making your own cheese is awesome for three reasons: first, it tastes fresh and wonderful, and elevates often under-appreciated ingredients like ricotta to being central and show-stopping elements of one’s meal. Second, it is really fun to do, and feels like magical kitchen alchemy. And third, and perhaps most importantly, it is a way of learning about cheese. And I love cheese. It is one of my favourite foods, and I consume it with alarming enthusiasm. And it is incredibly instructive for me to start learning how it’s made, and by proxy what it actually is, exactly, both in terms of my appreciation for this beautiful food, and for my understanding of what makes a cheese tasty, or sharp, or creamy, or pungent, or nutty. Anything that deepens my understanding and appreciation of cheese is a good thing, in my book.

And so, let me share with you the ricotta recipe from Carroll’s book, adapted in two big ways: first, I scaled down the quantity considerably, as I imagine that if you are embarking on this for the first time like I was, you probably want to smart small in case it all goes sour (literally, ha!). Second, I couldn’t find citric acid, which is what she suggests as a starter (which is odd, as I’d never had trouble finding it in stores before–I think it was just an off day in my neighbourhood), so I did a bunch of sleuthing and figured out how to substitute the right quantity of lemon juice instead, which worked like a charm. So I will offer you both possibilities in the recipe below. Enjoy, and if you try it, tell me how it went!

Homemade Whole-Milk Ricotta
Makes about 1 cup of ricotta. Adapted from Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheesemaking.

Ingredients:
1 litre whole milk
1/4 tsp citric acid disolved in 1 tbsp of water OR 20 ml (1 tbsp & 1 tsp) lemon juice
1 tsp cheese salt (optional–I didn’t use any)
1 tbsp heavy cream (optional and definitely made the cheese more creamy)

Add your citric acid or lemon juice and optional salt into the milk and mix thoroughly. In a medium saucepan, directly heat this mixture to between 185F and 195F (I did this over medium-high heat). Do not boil. Stir often to prevent any burning. Once it gets up to this temperature range, the curds should start separating from the whey (the leftover liquid). Make sure that the curds separate enough that the whey is not milky, and turn off the heat. Allow it to set, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.

Line a colander with butter muslin/cheesecloth and ladle the curds into the colander. Tie the corners of the cloth into a knot and hang the bag to drain, with a bowl under it to catch the drips. Carroll says to hang it for 20-30 minutes, but as this recipe makes only a quarter of the quantity she suggests in her book, it should be ready within about 15 minutes. It is really up to you how long you hang it for; do it until it reaches a consistency that you like.

The cheese is ready to eat immediately. If you would like to make it creamier, add some of the cream, and mix it thoroughly. Carroll says that in a covered container in the fridge, the ricotta should last 1-2 weeks, but we wouldn’t know, as ours was all gone within 24 hours.

Stay tuned for more cheesemaking adventures!

Sweet Italian Sausage


There was an annoying moment a couple of weeks ago in Top Chef Canada during the supermarket challenge when the smarmy prick Rob made a disparaging comment about Connie making sausages for the challenge.  He said something to the effect of why would people make sausages at home when they can just buy hot dogs.  Now, Rob is full of stupid kneejerk comments and it isn’t worth dwelling on them, and it seems like the problem with her puff pastry-wrapped chicken sausages was that they simply weren’t good enough to convince home cooks to attempt such a dish, but there was the general sense in the episode that homemade sausages maybe weren’t the most appropriate dish for people to cook at home.

Michael Pollan has written at length about the way in which food television has become about the spectacle of cooking rather than about cooking itself, and that it has lost the instructional and educational quality that early TV cookery shows, like Julia Child’s, had.  And isn’t this in part what was going on in that episode of Top Chef Canada?  That sausage, which isn’t an especially difficult food to prepare if you have the time and right equipment, was condescendingly seen to be beyond the grasp of the average supermarket dweller.  Or what about the way in which charcuterie plates have become trendy at upscale restaurants?  I have nothing against this, and there are few things more pleasing and satisfying than well-prepared and expertly seasoned cured or otherwise processed meats, but it does show the way in which charcuterie has travelled far away from its humble origins.

I started making sausage from scratch about a year and a half ago after my parents and Anna conspired to get me a meat grinder and a copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie as a gift for Christmas. If you’re thinking of making sausages at home, I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.  They cover the vast array of ways you can prepare charcuterie–curing, smoking, dry-curing, confit, sausage-making, and so on–all in a way that is practical for the home cook.  I have really only scratched the surface of the book and made sausage and pâté from it, but there’s easily enough material in here for years of exploration and experimentation. The book is beautifully illustrated and the step-by-step instructions are clear, easy to follow, and will have you making excellent sausage on your first attempt.

Making truly great sausage is the reason why this is worth doing at home.  There are some fine sausages available to buy in this city, but I prefer mine.  They’re much more flavourful, and as a nice bonus, they’re inexpensive to make.  Twelve or so feet of sausage usually costs around twenty dollars to make, and the quality of them is unmatched.  I know that the meat in them is great and isn’t just the sweepings from a butcher’s floor, I can adjust the flavourings and seasonings to exactly my taste, and best of all, they’re super fresh.  They take a bit of effort–it usually takes me about an hour and a half to make a batch of them–but because you’re making them in quantity, that effort will feed you for several meals.

My most recent batch was the sweet Italian sausages from Charcuterie.  I’d made the spicy version a couple of times and they’re great for putting into sauces or baking with pasta, or just frying up and eating, but I thought that I would try the sweet ones for a change.  I might even like them more than the spicy ones: unlike a supermarket-style “mild” Italian sausage which is mainly just bland, these sausages have a beautiful depth of flavour. They grill well and I used some of the leftover loose meat in a lasagne which turned out super well.

Sweet Italian Sausage
Adapted from Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie.
Makes 5 pounds of sausage

Ingredients:
4 pounds/1800g boneless pork shoulder butt, diced into 1-inch cubes
1 pound/450g pork back fat, diced into 1-inch cubes
1.5 oz/40g kosher salt
2 tbsp/32g granulated sugar
2 tsp/12g minced garlic
2 tbsp/16g fennel seeds, toasted (I like to coarsely crush these in a mortar and pestle to better distribute the fennel throughout the sausage)
2 tsp/6g coarsely ground black pepper
2 tbsp/16g sweet Spanish paprika
0.75 cup/185 ml ice water
0.25 cup/60 ml red wine vinegar, chilled

12 feet/4 meters hog casings, soaked in tepid water for at least 30 minutes and rinsed

Instructions:
Note: these are the basic instructions given in the book, though it deals with the steps in a much greater depth in the book.  Making sausage isn’t especially difficult, but it does require an understanding of the process if you are to make great sausage.

1. Combine all the ingredients except the water and the vinegar and toss to distribute the seasonings. Chill until ready to grind.
2. Grind the mixture through the small die into a bowl set in ice.
3. Add the water and vinegar to the meat mixture and mix with the paddle attachment (or sturdy spoon) until the liquids are incorporated and the mixture has developed a uniform, sticky appearance, about 1 minute on medium speed.
4. Sauté a small portion of the sausage, taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
5. Stuff the sausage into the hog casings, and twist into 6-inch/15-centimeter links. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to cook.
6. Gently sauté or roast the sausage to an internal temperature of 150 degrees F./65 degrees C.

The Quest for the Perfect Veggie Burger



Let’s make this absolutely clear: nothing is better than a good hamburger.  When I make burgers I go to the butcher and buy beef shortribs, bone and grind them, and make the most delicious and meaty burgers with them.  They are a delight to behold and to eat and are truly one of the finest burgers you have never had the privilege of trying.

But sometimes it’s nice to have a vegetarian alternative to the classic burger.  I’m not interested in commercially-available soy protein based burgers.  They offer very little in terms of flavour, and from an environmental and ethical perspective, I’d much rather eat well-raised beef than a highly-processed food reliant on a byproduct of the petroleum industry.  When I want a veggie burger, I want something flavourful that gives me something that I wouldn’t normally get from a beef burger.

Making veggie burgers is surprisingly difficult though.  The ones I’ve made in the past have generally tasted good but it’s been really tough to get the texture right: a meat burger has that great firm bite, but my experiments in bean-based veggie burgers have been mushy.  When you bite into them, the patty flattens and squeezes from the side of the bun.  It’s not great.

The best veggie burger recipe I’ve tried to date comes from Mille Petrozza of my favorite Teutonic thrash band, Kreator, and can be found in Annick “Morbid Chef” Giroux’s suberb cookbook Hellbent for Cooking.  Mille’s burgers are oat-based and have this wonderful firm texture that is pleasant to bite into.  They also seemed like the perfect base from which to explore different veggie burger flavours.

I went for the classic flavour of black beans for this veggie burger experiment, and used Tex-Mex inspired spices to season it.  We topped the burgers with sour cream, some homemade mango salsa that needed more heat, sliced avocado, red onion, and cilantro to keep with the Tex-Mex theme, but you could really use any toppings for this.

It was a fairly successful experiment.  The flavours were all solid and while I never set out to replicate the taste of a beef burger, this burger did have a nice earthiness that didn’t bring beef to mind, but did recall the sort of taste that makes a burger so great.  It was decent texturally, though it perhaps could have used more oats in proportion to the beans.  Though it could just be that I tend to make my burgers wide and flat, because Anna had one of these for leftovers the next day but she made hers thicker and said that the texture was better on that one.  In the meantime, the quest will continue until I have made the perfect veggie burger.

Black Bean Burgers
makes 4 decent sized burgers

Ingredients:
1 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight
1 cup oats
1 small onion, diced
1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1 tsp cumin, toasted and ground
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp dried oregano (more if using fresh)
A handful of chopped cilantro
4 cups vegetable stock
Salt and pepper

Soak the beans overnight.  Chop the onion and cook it in a medium-sized saucepan with your choice of oil until the onion is translucent.  Add the beans, throw in the veggie stock and your spices, bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a vigorous simmer.  Simmer until the beans are nice and tender, probably close to an hour, then add the oats and boil until the whole mixture is thick and gooey.  Let this cool for a bit then transfer it to a food processor, add the cilantro, and process it until the whole thing is a nice uniform mixture.  Form into burger-sized patties and fry in a skillet until they’re nicely browned and crispy on the outside.  Serve with your favorite toppings.

The First BBQ of the Year, Soul Food-Style

Montrealers may remember that last summer was one of the hottest, stuffiest summers in recent memory. We don’t have air conditioning in our apartment, and so for much of the summer, cooking in our kitchen was pretty much unbearable. Luckily, we had just purchased a new BBQ, as well as the awesome veggie grilling basket pictured above, and so we spent months eating perfect dinners of grilled proteins with vegetables–whatever we had in the fridge just thrown on a the grill with a little bit of seasoning and oil–and loving it. It was about as much as we could handle “cooking” in that heat. And it ruled. As the weather has been warming up in recent weeks, I am looking forward to another summer of simple, tasty, hearty BBQ-ing.

This weekend we fired up the BBQ for the first time this year, and we were instantly nostalgic for last summer, and excited for this one. We kicked off the first BBQ of the season with a soul food-style feast. I have, in the past couple of years, become obsessed with soul food, which is a problem since this is a pretty much nonexistent cuisine in Montreal. Whenever we go to the U.S. I gorge myself and discover what I can, while back home, I have relied on a couple of cookbooks to show me the ropes. It is a pretty strange thing to cook dishes at home that you’ve never actually eaten before, so that you’re not quite sure if you’re getting them right. Last winter, for example, I was fixated on trying to make chicken and dumplings, and scoured a million websites to find the perfect recipe to introduce me to this traditional dish; the result was absolutely delicious, but who knows how it compared to the real thing!

One book that has been teaching me about soul food is Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South:

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Sheila Ferguson wrote Soul Food when she moved to the UK with her British husband and felt cut off from her community and access to traditional recipes. She is a fantastic writer who takes great pains to introduce the reader to the origins of the food, its cultural significance, and why she loves it. She manages to be funny and colloquial without coming off as kitschy. Chapters of the book include, for example, “The High and Mighty Breakfast”; “Fine Feathered Fowl”; “The Almighty Pig”; “If You See It, Shoot It”; and “The Glorious Sweet Potato”; among others. I had been pouring over this book since I bought it months ago, savouring her writing on the evolution of this style of cooking, but it was not until this weekend that I finally tried a recipe. Many reviews online mentioned that Ferguson’s BBQ sauce recipes were amazing, so I thought that a fitting place to start. Often, when we BBQ, we use the Smoked Chipotle BBQ Sauce from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie cookbook, which is seriously so ridiculously flavourful that it surprises us every time, but I thought it  might be nice to add another sauce to our repertoire. And Ferguson did not disappoint. For whatever reason, I was especially drawn to the BBQ sauce in her recipe for spareribs, so I stole that and used it for a couple of chicken legs. We grilled some new potatoes, asparagus and nectarines alongside the chicken, and as a further accompaniment I decided to try my hand at another soul food perennial that I had never actually tried (or even seen) in real life: spoonbread.

The result was a literally finger-licking plate of food that could not have made a more beautiful kick-off to our summer cookery. The BBQ sauce was really simple but full of flavour: a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy, a little bit acidic, it complemented the char of the BBQ perfectly. I will absolutely be making it again; it strikes me as the perfect base sauce to experiment with, or just to use as is because it is so solid. The spoonbread was like a perfect cross between cornbread and bread pudding. We often do some kind of corn-based accompaniment when we grill–cornbread, grilled polenta, corn on the cob–and this is a great addition to our repertoire. Light and fluffy, and nice and moist, it really added to the succulence of the BBQ-ed chicken and also made for awesome leftovers; we had some for breakfast the next morning with butter and a fried egg.

What a lovely way to kick of BBQ season; I hope we will have many more such meals to share with you over the coming months. In the meantime, here are Sheila Ferguson’s recipes for Spoonbread and BBQ Sauce, slightly adapted by me.

Spoonbread
Adapted from Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South. Serves 6.

Spoonbread is to my mind a gourmet’s delight. You should be able to spoon it out onto your plate and eat it with a fork. To ensure this, I treat spoonbread with the respect it deserves and separate the eggs and beat the whites. Some people don’t and it comes out just fine, but I like that extra little bit of fluffiness that beaten egg whites give.

Ingredients:
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
2 cups water
1 tsp salt [I would add a little more]
1 cup milk or buttermilk
2 tbsp melted butter
1 tsp baking powder
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites

Preheat your over to 375F. Pour your cornmeal into boiling salted water. Cook, over medium heat, for 5 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly.
When the consistency is just about right, remove the pan from the heat and slowly stir in the milk. Let it cool down a bit before beating in your butter, baking powder and egg yolks. Beat vigorously for a couple of minutes then fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites (stiff but not dry, that is).

Pour the batter into a well buttered 2 quart baking dish and bake for 35-40 minutes [it took me about 45] or until golden brown. It’s done when a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

You can serve spoonbread with just about any kind of meat — ham, pork loin or chops, spareribs, roast chicken or seafood dishes. It is also terrific for breakfast!

Spare Rib BBQ Sauce
Adapted from Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South. Again, I used this to BBQ chicken and it worked out beautifully; I am sure it would also be awesome for ribs too.
Serves 6.

Ingredients:
2 tbsp melted pork fat or bacon grease (or melted butter)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp mustard dry or prepared (not too strong though or it will take over the taste)
1 tbsp celery salt or 1 tsp celery seed
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper [I put closer to a tsp and it gave it a nice kick]
1 cup tomato ketchup
3 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
4 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 cup water or meat stock
1/2 cup beer
1/2 cup dry white wine (optional) [I skipped this]

Heat the bacon grease or butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Brown the onion, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or so. Add in all the remaining ingredients. Bring them to a boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20 minutes or so, uncovered.

Taste and adjust seasoning, and then slather all over your chosen protein!

Comfort and bitterness

To say I’m unhappy with the results of Monday’s election would be a vast understatement. This isn’t the sort of blog where we’re going to dwell on that sort of thing, but suffice to say that this post is about two simultaneous feelings I’ve been having: bitterness and the need for comfort.

First the comfort:

If roast chicken doesn’t really require a recipe, then this is especially the case with chicken soup, right?  Sure, but since I was threatened with divorce–in the very pages of this blog no less, dear readers!–if I didn’t post about my chicken soup, here it is.   The recipe mainly comes from a cookbook Anna received for her birthday entitled, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily, by Jessica Theroux.  As the title suggests, the author travelled around the various regions of Italy, and met and learned to cook with Italian grandmothers. She talks about them, their lives, where they live, and gives us a sampling of their cooking.  We’ve tried a number of recipes from the book–gnocci, roasted rabbit, a rabbit sauce made from those leftovers, a sumptious chocolate and orange tart–and they’ve all been excellent.  But does chicken soup really require a recipe?  Well, maybe…

Whenever we roast chickens, we save the carcasses and stick them in the freezer, and when I make wings I chop off the wingtips and freeze those because nobody wants to eat those anyway, and they’re great for stocks. So we had a freezer full of chicken bits when I attempted this.  The quality of your stock is going to make or break this recipe.  I didn’t do anything special with mine, but I did arguably overreduce it so it ended up quite thick with a nice gelatinous quality to it that worked really well and turned this into a far more robust soup than I had anticipated.  The book has a recipe for stock that I didn’t look at before making mine, but kind of wish that I did since it calls for lemon juice that in conjunction with a long simmer “pulls the minerals out from the chicken’s bones, delivering them into the broth.”  I imagine that it would also contribute a refreshing lightness and acidity to the broth.  I will have to try this next time.

This broth, strained, and then simmered with garlic and then finished by poaching eggs in it made one of the most delicious chicken soups I’ve ever made.  It was so rich and flavourful and considering that it is basically just broth with an egg in it, was surprisingly filling.  We ate it as an appetizer, but served with some nice bread, or with some pasta in it, it would easily be enough for a full meal.

Chicken Soup with Poached Eggs and Herbs
Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

6 cups chicken (preferably bone) broth, lightly salted
3 cloves peeled, whole garlic, finely chopped, or 1 shoot green garlic, finely chopped
4-6 eggs
2 tablespoons chopped marjoram or parsley, or a mixture of both
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring the chicken broth to a boil and add the garlic. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Season to taste; if you used whole garlic cloves, remove them from the broth at this point. Crack the eggs into ramekins or small bowls, and while the broth is at a low simmer add 1 egg at a time to the pot. I find that stirring the broth gently between adding each egg helps to keep the yolk and white united.

Once all the eggs have been added, place the lid on just slightly ajar; be sure the flame is low, otherwise the broth could boil over, disrupting the eggs. If you prefer runny yolks, cook for 3 minutes total. If you like your egg yolks solid, cook for 5 to 6 minutes total.

To serve, spoon an egg into each bowl and ladle the broth over. Garnish with freshly chopped herbs, salt, and black pepper.

And now the bitterness:

While waiting for the CBC’s election night coverage to begin, I racked my IPA into a secondary fermenter.  Like the election results, this beer is bitter.  Unlike them, however, this beer will not only be easy to swallow, but positively enjoyable as well.  I’m really looking forward to bottling this one.  Here I am taking a reading of the beer.  It’s currently at 1.010 gravity (for you non-beer nerds, gravity basically measures the amount of sugar in the liquid.  As the beer ferments the sugars are converted to alcohol and you can calculate the alcoholic strength of the beer based on the difference between the starting and finishing gravity).  My starting gravity was a little lower than I had expected: I was aiming for 1.060, but got 1.054.  The beer is at 5.74% abv right now, which is a little low for the style, but certainly close enough.  It also smells and tastes delicious.  The body is maybe a little bit light, but it’s hard to properly judge that before it’s carbonated.  I’m pleased with it so far.

I threw about an ounce of Centennial leaf hops in the secondary fermentor to give it more aroma.  I’m almost regretting brewing a small batch of this because I don’t think it’s going to staying around the house for long once it’s ready to drink.

I’m planning on brewing a mild this weekend, so stay tuned for more on that.

Conquering Tofu


This is a terrible confession to make as someone who spent 15 years as a vegetarian, but it is not until recently that I really learned how to cook tofu. While I have often enjoyed this much maligned protein source when eating out at awesome places that really know how to prepare it, at home it always felt spongy and squeaky. Not wanting to contribute to its bad reputation, I pretended nothing was wrong.

Then, one fateful day, while trying out a new tofu recipe, I saw that it called for one to “press” one’s tofu. I looked up what this meant and it changed my life. Pressing the tofu, in addition to keeping it in the freezer (as we almost always do), helped so much with its spongy texture that all of a sudden it became less agonizing to work with. Nowadays we pretty much always keep a block or two of tofu in our freezer, and we utilize it with considerably less angst.

While I am pleased to have come such a long way in my tofu journey, I will also confess that I am a little bit lazy about always turning to the same handful of recipes, like the Grilled Tofu & Soba Noodles from 101 Cookbooks and the Sensitive New Age Sloppy Joes from my treasured Rebar cookbook. While I highly recommend both of these, I do aspire to be more adventurous. Recently I decided that I should branch out, and almost immediately I stumbled onto a sample recipe from a cookbook that I have already mentioned coveting on here: Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. His Black Pepper Tofu appealed to the junky Chinese food lover in me, and I was intrigued by his suggestion that you coat your tofu in cornstarch and pseudo-deep fry it. I knew I had to try it, and let me tell you: IT RULES. It is recipes like these that are increasingly convincing me of the versatility of tofu; this tofu was crunchy and without a hint of sponginess. It was about as close as I can imagine getting to awesome Chinese fake tofu in my own kitchen, especially as quickly as this dish cooked up. The flavours were awesome too–sweet and spicy and really incredibly fragrant–but that tofu preparation is really what convinced me to put it up here, because I know that I will be stealing it for all manner of other dishes. It really transforms it as an ingredient. I have tofu shame no more.

Black Pepper Tofu
The original recipe, up at Epicurious, is awesome and can be followed as is. I will post my adapted version of it here as well, as I added in some veggies to make it a self-contained dinner, and scaled it considerably down. This cooked up fairly spicy, so adjust the chiles and pepper if you aren’t too into that. Either way, enjoy it!

Serves 3-4

Ingredients
300g firm tofu, pressed
Vegetable oil for frying
Cornstarch to dust the tofu
4 tbsp butter
4 medium shallots (12 ounces in total), thinly sliced
4 fresh red chiles (fairly mild ones), thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
1.5 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
1.5 tbsp sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) [I could not find this, so I put in more dark soy sauce and a bit more sugar]
1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp coarsely crushed black peppercorns (use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder)
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
4 small and thin green onions, cut into 1 1/4-inch segments

Start with the tofu. Pour enough oil into a large frying pan or wok to come 1/4 inch up the sides and heat on medium-high heat. Drain the tofu and cut into large cubes, about 1 x 1 inch. Toss them in some cornstarch and shake off the excess, then add to the hot oil. Fry, turning them around as you go, until they are golden all over and have a thin crust. As they are cooked, transfer them onto paper towels.

Remove the oil and any sediment from the pan, then put the butter inside and melt it. Add the shallots, chiles, garlic and ginger. Sauté on low to medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients have turned shiny and are totally soft. When the mixture is almost done, steam the broccoli for 2 minutes, until it is bright green but still nice and crunchy. Add the soy sauces and sugar to the shallot mixture and stir, then add the crushed black pepper.

Add the tofu and broccoli to warm them up in the sauce for about a minute. Finally, stir in the green onions. Serve hot, with steamed rice.

On Meal Planning, Making Use of Neglected Cookbooks and Red Rice and Quinoa Salad

It is embarrassing that it took Graeme and I this long to do start doing something so sensible. Recently, due to Graeme being effectively useless at home due to his third month of night shifts, and my busy work schedule, we finally committed to meal planning. For real. With a whiteboard and everything. Why didn’t we do this sooner? Dinnertime used to consist of two tired folks looking at each other accusingly, each hoping that the other would volunteer to throw something together that would be more than just pasta with tomato sauce. (Although  let me be clear: I love pasta with tomato sauce.) The hungrier we got, the less likely we were to think of anything we could or would be willing to cook. Not a good scene. And so, we are now both nerdy devotees to the awesomeness of planning our dinners out for the week.

We love it for various reasons. The obvious one that most people cite is that actually knowing what we intend to cook makes for easier, and more affordable, grocery shopping. We waste less. We go out to eat when there is somewhere we actually want to go and eat–not just out of boredom. But there are other awesome side effects: it is genuinely a pleasure to sit together and chat about what we want to cook–usually we flip through cookbooks/magazines on a weekend morning and daydream what we’re in the mood for, which has become a really treasured part of the week. Taking that morning to think through our food plans also gives us space to stay creative and make sure our food is more balanced. For example, since we’ve actually been planning things out, we have been eating meat for dinner far less often (maybe twice a week?). Meat is an easy thing to fall back on when you’re hungry and drawing a blank (especially in winter, and boy did this year’s winter last forever!), but planning allows us to stick to our food ethics a little bit better. This is probably the first winter in a long time that I did not OD on meat. Taking that time to think also encourages us to try new recipes that we’ve had our eyes on, but would inevitably forget when at the supermarket or at dinnertime. We’re turning to cookbooks that had been collecting dust on our shelves, rediscovering them. So I feel like we’ve been cooking up lots of new recipes, and finding ourselves in far fewer cranky food ruts since we started doing this. I also find myself being far less lazy about weeknight cooking these days, as knowing exactly what the plan is makes the process seem less daunting when I’m tired after a long day. It’s awesome.

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One such cookbook that had previously been collecting dust, but which we have recently rediscovered, it the absolutely gorgeous Ottolenghi cookbook. I bought this book a couple of years ago, remembering that when we lived in England, we used to love the weekly recipes that Yotam Ottolenghi publishes in the Guardian. Through no fault of its own, though, the book has been sorely under-utilized in our household. Until recently, Graeme and I have turned to it mostly for the amazing baking recipes (the tea cakes in particular are beautiful and delicious!). But I am happy that I’ve branched out as all of the veggie-heavy, hearty, Mediterranean-inspired fare is right up my alley. I am pretty desperate to pick up his new cookbook, Plenty.

Below is our most recent Ottolenghi success–a delicious red rice and quinoa salad that was both nutritious and comforting given the continued winter-esque weather. The mix of textures, given the combination of quinoa, rice, pistachios, dried apricots, etc., is what really makes it special, and not just another “good for you” but dull main course salad. We ate it with a spinach salad on the side, and loved it as leftovers as well. I think it would make an especially awesome potluck dish.

Camargue Red Rice and Quinoa with Orange and Pistachios
Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Serves 4 [giants. We had tonnes!]

Ingredients
[Note: these are mostly done in weight. I was too lazy to weigh stuff, so I mostly winged it. It was still great.]
60g shelled pistachio nuts
200g quinoa
200g Camargue red rice [note: I just used the red rice I had, no idea what kind it was]
1 medium onion, sliced
150ml olive oil
grated zest and juice of one orange
2 tsp lemon juice
1 garlic clove, crushed
4 spring onions, thinly sliced
100g dried apricots, roughly chopped
40g rocket [arugula in North American speak–I left this out as I was planning on serving a spinach salad on the side anyway]
salt and black pepper

Preheat the over to 170C [350F]. Spread the pistachios out on a baking tray and toast for 8 minutes, until lightly coloured. Remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly and then chop roughly. [I totally left these whole!] Set aside.

Fill 2 saucepans with salted water and bring to a boil. Simmer the quinoa in one for 12-14 minutes and the rice in the other for 20 minutes. Both should be tender but still have a bite. Drain in a sieve and spread out the 2 grains separately on flat trays to hasten the cooling down. [I totally cooked the rice and quinoa how I usually do, by putting in the right proportions of water so they absorb them all. And I didn’t bother cooling anything.]

While the grains are cooking, saute the white onion in 4 tbsp of olive oil for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Leave to cool completely. [Also did not cool these.]

In a large mixing bowl combine the rice, quinoa, cooked onion and the remaining oil. Add all the rest of the ingredients, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve at room temperature. [By the time this got to the table, it wasn’t hot anymore, but still fairly warm, and I thought it was great that way! There is an awesome mix of textures and colours in this dish that I found really satisfying.]