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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Culinary Spatter's Splatter Cover

I've always had a 'splatter-guard' in my kitchen.

You know - those things you put over a pan to keep the restless bits of oil, and what-have-yous, from attempting to escape the hot and congested mayhem that is an overcrowded frying pan.  

While I'm certain that they yearn to fly free, and dream of nothing grander than adorning my kitchen walls with their scintillating sheen, I (like most people) prefer to keep them firmly downtrodden, and in their place.  Can't have them pesky drops of oil thinking they run the place.

As far back as I can remember, there's been a cheap-o superstore one sitting in my drawer.  Honestly I had never really given much thought to splatter guards before - as long as they did their job, I'd keep them flush with craved cupboard time, and with only the occasional 'on-time' actually covering a pan.  

That all changed when, the last time I actually needed to depend upon Mr. Splatter Guard, and he just, plain, let me down.  There had been a tear in his screen for some time, you see, and because I had never really thought twice about him, this came to bear in one nasty cook-job resulting in many an oily culprit breaking free of her saucepan shackles.

So, ever since then, I started looking around for a new one.  It had been over a decade since I last shopped for one, and I admit I kind of didn't even know what I was doing.  The last one I had was purchased when I was still a child, and fresh out of my parent's house... it was the "what's the cheapest one around?" mentality.  

Well, suffice it to say that when you actually start looking around at available products, there are differences in splatter guards, both large and small.  I had just assumed that I'd need to suffer through the same congenital afflictions most guards I'd ever seen possessed: flimsy wire arm, cheap plastic handle,  and deplorably weak, terribly tear-able mesh screen.

That is not necessarily true.  While the significant majority are indeed like this, there are some pretty nice, well-crafted splatter guards out there.

I first discovered a "nice" one at Williams Sonoma.  It was, however, still filed into the "cool, but I'll still look around a bit first" category (as so many things do from W.S.).  It was nice... but expensive.  More expensive than a splatter screen logically should be... like stupid expensive.  Like I'm stupid for ever giving Williams Sonoma my money.  However, I do maintain that W.S. can be a great place to shop, and I often have the aforementioned "cool, but I'll still look around a bit first" mentality at the fore when there.

So it was that, several weeks later, and after checking all my other "Kitchen-Porn" haunts with no success (including Superstore --> SHAME upon thee Loblaws, for only carrying ONE splatter screen, and that of extremely poor quality... oh, oh, the shameful shame...) I happened upon a decently nice one in the unlikeliest of places!

Homesense had a very decent splatter screen, on par with the "nice" ones, which was fortunately free of the flimsy fabrication afflicting most other, poorer, models.  And it was significantly more affordable.  Like I'm stupid not to buy it kind of affordability.

Needless to say (I'm actually fairly hopeful I did NOT, in fact, need to say this, but whatever) I bought it; it is currently filling the role of Mr. Splatter Guard, and quite well I do say.

The handle is solid, firmly attached, and not going to bend or break or chip.  And the screen is not only fine, but also durable.

So, old Mr. Splatter Guard, with his many battle wounds, received an honourable discharge and is now spending his days golfing and taking cruises in the Bahamas.  While new and improved Mr. Splatter Guard is stepping into the void quite readily.  He has tiny, tiny shoes to fill, but his feet are so very disproportionately large that this intended analogy becomes moronically comical. 

In any case, he is well up to the task, and certain to help with any unwanted culinary spattering.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Vanilla Bean Salted Caramels

I've never made caramels before - the candy that is.  I've made a caramel sauce before, but that is not the same thing.

As usual when embarking upon a new culinary endeavour, I'll do a fair bit of reading and research beforehand.  I looked at several recipes and found a few which were similar, including a really simple one in Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa How Easy Is That? which had relatively few ingredients, relatively easy directives, and a really short preparation time.  

After amalgamating info from various recipes, I made a few 'safe' adjustments - nothing which would affect the chemistry of the mixture a whole lot - and ended up with a decently simple, well-rounded recipe which was hopefully very representative of typical caramels.

Click to Enlarge
There was a surprising amount of cream and butter in these candies; at least it surprised me, who'd never looked too closely at caramel candies before...

It's actually a very easy recipe, but the last couple of stages are rather tedious and time-consuming.

It can also be rather dangerous, as sticky caramel at 250 degrees can really do some damage, so best to keep your wits about you.

As the recipe instructs, mix the sugar, corn syrup and a bit of water in a large saucepan, and bring to a boil.  

Watch this, as it can burn quickly, and you basically just want it to get to a boil for a second before adding the (separately boiled) cream and butter mixture.

I would recommend never bringing your heat up past medium for any of these steps; medium-low if you're the kind of person to get distracted in the kitchen.  :)

I stirred in the vanilla, vanilla pods, and salt all at the same time as the cream, and then stuck my candy thermometer in the pot and then just sat back and prepared to be bored.

Looks more like a sauce at this stage.
Now, technically the pod of a vanilla bean doesn't typically get eaten; it's generally too tough to be a pleasing texture.  However, in this case, this mixture was going to be good and thoroughly cooked, and the candies themselves were going to be rather chewy when finished.  

So, I opted to throw the whole bean in (half of one pod), albeit minced very finely.

After that, it was clean up the kitchen, and do the dishes, while stirring the caramel every minute or so with my trusty silicon spatula.  

You can get your square baking pan ready at this point too; lining it with lightly greased parchment paper.

Now, not to pat myself on the back or anything, but it is a very good thing that I referenced multiple recipes, from varying sources, before trying this out.  The biggest reason is that Ina Garten's book was just plain incorrect.  In her recipe, she clearly states:

...cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, until the mixture reaches 248 degrees (firm ball) on a candy thermometer.

This information is so utterly off, that I have to wonder if she ever even tried this recipe before printing it in her book.  After ten minutes on medium-low, my mixture had not changed in the slightest, and my thermometer had barely twitched a couple of degrees!!!

Luckily for me, other recipe-writers all said that this step can be done on medium heat, and should actually take upwards of 45 minutes!  Very different advice indeed!


Sorry "Contessa"... maybe you wanted to avoid this recipe for fear of splashing hot caramel on your "bare feet"??

AH HAHA HAH HAH AHA H HA HA HA HA Heh.  I'm so funny.


Anyway, I'll show you a chronology of my mixture over the course of 45 minutes on medium heat:

Time Index: 1 minute / Consistency: runny
Time Index: 15 minutes / Consistency: bubbly
Time Index: 30 minutes / Consistency: frothy
Time Index: 45 minutes / Consistency: gummy!
So, it really does take a good amount of time to reach the 'firm ball' stage.  But after almost exactly 45 minutes of steady boiling, and frequent stirring, the mixture magically transformed from a runny golden liquid, into a thick and sticky brown goop, and the thermometer read just under 250°.

You can see from the last image here, at the 45 minute mark, the mix was so thick and goopy, that when stirred, you can see the bottom of the pan.  Which is good!  It shows just how thick it has become.

At this point the hard part was over; I turned off the heat, poured it (oh so carefully!!!) into my parchment-lined pan, and stuck it in the fridge to cool for about 30 minutes.

Once cooled, the mix was really hard.  I thought perhaps I had maybe cooked it beyond the firm ball stage temperature for a few minutes... but as it slowly got back up to room temperature, it was actually delightfully malleable and soft!

I cut the whole square in half, and then folded each half up into a roll, but then smoothed it, turning each side until there were four square-ish sides to it.

At this point feel free to sprinkle a fair bit of your salt all over them, and keep rolling it until it is nicely coated.  If you're worried about what kind of salt to get... it doesn't really matter a WHOLE lot... fleur de sel if you've got it, otherwise any decent sea salt will also work.  Myself, I used a sel gris for the cooking portion, and a pink Himalayan for the coating stage.  It worked just fine.  :)

The cutting part was not the easiest.  Many of the recipes I looked at (I think maybe even all of them...) suggested using a 'greased' knife for this stage.  I tried that, and it didn't really help my knife not sticking to it, and it also just coated my already pretty greasy caramels with more grease!  

In the end I just switched to the sharpest knife I own, and used pressure force rather than shearing force to cut them.

Then came the wrapping in parchment squares.  It was good that there were quite a few of these to practice on, because my first half dozen or so were not pretty.  My advice here, and what I learned from doing this, is to just use more parchment paper than you'd think, and make them 'rectangles' rather than 'squares'.  Basically ensure that you've got enough extra paper on the long sides to be able to *twist* the ends up.

They're still quite soft and malleable at this stage, so feel free to wrap them, and then just press firmly down on each side to make them 'square' again.

In the end, my first attempt at caramels was a little shaky, but finished well, and was very well received.  Many people enjoyed them.  So much that I've already been asked to make more.  :(

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Peppercorn-Baked Camembert with Fresh Thyme Bread-sticks

I don't have any proper cheese-baking dishes, but I like to bake the occasional brie or camembert.  Occasional being like once or twice a year...

I do have a plethora of ramekins, however.  Medium and small.

So every time I bake a cheese, I lament the fact that the circle of cheese is just ever-so-slightly too large for the largest ramekin I have.  I keep wanting to try and make it fit, but am often afraid of getting it to work, so I don't try.

However... this time I did.

I scraped most of the rind off the camembert first.  I wanted to keep at least some of it on for flavour, but in order to squeeze it into my slightly too small ramekin, I wanted to "grease" it in.

I thought some truffle butter would be an awesome lubricant.  And delicious with the cheese, thyme, and peppercorns.  

So, I took the smallest of dollops of truffle butter, and smeared it over all sides of the cheese, and then gently eased the cheese in one 'side' at a time.  To my astonishment and delight, it worked!  It was much more malleable than I expected, and despite being slightly convex at first, with a satisfying 'phhhht' sound I was able to push it all the way down.

 I was pleased.

I think it is so much nicer to have it contained in such a limiting container.  Often it will be recommended to bake a cheese in a shallow dish, so that you can cut into it a little easier... but this was easily solved with the addition of a spoon to the dish upon serving.

Anyway, I mulched up a small amount of almonds, chopped up some thyme, and then pulled out my drawer of peppercorns.

I like any chance to do a mixed peppercorn medley.  More often than not, each flavour of peppercorn has its own specific use and I generally don't mix them.  The most I'll do is mix a bit of black and pink for some beans or some black and green for a steak or something... but for the most part they are largely solo flavourings.
So, when the opportunity pops up to do a peppercorn medley, I'm excited.

Each one imparts its own uniqueness and when you're using "peppercorn" as your dominant flavour (which in this case I am) it is nice to have them all play together.  The spiciness of the black, the heat of the pink, the freshness of the green, and the tartness of the white, are a truly beautiful symphony of flavours.

The thyme was thrown in there just to be a subtle complementary hint; a little allusion to the bread-sticks I made to accompany the cheese.

So, I ground the peppercorns coarsely rather than finely, mixed in the crushed almonds, sprinkled in the chopped thyme, and just spread that evenly on top of the cheese.

drip...drip...drip... <drool>

Of course, this was mainly meant just as an appetizer-snack-kind-of-dealie (and like I said, meant to accompany some fresh thyme bread-sticks I baked) so I opted to serve it up 'condiment' style with some spoons in the cheese and in some thyme-dijon.  

In fact, there was thyme in everything this night.  

It was delightful.

The bread-sticks I rolled in some coarse salt, as I wanted them to be almost "pretzel" style.  Hence the idea to have dijon as well.  I just stirred in some more thyme into the dijon, and it performed the same function as the hint of it did in the cheese as well - just a subtle reminder that thyme was there.

The ramekins weren't exactly dip-worthy, but with a couple of small spoons in them, we were able to just spoon some of the cheese or the mustard up separately.

It was delicious.

I ended up having bread-sticks with cheese and dijon as my supper.


I made some extra bread dough, so also baked an actual LOAF too, in addition to the bread-sticks.  Here are some pics of that (just for shits and giggles):

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Holy Thyme (Batman)!

I like thyme.

There are some really nice things you can do with it... like veggies with browned thyme butter drizzled on them; baked carrots on a light bed of thyme leaves, or, especially, cheese sauces, or baked cheese.


It's kind of tedious to prepare though...

First I wash it, and then spin-dry it.

Then it needs to be stripped from the stem.

I've learned a trick... I'm sure it's not that big of a secret, but I reveled in the knowledge when I first discovered it... if you hold it by the top (tip) rather than the base, and then run your pinched-thumb-and-forefinger along the length of it backwards (away from the tip), it strips quite easily indeed!

In order to get it to the point of just being leaves, with no stem, you'd need a great deal of patience, however.  More patience than I regularly have... and I'm a fairly patient dude in the kitchen...
So, invariably I'll just get it to the point of being leaves and soft-stems... the greenish stems rather than the brownish stems... and then chop it some.

It works well enough.  And saves me from going insane.  Even still, this takes a surprising amount of time.

I like thyme.

It just gets relegated to special occasions.


Monday, December 5, 2011

ijj's Famous Tomato Sauce

So, like many of my culinary exploits, this favoured sauce is not really French, nor wholly Italian... but sort of in the middle. I suppose there are other influences in there as well, but regardless, none of that truly matters.

What does matter, and I say this with as much humility as I can manage, is that this sauce is positively beloved by all who taste it.

It was the first thing I ever cooked for my wife, after we'd only been dating a few weeks, and I'm fairly certain it was this that won her heart.

Since as far back as I can remember, it has been my go-to basic tomato sauce for pasta. Oh, sure there are tweaks here, substitutions there, and additions often, but the basic template has won me many an accolade entertaining. I try to remember to make a simple version of it for my wife at least once every couple of weeks.

At it's simplest, it is garlic, onion, green onion, tomato paste, olive oil, water and salt. From this, I generally choose one green "European" herb to dominate the palate, and with which render all of the other, subtler, tastes complementary. Some of my favourites for this are oregano, parsley, fennel, or basil. These work quite well with the base, however some of the more unique concoctions which have also yielded success are rosemary, cilantro, or even cinnamon. Remember that we're talking here about dominant flavours, so that which will take on the strongest role; there are vast numbers of other flavours one could add in the subtle mix of complementary spices. So vast in fact, that after almost 15 years of making this sauce two or three times a month, I am still coming up with novel creations.

Today, in this particular version, I'm using some fresh oregano. See this previous post to learn just how much I adore this fragrant herb. I'm sure some, if not many, will say that this is a rather common, even trashy, herb. I prefer to think of it instead as humble and immodest. It is my favourite herb, and in my experience offers up the best success in making this tomato sauce.

If you're looking to be impressed by this sauce, I must insist you use fresh oregano. It is fairly easy to grow yourself if you've got an herb garden, but also decently cheap at most grocers.

I'll share a trick I learned somewhere – I'm not even sure where I picked this up: fresh green herbs last longest, and stay freshest, in a cool, dark place, and you can get them to keep quite well by immediately washing them and then wrapping them whole in a slightly damp paper towel. Place this in a ziploc bag and then in your fridge's crisper. It sounds weird, and actually kind of counter-intuitive (can't you grow things... unwanted things... in moist paper towels?) but it works. I've had fresh green herbs last for almost 4 weeks this way! Because I like to keep fresh herbs of various sorts in the fridge, I actually have some plastic containers within which to place the ziploc bags, and which keep the herbs all neat and organized in my crisper.

So... back to the sauce.

These are the ingredients for this particular iteration, and (roughly) in order of concentration: tomato, garlic, white onion, scallions, oregano, fennel seeds, bay leaves, olive oil, black peppercorns, and some nice sel gris (french grey salt).

Chop finely the white onion, and start that simmering in a large splash (I'd say two or three tablespoons) of olive oil on medium low (gas mark 3 tops).

You can see here I'm using a frying pan, but you can use a saucepan if you prefer; especially if you don't have a lid for your frying pans, as a lid is going to be necessary later. So, while the white onion blips softly, chop your green onion almost as finely (can be a little coarser), and when finished add that to the pan. Next, mince the garlic. You'll note this is a lot of garlic (well, for most people... people not me). Once minced well, scrape that into your sautee mix and then spend a minute or three scraping and stirring with a whisk.

You'll note that we didn't add all three of these ingredients at the same time. This is done intentionally in order to give proper order to the softening of these vegetables. The white onion needs the most softening, and the garlic the least, so everyone benefits from this chronology.

After this base has started to get nicely soft, but BEFORE anything starts to turn golden or brown, spoon a small can of tomato paste in and whisk it all together.

Of course fresh tomatoes are better than canned, but really, and as I've said before, tomato paste isn't really all that bad. Just look at the ingredients on the side of the label: Tomatoes. Pretty good and simple. If you can do the organic, so much the better. But in any case, tomatoes are plentiful in the autumn here in Ontario, and it's nice having a few jars of preserved tomatoes in the cupboard, but in a pinch there's nothing wrong with tomato paste. It's extremely concentrated (in order to get the same amount of tomato-ey-ness you'd need like a dozen fresh tomatoes) and super cheap (usually only between 50 and 80 cents!). No need to get brand name tomato paste when the label reads the exact same thing as the no-name. My cupboard is always well stocked with tomato paste.

A realization I'm ashamed to admit it took me a while to come to, is that tomato sauce is really just tomato paste diluted with water (and maybe with a small amount of salt and spices). So, you know how in the grocery store you'll see the cans of paste immediately next to the cans of sauce?  Don't even ever concern yourself with the latter. Just add your own thinning agent (water, oil, cream/milk, wine, broth, etc.) later when you're making your sauce. I won't even go into the commercial, heavily-produced, jars of tomato sauce. The 'ready-mades' I call them. I am proud to say that I have never bought any... ever. These manufacturers make a killing mixing together a dollar's worth of vegetables and then charging sometimes over $10 for the jar!!! Unbelievable!

Anyway, sorry for the rant, back to the sauce again.

Whisk the tomato paste into the oil well, you'll know it's mixed well when they are no longer separated, but fully incorporated...

Next, pour in a generous amount of thinning agent; I'll regularly use just water, and NOT to the detriment of the overall sauce, although red wine is best. Cream or milk if you're going for a rose sauce... beef broth for a meaty rich flavour... alcohol for a kick... there are many options to choose from, but this stage does dictate your outcome so it is a relatively important, and decisive, time.

Myself, I used a decent, but cheap, Argentinian Malbec. Any rich, dry, red would work, however.

Pour this liquid (whatever you choose) into the empty(ish) can of tomato paste, and feel free to make it a 1:1 ratio with the paste. Give it a good whisking in the can, to try and get any bits of tomato still clinging vainly to the sides of the can. Then whisk this into the mix.

Try to keep stirring fairly often at this stage, and whisk in your chopped oregano:

and freshly-ground (using your mortar and pestle) fennel and peppercorns:

and just a small teaspoon of salt (regular table salt is fine, but if you haven't gotten into the flavoured salts of the world, I recommend you do... and with all salt, a little really does go a long way!):

Now here's a special addition which isn't crucial, but can really make a difference. A very small amount of truffle butter, can make a huge impact.

This stuff is awesome. Expensive, sure, but it does last a long time. It is always a welcome pantry item to keep stocked. If used in sufficient quantity this can easily be a dominant flavour. Some cream with a bit of garlic, onion, and a couple spoonfuls of truffle butter is at once delicious and simple. In today's sauce, we're adding only a small spoonful... a teaspoon. And it's going to be freaking awesome!

So, with all of that whisked WELL into the sauce, add the bay leaves (count how many you add, so you can remove them all later) – I used 4 here – and then just gently push them around a little bit until they are evenly spread out and somewhat submerged. Don't whisk em in cause they can break up pretty easily. Once that is done, put on your lid, turn the heat down to LOW (mark 1), and let this bitch simmer for a while.

I'd say simmer for at LEAST 20 minutes, but I'd prefer to do about double that, so 40 minutes, and I must say I've even had this simmer for several hours and be absolutely delicious.

This sauce simmered for about 45 minutes.

Which is good, because it gives you time to start your pasta cooking, and even clean up, do some dishes, and set the table.  And sip at the red wine you've just opened!  :)

The pasta pairing this evening was an unassuming whole-wheat farfalle. Seemed like a good choice to me.

Once the pasta is done, pour off some of the pasta water into the tomato sauce. Why? Because the wine would have evaporated by now, and the sauce has thickened substantially.

So, pour off as little or as much (I'd say between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup probably) of the pasta water as you want, in order to bring the sauce to your desired consistency. I did 1/2 cup roughly. At this point you can also add a quick splash of wine, if you want.

Whisk again, take out your bay leaves, dish out some pasta, and pour on some sauce. This sauce is very rich, so you don't really need much. Grate some fresh parmigiano-reggiano on top, and garnish with a small sprig of fresh oregano. Serve with more of the dry red wine you used in the sauce.

If you're serving this up for company, or a larger group, you could accompany it with a nice simple salad or some mixed greens in a light vinaigrette, and maybe some fresh, hearty, and piping-hot bread. However, it is not necessary, as this is really a meal in and of itself. A good balance of high-fibre carbs, and a very healthy dose of nutrient-rich vegetables, this meal is low in sodium, low in fat, and very rich and hearty. If you elect to use egg-free pasta noodles, it's also entirely vegan until you put the cheese on top of course.

Whenever I make this dish for us, my wife remembers why she loves me, and after eating, we both feel... well... good.

If any of you read this, I sincerely hope you try this recipe out for yourselves; I expect you'll thoroughly enjoy it!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bouquet Garni Infused Olive Oil

So, I've flavoured my olive oils before.

Usually that just means throwing a bunch of herbs and spices into a bottle willy-nilly, and keeping it full up.

However... today I decided to try a different approach.

I've made bouquets garni before, for soups and stews and such... however I figured, why not infuse some olive oil with one?  That way, no slimy, over-saturated bits of spices and herbs taint the luxurious texture of the oil.

So, for anyone who's never made a bouquet garni... it's essentially just a sachet of herbs tied up and easily contained for convenient removal after cooking.

Typically used with herbs associated with French cuisine like lavender and parsley, these are especially useful for containing bay leaves.  It's great to just yank the whole sachet out and know that you've got it all.

So, you need a twice- or thrice- folded bit of cheesecloth, and some butchers' string (food grade string).  And some herbs of course.

My choosings today were: Bay, Thyme, Fennel, and Green and Black Peppercorns.

It's real simple.  So simple that you don't really need instructing on how to pull it off.

Leave herbs relatively whole/coarse, dump in the centre, wrap em up, and tie it off with string.

Normally, I'd do it a little more like a sachet or pouch, but this needed to squeeze through a narrow bottle opening, so I had to get creative.  :D

All in all, it went smoothly, and I'm excited to have clear, infused oil.

Should go well with most pastas, vegetables, and meats, and also as a decent finishing oil.