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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Whole Wheat Flax Bread

My wife and I buy this "blue menu multigrain flax" bread from President's Choice, regularly, and we love it.
It's pretty decent for store bought bread.
Plus, it has flax in it which is good for my wife who doesn't eat fish.

However... lately we haven't seen it around in every Loblaws or Superstore we visit.

So, I decided to try my hand at making some myself.

I had had some flax seeds in the cupboard (which I had actually bought in order to make some home-made thermal packs as flax retains temperatures quite well) which I wanted to use.

I have read that flax can go bad, or even 'rancid', if left too long... however these were OK.  They had been in a cool, dark space, and were seeds instead of ground, which makes a difference.

Anyway, this was basically my standard Artisan Bread recipe (you can reference that in my previous post about cinnamon buns) except I used about 80% whole wheat flour and 20% white (unbleached) flour, and that I put in a schwack of flax seeds.

I won't go into it because it's pretty standard, and very basic, but if anyone's interested in the recipe just ask me and I'll be happy to post it.

I was a little apprehensive about the addition of flax, but it actually worked out really well.

Like I said, everything was standard procedure, except for the 80% W.W. and the flax, but I also threw on some 'topping' before putting it in the oven.  This was basically just some loose wheat bran, some more flax seeds, and some raw oats.  Just to make it look 'grainy'! :)

It worked.

It was very wholesome, but not as dense as I feared.  Still very moist and very flavourful.

Absolutely delicious.  I've no doubt that this will be eaten up before it goes stale.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Crumpets Perdues

So, you know I don't really love mimicking others' recipes entirely; but there is one of Jamie Oliver's which I cook up fairly faithfully every once in a while.

Only because it's delicious.

In Jamie Oliver's Jamie at Home, he's got a beautiful, graphic, double-page spread of what he calls 'Eggy breakfast crumpets':

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The only difference I make is I add a titch of milk to the mix, and I mince my chili significantly more than he does in the photo.

But... frying these in bacon grease (I still don't let it swim in the stuff...) is unparalleled.


Plus... I like mine a little eggier... a little extra goop on the sides.

Jamie's a little crazy (read: British) so I'm not going to comment on the freaking HP sauce (brown sauce)... but I can vouch for the syrup!  Mmmmmm...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Décor Provençale

I'm fairly secure in my masculinity.

So it doesn't really bother me to admit that I have some fairly girly sensibilities at times.
One such vain interest, is Anthropologie.  

I swear my wife was the first person to hear about this place (before it got "cool"); she's been buying cute petite vêtements-françaises there for years.

I like to go into this store.  It always smells nice, and I could easily drop $10,000 in there on kitchen- and home-ware alone.

We've bought a few things here for our kitchen, over the years.  Some dishware, some serving-ware...

I'm sure you've noticed my delightful spoon rest before:

I also picked out this very nice butter dish:

So... it appears that I quite enjoy the "Provençale" look.

Which is OK. (again, see aforementioned masculine security).

In fact, last year I dragged my wife half-way across Manhattan looking for this one table linen set from Williams Sonoma which was only available in the states:

Anyway, this last week, we added some delightful mugs from Anthropologie to our collection.

I wanted a nice(r) mug which could become my new main coffee mug.

A man drinks coffee out of this mug, and you just know he's not afraid of anything.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chef's Mat

I had heard of 'chef's' mats for some time now, but I admit I was a little skeptical that they would make much of a difference.

I got this as a gift a year ago, and have absolutely loved having it.

It is really thick, and shock-absorbent, and allows me to stand at my counter for hours before feeling fatigued.

Especially useful for all the chopping and dicing I do, this was a welcome addition to my kitchen.

It's even easy to clean.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pretty Pathetic Peppers

I used to be able to grow almost anything.
People even told me that I had a 'green thumb'.
I've since realized that it wasn't me; I just happened to be blessed with some very well-lit apartments.

My current place has a fair few windows, but almost all of them are heavily obscured, or facing the complete wrong direction to grow anything indoors.

Outside, our patio does get enough light to grow some more hardy, shade-faring, varieties.

What few fruiting plants, however, ALSO have to contend with the voracious (and apparently absolutely ravenous) wildlife in our neighbourhood.

Every so often I'll try to grow some herbs or vegetables, and they don't last more than a week after sprouting, before some greedy (but wholly adorable) raccoon or squirrel (less adorable) comes along and helps himself.

So, needless to say, our harvests are extremely few, and extraordinarily far between.

We've currently got a couple of pepper plants out there, which have produced a few peppers here and there, but the moronic (again, however, thoroughly cute and cuddly) raccoons keep thinking they want to eat them.  We find entire raccoon dental records inscribed upon many a once-bitten-and-hastily-discarded pepper.

It might be worth it never to get a pepper from these plants, if we could only be there at 3 in the morning or whenever, and see the look on some unsuspecting raccoon's horrified face!

Poor dudes.

Anyway, I was out there a couple days ago, and finally was able to harvest 2 peppers, and they are some of the most shrunken, pitiful pathetic peppers I've ever picked!!!


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

ijj's Low-Fat, Whole-Wheat, Banana Oat Muffins

This recipe has its roots in an old one handed down from my mother; I'm not even sure from where she originally got it, but it suffices to say that we've used it often.

After I started baking regularly myself, my mom sent me this recipe (among others) for my own rolodex. Since then, however, it has undergone heavy overhauls, and many tweaks.

Without laying down an entire chronology of its progression, allow me to just skip to the end. What I've made it now is very low in fat, and very high in fibre. The only thing which has remained the same from the original is the amount of sugar. I'd say that it “remained constant” throughout all its iterations, but that would not be the truth. Several essays involved cutting the sugar significantly, but it eventually got restored back to its full allotment.

Firstly, I'll say it is often hard to just plain out-and-out substitute whole wheat flour for regular all-purpose flour. It rarely works well. So most of the tweaking involved getting that to work. The addition of the oats was just pure personal preference, I liked the added texture (and fibre). It's been so long since I've had the original kicking around, I forget if it used butter or margarine, but in any case the margarine is the only real fat in the recipe other than the egg, and doesn't add up to much overall.

So, after about 10 years worth of tweaks, I finally got this recipe down if I do say so myself. It's delicious, and hearty, and pretty healthy for a baked good. I jokingly refer to them as 'breakfast substitutes', but that really isn't far from accurate. They definitely fill you up, and are certainly good for you.

Without further preamble, here is my final recipe for Banana Muffins:

ijj's Whole Wheat Banana Oat Muffins Recipe
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You can use fresh bananas for this recipe, but the riper the better. This is important! Not only are ripe bananas sweeter than unripe, they're also much easier to mash. I find that frozen bananas are even better however, (not just adequate, but actually preferred!) for two reasons. First, it is exceptionally convenient to just huck a banana or two into the freezer once they hit the “too-ripe-to-eat” stage. Second, freezing any organic material causes the the cells to lyse* (see utterly fascinating addendum below) which ends up making the entire thing mushy; not awesome for most applications, but great for cooking or baking!

So, the first thing we're going to do is take out all our frozen bananas, and let them start to thaw. Don't do this too early, however, as you don't want to deal with them completely unthawed. Next, rather than try to peel these suckers as you would a fresh one, grab a paring knife and make a decently deep incision down the length of the banana.

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It's OK if it slices the fruit itself. Then it's a simple matter to just pick off the peel. Make sure you get all the bit of peel, including that stringy stuff which is sort of in-between peel and fruit. You can just run your thumb along the whole fruit and should be able to clearly feel where there is still bits of that which need to come off.

Peeling these frozen bananas can actually be a little painful. Like frostbite painful! :D
What I've taken to doing is just filling up a couple inches of tepid (not too warm) water in my sink, into which I can just dunk my hands every minute or so between bananas. It helps.

After peeling all your bananas into a large mixing bowl, set that aside for now, and grab a whole other large bowl, for your dry ingredients. No real order is necessary here, just measure the flour, oats, soda, powder, and salt, and dump 'em in. Do mix this very well, however, and even bring in the hand-mixer to ensure it is all mixed really, really, well.

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Set your bowl of dry ingredients aside, (this is probably a good time to heat your oven – 350° - because we're only about 10 or 15 minutes from the finish line) go back to your bananas, and mash away; feel free to just have at 'em! Depending on how thawed they are at this point, I'll often give them a quick once-over with a fork first, before unleashing the terror of the hand-mixer upon them.

Truly my hand-mixer is a terror, but more to me than to any food. The thing was probably only $15 and is by now over 10 years old. <sigh> It still works OK, despite emitting some strange smells if left on high for too long.

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This step is crucial unless you want to have chunks of banana in your muffins. My wife and I do not, so I like to puree this fruit until it is almost liquid.

Next add the margarine, beat that in well before adding the sugar in batches until that is all nicely uniform. Don't add the eggs until last, and then just beat the mixture enough to ensure it is evenly distributed throughout.

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Now just standard procedure for mixing wet and dry: dig a well in your dry, pour in the wet, and then mix well.

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Once that is mixed smoothly, and everything has blended nicely, you're ready to grease up your muffin tin(s) and fill them up! I like to grease the entire tin, including not just the cups but the flat surfaces between as well. One thing my mom and my grandma before her never did (for whatever reason) was fill the muffin cups up enough. Their versions of muffins were really like little buns, short and squat. The characteristic “muffin” shape, with the mushroom-like top and skinnier bottom, can only be achieved if the tin's cups are filled all the way to the top. This way, when the batter rises it will balloon up and over, spilling on to the flat part of the tin (thus the grease on those parts as well).

So fill the tins up all the way flush with the surface.

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(don't judge my muffin pans - they've seen a LOT of action in their day)

At this point, assuming your oven is ready, bake away!

I put ~20 mins @ 350° on my recipe card, but I start checking to see if they're done already by about 15 minutes. They are done when the tops get deliciously golden brown (and hard to the touch), or when you can stick a bamboo skewer or toothpick in the middle of the middle muffins and have it come away dry. Usually this is about 20 minutes. Always better to take them out for a minute and check however, as they can always just get put back in again if unready.

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That's it!

Take em out, let them cool in-pan for a minute or two before trying to remove them, and then just give them a little bit of a circular wiggle, very gently, and they should pull right out. If you've got a baking (cooling) rack, place them all on there to cool.

Whole Wheat Banana Oat Muffins
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Don't wait too long, or let them cool too much, however, before cutting one open and digging in!!!

Whole Wheat Banana Oat Muffin
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*Lyse is a term which basically just means 'rupture'. The actual phenomena of cell lysis is pretty neat (scary, but cool): because all organic cells are mostly water and because when water freezes it crystallizes, then when an organic cell freezes, the sharp water crystals will literally pierce the cell membrane. As it pertains to plant matter such as fruits and vegetables, once frozen, they will never have the same consistency, because cell walls are the only thing lending them any structure. They've literally lost the ability to hold together, and are irreparably damaged.  When we're talking about food this basically translates to very mushy, and often watery, food.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gourmet Oregano Meatballs

The only reason I would refer to these as 'gourmet' is simply because they've got a whole bunch of crap in them.  My mom has always made delicious meatballs with (what I've come to accept as) standard ingredients: ground beef, egg, and bread crumbs.

So, this is basically a spin-off of that same standard meatball recipe, with just a couple changes: the addition of some herbs and veggies, but the removal of bread crumbs.

I don't like to use bread crumbs in meat mixes.  I think it dilutes the flavour.  However, in most cases you do need to substitute something for it, otherwise your ratio of wet to dry ingredients will be a little off, and the mix won't hold together adequately.

Our dominant flavour here tonight, is going to be oregano.

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I freakin love this shit.  (View my exultation of oregano here!)

Then, we're going to add some finely-minced garlic and onion, and a special mix of dried, freshly-ground spices.

Firstly, we're going to mince the crap out of some green onion, some garlic, and a boatload of oregano:

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I wanted to show you here, a pic of my previously-lauded kitchen dustpan in shining action:

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Among other things, that thing excels at containing garlic detritus!

So, the oregano is going into a large mixing bowl, and set aside for a minute.

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As for the garlic and onion, that is going to get pre-cooked and softened a bit by sauteing for a few minutes on medium-low, in a touch of oil (I used becel canola/sunflower).

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After the garlic first starts to brown a little (not too much, or you'll have roasted garlic, which imparts a nuttiness) you can take that whole mix off, and add it to the oregano in your large mixing bowl.

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Now we're going to add the spice mixture, which in today's case, is some salish salt (a particularly delicious smoked salt) and some freshly ground cumin, fennel, and green peppercorns.

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After all those spices are added to the mixing bowl, you can just crumble in the beef.

At this point, it's best to just get your hands dirty... I know it's gross, but it really is the best way to squish it all together evenly.

After this is all mixed well, poke a hole in the middle of it, and add an egg.

Again using your hands, gloop it all around some more, making sure to get that egg evenly distributed.

At this point, the mixture should be sticky, but cohesive enough to form some balls.  I like to take the whole thing and just keep successively dividing by two, in order to somewhat hope that I'll end up with evenly-sized balls.

Place them with a good 3 or 4 cm distance between each, in a large non-stick pan or skillet.  If you've got a grilling pan, that would work too... I have a cast-iron one, but I don't really love it...

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The little bit (maybe a tablespoon or two only) of vegetable oil we used to saute the garlic and onion earlier, is more than enough oil to fry these up nicely, so don't add anything to the pan.  Even though this was 'extra lean' ground beef, you'll see there is still quite a bit of grease during cooking.

Although these are 'balls' I find it is actually quite helpful to think of them more as 'cubes' for cooking purposes.  This makes it easier to cook, and unloads me of the burden of trying to maintain a round shape.  :D  
Incidentally, the trick to nice, perfectly-round, meatballs involves adding more structure (bread crumbs, for example) and/or roasting in the oven rather than frying on the range.
Anyway, because we're thinking of these as cubes, we will look at it as cooking two opposing sides of them.  Any more and you're seriously over-cooking them.  This also means you only need to flip them once also.  

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If you do it right, there will even be a little bit of pink still in the middle.  Of course, this can vary according to your tastes, but I like medium-well beef.

After you've done about 4 minutes per side on about medium-high (no higher than 'gas mark 6' though I'd say), take em out, and set them aside (if they're absolutely sopping, then of course feel free to rest them on a paper towel).

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Now, because these are gourmet meatballs, they're going to have a ton of flavour built-in.  So, you can just serve them up as-is... maybe with a sprig of fresh herb on the side... :)  

However, if you've got company coming over, or you're looking to impress, I would really find it hard to resist making a quick reduction sauce out of the leftover gribblies in the pan.  It's just too delicious to pass up.

So, to do that, you would put that dirty, greasy pan back on some medium heat, and stir in one of the following: water, milk, cream, or red wine.  Of course a lot of other things could work well... I bet I could even chuck some orange juice in there or something and come up with something delightful (that sounds a little cocky, doesn't it? heh heh heh).  If you're looking for my recommendation, I'd choose skim milk (or cream if you're looking for a very rich sauce).  Then, using a whisk (one safe for your non-stick pan - like a silicon one) "scrape" the sides and get all those gribblies that you can.  Cook the crap out of that, bringing it up to medium-high heat and letting it simmer rather briskly.  At this point, you can choose to add some corn starch or flour to thicken it up a little bit, and I would also add a pinch of fresh pepper and possibly salt but that would be "to taste".  As always, when adding thickening agents, mix it up with a tiny bit of cold liquid first, before adding to your sauce, to avoid lumps.  Just like that (after a good 5 minute simmer anyway) you've got a delicious gravy which you could serve on the side, but I would suggest pouring directly over the meatballs.


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Monday, November 14, 2011

Homemade Croutons (& Caesar Salad)

This is just something small which I like to do with leftover bread heels.

It's actually very simple, and the result is insanely healthier than 'store-bought' croutons.

Start with your heels, and slice the barest of slivers off the edges (crusts).  It seems weird when the heels themselves are pretty much whole crusts, but you'll see later that we only want one side of the cubes to be crust.

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Next slice these puppies thickly - if your heels are stale, like mine often are by this point, then slicing them too thinly will just make a heap of bread crumbs in your pan.  If you slice them thickly, they'll be better able to withstand a bit of tossing and flipping.  I usually go for about 20 croutons per slice... 4 rows by 5 columns.

So, the key to these isn't just the toasting bit, but the herbs bit.  Depending on your mood, you can use pretty much any European-style herb and it will work.  Some of the herbs I've used in the past, are: rosemary, basil, fennel, oregano, chives, chervil, savory, parsley, etc.
They all work, but of course you've got to throw in a bit of salt and pepper with them as well.  

In this instance, I had some fresh oregano, so that was getting diced, and a fair bit of it too!
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Then, we crisp the oregano a little bit by sauteing it in a pan with a bit of other flavours (salt and pepper).  

Now... let me just say that garlic powder is an awful thing.  There's no nutrient value, and it is relatively bland and tasteless compared to the real thing.  If you've followed me at all, or read any of my other posts, you'll know that fresh, real garlic is a mainstay in almost all my cooking, and I always have a bulb or two on-hand. 
That said, I do like garlic powder for two things: garlic bread, and croutons.  When I have the time, I'll infuse the oil with some fresh, minced, garlic, and then strain the garlic from the oil before frying the bread or croutons.  This is the preferred method.  And if company is coming, this is what happens.  However, if it's just me, or me and my wife, then that is a rather tedious extra step, which is so very shortened by using garlic powder.  Just a dash, mind you.  Too much and the mixture becomes acrid.

So, in a pan, we've got the oregano, and a pinch of salt, black pepper, and garlic powder, frying on medium-low with a tablespoon or so of canola oil.

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Throw in the cubes, and give them a good tossing about, getting them all nicely coated.

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Next, is an important, although wholly annoying, step.  Once all the cubes have soaked up most of the oil mixture, carefully flip them all so that the non-crust side is down and frying.  We're actually not even going to toast the crust side, nor any of the other sides, for that matter.  
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It can take a minute or two, but it is worth it.

This really only takes a few minutes (I'd say less than 5), and you should be able to smell it when it's done.  The toasting oreganofied bread is a delightful smell.

As with any toasting, even on medium-low heat, they can go from done to over-done in the blink of an eye, so get them out of that hot pan as soon as they're ready.

I have put them directly on my salad at this stage, before, but sometimes they can unpleasantly warm the whole salad a little bit, so it doesn't hurt to let them cool for a bit beforehand.

Click to Enlarge These Gorgeous Homemade Croutons

At this point it was just standard procedure for a Caesar salad - wash, trim, break, and spin-dry the romaine.

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Toss the lettuce in a salad bowl, throw in the croutons, and sprinkle a little bit of shaved parmigiano reggiano on top.  Caesar salad isn't truly caesar salad without the cheese.

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Delicious.  I would never be interested in making my own dressing for Caesar... because of one simple thing: Anchovy Paste.  That shit is gross.  Delicious in many dressings, but I've had "homemade" Caesar Dressings (usually at very upscale restaurants, actually) which have too much anchovy in them, sometimes even having actual chunks of the fish!  Absolutely disgusting.

So, I stick with my thoroughly-bad-for-you store-bought dressing.  President's Choice makes a decent blue-menu caesar dressing made with yogurt actually, which is my current favourite.  It's quite good.

Anyway, with canola oil for the croutons, yogurt dressing, and just a moderate amount of cheese - this is also a pretty healthy caesar salad.

Holy Oregano (Batman)!

I positively adore oregano.  I don't care if that makes me a little plebeian, or even a bandwagon-jumper; it's the herb of the Gods.
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I've always loved it.  I remember almost as far back as my memory goes, sitting in my basement library, "reading" those old 'scratch-and-sniff' books, and wearing out the entry labelled "pizza".  I'm sure many other voracious little children would wear out the ones like "strawberry" or "root beer" or things like that... but for me it was the "pizza".  I learned later that that was basically just oregano!!!

Sure, basil, rosemary, fennel, and cumin are all up there too, but oregano has to be my favourite.  I think, personally, that it has been given a bad rap: often overlooked based on assumptions about its prevalence.  True, it exists in almost every kitchen, but there is a reason for this - it is mild enough in small quantities to be an excellent addition or complement to almost any dish, but still unique and flavourful enough to take the stage in larger quantities.  

I always buy large amounts of the dried leaves (never pre-ground, however!) to have on hand in my spice drawer, and I will mill a little bit to put in most everything.  It is a regular friend to things like pork, and carrots, and an absolute must-have in ijj's famous tomato sauce.

Once in a while, however, I'll pick up a bunch of fresh oregano from the market, and the ensuing few days are a special treat which see me labouring happily in the kitchen every night.  

It makes me excited to cook. 

Not minutely because I can make almost anything delicious with a dash of it.

 Click to Enlarge These Beautiful Pics!