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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Habanero Cheese Penne

We went shopping down on Bayview this weekend, and picked up a ton of great, local and organic ingredients.

I then went home and promptly started cooking up an awesome tribute to these fresh ingredients - an Habenero pepper spiced, St. Agur Bleu cheese, cream pasta sauce.

Of course, we stopped at the liquor store first to pick up a few bottles of wine.

So, I was pleasantly in the middle of sampling a velvety and fruity, pinotage when I started making this sauce.

Just as an aside - I know it is rather clichéd but I truly revel in drinking wine while cooking.  There are fewer things more enjoyable in life.  I've had people I respect tell me that the reason for living is this or that or whatever... but I personally believe we were made to eat.  Might as well get some serious enjoyment out of it while doing so!

So, with some good music playing, a good red wine, and some excellent company in the kitchen, my wife and I made a delectable pasta in what I'm sure was record timing.

I began by finely chopping some fresh garlic, a couple of green onions, and a couple of small habenero peppers.  The garlic, onion, and one of the peppers went into a medium-sized saucepan to sauté on medium-low for about 5 minutes.  There was about one teaspoon of margarine, and a couple tablespoons of xv olive oil in there.  Oh, and I also added a dash of sweet basil, and italian parsley flakes... just a touch.

After that got nicely diffused, and keeping it simmering on medium-low, I whisked in a fair bit of cream (milk).

You can see that the cream and the oil take a while to acclimate.  At first the sauce is separated, and the less-dense oil floats on top.  As you bring the temperature up a bit though, and whisk in the cheese, this all becomes delightfully uniform.

For cheese today, we're using one of my favourites for this purpose, a really creamy, buttery, St. Agur.


So, after the temperature gets near-boiling, slowly stir in the cheese, in chunks, and you'll notice that the sauce changes consistency, and the fats and oils are much more incorporated.

At this point, bring the sauce up to a boil, carefully as it can boil over if you're not vigilant.  Then, it's just a matter of adding some thickening agent.  So, a tablespoon or two of cornstarch, pre-whisked into a tiny amount of milk, and then whisked fully into the sauce.

After a minute or two of keeping the heat up at medium-low, and whisking rather often, if not constantly, the sauce will thicken and become magically delicious.

After that, we just spooned it on to our already-boiled penne, and we were good to go!

Oh man oh man oh man this was so good, I'm literally salivating again just remembering it.

To accompany this meal, I made up a bread drizzle (I don't know what the technical term for this is, but you know what I mean) with some of my Herbes de Provence xv Olive Oil, a generous splash of some blueberry balsamic vinegar I had, the other of my two chopped habenero peppers, and a pinch of some sel gris.

And of course, some bread.

When I was in school, I remember reading an essay once that had some excerpts from an old French Provincial domestic publication, that was from the mid-nineteenth century.  It was in my 'history of the book' class and the essay was basically about contextualizing publications according to their time period... but anyway... In addition to some very hilarious notions on entertaining, and (despite being written by women, for women) seriously misogynistic penchant, this magazine did talk about serving bread "in the peasant fashion" by breaking it instead of slicing it.  Anyway, since then I usually always try to impress people by serving bread 'in the peasant fashion'.  I love it because it's so pretentious.  And because, like those socialite Frenchwomen of the 1800s I want to feel like I'm cool for doing something so plebeian.

Seriously, though, breaking bread is easy, if somewhat messy, and it is quite a nice format for dipping like it was with this meal here.  I recommend it.  And not just for impressing people!  :)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

ijj's Epic Search for the Perfect Whisk... Continues...

I really like whisks.  I really need whisks.  If you've followed my rantings before, you'll notice that I use them a lot.  Quite a bit really.  You can't make as many sauces as I do without a veritable arsenal of whisks on hand.

I've got mini whisks for tiny jobs, huge whisks for bread and pastry dough, silicon whisks for high-heat non-stick purposes, I've even got this awesome flat whisk for shallow pan whisking and de-glazing.  


I've long (like, almost a decade) been searching for a specific type of whisk.  A very small whisk with a very large handle basically.  Now, my mini whisks have small wire sections, but they must be meant for children or something, because their handles are correspondingly tiny.  They barely fit half of my hand.  

So I end up having to 'pinch' them with my thumb and forefinger in order to use them.  There are times when having a small, fine, wire is excellent for whisking, however, so I still need to use these.

It was flabbergasting how difficult it is to find a small wire whisk with a decently-sized handle, and like I said, my search lasted almost 10 years.

Well, this week, I actually found a fairly decent one.  It's not perfect, but it is the closest I've ever come so far.

The wire section is not as small as I would prefer, but it is still one of the smallest available, especially considering that the accompanying handle is actually adult-sized.

So... while the search will go on, I feel that this new whisk will do for now.  And if I don't ever find one better, then at least it is a tad closer to my desired goal.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Meat Thermometer

Taking the guess-work out of cooking meat to a safe temperature, not only makes the cooking less stressful, but also ensures that your meat, be it fish, fowl, or miscellaneous fauna, is tasty and moist.  Let's not forget safe, either, I suppose...

Anyway, for whatever reason I never used to have a meat thermometer.  Perhaps it was because I thought I never needed one.  My mom never used one, and I don't remember ever seeing any of my extended family - including some serious German House-Fraus - use one either.



They often over-cook their meat.  To the point of tragedy.  Sorry, mom!

So, when I first tasted some of the roasts that my wife's family cooked up... I was amazed that there could be so much juice and flavour.

Anyway... when I first started to cook my own roasts, before this, I used to compensate for a long cooking time, by almost stewing or braising the roast with a TON of liquid in the pan alongside.

However, none of this is truly needed, if you just have faith in the science of safe temperatures for killing harmful bacteria.  There is a reason meat thermometers exist, and if you use one properly, and bring your meat up to the proper temperature, you can rest easy knowing that nothing harmful survived.

So... I love my meat thermometer.  The first one I had, I bought maybe 6 or 7 years ago, and it was one of those analog ones that you just stick in and take a reading.  However, a couple years ago I upgraded to a pretty nice digital one.

What's positively AWESOME about this thermometer, is that you can set an 'alarm' temperature for it to go off at, stick the sensor in the meat, close the lid up tight (the "wire" is extremely durable and flexible) shut the oven door, and just wait.

It's so cool.

So, for example, when I cooked my roast pork last night, I set the alarm for 165°F, and by the time I took it out, and covered it with some tin foil to 'rest' on the counter for a few minutes before carving, it was well past the safe temp of 170°F (for pork).

I love it.

Summer Savory Roast Pork

One thing I grew up with - with my painfully white upbringing - was Sunday feasts.

I don't really know from where this came, but for some reason WASPs love to cook up a roast something or other on Sundays.

So, I've had an insane amount of Sunday roasts.

I don't really follow the "tradition" myself; I do like to make a roast here and there, but more than likely for other motivations.

Roasts can be very economical, and can be a pleasant extravagance; we don't really consume a lot of meat these days, so a whole roast like this is not only a delicious treat, but is also enough for quite a few meals.

Anyway, with this Sunday Roast Feast, we cooked up a small-ish pork loin along with a fair bit of roasted veggies, potatoes, and some braised cabbage.

Really I'm just focusing on the roast pork here though.


I've been pretty good at cooking roasts over the years.  To me they don't really seem all that hard.  The trick is just keeping them moist.  So... all the no-brainer things that go along with that: low-temperatures for baking, a tight-fitting lid, a good amount of liquid in the bottom of the baking dish, and taking a reading on the meat.

That's just requisite.  The fun stuff comes into all the wonderful flavours you can pile in - both underneath and on top of the roasting meat.  So, I usually always put some root veggies on the bottom in my liquid mixture, and other, more starchy veggies (potatoes, carrots, etc.) on top.  Depending on the size of the meat, and how long it's in the oven, I will sometimes NOT add the veggies on top until nearer the end-time.  Carrots, for example, would be shriveled-down to nothing if left in for the entire cooking time...

Anyway, for this, I chopped up (coarsely, rather than finely, for a change!) some white onion, green onion, and smooshed some garlic cloves.

After lightly oiling my trusty Le Creuset baking dish, I added a splash of red wine, and then tossed these root veggies in, giving them a turn or two.

Then I mixed up a 'rub' for the pork loin.  A lot of people seem genuinely stressed about this sort of thing, but really there is so much flexibility on what you can use for a rub.  It's almost to the point where I would think it easier to come up with things which would NOT work well as a rub.

So, for today, I felt like some summer savory.  It was a nice, warm, sunny day, and one of the first of the Spring, and savory is very fresh, and very green.  It felt like a good fit.

So, it was pretty simple - savory, a few green peppercorns, and a pinch of sel gris.


Now, because I believe that there is no such thing as an 'over-cooked' potato (burnt, sure - but over-cooked, never!)  I will always throw my potatoes in at the start of roasting.  The more you cook a potato, the softer it gets.  

As an interesting aside on potatoes - let me just say that when I get a 'craving' for some awesome potatoes I will sometimes use three different cooking methods, over as many hours, for the same group of potatoes.  There's nothing better to satisfy a craving for potatoes, than baking (or frying!) some already-fully-cooked, boiled potatoes.  Mmmmmmmm...
Anyway, the potatoes went in at this point.

Then, on goes the tight-fitting lid, and into the oven at 350° for only an hour or so.

I have a pretty decent meat thermometer that has made life very easy when it comes to roasting meats.  It's one of those kinds which you can even leave IN while it cooks.  If you don't have one of these, I highly recommend you get one.  It takes the guess work, and the calculating-time-by-kilogram right out of it.  Very handy.

Anyway, the pork looked delicious, as you can see:

I'm even going to add a seriously-high-resolution pic here (well... as high as is allowed here), just to illustrate!  Go ahead and click on this:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Holy Bay Leaves (Batman)!

I've always liked bay leaves.  My mom used to never make a stew without throwing in a handful or two.  And her stews are delicious.

I admit that I was kind of a noob though, at first, and would really strain to see their versatility.  Oh, my kitchen always had a container or pouch of bay leaves on hand, but I used them only for specific things... namely stew.

I know, not very original.

Anyway, I've since come to LOVE their rich, earthy-yet-fresh, flavour.

Now I use them in everything from grilling meats to pasta sauces.  And of course stews and soups.

I had originally had a really hard time finding some fresh bay leaves, and often lamented (often boisterously) the lack.  However, a few months ago I was shopping at our local grocer and discovered a pack of fresh leaves... right where they should be.  I don't know if it was just that every time I've looked for them, every one has been out of them, or if I've just been crazy, but now I can find them all the time.


This, coupled with the fact that in the fridge these puppies can last for quite some time, means that I always have some on hand now.

And I love it.  I know I'm romanticizing them a tad, but every time I think of them, I always think of ancient Rome, and the use of 'laurels' in myth, as well as such coined phrases as 'resting on...'.  Anyway, they're fast becoming one of my favourites.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Vat of Tomato Sauce

I was kind of lax in grocery shopping over the last few weeks, and I've neglected to restock what I've come to realize is a veritable staple in my cupboard.

Tomato paste.

I think I've talked about how I used to stock both tomato paste, AND tomato sauce, until I realized that they're the same thing just sauce has water added to it.

I think I've ALSO talked about the virtues of some good, organic, tomato paste in the pantry.

It's insanely good for you, and insanely free of bad things.  I love anything that lists, as its ingredients, ONE item.  In this case: Tomatoes.  Awesome stuff!

Anyway... I had been aware of the need to restock the pantry for the last week, but just creatively avoided it.  Until today, when I decided to just F it and used my last remaining, extremely large, "emergency" can.  This thing was large.  Easily like 4 or 5 of the small ones.

So, I had no choice but to mix up a huge vat of tomato sauce.  I had all the other ingredients I could have wanted (except perhaps some fresh fennel and/or oregano), so why not?  I even had, on-hand, some fresh bay leaves that I managed to find a couple weeks ago... which was a boon.

This follows very closely to my standard "ijj's famous tomato sauce" recipe, but tweaked for preparation 'en masse'.

So, in order of concentration (roughly), and not all of which is pictured here, we've got: tomato paste, garlic, onion, bay leaves, green onion, jalapeno pepper, dried oregano, dried parsley, fennel seeds, and two leftover shriveled-looking tomatoes which needed to be used up so I threw them in for good measure.

Some good fixins, I'd say.

Now, often I'd just chop the veggies finely and saute them a touch before mixing in the tomato paste.  Today, and because there was so much of it, I decided to puree instead.

I mean, this was going to take at least an hour of prep time ANYWAY, so I might as well bring out the immersion blender.

I positively LOVE my immersion blender, but I think I've talked about that before... ;)

Anyway, the trick to immersion blending is coverage, and lubrication.  So, make sure you've got enough to actually cover the blender, AND that there is sufficient enough liquid in the mix to get it goin'.

In this case, because one of the ingredients I needed to add eventually anyway was water I just felt free to pour enough water in with each of these veggies to suffice.

So, here follows my pureeing of the above ingredients, in my trusty immersion blender:



Green Onions, Jalapeno and Tomatoes:

After that all got mixed in my slow-cooker pot, I gradually stirred in my huge amount of tomato paste.

Next came the bay leaves, counting them as always, so you know how many to remove later. Then the dried herbs: oregano, parsley and fennel seeds.  Milled slightly in my m&p.

At this point, it was almost ready, but first comes a pretty cool step which I always enjoy doing, despite being a little bit tricky and time-consuming.

Just like a mayonnaise, or an egg-based sauce like hollandaise or béarnaise, I slowly, and gradually add extra virgin olive oil until the emulsion has taken as much as it can hold.  I know that sounds kind of vague, using words like "taken" and "hold", but this is something which you have to pretty much be there to monitor.  

You'll see though, it's not really hard; as long as you keep your oil stream a trickle, you'll be able to keep stirring IN the oil for a while, and have it essentially incorporate, before it hits a point where the sauce can not hold any more.  

Again, and as always, I like to bring it back to chemistry all the time, right?  Well this is a classic case of concentration gradients, wherein you'll be able to diffuse the oil only up until the point where the solution is in balance.  After that, you'll just have oil floating on top and unable to mix.

Anyway, you should be able to tell when it reaches this balance, and especially if you're trickling the oil in, you'll have time to stop when you need to.

At this point the sauce was ready to simmer in my slow cooker all afternoon.

I like this stage in the prep time; just do the dishes, clean up the counters, and then supper is made a breeze.

In today's instance however, I did add a couple of steps.

MOST of this huge vat of sauce got jarred and frozen, but I ladled out a few cup-fulls and added it to a leftover sausage I had from a few nights ago (it IS leftover night, after all!) :D

So, after quickly boiling some spaghetti al-dente, and mixing in the garlic tomato italian sausage sauce, supper was delicious, I used some leftovers, AND I ended up with a huge amount of sauce leftover!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Drying Jalapeno Seeds

In the last few years, I've dramatically increased my hot pepper consumption.

In particular, I'm a fan of jalapenos.  They're cheap, and pack a good amount of flavour along with their pleasing heat.

I just recently stumbled upon the idea (an old idea, really) of saving the seeds.

I came across THIS site, which does a great job of detailing the drying of pepper seeds, but which (in my opinion) goes a little crazy with labeling and categorizing them.  Maybe I'll get there someday - I admit it might be cool to have a bunch of different flavoured seeds at my disposal - but that day is not today.

Today, I am content to just try preserving the few seeds I got from one jalapeno, and see if it works out.

They look delicious in close-up, don't you think?  I have high hopes for them.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Holy Garlic (Batman)!

So, as everyone knows, I adore garlic.

In many ways, it can actually be attributed with beginning my love of food.

It was an adoration LONG in the making, and with a few pitfalls here and there, however.
Let me explain.

As most young suburban kids, I was first exposed to garlic in "common" things like pizza sauce and pasta sauce.  Let's not forget garlic bread (which, to be fair, is really garlic salt).  Basically Italian cooking.  While positively loving the flavour of an extra-garlic-y alfredo sauce, my 8-year old counterpart would have given you a death-glare for putting serving some roasted garlic with a beautiful grilled steak.

Anyway, growing up, my mother never really liked garlic (still doesn't really), and I can't ever remember ever having anything more than garlic powder in the house.  It's a shame, but that is probably why no one in my family really developed a solid love for it as much as I did.  Needless to say, once I moved away I began to startle them with my exorbitant use of fresh, delicious, garlic.

It has taken some time, but I am now such a fan, I can surprise and delight by popping raw cloves in like candy.

It doesn't hurt that this shit is SO freakin good for you too!

Anyway, if you've been reading this blog at all, I'm sure you'll agree that I put garlic in almost everything that I can.  And in shocking quantities.  

I think it is such a robust, spicy, earthy flavour that actually brings out the best of everything you pair it with.

<Sigh>, I love you garlic!

I go through at least one bulb a week, some times two.  So much that I don't have to keep them in the fridge as many people do... which you're actually not really supposed to do.  Much of the flavour leeches out in the cool temperature, and it is recommended to just store at room temperature in a dark place.  So i have a garlic keeper which sits on my counter-top all the time.  

It's handy!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The FUGLIEST Delicious Vanilla Cake You'll Ever See

This cake is technically not really a total fail... she's just not the prettiest of cakes.  I blame that SOLELY and 100% on the frosting however, and not the cake.

The cake was delightful.  Fluffy, cakey, and moist... it was almost perfect.

I made the frosting too thick though or something...  I should have just thinned it out a bit I guess... but I didn't think it was going to turn out so... fugly.

Anyway, here's what I did:

I followed a standard "Yellow" cake recipe, and did not deviate from it.

Dry ingredients mixed.

Wet ingredients mixed.  This step was a little tricky because you had to add the eggs slowly one at a time, beating the mix in between.

Then, I slowly alternated between adding the dry mixture and the milk and vanilla mixture.

A little tedious, to be sure, but look at the consistency of the batter after all was said and done:

Very silky smooth!

Anyway, I prepared two 9" cake pans by greasing them lightly and then slightly coating them in flour.

Half the batter in each one, and into the oven for about 30 mins at 350°.

Meanwhile, I prepared some frosting.  Just plain vanilla icing.

I excised a whole schwack of vanilla seeds from the last of one of my nice fresh pods I had been saving. and then soaked it in some high-alcohol content rum for about an hour.  

I don't know if this helped leach out any of the flavour or not... but I figured it was better than just putting them into the frosting by themselves...

Anyway, then it was just some milk and a ton of icing sugar.  I'd normally use butter... but I had run out... so it was skim milk... which maybe wasn't the smartest of choices...

Anyway, it looked fine, and tasted  even finer... although in retrospect, I think I might have suspected it could have been a little too thick by this point already...

So, when the two cake halves come out of the oven and have cooled sufficiently (at least 30 mins) on my wire rack, I grab one and start frosting.

I know right away that something is wrong.

The frosting is sticking more to itself and the spatula than to the cake.  In fact it is so comical that it is almost as though the cake is repelling the icing.

I've had cakes where the frosting is so runny that it is more like a glaze and I didn't want that.  Even though the runnier the icing the easier it is to apply - literally just 'pouring' and spooning the icing onto the cake rather than spreading or smearing - I wanted it to be a thick frosting.


I'd read of a trick whereby tucking small pieces of parchment paper under the cake can keep your plate clean... and I tried that... but quickly abandoned that because it caused much frustration.

So... the cake got frosted all over, and in-between the layers.  There was a lot of frosting.  It just didn't look pretty.


In fact, it looked rather... fugly.

But oh well, it tasted absolutely delicious, and was one of the best cakes I've ever made, in terms of flavour, and texture.  It was very soft and incredibly moist.  It just had the unfortunate happenstance of being brutally raped and horribly maimed by my abusive frosting.

So, not entirely or truly a fail, but for next time, I will DEFINITELY think of something a little softer for the icing.  Using butter which has warmed to room temperature for example, spreads like... well, butter.  Should have done that.

Oh well.  It may be the fugliest delicious vanilla cake you'll ever see, but it has NO problem finding gaping, salivating maws.