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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Thai Green Beans on Quinoa

Sure... you might think of rice or egg noodles first rather than (perhaps even LONG before) quinoa as a bed for green vegetables... but I decided to push the limits of normalcy and just dare to be crazypants.

I love quinoa.  It might just be my favourite of the whole "boiled grain" varieties.  Arborio is pretty awesome though too... I dunno.

In any case quinoa is awesome.  It is very good for you, and very simple to prepare, making it... well... very cool.

For those of you who don't know about quinoa - I'd be surprised as there was a huge boom in popularity there about 5 years ago, where it seemed everyone and their dog was extolling quinoa's awesomeness - if you are interested, you should definitely check it out.

Anyway... super little grain, that.

I cook that up the same way I do just regular rice; about a 3:1 ratio of water to grain dumped into a saucepan, brought to a boil while stirring often, and then covered and allowed to simmer for about 30-40 minutes.

So... that's exactly what I did here.  Except I often like to flavour my water a bit.  So there's about two teaspoons of chicken bouillon in 3 cups of cold water, to one cup of quinoa.

I also chopped up a small amount of parsley and threw that in as well.

So, stir it often to make sure it's all uniform, but once it starts to boil, just go ahead and cover it up, turn it down to low, and leave it sit for half an hour.

In the meantime, wash and trim (if necessary) a whole bunch of green beans.

I had a huge bunch of green beans in the crisper which I was a little worried about going bad, so I decided to use it all up in one go.  I dunno if it was on sale, or if the wife just had a hankering, or what, but there were a ton of beans in there.  :)

I'm kind of meticulous about washing produce.  I once had a dead bee in my bowl of raspberries.  Another time, although again with raspberries, I had a live beetle crawl out of my hand only milliseconds before it would have entered my mouth.  While I'm sure I traumatized the poor little guy, it was nothing compared to my own trauma.  Let's just say it took my wife a good five minutes to sooth me down from my resultant apoplectic fit which - if you're interested - involved incoherent, barely-audible mutterings while shaking my head back and forth and flailing about the room.

Suffice it to say, I've learned to soak my produce now.  Rinsing just does NOT cut it.  So, I'll literally bathe the food.  I fill a sink with enough water to completely immerse it, and then gently and sensually massage each individual piece or entire surface area of the produce.  Nothing gets by me now!


Once the green beans are totally scrubbed of any malfeasants, and trimmed of any gross bits, toss them in a large pan.

I don't have a lid for this, the largest of my pans, but my largest lid still sort of works when I want to steam-fry something.

Like this:

Just a tablespoon or so of water, and then pop the lid overtop.

Let that steam away for about 5 minutes, until the beans are almost cooked.

The beans turn kind of dull despite developing a richer green colour.

Anyway, stir in a couple spoonfuls of Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce and mix it about.  Crank the heat up to about medium-high, and "fry" the beans in the naturally-oily peanut sauce.

Then it's just a matter of placing them on a bed of freshly-cooked quinoa.

Which, when ready, will have absorbed all the water in the pan (just like rice) as well as have a beautifully fluffy texture to it.

The great thing about this kind of dish is that the relatively bland bed of grains is wonderful complement to the rich spicy, flavour-filled veggies on top.  I'm usually not one to take mouthfuls of disparate foods, but this works very well together.

The beans were still very fresh and crunchy, but with a huge amount of spicy nutty flavour on them which was wonderfully mitigated by the quinoa.  Cooking the quinoa in chicken stock really helps with the overall balance of the dish, and provided an excellent medium upon which to serve the beans.  Basically I think the beans would have been way to strong, and the quinoa kind of bland, on their own, but together worked very well.

Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce

I've never made a peanut sauce before.

I've always liked them though.

Asian cuisine does the whole 'nut'-based sauce thing really well I think.

Anyway... as with any thing I'm going to attempt for the first time, I did a lot of research.

I found some pretty cool recipes, some pretty trashy recipes, and a bunch in-between.

And, as always, after reading up on as many recipes as I can, I'll invariably take bits and pieces from all over to make my own.

For the most part, however, this one was very similar to a (quite simple) recipe of Michael Smith's.

I want to live in Michael Smith's world. It's so serene. And I'd get access to one of the most awesome spice pantries I've ever seen. You know it's awesome when he in fact calls it a spice library.  :)

Of all the celebrity chef's kitchens I've ever seen, his is just plain... cooool. Sometimes I take the guided tour on his site and just stare at the photos for minutes.


I realize I just got really off track there... sorry about that.

So, this is very similar to that recipe, but ultimately different.

First, I can't see myself needing like 3 cups of peanut sauce... for anything. I cut it in half and still got close to two cups of sauce... most of which is going in my fridge to (hopefully) be used up on other things soon.

Now, if you're like me, when you think peanut sauce, you're going to think of various grilled meats. Namely chicken. I think they complement each other very well. But, I also plan on using this on other things... such as steamed or pan-fried vegetables and the like.

So, I'm happy to have extra sauce left-over in the fridge.

First, we did a cup of peanut butter. I have a jar of unpasteurized uber-plain PB that I keep in the fridge for cooking. It quite literally is, as the name suggests, Just Peanuts.  It tastes like a mouthful of unsalted peanuts. As it should. :)

Scrape a cup of that into a blender or mixer.

Next, I did a quarter of a cup each of soy sauce and brown sugar, and stirred that up a touch.

This is, after all, a spicy peanut sauce, so next we come up with some heat.  I've been collecting my own dried chili seeds for the last little while, so I had some nice hot ones on hand.

So, in go about two teaspoons of those.

Next comes a couple of lemons.  I only used two, but they were fairly large, and I used every scrap of juice and zest from them.

Then its just some good herbalicious addition.  There are several green herbs which I think could work well here.  Michael Smith suggests mint which would be delicious, but I went with Parsley, because that's what I had.  Other things which I think might also work here are lemongrass, and cilantro (which - funnily enough - is also known as Chinese Parsley!)

So, in goes a good handful of loosely-chopped parsley.

After that it's just mix/blend/puree to your heart's content.


Peanut-y. Salty. And... Spicy!

Like I thought - I ended up with a fair bit, which I imagine will keep for at least a couple weeks in the fridge?? It's just peanuts, lemon, and parsley for the most part... it should last a little while...

It just means I'm going to have some delicious spicy Thai peanut-based dishes in the next couple of weeks!

Which is just fine.

Monday, June 25, 2012


I have a pretty small kitchen.

If you've seen pictures, I'm sure you'll agree.

I do, however, have a pretty large dining room.

As such, I've wanted to nab a sideboard which could hold overflow on things like table linens and excess or overlarge serving-ware. Plus they look cool.

Not only can they house a fair bit of surplus kitchen and dining gear, but the table-top surface can also double for serving space when you've got guests over. I think I'll find that very useful!

This particular one we bought on Craigslist (the wife has a pretty nasty craigslist addiction) for pretty cheap, and despite showing a little bit of wear and tear (and a positively abysmal amateur staining job), is really sturdy and fairly decent-looking.

We like the dark wood stain, and the solid construction... and the price was right.

The wife and I made a commitment a few years ago, to never buy another piece of furniture which was not solid wood. Yup. Just one too many particle board contraptions and Ikea fails, and that was it. 

So, now we don't even bring something into the house unless it is really sturdy, and has strong solid wood construction.

Technically this sideboard has some particle board - namely the backing, but who cares about that, right? - but for the most part is all solid wood, and pretty secure.

A must for something housing glassware and other breakables.

I think it will be of great use to us in the coming years...

We just need to fill it with more stuff. So, no, my acacia wood salad bowl set is NOT the only thing which we plan to put in there! :D It's just the only thing there at the moment.

I think I'll put my over-sized serving trays and stuff in there.  Like my turkey platter (which is godawfully ginormous, and currently hiding out on top of my cupboards collecting greasy dust), and perhaps some of our least-used wine glasses... stuff like that.

The large, gorgeous, table-top however, is going to be awesome for serving large meals.  I think it could even be a great 'buffet' arrangement with finger food and other such 'party' food.

I'm excited!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

For the most part, carbonara sauces are typified by two things: egg, and pancetta (or some other salted pork). 

They can be a little tricky, however, because technically they involve uncooked egg.  Well... sort of.  The egg gets cooked, but only very minimally, and only immediately before serving.  

As long as you're aware of this, a carbonara sauce is actually quite simple and can be quick to make.

I've seen many recipes out there for 'carbonara' sauces.  Most claim to be authentic, and accuse the vast majority of carbonara recipes as being unauthentic.

By and large, from what I've gleaned in my research on carbonara sauces, there are some definite no-nos.  For example... cream (or milk) should not be present in any form here.  I also noticed that almost every recipe out there uses garlic in the mix, but removed before serving.  Which is, interesting.

Anyway... I don't claim that my carbonara sauce is 'authentic' but - judging from what I've seen out there, and from the recipes which influenced it - I'd wager it's not far off.

I've seen a lot of variation out there, and some recipes are certainly more complex than others - particularly concerning the treatment of the eggs.  Some just call for entire eggs, unceremoniously stirred into the pot while still on the fire.  Some call for just the yolks, beaten separately and slowly added.  I saw one which called for leaving the yolks, unbroken, for a topping right at the end.  I even read a recipe which involved a very complicated set of instructions for partitioning and whipping only the egg whites and then carefully folding them in near the end.

The bottom line is that, despite there being a great deal of incensed and insulted Italian cooks, a lot of criticism, and a great saturation of recipes out there, there does not seem to be much consensus on carbonara sauces.

So, this is just my carbonara sauce, and - like every one of my recipes - is pulled from a bunch of different sources.  

Hopefully it doesn't insult any cooks in authority!

The main ingredients are pancetta, egg, Parmigiano Reggiano, and fresh Italian parsley.

There is also a fair bit of white onion, a splash of white wine, and some garlic cloves for sauteing.

Begin by chopping the white onion finely.

Throw that in a large, shallow, saucepan.  

Toss in your pancetta.  

If you don't have pancetta, feel free to use some other type of salted pork like guanciale, or even just bacon.  I even saw a couple recipes which used prosciutto... which I found strange.

Anyway... I recommend pancetta, either sliced very thickly at the deli, and then chopped, or else just big cubes like these:

Add a few cloves of crushed garlic, for flavour.

I like to make little cuts in the cloves, in addition to giving them a good smoosh with the flat of my blade, in order to aid with flavour distribution.

Then it's just a large dollop (I'd say about 2 tablespoons) of extra virgin olive oil, and fry that puppy up over medium heat.

I like to add a generous crackling of black pepper at this point too - there's something about frying pork that just seems to ask for pepper.  :)

Anyway, that takes about 10 minutes, so while that is sauteing, get to work on the other "half" of the sauce.

Separate four egg yolks.  If you don't know a good way of doing this, or never have, I find the hand-sifted method works best.  
I used to do the 'shell-transfer' method (crack egg in half, transfer yolk to empty half of shell, pour out whites) until someone told me you're really not supposed to do that.  Apparently egg shells carry quite a bit of bacteria and this can cause contamination.
So now I do the 'hand-sifting' method.  Basically you crack your egg, and then carefully set the whole thing in the palm of your hand. Once it has been fully 'cupped', gently part your fingers slightly and let gravity 'pull' the whites off.

Take care to not puncture or rupture the yolk, and you'll be left with a beautiful, perfect, egg yolk.

I'm sure most of you know how to do this... but for those of you who don't this could be handy to learn.

So... collect four yolks.  
Many recipes and dishes call for yolks unbroken so it's a good habit to get into trying to preserve them.  For example, one Spaghetti alla Carbonara recipe I've seen involved placing a nice, perfect, raw egg yolk on top of your plated pasta right before serving.  
For this recipe, however, it doesn't really matter if you break a yolk, as they're going to just be mixed up anyways.  I myself accidentally broke one of the four yolks, as you can see:


Anyway, put those aside for now, and start grating your parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano if you're a Parmesan connoisseur like me) - about a cup (yup, a cup).

Doesn't that look so soft, fluffy and inviting?  I could just dive right in there!

Next, chop a good handful of Italian parsley, relatively finely.

You can go ahead and mix the cheese and parsley together, in a large mixing bowl.

Now check on your pancetta, onion, and garlic.  Like I said, it should take only about 10 minutes.  So, before the onion is just starting to soften, and before the pancetta becomes crispy, take out the garlic cloves, and throw in your white wine.

I didn't have any white wine open at this time, and rather than use white cooking wine, I decided to throw in some frozen wine cubes.

A great trick to use up unfinished/unused wine, is to pour it into an ice cube tray.  Once frozen you can take them out and seal them in individual bags if you want, or, if you're like me, and have a ton of ice cube trays, just devote one of your active trays to wine exclusively.  

This is a great way to still have wine available for cooking purposes, even when opening a new bottle is not feasible/desired.

So, add your white wine to the pan, turn the heat up to medium-high, and deglaze the sides and gribblies.  There shouldn't be too much, but make sure to get it all.

Once you've brought this to a boil, and scraped all the sides and bottom of the pan well, take the whole pan off the heat.  

Let this mutha cooool for now.

Now, with this dish, because we're using the heat from the actual pasta noodles to 'cook' the egg, it is imperative that you not cook your noodles too soon.  If you aren't great with timing then feel free to leave this until last, but the important thing is that you have everything ready for the pasta as soon as the noodles are drained.

I myself had my pasta water ready and boiling for a few minutes before I added the spaghetti, because I wanted to time it right.

Normally, we use a good hearty multigrain or whole wheat noodle, but for this I opted for just some delicious, plain spaghetti.

So, once you're confident that you'll be able to add these noodles to the sauce with little delay, go ahead and start cooking them. They only take about 7 or 8 minutes to reach 'al dente', but keep an eye on them as with this dish more than others, you'll definitely want a little bit of bite or toothiness to them.

So, while that's cooking, get everything in the final stages of readiness.  

I like to put my colander in the sink at this point, and - when I'm wanting to preserve some of the pasta's cooking water, I'll put a small bowl underneath the colander in the sink.

Go ahead and mix your egg yolks with the cheese and parsley, in the large mixing bowl,  stirring the whole thing up with a wooden spoon, just until everything is lightly coated.

Next, making sure that your pancetta and onion are cool to the touch (do not add hot ingredients to the egg at this point), add that to the mixing bowl and stir.  Again just until lightly coated.

Now we're totally ready to add the hot noodles, as soon as they're done.

So... once al dente, drain the noodles in the colander, making sure to save some of the pasta water.  Working quickly, take the drained noodles, and add them to your large mixing bowl, and rapidly mix it all together.

Do you like my photo depicting 'rapid mixing'?  Heh heh heh.  :D

Having a spaghetti fork really helps here.

Make sure you mix well, and get the pasta and sauce well integrated.  You'll notice within seconds the 'sauce' thickens considerably and becomes almost gummy.  Thin this - to your desired consistency - with a spoonful or three of your reserved pasta water.

Once fully mixed, plate, sprinkle with more black pepper, and parmesan if desired, and garnish with a sprig or three of fresh parsley.

You can see the filmy sauce coating each individual noodle, giving it a decadent shine, and a delicious rich eggy flavour.

To me, carbonara sauces are the epitome of richness.  Whenever I have carbonara I can definitely feel it.  As such, I particularly love the juxtaposition of egg with the fresh parsley.  The two balance each other nicely, as the parsley lightens the entire dish. The pepper is also a must.  All the other flavours are there, but subtly; this is still very strongly a 'yolk'-y flavour, but the overall composition is very complex on the tongue.

Anyway... you don't need my analysis... I'm just sayin.

Having a nice rich glass of red wine to go with it is definitely advised!  Not only to help in the digestion of fats, but I find a good dry red can really cleanse the palate of such rich, thickly-coating, kinds of food.

So, that's my Spaghetti alla Carbonara, and like I said, as long as you're careful not to prematurely cook your eggs, it's pretty darned easy.  

Not to mention quick.

As I mentioned above, I found this to be a remarkably diverse and variable dish.  So, if you happen to know of another recipe, a more authentic recipe, or (as always) if you just want to flame my technique or recipe, or insult my parentage or any some such derogatory defamation... please feel very welcome to leave me a comment or twelve!!! 


Monday, June 18, 2012

Naturally Sweetened Apple Crumble

I'd say "sugarless" or "sugar free" except that, technically, there is a lot of fructose going on in the fruit.

It's all naturally-occurring, however, and better than loading up on sucrose or glucose.

Fructose is a very sweet sugar, and I'll never understand why something with so much sweet fruit (like apples) is more often than not paired with copious amounts of added sugar.

I mean... it can be delicious... but it certainly isn't needed.

In my opinion, the addition of sugar to something with fruit in it transforms it from just being a regular food to now being an extravagant, superfluous 'dessert' item.  A 'luxury' item if you will.

So, sure it's good, but now you'd need to 'keep an eye on it' so to speak, and limit its consumption or face the consequences.


Now, that said, apples in particular are really sweet, I find.  Some varieties more than others, of course, but a good honey crisp, ambrosia, or royal gala apple should certainly have enough sugar to sweeten an entire dish, shouldn't it?

That's what I thought, anyway, upon concocting this recipe from a melange of about three other apple crumble recipes.

The filling I wasn't too worried about - I was reasonably confident that that could still turn out just fine by just omitting (removal without substitution) the (large amounts) of both white and brown sugars.

However... the 'crumble' part kind of gets its name and characteristic brown, nutty, delicacy - in part, at least - from brown sugar.  So I tried to compensate for that a little.

The solution for this came from an ATK recipe (America's Test Kitchen) wherein they extolled all the good things that came by 'pre-baking' the crumble part.

So, that's what I did.  And it worked.

Anyway, here's my own creation of a naturally-sweetened apple crumble, which is an altogether not-so-bad-for you 'dessert'.

First off, the yield for this recipe is quite small (I'd guess about 4-6 persons) so feel free to double it for a portion more akin to normal.

I had some apples which were starting to get a little soft and bruised, so that's what prompted me to give this a go in the first place.  If you're going to try this without sugar as I have, you pretty much need to use 'sweet' apples.  i.e. Granny Smiths are not going to cut it.  

I'm using royal gala apples which are naturally quite sweet.

If you haven't read my Homemade Organic Apple Sauce With Peel post, you should know that I am also an advocate for keeping the peel on in sauces.  They're just so full of good stuff I can't understand why you would not keep them in.

I learned a few things from making apple sauce that day.  Namely, leaving the peel on is just fine, provided you puree it well enough; but also, you can definitely get away without adding any sugar if you use sweet apples like these.

So, I was pretty confident I'd be able to pull of this tweaked recipe I'd just now concocted.

I'll list for you here, what it entails:

For the filling:

  • 4 organic royal gala apples, cored, quartered, and chopped.
  • 1 tbsp unsweetened fruit juice (like cranberry)
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch
  • pinch of lemon zest
  • dash of cinnamon

For the crumble:

  • 1/2 cup flour (all-purpose)
  • 1/16 tsp (yup, that's half of 1/8 a tsp) salt
  • 1 tbsp unsweetened fruit juice (like cranberry)
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter
  • dash of cinnamon
It's basically your standard recipe for apple crumble, just without the sugar.

So, I began by coring and cutting the apples.

I think I have a fairly decent apple-cutting technique.  I learned it from my mom who learned it from her mom in turn.  And she made an astounding amount of apple pies.  Astounding.

Peeling I learned from her as well, but I haven't peeled an apple in some time (see above-mentioned leaving-the-peel-on rant).

Begin by quartering the apple straight up - cut in half right down the centre, and then again right through the core.  Effectively cutting the core in half once, and then again to quarter it.

Then take your quarters and just quickly incise in and behind (what's left of) the core.  If you follow the 'hard' part (I'm sorry I don't know the correct term for the cartilage-y bit surrounding and housing the seeds) the core just 'pops' right out with a little nudge from behind with your paring knife.

Anyway... that's my masterful apple cutting technique.  I find it is very time- and waste-efficient.  Just look at how much waste there was only from all of these apples:

That's pretty cool if you ask me.


ANYWAY... chop these babies up into little 1/2" chunks, and then get them cooking (on medium) in a saucepan with a heavy lid.  Add your other liquids (for the filling) here - so a tablespoon each of juice and vanilla - rather than any water or anything, to help 'cook' the apples.  You can add the cinnamon here too if you want (particularly if you really enjoy the strong presence of cinnamon.)

For the juice, and in order to ensure this is truly a 'naturally-sweetened' dessert, make sure  to pick one that does not have any sugar added.

I used Oasis cranberry juice, of which I am a big fan.  It's technically not a 'cranberry cocktail' but it does have a couple of other juices in there from other fruit.  From my own grocery research and shopping, it seems almost impossible to find a 'cranberry' juice that is actually just composed of cranberry juice.

Anyway, these ingredients are still pretty decent, as you can see, and the juice is delicious... not overly sweet, but not deathly tart either.

So... no sugars except those naturally occurring from the fruit, and yet the juice is very sweet.  I figured it would do well as a sweetener for my baking today.

As the apples are blipping away on the stove, I got to work on the crumble part.  At this point you can preheat your oven (350°) if you like.

So, 1/4 cup of flour in a large mixing bowl, mixed with the salt, and then cut-in the liquid and the butter, in batches.

At this point I took a frantic 5 minutes to turn my kitchen upside-down looking all over for my pastry cutter.  I could have sworn I had one... but it up and disappeared on me.  So, I had to use my fingers.  I've heard of other tricks to cut-in fat or liquid, including two knives, but eventually it was my fingers that worked best.

So, I pinched and squeezed and mixed and blended until my fingers hurt, trying to ensure as much even distribution as possible.

And then did the same with the butter.  There wasn't much butter, so again just used my fingers.

After cutting-in the butter, I realized my ratio was off a little bit.  It could be a problem with halving the original recipe, or it could be because it was an exceptionally humid afternoon, I dunno, but in any case, I needed to add a bit more flour, as you can see:

So, I added some more flour (just a couple spoonfuls) and then (using a trick from the ATK recipe) gave the mixture a few quick pulses in my mixer.

What came out was a little finer, and was spread out as evenly as possible upon a parchment-covered baking sheet.

This got baked in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes, until they just started to turn brown.

Meanwhile, the apples got nice and cooked, and thoroughly softened.

So, they go into my large blender along with a spoonful of corn starch, and some lemon zest.  Add the cinnamon here if you didn't add it before.

Even though they're completely mushy and practically falling apart, the blender still needs a few careful nudges with a spoon; I do not recommend sticking utensils - or anything for that matter - into blenders when in use!!!  However, sometimes a sticky mixture needs a little coaxing.  Especially if adding liquid is not an option.

Anyway, after a couple minutes, I carefully spread this mixture out into a small, greased, baking pan.

Although it looked disturbingly like apple sauce (most apple baking calls for 'chunks' and my method of pureeing the filling is definitely not the norm) it was still kind of... sproingy.


The nicely golden (but not fully browned) crumble comes out of the oven and gets crumbled (fancy that!) just with your hands, on top of the filling.  Give it a dash of cinnamon on top, and then put the whole thing back in the oven for about 20-25 minutes.

When it comes out, the top should be wholly browned, and the fruit should be sizzling up at the sides of the pan.

This was really good.

It was surprisingly sweet, but not 'dessert' sweet.  After finishing a large piece, I was left with a 'feel-good' sensation rather than a saccharine bloated feeling, and not all of that was just psychological.


Seriously, it was flaky and crunchy, with a dense apple-tastic layer that still left the entire dish surprisingly light.

I'd definitely make this again.  I might even add a bit more corn starch to the filling to make it a bit more sproingy.

Anyway, I encourage anyone to give it a try, and/or let me know similar recipes which you've effectively "de-sweetened"!