The No-Choice Choice

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So, you’re forced to make a horrible choice.  Don’t ask me to explain the circumstances that put you in this position.  Assume it involves some sort of diabolical blackmail or a mad scientist with a nuclear bomb hidden somewhere.  It doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is that you have to choose between two alternatives.

Choice #1:  Host a nightly jam session for members of the Society for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Ancient Battlefield Musical Instruments.  This means bagpipes, bugles, shawms, and nakers, and it also means enough noise to loosen dental fillings, shake pictures off walls, and make the place pretty much uninhabitable for the duration of each session.

Choice #2:  Using an air popcorn popper to roast coffee beans in the basement.

Given the choice, I would take #1.  Not that I’ve hosted an Ancient Battlefield jam session, but I have roasted coffee beans in the basement. Believe me.  It’s #1 you want. 

If you’re unfamiliar with home roasting coffee beans using a popcorn popper, look here.  Normally, I roast outside, but a -20 celsius morning (in Fahrenheit that’s Freezes Nosehairs Instantly) forced me to look at alternatives.  That alternative was the confines of the basement.

The first batch of beans, roasted to a Full City Dark, went swimmingly well.  The second batch was intended to be roasted to the same degree.  Unfortunately, with the popcorn popper already warmed up, my highly scientific approach (roasting the second batch the same length of time as the first) resulted in a dark roast so dark, I would place it in a newly named coffee roasting category:  Full City Charcoal.  

I will drink the coffee from these beans, just as I’ll drink a bad batch of home-brew because it just doesn’t seem right to throw anything out I’ve made no matter how badly it tastes.  But the reminder of that coffee roasting session stayed with me and anyone else  in the house for the next number of days– kind of like living in a giant barbecue where the smell of burnt coffee beans is inescapable, and intensified every time the forced air furnace kicked into action.  It was the olfactory version of an ear-worm.  Think of Abba for the nose.

So, in short, if you find yourself hung from a rope above a pool of underfed sharks and forced to choose between #1 and #2, go with #1.  Earplugs are preferable to nose-plugs.

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Bah! Yumbug!

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Although mostly lacking in any excessive indulgence in Christmas traditions, there is one I adhere to with enthusiasm.  Ginger cake. 

Christmas without ginger cake would be like a Chinese Buffet without the lime jello, or a parade without the clowns that shovel horse manure, or a junior high band concert without the headache, or the history of cars without the American Motors Gremlin, or a visit to a fortune-teller without hearing about a tall, dark stranger, or a visit to Cache Creek without stopping at Hungry Herbie’s, or a “Top 100 Hits of All Time,” without something by Bobby Curtola.

You can only make it at Christmas.  There are eleven months in which ginger cake is just wrong.  Equally wrong is a stretch of December in which tea or coffee is not accompanied with a generous wedge of ginger cake.

I realize that ginger cake may strike many as an idiosyncratic Christmas tradition.  But give it a try, and there’s a chance you’ll be hooked.  Your Christmas tree will be relegated to a position of secondary importance during seasonal preparations while you follow this recipe:

Christmas Ginger Cake

4 cups of all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 Tablespoon of ginger powder

2 cups of Thompson Seedless raisins

3 Tablespoons of finely chopped preserved ginger (Dalton’s brand is good)

1 1/2 cups of butter

1 cup molasses

1 1/2 cups white sugar

3 eggs

11” circular coffee cake pan

What to do:

1.  Heat in a saucepan to a boil the butter, molasses and sugar.

2.  Combine dry ingredients in separate bowl.

3.  Add heated stuff to the dry ingredients, then stir in the eggs one at a time, stirring rapidly and making sure each egg is fully mixed in before adding the next one.

4.  Pour into a greased, floured coffee cake pan.  (You may also want to cut out a piece of parchment paper to line the bottom.)

5.  Bake for approximately 1 hour at 325 F.  It’s done when a chopstick comes out clean. 

6.  Let it cool for about half an hour.  Then, run a knife around the edge of the pan to make sure it’s not sticking.  Invert onto a cooling rack.

7.  Indulge.  Feel Christmasy.  Know that you have created the ultimate in Christmas traditions.  Had he ever tasted this ginger cake, even Scrooge would be Unscrooged.

A Recipe that Knows No Failure

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In some recipes, failure doesn’t stand a chance.  It’s not even within the realm of consideration.  Failure doesn’t even have your house address let alone a key to the front door.

Such is the case with rum balls.  All you have to do is to take chocolate– lots of it– chips and Oreo cookie crumbs.  Mix in some whipping cream and melted butter.  Why not throw in some booze and even some salt? 

The proportions don’t really matter.  All the elements inherently work because each could potentially stand on its own.  It’s the Travelling Wilburys of recipes– you could have each ingredient as a soloist, but throw them together and you have a supergroup that can do no wrong– never hit a sour note.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that the spherical aspect of the rum ball is really all that important.  They could be rum pancakes or rum smoothies and those consuming them could care less.

Some might argue that superior and inferior rum ball recipes exist, but this is not the case.  The only bad thing about a rum ball recipe is that it doesn’t make enough.

But for those who just can’t let go of needing a recipe, for those who still need a compass when they’re standing on Mount Everest, here’s a recipe.  But feel free to change it.  And if you can’t find your measuring spoons or your measuring cups were chewed up by the dog, don’t worry.  Just wing it.  Failure will remain blissfully ignorant of your venture.

Catastrophically Good Rum Balls

(A redundant name if there ever was one.)

Adapted from Rea’s Top Secret Recipe

3/4 cup whipping cream

1/4 cup butter

3 tbsp sugar (if you want, but I skip this)

3 tbsp rum  (make it 4)

1 cup chocolate chips

4 cups chocolate cookie crumbs

Think about adding some salt.

Paper candy cups

Old yogurt containers for storage

Wax paper (for between the layers when placed in yogurt container to store)

1.  Put cream, butter and sugar into a double boiler over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring often.

2.  Remove from heat and stir in chocolate chips.  Keep stirring until they are melted. 

3.  Add rum and crumbs (and maybe salt).  Mix well.

4.  Set in the fridge until firm enough to roll into balls.

5.  Roll into balls whatever size suits you or your glutinous friends.  I wouldn’t recommend anything larger than a cricket ball.  I did tablespoon sized (I finally found my measuring spoons– under the fridge.) 

6.  Place into paper candy cups and put into an empty yogurt container.

7.  The only hard part about the recipe is this:  Put the container in the fridge and let them age for a week to ten days for the rum balls to mature and for the rum flavour to really permeate the whole mix. 

However, if you want to be really scientific, eat one rum ball each day to taste their  progress through step #7.  “A rum ball a day keeps failure away.”

Quesadilla Saturday

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Saturday screams for a certain kind of dinner.  Saturday’s a day of loosened restraints– a day free from the toils of the work week (for most), free from religious piety (unless you’re a Seventh Day Adventist), a cutting-loose day with the work week a safe distance away thanks to Sunday. 

Lentils don’t work for Saturday.  Definitely not tofu, either.  Saturday deserves something better than left-overs no matter what they are, or Kraft Dinner no matter how you doctor it up.

A dinner that really says Saturday needs open flames, hot oil, or a combination of the two.  Saturday dinner ignores food groups, leaves you with a certain amount of regret, and would be lethal if co-opted by two or three other days of the week.  A Saturday dinner is not food for sustenance– it is food to suss the limits of digestive tract tolerance.  Dionysian gastronomic indulgence.

Let’s get down to brass tacks, hot chilly peppers, and slabs of beef . . . So, what specifically is a candidate for a dinner that deserves Saturday night?  The nominees are numerous, and final determination can rest upon a multitude of personal persuasions.  Fitting most qualifying criteria, making any Saturday night a happy Saturday night, is the underrated quesadilla.  Follow the instructions below, and sink your teeth into Saturday night. 

Saturday Night Quesadillas

Ingredients

3 oz goat cheese, crumbled into tiny bits

cooking oil

1/2 cup chopped green onion

1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed

1 pinch ground black pepper

2/3 lb (or so) diced chicken breast

1 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

6 soft tortilla shells (10 inch)

sour cream (optional)

Directions

  1. Defrost corn, then throw in a pan with oil, chicken, onions and pepper over medium heat.
  2. When cooked, put into separate bowl and stir in cilantro.
  3. Divide into three, and spread over 3 tortillas (or really load up 2).
  4. Sprinkle goat cheese over.
  5. Heat a flat frying pan with oil over medium heat, then lay in first tortilla and add shell to cover.  Check to see if the shell is browning, then flip and cook the other side.  (You could probably bake them in an oven, but that’s not really in the spirit of Saturday night, so I wouldn’t do it.)
  6. Remove from pan, cut into four, and place on a plate in the oven to keep warm.
  7. Repeat for other tortillas.
  8. When you serve them, top with sour cream if you like.

Salad of Impending Alarm

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According to a report in the July 1983 edition of the Journal of Belgian Medical Anomalies, the beet is charged with being the vegetable causing most unnecessary visits to the doctor. To counter this alarming trend and rehabilitate the reputation of Belgium’s eleventh most popular root vegetable, the Beet Growers of Belgium produced a cookbook called (in English Translation) Rooting for Beets! This cookbook was full of beet recipes for every imaginable occasion.  There were recipes for beet bread, beet sherbet, beet salsa, and beet martinis. The recipe book was distributed free by the overhead flight of a fleet of Mars bombers dropping 150,000 copies over the cities of Brussels and Liege.

One month later, the Beet Growers of Belgium surveyed the populations of both cities for their reaction to the recipes. Far and away, the most popular recipe was the final recipe in the book– Salad of Impending Alarm. Immediately, the question was asked, “Why was this?” Why would Salad of Impending Alarm be more popular than, say, beet pie or beet smoothies?

The popularity of Salad of Impending Alarm remains one of the great unanswered questions still troubling the culinary elite of Belgium. You can choose to do your part for resolving this seemingly minor yet persistent national quandary by making the Salad of Impending Alarm, then send any hunches you may have to the nearest Belgian embassy. An entire nation awaits your answer.

Salad of Impending Alarm

(adapted from Nichols Garden Nursery)

Ingredients:

4-5 cups claytonia with stems

6 small baked beets, peeled & sliced

2 tablespoons red onion finely sliced

4 teaspoons oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

salt & pepper to taste

1/3 to 1/2 cup cup walnut pieces toasted in a frying pan

2 to 4 oz. crumbled goat cheese

Directions

  1. Peel the beets and cut into small cubes.  You can bake them in the oven, but I prefer to stir-fry them in a pan.  That’s just the way I am.
  2. Pan-fry the walnuts.
  3. Combine the beets, walnuts, vinegar, salt, pepper, and onions, then mix them up.
  4. Wash and lay out the claytonia on a serving dish.  Cover with the beet mixture, then sprinkle the cheese to top things off.

The Defining Burger

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Dillon and Miranda, in every sense of the definition, are meant for each other.  Both have pet iguanas named Cuddles, a mutual love of complementary colours– her red, him green, and both are fans of the now-defunct Kansas City Scouts Hockey Club.

Dillon asks Miranda to his place for their first date– he’ll make his special, pretty-much famous homemade burgers.  He loves to cook, she loves to eat.  How convenient!

Everything’s going swimmingly.  The iguanas are asleep in the corner, compliments fly back and forth, there’s smiling and laughing, and then,  Miranda sinks her teeth into her burger.

She chews three times and then, convulsively, spits out her partly chewed lump of burger and bun.  It lands in Dillon’s lap.  It was an accident.  Her aim isn’t that good.

A look of confusion comes over Dillon, but Miranda wears a look of abject horror.  “What the hell is that?” she says, her voice sounding more gag than question.  “I thought this was supposed to be a burger!”

“It’s a non-meat alternative burger,” Dillon says in an apologetic mumble.  “I call them Dillon’s Pretty-Much Famous Yam Burgers.”

Miranda throws her napkin on her plate and rises abruptly out of her seat. 

“The words Yam and Burger do not belong within the covers of the same cookbook! A burger contains beef!  Does your garden contain a herd of yams?  I think not!  When you say Burger, the Beef part is an unspoken assumption!  This monstrosity on my plate is definitely not a burger!”

Their fledgling relationship has not merely hit a bump in the road– it has gone over a steep precipice and burst into flames upon impact with a dry riverbed.  Yes.  It is over.

And so, Dillon resolves to learn from this catastrophic misstep in romantic relations.  He still enjoys his Pretty-Much Famous Yam Burgers, but elects to make a slight alteration to his recipe.

Dillon’s Pretty-Much Famous Yam Not-Really-Burgers

(Adapted and possibly even slightly mutilated from a recipe in Made With Love by Kelly Childs and Erinn Weatherbie)

For this recipe, you will want:

1 large yam or a sweet potato

1 cup of quinoa

1/2 cup of white flour

2 tablespoons of dried cilantro or 1/2 cup fresh

2 green onions

salt and pepper to taste

1 teaspoon grated ginger

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon garlic crushed

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon olive oil

How Dillon Makes Them:

1.  Dillon peels the yams, cuts them in small cubes, then stir fries them until they’re soft.  He puts them in a large bowl and mashes them with a potato masher or a robust fork.  When he’s frustrated with life, he’ll just use his bare hands.

2.   Dillon cooks the quinoa according to the directions on the package, then throws it in with the yams.

3.   He adds the rest of the ingredients, then gets his hands in there and mixes the mixture until it is well mixed.  Dillon uses a 1/2 cup measure and they come out about the right size. 

4.  Dillon microwaves them for 45 seconds to firm them up before frying.  He fries them in a pan at medium high heat until they are nice and crunchy.  Dillon likes to see a little bit of black charcoalish stuff on them.  He claims it gives them added personality.

5.   He places them in his bun of choice. 

6.  He’ll tell you that these don’t need much in the way of condiments.  Lettuce and tomatoes are always good, and his Great-Aunt Minnie’s plum or pear chutney also works well.

7.  Serve with caution.  Emphasize the non-burger aspect of the name.  Maybe even call them Yam Cakes on a Bun.  Assess your guest.  Use your judgement.

8.  Do not be discouraged by an unfavourable reaction.  This means it was not meant to be.

Mona Lisa Revisionist

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So, you’ve got a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in your living room.  Don’t ask why.  You just do.  Then, after living with the picture for a few weeks, you finally start to let go of the notion that the painting if perfect in everyone’s eyes.  In other words, you begin to think about ways of improving the Mona Lisa.  She needs more bling you decide.  You begin by painting in a few decorative rings on the fingers.  Then a necklace.  Lipstick and eye shadow.  Is this sacrilege?  Is this totally wrong?  After all, you’re the one who has to live with the painting.

When I made a recipe from Yotem Ottolenghi’s cookbook Jerusalem.  I had received a jar of za’atar and was itching to use it. The recipe I chose was “Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini and Za’atar.”  I made it, and it was great.  But then, I began to think . . .

Is it sacrilege to change a recipe developed by Yotem Ottolenghi?  Probably.  I would defer to him on any food matters.  Except, I’ve got this thing about wanting to feel free to change recipes– to tinker with them, so that they fit my own tastes, inadequacies, or limited supply of exotic ingredients.  So, after making “Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini and Za’atar,” I’ll have to rename it the next time I make it. 

Next time, I will ditch the onions.  (This was a group decision by those of us eating it, although I think there may have been an unfair anti-onion /pro-squash bias, meaning that the onions didn’t stand a chance.)  I’ll also replace the pine nuts with walnuts just because I don’t want to have to remortgage the house every time I make it.  I’ll make a few other changes, too, but I don’t feel like letting them get out on the internet because, to many people, they would be cringeworthy in a culinary sense.

And so, the next time I make this wonderful dish, I’ll do it differently.  Yes, I realize it’s like altering Munsch’s “The Scream” to become, “The Yodel,” or Monet’s “Waterlilies” to become, “Waterlilies with Man Doing Backstroke.”  But ultimately, it comes down to the fact that I’m the one eating, “Roasted Butternut Squash & No Red Onion with Tahini If You Have Any and Za’atar on a Tight Budget.” 

Fryvolution

The Evolution of the Zucchini Fry

In your alphabetic cookbook, very likely the last recipe will involve zucchini since the consumption of zebra just seems wrong, and your abhorrence of cannibalism forbids you to eat zombies.

On a related note:  You love fries but know that eventually they will be blamed for your early death, so you seek out “healthy alternatives.”  Yams work, and zucchinis definitely qualify.  Plus, they start with ‘Z.’

Zucchini fries seem like a pretty perfect combo.

So, you strike out to make zucchini fries and soon discover that the “Preparation to Consumption Time” ratio of these stringy little veggies is about 263 to 1.  Microscopic slicing to transform a zucchini into a bunch of fry-shaped pieces, shaking them up in a flour-filled bag, one dip, another dip, then laying them out on a rack to bake– you know there’s got to be a better way.

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And then, it strikes you.  Use your zucchini as a mandolin pick and slice them up into rounds. 

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For some reason, the whole process seems much less laborious.  But there’s one problem.  There’s no longer the illusion that you’re eating fries.  You can’t even call them Zucchini Fries because, with fries, the shape is a pretty critical part of their definition.  So, you refine the name, arriving at a compromise that pays tribute to the original recipe but clarifies one essential difference.  

Once you make them, you realize they represent a fitting final entry in your alphabetic cookbook.  That is, until the day arrives when you develop a liking for zabaglione.

This recipe is adapted from one found on Budget Byte$.

Circular Zucchini Fries

You’ll need:

1 lb. zucchini
¼ cup all-purpose flour
⅛ tsp salt
1 cup bread crumbs
¼ cup parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp seasoning like dried oregano, basil or something Italians would use.
1 large chicken egg
1 Tbsp water

INSTRUCTIONS

1.  Use a mandolin or a wickedly sharp knife to slice the zucchini into 1/4” thick rounds.

2.  Throw them all in a plastic bag with 1/4 cup of flour and 1/8 tsp of salt.  Shake!  Shake!  Shake!  

3.  In a bowl, mix together the bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, and seasoning.

4.  In another bowl, crack in the egg and add a splash of water (1 Tbsp or so) then whisk it up.

5.  Here’s the messy part, but it’s totally worth it, so tough it out and you’ll be glad you did when you snack on these beauties–  Dip each zucchini slice in the egg, then the dry mix. 

6.  Place them on a wire cooling rack which sits on a cookie sheet covered with tinfoil.  The thing about the rack is that it elevates the zucchini, giving them a sense of self-importance and a tendency to bake without getting all mushy.

7.  Bake at 425 F for ABOUT 15 minutes, depending upon how thickly you sliced the zucchini.  I can’t really tell you how to test that they’re done other than say to sacrifice one of the pieces at the front of the rack and periodically bite into it to test for doneness.  It may not sound elegant, but it’s effective, and which would you rather be:  elegantly ineffective or inelegantly effective?

Eating Profanity

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So, what happens when someone dumps ten pounds of plums on your doorstep?  You say, “Oh, chutney!  What the heck am I going to do with these?”

That basket full of pears is starting to turn brown. “Oh, chutney!  All these pears going brown so fast?”

The same could be said of any sudden, unexpected and superfluous arrival of unwelcome fruits which guilt compels you not to throw away.  “Chutney!”

Chutney is a profanity, and a solution.  You can’t go wrong with a 1:1 ratio of fruit to sugar. Throw in a few spices to clove things up.  Get random and chuck in a few raisins and maybe some mustard seed.  Vinegar does everything: window cleaner, weed killer, so why not pour in a couple of cups along with a dash or three of salt.  And, of course, you can give it some jump with a dusting of cayenne pepper.  Boil it up, seal it in jars, and give it away for Christmas presents. 

In the aftermath of your initial angst of dealing with volumes of unwanted produce, you’re left with the fire cracker of condiments.  It makes everything taste better– even those shoe-leather tough pork chops or those bargain sausages bulked up with sawdust.

Marilyn’s Pear Chutney

(Who is Marilyn?  Oh, chutney!  I’m not positive, but I have a pretty good idea.)

3 pounds of fresh pears (about 7 cups unpeeled and chopped)
1 pound of brown sugar.  (Okay, so I exaggerated.  It’s only 3:1)
2 cups cider vinegar  (and, no, there is no scientific proof that this stuff helps you lose weight.)
1 medium onion, chopped.
1 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup diced preserved ginger
1 clove of garlic
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
2 teaspoons mustard seed

Combine the brown sugar and vinegar in a large saucepan and bring to a boil.  Add the pears and everything else (omitting the kitchen sink).  Cook slowly, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is thick.  How thick?  Imagine it pooling on a pork chop.  It’ll take about an hour to thicken.  Pour into hot sterilized jars and seal.  It makes about 5 half pint jars.  The chutney may also be kept in the fridge for 3 to 4 weeks.

Pizza to Die From

I’d never eaten cardboard before. It wasn’t an ambition of mine.  It never really entered my mind to do such a thing.  But then came that summer evening when we ordered a thin crust pizza from Dominos.

As my teeth tore at the stubborn crust covered in what theoretically was at one time cheese and tomatoes, a horrible thought crossed my mind.  Had the bottom of the box inadvertently stuck to my slice of pizza?  In spite of my complete lack of experience in eating cardboard, my active imagination was able to project that what I was attempting to chew and swallow, was quite likely cardboard– toughness dissolving into a pulpy mush.

The outcome was a ‘good news/ bad news’ scenario.  The good news was that it wasn’t actually cardboard.  The bad news was that it was supposed to be pizza crust.

Inspired by this corrugated catastrophe, I decided to seek out a recipe for pizza dough made from scratch.  I even checked Youtube to learn how to throw the dough, using centrifugal force and a clenched fist to form the dough.  My advise to anyone wishing to learn this is, “Make sure your kitchen floor is swept and washed with disinfectant.”  Your dough will spend about half of its time hitting all corners of the kitchen floor.  Instead, I now use a rolling pin.  Learning to toss pizza dough may have to wait for my next life, provided I’m not reincarnated as a Dominos delivery boy.

Basic Pizza Dough

(Shamelessly borrowed from Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist Cooks Dinner)

3 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 teaspoon course kosher or sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

The By-hand Method:

1.  Combine flour, yeast and salt in large mixing bowl.

2.  Add 1 cup of cold water and olive oil.  Kneed into smooth ball that is slightly sticky to touch.  If dry, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water.  If sticky, add tablespoon of flour at a time. (I nearly always add water one teaspoon at a time.)

3.  Put dough in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Let rise ideally 1 to 2 hours.  (Or, do what I do.  Let it rise about 10 minutes simply because you didn’t think ahead and you’re really hungry.)

4.  Press the dough into an oiled or non-stick baking sheet.  You can roll it out with a rolling pin and your hands.  You can also put it on parchment paper on a stone slab.  Whatever works for you.

With whatever toppings you choose, bake in a 500 F. oven for 6 to 12 minutes.  If your pizza crust tastes like cardboard using this recipe, you’ve done something seriously wrong.  It’s time to re-examine your life.