Monday, 25 July 2011

Collard Greens: A Side To Soak Up Some Good Ol' Southern Grease

I catered a party on Friday night, for the first time evah. It was a sit-down dinner for a friend and some of her work colleagues, and she wanted it to be a southern barbecue theme. I cooked up some pulled pork with a coffee chipotle rub and a tangy, tomato-based barbecue sauce, and some barbecued chicken with a marinating and basting sauce of, well, a shitload of butter, Worchestershire sauce, and lemon juice. I also did a vinaigrette-based potato salad, a creamier coleslaw, biscuits, hush puppies, and, wait for it, one green dish, the collards. To finish, I made some pecan brownies and the BEST brittle ever, Dr. Pepper peanut brittle. Oh my God, it was kill-ER. That one was definitely blog-worthy, but I'm going to wait until a nice, cooler day to make it again. I cooked the brittle last Thursday. Do you remember last Thursday? When it was so ridonculously hot that the sweat produced by getting up from the couch to get a glass of water required a cold shower rinse-off? Do you realize that I was standing over a pot of boiling sugar and butter with a candy thermometer on that Hades-like day?

Oh, the sacrifice!

Collard greens, pre-living daylights being cooked out of them.
Anyway, the greens. I've cooked collard greens a few times before, but I liked these the best. I'm pretty sure it's because I cooked the living daylights out of them, but no matter, it worked. They were a really wicked complement to the rest of the dinner, and I almost put the leftovers into my purse (in a container, obviously) when I left the party. But I checked myself, as I thought professional, seasoned caterers, such as myself, aren't supposed to take the leftovers back to their place.

Oh, the restraint!

Braised Collard Greens with Celery

1 big bunch of collard greens, tough stems removed and leaves sliced finely into ribbons   (this exact dish could also be made with kale, or chard, or even mustard greens - you might think spinach would also work, but it just won't - you really want to cook this for a while, and spinach will just not last that long - you could do a modified, quick saute with the same ingredients save for the chicken stock, but I'd leave the braising for the sturdier greens. Just, if I were you.)
1 large onion, sliced finely
3 cloves of garlic, minced
5 celery stalks, sliced finely on the diagonal     (I added the celery as a means of bulking up what I thought wouldn't be enough greens to feed everyone, but it ended up tasting really good, so I think you should do it too)
2 cups-ish of chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
A pat of butter or other neutral oil - I used soya    (you could also just use olive oil if it's what you have hanging about)

Saute the onion in the butter or oil, for a fairly long while. About 20 or 30 minutes, over medium heat, should do it. You're basically caramelizing the onion, to add a really robust first layer of flavour. Then add in your garlic, and saute it with the onions for about a minute or two. Toss in the ribboned collard greens, and the thinly sliced celery. Give it a good shake in the pan, and then add in about a cup of chicken stock. You want there to be a nice amount of liquid, this will really bump up the flavour and also make for almost a creamy consistency once it's finished. I cooked these for probably about two hours, over medium-low heat, adding more chicken stock as necessary. By the end, you don't want too much liquid left, but give them lots of time in lots of stock, and they'll get extremely delicious, trust. It takes a bit of time, but it's a low-maintenance dish. You don't have to stand over the stove the whole time, by any means.

Collards and celery, bathing together in stock. Ew, that sounds gross.
A lot of people toss in some kind of animal action to their collards:  ham, bacon, pancetta, smoked turkey. Feel free to do that here. I exercised restraint again here (amazing!) and just let the vegetables do the talking. There was more than enough lily-gilding in this particular meal. 

This will serve about 5 or 6 people as a side dish. If you're like me and you serve a zillion sides, it'll serve even more. Also, I forgot to take a picture of the finished bowl of collards, likely due to the fact that I was in a panicked state trying to figure out how to tell if a hush puppy was done or not and fending off hot oil splatters. But the dinner was a total success!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Orzo Salad: Mildly Greek, Strongly Delicious

I'm not a huge fan of pasta salad. And I'm about to say something even more controversial here:  I'm not a huge fan of pasta, period. I know, that's crazy talk to a lot of people. But here's the thing - I always want more sauce, or more of what's on the pasta, than I want the pasta itself. Same with pizza. More toppings, less dough. Mind you, I've never made pasta from scratch, which I know makes a huge difference, and I have had some pretty ridiculously tasty pasta dishes in restaurants (I'm thinking of a major splurge at a place on College, involving gnocchi and lobster and probably 1.5 pounds of butter.  Now that.  That I would eat again). Also, I wasn't born in Italy, so maybe I just don't get it. Shocking, I know, what with all the freckles and fair skin.

Having said all that, I have a bit of a thing for orzo, the little rice-shaped beads of pasta. Orzo is cute-looking, cooks in no time, and really works well with others. And it makes for a really delicious, fresh salad when paired with some roasted vegetables, feta and olives.

I forgot to add the fresh basil prior to consumption. So sue me.

Do not leave me alone with this pan of vegetables.
As an aside, I eat roasted vegetables like candy. Not to be all holier than thou, because I also eat actual candy like candy (and potato chips? Shut the door), but I seriously can knock back vegetables, especially those that are a touch caramelized, and salted and peppered assertively, like it's going out of style.

Orzo Salad with Feta and Olives

A panful of roasted vegetables - I chopped up (in big chunks) half a big zucchini, a yellow pepper, a handful of mushrooms, and some green onions cut in 2-inch or so lengths     (you could also use eggplant, any other kind of pepper, red or white onion, any kind of squash, tomatoes - roasted tomatoes are crazy delicious, asparagus, the list goes on)
olive oil and salt and pepper to coat vegetables
1 cup of shelled, cooked edamame beans
1 cup of orzo
1/2 cup of crumbled feta
a handful of pitted black olives, chopped up a bit, optional
1/2 can of chopped artichoke hearts
1 tbsp of olive oil
2 tsp or so of white balsamic vinegar (or apple cider, or regular balsamic)
juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Plop your chopped vegetables onto a sheet pan, and toss with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper. The best instrument for this is your very clean hands. Put the oiled, salted and peppered pan of veg in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes or so, shaking them up once or twice during cooking.

In the meantime, briefly cook your shelled edamame beans in boiling water. Drain and reserve. Use the same pot and put your water on to cook the orzo. Once it's come to a rolling boil, put a good whack of salt in the water. The water should taste salty. This is your one chance to actually season the pasta itself, so don't miss out on this fantastic opportunity. Cook the orzo for about 8 to 10 minutes, tasting as you go. Once it's ready, strain it and place in a big bowl, and add the edamame.

The edamame aspect is definitely the least Greek thing
happening here.
Once the vegetables are ready, place them in the same bowl as the orzo and edamame. Throw in the pitted, roughly chopped olives, the feta, and the artichoke hearts. Taste it at this point. It might be olive oil-y enough for you, in which case feel no obligation to add more, but do what you feel. Add your vinegar as well, and add salt and pepper to your taste. Squeeze your lemon juice over the whole shebang, and mix it up well. Serve with fresh basil on top.

Makes about 4 servings. This salad keeps really well and is a perfect lunchable.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Gussied up Gazpacho: A Delicious Cold Soup, If Cold Soup Doesn't Weird You Out.

So, this isn't really a recipe, so much as it is an enhancement of a purchased product. Let me explain.  Cooking in the summer heat can be excruciatingly painful. Especially if you're like me and don't have that newfangled contraption they call "air conditioning". Hot times means cutting corners in the kitchen, sometimes...and this little ditty is definitely a corner-cutter.

(As I'm writing this I'm almost embarrassed that I'm putting it up here...)

Listen. Buy yourself a jar of pre-made gazpacho. I like Sunflower Kitchen. Pour it into a large bowl. Dice up a yellow pepper, half an english cucumber, a tomato (don't worry about seeding or peeling), and an avocado. Thinly slice a green onion. Chop up a whole whack of basil leaves. Add all these ingredients into your bowl with the gazpacho. Stir it all up well, and add salt, pepper, and hot sauce to taste. Put it in the fridge, and really chill the shit out of it. Like, it will taste so much better super cold than it will taste medium cold. And if cold soup does indeed weird you out, feel free to wait patiently for the next delicious recipe I put up here.

Many corners were cut in the making of this soup.
If you are so inclined, before serving add in some cooled, cooked shrimp. You could also throw in some corn (fresh or canned). It is the ultimate thing to make when you decide to have people over for dinner on a blistering hot workday at the last minute. It's super refreshing and easy as pie. Although that saying never made sense to me. Pie is quite hard to make.

This "recipe" makes about four hearty servings.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Avocado and Chorizo Dip: This Dip Will Win You Friends.

That is, if you're in the business of winning friends.

This dip requires very little exposition:  it's just really good, everyone likes it, I make it constantly, and it's been on repeat on my playlist for years and years. It's rich but bright tasting, and the chorizo lends a wicked smoky kick to what is otherwise a riff on guacamole. It's the kind of thing that people take a bite of and then stop the conversation to figure out what in god's name (should I be capitalizing the 'G'?) the delicious dip is.

Just what in God's name is in this dip? See below.
Avocado and Chorizo Dip

one link of chorizo sausage, diced
2 avocadoes, diced
1 large tomato, seeded and diced       (seeding sounds more complicated than it is, and it's also necessary to do because otherwise the dip will get too liquidy...I just chop up the tomato into quarters, or eighths if it's quite big, and scoop out the seeds in the middle with my impeccably clean fingers, usually into the sink)
1/4 cup of chopped cilantro
1/4 cup of diced red onion
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper or green chile, minced, or add some dashes of hot sauce to taste
2 tbsp of red wine vinegar      (you can also use balsamic vinegar in place of the red wine if that's what's hanging around your place)
Juice of 1 big lime     (add more if you think the dip needs more zing)
A good glug of olive oil
Salt to taste

Dip being scooped by freckled hand, from bowl resting on wrinkled sarong
that I use for a tablecloth when I want to get fancy. Like, really fancy.
Preheat the oven to broil, and place the diced chorizo in a single layer on a sheet pan. Run it under the broiler for anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, until it gets browned and crispy. Remove from the pan and place it on a plate lined with paper towels. Blot the chorizo with the paper towel to remove the excess grease.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the avocado, tomato, cilantro, red onion, garlic, jalapeno or chile pepper, vinegar, lime juice, olive oil, and salt to taste. Be gentle with the mixture, as you want to maintain the nice dice on the avocado without mushing it up.

Add in the blotted, crispy, delicious chorizo that you have already eaten a significant amount of, and mix that in. This is best after sitting at room temperature for about a half an hour, to give the flavours a chance to mingle. Serve with tortilla chips. Makes a bowl that will serve about 4 as a snack or hors d'oeuvres. And if you double the recipe, nothing bad will happen.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Nicoise Salad: Get Your Ahi On.

This is a true showstopper of a meal, perfect for a summer evening. There are two keys to this meal, that cannot be compromised.  The first is the ahi tuna, also referred to as sushi-grade. Meaning it's the good stuff. You can buy it from the fishmonger (and the guy who sold me this fish was so adorably earnest and sooooo into fish it almost made me emotional) and eat it right out of your hands, raw as anything, if you wish. But that creates kind of a grotesque image. My point is you can't cheap out here, if you want to do something a bit fantastic. Having said that, this salad will totally work with a good quality canned tuna, preferably the kind packed in olive just won't be as good as with the fresh stuff. It'll be something different.

The second key to success in this endeavour is you need to get yourself a really big, shallow platter. It's truly a beautiful salad, and you need something nice to serve it on. I purchased my big blue platter at a specialty store near my house, called Dollarama. It was a dollar. It's plastic. But it's perfect for this. Have you ever been to the Dollarama at Queen and O'hara, in Parkdale? It kicks ass. It's pretty much where all my dishes are from. No joke.

Salad ingredients, getting ready for their big debut.
The big debut.
Okay, so there's a bit of a splurge on the tuna. But you won't actually need that much, because you slice the tuna quite thin and you can stretch it. Plus, there is a lot going on in this salad, including other substantial ingredients like potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. I used just over a pound of tuna for 3 people, and I had another full serving (at least) left over. So a pound for four people will be perfect, certainly.

Instead of using anchovies directly in the salad, I put a significant hit of anchovy paste in the dressing. If you have good anchovies by all means use them. I just wasn't sure if all my dinner guests would be down, so I snuck in that flavour via the dressing.
The other most excellent part of this dish, besides its killer flavour, is you can make all of the components ahead of time, so all you have to do once guests arrive is sear the tuna, which takes about five minutes, max.

Nicoise Salad

1 pound of ahi tuna
1 tbsp of oil, for frying tuna     (don't use olive oil for this, stick with canola, or soya, or even peanut would probably be a good option)
1 pound of small new potatoes, or cut up large new potatoes, red or white
4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced into quarters       (I hard-boil my eggs in the following fashion:  place eggs in cold water, turn the heat up to max, let them boil at full throttle for a minute or two, and then take them off the heat - leave them in that water, with a lid on the pot, for about 20 minutes - presto, perfect hard-boiled eggs with little fuss and no gross grey ring around the yolk that you get when you boil them too long)
2 tomatoes, cut into wedges
2 handfuls of snap peas, or asparagus, or green beans, cooked briefly      (cook them for only a couple of minutes, and then pull them off the heat and either run cold water over them or place them in an ice bath to stop the cooking and preserve the vibrant green colour)
2 handfuls of olives of your choosing - black are more traditional, but who cares, use what kind you like
Arugula to lay everything on top of, and also to eat
Salt and pepper to taste

For the dressing:
juice of 1 lemon     (don't be weird and use the lemon juice from a bottle - just...don't)
1 tsp of dijon mustard
2 tbsp of chives, snipped or minced finely     (measuring chives seems ridiculous, just put a good palmful in there)
1-2 tbsp of anchovy paste     (this is an awesome ingredient, and provides body and a certain salty je ne sais quoi - oy - to dressings, don't be afraid to use a fairly heavy hand with it - I promise you it will not taste fishy in any way)
4-5 tbsp of olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

To assemble the salad, lay the arugula down on your platter. As you can see from the photo, I tried to get a bit creative in the presentation, and I think, frankly, I did a pretty great job. I just sort of went around the perimeter of the platter and placed half of each ingredient across the platter from each other, saving the middle for the tuna, who should not share centre stage.

To sear the tuna, take it out of the fridge about 15 minutes before go time, to let it warm up a bit. A cast iron pan is ideal for this but not necessary. Heat up the oil on max heat, and wait until the oil is hot hot hot before you put that tuna in there. The point is to get a really nice sear, and you can't do that if you jump the gun and put the tuna in a medium-hot pan. Salt and pepper both sides of your tuna. Once it's in the pan, leave it be for about three minutes or so. I think an overcooked piece of tuna is a heinous thing, so really watch your timing here. Flip her over, and leave it for another two minutes, max. Take it off the heat, wait a few minutes, and slice her up thinly. It should be bright pink and basically raw in the middle, with a nice sear on both sides.

To make the dressing, put all the ingredients in a small jar and shake it up. Then, and this is an important, often ignored step, taste it. It's really quite amazing what you can learn if you just taste things! Add more lemon if it needs brightening, more anchovy paste if you want the flavour to be deeper, more oil if it needs to loosen up a bit.

Lay your tuna on the arugula in the middle of the platter, and pour the dressing over the tuna and all of the other ingredients. Provide a pair of tongs, and let the guests serve themselves. This is really a stunner, and so low-maintenance if you have some peeps over.

Seriously, how hot does that tuna look.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Potato Chip Frittata: Healthy, But Not!

I just returned from an awesome vacation out west. Spent time in Vancouver, and a handful of glorious days in Ucluelet. Go to Ucluelet. Don't hesitate. Serious. Vancouver was wonderful and walk, you bike, you look at mountains and ocean. And then you come back to Toronto, if you live here like me, and you're happy to be back in the edginess. No one in Vancouver seems to do anything bad (I mean, except for rioting). No one even stays up late! Anyway, I ate a lot of potato chips while I was away, just 'cause I could. Whatevs, I went for like 18 bike rides and 20 hikes.

My first day back to Toronto I had a couple of lovely people over for dinner, and I had eggs, and I wanted to do a frittata. Getting comfortable with the frittata is key for dinner parties, in my humble opinion. It's pure dead brilliant, as the Scots say. Eggs are key, so stop here if you hate them. But hating eggs is crazy talk. You make the frittata ahead of time, throw in a salad and some bread, and blammo, dinner.

FYI, this is a photo of sea lions off Ucluelet, not a frittata.
But look how cute they are.

The recipe, involving predominantly the aforementioned potato chips and eggs, is from a glorious, luscious cookbook called Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan. She rules. And so does this cookbook. She calls this a 'wink' recipe, something developed by those saucy French to get a bit playful with the traditional Spanish recipe for potato tortilla. Try serving it to your health nut friends who never eat potato chips, and then tell them after they've eaten it.

Are people getting tired of these cutting board shots?
Potato Chip Frittata
From Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan

4 eggs
3 green onions, sliced finely, or a small onion, treated the same
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup of herbs of your choosing     (I used cilantro and parsley, but other delicious choices would be chives, or basil, or dill might even be nice)
1 tbsp of oil, canola or olive
1/3 of a big bag of potato chips    (I used kettle chips, salt and pepper flavoured - but here's where you can get crazy: why not try making it with dill pickle, hmmm? Or sour cream and onion? Just don't use all-dressed - they're gross)

So here's what you do. Set your oven to broil, and move your oven rack up so it's pretty close to the actual broiler, but not crazy close. Dorie gives you an actual amount of inches the pan should be from the broiler but I found that too much work. Just make sure your rack is pretty close, but not as close as it can get, you feel me?

Crush the shit out of those potato chips with your hands, in a bowl big enough to fit the eggs after. Really crush the chips up, so that they're in little bits. In another bowl, crack in your four eggs, and then add the garlic, herbs, and onion. Then whisk that all up. Add the whisked egg action into the potato chip bowl, and mix it all up well. Heat up the oil over medium heat in a smallish frying pan (I was a bit concerned about using my small frying pan but it totally worked, it's only four eggs after all). The pan needs to be able to go into the oven, so cast iron is ideal. If you have a pan whose handle won't go in the oven, you can wrap that handle in foil and proceed.

Once the oil gets a bit hot, pour in your egg/potato chip mixture, then turn the heat to minimum. Let it set for a couple of minutes. Don't do what I did and get nervous and leave it too long thinking it wasn't set yet. Just wait a little bit (about three minutes or so), and run a spatula around the edge. If the edge keeps together in your spatula go-around, pop your pan in the oven, and broil for another few minutes. Keep a good eye on this puppy, as it won't take long for everything to set up good. Take her out of the oven, slide it out of the pan, and place on a cutting board or similar to serve.

The frittata tastes best at room temperature, which is why it's so ideal for the dinner parties. You could make it even the day before and be all easy breezy re your main course when your friends arrive. You've got this covered, yeah?

"It tastes healthy, but it's not!"
- dinner party guest