Monday, 16 May 2016

Ratatouille to Cure the Blues....

May 2016

SmartCooks here.  

We're frozen in time, literally.  Snow on the weekend and a frost advisory for two nights so far this week.  I turned off the pool in disgust.  I've only been in there swimming once this year even though I spent a considerable amount of time finding a swim-in-place system to replace the FastLane, which won't start.  Sigh.  I so loved it.

The replacement, though, does the trick. I found it on line from France.  It is called Static Swim and it's a simple system of a line hooked into one of the steps on the deck.  I then put on the equivalent of an aqua fitness belt and start to swim and swim and swim ... in place, with my Speedo Aquabeat music for company. 

There's three lines you can use -- easy, medium and hard.  I've hooked up 'easy'  until i get used to it.  Good workout if the weather would cooperate. 

To add to the crappy weather, I've been tracking some terribly sad news.  A former Deputy Minister and mentor of mine from Environment and PCO days got sick suddenly about a month ago and died yesterday of cancer.  Alan Nymark. A shockingly swift decline and death.  I met with him literally two months ago as he chaired Treasury Board's Audit Committee and we discussed preparing a 3-year strategic plan for human resources in the federal public service ... sigh.  

So I'm wallowing in the dumps and took today off to veg. The first batch of spring ramps arrived in the house yesterday so that kept me occupied preparing pesto (totally scrumptious).  I then bought too much stuff on-line ... like I really needed a Japanese square egg pan to make Tamagoyaki or another raised vegetable bed from Lee Valley called Veg Trugs for the back of the yard.  But I did. 

The highlight of the low-day was making Ratatouille.  I discovered this recipe after signing up to a new service called Chefstep, which has some really nifty recipes with a $20 or so Premium subscription.  Asian steamed buns are next on my list. The site has tips and videos and meticulous step-by-step instructions and equipment lists etc.  Thanks to Chefstep for making the day somewhat better! I hope they get more subscribers to their premium service.  Enjoy! 

Ratatouille to Cure the Blues 

10 each Roma tomatoes
Ice Water, for ice bath, as needed
-       2 each Yellow and Green Zucchini
-       2 Japanese eggplant
-       400 g sweet onion, about 1 large or 2 small
-       27 g garlic, about half a head
-       300 g red bell pepper
-       50 g olive oil, more for seasoning
-       4 g salt, plus more for seasoning
-       .5 g black pepper
-       1 g fresh rosemary or 3 sprigs, plus garnish
-       .5 g thyme, fresh, 2 springs, optional
-       parsley, fresh, optional, for garnish
-       chives, fresh, optional, for garnish

1   Preheat oven to 300 degrees F

     1.  Blanch tomatoes.  Bring a pot of water to a vigorous boil.  Prepare a large pot of ice water and set it on the counter nearby.  Score bottom of each tomato with an X – pierce just the skim, so not too deep.  Drop each tomato into the boiling water for about 45 seconds, then transfer immediately to the ice water to halt cooking.  Note blanching may vary depending on tomato size.  Look for skin to split along the length of the tomato, then remove – this will make peeling easier.  

     Remove tomatoes from the ice bath, and peel and discard the skins.  Use a knife to slice tomatoes into evenly shaped pieces about 2 mm thick.  Using a mandolin, slice remaining veggies into 2 mm thick pieces.  Set aside, and reserve the scraps for the sauce.

2.  Make sauce:  With a knife, finely chop onion and garlic.  Seed and chop bell pepper. Add olive oil to a medium-sized pot and warm over medium heat.  Lightly fry garlic until translucent.  Add onions, bell peppers; and reserved tomato, zucchini and eggplant scraps and cook slowly while stirring. Reduce heat to medium low and place lid atop pot to lightly steam the contents until soft.  Remove lid, and cook until onions appear jammy. Don’t let the bottoms brown. Remove from heat. 

3.  Make ratatouille:  Pour sauce evenly into a round casserole pan, and spread it around.  Don’t go crazy.  If you use too much sauce, it will seep through and ruin your perfectly shingled top layer.  Imagine saucing a pizza, then stop when properly sauced.  Now begin arranging your perfect vegetable slices in a pattern on top of the sauce. 

For example, start with yellow zucchini, add green zucchini, then eggplant, then tomato. Repeat.  The top edges of your slices should all be at about the same height.  Once you have a stack of slices, arrange them in a tight row along the outside of the casserole pan, and continue working inward, ring by ring, until the pan is full.  Be sure not to press veggies too deeply into your sauce; that gets messy.

4.  Season and bake ratatouille:  Sprinkle ratatouille generously with salt, and season with EVOO and fresh herbs if desired.  Place lid or parchment cutout on top.  Transfer to the oven and cook for about 90 minutes.  Check every now and then to make sure liquid is reducing.  If not, removed lid or cartouche and continue cooking uncovered.
Parchment Cartouche:
Cookie tray size parchment paper
Fold it in half
Fold it again to a square
Take a point, and fold a number of times
Looks like a cone.
Do a little triangle cut
Cut circle at bottom of ice cream cone
Unfold to a lid with a hole in the middle

Note:  The greatest thing about this site and recipe is that the chefs add variations to the classic ratatouille... like below.... 

Ratatouille with turnips, rutabaga, parsnips and green apple

Appletouille with yellow, red, and green apples

Breakfastouille with leek, sausage and potato. 

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Slow Cooker Spicy Eggplant Sauce

May 2016

SmartCooks here.

I don't know who posted this slow cooker recipe for spicy eggplant sauce. But I've tweaked it with anything from meats from chicken to tofu many times.  It lasts me for days and it is fabulous.


Slow Cooker Spicy Eggplant Sauce 

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium eggplant (1" chunks)
1 yellow onion (chopped)
3 garlic cloves (smashed)
3 T tomato paste
1-2 tsp chili flakes
2-28 ounce cans whole peeled plum tomatoes
2 sprigs oregano
1/2 cup basil leaves (loosely packed)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Freshly cracked black pepper

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add the eggplant in batches, to avoid overcrowding the pan, and season with salt. Sauté until slightly softened and pale golden, about 5-6 minutes. Transfer each cooked batch to the slow-cooker.

Once eggplant is cooked, add a few more tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and sauté the onion for 3-4 minutes, until caramelized, seasoning with salt. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.

Stir in the tomato paste and chili flakes and cook until rust colored, about 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to the slow-cooker along with the cooking oil in the pan.

Pour the tomatoes, oregano, basil and balsamic vinegar into the slow-cooker and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low for 4 hours.
Serve sauce with your favourite noodle or store in the fridge for 1-2 weeks. Be creative!

    Tuesday, 26 April 2016

    Quinoa Bowls Mediterranean style with roasted red pepper sauce

    April 2016 

    SmartCooks here.

    'Tis the season of mega stress in my life -- work is frankly out of control, home life is a whirlwind of spring cleaning and trying to get the pool up and running.  This is not going well this year.  Major grrr.  Breathe. Breathe..... 

    So I balance out the stress with comforting spring menus.  I'm cooking with quinoa -- Mediterranean style -- with roasted red pepper sauce.  Infinite combinations possible.  

    Sigh. All good. Breathe.  This working life too shall pass... I can't wait for the weekend and seeing good friends and having a life.  

    Mediterranean Quinoa Bowls with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce 

    1 16 ounce jar roasted red peppers, drained
    1 clove garlic
    ½ tsp salt (more to taste)
    Juice of one lemon
    ½ cup olive oil
    ½ cup almonds

    For the Mediterranean Bowls
    Cooked quinoa
    Spinach, kale, or cucumber
    Feta cheese
    Kalamata olives
    Pepperoncini (see pix, left)
    Thinly sliced red onion

    Fresh basil or parsley

    Olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper

    Pulse all the ingredients for the sauce in a food processor or blender until mostly smooth. The texture should be thick and textured.

    Cook the quinoa according to package directions. When the quinoa is done, build yourself a Mediterranean Quinoa Bowl! Add in the quinoa and then all the other ingredients and mix. 

    Store leftovers in separate containers and assemble each bowl just before serving, especially the greens and the sauces, as those will get soggy when stored with all the other ingredients.

    Monday, 25 April 2016

    Creamy Avocado and Orange Quinoa Salad -- Shape, with a Twist!!!

    Creamy Avocado and Orange Quinoa Salad

    April 2016 

    In a large mixing bowl, whisk together olive oil, vinegar, orange juice, and sea salt. 
    Add quinoa and orange segments, and toss to coat. 
    Gently fold in arugula and avocado. Serve topped with crushed hazelnuts, if desired. 
    I added in some spring onions, low-fat feta, cucumber, lots of herbs like basil, cilantro and mint, chicken cooked in soy and ginger, and some pickled turnips and heirloom grape tomatoes.  I also added a bit of red and yellow peppers.  Olives were also added!   

    It was delicious for dinner and I will have the same for lunch tomorrow (portion controlled).

    Sunday, 24 April 2016

    Chicken, Cashews and Walnuts: Bon Appetit Delivers!

    Chicken, Cashews and Walnuts:
    Bon Appetit! 

    SmartCooks here.  

    I couldn't resist posting this one immediately as soon as I read it on Bon Apetit!  It's a keeper.  Plus, I learned a new word -- a tarator - which doesn't exist in any of my dictionaries.  But it's self-evident i.e., cashews and bread etc all food processed together.


    Spicy Walnuts

    2 T unsalted butter
    ½ tsp kosher salt
    ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
    1 large egg white
    ½ cup (packed) light brown sugar
    2 cups walnut halves

    Cashew Tarator
    2 cups cashews
    1 ¼-inch-thick slice white bread, torn
    1 garlic clove, finely grated
    ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
    ½ tsp ground coriander
    ½ cup olive oil
    Kosher salt

    Chicken and Assembly
    2 T unsalted butter
    1 T olive oil, plus more
    ½ 3½-4 pound chicken (backbone removed)
    Kosher salt
    1 celery stalk, thinly sliced, plus ¼ cup celery leaves
    1 T mixed unsalted, roasted seeds (such as pumpkin, sunflower, and/or hemp)
    2 tsp fresh lemon juice


    Spicy Walnuts
    Preheat oven to 300°. Melt butter in a small skillet over medium, remove from heat, and mix in salt and cayenne. Whisk egg white in a medium bowl until soft peaks form; stir in brown sugar. Add seasoned butter and walnuts and fold to coat nuts.  
    Spread nuts out on a parchment–lined rimmed baking sheet; bake, tossing every 10 minutes or so, until mixture is dry and nuts are toasted, 25-30 minutes. Let cool. 

    Do Ahead: Walnuts can be made 5 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.

    Cashew Tarator
    Increase oven temperature to 350°. Toast cashews on a rimmed baking sheet, tossing once, until golden brown, 8-10 minutes. Let cool.  Pulse cashews, bread, garlic, lemon juice, coriander, and ¾ cup water in a food processor to combine. With motor running, stream in oil; process just to incorporate. Pulse, adding a splash or so of water if too thick, until a coarse purée forms; season with salt.

    Do Ahead: Cashew tarator can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before using.

    Chicken and Assembly
    Increase oven temperature to 475°. Heat butter and 1 T oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Once butter is foaming, place chicken in pan, skin side up. Tilt pan and spoon butter mixture over chicken until the entire surface is coated. Sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and transfer to oven. Roast chicken, rotating pan halfway through, until skin is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh registers 165°, 25-30 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let rest 5 minutes. Meanwhile, toss celery, celery leaves, mixed seeds, lemon juice, and ½ cup spicy walnuts in a medium bowl. Drizzle with oil, season with salt, and toss again. 
Spoon tarator onto a platter and top with celery salad and chicken.

    Friday, 22 April 2016

    Smitten with Mushrooms on Toast

    SmartCooks here.

    I have this mushroom thing... seems that I adore all types, any mix, anytime.  They are my go-to comfort food. It could be the anti-carcinogenic properties they have but bottom line, I'm smitten.  So no wonder that my favourite recipe, from Smitten Kitchen, is used most often, but I've tried others as well as my own combinations.  

    Here, for your comfort, is Smitten Kitchen for my recipe index.  I use a mix of shiitake, oyster, cremini, white, chef's mix from Loblaws, or enoki mushrooms... all are delicious.  

    For the greens, my go-to is lucinato kale (only), spinach or chard.  

    For the cheese, I use mozzarella or chèvre but others like fontina, that are more difficult to find here in Ottawa, are welcome as well.  

    For the bread, Farm Boy sourdough... brown or white.... choice is yours.   

    Mushrooms and Greens with Toast
    Serves 4


    3 T unsalted butter, divided
    1 T olive oil
    1 1/2 pounds mixed mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and torn into bite size pieces
    2 thick slices bread from a large, crusty loaf
    2 cloves garlic or 1 shallot, minced
    1 T white wine vinegar, or more to taste (up to 2 T)
    1 fresh red chile, stemmed, seeded and minced or red pepper flakes, to taste
    Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
    6 ounces chopped fresh greens
    8 ounces of a good melting cheese, thickly sliced


    Melt 2 T  butter and olive oil together in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. One fully hot, add mushrooms to pan and cook, stirring regularly, until they’ve released their water and started to turn golden brown, about 8 minutes.

    Meanwhile, grill or toast your bread.

    Once the mushrooms have a nice color on them, add the garlic or shallots and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. 
    Drizzle with vinegar, most of the chile or chile flakes, salt and pepper and stir to combine. 

    Add the greens and cook for about 5-8 minutes, just until collapsed. (Can add 1 more T of vinegar for brightness).  Stir in remaining tablespoon butter and adjust seasonings to taste.

    Rip bread into irregular croutons and push them into the sauteed vegetables. Lay pieces of cheese atop everything. Turn the heat down to medium low, place a lid on the pan and let the cheese melt, which will take 5-10 minutes.

    Sprinkle with remaining chile.  


    Sunday, 10 April 2016

    All-Natural Peanut Butter Cookies: Bon Appetit's Best of the Best Recipes

    April 2016

    SmartCooks here.

    Once upon a time a long time ago... I didn't allow peanut butter in the house. (insert gasp! here) I hated the smell. I hated the taste.  

    As the years went by, Himself started to store a jar on the top shelf of a cupboard and secretly enjoy his peanut butter sandwiches while I was at work...

    So, years later and a much more mellow AMS (age... age... age) means that peanut butter is once again in the house although I only use it in Thai cooking or when baking cookies... not by itself.  Call me eccentric!  

    Which brings me to peanut butter cookies.....  I found this Bon Appetit recipe posted in the March 2016 edition and decided to make them one snowy day. Quite literally ... WOW!  

    I urge you to follow the instructions to the letter and use natural, organic peanut butter so that the amount of sugar and salt is precise. Salted peanuts roasted in the oven add a lovely taste. Plus I mix it up using a jar of natural smooth peanut butter and a jar of crunchy peanut butter from Herb and Spice (a Canadian brand PB called Nuts to You!) 

    Finally, the addition of a pan of water in the oven and its burst of steam seem to finish off the cookies just right -- crunchy, chewy, very peanut butter-y. I know why they are part of BA 'essential' best recipes.


    (Makes about 20 LARGE cookies)
    ½ cup roasted, salted peanuts
    ¼ cup (½ stick) plus 2 T unsalted butter
    ¾ cup all-purpose flour
    ¾ tsp kosher salt
    ½ tsp baking powder
    ¼ tsp baking soda
    1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk, beaten to blend
    ¾ cup granulated sugar
    ½ cup (packed) light brown sugar
    1 16-ounce jar all-natural creamy peanut butter 
    (BA likes Smuckers but see above)
    Demerara or raw sugar (for sprinkling)
    Flaky sea salt (for sprinkling)


    Preheat oven to 350°. Toast peanuts on a rimmed baking sheet until browned and fragrant 6–8 minutes. Let cool, then coarsely chop.

    Meanwhile, cook butter in a medium skillet over medium heat, swirling pan often, until butter foams, then browns, 4-6 minutes. Transfer brown butter with solids to a medium bowl; chill in trig or freezer (I've done both), stirring every 5 minutes, until cooled and beginning to solidify, about 15 minutes.

    Whisk flour, kosher salt, baking powder, and baking soda in another medium bowl. Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat egg, egg yolk, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and ¼ cup water in a large bowl until mixture is light and falls back on itself in a slowly dissolving ribbon, about 2 minutes.

    Reduce mixer speed to low and gradually add dry ingredients, then increase speed to high and beat 1 minute to develop gluten and hydrate flour. Add peanut butter, toasted peanuts, and brown butter and mix on low speed, scraping down sides of bowl as needed, until fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Let dough rest at room temperature until slightly firmed up, about 10 minutes.

    Portion dough into 20 balls (about 2 heaping T each) and transfer to 2 parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets. Using the tines of a fork dipped in cold water, flatten cookies to ½" thick, making a crosshatch pattern on the top of each. Chill, covered, 1 hour.

    Arrange racks in upper and lower thirds of oven; place a dry, medium skillet on the bottom rack, then increase oven temperature to 375°.

    Sprinkle cookies with demerara sugar and sea salt. Working quickly, transfer one sheet of cookies to upper rack, then carefully pour 1 cup water into hot skillet; water will bubble and sizzle violently. Bake cookies until browned and edges are crisp, 12–15 minutes. Let cool slightly on baking sheet, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Repeat with second sheet.

    (Do Ahead: Cookie dough can be shaped and frozen 1 month ahead. Freeze in an airtight container. Let rest at room temperature 1 hour before cooking.)