Sunday, 14 April 2013

Preserving Lovely Easter Dinner Memories

April 2013

SmartCooks here.  

I wanted to preserve the Easter dinner menu for posterity and thanks to photographers Jane and Michael.  If I don't write it up now, I'll never remember what I did next year.  What I won't forget though is the fun of having good friends and family for dinner.  

Easter 2013 menu


Just two of them, each one quite different and meant to appeal to the range of appetites ... vegetarian or not.  

Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese

Variations on this recipe are endless.  They can be made ahead of time and cooked at the last minute -- 20 minutes in the oven or under the broiler.  

The only ingredients are Medjool dates (ideally), pitted, stuffed with crumbled blue cheese (or something else of your choice if blue cheese is not your thing), and wrapped in half a slice of bacon.  The morsel is then secured with a wooden toothpick (guess who tried multi-coloured toothpicks and then remembered, at the last minute, that plastic is not oven-friendly.... sigh) and then cooked in the oven.  This is Husband's favourite appetizer, along with BBQ chips.  sigh.  

Vegey trap with dip 

There are so many great designs for vegey trays.  I went geometric this time and copied the design onto a tray and made a low-cal dip.  It was fun and easy to make and a delight to show.  

Main Event:  Ham with Pineapple and Cloves

I pre-ordered a bone-in ham from Glebe Meat Market and specified enough for 7-8 people, with no leftovers.  I must remember next year to say 'leftovers' as it was one of the best hams I've ever cooked.

For some reason, I'd never cooked ham with pineapple and clover before (not sure why) so I patiently watched the videos showing me how to do a diamond pattern across the ham and where to place the cloves (at the apex of a diamond).  

The video chefs made it look incredibly easy.  Me... well, I obviously need a boot camp at Greco's or better knives.  It was a frigging nightmare sawing away on the ham to get the diamond pattern right.  One slip and I knew my finger (and dinner) would be toast.  

The ingredients were standard (pineapple, brown sugar, cloves) but with one weird item -- a lemon-lime flavoured carbonated beverage.  Nonetheless, it worked like a charm. Husband did the basting every half hour or so but It then cooked far faster than the published time.  End result was simply superb.  Pineapple, both cooked and on the side, was a welcome addition.  Allrecipes was ace.  

Scalloped Potatoes

Two versions of this scalloped potatoes were prepared by Chef Fred -- one with cheese and the other without.  Both were hits... they disappeared pronto.  Will ask him for the recipe for next time.

Salad:  Mixed Baby Greens with Mandarin Oranges

Photographer Michael captured this gem of a dish on a plate that was a present from the friends-next door neighbours.  It certainly shows off the mixed baby greens and mandarin oranges to advantage.  It appealed to those who aren't big fans of vegetables (and you know who you are....)

Food Network (Rachael Ray) prepared a version of this dish which I adapted.  Greens, cucumber, oranges, rice wine vinegar, toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds all put together at the last minute to keep it super fresh and perky.  

A keeper for sure...

Sides:  Asparagus with Balsamic Tomatoes 

Cooking Light featured this dish in a special on low-fat Easter dishes.  It rocked the table, with lightly blanched asparagus drizzled with balsamic vinegar.  Grape tomatoes provided great colour contrast and the final touch -- dots of crumbled goat cheese -- completed the picture.  

There are intriguing variations for future experimentation -- e.g., raisins and pine nuts, sesame-ginger glaze or lemon-tarragon dressing.  

Green and Yellow Beans with Red Peppers 

Kalyn's Kitchen inspired a version of green and yellow beans, laced with red peppers, and spiced with ginger.  

It was the perfect green for the anti-asparagus crowd at the table. 

Cumin-Orange Root Vegetable Slaw 

If it were just me cooking and eating dinner, my preference would be ham, pineapple and a root vegetable slaw.  The Kitchn showed me a version I couldn't resist -- beets, celery root, carrot tossed in a vinaigrette of cumin, orange and sherry vinegar.  

It was a lot of chopping, done ahead of time, but the end result was pleasing to both eye and palate.  


Irish Soda Bread it was.  Recipe posted previously. 

Dessert:  Hazelnut Torte Bomb (without the e) 

I saved the worst for last. I experimented.  I goofed.  It reinforced my antipathy to making desserts which I was determined to conquer. I failed.  I will rise again.  Oh well, the home-made ice cream on the side made up for it.  

Smitten Kitchen raved about this torte, saying it was the best thing ever to come out of her kitchen.  I read the recipe many times. Seemed straightforward.  

First, I ran out of hazelnuts.... Easter morning there's not much open and Husband's expedition trip turned up nada.  Undeterred by this ominous sign, I googled 'substitutes' and found some tepid suggestions to use almonds.  So the last third of the required amount was almonds.  I don't think they added to the taste.  

Then, I laid out the hazelnut/almond layers, spread a layer of chocolate, cooled them outside for 20 minutes, brought them back in and stacked them up one atop the other.  Hmmmm.... by layer three I knew something was amiss.  The cake looked nothing like the picture ... flat and lopsided.  Hmmm.... I re-read the instructions.  Yup, I missed a crucial step of putting white whipping cream on top of the chocolate BEFORE adding the next layer.  sigh..

I managed to peel away two of the three layers and start again but one layer just wouldn't cooperate.  After a few 'darns', I stuck it all together as best I could and smushed the rest of the topping around the cake covering over the boo-boo areas.  I then shaved chocolate on the top and stood back to take stock. 

End result:  lopsided, with a few dents in various spots, not as high as adverted in the photo, and generally a little sad and droopy.  The taste was OK but with a sharp taste of hazelnuts which I think was caused by the almond mixture.  

Verdict.  Guests were kind.  They ate and poured another glass of wine or water.  

Next time.

Despite the dessert bomb, all in all.... Fabulous evening. 

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Discovering Korean Bibimbap and savouring it in Ottawa

April 2013

SmartCooks here.  

I took a savoury trip safely to Korea thanks to the Internet, Bon Appetit, and a small Korean supermarket I found in Ottawa not far from my house.  My mission:  to cook Bibimbap, literally 'bibim' (mixed) and 'bap' (rice).   

I researched, I shopped, I prepped (a lot!), I cooked, I hummed "put 'em together and what have you got... bibimbap-ity, bibimbap-ity, bibimbap-ity-doo")  And then I ate .... a feast of noodles (not rice), beef bulgogi, and a variety of vegetable 'mix-ins'.  The dish has endless variations, and can easily be made vegetarian-friendly. 

Origins of Bibimbap

As I researched, it was clear there was centuries of thought behind this dish, with careful attention to taste, harmony, balanced appearance and healthy, umami eating.  

The ingredients are chosen based on the 'ying' and 'yang' and the Five Elements Principle:
--- Rice (sweet) 
--- Chungjang (salt)
--- Sesame Oil (savoury)
--- Gochujang (spicy) 
--- Kongnamul (bitter) 

Vegetable mix-ins can be your choice but should be blanched, lightly sateed and seasoned.  Try to follow the colour wheel and umami principles:  dark green spinach, orange julienned carrot, white daikon radish, red bell pepper, mushrooms, cucumber, bean sprouts, dried seaweed etc.  

Legend has its that Bibimbap originated in Jeonju in South Korea, an important tourist centre for the best in Korean food.  In 2011, in a CNN Travel poll, Bibimbap was listed at number 40 on the World's 50 most delicious foods.  A version of Bibimbap, or a dish called Dolsot Bibimbap, is served in a very hot (hissing!) stone bowl in which the rice is cooked, then topped with vegetables, beef, egg and hot red pepper paste.  The rice crisps up in the hot bowl and is part of the fun of the dish.

Its popularity continues to rise today as Western cultures discover the umami nature of the dish.  At right is a photo of an event to showcase the dish.  The bowl measures 2.5 m in diameter, contains 200 kg of rice and 10 kinds of vegetables --  enough to serve up to 1,000 people.

Bibimbap Ingredients

For the recipe I chose to use as a base -- from Bon Appetit -- there were two ingredients I needed from the local Korean supermarket -- Gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste) and Gochugaru (coarse Korean red pepper powder).  I goggled 'Ottawa Korean supermarkets' and found it only several blocks away from my house.  It is a small, run down, jumbled kindof place on Bank Street, not at a glance the type of store I'd explore on a whim.  But it was quick and easy.  I simply pointed to the photos of the ingredients I needed and I was out in five minutes.  

Gochujang or Korean hot pepper paste is pictured at left. 

The store carried medium strength, which was  was perfect for my dish.  It's obviously the Korean version of Sriracha but not nearly as hot.  I've read it's rivalling Sriracha in popularity.  It has my vote.  

The other ingredient was Gochugaru (coarse Korean red pepper powder).  The colour of deep red sprinkled lightly on vegetables gives a nice, pleasing appearance. Used lightly, it has only a very slight bite to it.  

I added beef bulgogi to the dish for husband in particular.  I've featured recipes for this in previous blog postings.  The seasoning of soy and ginger on very lean beef adds a distinctive flavour to the dish.  In this posting, I'm using the Bon Appetit version of beef bulgogi. 

The final topping for the dish is an egg.  Tradition is that it is a raw or very runny egg.  I don't do raw so made a fried but still runny egg.  Then assemble the rice or noodles in a bowl, top with vegetables and sauce, then the egg, admire how it looks, stir it all together and Bibimbap it is.  

Bottom line:

Plan ahead for this one, organize all ingredients beforehand, conscript the chopping helpers and enjoy!  A savoury and safe trip to Korea. 'Bibim-bap-ity doo...'  

Bibimbap recipe
(with recipes for some of my favourite vegey mix-ins) 

Beef Bulgogi and Rice OR Noodles 
1/2 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce

1/3 cup finely grated Asian pear with juices

2 scallions, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 T brown sugar

2 tsp grated peeled ginger

1 lb thinly sliced (1/8-inch) boneless beef rib-eye steak or short ribs

Rice or noodles of choice.  
1 fried, runny or raw egg 

Whisk first 6 ingredients in a medium bowl.  Add beef, toss, cover and chill for 30 minutes or up to 3 hours.  

Prepare rice or noodles and set aside.  There are recipes on line for crispy rice which I did not do. Add egg as last ingredient.  

Vegetable Mix-in Recipes:  Sesame-Pepper Bean Sprouts, Sesame Carrots, Garlicky Spinach (not baby spinach), Soy-Glazed Shitake Mushrooms, Sauteed Zucchini, Scallion Slaw, Gochujang Date Sauce. Other ingredients can be wakame (seaweed), snow peas..

Ingredients for vegey mix-ins:
- 6 cups mung bean sprouts
- 4 medium carrots
- 2 10-ounce bags fresh spinach
- 3 cups dried shitake mushrooms (3 ounces) 
- 1 medium zucchini 
- 2 bunches scallions
- 5 pitted Medjool dates (for the sauce)

Other ingredients you will need:  Toasted sesame seeds, reduced sodium soy sauce, white vinegar, brown sugar, Gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder), kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper 

Directions for Vegetable Mix-ins (Bon Appetit style):

Sesame-Pepper Bean Sprouts:  

Mix 2 T toasted sesame seeds, 1/2 tsp kosher salt, 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper in a bowl. Set aside.  Cook 6 cups mung bean sprouts in boiling salter water for 3-4 minutes.  Drain.  Transfer to a medium bowl.  Add 2 tsp toasted sesame oil, toss to coat.  Add in sesame mixture. Season with gochugaru (Korean red pepper). 

Sesame Carrots:  

Cut 4 medium carrots into long matchstick-size pieces.  Heat 1 T toasted sesame oil in a large skillet, on medium heat.  Add carrots, sauté 3-4 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  
Garlicky Spinach

Cook spinach in a large pot of boiling, salted water 1-2 minutes.  Drain, transfer to a bowl of ice water to cool.  Drain, squeeze out excess water.  Heat 2 T toasted sesame oil in a large skillet on medium heat.  Add 2 garlic cloves.  Stir 1 minute.  Add spinach, 2 T reduced-sodium soy sauce and 1 tsp distilled white vinegar.  Stir and season with salt and pepper.  

Soy-Glazed Shiitake Mushrooms:  

Bring mushrooms, 1/3 cup reduced sodium soy sauce, 1 T brown sugar and 1 cup water to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat and simmer, 12-15 minutes.  Let mushrooms cool, then slice.  Transfer to a small bowl, add 1/2 tsp toasted sesame seeds and pepper.

Sauteed Zucchini:  

Cut 1 medium zucchini into matchstick-sized pieces.  Heat 2 T toasted sesame oil in a large skillet, on medium heat. Add zucchini, cook, 3-4 minutes.  Season with kosher salt, pepper and gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder).

Scallion Slaw:  

Cut scallions into 3-inch lengths, then slice lengthwise thinly.  Place in bowl of ice water.  Just before serving, drain, pat dry, and transfer to another bowl.  Add 1 T white vinegar, 1 T toasted sesame oil and toss to coat.  Season with salt, pepper and gochugaru.  

Gochujang Date Sauce:  Put 5 pitted dates in a small bowl, cover with boiling water and let sit for about 10 minutes.  Drain, transfer dates to a food processor.  Add 1 cup gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste) and 2 T toasted sesame oil.  Puree until smooth.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Kitchen misadventures in the name of blogging

April 1, 2013

This is no April Fool's joke.  I started writing this blog about cooking interesting things as a way of learning how to use some social media like blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest etc.  It's worked well so far.  I'm far more comfortable writing text and adding video, audio, pictures and the like than I was a year ago.

But the core of my experiment is cooking.  As I experiment in the kitchen to provide fodder (*pun intended*) for SmartCooks, I have had the occasional mis-adventure too.  Or learning opportunity depending on whether I'm in the glass-half-full-or-empty kind of mood.

So it"s Easter weekend and April 1 April Fool's Day seems like a good day for a full confession.  For example, 

Lesson #1:  Oven Gloves Please! 

More than once I've dropped a hot glass casserole dish as I've taken it out of the hot oven sans oven mitts.  I gave an 'ouch' and then cleaned up the glass and gore from the oven door and floor.  And carried on.... 

Explaining burns on my hands and forearms is not so fun.  No one at work would ever believe I have enough time to cook.  Or be dumb enough to cook without oven gloves. 

Lesson #2:  Blackberries should remain a fruit

On weekends when I'm determined to have a life, I've been known to cook while setting my blackberry to "activate speakerphone" to take part in work teleconference calls on some issue or another.  I can accurately report that the blackberry is a great fruit, and not so good as a kitchen aide. During calls, I've forgotten to add baking soda into an apple cake and the result was a tough, flat, round blob.  I've also used baking soda instead of baking powder ... more than once ... cooking up a tasteless, very dry, thing as the result.  

Lesson #3: Cooking is stress-free, I swear 
Once in awhile, I find myself over my head in cooking-land.  Usually it happens when I grab a new recipe and forget to read the numbers of steps involved and then run out of time and end up in a warm state of anxiety.  

When this occurs, I do one of the following: 
... Take a deep breath.  Again.  Think yoga. 
... Dump the entire concoction and go for take-out.
... Take a break. 
... Vow to stop the blogging.
... Carry on and promise myself NOT to do this again.  
Until the next time.  Review Lesson #3 again.  

Lesson #4:  Hold the Spices! 

- An ambulance arrives at the ER and a woman is wheeled in unconscious.    
- The ER doc asks her friend what happened.
- The friend had just received a new shipment of spices and the two women were sniffing them.  
- Which ones, asks the doctor?
- Cumin, turmeric and a Spanish Paprika, says the friend.
- Oh well, says the doctor, obviously she is in a Korma.)

All to say, I love spices.  But I have too many of them.  I have no room for them.  We downsized to a small downtown townhouse for a reason.  So I'm constantly thinking up creative ways to store them and easily retrieve them like the picture to the right (which I tried in our place but it didn't work).  So, I've made a pact with myself to:  Hold the Spices! 

Lesson #5:  Mistakes Happen:  Burning Down the House (Well, not quite) 
Of course I've left the best/worst for last.  
One evening, I decided to make home-made pizzas, from scratch of course.  I love making pizzas with intriguing, healthy toppings.  Pizza is not bad  -- I make a vegey pizza that is equal to none.    The food bloggers all extol the Virtues of Home-Made Pizza.  

I even made my own thin-crust dough.  Husband got a BLT pizza (hold the lettuce) with lotsa mozzarella cheese and sauce. I made myself a vegey version with pesto.  

I slid both small pizzas onto the middle rack as directed. But 5 minutes later, smoke was  pouring from the oven. The BLT cheese and sauce were dripping down onto the floor of the oven. I fanned like crazy, turned the oven fan to high, opened the kitchen door and watched it cook until it was ready.  

Next morning, I decided to clean the oven using the self-clean cycle that I've used dozens of times since I bought the stove.  It's always worked like a charm.  

Not this time.  20 minutes into the 3-hour cleaning cycle, smoke was pouring yet again from the oven door.  The smoke detectors were screaming. I ran into the kitchen to see flames shooting from the oven floor out the oven door and dangerously close to the gas stove-top burners.  

I panicked.  I tried to open the oven door, which was locked.  I hit 'cancel' the self-cleaning cycle but the oven door wouldn't open.  I yelled for Husband.  I herded the cats out of the kitchen and toward the front door in case we had to escape.  I ran for the 'bag of bags' which contains the instructions for all of our appliances.  I frantically pawed through the stack looking for the instructions on how to open the locked oven door.  I finally found the brochure and buried deep within it the code to open the oven door.  

By the time I got the door unlocked the fire was out.  The 'cancel' button had already done this by lowering the temperature.  But I'm left with A MESS.  It wasn't just the oven.  The stove hood, counters, floors all had a light coating of soot.  The house reeked of smoke even after an hour of open windows and doors.  

It took a day to clean it all up.  I had to apply  Easy Off Oven Cleaner twice and scrub down the kitchen, walls, counter tops, floors and all.  By evening, the smoke smell was finally gone.  

I sat and listed all the lessons learned from this experience.  Sigh.  

So, next pizza.  737-1111? Calabria? Colonnade? Probably not.  Pan under pizza it is.    

All in the name of blogging.  SmartCooks.

Company Over for Dinner Spice-Rubbed Chicken

March 2013

SmartCooks here.  

I discovered yet another wonderfully flavoured chicken recipe.  This time it came from browsing through the April edition of Food and Wine.  It's a  perfect dish to serve to company, a chicken braised in anise and coriander and then cooked in the oven steeped in red wine and tomato sauce.  Divine ... 

Without further ado, here it is.


1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/4 star anise pod
1 1/2 tsp cracked black peppercorns
1 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
1 T kosher salt
8 chicken thighs (I took skin off)
1/4 cup canola oil
1 large Spanish onion, thinly sliced
1 large leek, white and tender green parts only, thinly sliced
2 plum tomatoes, chopped
3 thyme sprigs
3 oregano sprigs
1 cup dry red wine
1 T red wine vinegar
1 T honey
Chopped parsley and chives, for garnish


Preheat oven to 350°. 

In a small skillet, toast the coriander, star anise, cracked peppercorns and crushed red pepper over moderate heat, shaking the pan, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder and let cool; pulse until coarsely ground. Add the salt. Rub the spices all over the chicken. 

In a large skillet, heat the canola oil. Add the chicken and cook over high heat, turning once, until deep golden, 10 minutes. Arrange the chicken in a roasting pan, skin side up. Pour off most of the oil from the skillet and add the onion and leek. Cook over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, thyme and oregano and cook until the tomatoes just begin to break down, 3 minutes. Add the red wine and cook until reduced to 1/4 cup, scraping up any bits stuck to the pan, 5 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of water and pour the mixture into the roasting pan. 

Cover the pan with foil and braise the chicken in the oven for about 1 hour, until cooked through. Transfer the chicken to a plate. Strain the sauce into a saucepan. Boil until the sauce is reduced to 1 cup, 5 minutes. Stir in the vinegar and honey; keep warm.
Preheat the broiler. Return the chicken to the roasting pan, skin side up, and broil 8 inches from the heat for 2 minutes, until the skin (or top of chicken if you took off the skin) is crisp. Sprinkle with the parsley and chives. Serve the chicken with the sauce.