Monthly Archives: October 2013

Pumpkin Mini Tarts with Walnut: Real (No) Brainers

”America is all about the speed” and so is the American Halloween.  You have to be really fast to catch up with the pace of this holiday, which is not only about weird costumes and all kind of omens celebrating death, but primarily about sweet treats and candies.  Halloween is kids’ favorite and who can blame them: when else can you munch on chocolates all night, let your imagination go wild with costumes and tricks and share a scary story?  
Mini tarts (that can be both, an appetizer and a dessert) idea has been haunting me for a while now. These little pumpkin treats make delicious and super-speedy compromise between anything too sweet (you can control the amount of sugar, or just replace it with a mix of maple syrup and marzipan (almond paste)) and so-good-for-you pumpkin fiber. And to add some Halloween mystery to the cracked, like a desert, filling I decided to top each mini-tart with half walnut which has a shape of a brain, hence the title: (no) brainers.
And here is my quick improv(ization) story for the Beggars Night ”trick” – feel free to skip this paragraph if you wish – it’s just a little abracadabra inspired by the shape and look of the pumpkin mini-tart ”treats”. 
 ”Aliens vs Cannibals”
Draft sketch:
Planet Earth in the unknown future…. Two aliens, Pen and Pan, are crossing the desert and run into a dead owl. The eyes of the owl are covered with two pumpkin mini-tartlets. ‘’Wow, brain tarts, what a catch! I was told they taste really good and might even contain some dried gene of a human genius…’’ says Pen. ‘’Don’t be silly, if you eat this s..t you will become blind or insane.  It’s useless, just like those old human coins we find in the ruins. ..We better move on, I smell the cannibals coming. It’s a bait, check for the traps around.’’ Pan kicks the owl’s head and runs. Eventually, he falls into the cannibals’ trap and awaits his sad destiny. Cannibals arrive and start chewing Pan without delay. They find him unpalatable and spit him out. One of his connection horns is missing and he is trying to find it…
In the meantime, Pen eats both treats and returns to the spaceship in a weird mood. The crew immediately registers the change in his behaviour and locks Pen behind the bars with a piano waiting for him to play Mozart. Instead, he starts singing ”I’m a Lonely Little Petunia” and asks to be put behind the candelabra.  He then switches to Spanish and demands ¿me da mi calaverita?  The Alien Chief begins to suspect that cannibals tricked them with the bait and replaced the genius brain gene with the surrogate(to be continued)
So far so good for my entertaining story, please feel free to continue the way it pleases you as I have to go and decide if I will be a Cat in the Hat or a Lady in Red tonight.
And don’t forget to take these little treats with you. They are truly the crowd-pleasers.  I used commercially bought mini tart shells, which cost almost nothing and save you a lot of time.  I started cooking them according to the instructions on the package (15-20 minutes at 350 F), but then extended the time to 45 minutes to make them golden crisp. Another way to improve the tart crunch is to bake the shells for about 10 minutes first, then fill them out with filling and bake for another 15-20 minutes. Garnish the tarts with nuts around 10 minutes before the end of baking, so they don’t burn.
 Enjoy your Halloween and have a great trick or treat!
Yields: 24 mini tarts
2 of 12 mini tarts, store bought (see note for a homemade dough below)
2 cups of freshly cooked pumpkin puree
1/4 cup brown sugar (or maple syrup)
1/4 cup almond paste (homemade or store bough)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 5-oz small can evaporated milk
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp grated ginger
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
24 walnut halves for topping
Cut a small pumpkin in pieces and bake covered in the oven at 350F for about 30 minutes. Let cool and scoop the pumpkin flesh out.  In the blender, combine pumpkin puree, egg, sugar, almond paste, evaporated milk and spices.
Pre-heat the oven to 350F and bake the mini-tart shells for 10 minutes. Fill out each mini-tart with the pumpkin mix and return to the oven for another 15 minutes. You will see the filling growing and cracking, which is OK. Top each mini-tart with half walnut and bake for another 10 minutes or until the walnuts are golden brown. Enjoy warm or cold.

Note:  this is a fool-proof tart dough recipe from Barefoot Contessa in case you decide to make your own dough.

Buttermilk Baby Eggplant Amuse Gueule

This colorful amuse-gueule will convert even the most die-hard adversaries of a yucky –mushy (by nature) eggplant.  The creator of the recipe has found a way to balance the ingredients in an unexpected but a most harmonious way giving the dish not only the visual appeal, but also incredibly addictive kick of the Middle Eastern taste. It includes: olive-oil-induced creamy roasted eggplant, za’atar spice, tangy garlicky cool buttermilk-yogurt sauce and tart-sweet fresh pomegranate seeds. The original recipe used large eggplant; I used baby eggplants instead to turn the dish into individually portioned appetizers.  It is also very easy and fast to prepare. 

If you are a vegetarian and you haven’t heard of chef YO (Yotam Ottolenghi) yet, you will soon. For a few years now he’s been hogging the chef limelight in the UK with his creative Western twist on the Middle-Eastern flavors. And with his third bestselling cookbook just released, his recipes go really world-viral – especially vegetarian recipes (although the chef himself isn’t a vegetarian). Not so long time ago, I was staring at this aubergine dish on the cover page of his previous cookbook ’’Plenty’’,  mesmerized by its assertively artistic sense of composition and color, thinking: ‘’Oh, please, not again! You not gonna buy yet another cookbook with a fancy cover page recipe! Just take some time to think about it and at least read some reviews like normal people… You don’t even know this guy…’’ And then I forgot…
Until today… when the recipe dropped in my lap as one of the home assignments from the free Harvard course on molecular cuisine, and an example of a simple low caloric, nutritionally balanced and utterly tasty meal, which  Buttermilk Eggplant (YO’s signature dish) is. Not only I fell in love with it, it brought back the taste of Za’atar spice mix, which is so easy to make and so refreshing to use with numerous other dishes (see recipe below). With this one, in particular, I made some quick za’atar baguette crostini with cheddar and mozzarella to spoon the extra buttermilk sauce with. They appeared to be welcome addition to the eggplant appetizers…
Quick disclosure: Montreal is a culinary mecca for Middle Eastern cuisine compared to other Canadian cities (my visit to the newly opened Turkish resto is already scheduled). And I am set to explore many more places and recipes. Finally, I really wanted to know more about Ottolenghi’s cuisine so I discovered his website with recipes as well as the exciting series of his food travel to Turkey, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia called ”Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast’”.  Thumbs up, YO, for sure they will keep me busy this week-end… Now, let’s Ottoleng it.

The video of YO himself making his own dish would probably be the best reference. As for my own notes: making incisions in the cut side of each eggplant half is essential to absorb the olive oil – I did not do the diamond pattern though – just parallel incisions worked well with me (to grab a bit less oil).  I also reduced the amount of buttermilk from the original recipe to 5 tablespoons instead of 9 to make it less liquid. Finally, I did not use fresh thyme, but a dried one and I guess it worked fine to me. Without a doubt, I will be making the dish again. Cheers!

Full disclosure: I ate a double portion:

Yields: 4 portions
Eggplant Dish:
2 large eggplants or 6 baby eggplants, cut in half lengthwise and scored
1/3 cup olive oil
1 pomegranate de-seeded (see Note*)
1 ½ ttsp fresh lemon thyme leaves or dried thyme
1 tsp za’atar spice mix (see next)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Za’atar Spice Mix:
¼ cup sumac
2 tbsp dried thyme
1 tbsp roasted sesame seeds
2 tbsp marjoram
2 tablespoons oregano
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Grind the sesame seeds with mortar and pestle or in food processor. Mix with remaining ingredients. Store za’atar mix in a cool, dark place in a jar, plastic bag or airtight container (for 3 to 5 months).
Buttermilk Sauce:
1/3 cup (5 tbs) buttermilk (see Note**)
½ cup Greek yogurt
1 ½ tbsp. olive oil, plus drizzle to finish
1 small garlic clove, minced
Pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise cutting straight through the green stalk (the stalk is for the look – don’t eat it). Use a small sharp knife to make three or four parallel incisions in the cut side of each eggplant half, without cutting through to the skin. Repeat at a 45-degree angle to get a diamond-shaped pattern. Place eggplant halves flat side-up on a baking sheet. Brush thoroughly every half with olive oil and season with thyme, salt and pepper. Roast for 35-40 minutes, remove from the oven and allow to cool.  Mix buttermilk into yogurt, remaining olive oil, garlic and salt to season. Store in the fridge until ready to use. Remove seeds from pomegranate. Serve by spooning sauce over eggplant halves and sprinkling za’atar and pomegranate seeds on top. Finish with the drizzle of olive oil.
Note*: Useful video on how to de-seed pomegranate with water; and another technique on de-seeding pomegranate without water.
Note**: If buttermilk is not available, add vinegar to milk (1/3 cup milk + 1 tsp distilled/white vinegar), stir, and let sit for 5-10 minutes to develop into acidified buttermilk. 
Adapted from: notes from EDX course and ”Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes From London’s Ottolenghi ” by Yotam Ottelenghi, Chronicle Books, March 2011.

No Fuss Coq Au Vin

”Have you ever tried Coq au Vin?” ”No, but I once let an Italian put his hand up my jumper on the back seat of his Fiat…” Anglophones truly love the play of French words in this dish. But, whatever the jokes are, Coq au Vin (rooster in wine) continues to tickle the taste buds and enthrall the world’s pickiest eaters through the centuries.

And maybe it’s not so bad that this French classic is so ‘’oxymoronic’’ – for sure it helps to create certain gastronomic enigma à propos de complexity of the dish. Which in fact is very simple to make and quite inexpensive if you adjust the ingredients set to create a healthy and easy weeknight meal. In this one I traded rooster for chicken, Burgundy for a good quality dry red wine (Cahors), and pearl onions for a regular yellow onion (the last one is REALLY a good idea when you want to have a quick supper without spending some extra 30 minutes peeling pearl onions). 

I also skipped the roux turning it into a gluten free meal (the sauce turned thick enough without any flour in it and, yes, turned into a gel comme il faut when placed in the fridge). The result: my very FRENCH (Canadian) hubby devoured it in seconds without even noticing there were no pearl onions in it, which are usually a big deal for him.  And if this did not convince you yet, please also note that for a true comfort dish like this, it is VERY low in calories. At different times, I served it with egg or rice noodles, with roasted or mashed potatoes, as well as with potato leek gratin, but my favorite part is just dipping the crusty bread in that savory wine sauce that is so typical in taste to this particular dish. HEAVENLY!
Although many historically attribute the origin of Coq au Vin to Burgundy region of France, rumor has it the Caesar’s cook made it when Romans were battling the Gauls (at that time Romans were very well established in the area of modern Southern France and they really liked local wine). The Gauls sent Caesar a scrawny rooster as a message of defiance. Caesar ordered to cook the rooster in wine and herbs and invited the Gauls to eat it to demonstrating the overwhelming sophistication of the Romans… Or so it goes… But most agree that Coq au Vin existed as a rustic dish long before that and was a way for peasants to recycle an old rooster or an old egg-laying hen by slow cooking in wine and herbs.  
Today Coq au Vin is made with cuts of chicken from hen or capon and has many designations depending on a wine being used: Alsacienne (with Riesling), Nuitonne (with Côte de Nuits), Jurassienne (with Arbois rosé), etc. My twist relates to Quercynoise version and table travels me to the beautiful town of Cahors where I tried Coq au Vin for the first time. It was made with a real cockerel (rooster) and Cahors wine; and included true Quercy-Perigord ingredients: fresh ceps wild mushrooms and duck fat. Needless to say, that a splash of Armagnac flambé was applied to the browning process in this version… The taste of it comes back to me each time I am looking at the pictures or am thinking of that travel…  
Again, this is a speedy version of the Coq au Vin, with no ceps or duck fat in it, but as hearty as the dish can be. The stock, wine, mushroom & bacon sauce imbues chicken and veggies with the iconic flavor during slow cooking transforming any cheapest piece of commercial chicken into a little French culinary voyage. Free range chicken however would deliver much tastier results, but you already know it. 
And, of course, if you are a true admirer of ‘’Mastering the Art of French Cooking’’ and are not looking for any tasty ersatz, I suggest you use Julia Child’s recipe or the version of the host of the Iron Chef of America, both of which are designed to turn you into a real connoisseur of the dish. 
 Cheers to all and happy French cooking!
Yields 4 servings
4 slices thick cut bacon, cut into bite size
3 lbs chicken thighs and drums (8+), skin on
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 carrots peeled and cut into cubes
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp. dried thyme
3 tbsp. butter
2 cups button mushrooms, sliced
2 cups dry red wine
6-8 fresh parsley springs, minced
3-4 scallions, minced
¼ kosher salt (or to taste)
¼ freshly ground pepper
In a large skillet, brown bacon bits, remove them to the paper towel and set aside while reserving the bacon grease in the skillet to brown the chicken. Add chicken pieces skin side down and sear them on the medium high heat until golden brown on all sides for about 6-8 minutes each side.  Transfer chicken to the Dutch oven or another casserole dish.  Add onion, garlic, carrots, bay leaves and thyme to skillet and continue sautéing for about 6 minutes or until the onions begin to soften. Transfer the mix to the casserole to cover the chicken pieces. In the still hot skillet, add butter, mushrooms and shallots and cook for 3 minutes. Add wine and broth to the skillet, stirring constantly until the mixture boils and thickens a little bit (5 minutes). Add seasoning, mix well and pour over the chicken in the casserole dish. Simmer or bake for 30-40 minutes at 350F. During the cooking process, carefully skim off and discard any fat from the surface with the spoon. After 30 minutes of simmering, verify the seasoning, add chopped parsley and scallions and give it another 10 minutes of simmer. Serve hot with roasted/mashed potatoes or egg noodles and crusty bread on the side. Enjoy!


Autumn Squash Soup-in-a-Bowl

Serving this soup in a real squash or pumpkin bowls will turn the otherwise very neutral dish into a festive and regal first course. You can prepare it in a classic Western way by pureeing baked squash and mixing it with chicken stock and cream and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg.  Jazz it up with some bits of bacon, slivered sharp cheese (i.e. Parmesan or Gruyere) and a pinch of fresh (parsley, oregano, basil, chives, etc.) or dry herbs of your choice (thyme, sage, rosemary, savory, etc.) 
Quite often though I do an Asian twist on it by replacing cream with coconut milk, adding curry, ginger and Garam Masala spices – turning it dairy free and, obviously, less mundane.  You can go even further at this point and stir in some wild cards like chilli, chipotle, smoked Spanish paprika, cinnamon, or cumin for an extra kick. For both versions, feel free to adjust the thickness of the soup by adding more/less stock or cream, or coconut milk.  And both are equally amazing served with some crusty bread or crostini. Please note that you can use different varieties of squash or pumpkin for this soup as long as they have a dense texture, i.e. acorn, buttercup, butternut, etc.
If you decide to serve this soup in a real squash bowl, simply follow these instructions.

Select some extra pumpkin/s or squash of the size you need (either smaller for individual use, or one big for a table centerpiece) with flat and stable bottoms. Preheat the oven to 350F. Using a carving knife cut the top the squash/pumpkin and put it back on top of each squash. Place the squash/pumpkin on the baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes or until the inside flesh of the pumpkin is tender, but still firm enough to hold the shape. It is better to undercook the ”bowl” than to overcook it to prevent from any potential mess if the bowl cracks at the dinner table. Although, technically, the flesh of the bowls is edible, the squash/pumpkin bowls are more often used for holiday table décor than anything else. Let the squash/pumpkin cool slightly and carefully spoon out the flesh with seeds.

You can now ladle the hot soup in it and serve immediately.
1 medium buttercup, acorn or butternut squash, split and cut in pieces
2 tbsp olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup onion or shallot, minced
½ tsp fresh ginger, grated
2 tsp curry powder
½ tsp cumin (optional)
½ tsp garam masala (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tsp maple syrup (optional)
1 (14 oz) can coconut milk
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Preheat oven to 350 F. On a baking sheet, drizzle squash with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Place cut side down if cooking with seeds. Roast for 45 minutes or until tender. Scoop the squash flesh from the skins and set aside.

Add 1 tbsp olive oil to the pot and sauté minced onions until translucent. Add ginger and spices while sautéing to release the flavor into the oil. Add the stock and roasted squash. Mix well, bring to boil. Add coconut milk, maple syrup, salt and simmer for about 10 minutes. Carefully ladle soup into a blender to make puree, or use a submersible blender. Return to the pot, verify the seasoning and thickness of the soup. Bring to boil and ladle into the soup or squash bowls. Garnish with fresh herbs of your choice and serve immediately with crusty bread on a side.

Indian Summer Dinner

‘’Ya quilt y’all?’’ – asks me an old Native gift shop-keeper. ‘’Not really, but I would love to … one day,’’ I say sounding more like a schoolgirl than I want to. There is a display of gorgeous ethnic quilts on the wall and a row of huge quilting machines lining behind the Native lady like cannons. ‘’So, what’s y’all deal here?’’ she continues with all the nonchalance of one discussing the weather. ‘’I just stopped for a gas and decided to buy some dream catchers. It’s a very nice shop you have. Your quilts are impressive…’’ Always be polite and extra courteous when visiting a Native American reservation – they have their own laws that are sacred to them, so you never know. ‘’S’peiti ya’dunn quilt cuz y’all dunnow what y’all missin’.  Sammer’s fixin’on ra:d – perft thame to quilt y’all…’’ she goes with a strong Southern drawl (read: ‘’It’s a pity you don’t quilt, because you don’t know what you are missing. Summer is fixing on the ride – perfect time to quilt’’), which I just adore: it sounds like a lullaby for me (that’s why I am always ready to re-watch No Country For Old Men or Mud again and again). I can tell she was born in Southern US and/or most of the time resides there. 
Two younger Native women enter the shop with baskets full of squash, green beans, spinach and Brussels sprouts.  They give them to the old lady, saying ‘’Too many this year and they keep popping up, so here you are.’’ ‘’A’ll have’m for dinneh,’’ she lady responds in gratitude. I totally get it now: she is not just a shop keeper. She is a Matriarch.  ‘’How will you cook them?‘’ – my curiosity has no limits (and that’s why it killed a cat). ‘’Bake’m and eat’em. Thæjət would bɪjə $23.99,’’ the old Native lady wraps up our communication. That is good enough for me to have an idea of what will be my supper for the next few days. 
I am driving away from Kahnawake thinking about what Natives do as Mother Earth prepares for her long winter slumber. The Matriarch lady, the quilt, the dream catchers, the baskets of the fall bounty, the colorful trees and the growing carpet of leaves… 
It’s the Indian summer when the weather is breathtaking, the spiders make webs and the time stands still. About this time Natives are going to their last Powwow to connect with each other and the spirits of nature. Curiously (and by pure symbolic coincidence in in this case), in many European countries the Indian summer is called ‘’The Old Ladies’ Summer’’: a few days of unusually warm and sunny weather following the first fall’s frost. 

According to the Lakota legend of ‘’Why the Leaves Fall’’, many moons ago when the world was still young, the nature was enjoying a nice summer weather. As the days went by the autumn set in, and the weather became colder, so the grass and flower folks who had no protection from cold, asked the Creator for help. The Creator said that the leaves of the trees should fall to the ground, spreading a soft warm blanket over the tender roots of the grass and flowers. To pay the trees for their loss, he allowed them one last array of beauty. Since that time, each year, during Indian summer the trees take on their pretty farewell of colors red, gold and, brown. After this final display they turn to their appointed mission covering the earth with a warm rug against the chill of winter. 
So how about I’ll have what she has and include squash, Brussels sprouts, spinach and perhaps some kind of poultry. Coq au Vin sounds like is a good idea to add some substance and comfort to our Thanksgiving table. Here is my quilt of belonging representing a bounty and colors of a humble fall dinner: a butternut squash soup; Brussels sprouts with walnuts and orange zest; spinach mushroom puffs and no fuss Coq au Vin. Please stay tuned for the recipes as I have to go host a Thanksgiving dinner.
In the meantime, Happy Indian Summer and Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, with my best wishes for joy and never-ending feast. Cheers!