Monthly Archives: September 2014

Healthy Break: Watercress Cucumber Lettuce Chopped Salad


I realized recently that I rarely showcase chopped salads, yet we eat them regularly in various combinations and dozens of interesting dressings. I used to think they were just plain boring side dish to help digest the main, lacking substance, and too common to talk about. Not surprisingly, they faded into the oblivion on this blog often just making a background dish in photos. I think it’s time now to rescue this dish category, given that I’m currently going through another course on nutrition, thus the importance of fresh veggies in our daily diet can no longer be ignored.  This salad tastes fab and features a super-potent watercress greens and healthy-delicious apple cider vinegar/honey/olive oil dressing.
The recipe was initially inspired by Cucumber Watercress Salad recipe by Rachel Ray’s from her 30 Minute Passport to England Food Network episode (dressing with white vinegar, honey and dill). Then there was Mark Bittman’s watercress salad with delicate rice vinegar dressing and sesame seeds. Then I tried Martha Stewart’s take with Dijon mustard adding the robust tang to the dressing. Finally, I came up with my version of this chopped salad adding lettuce to the ingredients and using home-made apple cider vinegar mixed with honey, lime juice and some olive oil for an extra health benefit. Sometimes I scatter a bit of roasted salted nuts, like cashews or pistachios for an extra crunch and substance. I already know that this version is my favorite, but feel free to experiment with the above additions and you will find yours.  
Peppery bittersweet watercress is one of the oldest greens consumed by humans through the centuries. It is an amazing digestive and powerful antioxidant loaded with vitamin C, A, chlorophyll, calcium and potassium. It maintains the body’s water balance, promotes clear skin and acts as natural antibiotic to boost immunity. Early Romans considered it a valuable brain food strengthening the nervous system. Today, due to the unique phytochemical it contains, it is known primarily for breast, liver, colon and prostate cancer-fighting benefits, which sounds like a rarely powerful food ingredient.   
Watercress goes perfectly well into variety of fresh salads with greens and most of the popular salad veg, including, of course, the radishes.  In fact, I find the trio of arugula, watercress and radishes, full of pungent slightly bitter tang nuances, to be one of the most interesting salad combinations with watercress. When dressed with equally strong home-made blue or feta cheese dressing, it makes a perfect juxtaposition to a heavier main dish.
Naturally, you can get the best from watercress eating it fresh (preferably organic) in salads or juices. I personally love to have a glass of blended watercress, celery, green apple, parsley and pineapple cocktail in the afternoon (whenever I can (which is on Sundays at best, but, I’d like it to be more often)) to boost my energy level. 
In this salad the watercress bitterness is tamed by cucumber, lettuce and cider-lime-honey dressing, which makes it an excellent companion for spicy grilled mains, such as this mystery BBQ dish, which will follow with the next post shortly. Stay tuned.
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WATERCRESS CUCUMBER LETTUCE CHOPPED SALAD
Ingredients:
2 cups watercress leaves, chopped
1 small head Romano lettuce, chopped
1 English seedless cucumber, chopped
3 tbsp honey
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 lime, juiced
3 tbsp orange juice or water
4-5 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp fresh dill for garnish, minced (optional) 
3 tbsp crashed roasted salted cashews or pistachios
Sea salt to taste
Instructions:
Combine lettuce, cucumbers and watercress in a large bowl. Whisk the honey with apple cider vinegar, lime juice and orange juice or water. Add olive oil. Pour over salad and toss to combine. Season with salt and dill (if using) and toss salad again. Garnish with dill and roasted nuts it you wish. Serve immediately.

Bye-Bye Summer: Squash Blossom Tart with Leeks and Cheddar

When does the summer end? For those of us living in a cold climate it is definitely not August 31st or September 1st, not even the Labor Day (first Monday of September). The fall in Eastern Canada begins around autumnal equinox time (22nd of September) with sudden gusty winds and rains bending and rocking the trees, blow-drying leaves into their new colors and flocking the birds to swarm into the their long journey down South. Although it’s still possible to make some BBQ, the goose-bumping temperatures usually lock us in to experiment with pies and breads. This tart was a pure impromptu caused by our unexpected garden find – squash flowers. 

I went to collect leftover fine herbs and discovered the bunch of newly spread squash twines carpeting most of the garden with dozens of yellow blossoms that topped the tiny swelling orbs of squash here and there. We already had a first frost the night before, so I rushed to salvage these little heartthrobs into this beautiful savory tart. Leeks and fine cheddar cheese were already in my fridge waiting to blow some lacto-ovo-vegetarian minds and the squash flowers have sparked the tart idea.
Really, what a delight it turned out to be! We couldn’t have enough of it! It has everything in it to say good-bye to the summer and to welcome the colder times in the most appreciative fashion, like: ’Hey, there’s still summer freshness, but you can now also enjoy the fall bounty, both wrapped in winter crust of cheese and flaky dough.’
I understand squash flowers might be kind of exotic at this time of the year, but thinly sliced zucchini, peeled squash, pumpkin or sweet-potato would make some good alternatives.  Naturally, the blossoms give this tart that special freshness raw tang zucchini flowers lovers know so well.
This pie is also featuring Perron Cheddar cheese (generic aged Cheddar or Gruyere are also fine for this tart). 
Earlier this month, I visited Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean area, famous for its Boreal-rich agriculture and products, and brought some local specialties with me including Chocolate Coated Blueberries made by monks and few slabs of Perron cheddar cheese, known for its taste and reputation. FYI, Perron is the oldest cheese factory in Quebec, and is the only private company exporting its cheese to England for more than a century. 
They also produce the best fresh curd squeaky cheese I’ve ever tried in my life, so if you are in that area and wish to try a fool-proof best poutine  in the world (I’m not lying), don’t miss the opportunity and stop by a little bistro Chez Perron in the Saint-Prime town. Poutine buffet is its specialty with mountains of their own squeaky cheese on top of fries and variety of exotic gravies. I suggest you pass, however, on the other specialty, fondue, as it has so much pepper it kills the taste of their famous cheese…
And so, equipped with new travel memories, experiences and the stash of nice cheese and leeks, I was back home discovering the squash blossoms… When it came to the crust, I couldn’t decide: flaky pie or puff pastry? So I tried with both and both worked out very well. Flaky pie crust turns it into a quiche category, while the puff pastry sets the tart into appetizer and side dish. Steps took less than then 15 minutes in prep. First, par-baking the crust, sauteing leeks and scallions:
Then making egg-cheese mix.
Pouring the mix over the crust layered with leeks and topped with squash flowers:
In the end, I liked the pie-crusted tart still warm with handful of roasted hazelnuts scattered over and a little arugula salad on a side. As for the puff pastry crust, it was excellent next day at the room temperature to accompany a plate of hot boiled dinner.  
I used the Tenderflake store-bought dough for, both, to save time (I’m supremely confident in their dough: it has been tasted by me for years), but feel free to use this pie dough recipe  for the flaky shell and replace flour by gluten-free if wish be. Enjoy!
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SQUASH BLOSSOM TART WITH LEEKS & CHEDDAR
Ingredients:
1 pie or puff pastry crust enough to fit into 9-inch tart round, or 5×10-inch rectangular pan
1 tbsp olive oil
1 leek, thinly sliced (white part only)
2-3 scallion, minced
6-8 squash or zucchini flowers, cut in half if with baby squash part attached, OR 2 thinly sliced zucchini
½ tsp fresh or dried thyme
3 eggs
½ cup 10% cream
1 cup grated savory cheese (Old Cheddar, Gruyere, etc.)
½ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp freshly pepper
¼ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 375F. Form the crust into the pan. Bake it for 15 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Heat the frying pan to medium-high, add olive oil and saute the leeks with scallions for about 5 minutes until wilted. Spread leek and scallions into the bottom of the pie shell.
Place squash or zucchini flowers over the leeks. Sprinkle with thyme.
Beat the eggs in a small bowl. Add cream, cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Mix well. Carefully pour the egg mixture into the tart.
Bake for 25-30 minutes or until the egg is set and the cheese is golden brown and bubbling. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.  Serve for breakfast, lunch, brunch or dinner as a main or side course.  

Shucking Oysters: Mighty Aphrodite Granita

Air chilled September has arrived to the East coast with the oyster season fanfare first in Montreal  and now in the New York City. If you’re an oyster geek or just an exploring amateur,  it’s time to learn a few new things about the little bivalve and the best ways to enjoy it. For those who can’t go to the Big Apple or line up for the new celebrity chefs’ oyster creations, there’s plenty to catch up with: dozens of fresh oyster varieties have just arrived into all major groceries and are now available for the price of a lollipop per pop. So if the shucking oyster party is your thing (which you can still enjoy outdoors as the current street temperature provides the best timing to serve and taste the oysters), it’s time to experiment with the new oyster condiments.

The New York Oyster Week founder Kevin Joseph has just declared a war on the traditional cocktail sauce from seventies (it’s about time someone bans that dreary creation out loud) and strongly encourages that people start using some freshly ground condiments like horseradish to bring the best out the fresh oyster. And here is when I pitch in with my latest granita, little icy Sicilian dessert that was first made with the snow from the Mount Etna.

Specifically, my new favorite, which I called Mighty Aphrodite Granita – a Lemon Ginger Cucumber Mint Granita. Don’t get me wrong, I still love classic Mignonette sauce  like any other person, and totally agree with Nigel Slater that ‘nothing quite takes the salty, iodine tang off a good oyster like the shallot vinegar, Tabasco and lemon.’ But there’s something I’ve discovered about granitas: they can make a really creative condiment (a little step up from just a generic lemon) that would not only complement the taste of the oyster, but would also make a perfect palate cleanser or an entremet between sampling different kind of oysters, so your palate’s capacity will be enhanced to actually catch the difference between say Malpeque from Kumamoto, or Raspberry Point, or many other varieties (check  Montreal’s La Mer for the local stock).

Granitas are very easy to make: the icy texture can be reached without any special equipment (like the one required for sorbet) – all you need is fork, tray and freezer. They make a stunning presentation. The melt fast, so your oyster will not be compromised with too much ice. And then there’s something else: there’s no particular proportion – you can customize your own granitas with your own amounts and preferred ingredients to reach the sweetness-sourness-saltiness balance according to your needs.

Julia Child mentioned in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking that the French Royal Court preferred to pair the oysters with Sauternes, the famous sweet wine of the Bordeaux region. This inspired me to make a sweet, slightly acidic granita with a splash of dessert wine, sugar, lemon juice and the refreshing touch of ginger, cucumber and mint. The result was outstanding. And guess what, if you don’t have any botrytis wine at hand, you can successfully replace wine with a dash of champagne or rice vinegar. Or just omit the alcohol completely and your granita will still taste heavenly and will make a fun and clever condiment or an entremet.  And don’t forget to use some liquid leftovers to wet the rim of the shot glasses before dipping it in a lemon, celery or your choice of salt mixture for any chilled booze you would like to serve with your oysters (from sake to tequila to Guinness).  

As much as I’m for letting the imagination go experimenting with citrus granitas, a word of a personal warning: stay away from experimenting with soya or ponzu sauce granitas – they are too overpowering and completely kill the taste of the oysters. I made some on our last Valentine and they both ended up in a trash leaving us to a humble simili-caviar condiment only, but then of course the good ol’ mignonette arrived to help in a jiffy. 

Back to our feature Lemon Ginger Cucumber Mint granita: three -five minutes work, an hour in a freezer, basically all the job is about forming ice crystals with the fork every 15-30 minutes depending on the quantity you make. You can serve as a little refreshing adult digestive or dessert as well. Believe me, I wouldn’t waste my time on writing this if it wasn’t absolutely delectable condiment, dessert re-fresher and a palate cleanser. 

One nice slurp of a briny devilish oyster followed by the tiny spoon of this pristine pure-tasting granita will pair and separate both gracefully (‘with a bite of the buttered brown bread to follow to stimulate the papilles… and then of course, a fine mouthful a white wine’, as recommended by legendary M.F.K. Fisher). You will only wish to continue tasting that dance and at some point might actually start feeling one step closer to a mighty Aphrodite (with, obviously, cucumber green hair and a piece of ginger in her hand for this recipe), the Greek goddess of love, who sprang from the sea on an oyster shell. And then the myth of the little aphrodisiac was born… Which ultimately brings me to Jay Rayner’s advice to ‘never date a man with no taste for oysters’ from The Guardian’s article ‘If You Don’t Like Oysters,You Will Never Be a Grown-Up’, but that’s another story…

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‘Mighty Aphrodite’ Lemon Ginger Mint Cucumber Granita
Ingredients:
½ cup (125 ml) water
1 juice & few peels of a lemon
1 inch fresh ginger, sliced
3 tbsp (45 ml) granulated sugar (put more if desired)
1 small splash of dessert white wine (Sauternes at best, but cheaper dessert wines, or champagne, or rice vinegar can sub) (optional)
2 spring fresh mint
1 small cucumber, grated or liquefied
24 freshly shucked raw oysters on the half shell
Pinch of salt
Instructions:
Place water in a small pan with granulated sugar, ginger and lemon peel /juice. Heat gently to medium-high and lower the temperature. Mix until the sugar is dissolved. Boil for 3 minutes, remove from heat, add a splash of wine mint leaves, mix and set aside to cool down. Strain the liquid through a sieve. Grate cucumber with skin on the zester or liquefy it in the blender with a bit of syrup. Sieve if desired and pour into the rest of the syrup.
Freeze for one hour or until mixture is frozen around the edges in a shallow container or plate.
Draw the ice from the edges towards the center with a fork. Return to freezer. Repeat this process about 3-4 times, every 15-20 minutes, or until all mixture is formed of ice crystals. Serve immediately as condiment or entremet, or keep in the air tight container in the freezer until ready to use for up to one week.  When ready to serve, spoon the granita into wine goblets, shot or martini glasses.

A-Maize-N Corn Sandwiches (Arepas) with Guasacaca Sauce

First there was a cracker. Then nachos came from South of the Texan border some 50 years ago and the North American snack was re-defined forever. One of the perks of living in multicultural society is that today you can discover endless variety of comforting ethnic foods almost on a daily basis in any given big city. Take arepa, for example, the crispy corn flat bread originating from Venezuela and Colombia. Delicious and highly versatile in stuffing it makes a great gluten-free bread/sandwich alternative, a vegetarian trouvaille (catch) and nice and fresh step away from the usual boring food. You can make arepas in minutes during busy weeknights and kids just adore them. They are perfect to combine with any sandwich ingredients and most of the warm recipes of the fall and can be served as an appetizer, side, school lunch, main dish or a snack. Arepas also make wonderful party or potluck food on a budget with some pulled meats you can prepare ahead separately. Few years ago though I didn’t even know this food existed.

One sunny end-of-summer day, in a happy turn of events, we hopped sideways of the bustling St-Denis street of Montreal and discovered a tiny hole-in-the-wall Venezuelan eatery Arepera The place offered plethora of tasty corn flour cakes with all kinds of fillings at more than affordable prices. Ten minutes of waiting time (this place is actually quite popular in the neighbourhood) and we stepped into the little arepas heaven filled with the smell of the freshly pan-fried corn cakes and garlicky guasacaca (famous avocado & herb sauce to go with arepas). The Spanish-speaking buzz and background percussion of maracas instantly teleported us to some hot place in Venezuela. The hearty ambiance along with friendly and fast service made us fully enjoy the charred and crispy on top, fluffy and soft inside corn cakes stuffed with authentic vegetarian (black beans, avocado and fresh queso) and pulled chicken (pollo guisado) arepas with some fried plantain slices (tajadas), extra queso on a side.  We made a mental note to come back and try more things (not-surprisingly, this Arepera is consistently well-rated on the Tripadvisor). 

As you know already, I have a proclivity to test my kitchen skills every time I try some new exciting dish, so, naturally, upon few more visits to Arepera I was ready to make them a home. I googled the recipe of arepas and found the Areparinaspecial pre-cooked corn flour (P.A.N. corn flour in the US) used to make arepas in the nearest Walmart ($2.69 per 2 lbs). Fresh queso blanco cheese was harder to find, so I used the squeaky curd cheese in place of traditional queso (cottage and ricotta cheeses would be other close alternatives) and later even regular cheddar or mozzarella. Easy, fast and as delicious as any best street food can be. And they came out perfect from the first time! Even the ones I took a minimal effort to put a piece of cheese inside turned into super-savory patties with irresistible pan-fried crisp crust (the reason these little babies will always be a hit with diners).

Keep cooked arepas warm in a 300F oven as you prepare the next batch. Double or triple the amount of ingredients accordingly if you need to feed more people.  Serve with traditional avocado sauce or guacamole or just the dollop of sour cream.  For a more spicy adornment, feel free to use the lentil avocado spread, or salsa verde, or buttermilk sauce, or lime avocado mayo which I posted previously – all of them go very well with the neutral arepas taste.

Simply put, you can stuff arepas with almost any kind of sandwich layers or leftovers, from omelet to pulled meats, to bacon, to ham, to cheese, to shrimp, to fish and of course all their vegetarian equivalents.  Here is a nice and quirky graphic poster by Sorelis Liendo I found on Pinterest on the most popular kinds of arepas in Venezula with their names and ingredients in Spanish (funny, the one without stuffing is called a widow).  

Top Left: Infografía de “La Arepa” (vía @Sorelys Liendo)
Over time my experiments with arepas stuffing have stretched to umami fusion twists like the ones with roasted (pulled) duck, lobster or anchovies.

The party favorites are of course pulled meat arepas. Try the ones with the pulled pork recipeor the veal/beef pulled blade roast turned into Cuban Ropa Vieja, all of which I posted last year, and the famous Guasacaca avocado sauce (below).

Oh my, I think I’ve exaggerated my writing quota today (to compensate for my temporary absence). Are you still there or have I long lost you to the Facebook gossips? Anyways, if you are a nachos lover and like to have something different from time to time, I’m sure you will be positively surprised to discover how they can soothe you with the simple joy of street comfort food. 

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VENEZUELAN CORN SANDWICHES (AREPAS) with GUASACACA SAUCE
Yields: 12 to 18 arepas (3 to 4 inch sizes)
Ingredients:
For Arepas:
2 cups pre-cooked cornmeal mazarepa (such as Areparina, or P.A.N. varieties)
2 ½ cups very hot (but not boiling) water
3 tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra for brushing and cooking
¾ tsp sea salt
For Guasacaca Sauce
2 small or 1 big avocado, peeled and seeded
1 small onion or shallot, peeled and quartered
2 cloves garlic, shelled
2 serrano or jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup red or white wine vinegar
1 lime, juiced
½ bunch fresh parsley leaves
½ bunch fresh cilantro leaves
1 cup olive oil
1 tbsp sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
Instructions:
Mix the pre-cooked corn meal with salt, add water and oil and stir for a minute until the mixture comes together. Cover with plastic or wet towel and set aside for 10-20 minutes. Note: you can make this mix up to two days ahead of cooking and keep it in the fridge till ready to cook.
Scoop around 1/3 cup of the mix and use your hands to form a ball and then flatten it into the round disc. If using cheese, insert a square (1×1 inch) slice of cheese inside the disc closing well on the sides. Pre-heat the cast iron (or equivalent non-stick frying pan) skillet to medium high. Brush each corn disc with oil on both sides and once skillet cook the arepas for 7 to 10 minutes on each side until they are golden brown. Keep cooked arepas warm in 300F oven while you make another batch.
For the guasacaca sauce, place the avocado, onion, garlic, pepper, vinegar and lime juice in the blender and pulse few times until the mixture is smooth. Add cilantro, parsley, oil, salt and pepper and give it a few other pulses. Scoop the sauce into a non-reactive bowl and check the seasoning. Cover and keep in the fridge till ready to use.
Open the warm arepas with a paring knife on the side to make sliders and fill them with the stuffing of your choice (pulled meats, eggs, beans, cheese, grilled veggies, etc.). Top with generous drizzle of guasacaca sauce and a sprinkle of crumbled cotija cheese (or Parmesan or Greek feta).