Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Easy, fresh, spreadable, homemade cheese!

Cheese…easy, delicious, spreadable, flavour-it-yourself soft cheese

I was at a farmer’s market some weeks back and came across a couple of girls selling little balls of white cheese. I thought at first that they were baby mozzarella, but upon closer inspection, found them to be labneh, a soft, spreadable cheese made from yoghurt. I bought a packet of six balls for R15 (about $1.50) and took it home to try.

They had flavoured the cheese by making little balls of the plain cheese, then covering the balls in olive oil into which they had put minced garlic, coarse black pepper, and some dried herbs. The idea was good, but the raw garlic was just overwhelming. But it had promise…I decided to experiment. It has taken some time, but I have finally come up with an easy way to make the cheese at home…and the results are spectacular!

The trick to making the best cheese is to get the right yoghurt. First of all, it cannot have any stabilizers in it…no gelatin or vegetable stabilizers, either. A stabilizer is a binder that prevents the whey (the watery stuff that sometimes comes to the surface of yoghurt) from separating from the curds (the body of the yoghurt). The success of your effort depends on that separation…the more thorough the separation, the drier, more robust your cheese.

I at first assumed that if the yoghurt was organic, it would have no stabilizers…wrong! Apparently there are organic stabilizers…I spent weeks buying big and little tubs of various yoghurts, eventually arriving at the conclusion that the best yoghurts for cheese making were 1) without stabilizers, 2) organic, and 3) full fat. Low fat yoghurt, if it doesn’t have stabilizers, will separate, but the cheese will be softer, taste less rich and have more tang than the full fat variety. I haven’t tried fat-free yet, but that’s the next experiment.

I also discovered that covering the cheese in flavour-infused oil was not necessary. The oil adds fat (and calories) and the flavourants do not penetrate the cheese and flavour it. The best way to flavour the cheese is to add the flavourants directly to the cheese itself.

You can make this cheese sweet or savoury. Flavourants can be fruits (well-drained, finely chopped, and sweetened to your palate with either sugar or sweetener) or herbs and spices. I like it with roasted garlic and sea salt, but caramelized onions, minced chillies, lemon zest, all have their merits. The cheese also has multiple uses: spread it on bread or crackers, thin it a bit and use as a dip for chips or crudités, use on potatoes instead of butter or gravy, on hot vegetables instead of butter or rich sauces. Use in sandwiches instead of sliced cheese, or spread it on hot toast. The sweet varieties can be used on toast, pancakes, waffles, hot cereals, scones…anything you might be tempted to put jam on. Some of this cheese, flavoured with a bit of lemon or lime zest, would even complement a mild fish. You can also use the plain cheese in the same ways you ordinarily use cream cheese.

This cheese keeps well. Once made, package in plastic containers and keep refrigerated. I’ve had it in the fridge for up to four weeks (I had to hide it so it didn’t get eaten by a certain household member for a snack!) and found it still fresh-tasting and without any mould growth. It is easy to make and delicious to eat, and making the cheese from low fat yoghurt and using it in place of butter at the table will surely reduce your calorie count…and it tastes SOOO good!

Soft White Cheese (Labneh)
Deep bowl
Cheese cloth or coffee filters
Plate to cover bowl.
1 pint (500 ml) stabilizer-free plain yoghurt (full fat or low fat)
Flavourants (see more on this below)
Salt to taste
Place strainer over deep bowl. Make sure there is several inches (2.54 cm = 1 inch) free below the bottom of the strainer.

Line the strainer with 3 or 4 layers of cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Make sure the filters/cheesecloth cover all of the strainer wire.

Pour the yoghurt into the strainer, on top of the filter/cheesecloth. Cover with a plate and place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

After 24 hours, remove the bowl from the refrigerator and uncover. Lift the strainer and pour the liquid in the bowl off into another container. Rinse the bowl.

Remove the cheese from the strainer to a smaller bowl. Discard the coffee filter (rinse the cheesecloth and set it aside for laundering). Rinse the strainer in running water, then return it to the deep bowl.

Add flavourants (see below) to the cheese and mix well. If using savoury (non-sweet) flavourants, add a little salt (ground sea salt recommended). Line the strainer with a fresh coffee filter or clean cheesecloth, return the cheese to the strainer, cover with a plate and return to the refrigerator for 24 hours.

The liquid that came out of the yoghurt is whey. You can discard it, but it also can be used in food preparation. It is a nutrient-packed substitute for water in baking bread, making sauces, even preparing hot cereals. It can be added to dry animal food to make it more palatable. The amount of whey drained from a volume of stabilizer-free yoghurt should be approximately 50% of the original yoghurt…so if you put a pint of yoghurt in the strainer, expect half a pint of whey in the bowl the next day.

After the second 24 hours in the strainer, the cheese should have lost most of its moisture. You can use the cheese now or, if you want it drier and stiffer, leave it to drain another 24 hours. The longer the cheese sits in the strainer, the stiffer it will become and the stronger the taste of the flavourants.

Once stiff enough to hold its shape, the cheese can be removed from the strainer and rolled into a “log,” then sliced into rounds. It can be rolled into balls in the hand, then dusted with herbs or spices. It can be pressed into moulds, like chocolate or butter moulds. Stuff cherry tomatoes with it for hors d’oeuvres. Roll balls or logs in sesame or poppy seeds for use on a snack table. Or it can simply be placed in a small bowl and served with a spreading knife. This stuff is wonderfully versatile and a quick trip to Google Images under the search criteria “yogurt cheese” will just boggle your mind!
Flavourants: Savoury:
Dried herbs, ground to a powder. Can be mixed into the cheese or balls of the cheese can be rolled in it.

Roasted garlic: 4 to 6 cloves per pint of yoghurt, mashed or pulverized and mixed into the cheese.

Chili powder: light dusting on cheese balls: serve with salsa fresca and tortilla chips.

Roasted chillies: fire roast fresh jalapeño chillies, skin, seed and mince the flesh. Mix into the cheese.

Caramelized onions: cut Spanish onions into thin rings and caramelize in butter. Once cooled, mince finely and mix with the cheese.

Spring onion: mince green spring onion tops and mix into cheese.

Masala: dust cheese balls lightly with garam masala

Capers: coarsely chop 1 tablespoon drained capers. Mix into cheese and serve with smoked salmon and bagels.


Mix honey to your taste with the cheese to make a toast or biscuit spread.

Drain ⅓ cup jam in a strainer overnight. Mix the drained jam with cheese.

Drain ¼ cup of crushed tinned pineapple and mix with cheese.

Sift a cinnamon and fine sugar mixture over cheese balls and serve with toast, pancakes, or waffles.

Photo by midiman Flickr

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Eggs are not supposed to be crunchy!

We had breakfast out yesterday and the eggs they delivered put me instantly in mind of my childhood. I have long since developed the habit of ordering eggs scrambled because scrambled are more difficult to screw up than fried eggs, but the dry, crumbly, overcooked mass of yellow that arrived on my plate yesterday morning proved that it can be done.

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post about crunchy eggs and other awful things delivered to the table by my mother, and yesterday’s experience put me in mind of it. It made me decide to post, once and for all, definitive instructions regarding the proper cooking of eggs.

Eggs are not supposed to be crunchy. If the eggs that come to your plate have a crispy little frill around the edges, if they are brown anywhere at all, if they crackle when you bite into them, they are overcooked. Using too high a flame under the pan, butter that is too hot, leaving the eggs to cook too long or, in the case of a scrambled egg dish like an omelette, using too much egg for the size of the pan, can all contribute to overcooked eggs.

Eggs have a delicate flavour and, unless they are merely a part of the dish, they need to be cooked gently and in a mildly flavoured fat. That means boiling them in bacon grease is out…they will taste like bacon, not eggs. Butter…real butter…is the best fat for cooking an egg and, used sparingly, is hazardous neither to your health nor your pocket.

If you want to taste the true delicacy of an egg’s flavour, try one of the recipes below:

Fried eggs

2 fresh eggs
1 tbsp fresh butter (not margarine)
Pinch of garlic powder (optional)
Salt to taste

In a thin bottomed skillet, slowly melt butter (even if it is a “non-stick” pan). Keep heat under pan as low as possible. Break the eggs into a bowl and inspect for bits of shell or red specks: pick them out if you find them.

When butter has almost fully melted, swirl it around to fully coat the bottom of the pan. Return to heat and immediately slip eggs into pan.

Using a plastic or silicon spatula, rupture the part of the egg white that is higher than the rest, allowing it to flow out and equalize the height of the white. Sprinkle with salt (and garlic powder). Follow one of the three choices below, depending on how you want your eggs:

Sunny side up: Continue to cook slowly until white is fully set, at which time the yolk should be warm but still wet. This style of preparation is not recommended for use with eggs from American chickens due to the risk of salmonella from the soft yolks.

Over easy: Continue to cook slowly until white is almost set. Slip spatula blade beneath the egg, making sure the yolk is fully supported, and flip the egg over. Allow to cook briefly, removing while the yolk is still soft This style of preparation is not recommended for use with eggs from American chickens due to the risk of salmonella from the soft yolks.

Over hard: Using a plastic or silicon spatula, rupture the part of the egg white that is higher than the rest, allowing it to flow out and equalize the height of the white. Also break the yolk at the same time. Sprinkle with salt (and garlic powder). Continue to cook slowly until white is almost set. Slip spatula blade beneath the egg and flip it over. Allow to cook briefly,
pressing down on egg with blade of spatula to make sure all of the yolk cooks This style of preparation is recommended for use with eggs from American chickens since fully cooking the egg kills salmonella bacteria.

Scrambled eggs
2 fresh eggs
1 tbsp fresh butter (not margarine)
2 tbsp heavy cream, sour milk, buttermilk, or sour cream
Pinch of garlic powder (optional)
Salt to taste

In a thin bottomed skillet, slowly melt butter (even if it is a “non-stick” pan). Keep heat under pan as low as possible. Break the eggs into a bowl and inspect for bits of shell or red specks: pick them out if you find them. Add cream, salt and garlic powder to eggs and beat vigorously to incorporate cream into eggs.

When butter has almost fully melted, swirl it around to fully coat the bottom of the pan. Return to heat and immediately pour eggs into pan. Allow to cook slowly until the egg has set on the bottom, then using a plastic or silicon spatula, stir the eggs around, lifting the set egg and allowing the liquid egg contact with the pan’s surface. Keep eggs moving until entire mass has set. Remove from heat before eggs become dry or begin to separate into small curds. Scrambled eggs should be fully cooked but moist.

Serve with your choice of breakfast meats or over a slice of toast.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Colcannon: vegetarian, gluten-free, and utterly divine!

This is, I believe, a primarily Irish dish, traditionally made with leftover potatoes and cabbage. Since my husband detests cabbage, we seldom have any left over (as I seldom cook it), but I have come up with some variation on the original which, amazingly, my cabbage-hating husband actually enjoys!

There are a lot of variations you can try, which are listed at the end of the recipe. What is important to remember, however, is that you must prepare this with previously cooked ingredients (except as specifically noted), and those ingredients should not have been fried.

This is especially good served with roast pork or grilled meat.

This is not only a vegetarian recipe (vegan if you don’t use butter), it is gluten-free as well. And it tastes really, really good!

2 cups boiled, mashed or steamed potatoes (unmashed potatoes should be cut into chunks)
2 cups cooked cabbage, cut into spoon-sized chunks
¼ cup fresh butter (substitute margarine for vegetarian)
¼ cup olive oil
1 large fresh onion, roughly chopped
2-4 cloves roasted garlic (optional)
Salt and black pepper to taste

Heat butter and oil in pot. Add onion and garlic and sauté until onion begins to soften. Add potatoes and cabbage and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is heated through. Add salt and pepper, reduce heat, cover, and allow to simmer for 10 minutes or more.

1) Use kale instead of cabbage
2) Use leftover Brussels sprouts, cut in half, in place of cabbage (my favourite...see photo above)
3) Use unpeeled (but cooked) baby potatoes (my favourite...see photo above)
4) Add cooked turnips, kohlrabi, and/or parsnips to cabbage
5) Sauté ½ cup sliced mushrooms with onions
6) Use red cabbage for a different look
7) Use more onion…it makes the dish sweeter

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Marvelous Mushrooms!

I just love mushrooms! And while I love the exotics and the wild ones, give me a succulent, meaty Portobello or a chubby little button mushroom for my skillet and I’m a happy camper!

There are many ways to use mushrooms, but I am going to address the two ways they are seen most often in my kitchen: sautéed with herbs as an accompaniment for steak or delicately sautéed in butter for addition to other dishes…like a cheese and mushroom omelette or savoury rice.

Here are a few mushroom tips:

1) If you have had some mushrooms hiding out in the back of the fridge and they’ve become dry and leathery, don’t toss them out! Inspect them and, if there is no fuzzy green stuff or slippery slime growing on them, they are still edible. Just plop them in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes and they will reconstitute. Drain on a paper towel and they are ready to use.

2) With the exception of reconstituting dried mushrooms, it is best to keep your fungi away from water. But mushrooms often come to the kitchen with bits of blackish growing medium clinging to them and it needs to be removed. There are a multitude of little brushes and tools designed for this purpose, but I find the corner of a muslin dish towel, applied with my index finger in a gentle brushing motion, works just fine!

3) Purchase mushrooms only from reputable sources. If you are buying exotics and are not familiar with the mushroom you are buying, you can look it up here to make sure you are not preparing a poisonous variety.

4) Slice mushrooms with the cap down on the cutting board, otherwise you can break the mushroom. Use a very sharp knife (I use ceramic) or a piano-wire egg slicer…those make perfectly even-sized slices but only work with smaller mushrooms.

Any way you slice them, mushrooms are delicious and make a wonderful addition to virtually any meal!

Sautéed Portobello Mushrooms (to accompany meat)
4 large Portobello mushrooms, cleaned and sliced ¼ inch thick
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter (not margarine)
½ cup cleaned and thinly sliced shallots or spring onions
2 to 4 cloves roasted garlic
Dash Worcestershire sauce
Sprinkle dried Fines Herbes
½ cup Marsala
Sea salt to taste

Heat butter and oil together in broad, shallow sauté pan or skillet. Wait until oil is hot to add mushrooms…adding too early will cause mushrooms to absorb oil and become greasy.

Add mushrooms and stir gently, making sure all cut sides are coated with hot oil. Add garlic, shallots, and Fines Herbes. Cook until mushrooms begin to shrink and shallots soften. Add Marsala, then Worcestershire sauce, increase flame and cook off the Marsala, stirring constantly. Cut surfaces should take on a golden hue about the time they are ready to be removed from stove.

Add salt and pile on top of a rare chunk of filet.

Sautéed Light Mushrooms (to add to a savoury dish such as an omelette or rice)
1 cup sliced button or Portobellini mushrooms
2 tbsp butter (not margarine)
⅓ cup thinly sliced spring onions
1 to 2 cloves garlic, put through garlic press
⅓ cup dry white wine
Sprinkle dried Fines Herbes (optional)
1 tbsp chopped parsley
Sea salt to taste

Melt butter in shallow skillet but do not allow to brown. Add mushrooms and Fines Herbes and stir gently until all cut surfaces of the mushrooms are coated with butter. Add onion, parsley and garlic and cook until onions begin to soften. Add wine and increase flame to cook off the wine. Salt to taste.

Either recipe can be used to mix with cooked rice for a savoury rice dish. Try adding toasted almonds or pine nuts.

Drain the Sautéed Light Mushrooms with a pierced spoon. Mix with grated Monterey Jack, Colby, or mild cheddar and use as an omelette filling

Mix the Sautéed Light Mushrooms with steamed broccoli for a new side dish.

Spread either recipe over toasted ciabatta and add cheese for a sandwich

Remove stems from a multitude of small, whole mushrooms. Sauté, skewer on toothpicks and serve as hors d'oeuvres.

Photo by bucklava, Flickr

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Washday Supper (New England Boiled Dinner)

I grew up on the West Coast and moved to the Boston area when I was 19. I was adding to my cooking repertoire even then, as my personal cookbook was pretty lean and primarily based on the bland farm cooking of my grandmothers (trust me…you would not want to replicate most of my mother’s attempts at cooking!). One of my in-laws served a Washday supper one evening, explaining that she had been out in the garden all day and this meal needed little attention while she was busy doing something else.

When asked, she explained the name of the dish thus: In the old days, women washed by hand and they heated the water on the stove. Some clothes, primarily whites, were actually boiled in a large tin-lined copper tank called a clothes boiler. This meant the stove, which was usually coal, wood, or oil fired, would be using fuel all day for laundry, and the housewife’s attention would be taken up by the washing.

The Washday Supper was a meal conceived out of necessity: the woman didn’t have the time to actually cook a real meal, and by cooking a chunk of meat all day on the back of the already hot stove, she saved both fuel and time…the vegetables, which cook much more quickly than meat, are added shortly before serving.

This is my variation of the Washday supper, also known as a New England Boiled Dinner, that I learned from a lady who did her laundry in a wringer washer…an all day project…and served this delicious meal weekly.

This is also a frugal meal. A family of four should be able to eat two full dinners from this, and any leftover vegetables and liquid can be put through the blender and used as the basis for Ham and Split Pea Soup…three delicious meals for a family of four out of just one chunk of ham…it doesn’t get much cheaper than this!

Washday Supper (New England Boiled Dinner)

1 picnic ham (smoked shoulder, Boston Butt Ham, or very large smoked hocks)
1 large onion (or 2 small), coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves, bruised or broken
½ tsp peppercorns
1 tsp marjoram, dried
1 tsp thyme, dried
1 cup white wine
6 large carrots, cut into large chunks
4 large potatoes, cut into large chunks
½ bunch of celery, including leaves, cut into 3” to 4” sticks
1 large onion (or 2 small), cut into quarters
6 white turnips, quartered (optional)
1 head of cabbage, quartered through the core, then each quarter halved through the core

Soak ham, fully covered with water, overnight to leach out excess salt. Discard water in the morning. (You may need to put a plate on top of the ham to keep it submerged.)

To have ready to eat by 6 pm, the ham must go on the stove no later than noon. Place ham in deep kettle, add wine and seasoning, then fill to ⅔ full with water. It is OK if the ham is not fully covered, as you will turn it over half way through the cooking process. Add crushed garlic and chopped onion, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to simmer and cook, covered, for 3 hours. Check periodically and add more water if needed.

At 3 hours, turn ham over. Replace lid and continue cooking for at least another 2 hours. Check periodically and add more water if needed. Ham is ready when you can stick a fork into the meat, twist it, and the meat comes away in flakes.

If the pot is not large enough to add the vegetables, you must remove the ham. Put it in a ceramic bowl that you have heated by rinsing in hot water, and cover with a plate. This will allow the meat to rest while keeping it warm. Into the pot liquid add potatoes, carrots, the quartered onion and celery. Boil for 20 minutes, then add turnips and cabbage.

Continue to cook until the vegetables are fork tender, then remove to heated serving dishes.

Serve with mustard for the ham (I like a grainy brown mustard) and butter for the veg. It’s a tasty meal!

Photo by BlueLotus, Flickr

Friday, August 7, 2009

Trout Amandine

Summertime is fishing trip time. When I was growing up, the men in my family were avid fishermen and so, despite my personal dislike of finny fish (love most shellfish), I ate a lot of it as a child. But plain old fried fish gets tiring after a while, especially if you don’t like fish all that much and so, as an adult, I came up a few recipes that made them tasty and appealing, even for an old fish-detester like me.

One of the few fish I actually enjoy is trout. But trout is a delicately-flavoured fish and a heavy hand at the stove can render it greasy and unpalatable. Here is my favourite way to gently prepare it:

Trout Amandine

2 whole fresh* trout, entrails removed, head and tail still on
⅓ cup butter

1 tbsp butter
½ cup sliced almonds

Slowly melt ⅓ cup butter in a skillet. Add the fish and fry gently about 6 minutes on a side. Remove fish when done, drain on paper towels, place on plates.

In a separate skillet, melt 1 tbsp butter and coat pan. Add almonds and cook on a high heat while stirring constantly. The butter will coat the almonds and they will become golden. Remove from heat before the almonds become dark and immediately turn onto paper towels to drain.

Sprinkle almonds over the top of the fish, then dust with a bit of paprika or freshly ground black pepper. Best served with julienned green beans or steamed asparagus (with lemon butter) and a savoury or wild rice dish.

*If you are buying the trout (as opposed to having caught it yourself), look to the eyes to determine freshness: eyes should be clear, not clouded, and if they are sunken, the fish is not fresh enough.

Photo by MrJorgen, Flickr

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fresh Summer Fruit Salad

This is a delicious, refreshing, and versatile fruit salad that works for a light breakfast or lunch, an alfresco dinner side dish, and even as a dessert! It can be served with or without a dressing, spilled over a scoop of ice cream, or used as a topping for sponge or pound cake. The variations and uses are practically endless, and its cool, crisp texture and blend of flavours make it a wonderfully fresh, juicy choice for those hot summer days.

Fresh Summer Fruit Salad
1 fresh ripe pineapple, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 slightly green bananas, sliced
⅓ lemon juice
2 ripe but firm kiwis, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
¾ cup fresh berries (if strawberries, cut into bite-sized pieces)
1 small container lemon yoghurt
Sprig of mint for garnish

Toss bananas in lemon juice, coating all sides well.
Refrigerate berries in a separate container from salad.

Drain all fruits. Combine pineapple, bananas, and kiwi in bowl and toss with yoghurt. Refrigerate for at least ½ hour. Immediately before serving, add berries and toss once again. Garnish and serve.

Use a different flavour of yoghurt for dressing
Sprinkle with sliced almonds
Sprinkle with muesli

Omit yoghurt and serve as below:
--with a scoop of vanilla ice cream
--with a scoop of lemon sorbet
--over a slice of baked cheesecake
--over a slice of poundcake
--over a slice of sponge or angelfood cake
--over a bowl of muesli or bran flakes
--over a bowl of oatmeal
--in a dessert bowl, topped with whipped cream

Photo by Kristie’s NaturePortraits, Flickr

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Philly Cheesesteak

This is one of the most delicious hot sandwiches I have ever eaten. It’s substantial enough to serve for a meal and is especially good served with a robust green salad on the side…although most people seem to prefer it with French fries (which I, personally, find to be a bit of carb/fat/fried food overkill).

To be perfectly clear, I’ve never been to Philadelphia, so I make no claims of authenticity here. I was introduced to the cheese steak sandwich at Sir John’s in Sunnyvale, California and found it fabulous. The internet provided me with some background information and I was delighted to find enough information to replicate and even improve on Sir John’s version of this classic American dish. Here is what I came up with:

Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich

2 soft crust French rolls about 6 to 8 inches long (Amoroso rolls if you can get them)
Soft butter
1 tbsp olive oil
2 lean rib-eye steaks, half frozen
1 onion, cut into thin slices
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into narrow strips or 1” chunks (optional)
½ cup mushroom slices (optional)
1 tsp garlic oil (optional)
1 cup Provolone cheese, roughly grated (must be Provolone)
Salt and black pepper to taste

Prepare rolls:
Split rolls lengthwise, open and butter. If you have a toaster oven, put rolls in oven, buttered side up, and toast until slightly browned. Then remove rolls to plates. If you don’t have a toaster oven, heat a skillet or flat griddle and place rolls on hot surface, buttered side down, and heat until slightly browned. Then remove rolls to plates.

Prepare filling:
The meat is easiest to slice if it is partially frozen. Using a sharp knife, slice as thin as possible, ¼” or less. Trim off excess fat and discard.

Heat large skillet or griddle and coat with olive oil. Add meat, onions, bell pepper, mushrooms and garlic oil. Keep moving on griddle, so nothing sticks or burns. You can chop the steak strips into smaller pieces if you like, but I keep mine whole. Cook until onions are limp and meat is browned. (If using green peppers and/or mushrooms, make sure they are soft as well). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Assemble sandwich:
Remove filling and divide equally between the rolls. Spread the cheese over the top of the meat and place the top half of the roll on each sandwich. Microwave briefly if necessary to get the cheese to fully melt.

Comments with your additions/variations are welcome!

Photo by bertosolo, Flickr

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mango (or Pineapple) Pork (or Chicken)

This recipe has gone through many iterations over the years and has now evolved as one of those either/or recipes that you can fix one of several ways. At our house, Hubby is very fond of mango and he loves this made with pork. But it can be made with chicken as well.

Adding to the flexibility of the recipe is the fact that you can use mango juice or pineapple juice or a combination of the two. In fact, there are several tropical juices that would work well, including passion fruit juice…it works best with high acidity juices, although I don’t recommend citrus juices.

The meat in this dish is braised, a way of cooking the meat with moisture to prevent it from drying out, a common complaint with pork chops and chicken breasts. This keeps pork chops (or a pork loin) and chicken breasts moist and juicy while infusing them with the flavour of the cooking liquid. At the end of the preparation, you cook down the liquid to create a sauce to pour over the meat and which can be used on accompanying rice or potatoes.

It’s a low maintenance dish, meaning you can let it simmer on the back of the stove while you prepare the rest of the meal. This is a household favourite!

Mango Pork/Pineapple Chicken

4 lean, boneless pork loin chops (or four deboned chicken breasts) (I use pork chops)
1 tbsp olive oil
½ onion finely chopped
3 roasted garlic cloves, mashed
1 cup mango, pineapple, and/or passion fruit (granadilla) juice (I use mango)
½ cup white wine
1 tsp pulverized or finely grated fresh ginger
¼ to ½ tsp chili powder
1 to 2 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
Salt to taste

Trim all fat from edges of pork.

Heat oil in bottom of heavy skillet (make sure this skillet has a well-fitted lid).

Sauté onions until soft. Move the onions to the side of the pan and add the meat. Cook on high heat, searing the meat to seal in the juices. Using tongs, turn the meat and also sear the sides.

Once meat is seared, add remaining ingredients. Bring to a full boil, reduce to a simmer, and cover. Cook for 10 minutes, turn meat and cook another 10. Now pierce meat with fork and watch for juices…if they are clear, meat is done. If they are pink, cover and cook another 10 minutes.

Remove meat to heated plate and turn fire up full. Stir pan juices constantly and allow the liquid to boil off until juices become thick and sticky. Pour over meat and serve.

Photo by Ninjapoodle, Flickr

Egg Flower Soup

If you are looking for something light and delicious but easy to prepare, this is the choice for you. This soup makes a great appetizer, it goes well with a sandwich for lunch, and is even a great dish to serve someone in bed with a cold. There are abundant variations, as well, so you can make the soup as delicate or as hearty as your needs demand.

Left over and microwaved the next day in a mug, it makes an excellent alternative to coffee as a hot drink during your breaks at work.

Egg Flower Soup

2 cups chicken or vegetable broth, consommé or boullion
1 fresh egg
¼ tsp dried parsley flakes

Break egg into measuring cup (with spout). Whisk egg thoroughly.

Bring parsley and broth to the boil on the stove. As the soup boils, whisk it vigorously with one hand while slowly pouring the egg into the boiling soup.

Turn off heat immediately (overcooking will make the egg bits rubbery) and serve.

Add 1 tbsp grated carrot to boiling broth, cook for 5 minutes, then whisk in egg
Add 1 tbsp minced chicken to boiling broth, cook for 5 minutes, then whisk in egg
Add 1 tsp thinly sliced green onion tops to boiling broth, cook for 5 minutes, then whisk in egg
Add ¼ tsp garlic powder to boiling broth, cook for 5 minutes, then whisk in egg
Add ⅓ cup thinly sliced cabbage to boiling broth, cook for 5 minutes, then whisk in egg
Add ¼ cup fresh bean sprouts to boiling broth, cook for 5 minutes, then whisk in egg

Pinch of onion sprouts
Sliced fresh green onion tops
Chopped parsley or other herb
Carrot curls
Cheese curls
Small dollop of plain yoghurt
Float a thin slice of avocado on top

Photo by noonch, Flickr

Monday, July 27, 2009

Steak Soup

Something for the guys…if you like steak then this soup will doubtless appeal to you. And if you are watching your calories, this can be an especially good choice for a meal.

The trick is to grill an extra steak the next time you bbq (braai). It doesn’t have to be a big steak, but you do need to make sure it has plenty of char on the outside, and don’t baste or season it with anything. Just a piece of your favourite steak thrown on the grill and fired up very nicely. You can refrigerate the cooked meat up to three days or freeze it for up to 6 months and still get that delicious grilled steak flavour in the soup. Leftover soup microwaves well, so it is great for lunches the next day. It also freezes very nicely.

Scrumptious Steak Soup

Up to ½ lb (250 g) grilled steak of your choice…the more char the better
1 tbsp olive oil
One onion, cut coarsely
1 bell pepper, seeded and cut into bite-sized pieces (optional)
3 (or more) garlic cloves, crushed (roasted garlic is excellent here)
2 tsp dried mixed herbs or 1 bouquet garni
1 tsp ground cumin
1 cup brown or portobellini mushrooms, sliced
4 large ribs celery, including the tops and leaves, sliced across the grain
1 cup red wine
1 can crushed tomatoes
4 cups vegetable or beef stock
4 carrots, cut bite sized
1 cup turnips, scrubbed and cut into bite sized pieces (optional)
½ cabbage, cut into 1” chunks
Your choice of starch (optional…omit to keep calorie count down)
---1 cup cooked and rinsed rice
---4 med potatoes, scrubbed and cut into bite-sized pieces
---1 cup small pasta, cooked and rinsed
Salt if necessary (stock will have salt in it)

Trim fat away from meat and cut away from bone. Remove any gristle or inedible bits. Cut meat into small pieces, no larger than ½ inch cubes.

Heat olive oil in the bottom of a very deep pot and add onion and meat. Cook on high heat, stirring constantly, until onion begins to caramelize and turn brown. Reduce heat and add garlic, mushrooms, celery, mixed herbs (do not add bouquet garni here, add it after the liquid is in the pot), cumin and bell pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, until celery slices begin to soften.

Add wine, stock, and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add carrots (and potatoes if using them) and reduce heat to simmer. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, then add cabbage and turnips. Remove cover and allow to cook for another half hour. Taste and add salt if necessary.

Just before serving, add rice or pasta, if using them, cover and allow to stand for 10 minutes for rice/pasta to heat up.

Serve with a bit of grated Parmesan or Roman cheese, garnish with fresh parsley or sprig of celery leaf

Photos by TomHarpel and Wordridden, Flickr

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Potato Pancakes

This is a savoury dish that gives you some variety in your potato side dish at dinner. It’s also a lovely accompaniment to a breakfast, particularly with a fried egg perched on top of the potato pancake.

Potato Pancakes
4 large potatoes, peeled
½ cup milk
1 onion, minced fine
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp minced parsley (optional)
⅓ cup flour
½ tsp salt
3 tsp butter

Grate potatoes coarsely. Place in a bowl and cover with milk. Refrigerate for 2 or more hours.

Remove potatoes from fridge, pour off and discard milk. Add onion, egg, parsley and salt and mix. Sprinkle with flour and mix gently to distribute flour throughout.

Melt butter in bottom of heavy skillet.

Using a dry measuring cup, scoop ⅓ cup of mixture and place mixture in hot butter. Flatten to ¼” with spatula and fry until golden on one side. Flip and fry second side until golden, drain on paper towels and serve More than one pancake can be cooked at a time in the skillet, if it is large enough. Add butter to pan as needed.

Photo by ScottFeldstein, Flickr

Friday, July 24, 2009

Luscious Lamb

I don’t think most Americans eat lamb that often. I know that it was never served at the table when I was growing up, and as an adult, I prepared and served it perhaps a half dozen times in my life before moving to South Africa. South Africans love lamb and will eat it cooked in just about any way you can imagine. I, however, find it rather greasy and gamey and that put me off…until I discovered mint jelly.

Now, ordinarily I detest any kind of sweetness with meat. I can’t even stand a little pancake syrup meeting up with my sausages or bacon, so I have my pancakes on a separate plate to prevent any chance of the twain meeting. But mint jelly is somehow different…there is something about it that counterbalances the lamb’s gaminess and cuts the greasiness, all without masking the essential taste of the lamb. It’s genius…and delicious, too.

Lamb is actually a rather delicately flavoured meat and easily overwhelmed by strongly flavoured side dishes like broccoli. I like to serve it with steamed asparagus (dressed with a little lemon butter) and baked or roasted potatoes. My husband, who grew up eating both lamb and mutton (ew! gross!) grins broadly when I announce that we are having lamb for dinner, so it looks like I have mastered this one!

Luscious Roasted Lamb, Leg or Rack

1 kg (2 lb) deboned leg of lamb (or rack of lamb)
2 tbsp olive oil
¼ cup fresh chopped rosemary
1 tbsp minced or crushed garlic
Mint jelly

Early in the day, mix olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Place lamb on a sheet of plastic wrap, slather with oil mixture, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Remove lamb an hour before cooking and allow to come to room temperature (or near to it).

Preheat oven to 325F. Spray roasting rack with cooking spray to prevent sticking. Remove lamb from plastic wrap and place on roasting rack, fat side up. Insert meat thermometer in thickest part of roast, positioned for easy reading.

Place in centre of oven and roast for 1 hour. Check thermometer for doneness: 140F is medium rare. Because you will allow the roast to “rest” for five minutes before you carve it and it will continue to cook during that time, remove the roast when it is about 5 degrees cooler than the temperature you wish to serve it. If the roast is not yet done enough, return to the oven, checking every 10 minutes until desired doneness is achieved.

Because you will have your oven hot, this is a good time to roast some garlic or bake potatoes, using energy and the oven’s heat more efficiently.

Allow lamb to rest for 5 minutes before carving and serve with mint jelly on the side.

Photo by freedigitalphotos.net

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Monkey Bones (Peanut butter dog biscuits)

There is little that dogs like more than peanut butter. I once had a dog that loved all things peanutty so much we used to call her “Monkey.” I spread some on her favourite bone-shaped dog biscuit one day and she was over the moon…it became her favourite treat. But spreading peanut butter on dog biscuits can get tiresome after a while, so I fiddled around until I came up with some homemade dog biscuits with peanut butter right in the mix, and Monkey Bones were born. If your dog loves peanut butter, too, what can be better than peanut butter dog cookies made by your own hands? Healthy ingredients, no preservatives, and the perfect gift for your favourite pup!

And for the pooch that is always sniffing at your chocolate bars…we all know chocolate is toxic to dogs but our little doggie darlings don’t…you can add carob chips. Carob tastes like chocolate but is safe for dogs. Try these for your favourite dog and don’t be surprised if you have to make a second batch right away!

Monkey Bones
1 ½ cups flour
1 cup oatmeal
⅓ cup creamy peanut butter
¼ peanut oil
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup water
½ cup carob chips (optional)

Set oven to 325F.

Mix all ingredients except carob chips together to form a dough. Turn out onto floured board and roll about ¼ inch thick. Cut with bone-shaped cookie cutter or into strips 1” wide by 2 ½ inches long.

Place on ungreased baking sheet and stud cookies with a few carob chips. Bake at 325F for 15 - 20 minutes. Turn off oven and leave cookies in oven until cooled. Store in airtight container.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yankee Pot Roast

I lived in New England for a few years and I learned a lot of good recipes there. I was young and poor at the time, so fancy recipes weren’t exactly my cup of tea…solid, nutritious food that didn’t put much of a dent in my pocketbook was the order of the day.

Among the recipes I learned that were filling, nourishing and inexpensive was the good old pot roast. Cheap meat is often tough, but cooked slowly for a sufficient length of time, the meat turns tender and succulent. Add inexpensive winter vegetables and the right combination of seasonings and you have a deliciously thrifty meal! If saving money isn’t one of your objectives, you can use more costly veg, better cuts of meat and a finer wine, but the frugal recipe below tastes so good, it really isn’t necessary.

This is a particularly easy recipe to prepare. Unlike most pot roast recipes, this one is prepared in the oven and requires no monitoring to make sure the liquid hasn’t boiled away, burning the contents of the pot. Inexpensive, delicious and easy, too…what could be better?

Yankee Pot Roast

2 lbs (1 kg) chuck roast
6 large carrots
6 large potatoes
2 medium onions
2-4 garlic cloves, minced or put through garlic press
3 ribs of celery (optional)
1 cup sliced mushrooms (optional)
1 cup Knorr Brown Roux granules (optional)
¼ cup mixed dried herbs
2 cups cheap red wine (or vegetable stock)
Worcestershire sauce
Salt to taste

Set oven to 325F. Prepare a 13” x 9” x 3” baking pan by lining with a piece of foil large enough to line the bottom of the pan and extend enough to fold over and seal the dish.

Sprinkle Roux granules on bottom of pan and spread out. Centre meat on top.

Cut carrots into sticks approximately 3 inches long. Split the thickest pieces. Cut potatoes into chunks no bigger than 3 inches square. Peel onions and cut into eighths. Slice mushrooms thinly. Cut celery into sticks approximately 3 inches long. Split the widest pieces.

Arrange onion and vegetables around the meat and dot surface with garlic. Shake 5 to 10 shakes of Worcestershire sauce over the surface, pour in red wine/stock, then sprinkle with dried herbs. Salt to taste.

Fold foil down to cover and seal the dish. Put in 325F oven and cook for 2.5 hours.

Test for doneness: remove from oven and carefully open foil. Pierce the meat with the tines of a fork and twist. If the meat flakes easily and comes away, it is ready. If the meat does not flake when the fork is twisted, fold down the foil and return to the oven for another 30 minutes. Repeat this test until the meat is tender.

Serving: Remove the meat to a warmed platter and surround with vegetables. If you used the Roux, you will have a gravy in the bottom of the cooking pan: pour it into a gravy boat and serve with the meat and veg. If you did not use the Roux, pour the liquid into a shallow pan, bring to a boil, and make gravy the way you usually do.

This is excellent with biscuits, which can bake in the already heated oven while you are plating the roast and vegetables and making the gravy.

Photo by uberculture, flickr

Friday, July 10, 2009

Shrimp Creole is King!

I discovered this dish when I was 14 years old. My boyfriend took me to a family dinner and his grandmother was visiting from Louisiana. Out in the kitchen was a pot of the most fragrant red tomato sauce…not at all Italian in scent…and beside the stove was the biggest heap of shrimp I had ever seen. I was handed an apron and a bowl of shrimp and quickly initiated into the rites of peeling and deveining shrimp…and the kitchen camaraderie of women.

The finished dish was delicious…that was back in the days that I could eat bell peppers without distress…and the spiciness was not quite enough to make me sniffle, but enough to make my lips tingle. You can adjust the spiciness to be whatever you want, but I still like it this way. Hats off to Grandma Smith and the fabulous Shrimp Creole that inspired my version of it, below.

Shrimp Creole

2tbsp oil
1 cup fresh or frozen okra, sliced (discard tips)
1 cup fresh celery, sliced across the ribs
1 cup fresh onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced or put through garlic press
1 bell pepper (green) seeded and chopped coarsely (optional)
¼ tsp (or more) chili powder
½ tsp ground cumin
3 14oz (410g) cans crushed tomatoes
2 tomato cans of water
1 cup white wine
Liquid pepper sauce
Salt to taste
1 lb (500g) fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 cup raw white rice

Heat oil in bottom of deep pot. Sauté onion, garlic, celery, bell pepper, okra and seasonings until onion is translucent. Add tomatoes, water, wine and liquid pepper sauce (3 shakes of bottle for mild…more if you can stand it!). Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer, stirring regularly as liquid reduces by half.

Begin cooking rice according to package directions.

Taste sauce and add salt as needed. When tomatoes have lost their bright redness and the sauce no longer smells primarily of tomatoes, continue cooking until your desired thickness is achieved. At that point, turn off the heat, add the shrimp, and stir to cover shrimp with the hot sauce. The residual heat will cook the shrimp without toughening them.

Spoon a bed of rice into a shallow bowl or deep plate and make a bit of a hollow in the centre. Fill hollow with Shrimp Creole and garnish with a sprig of celery leaf.

Photo by tvol, flickr

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Jambalaya! Oh me oh my oh!

This delicious, spicy rice dish has been recently added to my repertoire. Jambalaya, a Creole and Cajun dish, is thought to be a New World version of the Spanish dish, paella. Before America acquired the Louisiana Territory from France in 1806, it had belonged to Spain, so foods of both French and Spanish heritage evolved there.

In Cajun cooking there exists something called “The Trinity.” It consists of onion, garlic and bell (green or red) peppers, chopped and sautéed together and used as a base for a dish. I have difficulty with bell pepper (I like it, but it doesn’t like me) so I omit it. But it is included in the recipe to add to its authenticity. The proper sausage to use in Jambalaya is andouille (pronounced ahn DWEE), but it can be difficult to locate. When he couldn’t find andouille, my late husband used to make a killer Jambalaya using kielbasa or chorizo, but you can use milder sausages if you prefer…spicy does not have to be synonymous with hot!

My thanks to IndigoWrath for the recipe I used as a base for the following dish, a meal that my husband pronounced a “winner” and requested for dinner a second night in a row!

Jambalaya Ingredients:
¼ cup butter
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
5 celery sticks, sliced thin across the grain
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and coarsely chopped
½ lb sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 tsp Cajun Spice Mixture (if you can’t buy a Cajun spice mix, add the following)
--½ tsp ground cumin
--¼ tsp red chili powder
--¼ tsp ground black pepper
3 shakes red pepper sauce (more if you like it spicy)
1 cup long grained rice (Basmati rice works well)
1 14oz can of chopped tomatoes, including liquid
1 cup vegetable stock, white or rose wine
1 cup water
¾ cup fresh carrots, cut small
2 smoked chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
½ lb fresh shrimp, shelled and deveined
½ cup frozen baby peas
Coarsely ground sea salt to taste

In bottom of deep pan, melt butter and sauté onion, garlic, peppers, celery and spices. Add chicken and sausage and cook until sausage is browned. Add rice and stir around to fully coat rice with butter.

Add tomatoes, stock/wine, and water, cover pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and add carrots. Simmer, covered, for 25 minutes or until rice has absorbed all of the liquid.

Turn off heat, taste and salt as necessary. Add shrimp and peas, stir to cover shrimp with rice. Cover and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes…the residual heat in the rice will cook the shrimp without toughening it.

Serve with crusty French bread and garlic butter.

Photo by The Marmot, Flickr

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Caprese Salad or Sandwich

If it is summer in your part of the world, fresh vine ripened tomatoes are part of your reality. And there is nothing I like better for a summer salad than a fresh Caprese salad.

This is amazingly simply to prepare and delicious beyond description. Just think…fresh tomatoes bursting with sun-ripened flavour…fragrant fresh basil…smooth, flavourful Italian cheeses…the piquant bite of balsamic vinegar…is your mouth watering yet?

The interesting thing about this salad is that it also makes a great sandwich! See the variations at the end for details!

Caprese Salad

2 large or 4 small fresh ripe tomatoes, chilled
1 sweet onion, (Vidalia or Maui are best) cut in paper thin slices (optional)
1 cup of fresh basil leaves, uncut
8 slices white Italian cheese (fresh, soft mozzarella is divine, but Provolone is great!)
½ cup balsamic glaze or the dressing below
Salt to taste

Select the four largest basil leaves and make a chiffonade*. Set aside for the garnish.

Wash tomatoes and slice into generous slices. Select the best 8 slices for the salad.

Slice the cheese into 8 slices. If using fresh mozzarella, make the slices thickish.

Bruise the basil.

There are two ways to assemble the salad.

Method 1
Cut all ingredients into quarters, then place in a salad bowl and toss with dressing (below).

Method 2
Place a piece of cheese on a plate and slice of tomato on top of it; salt the tomato to taste. Push the centre section out of an onion slice and place on top of the tomato slice. Put a few bruised basil leaves on top and drizzle with balsamic glaze or dressing. Garnish with a bit of the chiffonade. These little stacks can be arranged individually on a plate or arranged to overlap each other (like crackers on a cheese plate). If overlapping into a row or ring, add glaze or dressing at the end, then garnish.

* chiffonade: select four or more large basil leaves and stack one on top of the other. Starting at the pointed end, roll the stack of leaves toward the stem end, like a cigar. Using a sharp knife, diagonally slice the tube into thin ribbons.

In a bowl whisk together ½ cup olive oil, ¼ cup balsamic or wine vinegar, ½ tsp dried Italian seasoning. Allow to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes or longer, then whisk again and immediately pour over the salad.

Caprese Sandwich:

1 panini roll or small baguette, split lengthwise, or slices of sour dough bread.
1 large tomato, sliced
2 slices white Italian cheese (recommend Provolone)
1 paper-thin slice of sweet onion (optional)
6 large fresh basil leaves, bruised
1 tbsp balsamic glaze (or vinegar)
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste

Whisk oil and balsamic glaze together. Brush half of it on the cut side of the bottom piece or bread.

Put cheese on bread, followed by onion, and tomato slices. Salt to taste, then brush on remaining oil mixture. Top with basil leaves and top slice of bread.

Photos by cyancey and aokettun, Flickr

Saturday, July 4, 2009

French Onion Soup

My late husband’s mother was born and raised in Paris and did not come to America until she was in her mid-twenties. While I was not impressed with a lot of her cooking, she did have a few dishes that were so good, they were practically a religious experience to eat…and this very authentic French onion soup was one of them!

French Onion Soup
(serves 8)

4 large yellow or brown onions
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter (not margarine)
6 cups beef or vegetable consommé/broth
½ cup paper thin mushroom slices (optional)
¼ cup finely chopped parsley (optional)
Salt to taste
1 baguette, sliced into 10 pieces (discard the end bits and keep 8 pieces)
1 cup Gruyere cheese, shredded (any Swiss cheese will do, but smoked Gruyere is best)

Peel and cut onions as shown in photo or into thin (⅛ inch) slices to make rings.

Heat butter and oil in bottom of deep pot. Add onion and cook on medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until onions are limp and caramelized. Immediately add garlic and mushrooms and cook for 1 more minute, then add broth. Bring to rolling boil, reduce to simmer, cover and cook for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, taste soup and add parsley and salt. Simmer another 30 minutes and taste again, adjusting salt if necessary.

Heat top element of oven (turn on broiler, if gas) and set oven rack near the top.

Prepare a baking sheet, preferably one with turned up edges, by spraying with cooking spray.

Ladle onion soup into 8 ovenproof dishes or ramekins and place ramekins on baking sheet.

Float a slice of baguette on top of each ramekin, then cover with cheese.

Place baking sheet and ramekins in oven and broil until cheese melts and browns.

Remove from oven and serve hot…remember to use oven mitts to handle the ramekins!

Photos by Lukekb, Flickr

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Gravlax, Sweet or Salty

Gravlax is a dish that has reached cult status as a gourmet appetizer. But its origins are humble, as was my introduction to it.

Pronounced “GRAH vlox,” the word is a shortened form of the original Swedish word for “buried salmon.” There is some dispute as to whether that refers to the salmon being buried in the earth to ferment (like pemmican) or if it simply refers to the salmon being buried in a salt-and sugar mixture. Whichever it refers to, my grandmother simply called it “cured salmon” to differentiate it from the kipper-like smoked salmon she made in the little smokehouse out back, and I didn’t realize our humble cured salmon had another name…or had moved up the social ladder…until I saw a chef preparing it on TV on Cooking at the Academy.

If you can find gravlax at a gourmet boutique deli, you are going to pay through the nose for it. But you can have not only gravlax but an endless array of epicurean variations, all for little more than the price of the raw salmon itself, if you just follow the recipes below!

Gravlax (Base recipe)
1 salmon fillet, skin on (buy the tail end to save money)
1 oz (shot) good quality vodka or aquavit
For sweet gravlax: 2 cups granulated white sugar
1 cup salt
For salty gravlax: 1 cup granulated white sugar
2 cups salt

Fresh salmon can have parasites, most notably roundworms. To make sure your salmon is free of them, use only commercially frozen salmon or freeze your fresh salmon to at least -10°F (-23°C) for seven days or longer. Freezing kills any parasites that might be in your fish Make sure you thaw the salmon completely before you begin.

Check the salmon for bones both by sight and by touch. If you find any bones, they can be pulled out with needle-nosed pliers. Drape the salmon filet over your hand like a towel, cut side up. This will force the tips of the bones stick up, making it easier for you to grab them with the pliers.

Mix the salt and sugar together. Pour half of the mixture in the bottom of a glass or ceramic dish large enough for the entire piece of salmon to flat in. Add the vodka and spread the mixture out evenly to cover the bottom of the dish.

Lay out the salmon, skin side down, on top of the salt/sugar mixture and cover with the remainder. Make sure the entire salmon is fully covered with the mixture.

Cover the mixture and salmon with a sheet of plastic wrap, pressing it down to cover the entire contents of the dish. Place several heavy objects on top of the plastic to press down on the salmon (I use large cans of tomatoes or fruit). Place in refrigerator.

Wait 24 hours and remove from refrigerator. Remove cans and plastic wrap and set aside. Gently pour accumulated fluid down the drain, turn the salmon to show the skin side, and make sure the salmon is packed, top and bottom, with the salt/sugar mixture. Cover with plastic, add cans, and return to the refrigerator.

After another 24 hours, remove from the refrigerator. Rinse the fish under running water and pat dry with a paper towel and place on a wood cutting board.

Starting at the narrowest end of the fish, slice paper thin at a 45° angle, lifting the slices away from the skin.

Serve with mild cheeses like mascarpone or cream cheese, chopped fresh herbs, and textured breads like pumpernickel or rye, or coarse crackers, and thin lemon wedges.

Instead of plain vodka, use one of the following:
Your favourite flavoured vodka
A spicy gin (like Bombay Sapphire)

In addition to the vodka, add one of the following:
¼ cup beet juice
¼ cup cranberry juice

After placing the salt/sugar mixture on top of the salmon, put one of the following on top and then cover with plastic wrap:
1 tsp coarsely ground pepper
½ cup coarsely chopped dill
¼ cup thin strips of lemon and/or orange peel
¼ cup thin slices of fresh ginger
½ cup fresh herbs, chopped

Photo by Bruce_Lee, Flickr

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stuffed Pasta: Shells and Cannelloni

When we all lived in the same town, my adult children would gather at my house to celebrate their birthdays. Our tradition was for them to choose the main dish they wanted and I would prepare it as their birthday dinner. Invariably the choice was something Italian and most often it was stuffed shells, a delicious…but labour intensive…pasta dish, overflowing with cheeses and swimming in a rich red sauce.

I make this dish vegetarian, but you can make it with a meat sauce if you’d like.

Stuffed Pasta: Shells and Cannelloni
2 boxes large pasta shells or cannelloni, uncooked
2 qts (8 cups) Sicilian Pasta Sauce (Basic recipe)
1 quart (4 cups) ricotta cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese (Asiago or Scarmozza can be used)
1 cup each finely grated Romano and Parmesan cheese
1 large onion, finely minced
6 cloves garlic, crushed or put through garlic press
1 tbsp olive oil
½ cup finely minced fresh basil
1 tbsp dried oregano or Italian seasonings, ground to a powder

Boil pasta in salted water. Remove from heat as soon as they are flexible and plunge into cold water to stop the cooking process. If the pasta is cooked until soft, it will tear more easily while handling. Keep pasta in water to prevent sticking together.

Spray a 9” x 13” x 3” baking pan with cooking spray. It would be a good idea to use a nice pan, like a Correlle dish, as this is usually served in the same dish in which it was baked. Set oven to 350°F (180°C).

Sauté onion, garlic, and seasonings together in oil until onion is translucent. Set aside to cool a bit, then mix thoroughly with the ricotta cheese. Add egg and ½ cup each Romano and Parmesan cheese and mix thoroughly.

Ladle a half cup of sauce into bottom of pan and spread around.

Fill a pastry bag, with largest nozzle attached, with cheese mixture.

To fill shells: remove a shell from water and gently shake off excess water. Cradle shell in the palm of left hand, open side up. Insert nozzle of pastry bag into opening and squeeze gently, filling shell until a bit of the filling mounds out the opening. Gently lay shell, open side up, on the sauce in the pan and repeat until shells or filling is gone.

To fill cannelloni: remove a tube from water and gently shake off excess water. Cradle tube in the palm of left hand, one open end against the base of your thumb. Insert nozzle of pastry bag into other open end and squeeze bag gently, filling tube until a bit of the filling sticks out the opening. Gently lay tube on the sauce in the pan and repeat until tubes or filling is gone.

Once all shells/cannelloni are filled, cover with sauce and sprinkle each shell/tube with the remaining cheeses. Cover the dish with foil, tenting slightly to prevent the foil from sticking to the cheese. Bake for a minimum of 45 minutes or until the cheese in the middle is melted.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Florentine: Thaw a packet of frozen chopped spinach. Squeeze 1 cup spinach tightly with your hands over the sink to wring out as much water as possible. Chop finely and add to ricotta mixture. Continue with recipe.

With Meat: Use the Meat version of the sauce

Photos by ninjapoodles and madaise, flickr

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Easy, Cheesy Lasagne

Just like every family has its own recipe for sauce, so does every family have its own recipe for lasagne . There is no single “right way” to make it, although I have tasted quite a number of “wrong ways” over the years.

Here in South Africa, lasagne has very little cheese in it. Instead, they make it layered with what they optimistically call “béchamel sauce,” which is actually nothing more than a simple flour-based white sauce, gooey and tasteless. Personally, I find it disgusting and will not buy lasagne here. So, when I want lasagne, I have to make it myself…and the recipe below is how I do it.

Again, this qualifies as an authentic dish since Old Joe taught this to me and he learned it from his mother. The original recipe must be more than 100 years old by now. This can be made vegetarian by using the Basic Sauce recipe instead of the meat sauce recipe.

This is the perfect “pot luck” dish…in fact, whenever I took this to a potluck dinner, it was always the first dish to be emptied. Everybody loves lasagne!


Prepare a 9”x 13”x 3” baking pan by spraying well with cooking spray. Set oven to 325°F (165°C). Cut a piece of aluminium foil 1 ½ times the width of the dish and its full length.

2 quarts (8 cups) Meat Sauce
1 package dry lasagne noodles
1 quart (4 cups) ricotta cheese
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese (Asiago or Scarmozza can be used)
1 cup each grated Romano and Parmesan cheese
1 large onion, finely minced
6 cloves garlic, crushed or put through garlic press
1 tbsp olive oil
1-2 cups sliced mushrooms (optional)
½ cup coarsely cut fresh basil
1 tbsp dried oregano or Italian seasonings

Boil noodles in salted water. Remove from heat as soon as they are flexible and plunge into cold water to stop the cooking process. If the noodles are cooked until they are soft, they tear more easily while handling. Keep noodles in water, otherwise they will stick together.

Sauté onion, garlic, seasonings and mushrooms together in oil until onion is translucent. Set aside to cool a bit, then mix thoroughly with the ricotta cheese.

Ladle some sauce into the bottom of the pan and spread it around. Place a layer of noodles on the sauce. Cut length of noodle to fit if necessary. Generously spread a layer of the ricotta cheese mixture over the noodles, then sprinkle generously with mozzarella, followed by Romano and Parmesan, then a layer of sauce. Now put another layer of noodles on top of the sauce and repeat the process. End with a layer of sauce, then sprinkle with any remaining cheeses.

Cover the dish with foil, tenting slightly to prevent the foil from sticking to the cheese. Bake for a minimum of 45 minutes or until the cheese in the middle is melted.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. This allows the cheeses to set a bit. Cut into 3” squares and serve with a salad on the side and more grated cheeses at the table.

Photo by lachlan, flickr

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Italian Meatballs

So, when you think of spaghetti, what is the first accompaniment that comes to mind? Why, meatballs, of course!

Firm, finely textured meatballs make a fabulous addition to sauce. It is important, however, to make sure they are fully cooked and their fat rendered out before adding them to the sauce or they can disintegrate in the sauce and even make it greasy. It is also important to make sure ingredients like onion and garlic are finely minced so that the meatballs will compact well and hold their shape.

Sorry, but I don’t have a vegetarian version for this one! You are welcome to include your own in a comment, though!

Italian Meatballs
2 lbs (1 kg) extra lean ground beef (ground chuck is best)
1 large onion, finely minced
1 large egg, beaten
⅔ cup catsup or tomato paste
6 slices moistened (see below) white bread (or 1 cup sieved bread crumbs)
2 tbsp dried oregano or Italian seasonings
1 clove garlic minced or put through press
½ tsp salt

Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray.

If using bread: hold each slice of bread under cold running water until thoroughly moistened. Squeeze firmly to remove water.

Combine meat, onion, garlic, seasonings, egg, salt and bread or bread crumbs in a large bowl. Add half the catsup. Mix thoroughly with hands, making sure to rub bread crusts so they disintegrate and blend into the meat mixture. The mixture should be firm but not dry: if too dry, add a little catsup so soften, if too moist, add a little bread crumbs to absorb excess moisture.

Make meatballs by taking handfuls of meat slightly larger than a walnut and rolling the mixture firmly in the hands to make a ball. Meatballs can be slightly larger, but anything bigger than a golf ball can have problems retaining its integrity as it cooks and the fat renders out.

Place the meatballs on the baking sheet, allowing a small space between them. They should shrink slightly during cooking, so they don’t need much space. You can “crowd” the pan with them.

Bake until a meatball, pierced with a skewer, releases clear juices. If the juices are pink, they are not done. Begin checking after they have been in the oven for 25 minutes.

When the meatballs are done, remove from the oven and set aside to cool on absorbent paper. This is an important step, because as the meatballs cool they will contract further and the outside will dry and toughen up a bit, allowing them to go into the sauce later without disintegrating.

During the last 20 minutes of cooking the sauce, add the meatballs. Remove them to a separate platter for serving.

Photo of meatballs by Powi, Flickr

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pasta Sauce Sicilian

Many years ago I was married to a man of Sicilian descent. His father, horrified at what I called spaghetti sauce, took it upon himself to teach me how to make proper sauce.

This is not a quick sauce. It takes several hours and a lot of attention to make properly, so I like to make it on a weekend or holiday. Often, I make a double or triple batch of the basic sauce and freeze it in quart-sized containers, allowing me to have the lovely flavour of this long-cooking sauce without having to spend the time.

This is an authentic sauce, a Sicilian-style sauce exactly the way I was taught to make it by a 58-year-old Sicilian man back in 1966. He learned it from his mother, so it goes back a long way. You may make your own variations, of course, but remember that when you do, the sauce you end up with should not be called Sicilian-style because it will no longer be.

The basic (vegetarian ) sauce is used in a variety of dishes other than spaghetti, like lasagne and cannelloni, and the variations Old Joe gave me are shown at the end of the recipe.

Pasta Sauce Sicilian Style
(Basic Sauce)

1 large onion, coarsely chopped
6 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 large cans peeled Roma tomatoes (Progresso (with basil) recommended)
2 6 oz. cans tomato paste (Contadina recommended)
5 tomato cans water
1 tomato can red wine (optional…water can be substituted)
½ cup fresh basil leaves, cut coarsely
1 tbsp oregano (or mixed Italian seasonings)
Salt to taste

In a deep pot, sauté onion, garlic and herbs in oil until onion is translucent. Add one can of tomatoes, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, mash the tomatoes against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon and add the second can of tomatoes. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, stir the pot, then mash the tomatoes against the side of the pot and add the wine and one can of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, add the tomato paste, stir the pot, then mash the tomatoes against the side of the pot and add two cans of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and cook for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, add the last of the water and some salt (keeping in mind that the canned goods are already salted), stir the pot and, if any remains, mash tomatoes against the side of the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook, uncovered for a minimum of two hours. Stir the pot regularly to keep the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

The sauce is ready when it turns from bright tomato red to a darker red-brown and it no longer has tomato as a dominant flavour. Cook until desired thickness is achieved, adding water ½ cup at a time if needed.


Serve the pasta separate from the sauce so that people can dish the amount of sauce they want on their pasta. Set out fresh Romano and Parmesan and a small hand grater so that diners can grate the amount of cheese they like over their food.

Such additions as meatballs and Italian sausage should be removed from the sauce and served in separate dishes.

Meat Sauce (Bolognaise)

While sautéing the onion, add 1 lb (500g) fresh ground beef and chop up while frying. Drain off the rendered fat and continue with the Basic Sauce recipe.

Marinara Sauce
Peel and devein a pound (500g) of fresh uncooked shrimp. Rinse and drain well. When the sauce is ready to serve, add the shrimp, stir well, cover and let sit 3 to 5 minutes. The residual heat of the sauce will cook the shrimp without toughening it. You can add other seafood in the same manner.

Mushroom (and Olive)
Add 1-2 cups cleaned and sliced mushrooms (Portobellini recommended) to the pot as the onion is being sautéed. Continue with the Basic Sauce recipe. If olives are desired, add 1 small can of sliced olives, well drained, just before serving the sauce.

With Italian Sausage
Add fully cooked and drained Italian sausage to the sauce in the last 20 minutes of cooking. Remove from the sauce and serve on a separate platter.

With Meatballs
Add fully cooked and drained meatballs to the sauce in the last 20 minutes of cooking. Remove from the sauce and serve on a separate platter.

Photo by Brokenarts, Stock.xchange

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sandwich fillings: tuna, chicken, and egg salad

Sometimes you just get tired of the slice of ham, slice of cheese, mayo and lettuce on soft white bread, ya know? When I get tired of the same old, same old, I like the “salad” fillings for a change. Check the serving suggestions at the end, give ‘em a try and see what you think!

Tuna Salad
2 cans light meat tuna packed in water, drained
½ onion (or small bunch of scallions) minced finely
1 hard boiled egg, chopped fine
1 tsp sweet pickle relish (optional)
French’s prepared mustard
Miracle Whip or other salad crème (not mayo!)
Sprinkle of ground black pepper

In a mixing bowl, flake drained tuna with a fork. Add egg, onion, pickle relish and toss well. Add just enough Miracle Whip to achieve a dry but spreadable consistency. Add mustard, half a teaspoon at a time, until the taste of the Miracle Whip is no longer dominant and identifiable. Sprinkle with pepper. Tastes best if allowed to rest in refrigerator for at least an hour.

Chicken Salad
Prepare Tuna Salad recipe with the following changes:
1 cup finely minced, cooked chicken breast meat in place of tuna
Omit pickle relish
Add 1 tsp fresh minced herb of your choice (I use marjoram)
Salt to taste

Egg Salad

6 extra large eggs, hard boiled, shelled and chilled
¼ onion (or 3 scallions) minced finely (optional)
1 tsp fresh dill or your choice of fresh herb, chopped coarsely (optional)
French’s prepared mustard
Miracle Whip or other salad crème (not mayo!)
Sprinkle of ground black pepper
Salt to taste

In a mixing bowl, mash egg against side of bowl with fork until egg is thoroughly broken up. Add onion and herb s and toss well. Add just enough Miracle Whip to achieve a dry but spreadable consistency. Add mustard, half a teaspoon at a time, until the taste of the Miracle Whip is no longer dominant and identifiable. Sprinkle with pepper. Tastes best if allowed to rest in refrigerator for at least an hour.

It isn’t just the filling that makes a good sandwich, it is the bread and the additions. Try some of these:

Serve on toasted bread or bagels or rye
Serve on a stout artisan bread
A soft sourdough is fabulous with any of these
Stuff a pita with the tuna and add some well-drained Salsa Fresca
A slice of provolone cheese is wonderful with the tuna
Melt some cheese over the top of the filling before putting on the top slice
Add some feta to the tuna or chicken
Stuff a hollowed-out tomato with the tuna or chicken and reduce the calories!
Serve with a slice of tomato and a leaf of crisp lettuce on top
Crumble crisp bacon over the egg salad
Or add some sliced black olives to the egg salad
Sliced avocados on the chicken salad is fab!
A piece of roasted green chili on the chicken salad is also great
Make a wrap with the tuna or chicken salad and take to work for lunch
Spread on crackers, add a tiny herb garnish and you have instant canapés!
Use them as fillings for finger sandwiches for tea

Comment me with your favourite ways of serving!

Photo by jslander flickr