Sunday, January 29, 2006

Cookbooks: A Few of My Favourite Things


I've been accumulating cookbooks for quite some time, and it occurred to me a few months ago that I have an affinity for culinary books that is probably far beyond that of the average person. I have not amassed as huge a collection as some, but I have managed to cache some 30 books, give or take a couple (not including magazines and those "Best of ..." mini cookbooks that many magazines offer). What can I say? I have a thing for cooking! When I walk into a bookstore, I instinctively head straight for the cooking section. And I rarely forego an opportunity to skim or at least sneak a peek into a cookbook or food magazine if one happens to be laying about. Occasionally, someone questions my ever-expanding culinary library. The only response I have for such questions is, "If you have to ask why, you probably won't understand the answer."


As a source of inspiration, I find few things greater than the beautiful photography found in many books and magazines. Although I can get a pretty good feel for how a recipe will taste and determine whether or not it tickles my fancy from simply reading its ingredients, there's something about a stylish, well done photograph of a dish that transports me to a euphoric place. Lately, I find myself more interested in reading about food than ever before and within the past three months I've purchased about 15 new cookbooks. I have decided to inventory my collection and share it here with whomever may be interested.

Until about a year ago, my main focus had been on comfort foods and books with great-tasting, homestyle recipes. I've also gathered many delicious and relatively simple to prepare recipes from various friends, family members and the Internet, but I have not purchased many of the books with fancy, complicated, labour-intensive recipes. I expect that will change over time as my culinary knowledge, skills and abilities improve. While I will never abandon the good old down-home recipes of my culture, my taste in food is quite eclectic and I am dedicated to continuously expanding my culinary horizons.

For now, here are a few of my favourite books and magazines. I will continue to update this list as I have the time and my collection grows.

50 Great Curries of India
Culinary Artistry
Daisy Cooks!
Elegantly Easy Crème Brûlée
Fresh Chinese
Fresh Indian
Indian Cooking - Madhur Jaffrey
The Inn Chef
Jacques Pepin's Kitchen
LaBelle Cuisine
Larousse Gastronomique
Lidia's Family Table
McCormick & Schmick's Seafood
Savoring Southeast Asia
Simply Ming
Wine Encyclopedia

Bon Appetit
Cooking Light
Fine Cooking
Food & Wine

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Versatility of Peppers


I figured out what to do with all the peppers and I am now officially down to only four, one of each colour. Oh, and for the record, I did not buy all of those peppers on Saturday. Though they all photographed very well, I bought half of them a little over a week ago, which is why I felt pressed to use them as quickly as possible. Actually, I'm surprised that they held up so well.

My initial thought was to stuff some of the peppers (which I may do in the future), but that idea bored me and no matter how I tried I just couldn't get excited about that one. So, after a bit more thought and much slicing, dicing, roasting and toasting, my glorious peppers were transformed into four more interesting dishes, each completely different from the others.

Peach Chipotle SalsaPeach Chipotle Salsa

This salsa, which I prepared as a between-meals snack, was inspired by a sample I tasted during my last visit to Central Market. I rarely participate in public food tastings, but this particular evening I was a bit hungry and decided to try the peach salsa and chips the store was promoting. Well, I must say I'm glad I did. The salsa was amazing, but I just couldn't bring myself to pay $5 per 12 oz. jar. My immediate thought was, "Okay, I'm a pretty decent cook, so I should be able to make something comparable." I'm not sure exactly what ingredients were used in the sample I tasted, but I managed to whip up my own version which is equally delicious.

Fire Roasted Red Pepper & Garlic HummusFire Roasted Red Pepper & Garlic Hummus

Surprisingly, the flavour of the hummus (a favourite from my vegetarian days), which I also made for a snack during the week, was quite robust, despite the fact that I over-roasted (read: dayum near burned 'em up, hence the recipe title "fire roasted...") the peppers and garlic big time! As a result, the yield from the peppers was only about half of what it should have been, as was the garlic's. Luckily I was able to salvage enough of each to make this savory garbanzo dip. And I made my first batch of pita crisps (finally), which also turned out quite well.

Pita Crisps with Hummus and SalsaPita Crisps with Hummus and Salsa

The main course was Moroccan Cornish Hens, courtesy of Epicurious. Those who know me are well aware of the fact that sampling and becoming intimately familiar with foods from all over the world are amongst my favourite things. One of my colleagues at the office playfully calls me "the international eater." She is absolutely right, and I now have this wonderfully exotic recipe from northwest Africa to add to my collection. I followed the instructions to the letter (almost) and it was off-the-hook, baby! The excellent blend of spices in this dish are like nothing I've ever experienced. The only thing I would do differently next time is omit the chicken broth; too much liquid.

Unfortunately, while browning the hens under the broiler I was distracted during the last few minutes, and before I knew it, I had charred the hens' top skin. Needles to say, they did not photograph well. Thank goodness it wasn't that bad. I was able to remove the sections of overdone skin and all was well. For me, it's the sauce that brought the hens and veggies to life, and I'm already making plans to use it on seafood, chicken, beef and other veggies.

Shrimp CevicheShrimp Ceviche

Last, but certainly not least, this fabulous Shrimp Ceviche from one of my favourite master chefs, Daisy Martinez, rocked the house! For the most part, I stayed pretty faithful to her recipe, with only minor modifications. I had been thinking of making a ceviche since summer, but never took the time to make it happen. Well, lemme tell ya, my girl definitely knows her stuff. Shrimp Ceviche a la Daisy Martinez is slammin'! To quote my man, Chef Emeril ... "BAAAAAM!"

Shrimp Ceviche
Source: Daisy Cooks!, (Daisy Martinez), p. 48

Ingredients: (6 servings)

1 1/2 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 2 inch thin strips
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 2 inch thin strips
1 small red onion, cut into thin slivers
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped coarsely, thick stems removed
1 1/4 tablespoons fine sea or kosher salt
1 Scotch bonnet, jalapeno or hot pepper of your choice, minced
12 lemons, or as needed
8 limes, or as needed
4 oranges, or as needed

Preparation:

Toss the shrimp, yellow and red peppers, onion, cilantro, salt, and habanero pepper together in a bowl to mix the thoroughly. Pack into a nonreactive* container (a 2-quart jar works well). Squeeze the citrus, strain out any seeds, and pour over the shrimp and vegetables. There should be enough juice to cover the shrimp and vegetables; if not, add more. Seal the container and refrigerate until the shrimp is opaque, 12 to 24 hours. To serve, drain and discard most of the liquid and pile the shrimp and veggies into a serving bowl.

*A nonreactive container is this case means anything but aluminum, which will react with the citrus juice and lend the ceviche an off flavour, or plastic, which may do the same.

My Recipe Notes:

To be on the safe side (yeah, I'm a bit of a whip), I poached the shrimp with salt and black pepper first (about 5 minutes). I used a medium habanero pepper, added about 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons of sugar, the zest of 3 small lemons and a bit of orange pulp to the citrus juice. I also added 1 tablespoon of minced fresh garlic.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Peppers, Glorious Peppers!


When I first started this food blog, I made a point of mentioning how much I love wine, particularly Merlot. But did I ever mention how much I love peppers? Perhaps not, but many of the dishes and recipes I've posted so far have featured peppers of varying types. Sweet red, orange and yellow peppers, green peppers, jalapenos, habaneros, serranos, poblanos, Thai chilis ... the list continues. I don't think I've ever met a pepper I didn't like and since I love adding heat to my food, hot peppers are probably my favourites. While some are hotter than others, I love 'em all. I just make the necessary adjustments when using the really, really hot ones, but I definitely use them all. No doubt!


It seems that whenever I make a trip to the market, I always come away with at least one type of pepper. Today was no exception. Now I knew before I left home with my little list of only eight things I needed to purchase that I was in for a challenge. You see, I have issues when it comes to food shopping. I wouldn't go as far as to term it "excessive compulsive behaviour disorder," but I admit that I get way beyond excited when I step into any place that sells food of any kind, particularly well stocked markets.

The bad news is that I went there to purchase eight items and left with 12 bags in tow. I don't know how that happened! Ah, but the good news is that I didn't buy anything that I'm not going to use ... eventually.

This time the majority of my purchases consisted of fresh fish and seafood (jumbo shrimp, large scallops, salmon and shark fillets), fresh meats (Italian sausage, ground sirloin, pork tenderloin, lamb and Cornish hens), canned albacore (tuna), garbanzo beans, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and wine** (Merlot and Pinot Gris). Other items were staples like bread crumbs, cheeses, beef and chicken broths, and a bit of fresh produce (including persimmons and mangos).

**Hey, my two weeks of extreme carb watching are over and I've opted to use my "pour yourself a couple of glasses of wine free" card. God only knows how long this low carb thing is gonna last with me, but I am givin' it my best shot at the moment, for what that's worth.

Okay, confession time is over. I do feel a bit better now. I'm off to prepare my Sunday dinner, snacks for next week, and figure out what to do with all those peppers!

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Reminiscing of Berries & Yoghurt


For as long as I can remember, I've adored the tarty-sweet taste of all things berry and the tangy taste of yoghurt, preferably sweetened with condensed milk. As a girl growing up in the Midwest, I had the pleasure of enjoying berries whenever I wanted, as we had fully grown mulberry and blackberry trees in the backyard of my childhood home. I remember always having an overabundance of those plump, luscious berries, so much so that I would invite my friends over to pick them to take home. There were even times when we (the goofy little kids we were) would end up covered in berry seeds and indelible juice stains from our spontaneous berry fights. Little did I know at the time what a wonderful luxury I possessed.


When I picked up the Blood oranges at the market the other day (see previous post), nostalgia overwhelmed me and I grabbed a couple of containers of fresh blackberries. Now I have no problem paying for things that I desire, particularly when they happen to be my favourite things, but I couldn't help thinking that I now have to pay a few pretty pennies for something I once took for granted.

Mint Scented Blackberry & Pistachio Yoghurt

After I made it home and started putting things away, I suddenly realised I had no idea how I would use my precious berries. Afterall, being in the early stages of carb watching, I couldn't very well make a berry tart or berry muffins or berry pancakes for dessert. Then it hit me. I had plain yoghurt, fresh mint leaves, pistachios and Splenda. Voilà! A quick and easy dessert with two of my favourite things ... together no less.

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

In Praise Of Citrus Sinensis


Commonly known as the sweet orange, Citrus Sinensis is the world's most popular fruit and has been on my favourites list since childhood, as both the fruit and the colour have always fascinated me on several levels. As a colour, I love the way its various hues harmonize with and contrast so perfectly against my skin. Its oils, which are used in a variety of products, from household cleaners to liqueurs and perfumes, exude a pleasantly bold fragrance that makes it one of my favourite aromatherapy scents. As it happens, while shopping a couple of weeks ago I ran across an interesting, beautifully scented candle filled with orange slices and leaves. A most fitting tribute to this lovely fruit.


As a food, the orange's versatility is endless. Aside from being delicious on its own, the sweet, universally recognizable flavour of this humble little fruit graciously releases its delightful, citrusy flavour and aroma when used in cooking, imparting an attention-commanding twist to otherwise ordinary dishes. In both sweet and savory cuisine, orange is an excellent complement to a variety of herbs and spices, and is particularly ambrosial when combined with chocolate, cardamom or rosemary.

On a recent trip to the market I discovered that there are two main categories of this citrus phenom and more varieties than I realised, each originating from different areas of the world, including the U.S., the Mediterranean regions, Egypt, Spain, Brazil and Mexico.

Sweet orange are ideal for eating and come in four main varieties: Sugar, Blood, Blond and Navel. While the Blond, also known as Valencia, is primarily a winter orange, Navel oranges are available in autumn, winter and spring. They have a thick, grainy skin that is easy to peel and their pulp is sweet with few or no seeds. Valencia and Navel are the two most commonly known and consumed varieties in the U.S.

Sour oranges are of two main varieties: Seville and Bigarade. Both are, as the name implies, bitter and usually used for marmalade, candying and liqueur, as they are too bitter to be eaten. The Seville is available in winter and has a thick rind, seeds and a strong bitter flavor. The Bigarade's flowers are used to make “eau de fleur d’oranger” (orange blossom water), a flavoring agent used in some pastries, and its zest is used in the confection of Cointreau, Curacao and Grand Marnier (orange flavoured liqueurs).


Of particular interest to me that day was the quaint little Blood orange. Though I had heard of its unique characteristics, this was my first encounter and I was immediately intrigued by its orange and red veined skin and dark-red seedless flesh. Its oddly beautiful coloring makes the Blood orange an interesting choice for food decoration. This little gem, grown in Spain, Italy and North Africa, has a sweet, juicy pulp and a fabulously bold taste with an uncommon, indescribable complexity as well as a sensual component that I simply cannot articulate. Needless to say, I enjoyed the experience, immensely!

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Culinary Experimental


What happens when you combine artichokes hearts, caramelised onions, avocado, white asparagus, walnuts and bacon? An interesting and most delicious brunch, indeed.


Experimenting with different vegetables, herbs, flavours and textures is one of my favourite pastimes, and today's creation was surprisingly successful. A unique union of the rich, the savory and the textured, this warm, nut-infused salad tossed with an olive oil, sesame and lime dressing indulged my desire for an unusual (and carb-friendly) meal.


The only thing missing from this delicious, comfort food dish was a nicely chilled glass of Riesling. Next weekend for sure!

Note: I've dropped 11 pounds since Jan 7 ... low-carb style.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Balsamic Glazed Salmon


It's official. On Monday, I started eating low-carb and this evening I prepared my very first smart-carb dish. For the past couple of days, I've been quite busy at the office and running errands after work, which left me with neither the time nor the inclination to cook. So, for the most part, I've been eating only salads with tuna, nuts, boiled eggs and a bit of cheese. Well, as you can imagine, that got old after two days. Tonight I broke out of my rut and whipped up a quick and easy, late-night dinner (10pm), courtesy of the latest addition to my ever-growing epicurean arsenal.


My choice was the Balsamic Glazed Salmon served on a bed of mixed baby greens. Not only was this recipe easy and simple to prepare, it tasted great and took less than 30 minutes, including prepping the salmon and reducing the balsamic vinegar for the glaze. This was my first time making a sauce using the reduction technique, but it definitely will not be my last. This stuff is awesome! Its sweet, intense flavour and smooth texture make it a perfect pairing with rich salmon. I'm so excited to finally have used this technique, I can hardly wait to try it again with different ingredients.


And now, without further ado...

Balsamic Glazed Salmon
Recipe Source: The South Beach Diet Quick & Easy Cookbook, p. 139
Prep Time: 5 minutes; Cook Time: 12 minutes

Ingredients: (4 servings)

4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets
1 cup balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Method:

Heat oven to 450 degrees F. Season salmon with salt and pepper, place in an ovenproof baking dish and bake until opaque throughout, 10 to 12 minutes.

While fish is cooking, place vinegar in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until reduced to 1/3 cup, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat, whisk in oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Place salmon on serving plates and drizzle with glaze.

Nutrition per serving: 380 calories, 21 g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 34 g protein, 9 g carbohydrate, 0 g dietary fiber, 100 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Merlot Letter 23



Farewell, my beloved. I shall miss the mellow aroma of your rousing bouquet, the seductive pleasures of your hypnotic kisses. And though I have Common to soothe me in your absence, my thoughts will be of you, for you are ever near my heart. You are my luscious treasure to whom I will remain faithful, for it is you I truly love. As the sun sets on our last day together, remember ... in but a few brief tomorrows, we will be again.

Yes, we shall Be ... again!

Update: 1/12/06: The Mystery of Merlot Letter 23 Explained

A couple of my offline friends who visit this blog were a bit perplexed by this post, so I thought I'd set the record straight before I am bombarded with more questions from other friends and family members.

I wrote this entry on Sunday, the day before I started eating low-carb. Alcohol is not allowed during the first two weeks of the plan I'm following (South Beach), which means no wine with dinner or on weekends for a bit. While enjoying my last couple of glasses and listening to Common, I decided to capture the moment and express myself. This entry was just my way of dealing with my separation anxiety, singing the praises of my favourite wine, and plugging Common's latest CD.

That's it! No, my quixotic (read: crazy in love) tendencies have not been resurrected, except for my ongoing love affair with good food and wine. So, don't go getting your knickers in a twist. I was merely having a bit of fun ... and perhaps a tad more wine that I should have?

Just so you know.

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Winds of Change...


...are blowing with hurricane force. I've been contemplating this move for a few weeks now and the hard truth I've had to face is this: I need to drop some serious pounds. Period! After much research, introspection and pondering, my conclusion is to exploit my natural affinity for meat and my unusual interest in veggies (raw and cooked), two characteristics that I believe make me a pretty good candidate for smart low-carb eating. It's decided. I will begin a sensible low-carb way of eating effective Monday, January 9, which will be my official weigh-in day. I've also decided to include a weekly summary of my progress here on the site. So, starting Monday, I will limit my intake of high gylcemic carbohydrates and focus on consuming leaner protein, complex/low gylcemic carbs and healthy fats. For the next few weeks all cooking and recipes posted here will be of the low-carb variety.

After attempting vegetarianism for about a year back in the '80s (for what I considered at the time to be health benefits), I finally figured out that the vegetarian way of eating was quite unnatural for me, and I actually gained weight during that period. I ventured back to the veggie lifestyle a couple of times since then (last time was about a year and a half ago) and each time I felt great for the first couple of weeks, but after about 30 days, I found myself feeling weak, bloated and listless. Needless to say, common sense led me to abandon that idea. Now, I am in no way knocking vegetarianism, as I realise it works very well for many, and I happen to personally know a few people for whom this way of eating has done wonders. As it happens, I'm just not one of them.

While I do enjoy breads, pasta and rice, a lot, as well as the occasional dessert (completely eliminating these foods from my diet long-term is not my goal), I much more enjoy savory meat and veggie dishes (ever notice that sweets have never been showcased on this site?), which is why I've decided to give the low-carb approach a shot and see what happens. I have always enjoyed meat, even from early childhood. It's totally natural for me. What I've noticed is that when I eliminate those empty simple carbs from my diet, I lose weight. Plain and simple. But the kicker is that, unlike many people I've spoken with over the past couple of years, I possess a love for all types of veggies that they do not share. And I was quite surprised to learn that many of the people I interviewed revealed that they are not very fond of a large variety of veggies. Aside from the typical potatoes (particularly mashed and fried), carrots and corn, many rarely eat other vegetables and most simply do not share my passion for salads.

I'm a bit excited about experimenting with sensible low-carb recipes and I'm looking forward to the challenge. Though I do anticipate a bit of difficulty, particularly the first two weeks without my beloved Merlot (or any wine), I've decided that I will certainly give it my very best shot. Mos def! I plan to record my experiences here and since I refuse to forego flavourful, spicy foods (low-carb or not) and will not allow myself to become bored, I'm pretty sure the dishes I choose will be interesting, and at the very least, great tasting.

That said, I'm off to the market to stock up on the staples and other foods I'll need to ensure that my first few weeks of smart low-carb eating are successful.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Reflection: On Living


"The Master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both."

–Zen Philosophy

I am striving.

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Monday, January 02, 2006

Penne Pasta With Italian Sausage & Peppers


Cleaning out my refrigerator almost always yields at least one surprise (and sometimes quite interesting) meal that involves lots of vegetables. I have this terrible habit of buying more fresh fruit and veggies than I can possibly use before they go bad. I haven't quite figured out why I do this, but I do know that I sometimes forget what I have because some things are so far back in the fridge that I just don't see them. To rid myself of this wasteful habit, I've started taking inventory at least once a week before I got to the market.

More often than not, the neglected, forgotten veggies usually end up reincarnated as some type of soup or stew, but not today. Though I did have to throw away a few things, I was pleasantly surprised to see that most items were still in pretty good shape. And when all was said and done, I managed to salvage enough odds and ends to put together a pretty decent Tuesday night dinner.


Today's haul of less-than-stellar produce was transformed into pasta with Italian sausage & peppers. Whenever I've made this dish in the past, I've usually had to run out to pick up one or more ingredients, but this evening I had everything I needed: yellow, green and orange bell peppers, onions, button and shiitake mushrooms, fresh bay leaves and fresh basil. I'm still amazed that the basil and bay leaves were in such good shape after a week. I definitely lucked out today.



Penne Pasta With Italian Sausage & Peppers
Source: My Own
Servings: 4 to 6

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds hot Italian sausage (casings removed)
1 large onion, sliced lengthwise into 1/2 in. strips
1 large green bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2 in. strips
1 large yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2 in. strips
1 large red or orange bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2 in strips
4 oz. button mushrooms, thickly sliced
4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, thickly slices, stems discarded
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
3 fresh bay leaves
2 14-oz. cans diced tomatoes (Italian style)
1 cup tomato and mushroom pasta sauce (or homemade)
12 oz. penne pasta (or your favourite)
Freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt to taste

Method:

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add sausage and bay leaves. Cook, breaking up sausage into 1-inch chunks, until sausage is browned, about 10 minutes. Add mushrooms, salt and red pepper flakes and continue to cook for another 5 minutes. Remove sausage and mushrooms from pan and set aside.

Add peppers and onions to pan and then garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are caramelized, about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in basil, oregano, tomatoes and pasta sauce. Add back the sausage and mushrooms. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove bay leaves.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Serve pasta in individual dishes topped with sausage, peppers, sauce and cheese. Enjoy!

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year!


Shall I wax poetic about my successes and failures of 2005? Shall I inscribe my hopes and dreams for 2006? I shall not. The resolutions will not be televised. Rather, I will simply thank God for all that I am this day. For it was He who kept me through all the years. And it is He who has blessed me to see another.

Thank you to all who visited with me in 2005.

Here's wishing 2006 will be our best year yet!