Saturday, October 25, 2008

I'm back with Stuffed Mushrooms

As you may have known, my sister had been visiting last month. Consequently, I have been so busy with her, sightseeing, shopping, helping her study for the SAT's (which is a mute point now since she was accepted to medical school- an international one) etc. So my blogged suffered; I had not been able to post since October 15th. I'm not complaining either because I enjoyed every minute spent with her. It is questionable, however, whether or not she enjoyed every minute with me. (Moody, exacting, and bossy are a few adjectives she would gladly use to describe me.)

She was thrilled with the restaurant scene in Minneapolis; a huge difference from what she was used to. Not only the setting but in terms of the variety. She also enjoyed my home cooking, something she didn't know much of since I left home before she was able to appreciate my recipes. Luckily, she devours everything I make; I little bit of affirmation that I, in turn, enjoy. This recipe was created just for her.

Tofu and mushrooms. Two foods eaten in Trinidad but not widely popular. Consequently, and coupled with the fact that she is sometimes a picky teenage eater, she was not particularly fond of the idea that I would "make" her eat it. ( One of the reasons I doubt she enjoyed every minute with me: there was no " I don't like that" protesting allowed when it came to healthy eating.) In the end, I won he over with fresh portabello mushrooms. "I have never meet a mushroom I didn't like,"she said.

Marina's Stuffed Mushrooms

15 to 20 baby bellas
3 large portabellas
12 oz extra firm tofu
1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
1/4 cup chopped scallions
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1/3 cup grated cheese
grape seed oil (optional)

1. Remove the tofu from its package and wrap in dry paper towels. Place on a plate and set another plate on top of it. Onto the second plate, set a heavy weight such as a can of beans. Place in the refrigerator for at least an hour. This step is very important because it removes most of the extra liquid from the tofu resulting in a crumblier and less soggy topping.
2.Set the oven to 400 degrees F. With a damp paper towel, gently wipe any dirt off the outer surface of each mushroom. Remove and discard the stems. Set on a well greased baking sheet or baking dish.
3. Remove the tofu from the refrigerator (from its homemade "liquid extractor") and crumble into a bowl, either using your hands or a fork. To this crumbled mass, add the cheese, scallion, bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Mix well.
4. Fill each mushroom cap with the crumbled tofu mixture, and drizzle lightly with grape seed oil, if using. Bake for 15 to 2o minutes until lightly golden brown on top.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Maple Anise Braised Country Ribs

When I had first begun to cook with the intent of blogging my endeavors, braising used to intimidate me; I felt that it was one of those cooking methods relegated to culinary school graduates who were especially talented in its intricacies.  Partly because I thought braising was laborious and required somewhat special dexterity. Partly because it originated in France and I therefore thought that automatically meant difficult. My first attempt at coq au vin, and the many stews I made thereafter, proved me wrong. It has now become one of my go-to methods whenever want to make something special for just the two of us or when I do not have much time to stand around in the kitchen.

Braising  is the method of cooking that incorporates both dry and moist heat. The food to be braised is first seared on high heat (the "dry" heat), then cooked in the oven or on the stovetop in a highly seasoned liquid (the moist heat) which usually consists of an acid such as a wine or vinegar. This liquid has a two-fold purpose: tenderizer and sauce. By cooking the food covered and in a medium high heat for a long period of time the product is a  soft, highly flavorful dish that is hard to accomplish simple by searing or roasting alone. Pretty straightforward isn't it? 

What I have found is that braising is a useful way of adding flavor to foods without injecting additional fat into the dish. Granted that some recipes call for searing in a significant amount of fat, in my humble (albeit unqualified) opinion, this is not necessary. Not if you have a well-seasoned cast iron or other no-stick pot. Get the pot hot, add the meat,  allow to cook undisturbed for about two minutes, flip, cook undisturbed for two additional minutes, remove, and voila, a perfectly seared piece of meat or vegetable. The other great quality of braising is its convenience. Once the meat is seared, the liquid is added, all you now have to do is place in the oven or stovetop and allow to slow cook for a couple hours undisturbed will you do other things. The day is yours.

Maple Anise Braised Country Ribs
Serves 4 to 6

2 cups low sodium chicken stock
1/3 cup maple syrup
3-4 whole star anise
1  cup sherry
1 tbsp whole black peppercorn
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
4 lbs country style pork ribs

1. Place oven rack in the middle of the oven and set to 325 degrees F.
2. In a large dutch oven, bring the first seven ingredients to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, place a large skillet over medium high heat and sear each piece of meat for two minutes on either side. 
4. Add the seared ribs to the liquid in the dutch oven, making sure that each piece is covered. Place in the middle of the oven and braise for 2 hours, until the meat is soft and practically falls apart.
3. Remove the ribs to another dish and place the dutch oven with the remaining sauce on the stovetop and cook until almost reduced by half. Pour thickened glaze/sauce over ribs before serving.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blog Award

Last week I received a blog award from Rubybean77 at Broken Yolk. This is only my second award but I am so excited that more are more people are enjoying my recipe ideas.  So to keep the goodwill going, will pass this award to:
1. Cory at  Zesty Cook whose recipes are so easy to follow, such as a delicious recipe for chicken lettuce wraps.
2. TTFN30 at Tri To Cook whose balance of fitness and exercise is exemplary and who is not afraid of thinking outside the box, as with her recipe for chocolate polenta cake. 
3. Arlene at The Food of Love. Her motto is "Life is short so eat what you love and love what you eat." I especially like the human element of her blog in that she sets aside space for important issues such as Ovarian Cancer.

Thanks for visiting!

Friday, October 10, 2008

A road trip, a fresh pumpkin, and a pie

For the first time, I am able to host my father and youngest sister at our home in Minneapolis. As expected, there is  a tremendous amount of sight-seeing they would want to accomplish, and there are many things my fiance and I want to share with them, aspects of our life here that must be experienced first-hand, such as the twin cities' fabulous restaurants, our daily lake walks, among other things.  It seems that I am more excited that they are, actually.  Before they arrived, I drafted an agenda for almost each day of their visit. Friday's agenda was the St Croix's Scenic Riverway, 123 miles of beautiful forested landscape bordering central eastern Minnesota and wisconsin on the St. Croix River. 

The St. Criox river with the town of Stillwater, Minnesota in the distance.

I have never made this drive before but was told my born and bred Minnesotans that the vistas are gorgeous this time of year. And boy was it so!  Miles and miles of fall foliage, browns, reds, yellows, purples. On the shores of the St Croix, one can almost forget that the twin cites are just an hour or so away. Road trips, just like life, are highly unpredictable. About forty five minutes into the drive on the outskirts of the town of Wyoming, we drove past a pumpkin patch. I had never been pumpkin picking before and neither had my father nor my sister. We made a u turn and off we went cavorting through fields of bright orange pumpkins, despite the fifty degree temperature.  No matter how old we get, there are some things that, when done for the the first time, bring out the child in us. I found out that a pumpkin patch can do that. There seemed to be an unspoken rule that  fun must be had in this place. 

That evening at dinner, we all commented that the pumpkin patch was one of the highlights of the trip. Probably because it was so novel,  and certainly for my dad because he was able to procure red, blue and purple corn which he plans to cultivate when he returns to Trinidad. Little did everyone else know that all the while, all I could think about was the pumpkin pie I would make from the fresh pie pumpkins we had bought. The fact that this would be a relatively labor intensive and time consuming endeavor did not faze me; I just had to experience this type of pie making for myself. 

The first thing I did was research on the different ways of pumpkin pie making. An online source suggested cooking the pumpkin in a microwave, removing the pulp, then letting it drain in a cheesecloth overnight to remove the excess liquid. This, I thought was a good idea until I stumbled on a Cooks Illustrated magazine which suggested cooking a can of pureed pumpkin on the stovetop to remove excess liquid. Why not implement this method for my fresh pumpkin pulp? Genius! I discovered exactly what the magazine explained. Cooking the pumpkin pulp/puree does three things: (1) it enhances the pumpkin flavor, (2) it makes the filling hot which allows the custard to firm up quickly while in the oven, and (3) it removes a significant amount of excess liquid which prevents the crust from becoming soggy. The other helpful tip was to bake the pie at an initial high temperature followed by a lower temperature to prevent the eggs from cooking. A mistake many cooks, myself included, frequently make is using a uniform high temperature to bake the pie; this produces a crumbly texture (because the eggs cook quickly)  as opposed to the velvety texture produced by aforementioned method. 

As for the crust, I made my own but, by all means, you can use the pre-made version or your personal recipe if you prefer.  The reason I make my own is I can control the amount of fat I put in. Everyone can agree that a pie without a good pie crust is no a pie at all, but I disagree that two pounds of butter must be used. In my recipe, I used only five tablespoons which created the right amount of flakiness that my family enjoys. Yes, the crust is somewhat thinner than your standard crust so one might assume that it would turn soggy easily. Not so at all. In fact, pre-cooking the pumpkin puree as described above removes much of the liquid thereby reducing the risk of sogginess in the crust. The resulting pie is unlike any that I have made form a can with a smooth and consistent texture and, best of all, the pumpkin flavor is intensified.

Pumpkin Pie made with Fresh Pumpkin
Makes one 12"pie

1 pie pumpkin, about 2 lbs
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 12 oz can low fat evaporated milk
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 twelve inch pie crust (see recipe below)

To prepare pumpkin filling:
1. Wash and cut the pie pumpkin into eight to ten segments. Remove and discard the seeds and stringy interior. Place the "cleaned" segments in a large pot with 1 to 2 inches of water. Set over medium high heat for 30 minutes until the pulp becomes soft and capable of being scraped out with a spoon.
2. Using a spoon or ice cream scope, scrape out the pulp of each segment. Add all the pulp to a blender and puree until smooth. An emersion blender can also be  used here.
3. Return the puree to the pot and cook over medium heat for 20 to 30 minutes stirring occasionally to prevent burning. This step removes some excess liquid and intensifies the pumpkin flavor. 
4. Add the fresh ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and cook further for two more minutes. Whisk in the evaporated milk, eggs, vanilla extract, brown sugar and maple syrup. 
5. Pour the filling into a prepared pie crust, set on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 400 degree F oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 300 degree F and bake for a further 30 to 35 minutes. Remove dish to a wire rack and allow to cool for at least an hour before serving.

For the Crust
Makes one 12" pie crust
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
4 tbsp cold unsalted butter
1 tbsp brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
4 to 6 tbsp ice cold water

Combine the first four ingredients in a food processor, pulse to mix. Slowly add the water one tablespoon at a time, until mixture begins to clump together. Remove dough unto a floured surface and shape into a round disc. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use, at least an hour. When ready to use, remove from refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for at least 5 minutes. On a well floured surface, roll into a 12 inch disc and place in pie dish which had been sprayed with cooking spray. Return to refrigerator until you are ready to add the filling. Just before adding the pumpkin filling, line with foil and fill with dried peas or another form of baking weights. Bake in a 400 degree F oven for 15 minutes. Remove the weights and foil and bake for a further 5 minutes. 


Friday, October 3, 2008

I like family with my cheesecake please

If culinary decadence could be described in one word, it would be cheesecake. I know, I know, cheesecake puts a wrench in the raison d'etre of my blog but this is not your ordinary cheesecake. (Who says a healthy lifestyle does not include cheesecake anyway?) From the moment I made the decision to start a food blog, I have enjoyed the process of relearning the art, the science and the history behind many traditional recipes. Not just relearning how to make them but how to incorporate them as part of a healthy lifestyle, that is, as an unforgettable taste sensation which which does not wreck havoc on our efforts to stay or get healthy . No other dish has proven to be as much of a challenge in this aspect than cheesecake. Yes, I could have just whisked together fat free cream cheese, some eggs, flavorings, baked it, chilled it , and voila, "healthy" cheesecake. But, a cheesecake is more than just a disc of sweetened cream cheese. Have you ever had a slice only to taste an overwhelming amount of sugar, nothing else? I have had this happen to me on occasion. Or, have you ever had a slice with a texture that was hard to discern from that of card board? Acheiving the perfect texture, together with the lusciousness that is characteristic of this grand daddy of desserts, is a task too often not afforded it rightful reverence.

In the two weeks I spent experimenting with different sweeteners, different proportions of fat, etc, a couple valuable tips were learnt. (1) Brown rice syrup is a great sweetener when used to sweeten desserts. Not only did it enhance the chocolate flavor in this recipe but it also has a low glycemic rating. It contains approximately 50 % carbohydrates, 45 % maltose an 3 % glucose. With low glycemic foods, there is a steady release of sugar into the blood stream as opposed to high glycemic foods that inject large amounts of sugar causing a high spike in blood glucose levels which can then increase insulin levels, the number one reason people develop type two diabetes. (2) Blending, as opposed to using a hand or stand-mixer, produces a more "velvety" texture. I was unable to get as smooth a filling with a hand mixer as I was with the blender. In the end, I found that making a healthy, decadent dessert takes sufficient preparation, and if you're like me and want to experiment with flavors, a little creativity. 

It also helps to have a goal or company to entertain. I specifically made this dessert for tonight because, in less than eight hours, my father and my youngest sister will be here. I will be seeing them for the first time in four years. Well, I've "seen" them via the internet, but to be in the same country, the same city, under the same roof after so is almost overwhelming. It feels like a dream so I won't allow myself to be ecstatic until I know for sure that their plane has landed at MSP airport. Strangely though, for the first time in my adult life, I don't know what to cook. A complete blank. What does one prepare on an occasion such as this? At least I have a cheesecake.

Mocha Cheesecake

2/3 cup graham cracker crumbs
2/3 cup matzo meal
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg white
2 tbsp canola oil

1/2 cup milk
2/3 cup dark chocolate chips
2 tbsp instant espresso
2 tbsp water
8 oz fat free cream cheese
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup brown rice syrup
1 egg
1 tbsp corn starch

Set oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9" spring form pan or pie dish with cooking spray. To prepare crust: combine all ingredients well, until the crumbs clump together easily. Pour out unto the greased pan and using your finger tips or the back of a spoon, press along the bottom and half way up the sides. Bakes for 15 minutes and set aside until filling is ready.

To prepare filling: In a heavy saucepan over medium low heat, pour milk and chocolate chips. Stir continuously until chocolate has melted. Dissolve instant espresso in 2 tbsp warm water and add to milk and melted chocolate. Stir, remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.

Add the remaining ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. With the pour lid off, slowly pour in the chocolate mixture and continue blending until fully combined. Pour into the prepared crust and set in a water-bath. If using a spring form pan, remember to seal the bottom with aluminum foil to prevent the water from seeping in. Bake for one hour, then cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or for at least four hours before serving.